Trip to Scotland to ride the NC500 – Part 4

After a cold and windy night at John O’Groats we were now heading south for the first time. Leaving the campsite we picked up the A99/A9 East Coast road and settled in for the ride to Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park.

A99/A9 route south to Aviemore

The A9 is the busiest main road we’d been on for some time and it felt a little strange initially. We’d got so used to riding the small, single track lanes up the West Coast and across the North of Scotland that being on a large, sometimes multi-lane road with lots of commercial traffic felt somewhat alien. This also meant that we’d be putting the miles in fairly quickly as we needed to ride at the same speed as all the other traffic to be safe.

The East Coast road isn’t anywhere near as scenic as the West Coast route and we’d not planned any stops on the first leg of the journey south apart from getting some breakfast.

Upon seeing a sign on the side of the road saying next right for food we made a swift exit from the A9 and pulled in at The River Bothy for breakfast.

This lovely little bothy is actually a full on tea room and not a bothy at all however, it’s well worth a visit.

Being situated in an old wash house, this superb little tea room is full of character. There are old copper pipes and taps around the walls, an old wood fired water heater in the corner and a huge fireplace and wood-burner to keep everyone cosy in the winter months. The food here is excellent, one of the best breakfasts we had on the trip. The staff were also great, really engaging and full of fun, it was a great place to visit for breakfast.

The River Bothy just off the A9

After a good hour in The River Bothy we carried our full bellies back out to the bikes and continued our journey south.

40 minutes further south on the A9 we spotted a castle just off the main road and had to stop to take a look.

The Dunrobin Castle situated right on the shoreline overlooking the Dornoch Firth is one of the most beautiful castles I’ve seen in the U.K. With its tall towers and pointed roofs rising up over the beautiful gardens it’s almost Disney like in appearance.

It was such a shame it was a dull day as the light really didn’t make it easy to capture the castle in all its glory. We spent some considerable time here just walking around the grounds, along the coastline and taking far too many photographs. There really is a lot to see here.

There’s a wealth of information about the history of the castle on Wikipedia and is worth a read if you’re going to visit or just have a castle curiosity like me.

Dunrobin Castle over looking the walled gardens
Main entrance into Dunrobin Castle
Lookout on the coast
Side entrance into the castle for deliveries
View of the gate house from the side lane
Castle clock tower rising above the outer wall
View along the coast
Castle from the side lane
Our bikes parked out front of the main castle entrance
Beautiful wrought iron gate to the walled gardens
Crest on the rear gate to the walled gardens

Whilst I was at the rear of the castle taking photos of the walled gardens a young lady appeared behind the wrought iron gate and gave me a smile, I just had to capture the moment!

A smile captured forever

After spending far too much time at the castle taking photos we got our helmets on and headed south once more. Crossing the Cromarty Bridge we were soon on the outskirts of Inverness. Not wanting to go into the city we scooted around it on the A9 and headed towards the Cairngorms National Park.

Arriving in Aviemore we immediately found ourselves stuck in a massive traffic jam. Unknown to us it was a bank holiday in Scotland and clearly everyone had decided to come to Aviemore at the same time.

We found a little space on the side of the main street and parked up to get out of the traffic. The town was incredibly busy, not something we’d experienced on the trip up until now. Finding a little cafe on the main street with outside seating we plonked ourselves down and ordered coffee and cake.

Drinking coffee and eating cake whilst watching the world go by is one of my favourite past times and one that I never tire of. I love people watching, always have and always will. No matter where in the world I find myself, I always find somewhere to just sit and watch. Some would say I’ve wasted far too many hours of my life just watching others but, to me it’s not time wasted at all.

When I lived and worked in Brussels I would go to the Grand Place on a Saturday morning to sit outside one of the many cafes, drink great coffee, eat wonderful croissant and just watch people go about their day. It’s one of the simple pleasures in life that I love most.

The time soon passed and we were having to think about where we were going to stay for the night. With what seemed like the whole world in Aviemore we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. After phoning a number of campsite, lodges and chalets it became apparent that everywhere was booked up and no one had any space available for two old men on motorcycles.

Not deterred we continued searching google for places to stay. (Where would we be without google maps!) Eventually we found a campsite not too far from where we were seated and decided to just head on over and see if they could squeeze us in.

