CHANCES are Depeche Mode have never set foot in Wester Ross, never mind motored their way across its interior. Neither, for that matter, will have The Rolling Stones. Or Chuck Berry, probably. And this is a regrettable oversight. Had they done so, musical history might have taken another turn entirely. Or so National Geographic is claiming – that renowned American journal for explorers which, somehow, finds its way into every dentist’s waiting room.
The publication has just listed what it considers the Best Drives on the Planet. Among them is Route 66, the legendary Main Street of America, running 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, praised in song by the artists named above, and many, many others. Another candidate is the Road to Applecross, or the Bealach Na Bà, a twisty 11-mile ribbon in the clouds that takes drivers from sea level almost to Munro height then back down again, to the shoreside village of Applecross. As the song nearly says: if you ever plan to motor west, take my way, the highway that’s the best: get your kicks on… an unclassified single-track road out of Lochcarron. Not quite the same ring.
Which isn’t to claim that the Bealach Na Bà doesn’t pull out all the stops, or possess some sense of its own scary majesty. From nearly 20 miles off you see it; or, rather, you see the vast ridges between which the road winds: titanic shoulder blades on the landscape, the upside-down proscenium arch of the Bealach Na Bà. You know this view without knowing you know it. It has become a device, a meme, a standard logo of Caledonia stern and wild, spotted on toffee boxes and tea towels, on film and television: it featured on the beat of Hamish Macbeth, where a road sign read “Narrow Road – No More than Three Sheep Abreast”.
The road, solicitously, does tend to get its warnings in early. Like a fairground ride stating you need to exceed a stipulated height, a big blue sign has been erected where the standard road ends and the Bealach Na Bà begins: “This road rises to a height of 2053 ft with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends,” it intones, then switches to shouty capitals “NOT ADVISED FOR LEARNER DRIVERS, LARGE VEHICLES OR CARAVANS.” Beneath is a second sign advising those in such categories to take the low road, via Shieldaig and Kenmore. It might as well be rendered in screaming pink, with little drawings of ponies.
The first mile of the Bealach Na Bà is a breeze; a pleasant tootle, nothing more daunting than a drive up the Mound, to a makeshift clearing-cum-car park, with views of the dinky Loch Kishorn below, harbouring its incongruous man-made, clanky little port. In the clearing are John and Lynn McCandlish. Retired now, from farming, they’re on holiday from Western Australia. There, they live in another Applecross, this one a suburb of Perth: “No bullshit!” says John. Over here on holiday, they’ve made the pilgrimage from Skye to see the original. John tried to fascinate the proprietor of the Applecross post office back home with news that they would be travelling 8,000 miles and still be in Applecross. The man in the post office said nothing. “Asians, you see,” he explains.
Undeterred by the warning signs, the McCandlishes are travelling in a mini mobile home. John isn’t worried; back home he has a familiarity with 4x4s; if called to, though why would he be, he could drive up a brick wall. Both of them, in fact, exhibit that bluff Aussie allergy to worry. This is merely a sentimental journey, Lynn says, pursued from mild curiosity about the coincidence rather than from any sense of automotive bravado: “Hey, the sign said nothing about camper vans,” says Lynn, with a colonial’s disingenuousness. “If bringing a camper van up here was a problem they should have written it on the sign. They didn’t. Happy days.”
“I’ll tell you,” John says, scrutinising his surroundings “For the country that invented Tarmacadam you sure don’t like using much of the stuff.” He’s referring to two things: the tired, pot-holed desuetude of the road surface, and its narrowness. It was constructed in 1822, formalising the Pass of the Cattle, an ancient droving route used to transport beasts that had swum over from Raasay to the 24-hour psychedelic go-go hotspot of Kishorn. Until the early 1950s, much of the road was gravel, meaning snow could not be cleared effectively, returning Applecross to its stranded “island” state. Anyone in the village wishing to travel by rail from Kyle, ten miles from here, needed to row out to meet the Stornoway ferry, travel there then catch a ferry to Kyle.
