Five on Tour – We tackle the North Coast 500 – mostly on two wheels!

NC500 1
We did it! We made it to the summit of Bealach Na Ba – one of the highest road climbs in the UK.

Dave Hooper recounts how four friends on bikes were chased by a Skoda VRs around Scotland’s North Coast 500, taking in some of the best roads and scenery this country has to offer

NC500 2
This little hut was home to the best coffee stop we found – and it was in the middle of nowhere!

IN the last few years the North Coast 500 has become quite a thing.

People do it on bikes, in cars, in motorhomes and with caravans, exploring the fabulous part of the world that is the north-west of Scotland, undiscovered by many, it is a hidden gem with spectacular scenery at every turn.

My friend Steve and I got our first proper taste of motorcycle touring a few years ago with a trip to France to explore the D-Day beaches in Normandy. We loved it and quickly decided our next trip would be on home soil around the top of our fabulous country, but our plans were delayed a couple of times by the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic.

Riding in the rain
Riding in the rain became all too familiar – this was on our second day when stopped to don our wet gear as the heavens opened on the shores of Loch Lomond – pictured (from left) are Dave, Steve, Wayne and Jim.

In need of something to look forward to, at Christmas last year we decided to think positive and book our accommodation in the hope that we would be able to go in June, so as the virus subsided, the excitement grew for the four of us that would be on two wheels – Steve and I being joined by Jim and Wayne. My son Alistair isn’t a biker, but like his dad is always up for a good road trip, so he opted to follow us around in his Skoda VRs which is his pride and joy – a VRs which continues to evolve in the way it looks – and drives!

Our trip was originally planned for the end of May last year – key to avoiding the dreaded midges which have no second thoughts about eating you alive – itchy bites are the last things you want in crash helmets and gloves, so picking a suitable window where the weather is good and midges aren’t out yet boils down to a choice of mid May, or mid September – so we went in mid June!

As its name suggests, the North Coast 500 is a 500-mile route, now fully signposted with proper brown tourist signs. It officially starts in Inverness on the east coast, before heading west to Applecross, then up the stunning west coast, before turning right across the very top of Scotland to John O’Groats and then heading back down the east coast to the finish at Inverness.

First we had to get to Scotland to join the route. Our first day was a 300-mile ride from Northern Lincolnshire up to Glasgow, staying overnight in a hotel with secure-ish underground parking, skirting around the west of Newcastle, through the Scottish Borders via Peebles before heading into the city itself.

Our second day saw us heading out of Glasgow early in the morning, along the side of Loch Lomond, before heading up through Glencoe, the scene of the famous massacre of the MacDonalds, through Fort William passing Ben Nevis and on to Mallaig to catch the ferry to Skye.

Great views
We enjoyed great views at every turn.

At least that was the plan, but the Scottish weather had other ideas – three wet days meant low cloud, the majestic mountains shrouded in mist . . . and wet riding, something we always try to avoid, but in this case, we just had to get on with it, so on went the wet gear! Mid morning on Day Two our phones all pinged with a message from Calmac Ferries to say that bikes were banned from the ferries due to rough seas, so we had to do an extra 80 miles – the long way round – to Skye and our second hotel in Portree – in the rain, although we did manage to see the Glenfinnan viaduct, famously used in the Harry Potter films, but there was no magical change in the weather for us!

Our steeds for our epic journey included a BMW GS, fondly referred to as a Camel as they are often seen crossing deserts, two generations of Kawasaki Versys, mine being a 2016 model and my friend on the newest version, and a fresh out of the box BMW S1000R, and of course, the Skoda VRs piloted by my son in hot pursuit, who had a great time trying to keep up with four bikes which could zip past slow moving motorhomes much more easily. We’d often say on our intercoms as we passed a line of traffic: “That’s it, we won’t see him again for a while”, yet 15-20 minutes later, in true Top Gear style, the blue Skoda usually reappeared in our mirrors! It’s huge boot was a great helmet store too, at our coffee stops.

John OGroats at last
Jim (right) and Dave with their bikes at the famous John O’Groats signpost.

A tour of Skye followed the next morning, which gave us every kind of weather you can think of, including sleet, warm sunshine, and 50mph crosswinds, so we just had to take shelter in the Talisker Whisky Distillery for a few minutes, before heading back over to the mainland for one of the highlights, and most daunting parts of our trip.

The Bealach na Ba Pass will be familiar to many who have driven on various Mazda launches based at the lovely Toridon Hotel or Ackergill Tower. It’s the second highest road climb in the UK, rising more than 2,000 feet through spectacular scenery, with three hair-pin bends just before the summit, quite a challenge with fully laden bikes wet roads and steep cambers. Again the weather spoilt the views, but couldn’t dampen the sense of achievement having made it safely to the top where I insisted on a photo shoot!

The weather improved for the rest of the week, with dry roads and cool temperatures making for perfect biking weather. The scenery also improved as the mist lifted off the mountain tops. It’s a different world up there, with white sandy beaches and aquamarine blue sea doing a convincing impression of the Caribbean, and fabulous mountain views that literally take your breath away as round almost every corner.

As we turned onto the top the country, the roads straightened out and the scenery became more bland with long flat expanses of open countryside, but we made good progress over to John O’Groats for some more pictures, before turning south and heading for home.

BMW S1000R
Wayne by the Glenshee Ski Centre on his new S1000R.

Our penultimate night was in Aviemore, in the Cairngorms, where the skiers amongst us delighted in the sight of snow-capped mountains in June, but the riding that day was also some of the best of the whole trip, although not part of the official NC500 route, with us now being well below its southern boundary. Fast sweeping open roads with clear views through the bends, combined with light traffic made for some exhilarating touring, before a well-earned coffee and cake stop in Braemar.

Our last night was in Newcastle. We’d planned to make it our party night – the thinking was we could have a steadier morning in case of any sore heads, and an easy couple of hours home, but after seven days’ riding, and after a big curry for tea and a couple of beers, all our faces told the same story… we were shattered and all we wanted to do was go to bed – we didn’t even have the energy for a night-cap!

Three hundred miles in a car is one thing, on a bike it’s very different, and several days of big mileages back-to-back add up, but after arriving safely home the next day, everyone agreed it had been an incredible trip and a fantastic experience, leaving us all with stories to tell. The bikes were excellent too, covering the 1,700 miles without any issues. The Skoda performed faultlessly too, although it is now in need of new front tyres and brake pads!

The NC500 is a fabulous thing to do on two wheels or four. I can’t recommend it highly enough, so if you are looking for inspiration for your staycation, why not give it a go!

Team photo
Posing for pics at the famous John O’Groats signpost – somewhere none of us thought we would ride our bikes to! From the left are Steve, Dave, Alistair, Jim and Wayne.

The Scottoiler on the Versys kept things running smoothly too.

And which sat nav system should you choose?