I decided to break the journey north with a stop somewhere with lots of trees that I hoped would be in in full autumn colour. I used the Forestry Commission Stay a Night scheme which allows motorhomes to park overnight in a limited selection of their car parks. I went for Balnain near Drumnadrochit and had the place nearly to myself apart from one small van and a guy in a 4x4 with search lights who drove past late in the evening probably searching for rabbits to dispatch. I arrived about an hour before sunset - I say sunset - it was more a gradual seeping gloom followed by rain. But heavy rain is often followed by misty conditions early morning so I was not dispirited. I did about an hour of reccying potential morning shots and discovering just how wet the ground was when I filled both boots to the brim with chilled water. Not to worry as I had brought plenty of socks. Back in the van I settled in for a quiet night and watched something I'd downloaded on iPlayer to the background sound of hornets attacking my roof.
Looking back at the photos I took the following morning, I clearly wasn't yet in the zone. It can take a while to get your eye back into spotting decent images and I was taking all sorts of rubbish that morning. Apart from one shot which turned out not too shabby which would have required a long walk as it was impossible to park nearby. I probably wouldn't have bothered but for the bike. It's always good to get one decent shot under your belt early on, takes the pressure off so you know that you won't return empty handed.
I went to America once and there was a hurricane hitting the east coast of America. The TV news talked about nothing else for days. It was very boring. Whilst we don't technically get hurricanes in the UK (not even the Michael Fish one was a hurricane) we do get hurricane wind speeds. When I say "we" I mean the north west of Scotland, especially parts of the Western Isles where it can get windy enough to break telephone poles. When I arrived at Achmelvich campsite the wind was gusting up to a breezy 40 mph which contrasted sharply with the millpond conditions I'd experienced at Balnain. Clearly those wizzy arrows on the weather forecast weren't just made up. But hurricanes kick in at 74 mph so this was just normal weather. I parked the van pointing into the wind in the vain hope that it might minimise the rocking I was going to get that night, plugged in the power cable and filled the water tank with enough for a lot of tea drinking. I might have to ride out this storm and I wasn't going to risk not having enough cups of tea to see me through.
The following day dawned brightly.... actually I lie, I have no idea if it dawned brightly as I was tucked up in bed trying to catch up on sleep after a disturbing nightmare involving hornets. I eventually got my act together just after 9 and set off by bike to explore the road south of Lochinver. I'd already planned a few shots ahead and wanted to reccy them, but I was struggling with the bright light. It was too bright as the early sun was low enough to be in frame. I needed to be further south looking north with side lighting which is exactly where Andy was as he'd been up early and was having fun looking for glacial erratics. Meanwhile I was experiencing one of the downsides of bike photography; specifically where do you leave your bike when you need to wander further off road for a particular shot. Whilst the likelihood of theft in this area is very low, losing the bike would be a major downer and it's impossible to lock the bike to an immovable object as per the definition of an immovable object in my bike insurance policy. So the answer is to conceal the bike some distance away from the road and lock it. Not an easy task to push a heavy bike through heather or over boggy ground as I was soon to discover and ended up filling my boots with water for the second time on this trip.
I eventually met up with Andy (long chat ensued) on the road near Boat Bay. We agreed to meet at Loch Druim for sunset but then proceeded to keep overtaking each other along the road as we each kept stopping for "just another shot".
One of the tiny islands by the side of the Wee Mad road south of Lochinver
Eventually I made it to Loch Druim, but was surprised that Andy wasn't there. There was no wind and the Loch was a mirror but there was no good light, although the prospect of some rain coming in from the west was encouraging for dramatic shots. I messaged Andy a quick photo, turns out he was getting breakfast (and I suspect a quick nap after his early start) .... and he joined me later. The sunset light never came but we did get some dark rain clouds over Canisp. I gave up and cycled back to the campsite where I discovered a small piece of heaven in an onsite fish 'n' chip shop. No cooking required tonight!
Loch Druim and Canisp in cloud and Suilven looming dark above us
The next day started soggy. I wanted to explore towards the Kirkaig falls and so decided to take the van to the nearby car park and walk in. I found a great shot of Suilven just as a heavy shower arrived. But it was soon clearing quickly and I wanted to catch Suilven whilst still shrouded in cloud. This shot is focus stacked which means taking several photos with the lens focused at different points in the photo. This is often necessary where you have close foreground and distant background. You then blend the multiple files in post-processing and end up with a tack sharp image from near to far.
I headed back to the van after a brief encounter with a herd of deer; the stag had spotted me long before I saw him.
That was a morning gone already and my photo buddy was equally delayed. We agreed to meet at Stoer lighthouse for sunset. Back on two wheels I was making full use of the e-assistance to power up the hills and combat the considerable head winds out near Stoer head. Andy arrived a little later and then we headed up the hill for a good shot of the lighthouse. Now I don't mind admitting that I wasn't fully committed to this shot. It was extremely windy, I could see lots of rain coming, it was going to be very dark soon and I was over 16 miles from my nice warm van and I was on a bike. eBike or not I was going to be cycling into a headwind again (yes I had a headwind in both directions) with lashings of cold rain, so I didn't want to delay and decided to leave Andy to it - he got a great shot, mine was rubbish. I shall never forget the next 40 mins of cycling, let's just say I wasn't hanging about. I managed to stay mostly dry and actually started to enjoy the experience after a while. The bike performed flawlessly and I soon flew past the fish 'n' chip shop (it was a struggle).
