Losing time on the NC500

Resist ticking off the NC500 in just five days, says Helen Ochyra.

Achmelvich beach, Achmelvich Bay, Scotland, United Kingdom,


Resist ticking off the NC500 in just five days, says Helen Ochyra, and instead use the route as a trailhead for a leisurely exploration of the Highlands that will lead you to hidden beaches, dolphin pods and mainland Britain’s wild, northernmost tip.


Resist ticking off the NC500 in just five days, says Helen Ochyra, and instead use the route as a trailhead for a leisurely exploration of the Highlands that will lead you to hidden beaches, dolphin pods and mainland Britain’s wild, northernmost tip.

We forget that it was us who took the poetic orbit of the sun and turned it into the prosaic year. That we took one rotation of the earth and called it a day. When we look at time, we see its sharp edges, the boundaries and barricades set in place by our calendar. Yet, in reality, time flows continuously, never stopping to acknowledge the things we call it. Still, we go on metering out our lives, squishing far too much into far too little.

As it is with life, so it is with travel. How often have you planned an itinerary that rams as much as possible into the fewest possible rotations of the earth? How regularly have you spoken of “doing” a place, of “ticking off” an experience? How often do you speed, and skim, and skip over, when what you really want to do is slow down and dive in deeper?

The first time I travelled the North Coast 500, I drove its 516-mile loop from Inverness in five days. This was the length of time billed in various places as how long it took to “do” the route and so I plonked a five-day-sized box in my calendar with little thought.

On that journey, time slipped constantly away from me as I grabbed at it as uselessly as grabbing at water. I saw the landscape in flashes – a jolt of jade-green mountain here, a twinkle of sparkling, sapphire waterfall there – forever constrained by the edges of my windscreen.

I resolved to return and to travel more slowly. I promised myself that I would abandon the car wherever possible and work on wearing down the treads of my walking boots instead. I would use the NC500 route as a trailhead, striking off from it to explore further.

Inverness Castle at dusk, Scotland, United Kingdom

And so, on my next trip, I turn my back on the main route immediately after departing Inverness, heading east and out onto the Black Isle instead of due north. I am aiming for Cromarty, where I’ve heard captain Sarah takes visitors out dolphin spotting. Because we all love dolphins – seriously, have you ever met anyone who doesn’t coo over them? – this is a real draw, and the village is buzzing with people when I arrive.

Most of us are here for a trip with Sarah’s company EcoVentures and we are soon being bundled into all-over waterproofs, Sarah’s casual suggestion that it “might be a bit bumpy” causing my Highland understatement detector to flicker into life. After travelling extensively in Scotland – where someone saying it’s “a wee bit breezy” means you could well be blown off your feet – I’ve learned to add a healthy dose of dubiety to any local’s weather forecast.

Sure enough, we are soon flying up and down as if on a rollercoaster, the waters of the North Sea drenching us until our eyebrows drip.

Nobody gives a hoot though, because now we’re out in the Moray Firth, scanning the gunmetal waters for any sign that might herald the appearance of the world’s northernmost pod of bottlenose dolphins. At first all we spot are oil rigs and seabirds and we simply bob up and down on the waves, listening to the wind and squinting at the horizon.

There is a timescale for this trip of course, but Sarah is happy to push on its boundaries and so we wait, scanning and squinting some more as we try to distinguish the white cap of a wave from the tell-tale water break of a fin.

After a while, a puff of air rises audibly above the wind: dolphins. Sarah points and pretty much everyone squeals as we fix our eyes on first one fin and then several, slicing up through the water, followed by blowholes and inquisitive faces, their mouths turned up at the corners as if in a wry smile.

By the time we return to shore the sky is darkening. There has long been a ferry crossing at Cromarty and the shadow of past wealth lingers on every building, preserving an 18th-century feel that would have been ruined had the promised railway line ever made it here.

This timeless charm winks at me from Georgian windows as they catch the sun’s waning light, and I am pulled into the cat’s cradle of narrow streets as if they do not want to let me go. For once, I do not tussle with my desire to stay awhile; I accept that more time will flow past me here than I had anticipated.

