I’m not the ideal travelling partner when it comes to going by car. For one thing, I can’t drive, and seeing as I’m partially sighted, I’m not exactly gifted as a navigator. I can, however, put up a tent, and I will exchange a bleached toilet for a secluded hedge without complaint.
My best friend, Georgina, is a much firmer believer in the principle that there is no decent life without hot running water, so I don’t deny it’s odd that we agreed to go on a camping roadtrip. The explanation is simple, however. We were both in dire financial straits.
We purchased a bright blue tent, online, for £20, which advertised itself as a festival kit, including polyester sleeping bags and the worst groundsheets of all time. For transport, we found a dubious car rental which overlooked the fact that Georgina had written off her first car. Our supplies were from Tesco, and we started our journey thoroughly impressed by our budgeting skills.
There are days when I truly wonder how we survived. I am no believer, but I’m certain that there must have been some higher power looking out for us as we rattled our way out of Glasgow. Armed with two sat navs and a large map – the sort that unfolds, and can never again be folded back into its original sleeve – we were unsure to say the least.
Hands white on the wheel, and in constant need of reassurance that we were not about to die, Georgina got us out of the city, and we set off towards our start point on the North Coast 500 route, which would take us in a circle around the Scottish Highlands.
Given how terrifying our experience of inner-city driving had been, we elected to skip Inverness, and instead spent our first night in the village of Contin, which can accurately be described as a place no one has ever heard of.
The campsite was actually a field by a river. Not exactly luxury, but a sight better than another mile on the road. We set up the tent, and spent the evening with a Chinese takeaway, pondering how far we were from anything, and anyone, we knew.
There’s something to be said for the wilderness. True, there is little comfort in the feeling of a rock pressing against your hip, or in the sound of insects scuttling along the tent walls, but there is a kind of freedom in being away from everything. With a friend for company, the dark night and its sublime mysteries hold little fear. All the world seems alive and waiting to be discovered, and the possibility of getting lost is an exciting one.
Complete with a starry sky and delicate breeze, it was perfect, at least after the rain stopped, and before Georgina started snoring.
We set off the next day with no fixed plans other than survival, and the road took us west to the coast. The sky was full of blanketing cloud, and it was grey. We listened to Frank Turner, and the radio when we could catch a signal.
Most of the time, we were alone on the road. There was something dystopian about it, the picture of us in our little silver car chugging through the empty landscape. The only sign of human presence was the winding ribbon of the road, but I remember we were happy, delighted by our own daring in being there, on the rugged west coast.
The harsh wind there was endured only by scattered flocks of hardy sheep, and the hills were peopled by grey rocks and gurgling streams. The handful of houses we saw were mostly abandoned cottages, defiantly begging their right to exist, even as the landscape threatened to swallow them whole.
It was elemental, and beautiful.
I will be honest and tell you that Georgina and I were not good campers. We spent our trip leapfrogging from one supermarket to the next, and lacked the expertise to keep the tent from dampening the back of the car. Thanks to a dodgy handbrake, we had more than one heart-stopping parking incident, and we were poor planners. The more vexing results were a twenty-three mile drive to find an ATM, and an extremely frustrating hunt for the most disappointing castle of all time.
We even argued, and it was awful, but the Highlands felt, in places, like being on the edge of the world. We saw the sea at dusk from John-O-Groats, drank ‘the best hot chocolate in the world’ (I beg to differ), and through rain and wind and wild places, we found our way.
I don’t think either of us will ever say that the Highlands roadtrip was our best holiday, but it was an adventure we undertook together, and I still smile, whenever I think of it.
Note: The route Georgina and I followed is the North Coast 500, which is described as ‘Scotland’s answer to Route 66’. If you’re interested, you can find more details about it on the official site here.