Across the top and back again

A very speedy two day catch up as I’m running low on laptop battery and I couldn’t get signal last night for the Mifi from Three which is what enables us to blog on the road.

So, where are we? We’re currently parked up for the night near Lochinver which is a few miles south of the very north west tip of Scotland. Yesterday saw us reach as far across the north coast as you can go by road – and what a road it is. Twisty, turning, windy and up and down with a new delight around every single corner. I am constantly torn between looking up into the skies for golden eagles while admiring the rainbows which seem a constant feature with the sunshine and showers weather we have had this week, or the lochs and coastline for a glimpse of seals, dolphins, whales or otters, or looking out at the landscape – misty topped mountains, sweeping pine forests, glorious coverings of heather and gorse all changing into their autumnal colours with the chance of spotting deer or maybe even a wildcat.

We have been so very lucky in ticking off our list of Things We’d Love To See and our luck is holding fast. Yesterday we spent ages pouring over our bird books having watched a very large bird soaring over us to see if we could identify it as a golden eagle. We were fairly sure judging by it’s flight pattern and sillhouette but it had been very high in the sky. Later in the afternoon though we were treated to a low flying very definite golden eagle sighting, close enough to see the golden feathers and everything! Today we saw a red deer stag at fairly close range too, long enough to even capture a photo, although you will have to look very closely to spot him camouflaged as he is in the heather.

We’ve explored the first chamber of a cave, complete with waterfall, spent time on beaches flying Dragon’s kite, combing for shells and seaglass and searching for fossils, driven for hours just soaking up the landscape and had every meal and cup of tea in a new and different location.

At Smoo Cave

stunning landscapes

beautiful beaches

flying his kite

Seals and Landmarks

The big news today is we made it! We’ve been to the north east most tip of mainland UK! Yep, against all odds, Willow the van and the four of us made it all the way to John O Groats. We can’t really get any further from our starting point, so if we just have to take the handbrake off and roll all the way back home we got this far!

Having parked up for the night in an unknown location as it was pitch dark we were very pleasantly surprised to pull back the curtains this morning and find ourselves overlooking the stunning scenery of Gills Bay, overlooking Stroma island with some of the most impressive waves and white horses I’ve ever seen.

We walked down to the beach and explored the rock pools, looked at the shells and Dragon chipped away at a piece of slate to present me with a heart shaped coaster.

for me, from Dragon. He’s so lovely.

it was so windy Ady had to put the camera inside Willow and then dash back outside to get this shot!

We retreated back to Willow for tea /coffee/hot chocolate and were treated to the seals below us playing in the surf, riding the waves, coming out to flop about on the rocks and sand and generally entertain us.

Then we headed back east to John O Groats. The visitor centre was an interesting selection of very overpriced gift shops, several empty units, an excellent museum which was free, a very brightly painted castle type building in a state of disrepair and some toilets with a 20p admission charge. I was desperate for a wee so ducked under the turnstyle as Ady was taking too long to find change in the van and when I came out the attendant told me off! I paid of course and infact later went back in with another 20p and my shampoo, a beaker and a towel and washed my hair in the sink there deciding if I had to invest money I would get more than a quick wee for my cash!!!

right to the top!

quite tempted to carry on to the north pole!

amazing paintwork, if rather random

checking out the information

It was very windy and rainy so after taking the obligatory tourist-y pictures we bought some postcards and hopped back into Willow for lunch and hot drinks. The weather then cheered up enough for us to head slightly further along the coast and walk almost to Duncansby Head (although in reading about it we didn’t quite make it to the tip as we missed seeing the stacks). This took in the amazing sea of the Pentland Firth which is wild, undulating, unforgiving and very, very dramatic and beautiful. It rather reminded me of Star…. there was no pattern to the sea at all, it appeared to be heading in all directions at once with waves breaking everywhere and a surface like a very wobbly jelly. The beach was made of shell-sand, larger and smaller broken fragments of all colours of gorgeous shells. We had the company of a group of three seals who really seemed to interact with us, edging closer and even following us curiously along our path. It’s times like these when we so wish we had a better camera as we simply don’t do what we’ve seen with our eyes justice.

the seal

check out those waves

wild, untamed, dangerous….

throwing himself into life

On the walk back Star was telling me all the different places she wants to visit one day, the animals she wants to see, the experiences she wants to have. I told her that if I can teach her anything it should be never to be trapped by life; to fret about paying a mortgage, having new clothes or wishing for things she’ll never be, but to spend her life living it, having adventures, chasing experiences, following her heart and dreams. She slipped her hand in mine and promised she would learn that lesson from me. I hope she does.

