North Coast 500 SUP AdventuresJoe
If you’re like me there will have been one word rolling around your head the last 12 months – freedom! And maybe the word will conjure up images of Mel Gibson leading kilted clansmen into battle for their freedom in the film Braveheart. Perhaps why my heart has been yearning so badly for some freedom and adventure in Scotland.
The need for some escapism away from the madding IKEA inspired place the world has become with its one-way systems, no-entry signs, and duck taped arrows dictating our every move has been growing stronger every day.
My friend Sarah has just started paddleboarding along with her pooch Nova and joined myself and Cal my seasoned Brazilian adventure dog (who has more stamps in his passport than your average Brit) on a few paddles at the start of spring, was feeling the same urge to escape the maddening crowds and a plan to head north emerged
Sarah and I are no strangers to wild road trips having travelled over 300 miles along beaches by buggy in North Brazil together. Taking on the North Coast 500 in a Mini was going to be a walk in the park, it would hopefully involve fewer flat tyres and breakdowns too. After a camping trip to the Isle of Skye last November where it rained continuously, was cold in a two-man tent, with two girls and two damp dogs, we learnt a lesson and decided the make this a bit of a glamping road trip, being savvy with Scottish weather we opted for comfort and warmth and hired roof tent from a company in Glasgow.
The North Coast 500 is a 500-mile route along some of the most scenic winding roads in Scotland, passing towering Munros, white Sandy beaches and glistening lochs. Most people drive East to West but we chose to drive up the west coast and head north, in the hope of clearer roads and less slow-moving camper vans to get stuck behind.
The UK has mostly westerly winds, great for Kitesurfing on the west coast but not so great for paddleboarding, thankfully behind every hill and around every bend in the road, there is a sheltered loch just waiting to be explored by sup. So even when the westerly winds are battering the coastline it shouldn’t be too hard to find a bay or Loch to paddle in.
If mysterious castles and misty locks are your thing Scotland is a must.
A beautiful thing about Scotland is the statutory “right to roam” act which allows everyone access to most land and most inland water. In short, it means you’re free to go where you like and paddleboard on any loch you see on your way, This also applies for camping, you can camp “anywhere within reason” providing you leave no trace. There are seasonal bans in certain areas due to wildlife and overcrowding, so make sure you check before your trip.
The Roof Nest meant the roof space was taken up so solid boards were not an option, but that’s the beauty inflatables comes into play. We had plenty of space in the car for two paddle boards, wetsuits, camping equipment, two dogs, enough dry clothes to last week and an essential bottle of whisky.
Our route plan was loose, after a year of restrictions it felt good to not be tied to anything, no set times or set places. There were a few beaches that were on our list of places to visit, mainly ones with white sandy beaches and turquoise water that would hopefully fill the void that no foreign travel and tropical beaches have left in our lives.
We’d been apprehensive about how locals would treat us, if the fear of the British propaganda machine had got through to the Brave hearts in the north. Thankfully we’d nothing to worry about, we were greeted with warmth and smiles wherever we went.
First night we parked in a small ferry port north of Ullapool, opposite the Isle of Martin. We sat amongst lobster pots watching the sun go down, roasting marshmallows on the fire pit and drinking hot chocolate with a cheeky dram (Scottish measure of whisky, size depends on who’s pouring) in the top wondering how the week would be. The Roof Nest had been a doddle to put up, we’d made the right choice for our adventure.
Next day we were up sharpish. The beauty of the roof tent is the ease of packdown, no rolling tents in mud or rain, as we sat eating our breakfast and a grey-haired hardy looking fella with twinkly eyes arrived and began loading shrimp pots into a boat. We got chatting about the roof nest and turned out he’d been a journalist at the Chronicle newspaper in Newcastle (my home city) but desk jobs were not for him. The stress of the lifestyle took its toll and he left to find peace in the Scottish highlands. For the last 20 years he’s been heading out to sea each day to catch shrimps in his little boat as happy as you can be. As I watched him head out to sea I pondered that after the last 12+ months of lockdowns, more people are making connections with nature and what makes their heart beat faster and are changing their lives in the way this man did, one positive to take from the pandemic.
It might sound cliche but there were far too many spots to list in a short write up. There are beaches and bays galore all along the west coast of Scotland and honestly is a Loch at the foot of every hill just waiting to be explored by paddleboard. You can do it all, none are really off-limits. We climbed mountains, swam in the ocean, jumped in waterfalls, explored Bronze Age Caves, had campfires and marshmallows, hot chocolates and whisky, we had sunshine and rain while making memories that will last a lifetime.
One of the most memorable moments was waking up with the Mini parked on top of a hill overlooking a glassy loch, directly in front of a nesting osprey. We’d pre pumped boards the night before and jumped straight into the water with the dogs, paddled around the island and were lucky to catch glimpses of incredible birds of prey.
For those that like endurance Loch Ness is a great option, it’s the largest body of water in the UK measuring roughly 36 miles in length and 240m deep. It’s a great place for those looking for a distance challenge, however the Loch has plenty of small sheltered bays and inlets which are perfect for beginners.
Owing to the surrounding peat filled hills the water in the loch is cola coloured, the Loch Ness Monster could swim under your board and you’d not have a clue!
There were many things to see and spots to try; we only covered half of the NC500. We reached the most north-westerly point of the U.K. where you can get the best hot chocolate in Scotland *NB our whisky and marshmallow hot chocolates are better.
The trip was so so great we’ve already rebooked the roof tent for September, we’re going to do the second half of our journey and next time and next time we’re going to spend all day in our wetsuits driving around, hopping from Loch to sea to make the most of every opportunity to get on the water!
To be included list of must visit beaches and images.
The B869 Coastal Road
Cafe Margot in Ullapool for the best coffee and deli snacks
Ardvreck Castle and loch
Our top 5 must have road trip items.
Jet Boil or good stove
Collapsible water bottle
Dogs and boards
Avon oil moisturiser – great at keeping midgies away
Dogs and boards