Arriving at the Glenmore Campsite it was immediately apparent they weren’t particularly biker friendly and didn’t really want us there. This wasn’t the first time we’d experienced this in Scotland, for some strange reason some campsites just didn’t like bikers.

Normally they charge £18 per night for a tent but, because it was a bank holiday weekend they wanted £28 per night for a tent and one person. It really annoys me when campsites hike up their prices just because it’s a bank holiday, there’s really no need to rip off your customers like this but, it seems to be common practice these days. Sadly we had little choice but to pay the over inflated price.

To make it even worse they wouldn’t let us camp on the tent field with all the other campers that had plenty of pitches vacant but, instead told us to go right to the back of the campsite behind the boiler house and pitch our tents there out the way. Anyone would had thought we were lepers and needed to be kept away from the masses. To ensure we didn’t camp with all the other campers they even escorted us down to the back of the campsite and pointed at the piece of grass we were to use.

To add insult to injury, the piece of grass they insisted we camped on turned out to be the dog walking area and was covered in faeces. £28 to camp for one night behind the noisy boiler house on a small piece of grass covered in dog faeces resulted in the worst review I have ever given a campsite in my entire life.

Once we’d got our tents pitched we then had a staff member complain to us our tents were too close together and that they needed to be 6m apart. At this point my patience was running thin and so I took him on a guided tour of the faeces covered piece of grass asking him to point out where the two tents could go 6m apart without getting covered in faeces. Needless to say he couldn’t find anywhere else other than where we’d pitched our tents!

Eventually we got rid of the staff member and got changed into some more comfortable clothing ready to go find somewhere to have a bite to eat and drink for the evening.

A few minutes walk from the campsite we found The Pine Marten Bar, a small ski bar and cafe tucked away amongst the trees. This little place had a cool vibe going on and we were made most welcome, how refreshing!

Neither of us are drinkers but, we fancied something cold on this occasion. The food was good and went well with a cold cider, the staff were great too!

Later the same evening we took a walk around the area and discovered that just behind the campsite was Loch Morlich which had a fairly large beach where you can wild camp for free! If only we’d known this before we arrived in Aviemore.

Loch Morlich beach – Ben Jackson

The view of the surrounding hills from the beach at Loch Morlich was spectacular as the sun set. If we’re ever up this way again we’d wild camp right here for sure!

After a good nights sleep we were up bright and breezy. The showers were hot which was a plus and the midges hadn’t woken yet, heaven!

We got packed up and on the road early heading south through the Cairngorms. The roads were pretty fast and we made great progress. Stopping at The House of Bruar for breakfast on the A9 was great. The food is always excellent there and they have good coffee too!

The House of Bruar food and shopping complex

Back on the road and we were soon crossing the river Forth on the Queensferry Crossing just north west of Edinburgh. Once past Edinburgh we turned off the A9 on to the A68 and headed south through the Northumberland National Park.

The Scottish side of the border
The English side of the border
The view of Scotland from the English side of the border

Crossing the border back into England marked the end of the trip, from this point on it was just a matter of getting home. As we passed into England the weather brightened up and the sun came out, it was a glorious welcome back to the home land.

We decided that since the roads were all fast moving we’d push on and head down to the Lawnsgate Farm Campsite on the North York Moors that I stayed at on the way up. Ben hadn’t been there before and so was happy to see another new place. We pushed on stopping only for comfort breaks and drinks taking in the views as we went.

After a total of 300 miles we arrived at the campsite, late in the day but, happy with our progress and the ride we’d had. It was a fitting end to a spectacular trip.

Our route from Aviemore to Lawnsgate Farm Campsite on the North York Moors

That evening we ate a melange of noodles that I’d had in my dry bag for a few days as our emergency food supply just incase we found ourselves wild camping somewhere miles from anywhere. Sitting watching the sun go down over the North York Moors was very relaxing and once the light was gone we turned in for the night.

The following morning it was a while before the sun broke over the hill behind the campsite. There’d been a heavy dew overnight and the tents started to steam gently in the warmth of the early morning sun. Kettle on, I soon had a brew in hand and just sat and watched the valley awaken as the shadow of the night was driven out by the light of the day as the sun rose over the hill. It was a glorious start to the day.

