We set out from Utah over a month ago. We said our farewells and hopped on a plane, one carry-on sized roller bag each, one shared large backpack, and a small carry-on pack each. All our worldly possessions in those bags. It was a bittersweet parting, but the world has become our oyster, and we plan to explore it for a few years. Our goal is to find somewhere we can settle down for a while, but never long enough for the grass to grow under our feet.
Our first stop was Ireland, an incredibly enchanting isle, full of wonderful food, drink, music and genuinely kind people. The scenery was jaw dropping gorgeous, the roads narrow and windy. We rented a camper van from Indie Campers out of Dublin…once a van lifer it’s so hard to break away from the freedom it affords. Our challenge…driving on the left side of the road, in a right hand drive stick shift.
I, being the navigator, was also reminding Chris to turn left stay left and turn right stay left as well. I’d say that after 5 days, she developed the muscle memory it takes to take on manning the controls on her own. For the next few weeks I still had my place not only getting us were we needed to be safely, I gradually returned the turn signals to her. She did splendidly, even coming to complete stops when a large truck or bus was barreling down on us. Next came the round-about or traffic circle. There were normally 3 to 5 exists out of each one it was just picking what one would take you where you needed to go. Mostly we had GPS to tell us where to go. I would sit with my arm out like a compass needle pointing our way through each and operating the turn signal as Chris shifted. What a team we made!
I think what I loved the most about this fine country, was the architecture and the accompanying tales of the families over hundreds of years. Some buildings were built as far back as 1200. Tales of Vikings, Norse, Kings, and many other European invaders and religious conquests.
Political and religious history all incredibly fascinating, and standing in front of you was the building that saw all this history and still stood tall. Generations upon generations of land ownership and the hard work it took to eek out a living. Stories of whole villages wiped out by famine, war or plague. The flight of millions across uncharted waters to the New World of America. Strong and proud people.
Scotland was our next stop. We had made no plans except to rent another van and see where it took us. After the first few days in Ireland, we were in a bit of a panic about driving for another two weeks. Our initial plan was to drive the 515 +/- miles around the North Coast 500. It is a windy, mostly single track, paved road that hugged the north west coast all the way to the most northern tip of Scotland and back down the north east coast. We had seen pictures of the roads, but it was the scenery that was the biggest pull.
When we picked up the van we were thoroughly convinced that we didn’t have the driving skills, or perhaps courage, to take it on, so we began to make other plans. We made our way to Inverness, the start of the NC500 and booked a pitch at a wonderful campground. It was here that an older British man in a camper asked us if we were going to drive the NC500? I stood there as he explained the beauty and the chance to see huge cliffs and mountains. He was so convincing that we could do it, we had to give it a go.
The North Coast 500 started out as a big 4 lane road that meandered through bright yellow fields of grape seed farms, shaggy cows and fields of sheep grazing on the intensely green fields. The first real choice is whether to drive clockwise or anti-clockwise. We chose to do it clockwise so we could get a little more time driving under our belt before we tackled the 12-15% grades on the most northern end. This proved to be a wise move since most do it anti-clockwise. The roads quickly became narrow with a soft side, if at all. We were happy that the Scots weren’t as rock wall happy as the Irish and we didn’t feel that we’d take out the side of the van.
Passing became a common occurrence. It was quite simple really. One vehicle coming would pull off in a ‘passing place’ and flash their lights signaling to the oncoming driver to pass as they waited. This meant that you not only needed to pay attention to the road, but also look further ahead, sometimes a mile. The worst was the big truck, of which we didn’t pass many the first few days. They owned the roads and would rarely even slow down when passing and hardly ever stopped for you to pass. The tour buses as well would take their half out of the middle and some. We found both quite rude. There was one road right off that cautioned campers not to use it and an alternate route, 17 miles out of the way, was recommended. We sided on caution and the drive was spectacular. At the end of everyday of driving tho, Chris was spent. A cold beer was always waiting in the fridge.
Wild camping is allowed in Scotland. There are only a few rules. Don’t block and entrance or road, don’t park in a passing place and mind private property. We didn’t make any reservations hoping we could access some of these wild camping areas. We passed by several lovely pull offs that other campers had chosen but never did wild camp. Mainly because we didn’t want to use the toilet in the van to do anything but pee. The second reason was the fridge in the van ran off the batteries if not plugged in. Our van we built had solar so wild camping for weeks was not an issue. Here tho, if the fridge drew down the battery, there was no AAA or roadside assistance that could bail you out. Established campgrounds cost between €\£ 24-38 a night and all had running water and electric hook ups. This gave us peace-of-mind but also an added expense we didn’t plan on. So be it…from that first night on we made reservations.
We gave ourselves 9 days to do the whole route. By the time we reached Ullapool on the middle west coast however, the roads were getting steeper and the traffic heavier. We chose to head an hour and a half, which really meant 2-3 hours and set out across the middle to Golspie. From there we headed up to the north anti-clockwise, to John O’Groats and Dunnet Bay for a 2 night stay. The huge cliffs were a rookery for seabirds and wind swept green grasses grew right up to the tops, creating an incredibly stark contrast. We camped at Dunnet Bay right at the edge of the sea and nestled in the grass covered dunes. The next morning we set off for the Northern most part of Scotland for an obligatory photo shoot by the John ‘O Groats pole, then headed back down to Inverness and back across to Edinburgh.
The next morning we turned in the van for good. After driving in Ireland and Scotland for a month, it is time to move on to our next stop. Portugal!