towards Applecross – taking on the Bealach na Ba

A perfect ride – what did it take?

Riding Towards Shadows Appplecross Amazon Nellie Merthe Erkenbach

Riding Towards Shadows Appplecross Amazon Nellie Merthe ErkenbachFun, for a start. And sun, not to forget. Me and my bike and some stunning scenery – that was a perfect ride for me. No breakdowns, no annoying cars, not a soul in sight. Just summer and the coconut smell of Scottish gorse, a sea breeze and a powerful engine roaring through the wilderness. And the riding was easy indeed. Added to that a little treat – a fruit scone, home-made jam and cream when the road took me back into civilisation. Perfect. And I had just the idea, where to find all that.

There was a slight breeze from the sea as I was getting ready for the trip. When I am alone I sometimes talk to my bike and I did that, telling her where we would head out for today. A seagull was crying out in protest when I started the engine. Once I was past the dodgy gravel of the driveway the sky was the limit. After about an hour I had my fist stop. I needed a coffee to warm me up. Even though the sun was out it was still fairly cold.

Riding Towards Shadows Appplecross Amazon Nellie Merthe Erkenbach

I was at Plockton, looking very Scottish but somehow it was very English (at least by the accents you heard) and very touristy but also very beautiful. The views across the water were fabulous, just the perfect place to stop for a coffee. I also felt rather hungry and ordered a bacon roll to go with my latte. Looking out towards the bay and the harbour, I was determined to come back to Scotland to live; just me and my Harley. I should never have left in the first place. It just felt right to be here.  I belonged here. Even after Rob’s death, I did. Home is where the heart is they say, my heart most certainly was here. I even had friends here still, like Ewan, who seemed a real friend already, and I would find more, I was sure of that. It had always been easy to find friends in Scotland

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Riding-Towards-Shadows-Nellie-Erkenbach-ebook/dp/B07KCJ6TDL/I had parked the bike at the wee harbour, watching the boats on the water I got dressed to take on the next part of the journey. Funny how Ewan has always seen me as a biker, he had never questioned the woman part of it. I had a bike and I hung out with the Blue Angels, so I was a biker for him. As if in his world there was no sexism or prejudice. I liked that. I certainly wanted his respect and I did not want to overstay my welcome, I had to face going back to Glasgow soon. I wanted Rob to be proud of me and I wanted to do things right. With one last look over Plockton harbour I started the engine, it was time to say good bye soon.

But until then I had a wonderful day ahead of me, it was not even lunchtime, the sun was out, and I was heading for Applecross and the most challenging road Scotland has to offer for bikers. A steep single tracker that takes you all the way up to the cattle pass, the Bealach na Bà, winding up in tight hairpin bends where a long fork would find its limits. Since my HD was so new she was still pretty original and therefore an ideal bike to take on the challenge, reliable and nimble. But my, that was a challenge nevertheless.

Riding Towards Shadows Appplecross Amazon Nellie Merthe ErkenbachApproaching the climb coming from Lochcarron you saw a huge sign warning caravans and unsuitable vehicles before you passed the bright orange snow gates. They were open. At first the road took you leisurely up the hill, then it tightened slowly into a single-track road which means no two vehicles can pass each other, nor can a bike and a car, it was that tight. Passing places were used for that and often one of the cars meeting had to reverse. If you did not like reversing with a steep, unfenced drop right next to the roadside, well then you are having a problem. Being a biker, I was safe there, no reversing for me. I was lucky, there were hardly any cars coming towards me on my way up and I could drink in this fantastic view of the Torridon Mountains ahead and the sea and the steep climb behind me. These were the most awe inspiring and challenging ten miles of road in Scotland. There was no way I was going to miss them.

Riding Towards Shadows Appplecross Amazon Nellie Merthe Erkenbach

Rock broke the surface of the ground in many places, there were not trees and little growth. A rocky green and brown barrenness all the way up to 626 meters. It didn’t seem a lot but since it rose from sea level it felt more massive. In places like this you could feel alone and very small. The crofters of old would take their cattle along this pass, hence the name. No fun especially in winter or bad weather. And you certainly did not want to be caught out by fog or strong winds on a bike.

Riding Towards Shadows Appplecross Amazon Nellie Merthe Erkenbach

I had been fine going up but encountered a few rather tricky situations on the way down. Cars that would not reverse to the next passing place (No, I can NOT reverse up the hill!) or moments where I had to hit the brakes on this road full of gravel and the back wheel started overtaking. But I managed all these tricky moments nicely and once I had made my way down the pass into Applecross I could rest outside the Inn in the sun with a beer watching the sparkling sea. Yep. I made it.

Life couldn’t get better than this.

Riding Towards Shadows Appplecross Amazon Nellie Merthe Erkenbach

Riding back, I took the route along the coast from Applecross towards Shieldaig, a more serene beauty this time. The sun was shining, and the Scots Pine trees gave the scenery a touch of Mediterranean sweetness. The gorse framed roads were winding and climbing and falling but once you got the rhythm it was a fantastic ride. I felt one with my bike, the road and my life. This was where this whole trip had taken me. This was, what I had hoped for. I was here, right at this moment in time and I was happy. I changed gear and with a roar accelerated towards the horizon.

I felt free.

 

This is a chapter out of my new book Riding Towards Shadows, available on Amazon.