The ghosts of past prosperity continue to follow me up the east coast. At my Cromarty B&B, Shirley had told me stories of the Whaligoe Steps and I seek them out just past Lybster. I find a staircase, plunging flagstone by flagstone down from the clifftop to a petite harbour.

Around its edges the sea has been lulled very slightly into submission and I imagine the herring boats unloading their catch here, a line of muscular women with baskets waiting to take the so-called “silver darlings” to market. This was once the heart of a thriving industry; today all that thrives here is grass.

As time has passed in the Highlands so too have its people and today the area is one of Europe’s most sparsely populated. This is a place young people too often leave – it has always been part of the North Coast 500’s purpose to encourage them to stay. When tourists come, the money follows, but it doesn’t land squarely.

As new businesses boom with NC500 cash, people living alongside them bemoan the state of the roads, the overcrowding of the landscape. There are too many tourists dashing through at speed, hiring sports cars in Inverness and chewing up the tarmac in their rush to finish, to “tick off” the Highlands. Too many of us don’t listen when the locals tell us we are ruining their communities, that we need to slow down, that there is more to see if only we would stop and look.

With this in mind, I set my course for Dunnet Head. Despite it being mainland Britain’s northernmost point, this is somewhere most people speed past on their way to take a selfie with the far more famous signpost in John o’Groats and so I have the headland almost to myself. I wander across the jade and russet landscape, sodden with puddled lakes, and watch gannets diving, risking their necks again and again as they plunge into the North Sea in search of food.

It occurs to me that our lives too are filled with risks. To care, to try, to love. To travel, even. I arrived here entirely consumed by my own concerns, dwelling on the risks I may be just too scared to take.

Yet standing at the summit of cliffs sheerer than any I’ve seen in Britain before, it’s obvious how little the landscape is affected by my being here, how insignificant I truly am. I am no more significant than any one of those gannets, my human scale utterly dwarfed by the swell of the ocean, the howling of the wind.

This is the magic of the Highlands. Here the elements are all-powerful. This is a landscape that disembowels, pulling all of our nonsense – our baseless fears, our needless worries – out into the light and exposing their inconsequence in the contrast with what is timeless and unyielding.

The mountains, the waterfalls, the beaches – all were here long before I was. And they will be here long after I depart. When I finally turn away to continue on my journey, my face is damp with more than just North Sea spray and I feel that I have left at least some of my cares behind.

The last time I was here, I had no time for Sandwood Bay. The beach is a four-mile stomp across the bogland from the nearest road – a road that is itself a diversion from the NC500 – and so I had ignored local insistence that this was a beach worth seeing, plunging on along the route regardless.

This time I make no such mistake. I leave the car near Blairmore and follow a track as
squally showers pass overhead, peeling my waterproof jacket on and off with

Sandwood Bay

I have counted the cars in the car park and know how many groups have set out
ahead of me. As first one couple, then another, pass me on their way back to their cars; I try to keep count of the vehicles they represent.

The milky afternoon sun picks out details in the bogland to distract me, bouncing off pools of smooth water and catching the white wings of passing birds, but hope rises as I near the trail’s end and start to believe I might have passed every one of those car dwellers. As I climb the dunes, the hope soars; an arc of sand, sweeping away from me, is revealed on either side, utterly bereft of people.

To see a beach like this at all is a privilege, to get it to myself feels more like an illusion. And in a way, of course, it is. Because I don’t have it to myself at all; there are hundreds of other souls here, it’s just that they aren’t human. Kittiwakes and guillemots cause me to whip my head up as they catch the corner of my eye, while tiny snails shuttle their antennae back inside their shells as my boots approach them, flattening the grass.

I clamber onto a rocky ledge exposed by the retreating Atlantic as the waves crash around my eardrums, tumbling with the squawks of the seabirds. It’s cacophonous yet peaceful, a jumble of noises just harmonious enough to be the sort you’d play to aid your sleep. I sweep my eyes over sands as smooth as the top of a jar of Ovaltine then close my eyes in order to feel and hear instead.

As my breathing slows and my muscles unclench, I find I have let go of time entirely. This is the real challenge of the North Coast 500 – not to complete it in record time, but to complete it at all once you’ve slowed down enough to truly enjoy it. As I wend my way southwards, I find I am constantly pulled by glimpses of the Atlantic to stomp across more white-sand beaches – at Clachtoll, at Achnahaird – and that I have long since stopped resisting any chance to linger over a seafood platter, gouging every last salty piece from each lobster claw and langoustine shell.

