As adventure lovers, we also thirst for great storytellers, and few do it quite as well as our friends at Proper Adventure. So it is with great pleasure that we share with you our favorite story from their latest issue of their editorial, The Journal. This article, as with all of our others on The Observatory, is best viewed on a full size monitor, but the proper experience is holding it with your own two hands in print. If you like what you’re reading, give Proper Adventure a follow here, and pick up your own copy of Issue Four of The Journal via their web shop right here. You may also find a Flieger and some of our latest photography within its pages. Enjoy.
– M –
Photos & words by Paul Brett
First published in Proper Adventure, Issue Four
The North Coast 500 forms a loop around the whole northern tip of Scotland, from Inverness to John O’Groats in the north-east, along the stark sea of the north to Durness, then down the west coast before turning inland at the Applecross peninsula. The itinerary was designed by the North Highlands Initiative, a non-profit organization established by Prince Charles to spread the love across less visited parts of the Northern Highlands.
The term “road trip” brings to mind classic American films, the roar of a Chevrolet, the lure of the never-ending Californian freeways and “Getting your kicks on Route 66.” Here in Scotland, we have our very own and, of course, better version: the North Coast 500, a coastal route billed as Scotland’s answer to the original road trip, Route 66.
We teamed up with our good friends, Paul and Steve from Farer, whose watches are inspired by the halcyon era of watchmaking when bold colors and contrasting textures were combined with the best craftsmanship. They just love a proper adventure and they’ve done their share from diving off the Cornish Coast, flying gliders at White Waltham to hiking with us on the North Face of Ben Nevis. In this case, they were the drivers. The inspiration for their stunning collection of watches often comes from old car color charts and we were delighted to learn that they would be bringing two vintage Porsche 911S, one in Speed Yellow and one in Gulf Blue racing colors. Farer loves color!
The plan to do our very own version of the North Coast 500 road trip was to adapt the route to take in some of the lesser known roads. Meeting Paul and Steve after their drive north and their overnight stay at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, Stage One was a 250 mile drive to Kylesku Hotel in Sutherland and its famous bridge. I was excited at the thought of shooting the Porsches flying over the bridge! But first, it was a shoot outside the Balmoral in rush hour. Holding up traffic and commuters as we carefully positioned the cars for the perfect shot was no easy feat! With many passersby asking questions about the vehicles and grabbing quick shots on their phones, we were attracting plenty of attention - and even more still as the engines roared and we headed out of the city.
Once out of the city limits, we crossed the new Queensferry Crossing bridge and drove north on the A9 heading for Inverness and then to Lairg where we had a rendezvous with our friend Charlotte who would be our drone pilot for the shoot.
After a quick stop for coffee and cakes in Lairg, our first point of interest was the road running alongside Loch Shin, the largest in Sutherland at 17 miles long. A pretty good starting point!
Leaving Loch Shin behind, we turned south down the west coast at Lexford Bridge, passing Scourie and Badcall. The land there is cratered with so many lochs and lochans… It’s an incredible landscape! As the road touched the coastline, we could see out across the Minch to the Isle of Harris - we even tried to count the numerous islands visible out to sea without falling off the road!
“…we reached one of the Jewels in the Crown of the NC500, the Kylesku Passage…
We then reached one of the Jewels in the Crown of the NC500, the Kylesku Passage, and the visually stunning Kylesku Bridge situated at the meeting point of Loch a' Chairn Bhain, Loch Glendhu and Loch Glencoul. The stretch of water has long been an important crossing point for travelers in the west of Sutherland. In 1984, the ferry service was replaced by this spectacular curving road bridge which now takes all traffic north and south on the A894. Designed to complement the stunning scenery in which it is set, the bridge has won several awards and has often been described as one of the most beautiful bridges in the world.
Photographers and advertising executives seem to agree as it has appeared in many photographs and commercials since it was opened by the Queen. We had to stop straight away, everyone grabbing their cameras, phones and drones... Conditions were wild, with strong wind and heavy rain lashing around us. Despite the weather, I climbed up to the rocky viewpoint and Paul and Steve drove across the bridge - I captured the cover image on this release almost straight away. Job done!