We drove back to Thurso for petrol (we now have a full tank) and milk and then onwards in search of an overnight stop. We are parked up at Melvich now, overlooking the sea again but with a large strip of heather and wild looking land infront of us. I can see the lights of Thurso twinkling to the right and a lighthouse sending it’s searching light out to the left but infront is nothing but black.

We spent nothing but our petrol today as we’d already got dinner from yesterday – pork chops and veg from the reduced to clear sections of supermarkets and some leftover spuds donated by a friend last week. Delicious.

Once it got dark and we’d all eaten we turned all the lights off in the van and got Star’s night vision monocular out which was her Christmas present last year and has been hugely under used so far. We all had a look and although we didn’t see anything out there – I think it is far too wet, windy and wild really – we have pledged to have a 15 minute darkness time after dinner every night and use them wherever we are, so fingers crossed we see some interesting nighttime sights too.

We finished our day with hot chocolate (some of us laced with Baileys) and a couple of chapters of story all snuggled up together on the bed.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

We roam around, and round and round and round

Breakfast near Golspie

 Lunch at Helmsdale

Dinner at Dunnet Head

and are currently parked up for the night at Gills Bay. Oh yes, we get around!

So today saw us hitting the most northern part of the UK mainland, a bit of a landmark for us, coming from the south coast all those months ago.

We’ve also taken in Badbea, the Flow Country and miles of gorgeous landscapes including coasts, lochs and highlands. We spent ages looking in our bird book identifying the large birds of prey we knew were not buzzards or golden eagles and decided they were ospreys. We spotted a deer and were all very excited by Ady noticing a dark shadow run across the road looking like it might have been a wildcat – that will have to remain unconfirmed however!

we found this cartoon illustration amusing!

at Badbea

another cautionary sign – poor Willow!

reading about life in the 1800s at Badbea

wind farm on the Flow Country, I always find them slightly eerie and rather beautiful

pretty harbour at Lybster

Today we managed to stick to budget on food and have also bought dinner for tomorrow. We are finding it tough to do much in the way of hunting, fishing or foraging just yet so have been relying on shopping at the end of the day and getting reduced to clear bargains! We do have a very good stock of tinned and packet food in the van too but are reserving that for days when we fail to find a supermarket or have run out of funds! As warned petrol is likely to be our biggest expense – fuel is not cheap, petrol stations are few and far between and the hilly roads mean our consumption is high. We were prepared for this though and having already finished the east coast section of our week despite only being on day three we are anticipating a few days when we do very little mileage which will help.

Water is proving a potential issue. We are carrying 3 x 5 litre bottles and some in the water tank of Willow, but only about half full as the extra weight will mean using more petrol so isn’t cost effective. We are getting through a good 5 litres a day just in washing teeth, drinking, cooking and washing up – the trouble with cheap foods like rice and pasta is that they require a fair amount of water! Today we managed to use a public toilets to empty our portaloo and fill up our water bottles though which means we are empty and full in the right places again! We had anticipated using a campsite once a week to have showers, charge things up and fill and empty. We are now hoping to avoid that if possible and planning to try hair washing and body washing using hot water in a plastic trug – that would save at least £15 – a day and a half’s budget!

We invested in various charging solutions along the way and have two freeloader solar chargers, which are reasonable in very good sunny days and can charge a mobile phone / games console but are most useful for storing charge from the mains when charged using a USB off a computer. We also bought an invertor charger to plug into a cigarette lighter and give power to either a 3 pin plug or a USB which takes care of all our charging needs. We have been really pleased with it’s performance and today charged up both our mobiles and my netbook from it while driving along. We also have a power pack jump starter which can be used to charge things and then recharged from the mains for days when we don’t do enough driving to use the cigarette lighter option.

It’s early days for this part of the adventure but so far we keep pinching ourselves for how lucky we are to wake each morning in such gorgeous locations with the freedom to travel as far or near as we wish in search of yet more adventures and fantastic places to park up and enjoy the view.

Wandering more than ever

We now have seven weeks off from WWOOFing! With just one host left to visit we are almost finished with the WWOOFing part of our journey.

