North Coast 500 – a haven of wildlife.
Henry Kirkwood recently drove the North Coast 500 route (slightly adapted) and after seeing his photos of all of the wildlife he saw along the way I asked him to come and share his experience with you. Enjoy this truly breathtaking, and funny, blog.
Described as ‘Scotland’s answer to Route 66’, the North Coast 500 stretches along Scotland’s northern coastline starting and ending in Inverness, boasting some of the most breath-taking views the Scottish Highlands has to offer. After its official opening in June 2015, it has already been named among the top six coastal road trips in the world. The combination of distant peaks, untouched landscapes and the expansive array of wildlife certainly makes it a jaw-droppingly beautiful route.
After many days of meticulous planning and having stocked up on an abundance of unperishable foods consisting mainly of Maryland cookies and Walkers crisps family packs, I set off on my 9 day adventure in my trusty Ford Focus heading West. I was off!
It was heating up nicely with beautiful warm sunshine, sunglasses on and windows down as the towering mountains seemed to dwarf the legendary Bealach na Ba pass in the Applecross peninsula, Wester Ross.
As I approached the start of the ascent I passed three cyclists who were stopped by the side of the road, appearing to look as if they were preparing themselves for 10 rounds with Tyson as they sized up the monumental task that was before them. I thought to myself ‘thank goodness I’m in my trusty car’ as I zoomed on passed them with a smug grin playing on my face. With very tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside and gradients that approach 20%, it boasts the greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 626 metres (2,054ft), and is the third highest road in Scotland.
It was such a breath-taking drive flanked by two sky-scraping mountains and I kept having to look back over my shoulder to see the ever-improving view over the lochs and mountain peaks on the far horizon. The road was gradually steepening and I had to drop down into first gear. I could see the top! But just as the road reached its steepest point, and only a few hundred feet from the summit, disaster struck. The combination of blistering heat, relentless steep gradients and a huge amount of karma amounted to a scorching hot engine. I had caution lights and sounds coming at me from every angle, my temperature gauge was in the red and my heart rate and blood pressure rocketed sky high to match the metre. Luckily, I was right next to a passing place where I took refuge and hastily turned off my engine. I was in a state of panic, so to counter this, I googled ‘what do I do if my engine overheats going up a steep road’, but luckily had no phone signal so no one would ever see my pathetic cry for help. I decided I needed to wait for the engine to cool and resorted to sprawling out on the mossy grass by the side of the road, playing a game on my phone (beat my previous high score on Crossy Road!). It took my mind off the fact I could be made into the laughing stock of the country, appearing on the front pages of the national newspapers the following morning – ‘Man, aged 25, gets stuck on mountain for days and didn’t know what to do, is this Britain’s wimpiest human!?’. To really rub salt into the wound, the three cyclists that I had smugly overtaken at the bottom of the ascent a few hours ago shot past me and were going to beat me to the top, I couldn’t believe it!
After a few hours waiting for my car to ‘cool down’ in the baking sun, I nervously put the key in the ignition, turned clockwise with a winced expression whispering ‘come on, come on, please, please’, and to my great relief there were no warning lights alerting me to any overheating. I completed the ascent of the pass, and took in the outstanding views at the summit.
Being a bit of a wildlife fanatic, I scanned the horizon with binoculars for eagles and the lochs for divers, nothing to be seen. After convincing myself that nothing would possibly want to live this far above sea level, there was a subtle movement that caught my eye in amongst the heather and rocks. Mountain hare? Fox? Woolly Mam… no. I hastily focused in on it with my binoculars and couldn’t believe it, a bird I have never seen before!
Ptarmigan – both the male and female. A plump medium-sized gamebird in the grouse family that resides in only the highest mountains of Scotland. This excitement helped to counteract the engine ordeal and the overly contemptuous look on the face of one of the cyclists as he powered passed me. On second thoughts, it didn’t even come close, I’ll never be able to forget that look he gave me, but the thrill of the Ptarmigan was just the tip of the iceberg of what was to follow.
20 miles past Applecross is Shieldaig, a small town looking out on to Loch Torridon – a sea loch and wildlife haven. I was lucky enough to witness otters playing on an offshore island, seals fishing close in to the shore, and even a white tailed eagle soaring above Shieldaig Island on which they nest.
Already on a ‘high’ from the diverse wildlife seen in my first, jam-packed, action-filled 10 hours, more enthralling encounters were just around the corner as I travelled north towards Durness. My excitement only increased as I learnt that the weather forecast for the next seven days was almost unbroken sunshine. This was to make the scenery and wildlife all the more spectacular! The next wildlife spot was an Osprey, promptly followed by pairs of Red-Throated and Great Northern Divers.
262 spectacular miles later I reached Durness, and it was time to head East towards Britain’s north-eastern tip, John O’Groats, which presented yet more fantastic views of Seals, White-tailed Eagles and Divers. Based on the fact I had not yet seen a Golden Eagle which was probably no.1 on my Highland wildlife ‘bucket list’, I decided to head back the way I came, then make my way back down to Inverness straight through the heart of the Highlands passing through Altnaharra.
With the sighting of a Golden Eagle now my primary focus, I resorted to travelling at walking pace scanning the skies, stopping at every opportunity to pull in and cast an eye over every high mountain peak. Although numbers of Golden Eagles are growing in Scotland, they are still relatively rare and are sadly still persecuted on occasion, or have their nests robbed. After a good few hours of examining every inch of the sky and trying to convince myself that every buzzard I saw was what I was hoping to see, I observed an unmistakable silhouette of a Golden Eagle soaring effortlessly high above a huge mountain far in the distance. Wonderful to see.
I could now make the 90 minute journey back to Inverness safe in the knowledge that I had seen, from both a wildlife and scenery perspective, just about everything that there was to see!
Before I travelled back to Stirling, there was one more spectacular wildlife encounter to be had, and one that presented fantastic photo opportunities. Lying between Fortrose & Rosemarkie on the Black Isle, Chanonry Point is one of the best places in Europe to see these creatures in the wild, with experts estimating that around 130 are living in the area – Bottlenose Dolphins.
Armed with the knowledge that dolphin activity is influenced by tidal conditions, a 5:30am start was necessary to catch the right tides for feeding. I times it perfectly to observe three dolphins – two adults, one of which was accompanied by its calf, feeding only metres from the shore! After watching them for over an hour, the lone adult decided he had had enough of eating the Salmon he was feeding on, and instead decided to play with his food – appalling table manners!
After a truly exhilarating wildlife spectacle it was time to head back home to Stirling. Completing the route in what was a 9-day rush by car, I later learned that Edinburgh cyclist James McCallum holds the record for the fastest time cycling the route, reaching his destination 31 hours after his departure, having actually spent 28 hours 57 minutes in the saddle. An impressive feat. What a fantastically enjoyable and memorable trip, and one that I urge you all to undertake when you get the chance!
I would like to give a special thanks to Henry for coming to write with us and for sharing his splendid photography. It’s so great to see what can be spotted along the North Coast 500 in terms of wildlife, and it shows if you are just patient enough to wait, great things can happen. Don’t fancy getting stuck on the ‘Bealach na Ba’ however!
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We hope this has inspired you to get out and explore this route yourself, it is a FANTASTIC road trip and one that should absolutely be on your bucket list. Please leave a comment below to let us know you enjoyed this blog. Until next time!