Once we were up and the tents were packed and loaded we headed off once more. We’d decided to take the scenic route across the Humber Bridge and then on to the Lincolnshire Wolds where Ben would peel off and head towards Birmingham to visit a friend on the way home. For me it was an easy route, through the wolds onto the A17 and back to Norfolk via Kings Lynn and finally down into Suffolk via the Beccles road, a route I know well.

After 14 nights away and almost 3000 miles on the clock my Tenere 700 desperately needed new tyres. The OEM Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tyres had now done just over 6000 miles and were well past their best. The bike was also now due its 6000 mile service so that needed organising too. There’s always something to spend your money on!

That bitter sweet moment …

Today was the day that Sean came to collect my CRF250 Rally that he purchased ready for his trip to Mongolia. It was a bitter sweet moment for me, sad to see her go but, excited about what I would get to replace her.

Sean, moments before he headed off to Wales

The CRF250 Rally has been a fun little bike to own, we’ve spent many hours and over 5000 miles tootling around together. It’s also been a great little project upgrading the suspension, fitting the crash bars, skid plate and pannier frame along with many other little extras that turned the little bike into a true adventure machine. There’s a great CRF community online and it’s been fun sharing ideas with them all.

I will miss it for sure, although I won’t miss the bum killing seat!

Sean is a really nice guy, if you ever have the opportunity to meet up with him then do it, you won’t regret it. He’s a true biker gent and I hope we cross paths during our adventures to Mongolia and back. It would be great to ride some miles with him.

“So, what now?” I hear you say, well I’m not too sure … I have some thoughts on bikes that may meet my requirements and an even bigger list of bikes that won’t. Unfortunately there is no unicorn bike out there today, there are lots of bikes in the adventure sector but, none come close to the sub 140kg, 70hp unicorn that we’re all hunting for.

Can’t ride so let’s read!

I’ve been stuck in the U.K. lockdown for 5 weeks now and it’s starting to get a bit tedious to say the least.

The weather has been great, one of the warmest Spring times on record apparently. Having done various things about the house, tidied the garage, workshop, the cupboard under the stairs and chucked out all the junk we’ve collected over the years and never used, I’ve very little left to do apart from cook and eat which isn’t doing the waistline much good!

Having spent a good part of the weekend watching the The Side Car Guys on their Armchair Adventure Festival and enjoying all the talks by a number of well known motorcycle adventurers I was reminded of the books that my lovely wife bought for me at Christmas that I still haven’t read.

Not being a huge book reader as I tend to read most of the stuff that interests me online or via E-Books, I decided to take a look at what there was in the pile.

On the top of the pile was “In search of greener grass” by Graham Field that I have already read over half of but, had put it back on the pile as I found it to be incredibly boring and somewhat depressing. To me the book seemed full of moans and gripes and mentioned nothing of the places he’d visited or passed through. If you ever want to put someone off of adventure riding or travelling around the world then this is the book that will do it. Needless to say it was swiftly put to one side and will probably never get looked at again unless I’m really desperate.

The next book on the pile was “Lone Rider” by Elspeth Beard.

Having seen Elspeth Beard over the weekend during the online festival and being very taken by her honesty and stories of her travel it appealed to me immediately.

Sitting in the garden with my wife I started reading it. I soon fell in love with Elspeth’s way of writing, very honest and full of wit, her story started to unfold.

I’m now 7 chapters in, yes I’m not a fast reader, I tend to read a bit, put it down and digest it and then come back for a bit more. This is the way I roll and it works for me.

At just 22 years of age in the early 80’s when travelling was very different to now, her round the world trip doesn’t get off to a great start. Having to fend off sexual attacks and more, her adventure doesn’t go quite how she imagined but, her strength and resolve sees her through.

I’m currently in Australia with her as she’s about to move on from Sydney where she found work and got to put her architect skills to good use. I’m eagerly waiting to see what’s around the corner whilst at the same time hoping she finds the love she’s always struggling with.

I’ve still got a fair few chapters to go but, even at this point in the book I can recommend it based just on the first 7 chapters. If you like really honest writing that reads as if the person is telling you face to face then this could be a good read for you.