Just ahead lies one of the road’s greatest hits, a series of hairpin bends that zig-zag up the mountainside and that, from above, must resemble a tarmac Toblerone. In the rear-view mirror I see John and Lynn negotiate them with the concentration of an Aberdonian cutting out coupons from The People’s Friend. It’s like watching Kerry Katona perform mental arithmetic, such is the intensity of the couple’s focus. When the bends finish we take a seat by the road and watch as the McCandlishes attempt to defeat gravity by force of will.
We’re up in Alpine territory now, where care and experience are all that stand between the motorist and a solemn Highland funeral. There are crash barriers, of course, but they’re spindly things that look like mounted lengths of metallic toffee. And they’re dented, to an extent that’s really quite concerning. They’re preferable, however, to what they replaced. Until as late as the 1990s, drivers were insulated from the road’s more treacherous drops by stretches of drystone wall.
When the McCandlishes have passed, there comes a wave of leather-clad bikers, seven of them, members of the Ariel Owner’s Club, dedicated to the appreciation of all things vintage and screamingly powerful. They’re stopping because John Brewster’s is “pinking”. There’s nothing a biker enjoys more than sucking his teeth in the general direction of malfunctioning machinery. Pinking is the term used when a bike’s air/fuel mixture is altered at higher altitude and it causes riders to remove their big black helmets and mope.
With members from all around Britain, the club tries to pop by Bealach Na Bà once a year; it’s on their annual to-do list. This year saw an Ariel rally in Edinburgh; this is the informal, après-rally works outing: “Yeah, it’s all right,” says Peter Barclay from Edinburgh, “but one of the best drives in the world? I mean, why is it better than one of the real Alpine roads in Switzerland, or some of the less well-known roads in Ireland? The Applecross road can be really good but you need the weather. If the cloud comes down you’ll see nothing.”
“Very similar to the Pyrenees, I thought,” says Brewster, from Sussex. “I mean, I enjoyed it, it was a good route, but in biking terms I don’t know if the National Geographic thing is merited. It’s a very good British ride, but I wouldn’t say world class. I think the Americans just have a soft spot for anything Scottish.”
There’s a car park at the highest point of Bealach Na Bà; over there, you could walk among low cloud as though it were towels on a washing line. They’ve held car boot sales here. It’s a stopping point in an annual charity event in which a small RNLI lifeboat is hauled from Applecross to Kishorn, like some scene from Fitzcarraldo. A triangulation point with a plaque explains the landscape, with Plockton, Kyle of Lochalsh then Skye to the north-west. On the rocks all around visitors have arranged piles of stones into small pagoda-like structures; they’re everywhere, a weird carpet of tiny peaks. Dan McCrae is a contractor working for ALPS, the serendipitously-acronymed Applecross Landscape Partnership Scheme, which maintains the 70,000-acre Applecross estate. He’s here to erect a stone memorial seat: “In the world? Really? But it’s just a road. You don’t get midgies up here; too cold, too high. I thought that was our claim to fame.”
Jayne Mock and Piers Jenkins from Acton, west London were holidaying on Skye when a Danish couple took them aside and advised them not to miss Bealach Na Bà: “They were very insistent,” says Jayne. “I mean, I’d never heard of it, but we figured that if it meant that much to them we really ought to come. And it’s brilliant, it’s lovely – it reminds me a bit of the mountains in The Italian Job.”
Up here, you can tell who the tourists are. The locals acknowledge courtesy on the road by wearily hoisting from the wheel a single finger; the incomers give full, energetic waves with open palms. Applecross itself is a displaced corner of Hampstead; the car park of the chi-chi gastro Inn is filled with Audis and Chelsea tractors. The Inn is the very definition of a destination restaurant, in that it provides one of the few reasons for coming, besides the road that brought you here. All those you’ve met on the road congregate here, children, bikers and pensioners; the car park’s like a party broadcast for the Lib Dems. Getting here represents a set of nice little brief reunions. Each traveller, in their way, is testimony to one of life’s truest axioms: that what matters most isn’t the destination but the journey. We bump into the McCandlishes, and their indomitable camper van. They got here hours ahead of us. Now for the road back.«