SMALLER BIKE, BIGGER ADVENTURE
Classic Bike reader Martin Kirk tells how he tackled Scotland’s NC500 on a 1964 BSA Bantam
The NC500, a 500-mile route around the north coast of Scotland, has become popular with bikers. When I did it there were a lot of them, many on a BMW R1200GS. But that seemed like overkill – I wanted to tackle it on a lightweight classic, with no traction control, lean-angle sensors or suspension adjustment... and hardly any brakes.
Yes, I wanted to do it on a 1964 BSA Bantam. With no satnav. That’s a recipe for a proper adventure! I loaded up with camping gear and set off from my Aberdeenshire home on my 1964 D7 (fitted with a 1967 D10 engine) in dry weather, heading for the start point, Inverness Castle. The Bantam was humming along nicely until about 30 miles out, when I suddenly realised the A4 plastic wallet bungeed to the top of my luggage roll, and containing all my route details, had gone. Nothing for it but to turn round and hunt for it; luckily I found it after half a mile.
My first fuel stop was after 54 miles – the Bantam’s eight-litre tank is bone dry in 88 miles, making any mileage over 70 from the last fill-up a nervy affair. With fuel stops few and far between in northern Scotland it was safer to fill up every 60 miles.
I started off at the Bantam’s steady 50mph chug and soon it began to drizzle. By lunch at Lochcarron it was soaking west Scotland rain. Never mind, the infamous Bealach Na Ba road with one in five hills was only six miles away, and I was looking forwards to the challenge.
The old girl made it no problem, albeit in first gear for the top section. Once over the top, I stopped to take a photo of Applecross Bay. What seemed like snow was actually midges, so I was itching all the way down for a coffee stop at Applecross.
The stunning coastline to Shieldaig through Glen Torridon to Kinlochewe took me to my overnight campsite in Gairloch. I woke the following morning still in rain for the ride north to Durness. The roads from Gairloch are a bit faster (on a fast bike) and finally, a short way onto the insanely bendy (and hilly) single-track road past Clachtoll, the rain stopped and the roads dried.
Travelling north on the A894/838 the scenery becomes progressively ‘lunar’, and riding through it on any bike is a great feeling. By Scourie I’d done 48 miles since the last fill up, and with both pay pumps occupied by adventure bike riders, I decided to carry on to the next petrol pump at Durness, 24 miles further on, which would still only take me a couple of miles over my 70 mile ‘safe’ limit.
Bad decision. As I pulled up at the pumps a guy in the shop doorway made a ‘cut throat’ signal. The pump electrics had failed again, so with roughly 15-16 miles in the tank there was no fuel for 24 miles south or 32 miles north. I’d spotted a plant hire firm on the way into Durness and thought I’d try them, but no joy. However the guy couldn’t have been more helpful as he phoned round five or six people until eventually a woman came down with three litres in a can, intended for her lawnmower. I gave her a tenner as it saved a big push; just goes to show how friendly and obliging folk are in this part of the world.
I overnighted on the busy scenic clifftop campsite at Durness, which has a concrete path directly into the pub next door. Not so bad after all.
The next part of the route towards Tongue is very scenic and quite undulating with some deceptively steep hills. The further east the flatter and more windswept the scenery becomes, before John O’groats, and a stop for lunch and the obligatory photograph.
After that, the Bantam was humming along at a steady 50mph, or even a heady 55 in places. Then, during a break at a café in Helmsdale, I noticed the right hand swingarm bolt stuck in the grease on the side of the swingarm! I secured it with Loctite, then carried on to my last overnight stop at a glorious campsite in the Dornoch sand dunes.
It was bright and sunny for the final ride into Inverness. Apart from the lights no longer working, a bit of a leak from the petrol pipe and some (expected) intermittent running, all was well with the Bantam.
The guys at the good oldfashioned BRC Motorcycles at Muir of Ord fixed the petrol leak for three quid (including a free coffee).
After 550 miles, I arrived back at Inverness Castle. The Bantam had conquered the NC500 without major incident. OK, I got a puncture on the way home, but that’s another story...
Top: Intrepid Martin Kirk and his trusty Bantam, primed to take on 500 miles of Scottish coast roads
Above: The start and finish point of the NC500 route – Inverness Castle