“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat” – Lily Tomlin
On reflection, likening a woman to a gorilla when she has told you that she carries guns and knives and has given you an impromptu (and unwanted) lap dance is, at best, ill advised and at worst, perilous.
Packing up my tent at Skye after a royal feast of porridge and tea was a leisurely affair as I waited for the morning dew to evaporate from the outer skin. A last look across the grassland to the Cullins, one final pull on the ratchet straps of the roll bag and the obligatory pull on the helmet skirt to check the flip front had locked in place. Warm air, vents open and an empty road all the way off the island and on to Applecross.
My original plan was to make it from Skye to Ullapool but once I factored in photo stops and time at Applecross , it was going to be a bit of a dash. So, a leisurely day riding the Bealach Na Ba and then on to the next campsite.
The Bealach is a nice ride – it climbs steadily and then more rapidly into a number of fast switchbacks before you reach the summit where there are spectacular views down onto Applecross and the Loch. With sunlight dancing on the waters far below and a warm breeze, I could easily have closed my eyes and imagined I was in the Mediterranean. ‘Twenty two’ exclaimed one guy who was out with his terrier, I smiled, waved and wiped the sweat from my brow. Scottish weather eh?
A slow descent, partly because of the glorious scenery but mainly because I only had 2 miles to go and I just didn’t feel like stopping the ride so soon – it was only lunchtime! My head was itching – perhaps, I thought, sweat in the fabric of the helmet had aggravated the skin.
Having found the campsite, I pitched up and then wandered into reception scratching my head as I went. I saw a slightly overweight guy in there, scruffily dressed with a badly sunburnt head but he was incredibly handsome. Turning my attention from the mirror, I asked the receptionist if she had any cream for itches, hastily adding that it was for my head. She grinned, her eyes scanning my bonce and wandered into the arboretum off the reception – a huge glass conservatory filled with large plants. She broke the stem off one – it looked like cactus – dropped it into a plastic sandwich bag and then handed it to me. My quizzical look was met with ‘Aloe Vera’.
Back at the tent, I squeezed out part of the inners of the plant and then rubbed it into my sore scalp. Instant relief – I was gobsmacked. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some sort of Luddite but I was amazed at the sheer simplicity of just seeing those plants there as immediate relief for a wide variety of camping/holiday ailments. I kept that bag for a few days – it was going to get far worse.
I stripped down to shorts and a tee and headed off down the path to get to the pub. It’s a lovely walk down from the campsite through trees and following a stream which babbles gently as the sunlight streams through the branches. With my head plastered in Aloe Vera juice, the world felt a whole lot calmer. I grabbed a pint at the pub, some fish and chips from the van parked outside and sat down to watch the Loch. It is a stunning view – 180 degrees right in front of you, calm waters stretch out until they reach the haze shrouded mountains in the distance.
The Lochs are the deepest territorial waters in the UK and this has spawned many tales of ‘sea monsters’ but off in the distance, I could see a large black shape moving slowly across the water. To my surprise it wasn’t a primordial sea monster but a nuclear submarine making its way slowly out of the Loch, no doubt recharging its batteries or air supply. In the midst of this glorious scenery with the sun, the speckling wave tips and the hazy mountains it was hard to believe that pandoras box of holocausts out there had enough ordinance to completely level a dozen major cities and incinerate millions.What an utterly bizarre species we are. I grabbed another pint, chatted a while, drank another pint and then decided I should get back for a shower. The hill was far steeper on the way back up and with the odd alcohol fuelled sideways shimmy and a nod to the munching deer, I made slow progress. My head was itching too.
A cold shower – bliss on my scalp although every muscle in my body was clenching to try and generate some warmth. Back to the tent, slapped some more wallpaper paste on my head and retired to the reception area for the free wi-fi and an update of my trip notes. It’s quite amazing how we get so hooked on wi-fi and internet, especially the younger generation. I find my usage is in inverse proportion to how long I have been traveling. Usually by day 6 or so, I’m not even bothering with it other than the occasional status to say I’m still alive. There are a lot of parallels with drug addiction I think.
I headed back down to the pub and with another pint in hand (be rude not too) I watched the sun go down. I’ve been privileged to watch the sun go down at many places on this planet but Applecross was right up there with the best of them. The sun slowly fell, the temperature dropping at the same time and the breeze picking up, the last evensong of the birds shouting out the demise of day and then it hits the horizon and explodes – an orange inferno that engulfs the mountains, the water, the shore and you.
Like the last few swings from a punch drunk boxer, the sun’s fight to stay above the horizon fades quickly and night makes her entrance. As the glow fades, the neon lights and the flickering candles on the tables take over, trying in vain to illuminate the darkened depths of the Loch.
With the performance over, we all retired to the pub in search of post show specials. I took one last look back, trying to make out whether in-between the dark of the Loch and the dark of the sky was another dark of a nuclear monster.
It’s a great pub in Applecross – food is top notch. To be honest, I can’t remember what I had due to the effects of the afore-mentioned pints. The climb back up the hill by the stream seemed almost vertical later that evening. I may have stopped once or twice to take in the serenity and peace of it all but the harsh reality is that with a full stomach and one too many pale ales, I needed a breather and the calming babble of the brook was probably overshadowed by my heavy breathing. I collapsed into the tent, half stripped off and as is always the case, spent several precious moments fighting to get into the mummy bag as the air sucked the heat from my body. You spend ages shuffling your bum down inside, then have to dislocate both your arms to pull the zip from the inside and finally you sigh deeply, lay your head back on your pillow and close your eyes. Then, and only then, do you realise you need a pee.
