A short but bumpy ride…
31 May 2013
I woke up with my fingers crossed that the fog had disappeared overnight, it had, although it was still overcast and cold with a moderate south westerly bringing with it rain. I showered and had a shave, wanted to look my best for the Cape, then had breakfast of cheese and pitta bread, before packing up. I had to shake off my tent quite a bit which had gotten wet due to overnight rain. I stood there with it billowing around me as the German bikers roared off somewhere, I must have looked a bit strange but my tent was mostly dry after the vigorous shaking.
I had seen a sign that said the ferry ran from 11.00 each day, so I aimed to get there in plenty of time to ensure I didn’t miss it. I pedalled from the campsite through Durness, to the Balnakeil Craft Village, before taking an old track back to the main road. It was marked as a road on the map, but wasn’t really, turning mostly into a field full of sheep at one point who weren’t entirely pleased with my intrusion.
Post extricating myself from the field and its malcontent occupants I rode down the hill to the ferry slipway; I was going to say ferry terminal but it was nothing so grandiose. Unfortunately the sign there said the next sailing was at 13.00, the first having been at 09.30, d’oh. I made a mental note not to trust information notices again.
So I rode back up to the Balnakeil Craft Village where I’d seen a promising cafe earlier – the Cocoa Mountain Cafe. Getting out of the rain for a bit was a welcome relief, and my spirits were further bolstered by one of the cafe’s Mountain Mochas (decaf in this instance). The mocha did not disappoint being one of the chocolatiest things I’ve ever drunk, but balanced by the coffee so it wasn’t too sickly. They make their own chocolates too but I abstained, being a bit chocolated out after the drink.
I spent a bit of time at the cafe chatting and writing up my blog, before cycling back through Durness to meet the ferry at 13.00. I use the term ferry here quite loosely, it’s a motor boat with enough room to accommodate about 8 people, plus the ferryman John and his dog. It’s perfectly adequate for getting people across to the minibus waiting on the other side of the narrow kyle, and has enough room to fit bikes in too. It cost me £8.00 for me and my bike. If you’re taking the minibus too it’s another £10.00, so I was glad I had alternative means of transport.
I was slightly worried the dogs might have a disagreement but the voyage passed peacefully, and I had a chat with my fellow passengers – thanks for helping with my panniers, and for the encouragement!
Having disembarked I loaded everything back on to my bike I set off on the circa 11.5 mile ride to the Cape Wrath lighthouse and Ozone Cafe. I quickly lost sight of the minibus as it steamed off ahead, but didn’t envy the passengers with it bumping around all over the place; they needed padded shorts like mine for the journey!
The road is in a pretty poor state but passable on my bike. There are quite a few hills so was hard going when you throw in the bumps too. I didn’t want to go too fast for fear of damaging my wheels or tyres. I passed several cyclists going the other way back to the ferry, who’d got the 09.30 boat. One of them had a puncture which he was mending – he was on lightweight continental tyres so not that surprising on the puncture front. I also passed through the MOD firing range, thankfully no naval bombardments were going on today, although it would have made for a more interesting blog chapter.
The road passes through moorland for the most part, with bridges crossing the occasional stream, a few herds of sheep and the occasional farmstead. Not many if any trees up here – probably too exposed, or they get eaten by the deer.
I finally made it to the lighthouse and Ozone Cafe after about an hour and 45 minutes’s ride. The minibus was still there having not set off on its return leg yet, so I said hi to a few people before it left. I met John who runs the Ozone Cafe, who pointed me in the best direction of somewhere to pitch my tent, down next to the high stone wall where I’d be sheltered from the wind. I pitched my tent then went back to the cafe for a cold beer, a welcome beverage after quite a tricky ride; it’s quite mentally tiring to be constantly on the look out for potentially wheel damaging or cyclist injury obstacles on the potholed road. John told me the council patch it up every summer but it’s getting worse, eroded by the harsh weather especially in the winter, not to mention the frequent minibus tours – must play havoc with the van suspension. John also said he could supply dinner for me which I quickly agreed to – salmon being a better option than pasta.
