Next day I was on the road again, now in the opposite direction. While cycling along the coastal edges to the west, I was inevitably following the North Coast 500 route. NC500, a circular route encompassing the Northern Highlands, was created to develop tourism and to foster local economy as visitors in the past hardly ever ventured past the Edinburgh-Inverness-Glasgow triangle. Within three years since its inception, NC500 has definitely proven its success. Tourism and business is booming, and, due to its beauty, the route is already considered in line with iconic classics such as Route 66, the Wine Route or the Atlantic Way.
However, there are always two sides to the coin. While it probably is a good idea to support the local economy and promote tourism as an alternative source of income, the region seems unprepared to cope with the numbers of visitors and vehicles. Available accomodation does not meet the demands and is often booked out for weeks to come. Due to lack of parking space at popular locations people park in the passing places, blocking the road and causing traffic congestion on otherwise quiet roads. As there are hardly any toilets or something as simple as bins along the road, people use the road side instead, leaving it strewn with litter and worse. Erosion on road curbs and foot paths endanger the accessibility to certain spots and may lead to irreparable change in the landscape. It sure seems that the NC500 has become a victim of its own success.
The wind blew steadily from the west, and I progressed slowly – but I did not mind. Surrounded by the spectacular landscapes and seascapes I did not care how long it would take me to get across to Durness. Even though some people make a point of completing the NC500’s round course in the shortest time possible, they actually miss out a lot. Not only on the simply breathtaking views, but also on the calming effects of unspoilt nature and the chance to decelerate. Travelling by bike sure helps to get the real deal. And honestly, who needs a label to fall in love with this incredible scenery?
The Northern Highlands have always attracted people, the majority of them hikers, fishers, and (family) campers who saught solitary and peace in its untamed and remote nature. The NC500 brings not only a change of pace and thinking but also a new and completely different category of visitors, drawn by the easy access to nature on a drive-through level. I witnessed many speeding along the road, stopping their cars at popular locations to take their I-have-been-here-photos, while the motor keeps running and the rest of the passengers don’t even bother to get out. Then they rush on to the next highlight, ticking it off from the must-see-and-do-list. And if they actually dare to venture off the beaten track the secluded bay or perfect picknick spot in the mountains is immediately shared on social media platforms, and soon enough the hidden spot is not so hidden anymore. (Well, you might say, I am not too far away from that myself, posting on Facebook and writing this blog, but as you know, one always sees oneself in a different, if not better light. 😉 ) So while the NC500 might have brought the much needed revenue to the region, on its way, it has lost many of the qualities it made it worth promoting in the first place.
The road continued winding up and down over heath covered hills and past classic glens and lochs. Mostly single-track roads with hair pin bends and blind summits, which kind of add to the charme of driving through this incredible landscape. Admittedly, it can be rather annoying to have to pull over constantly, to let others pass. But that’s how it works, and I must say, most people excersised the common road users’ courtesy nicely. While there’s usually a lot of car driver bashing among cyclists, at this point I actually have to take up the cudgels for motorists. Most of the car drivers I encountered drove reasonable and with great consideration, slowing down, passing me in wide berths and ever so often stopping themselves to let me pass ahead of them. I feel very grateful for that as it made my journey so much better and enjoyable with friendly traffic companions. One gets rotten apples everywhere, and, of course, there has been the odd one who drove carelessly and ruthless. It’s hard not to have the few bad experiences outway the many good ones, and I try to remember all the nice drivers that acted sensible and kind. In fact, I received so many waves, encouraging smiles and thumps up, that I ought not to have the few eejits spoil my road trip.
I did reach Durness eventually, more of a small village rather than town and blessed with Carribean blue waters and postcard-picture beaches. Its far west position and close proximity to Cape Wrath makes Durness quite popular and thus, the small community was swarmed with tourists. I managed to find a quiet place on the campsite, though, and enjoyed the rest of the evening at the gorgeous beach.