The ride from Applecross to Ullapool was sublime – I took the coastal road which is slightly longer but does give some stunning views. Another warm day and a lot of itching and impromptu stops to take the helmet off and slap more paste on my head. The fabric in the helmet was now coated in the stuff and little balls of white wax were appearing as it congealed in the heat. Having a sunburnt head is dangerous on a bike – I’ve ridden in some dangerous conditions but this was probably the worst. You can’t concentrate and it drives you mad. Your focus on the road goes and there is absolutely no relief. I’d have this for 3 more days as it turned out and it was murder. If you’re a biker and folically challenged like me, cover your bonce as soon as you take your lid off, you’ll thank me for that little tip.
The campsite in Ullapool is right on the Loch. I rode round for a bit, went to the shoreline and ended up camping about 5 feet from the shore. There was a beat up VW camper next to me with a youngish couple in it. Amazingly he was from Stoke originally like myself and had moved to somewhere in the Cairngorms when he couldn’t find a job. They were just getting going in life and the camper was a way for them to enjoy Scotland with little expense. He showed me the work he was doing on the van and boy did it need work. I’m no mechanic but even I could tell it was on its last legs. They had bought some cans and some sausages for a BBQ.
I headed into Ullapool, found a chemist and spent 2 hours slapping various lotions on my head in the comfort of a pub out of the sun.My head eventually calmed down and I wandered back to camp for a shower and to clean off the insides of my helmet which took quite some scrubbing in the campsite shower block. As the sun began to set, I took up front row seats with my camera and watched it slowly sink away before heading back into town to eat.
I don’t recall which pub it was but I sat at the bar, nursing a pint and affording myself the occasional head scratch. The optics rail was overflowing with whiskies, some of them obviously very rare and priced accordingly. I flicked my eyes to the restaurant and watched the steady procession of people coming in to the pub and asking about food. There were a couple of Americans (or so I thought) sitting near to me, I smiled and turned back to contemplating whether I should get another pint now or should I wait until I got a table. The restaurant opened, I managed to nab a table and as I sat down, I was asked by the two American ladies if I was on my own and would I like to join them. I thanked them and pulled up a seat. Now, I’ve met some amazing people on my travels and a lot of them have been Americans. All amazing in their own right and for differing reasons. Mostly I will end up drinking too much and there will be laughter, usually too loud.
Now I don’t know why it is but the conversation always turns to guns at some point as well. Probably because they like shooting each other, I don’t know. Anyway, I digress. It turns out that these two ladies were on holiday and one was American, one was Canadian. This bit is relevant about the nationality because as we swapped personal stories and the like, it became obvious that there was a clear divide on certain topics. Canada and the UK on one side of the table and the US on the other. Beer and wine flowed, the food was great and the conversation fab too. And then we got on to guns and the right to bear arms. I didn’t raise it, I honestly didn’t, I’ve no idea how it happened (which I think ironically may be the mantra of the gun lobby)
What followed was utterly bizarre. The American lady, who shall remain nameless at this time as it is key to the story here was a firm believer in the right to bear arms and so as we (drunkenly) debated the pros and cons, she became more agitated. The Canadian lady and I became ever more perplexed and shared looks of consternation and the occasional laugh. When someone tells you that they were stopped from getting on to a flight because they had a bowie knife and mace in their hand luggage you should pause for a moment and perhaps reflect that their views may not be swayed. When they tell you that they have argued with security at JFK and had them confiscated when attempting to board a transatlantic flight, then perhaps it’s time to end the ‘debate’.
However, I was several pints in and up for the challenge. The conversation continued about trying to find a weapon in Scotland ‘in case’. I replied ‘in case of what, being attacked by a sheep?’, laughter from the Canada/UK side, more reprimands from the USA side. Things then got even more bizarre, she stood up, walked round the table, sat on my lap and threw her arms round me. I stammered, her friend was laughing and I thought ‘I’m either going to get stabbed or shot here’. Thankfully the moment passed and she retook her seat when the waitress came over to ask about dessert. We all ordered a whiskey and toasted each others health. I declined her offer to head back to see they cottage that they had rented- after all, you’ve seen one cottage you’ve seen them all and it was dark so I wouldn’t be able to admire the masonry and timber work.
We paid, headed outside to the street and it was in that moment, that one singular moment that I knew I had gone a ‘shot’ too far. There’s always that last shot of whiskey or that one extra pint and you just know it will get you into trouble. Every time, without fail. As they began to walk away, I asked her what her name was again. Amy she replied. The shot kicked in and thankfully I was at a safe distance. ‘Amy, hmmm, I remember that film with Amy in!’. ‘Which film?’. ‘You know, the one with the gorilla named Amy who does sign language’. I don’t know who was more stunned, me or her. Those words hung in the air like pollen on a summers day.
I am now available for relationship coaching at a reasonable price.
Breakfast in Ullapool, I didn’t get shot.