Two walkers arrived whilst I was enjoying a beer at the cafe, having trekked up from the bothy a few miles away. It turned out they had kayaked around from Sandwood Bay this morning, and were staying the night at the bothy. Iain, the older of the two, is attempting to kayak around the whole Scottish coastline, no mean feat, and had been joined by his son Angus for the week. As with me, but probably more so, they’re really effected by the wind, as well as the tides and currents, so it can be slow going some days and really quick others. Pretty extreme kayaking around the coast of scotland – I’ve seen how quickly the tide can rip through some of the narrow channels, and the weather can change pretty quickly. Iain said the maximum he’s travelled in one day is about 50km, pretty impressive in my book. You can check out his blog at http://www.coldwetwater.blogpost.co.uk
I spent a while chatting with them over a beer, good to swap stories. They’d kayaked into a few of the sea caves down below the cape, which you can only get to from the water, sounded amazing. It must be a completely different perspective from sea level. The sea bird colonies are also a lot more visible from down there; they’d seen hundreds of gannets – I still really want to see them fishing. Iain and Angus (McBride) left after an hour or so leaving me pretty much alone to walk around the cape and take a few photos, which I’ll include at the end of this post.
The area around the lighthouse is wonderful, a harsh environment to live in when the weather is bad, but beautiful on evenings such as this, with moorland, sheer cliffs, seabirds and grazing deer. On other days you might have seen a whale or dolphins off the coast, but I didn’t spot any today. I think this was the furthest point from home I’d get to on the UK mainland, but will have to check that, it certainly felt like the most remote.
The tranquility was at one point shattered by the barking of a pack of dogs, and a group of five enthusiastic springer spaniels careered around the corner of the lighthouse buildings to come and see me. They turned out to be search and rescue dogs that John keeps, and once having found me the barking stopped, with a few wet noses checking me out. They bark because that’s what they’re trained to do when they find someone, but they were very friendly.
I retreated to my tent for a bit and promptly feel asleep it was so peaceful, waking up about 18.00 in time for dinner. I popped back up to the cafe and dined on wild Atlantic salmon, with new potatoes, peas and carrots, with butter. Absolutely delicious. I chatted with John for a bit, who’d caught the salmon himself, it was much nicer than the farmed stuff which he is fairly critical of, the fish being full of chemicals. In the past he’s worked on a salmon farm, and talked to divers who’ve been underneath the salmon enclosures where there are piles of waste which nothing touches, sounds horrible.
John confirmed it can get pretty fierce up here in the storms and high winds, but it’s a stunning spot, with shipping slowly cruising past on the horizon. Apparently you get naval ships moored up close by during exercises, and they often leave John some of their supplies at the end of their stay in the area. He’s kept busy all the time with maintenance and looking after visitors. The Ozone Cafe is effectively open 24 hours a day, all year, to cater for anyone that might turn up at any time. Hikers can arrive at any time of the night completing the Cape Wrath trail. John has been here 5 years, with visitor numbers gradually increasing. I hope more people visit but not too many as to spoil the feel of the place – I don’t think that will happen given its remote location.
The lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson again, was constructed in 1826 post great demand after 3 ships were lost in one night alone on the treacherous coastline. The Stevensons built a total of 96 lighthouses around the coast of Scotland, a pretty amazing legacy, and also advised and built similar structures abroad, as far away as New Zealand and Japan.
A lighthouse is certainly needed at Cape Wrath, even though it’s unmanned now as so many are. John says he has to go and reboot the lighthouse computer for the Lighthouse Service frequently as it crashes, so sounds like it would benefit from a keeper still! It’s a shame there are less lighthouse keeps now. They provided a valuable service to the coastguard, keeping an eye out for people in trouble, and providing real time weather reports which were also invaluable. They also used to record details of the wildlife in the area, providing great information to naturalists. Unfortunately some of the lighthouse out buildings are in a bit of a state of poor repair now with no one around to upkeep them.
Cape Wrath is a apt name haven the location and weather that can hit the area. The name actually originates from the Norse words for turning point (area called Am Parth in Norse I think) as this is where the Norse ships turned East to go back home on their trading or being a Viking voyages.
The Ozone Cafe and Cape get quite a few visitors, either people who’ve come over on the ferry and minibus, hikers doing the Cape Wrath trail, or kayakers! It’s a must visit spot if you’re in the area, and had been on my list from day one so I was very glad to have made it, and that it wasn’t foggy. I felt quite exhilarated by the whole experience, and certainly slept well that night. If you’re cycling the road across to the lighthouse you’ll definitely need padded shorts though! Be warned there are no toilets at the moment, fine for me but could be tricky for some.
There was a cool poem on the wall of the cafe that I thought I’d include, written by Sir Walter Scott, one time commissioner of the Northern Lighthouses, in 1814.
Far in the bosom of the deep
O’er these wild shelves my wrath I keep
A ruddy gem of changeful light
Bound on the dusky brow of Night,
The Seaman bids my lustre hail,
And scorns to strike his timorous sail.