“As my breathing slows and my muscles unclench, I find I have let go of time entirely.”

Slowly it begins to dawn on me: I am not going to finish the North Coast 500. I look
at my map, encouraging my eyes away from the dotted red line stamped into it and
suddenly I see the route for what it is. A suggestion. After all, the roads I’m driving were here long before anyone thought to brand them. They have always been, and they remain, the A838 or the A835, or some other similar number, and I need not be constrained by them. I throw the map onto the back seat and decide I will simply go where my mood takes me.

This turns out to be Stac Pollaidh, a toothy ridge-like pinnacle that appears pinched up from the earth like the spine of a stegosaurus. It has grabbed me by the eyeballs on my journey past and I find myself lacing up my hiking boots and setting off up the ridge side, near desperate to stand at its summit, to pretend for just a moment that I can conquer a Highland mountain.

The air is cool but the sun is warm and as my cheeks pinken with the effort of my legs, my breath begins to labour and my mind can fix only on the physical effort of it all. It’s akin to a meditation, one foot finding the path ahead of the other, and by the time I reach the top my mind has ceased all racing.

And then, the view. A panoramic spread of rumpled sage and pea-green hills that appear almost velveteen, like the rucked-up baize of a billiards table. Their lumpen mounds are separated only by calm, flat waters in pools and stripes that seem to merge with each other and then with the sky itself. I squint into the sun and find myself confused by what is cloud and what is distant hill.

I find, though, that it doesn’t matter. It may feel like the elements are playing with
me, but they are simply doing what they always have. I remain an inconsequential witness, passing through.

I may not have completed the North Coast 500 this time, but I have slowed down to a pace I am finally comfortable with, not completely letting go of the barriers and barricades time seeks to impose on me, perhaps, but allowing the Highlands to hide them from view, at least for a little while. I emerge back in Inverness more in love with the Highlands than ever. And, as ever, time flows on around me, regardless.


Getting there: The North Coast 500 loops out from Inverness, the only city on the route. Inverness Airport is 15 minutes northeast of the city, while the train station (served by sleeper trains from London) is in the centre.

Best time to go: Although the warmest weather tends to be in high summer, this is also when the route is most crowded. Visit in early spring (avoiding Easter when there are school holidays) or in late autumn and you’ll find quieter roads – and correspondingly happier locals!

Currency: Pound sterling (£)

Time zone: GMT/BST

Food: Expect hyper-local seafood including langoustines, mussels and lobster, plus British pub-style dishes such as pies, sausage and mash, and fish and chips. Even the tiniest pubs have superb whisky selections; if in doubt ask for a recommendation and try what’s local.

Must-pack item: A waterproof jacket is essential; Scotland’s green landscapes are lush for a reason.

Why go? To sit on the cool, sculpted stone of an ancient quayside, feet dangling, face
seawards, and feast on decadent lobster and chips, without caring whether it’s lunch or dinner or something in between.

Achmelvich Bay

Into Bhutan’s spiritual heartland

The tarmac had long been washed away by the mudslides and rockfalls that heavy rains had brought months before. All that remained was the vertigo-inducing gravel track meandering around the mountains which seemed to get narrower with each mile. My nerves were already jangling as we edged past another truck-sized boulder that had nestled itself on the road. A slight toot of the horn was the only salvation from oncoming traffic on another one of the endless, blind hairpin bends.

“The only straight road here is the runway you landed on,” said my guide, Ugyen, from the front seat of the car. His dry sense of humour was lost on me on this nerve-wrecking road trip. But, at the end of this ten-hour journey was Bumthang – the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan.

Like most who fly into this Himalayan nation, my journey began a few days earlier at Paro airport, on the “only straight road” in Bhutan. It was February and the cold snap of the mountain air filled my lungs the moment I stepped off the plane. The specks of snow hovering like feathers in the wind became considerably heavier in the subsequent hours. That night, cooped up in my plush hotel room in Thimphu (Bhutan’s capital), which resembled a 1960s Soviet-style boardroom, I feared I might be there for an extended stay.