What the North Coast 500 has in common with Everest

While I was travelling in Scotland last May I was interested to read an article in the Guardian about the North Coast 500, a vehicle route that has become one of Scotland’s most popular tourist destinations.

The North Coast 500 is a 516-mile road trip that loosely follows the coastline around the far north-west of Scotland. It was invented by the North Highland Initiative (NHI), an organisation set up by Prince Charles as a way of boosting tourism in the Scottish Highlands. The North Coast 500 is now marketed by a commercial company called (that’s right) North Coast 500 Ltd, whose swanky website promoting the route invites you to pop your credit card details in at nearly every click.

When travelling in north-west Scotland, it's important to know how to use passing places
When travelling in north-west Scotland, it’s important to know how to use passing places

Most people potter around the North Coast 500 in camper vans, on Harley-Davidsons and, in some cases, in cars, stopping off at points of interest along the way. The route has also become popular with people who enjoy cycle touring and endurance athletes who like to pedal round in a minimum time.

I don’t enjoy cycle touring and neither am I an endurance athlete (no shit), but the article was of interest to me because Edita and I cycled the whole of the North Coast 500 in 2017 as a warm up (or in my case meltdown) to our Chimborazo sea-to-summit challenge, an adventure that forms the basis of my latest book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo.

But anyway, I don’t know if the directors of North Coast 500 Ltd are now multi-millionaires with private jets who have been able to retire to villas on Hawaii or some other such place with better weather than Scotland, but if the popularity of the route they have been paid to market is any indicator then they have probably bought Hawaii by now.

The North Coast 500 was only invented in 2015, that’s only 1,460 days ago. While this is ample time to turn the United Kingdom from one of the world’s most highly respected and stable democracies into a banana republic and international laughing stock, it’s a relatively short period in global marketing terms.

Yet the report in the Guardian cited some research commissioned by the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) in 2017, two years after the North Coast 500 was invented. The research concluded that visitor numbers had increased by 26%, and an extra 29,000 tourists had spent an additional £9 million in the area. Accommodation providers and visitor attractions had reported a 15-20% increase in trade, and it was estimated that demand for labour had created more than 200 jobs.

The report also highlighted some challenges, including maintenance of the route; ensuring sufficient parking, waste facilities and public toilets; and initiatives to encourage better driving.

In other words, the North Coast 500 had been a roaring success and everyone involved could give themselves a pat on the back. It had even spawned five chapters of my book, writing that I hope will provide many of you with several hours of side-splitting mirth. There was, however, still work to be done – which there always is.

Highland cattle: you can wave, but for god's sake don't stop to take a photograph
Highland cattle: you can wave, but for god’s sake don’t stop to take a photograph

Fast forward two years and the North Coast 500 has become even more popular, but the Guardian, being a news outlet, chose not to see extra visitor numbers and a thriving economy as something to celebrate. The article, entitled Speeding, congestion and protest: the dark side of Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, consisted chiefly of a series of interviews with locals moaning about tourists.

‘There’s a sense among locals that the situation is going to get worse this summer. We’ve already had a much busier April and May than expected,’ said one woman from Bettyhill (the location – I can testify – of the North Coast 500’s shittest campsite).

This particular lady was the owner of the village store, so you might expect her to consider a busy April and May as a good thing. But as we know only too well these days, if you give people guns, many of them won’t bother to find out what a gun is for, and will instead choose to point them at their own feet and go bang.

Many parts of the North Coast 500 use Scotland’s infamous single track roads, highways that aren’t designed for large amounts of traffic. As their name implies, these aren’t wide enough for two vehicles to pass, so every hundred metres or so there are passing places, tiny bays large enough for two stationary vehicles.

A common theme of the article is that tourists in camper vans don’t know how to drive properly on these roads.

‘The tourists don’t know how to use the roads,’ said one local. ‘They don’t understand how to use passing places, and if someone doesn’t let you overtake, you’re stuck driving at 20-30 miles an hour on a road you know well … the tourists will stop suddenly because they’ve seen a Highland cow and want to take a picture.’

I don’t know what the world is coming to if people think they can stop their car to photograph a cow.

“There’s an extraordinary number of camper vans on the roads. They’re mostly rented in Inverness, so people have no idea how to drive them … you have four or five of them driving in convoy, and if they meet something coming the other way the whole road comes to a halt,’ said another chap, who took to Twitter to complain that he’d seen five camper vans parking in the same lay-by (five camper vans, heaven forbid).

Another complaint was that being a road trip, the North Coast 500 encourages tourists to move on every night. This behaviour was described as “crippling” for B&B owners because they have to change the sheets every night. I’m not kidding, they actually used the word “crippling”. Heaven knows how exhausting it must be for restaurant owners, who have to wash the plates after every course.

Then there was a local councillor who complained of being ‘sick of seeing human faeces by the side of the road’. Of course, shitting by the side of the road is disgusting, but this comment conjures up images of giant mounds of poo piling up in gateways. In reality, I don’t recall seeing so much as a single stool as we cycled along. Is this really a huge problem or was she exaggerating?

The reference to human faeces also reminded me of another location close to my heart: Everest. And then I thought about it a bit more, and I realised the whole article has much in common with Everest reporting.

If you believe what you read in the media, you can be forgiven for thinking that there are mounds of human doodoo piled up on Everest too. While it’s true that there are no public toilets high up on Everest, which means that people do occasionally relieve themselves under a rock, Everest is such an enormous place that you can quite happily spend many weeks there without seeing a single human turd but your own.

This year a famous photo by Nirmal Purja of a queue of climbers on the Hillary Step appeared in every Everest article but my own. This photo was clear evidence of overcrowding, and caused many people’s blood to boil, in the same way as a photo of five camper vans parked in a lay-by.

There's nothing worse than being stuck behind a slow coach
There’s nothing worse than being stuck behind a slow coach

Another common complaint about Everest is that it attracts people who don’t know how to climb. They climb too slowly, causing proper climbers to be stuck behind them, moving at only 20-30 miles per hour on a mountain they know well. And then tourists will stop suddenly because they’ve seen a Himalayan yak and want to take a picture.

I’m being facetious of course. When popularity is taken to excess it becomes overcrowding, and then it’s a problem. It’s not just the quality of life for locals that is affected, but an environment that takes a long time to recover. In some places, it may never recover.

So I don’t want to sweep these things under the carpet with my inveterate sarcasm. I just feel that instead of turning a positive story into a stream of negativity, it’s better to focus on the positives. This doesn’t mean you ignore the challenges: you just keep them in proportion. Even for Everest, it’s not too late for the situation to be reversed (though in Everest’s case, the outlook is not optimistic).

The North Coast 500 is still in its infancy, and there is plenty of time for the infrastructure and facilities to catch up with its popularity. It’s something to be celebrated, and the positives far outweigh the dark side.

There are other things the North Coast 500 has in common with Everest. It is a place of outstanding natural beauty, a place to capture the imagination and fill you with wonder. It can cause you to dream, to step outside of your comfort zone and take you into a world that you never knew existed. Completing it is a life-affirming experience, and when you return home, you will have grown.

To read more about my road trip around the North Coast 500 on a push bike, don’t forget to buy a copy of Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo.

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One thought on “What the North Coast 500 has in common with Everest

  • September 5, 2019 at 8:26 pm

    Oh my goodness, you have such a wonderful way of writing that tickles my funny bone. Having visited Scotland this summer and driving on single-track roads on the Isle of Skye your comments are perfect. Have not been on ‘the 500’ but it does sound enchanting, camper-vans not withstanding

    Cheers and keep trekking, climbing, biking, and writing.

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