Your Knee's Not Healed Until You Can Drag It
And so it was on a sunny Edinburgh afternoon that I typed “Inverness” into my GPS, rolled back the throttle and I was on my way once more. Fortunately it was a short ride, seeing how it’d taken me until 2pm to even get going. I really need to start packing my things the day before I leave :-/.
I found riding with my dodgy knee easier than I’d thought – the touring pegs that I’d installed (these are footpegs that clip on far forward of the normal footpegs and allow you to stretch your legs a bit) turned out to a lifesaver – I was able to keep my left leg stretched out and only bend it when I needed to shift gears.
An odd sunny moment
A few hours of riding later and I was in Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. Apparently the actual population is about 57,000, but 2 million tourists come through every year. I can see why – it’s a beautiful little town, straddling a perfectly clean (not even boats are allowed) river. As with everything in Scotland though, shame about the weather. Inverness was actually so much fun I ended up staying an extra day – I met up with some people who were staying at the hostel in Edinburgh, as well as some more people that they’d made friends with, and for a while we had a whole group going. First night in Inverness we took advantage of cheap Tesco beer and built a big Tennants tower for Nessie to climb.
The #1 thing to do in Inverness is to go down the road and see Loch Ness – I even got to use the extra helmet that takes up so much space in my luggage, as someone finally had the courage to be my pillion passenger. Unfortunately we didn’t see Nessie – or did we?
Well no, we didn't
Inverness is a small enough town that the guy who does the walking tours is actually the guy who owns the tour company – basically this larger than life Scotsman who declared at the beginning of the tour that seeing how it was a small town, it was illegal not to say ‘hi’ to people on the street, and spent the whole tour ambushing shy tourists with enthusiastic greetings as he walked past. Another highlight of the town was that after missing out a number of times in Edinburgh due to being immobilised, I finally got to go to a Scottish music bar. It was actually a great time – the musicians all come in and sit around a table in the middle with their drinks (I guess this is in deference to the times where actual patrons would come in, grab an instrument and just start playing) and play some great music – it’s actually quite hard not to move to it… so rhythmic.
That's some good fiddlin'
Although I had fun, it eventually came time to leave Inverness and continue north. After the traditional morning full of fart-assing about while pretending to pack my stuff up (and trying to program a route into my GPS, which ended up forgetting where it was up to halfway anyway… sigh) I finally left at a world record 2pm. The ride up was nice enough, but that whole corner of Scotland seems to have this horrible feeling of emptiness – there’s sea to your right and barren farmland to your left and not a whole lot else. Despite my late start, this just happened to be the summer solstice so I was able to get around Duncansby Head, John o’ Groats and Dunnet Head (Dunnet Head being the actual northern-most point of mainland Britain) while it was still light enough to take photos, and continue riding until I got to Tongue.
Apparently most people go to John o' Groats and miss this, even though it's just down the road :-/
I was in Tongue mainly (entirely) because I wanted to buy the iconic produce of the town – stuff that says “I <3 Tongue" on it. Because it was already 8pm before I arrived all the shops were shut, so I figured I might as well stop there for the night. But this wasn't to be just any night, because I, in my infinite wisdom, had decided I'd take advantage of Scotland's wild camping laws and pitch my tent. What I found, however, was that while camping 100m+ from a main road in Scotland might be fine with the Police, it was not decidedly not fine with the massive numbers of midges that were everywhere.
For those of you not familiar with the Highland Midge, it’s like a tiny, really dumb mosquito that gathers in a cloud and continually comes at you – hundreds will gather on anything that emits carbon dioxide and sting the crap out of it (quite a few were trying to suck blood from my bike as well as me). They’ll fly right into whatever you’re doing – trying to cook anything results in a dozen midges crashing right into your bowl and forcing you to eat them along with your mac and cheese. I could’ve moved campsites but I was pretty invested in this one – it was out of the wind, hidden from a main road, right next to a freshwater stream and I’d had to do my first ever gnarly adventure-rider-stream-crossing on my bike to get to it. I wasn’t just going to give up in the face of these pests, no matter how many were in my face. I just kept my bike helmet on and kept moving.
Wild Camping: a 1-step recipe for gross misadventure
Unfortunately I found that the combination of endless day (I was at the very top of Scotland, so night went from about 11:30pm to 3am) and the fact that my camping gear wasn’t really up to keeping me warm in the highlands temperatures didn’t make for very good sleeping. After a rough night I reemerged from my tent into the midge cloud, packed up my gear, roared back over my gnarly-adventure-stream and went back into Tongue. It took me stopping at two different shops to find the last “I <3 Tongue" sticker - a phyrric victory at best. At this point I found that George the GPS had forgotten where it was up to in my grand around-the-coast-of-Scotland tour and I didn't really feel up to 8 hours of riding, so I just told him to get me to the Isle of Skye however he felt was best and got on with it.