Back at the van putting gear away as the rain clouds clear
The next day I biked out to Glencanisp lodge and beyond to see if the route was bikeable but with no particular shot planned. The answer was 'no'. Once beyond the lodge the path gets muddier and rockier. There were tracks left by mountain bikers, but the tyres on my bike weren't up to it and the extra weight of the eBike and camera gear just made for an unpleasant ride. I only fell off once and luckily landed on soft but prickly ground. The camera and tripod also survived, but I knew I was out of my depth for bike handling skill and headed back.
I met Andy on the way back to the campsite. He was going in the opposite direction back to his pod for a change of clothing after also falling over but without the luck to land in something that wasn't wet and muddy. We agreed to meet up at Clachtoll at high tide which when combined with the strong winds we hoped should produce some exciting crashing waves over split rock.
Strong winds and rain showers at Clachtoll
We did indeed get big waves but timing the shot proved difficult and despite hundreds of shots I don't have anything worth sharing. Just keeping the camera steady was a challenge even with the camera down low and on a tripod. It was wickedly windy and the sea spray in the air was beginning to coat the front lens element. The shot above was taken along the coast a bit, out of the full might of the wind. I retreated to the van, glad that I had decided to drive this time as it gave me a break from the wind onslaught. Chance for a cuppa too. Normally me and Andy would have shared a cuppa and raided the biscuit tin, but the Covid rules put paid to that and instead Andy reviewed his shots, which is another way of saying that he had a nap. It turns out Andy had earned his nap as he'd produced a stunner.
We had also agreed a rendezvous for sunset so I headed off and reccy'd the spot and Andy joined me a few mins later. Nice view but no spectacular sunset although we did get a moon rise.
Suilven and with the moon rising over Cul Mor
Andy was heading home the next day whilst I had decided to stay on for another couple of days as the forecast was looking better. One of the advantages of the van is that you don't always have to book a campsite and so I wanted to make best use of the good forecast and get up early the next day to climb Stac Pollaidh. I parked up about 20 mins away from the start of the walk in an area that specifically permits overnight parking and as the rain set in again I settled down for an early night. My slumber was interrupted by someone at about 11:45pm sounding their car horn as they drove past. As I said before, not everyone is keen to welcome motorhomes to the area. I turned over and went back to sleep.
The alarm went off at about 5:30 am but I didn't rush. One of the advantages of hearing every raindrop hitting the roof of my van meant that I knew without opening an eyelid that the predicted clear skies were not happening. However, rain showers can clear quickly so I did get up and I was on my way trying not to disturb the one other van and someone sleeping in their car; I probably failed on that last bit.
At the Stac Pollaidh car park there was already a white VW campervan that had parked overnight. The rain was still deciding whether to stop so I had breakfast before setting out at the first signs of early light. I made the saddle of the hill after about 45 mins, but the sunrise wasn't as good as I had hoped.
Suilven and Cul Mor from Stac Pollaidh
However, the forecast for tomorrow was much better. Today had been a good practise run to work out how long the climb would take. I descended the long and very muddy alternative way lingering a while for a silhouette shot of one of the islands in Loch Lurgainn before moving onto Polbain and parking up for a bit of cycle exploring for the rest of the day.
Having identified a possible good view across to Stac Pollaidh, I had a long wait, the cloud was low but the beginnings of tomorrow's clear spell was beginning to arrive. I managed to get a few shots with the clouds still clinging to the hills.
A long wait for Stac Pollaidh hiding in the cloud
The lone wind turbine above Achiltibuie
My route back to the van was heartened by a smile and a wave from a local as I cycled past; as I was pulling a trailer I think they were feeling sorry for me. I didn't point out I was hardly having to put in any effort as I still had over 50% battery left and wasn't planning on using the bike again on this trip, so it was 'Sport' mode all the way back.
After hanging up my wet kit (it had started raining 10 mins from the van), I drove back to the Stac Pollaidh car park for my overnight stop. Arriving at dusk I had the place to myself before being joined by yet another VW campervan. Mr Honker passed by again at about 11 pm but he didn't stop me getting up in time for a 6 am departure.
Stac Pollaidh from half way up - it was early - very early
At the saddle for 6:45 for what I can only describe as a wonderful experience. I had the hill entirely to myself, no wind and the roaring of stags in the distance was the icing on the cake. Sunrise was amazing, but I had a small window of time to capture my shots as the low lying mist boiled up around me and obscured my view for a while.
My viewpoint as the mist rolled by
The mist provided a screen for a rainbow to form beside me although I couldn't get it into any decent composition.
The cloud soon cleared and I was shooting again, but with the sun swinging to the south and behind the hill, I was still in shade and the passing cloud had cooled things down considerably. A few sips of a hot drink helped, but I was still getting colder and eventually decided I'd had the best of the light and should head down. Finally catching some sun I soon warmed up and then started meeting the day's walkers coming up the hill. It's a popular hill and so was busy and the first few I met were going to get a great view although I reckon I'd had the best viewpoint in the world that morning.
What a difference a day makes
Back at the car park it was nearly full, so I moved onto to a quieter parking spot nearer to the main A road to allow someone else access to the hill that day. The weather was deteriorating quickly but I was done now and after backing up my images I settled down to a very leisurely and satisfying breakfast overlooking Loch Lurgainn.
I'd spent a week in this small beautiful part of Scotland, totally absorbed in photographing the landscape and the basics of eating and sleeping. I was really tired and had loved the experience but was ready to head home. Many thanks to Andy for the great company and his boundless enthusiasm for getting out there.
Tim Hodges - www.irisone.co.uk