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Day seventeen: Twists, turns, tornadoes and close encounters

Day seventeen: Twists, turns, tornadoes and close encounters
Posted on January 6th

Helmsdale might sound like the setting for a glorious final battle, somewhere deep inside Tolkien’s Middle Earth; but for me, it marked a mighty victory in a long line of battles in rural Scotland. As we awoke in the Bannockburn Inn (also a little Hobbitish sounding) carpark on day seventeen (another Brit Stop pub) it was with an enormous sense of achievement at completing the previous mammoth day.

It seems an obvious observation, but starting on a high can go one of two ways (even better or downhill) and in most cases that is a choice you make, not a hand that is dealt. As it turned out, this day would be one of the most memorable adventures of all: for a whole host of reasons. It was almost as if it had been taken from the pages of an epic fantasy novel.

The day started early, as had done pretty much every day for the previous two weeks, with a steady cycle ride. This one was a mere 46km before tucking into a tasty bacon butty or two for breakfast at Dornoch Golf Course

Look Mike! Look at the seals!

After breakfast, Mike joined me for a gentle run along the beach towards what would turn out to be both a challenging and entertaining swim. As we entered the water to cross the Dornoch Firth, we hadn’t spotted the abundance of more naturally equipped residents watching our every move. Being his first swim since he’d joined me Mike was a little wary of even attempting the 2km stretch of open water, The tide was coming in; which was good from a safety point of view, but bad from a distance perspective. So we started swimming, and before very long we had company…

It was a real thrill to see so many seals in such close vicinity as they bobbed between us, eager to learn more about these strange fish in their midst. A few even jumped clear out of the water, creating enormous waves and splashes, and I wasn’t sure if this was a warning or them simply showing off. I was just excited to be there and take in such a first-hand spectacle. When I turned to share my joyed expression with Mike, he was simply focussed on the far shore, and talking about his desire to see his family just one more time… and being anywhere but here!

Needless to say, we arrived safely, and Mike quickly regained his sense of humour alongside his keenness to get further along the beach.

Ready, aim, fire!

As we ran along the beach on the other side, more curiosities kept emerging from the sand. These features were neither animal or mineral but seemed to be relics of a war-torn, long abandoned past. After we had identified one such structure as a small tank and the next looked suspiciously like an unexploded shell (of the bomb variety) it soon became clear that we had wandered onto a military firing range.

When we finally managed to get reception on the phone to check with Tony, he informed us that it was a Tornado Strike Beach and there were red flags out indicating that it probably wasn’t a good place to be at that time. That’s what happens when you enter an area through an unofficial channel rather than the ‘normal’ people’s entrance!

After the excitement of the bombed up beach, we cycled another 25km and from there had a lovely long and leisurely kayak from Balnapaling down to Fort George – we even stopped for a floating lunch on the way.

Storming the fort…

Arriving at our destination, I had, for some reason, assumed that the very impressive looking fortress looming above us was no longer used – so we just wandered in. Once again we were approaching the structure from an unusual angle, not the standard tourist’s or resident’s entrance and it was no wonder we drew a few curious looks.

Bizarrely, not one of the uniformed soldiers or captains questioned why two wetsuit-clad, kayak carrying nomads, were wandering through the home of Scotland’s famous Black Watch Battalion – we could have been anyone.

Mike left from Fort George and caught a plane back to London; while I got back on my bike for a lonesome 86km on to my next overnight stop at Findochty. It had been a truly great day; full of surprises, twists, turns and close encounters: but it ended with a tinge of sadness at seeing Mike’s departure.