More soon …

Travel and Medical Insurance

Insurance is the biggest legal scam in the world but, we all need to have it for one reason or another and taking on a trip like the one I’m about to undertake definitely needs some sort of medical insurance as riding off-road for thousands of miles is fraught with potential accidents!

I’ve spent hours filling in forms on travel insurance websites and making calls to insurance providers trying to find the best option for my trip. Many of the companies I’ve spoken to bork the moment you mention ‘motorcycle’ and/or ‘off-road’ and others have no interest in insuring you for more than 30 days.

One company I did find will cover everything I need and didn’t bork or flinch at all no matter what I threw at them.

Navigator Travel Insurance Services Ltd. do have two specific policies for adventure riders that want to travel to regions of the world that are way outside of the norm.

Their Motorcycle Silver and Gold polices don’t come cheap, but they do cover a lot for the money and for a tiny additional fee you can have a policy with no excess. (Well worth doing!)

Note: I am in no way connected with Navigator Travel Insurance Services Ltd. I’m just putting it out there for those trying to arrange an adventure motorcycle trip.

The Russian Visa Application Centre

Today was the day that I went to the big city of London. I’ve not been there for a while and generally it’s a place I try my best to avoid after working there for far too many years.

My first port of call was to visit Timo Taal at the Almont Group visa agency to complete the paperwork and pay for the visa (See article below about Almont Group). It was great to finally meet Timo as we have conversed by phone and email many times but never face to face. I soon had all the paperwork done and headed off to the Russian Visa Application Centre to give my biometric information.

Upon arrival I was welcomed by big burly Russian gent who gave me a numbered ticket and asked me to take a seat in the waiting area. 30mins later my number popped up on the screen and I presented myself to the young lady sat behind the desk. She diligently went through my visa application forms that had been prepared by Timo previously and confirmed all was good. I then gave my biometric information as requested and was on my way. All done very politely and efficiently.

One thing I did notice during my time at the centre was the number of people turned away because of paperwork issues. This made me realise that it is well worth getting an agency to do all the paperwork in advance as they know exactly how to do things correctly, first time.

Since it’s not a cheap exercise, over £500 for a 12 month multi-entry visa, it is worth getting it done right.
Hopefully by the beginning of March 2020 I will have my Russian visa ready for the trip.

It’s just arrived!

After much debate, pontificating and research my latest tool for the trip has just arrived!

Garmin InReach Explorer+

I finally decided to purchase a Garmin InReach Explorer+ for the trip to Mongolia and back. It’s quite an initial investment which is then followed by considerable outlay for the satellite and SOS package but, my wife will be able to relax knowing I’ll have SOS support should I need it and she’ll be able to track my whereabouts 24/7. (And there I was thinking I’d escape for 6 months!)

I’ll write a more detailed article about setting up the device and purchasing the satellite package in the next few weeks.

Visas!

So I’m now in the process of organising the visas for the trip and what a minefield it has turned out to be.
What has become clear is that many of the visa agencies are geared up for your typical holiday visa only, when it comes to anything out of the ordinary, like a motorcycle trip for example, they really haven’t got a clue what they are talking about.

So after being being told many things including it’s not possible to ride a motorcycle in Russia, I have finally found a visa agency who not only knows what they are talking about but have arranged visas for motorcycle adventure trips many times before.

So, without further ado let me introduce you to Timo Taal at the Almont Travel Company in London.

Speaking to Timo on the phone he is an extremely knowledgable gent when it comes to visas. He took me through the entire process for the Russian visa explaining that a multiple entry business visa is what I need and that he has arranged them many a time for motorcyclists in the past without issue. He also advised me on the Mongolian visas and the best place to get it whilst enroute.

Unlike all the other visa people I spoke to, Timo really does know his stuff so, if you are wanting to get a visa for a motorcycle trip through Russia or anywhere else talk to him first.

His contact details are:

Mr. Timo Taal
Operations Manager
Almont Group
6 Snow Hill
London
EC1A 2AY
+44 (0)203 981 3000
http://almontvisas.co.uk/index.php

Be warned, the Russian visa doesn’t come cheaply!
Total cost will be almost UK£511.00, one of the most expensive visas in the world apparently!

A big thanks to Alex Nikonov of Motorcycle Tours In Russia for passing Timo’s contact information on to me.

I look forward to meeting you in Moscow Alex!