 

Advertisements

extract from “Riding Towards Shadows”

I woke up and the weather was utterly miserable. Of course it was! A thousand miles ahead of me and all the sky could think of was bloody rain. I left at 7am; the downpour was heavy, we had 13° Celsius  as I was heading north, straight towards my past. I started the engine and carefully drove down the steep and slippery driveway, a rush of pride running through my body. I was actually doing this, not just planning, I was really doing this. I quickly let down the visor so it didn’t have raindrops on the inside. The journey had begun. I was riding on memory lane.

Half an hour later my euphoria was gone completely. My hands were soaking wet. After years and years of wearing traditional leather gloves, I had opted for fancy high-tech super fibre Gore-Tex ones last winter. A lot of rubbish they were and soaking wet already, so were my feet in my cowboy boots. Wet through and through. You have to fight it, I decided. And I did. I didn’t even care that I burnt a big hole in my rainproof right at the very first petrol station because I came too close to the exhaust. Idiotic beginner’s fault! I hadn’t been paying attention. I was just off the motorway and spotted a DIY market across the road, decided to go in and bought a pair of working gloves. At least I’d have something to change then. Although they were of course not waterproof either. Had a coffee in the McDonald’s and enjoyed the eyes of the craftsmen in for their breakfast. You could see the questions in the face of almost every single one of them: She’s not on her own, is she? But what is she doing? Where is she going? But they didn’t ask, maybe they were afraid of answers.

Back on the bike I was greeting every little stretch of dry road with real happiness. I was not prepared to let my spirits drop and sang away under the cover of the helmet. Why do we always sing really strange songs on the bike? I opted for old fashioned songs like Summertime and my living was easy, I was sort of preparing for the dry Scottish sense of humour in all the wet misery where the only changes nature had to offer were different shades of grey.

Riding a bike is a much more intensive way of travelling than driving a car. It is noisier, colder, your back starts to hurt fairly soon. But when the weather dries up and the sun comes through – it can be real happiness, a joy you never really experience in a car. Not with the windows down. Not even in a convertible.

I had opted for a route through Holland and Belgium. I remembered vaguely that there was a ferry from Oostende. It was not signposted very well, but I found it. Unfortunately, the next ferry was due in a few hours’ time and it took four hours more to cross from here compared to Calais. It would be much too late to find a place to stay in Dover, so I chose to drive another extra hour to Calais and take the ferry from there. The wind along the coast was murder so I consequently tried to hide behind Polish lorries. Not very successfully, though. But I made it in the end and waited in windy queue number 900 for an hour to catch the late ferry. I felt a certain sense of pride. I had made it so far, a little over 500 miles. I was as wet and as tired as I had been 21 years ago and not a tiny little bit more comfortable. I had travelled alone then, too. All I had then was one address that of a fellow student who had left for Glasgow earlier than me and had already found a room. That had been my reason to go to Glasgow twenty years ago, a grant for Glasgow University. That young student of old was now a successful TV journalist and had other reasons for the trip but I was a biker still.

Would Rob love me now, the woman I had become? Was I still the woman he had seen in me?

In the pub on the ferry I sat down with a lager shandy, an egg and cress sandwich and some crisps. A few Dutch bikers sat close, nearer the windows. They nodded but did not come over to talk. That had certainly been different on my first trip to Glasgow, but why? Because there were more bikers about and the tradition of being open and communicative had changed or because I had changed? Did I look more tough and forbidding? Well, I am certainly not a young girl anymore. And people seemed to have a problem with unaccompanied middle-aged women. It is a non-standard form of behaviour. People seem to find it difficult to come to terms with non-standard forms of behaviour. They do not find it interesting, they find it disturbing.

The announcement came, we were in the Port of Dover already and asked to proceed to our vehicles. I did. There were about 12 bikes on the ferry. All racers. The Dutch guys, a small English group who did not look left or right never mind greet, and a Manx group talking races. We were all crammed together in a line, bikes secured with straps provided. In my fear of seeing my bike on the floor rather than standing once in Dover because of her not so stable side stand, I had strapped her tight, real tight. So tight, I had to muster all my strength and I still couldn’t get that bloody thing off. The lock had jammed.

I turned round and said: “Hey guys, can one of you give me a hand?”

They were there with the speed of light, started pulling and poking and cursing but they would rather have lost a few fingers than admit failure. It took them some time, but they managed to get my Harley free. I thanked them and looked into two big grins. My need for help had made them happy.

I had not liked to ask. A matter of pride I guess. But staying behind, strapped tight to the ferry, wouldn’t have looked much cooler, would it?

But still I felt more “girlie” than I was happy with.

I still felt fit enough to drive although it was already 10 pm on my inner clock and the shandy had made me sleepy. I cruised along the deserted waterfront looking for a room; I hadn’t pre-booked as I hadn’t done then. I ended up a few miles away in Folkstone in a cheap and formerly glorious Grand Hotel run by some Spaniards from the Canary Islands who made me think of Manuel in Fawlty Towers. The hotel didn’t feel English and was certainly not clean in the lobby. The room was all right though, I was too tired to care. All I wanted was a shower and a bed. I took a shower and enjoyed the feeling of hot water running down my back immensely. I went to bed straight away, with my hair still wet. That is the good thing about travelling on a bike – you do not have to worry about the state of your hair. It will always be a mess, whatever you do.

Before I fell asleep my thought drifted back to my first trip. I remember meeting some English biker on the ferry and following his bike when we came to Dover. He knew where rooms could be had; it had been late then, too. Can’t remember a name or face, just the kindness he had shown to a stranger.