Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Sutherland Road Trip

I've lived in Scotland for 9 years, and although I'm definitely not a native, I certainly don't miss my southern roots all that much.  Its hard to imagine a time when I might choose to base myself south of the border again- nature is extravagant and regal here, the hills are empty and quiet as soon as you leave the beaten track.  I feel as though I could spend my entire life exploring this wild country, and only scratch the surface. However, until last weekend there was something specific that I missed about "down south"... something that felt irreplaceable and lost for ever in the move North....  I have periodically longed for the relaxed combination of sandy coves, rock climbing, surfing and rolling hills that I thought only Pembrokeshire in the West of Wales could provide.

Oldshoremore Bay, Sutherland
I was wrong. I've been to Sutherland before, on a different journey that encompassed the hills and the wide sweeping landscapes for which the "empty lands" are famous.  On this occasion however the hills were swathed in storms and gales, and so we naturally focused our attention on the coasts.  Dodging showers and blustery winds, we found plenty of our own fun, bouldering in secret bays and surfing empty breaks. This was a beach holiday just like my long weekends of ancient past.  Surf, weather and rock, with mugs of hot chocolate and drams of fiery whisky to warm us after getting soaked on the beach. Not exactly like Pembrokeshire, but similar, and better, because between the cloudbursts, the skies might clear, to reveal Sutherland's other side, magestic peaks, marching over the empty flow country, like giant dinosaurs in the desert.

We began our adventure at Brora on the east coast.  Home of Clynelish distillery and a quiet windswept beach behind the links golf course. We braved the north sea surf for the first time and found it warmer than expected. From here we headed to Scourie and a deserted campsite to get a wash and some mod cons.  The following day we watched showers blast along the coast, cheering as they kept on missing us and we explored the empty beaches and headlands beyond Kinlochbervie.  There is unlimited bouldering potential here, at every grade.

Boogie board at Brora
Wally catches a wave
Scourie sunset

Bouldering on the beach at Oldshoremore

Taking in the view after an evening bouldering at Droman Pier. 
We found a secluded spot for the van that evening, cracked open the Clynelish, and sat on the slipway at the water's edge swaddled in primaloft while a salty gale blew in. The van was battered all night by the wind but we slept soundly in our whisky haze.  The following morning the weather was barely better.  We set off for the famous Sandwood bay, and were blown across 7km of moorland on the approach, the bouldering mat acting as a sail. The beach is worth the walk.  If you are lucky enough to visit, don't be one of the sad-sacks who slogs over the hill, takes a few pictures and leaves.  The true nature of the place takes a while to sink in.  We spent a few hours there running among the dunes and crags, splashing in the sea and leaping in to the sand. We nearly lost the bouldering mat, which cartwheeled across the beach before the wind.   Next time we will bring a rope as the climbing looks fabulous.  The rock is a strange glassy gneiss that is absolutely bomproof and gorgeous to the touch.  It looks permanently wet- making it harder to spot the places where it genuinely does seep...

The long walk in to Sandwood Bay
Perfect sandy landings at Sandwood.
Sandwood Bay
Strathy Bay surf
On our final day, we returned to the waves, this time on the north coast, surfing in the rain at Strathy. Autumn has many gifts but most people don't include the weather, unless they like water!

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