When we waved goodbye to Daisy Cottage we headed across from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland, stopping overnight for our first taste of wild camping at Loch Ness. We literally pulled into a layby on the roadside, put down the levellers on Willow and that was us home for the night! We had a full on panoramic view of Loch Ness with the sun going down, rainbows across the skies (typical sunshine and showers weather) and then a beautiful moon rising over the loch casting reflections and shadows over the rippling water. We sat and admired the view, sung some songs and toasted the next exciting chapter of our adventure.

the view from Willow

We’ve been to Loch Ness before, last summer, and fell in love with it there then. We went out on the actual loch in a boat that time and it is such a magical, atmospheric place you can feel the mystery and intrigue in the air. Despite spending lots of time gazing out of Willow’s window we didn’t see Nessie this time!

Then followed a fabulous week camping with two sets of very good friends. Dragon celebrated his 11th birthday, we saw dolphins, seals and other sealife daily, the children all played on the beach flying kites, got wet most days in the sea, did some fishing and us adults enjoyed each others company in rather less energetic pursuits. We ate haggis, drank whisky, gorged on tablet and had a very memorable evening sitting on the beach round a fire toasting marshmallows and gazing at the stars.

Yesterday morning we waved goodbye to our friends, returning to ‘normal lives’ and we headed further north. We have a touring map of Scotland, a fistful of tourist information leaflets, a list of ‘things we’d like to see’ and a very small daily budget – and no particular place to be for the next six weeks!

Our loose plan is to head towards John O Groats by the end of this week, a distance of just over 100 miles. From there we will go all the way along the very north coast over the course of the following week and then travel down the west coast over the following weeks before heading over to the Isle of Eigg by ferry for our final host at the end of October. We’ll keep that plan pretty fluid so if we get distracted by shiny things or the wind picks us up and blows us in a certain direction it may well change!

Yesterday we got as far as Bonar Bridge, going via Tarbat Discovery Centre where we all increased our local knowledge and learnt about Picts and early Scottish history, marvelled at the crypt and enjoyed a film about archaeological discoveries. It felt like a welcome return to Home Education for Dragon, Star and I who used to spend all our days chasing interesting conversations and finding hands on ways to learn. We’ve very much missed our previous freedom to find ourselves in an interesting place with questions to find answers to and are looking forward to plenty more such opportunities over the next few weeks. Our ‘home’ for the night was a layby overlooking a loch on one side and a large area of woodland on the other.

Today we were on a quest to find the salmon – at this time of year the wild Atlantic salmon are returning to the rivers they were born in to spawn, which involves leaping upstream. It’s a dramatic and death-defying journey that few manage to make and as with all wild animal spotting you are very much relying on all sorts of factors, mostly luck! First on our list of likely places was the Falls of Shin, which has a visitor centre including an exhibition of information about the salmon. After a quick look around that we headed down to the waterfalls and were the only people there. Amazingly within just a couple of minutes Ady was yelling that he had seen one, closely followed by the rest of us! We struggled to get any half decent pictures (our camera is really not up to wildlife action shots!) but the memories will last a lifetime.

that black dot is a salmon!

at the Falls of Shin

We had lunch in the carpark (hurrah for our mobile kitchen!) and then followed some brown signs to the Ferrycroft Visitor Centre. What an excellent – and *free* place this was! We had a great couple of hours there learning loads, participating in all the interactive and hands on exhibits, learning about wildlife, history and more. Dragon and Star loved playing in the grounds too and reading all the information boards about local wildlife and farmed animals.

We drove through some beautiful, very ‘Scottish’ landscapes with heather, pines, highland cattle and sheep and soaring buzzards in some very blue skies. We ended up stopping for the night overlooking the sea again with a fantastic view of a very beautiful sunset tonight.

Daisy Cottage

We’ve just finished two weeks at our penultimate host, in the fishing village of Tarbert on the Kintyre peninsula in Argyll, Scotland. On the west coast the whole area is very beautiful and muse-tastic. The town of Tobermory, on the isle of Mull is the inspiration for kids TV show Balamory, the nearby Mull of Kintyre was ever immortalised by Paul McCartney, the isle of Skye is also nearby and there is a whole lot more to the place than tartan, red deer and shortbread! Our hosts, Ed, Carina and their son Peter are truly lovely people. Kind, generous, warm and welcoming, they went out of their way to ensure we had a fab time WWOOFing for them. Our hours of work were short, we had two bedrooms in their lovely home, ate with them every meal, were taken out exploring the area and on our final night they took us out for a meal. Our work was largely based in their new house, a new build using eco building techniques and materials. We did some filling holes, some oiling woodwork, plenty of painting, some digging up spuds, some building a woodpile housing, some stacking wood. At the current house we did plenty of woodchopping, some spud sorting and finally we spent some time at the local Healing Garden, a community project in the grounds of the medical centre using herbs and other healing plants. Our task was cutting a hedge down to let light in and views out.