We then decided it was too windy for the drone so we headed for shelter, coffee and to search for our base for the next few days, the Kylesku Hotel, an old coaching inn dating back to 1680 that is situated by the former ferry slipway on the shores of Loch Glendhu. Friendly and comfortable surroundings with incredibly fresh, local, quality food and the finest selection of whisky, wine and beers... We knew we would be very happy staying there for the next few days!
Day two started with an excellent breakfast as we watched a seal playing in the Loch, putting on a show as we ate. With the weather clear and calm, it was back to the bridge for drone footage and countless shots of the iconic bridge. The rest of the group had to drag me away as despite having already captured the shot I needed and only shooting for the sake of shooting, I simply couldn’t help myself with such beauty all around me.
Now on the official NC500 route, we expected the road to our target for the day, Loch Torridon and Torridon Hotel, to be busy; however, it was surprisingly quiet, we only passed a few cyclists and the odd camper van. Pure bliss on the twisting miles south, passing the famous must-see viewpoints, Loch na Gainmhich and the Wailing Widow Falls, Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt, driving through Ullapool and then down the one road that became my personal highlight and our favorite shot of the trip, the road running past the mighty An Teallach. This classic mountain is perhaps the most impressive in Britain - it can give you a day of drama with views that will live in your memory forever. The full traverse is a magnificent scramble and seeing it from the seat of another classic, the RS Porsche, as Steve drove on ahead, was just incredible.
The roads just continued to impress with every bend giving a different and more beautiful view through Dundonnell, along the side of Loch Ewe to Gairloch, offering epic views out to Skye and beyond to Harris. We hit another highlight at Loch Maree and came across another famous mountain, Slioch, sitting on the Loch’s northern shore. We stopped at the renowned viewpoint, then we drove back down to Loch Maree for more shots as Paul and Steve drove up and down on this stunning section of the road.
We then moved on to Kinlochewe, Wester Ross and Torridon. We passed a list of famous mountains to make any Munro bagger drool: Beinn Eighe, Liathach and spectacular views to Beinn Alligin, before arriving on the shores of Upper Loch Torridon and the simply awe-inspiring Torridon Hotel. We enjoyed a light lunch and the splendid surroundings before once again heading south into Applecross and the infamous Bealach na Bà. The stunning and historic mountain pass was built in 1822 and is engineered similarly to the roads that lead through the high mountain passes in the Alps, with very tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside and gradients that approach 20%. It boasts the steepest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 626 meters. Sadly for us, the weather had closed in and meant zero visibility so we turned around and headed back on the roads we had driven all morning. The Pass of the Cattle would keep for another (clear) day.
With more photo stops on the way back, we reached our base at Kylesku in time for our evening meal where we said goodbye to Charlotte and enjoyed some scrumptious seafood, the mussels grown in the Loch in view of the hotel being a particular highlight! With wine, beer and photo editing, it was a relaxing and enjoyable way to end a spectacular day.
Next morning, after much debate over breakfast, we decided not to risk the long roads we had visited the day before for an attempt at the Bealach na Bà and instead, head south-east towards Loch Ness and Glencoe, our target being the newly renovated King’s House Hotel in Glencoe. After some wild driving in the rain and down the busy roads, disaster struck north of Fort William - a flat tire on the yellow Porsche. To those unfamiliar with Porsches, these cars don’t carry spares so only a small compact was available to us that looked like it wouldn't even inflate! To everyone's surprise, it actually worked and we were soon on our way to Fort William, alas at a slightly slower pace than before. Trying to source a suitable (massive) tire for the 911 took some time, but amazingly, the guys at National Tires in Fort William had what we needed. We couldn’t pass on the unique photo opportunity that the situation presented as the guys in the garage enthused over the two cars and got us on the road again - brilliant and a totally unexpected part of the road trip.
Arriving slightly later than anticipated at King’s House, we had a late lunch and said farewell to Paul who had decided to enjoy the beautiful King’s House Hotel and stay a little longer. Steve and I headed back to Edinburgh where Steve spent another night at the Balmoral before the long drive south to Portsmouth the next morning.
With over 1700 miles on the clock, bad weather, work schedules and commitments, our road had to lead south, back to Edinburgh and beyond. However, the road north is still gloriously open, always asking to be driven.
Road trips are never complete…