Despite deviating from my original plan, the route I did end up taking was still spectacular – probably moreso than the coastal roads, which were windy and too desolate. Much of the highlands are connected by single-track roads, on which two cars can’t comfortably pass side-by-side, so every time two cars see each other going opposite directions, one has to duck into a layby by the side of the road and let the other pass. People are oddly courteous about this – often I found myself riding off the road to let someone by, only to find them insisting that they let me past instead. The other fun thing about single-track roads is that it’s actually illegal for someone going the same direction to hold you up – as soon as you turn up behind them, they’re *legally obligated* to get out’ tha way. The roads themselves are spectacular, narrow, winding routes that take you past lochs and through deserted fields. The highlands give you the impression of that part of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where they’ve built a new earth but haven’t populated it with people yet… there’s so much space but it’s eerily empty.
A wee bit empty
That day when I’d talked to people (to get the sticker, get petrol etc) I’d noticed they’d been looking at me a bit weird. After stopping at a cafe for lunch and going into the bathroom to wash my hands, the reason became clear – looking at the mirror, I realised that my face was covered with dead midges, and somehow a massive tick (or something like a tick?) had managed to burrow its way into my *cheek*. Fortunately I was able to pull out the tick with my fingers fairly easily (good thing I hadn’t trimmed my fingernails for a while), clean my face up and get on my way.
The Misty Isle
Getting to the Isle of Skye was a confusing experience – I was expecting to be charged a massive toll to use the bridge (turns out its free now), and having not seen a single tollbooth I was on the island for half an hour before I realised I’d made it. I managed to just walk into a hostel and get a bed for that night – I wasn’t doing any more camping in Scotland. The Isle of Skye seems to have the most motorcycle tourists of any place on earth. Every second vehicle is a farkled-to-the-eyeballs 1200GS on its way from Germany or the Netherlands or so forth. At nights, the back carpark of the hostel was entirely filled with the various bikes of the residents.
My bike makes some friends
Skye itself was a beautiful place – I took a long ride around some of the main attractions, including the Tallisker whisky distillery, which was good fun. Really the landscape of Skye echoes what I’ve already said about the highlands of Scotland – beautifully empty. It was at this point that my bike finally picked up a name – introducing Os the Kawasaki Versys.
It's a hebrew name. Hey, brew
It’s a long story as to how this name came about, but the name represents the bike and the trip – something unknowable, dream-like, occasionally antagonistic and slightly beyond me. Unfortunately at this point I picked up another passenger. As the rider of a modern bike, the thing I fear most of all is the little light on the dashboard that represents a problem with the fuel injection system coming on. If it comes on, there’s nothing I can do by the side of the road to even see what the problem is – it requires a proper mechanic with a proper diagnostic kit to plug into the bike and get a fault code. Obviously this happened on Skye, only 3000km into the trip. Ffffuuuuu…
The light went out briefly and I stopped to take this photo. Look how happy I am... the light went straight back on after I started the engine back up. 'Och', as they say here
The thing was that the bike still worked fine – even things that would indicate a fuel injection problem like not being able to idle properly, or fast idle to warm up weren’t happening. I resolved to ignore it until I got to London, or it went away. In keeping with the habit of naming things that I’d got into, I christened it Fi the FI light. And so after a couple of days on Skye, Os the Versys, Fi the FI light, George the GPS and Alex the foolish Australian motorcycle tourist saddled up and rode to Glasgow to spend the night. This was the wettest day so far – I’d meant to stop and take heaps of photos as I travelled through Glen Coe and Loch Lomond but it was so wet and foggy there was barely any point – for the most part I just charged through the whole thing as quickly as possible. On the way I met a couple of motorcyclists who were going from Leeds through Fort Augustus, Tongue, Wick and back to Leeds – basically my whole time in Scotland, over 1000 miles – in a day. Certainly brought me back to earth.
Rain rain go away
My final night in Scotland was spent in Glasgow. To be honest I ended up being pretty glad I was only spending a night there. While Edinburgh is a shiny tourist paradise with its bad parts firmly out of view, Glasgow is very much one city everywhere – as a Polish guy in Skye put it, “it shows its guts”. Although this is admirable I guess, it doesn’t really make for that fun of a time, especially seeing how my hostel was full of old, long-term residents and every when I went into the backpacker bar in the city there weren’t too many people around. The hostel let me park the bike in their front yard though, which was pretty cool.
Pretty good hospitality
What is good in Glasgow is the fantastic Riverside Transport Museum, which I saw before leaving for London the next morning. It shows the standard history of trains, cars, trucks etc you get at any similar museum, but puts a really interesting Scottlish/Glaswegian slant on it. For instance, it has a whole early 1900s Glasgow street complete with a subway station that gives you a history of the Glasgow subway (the 3rd oldest in the world). I didn’t even know Glasgow had a subway until I got there, but apparently it used to work by having a steam engine pull a giant cable around the ring of stations – to move, the driver would basically turn a wheel which grabbed the cable then to stop he’d let go of the cable and hit the brakes. Supposedly it worked quite well for 30 years.
Pretty difficult parking spaces
That day I’d resolved to go the whole way back to London in one day, which meant a whole day on the slab. Reluctantly I queued up 6 hours worth of music, typed my Uncle’s address into my GPS and drove onto the onramp. London, bike repairs, Wimbledon and eventually France awaited me.