Our time off was the best though – we explored the amazing beaches, had walks around the town and the scenic landscapes, spent time on an island in the harbour having rowed across with our hosts in their canoe. We attended a local smallholders gathering and had a go at felting and watched a green woodworking demo, sampled local produce and spent lots of time fishing. We saw seals, buzzards, gannets, gulls, cormorants and jellyfish and we caught fish!

Dragon: Bad: That our hosts son had to go to school. I missed playing with him while he was out at school each day. Good: I enjoyed eating mackerel that we had caught ourselves. Learnt: How to fish – how to cast, what bait to use and so on. Star: Bad: we didn’t see the seal on our last day Good: We saw the seal every other day and I found £7 under the shelves in the local Co Op Learnt: There was a local beach made completely of shells, that had been discarded by fishermen over the years. Ady: Bad: Leaving! It was the first host I felt really sad to leave. Good: I really enjoyed living with such kind and trusting hosts. Learnt: I learnt loads about Scotland from Ed, his knowledge about the area they lived in was huge. Nic: Bad: The midges! We’d been warned and if we settle here we will have to find solutions but on this visit I did get midged and I did have nasty itchy bits. Good: It was great to be at hosts in such beautiful surroundings. I really fell in love with Scotland. Learnt :About fishing, about green building, about Scotland.

Second Catch and Lucky Find

More breaking news – Ady caught a fish! Another mackrel, another challenge met, another dinner provided.

Willow has needed a bit of attention to her plugs and leads and general starting in the damp. We decided as we’re now in the land and season of mist we’d get that dealt with so took her along to the local garage here in Tarbert, Hi Way Motors.

Not only did they do a fab job – she is running really well now, they also noted the blog address on the back of Willow and have been having a read of our adventures. They did us a bargain price and added a very special message to the invoice.

We’ve already sent someone else in their direction (a lovely American couple Ady helped change a wheel on their rental car when they had a puncture) and highly recommend them for anyone else passing through this way. If Willow has any breakdowns while we’re on this next leg we know where to get towed to for sure!

Rolling with it

We found out yesterday that our current hosts will be our penultimate ones as the next place we had lined up for WWOOFing at has had to cancel due to ill health. This leaves us with about six weeks worth of free time between hosts.

We do have a reserve list of hosts and at least three places who asked us to get back in touch nearer the time when we approached them about WWOOFing earlier this year. We also of course have the WWOOFing book and could contact any of the hosts listed but we are planning to take the time to travel instead and see how we fare on a limited budget.

Our current hosts have a great knowledge of Scotland and are able to recommend some interesting places to head for so our plan is to draw up a rough route taking in all the various sights, based around petrol stations to ensure Willow is kept topped up (apparently they can be few and far between up here). We’ll keep some very basic food rations in the van so we are able to make bread, rice and pasta etc. and then try to top that up with what we can find along the way. It will be exciting, we will be pioneers, we will learn new skills and emerge as hunters, gatherers, foragings. Or we’ll go to bed hungry and miserable and all get really hacked off with each other when our blood sugar levels dip too low and there is no milk for tea!

Phase one of our catch it, kill it, cook it, eat it adventures began yesterday with fishing. Dragon, Star and I have never fished before although Ady did a spot of fishing in his younger days. We all had fishing rods – Ady and the kids got them for Christmas and my lovely friend Helen bought me a rod as a leaving present. Our fab friend Mich bought Dragon a fishing book so we were well prepared.

Now success is a real subjective thing I feel – sure the fact we caught nothing could be considered a failure but we’re choosing to view the afternoon as a coaching session, learning how to thread up the rods, various knots to attach various things, we know about ledger weights, coffin weights, bullet weights and the right times to use them, lures, spinners, bait, half blood knots, loops knots, what a swivel is, how to cast, how to bring in two lines which have crossed each other. Surely we need to save the actual learning how to bring a fish in, kill it, gut it and boast about how big it is for another day?  We did see a seal, jellyfish, starfish and various seabirds too which I know won’t appease hunger but perhaps we can just dine out on our stories?!

We have another week here and then a week at a campsite with friends after which we embark on the next bit of the adventure. Where internet signal allows I will update daily with how we are faring on finding somewhere to park up for the night and something to put in our tummies.