A Mini Adventure, A Highland fling
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So far in these project pages I've mainly written about all the work that I've carried out on my Mini. What I probably haven't mentioned is that I actually use my Mini quite a lot and not just as a daily drive to and from work and for social, domestic and pleasure.
Every opportunity that we get to travel we take, and we love nothing more than throwing our bags into the back of the Mini and heading off for a bimble, trundle, or whatever you want to call your Mini adventures.
I've met a few fellow Mini owners that, as well as telling you all the modifications they've done to their car, will also happily tell you about the low mileage. "My Mini only has 5,000 genuine miles on the clock" they say. The lack of an impressed look on my face seems to confuse them.
Minis are meant to be driven. Those A series engines are built to last and with some occasional TLC they will keep on ticking and ticking and.. Well, you get my point. Minis are meant to be used not to be stored away in a garage only to be taken for a drive once a year to the MOT station, or to be started up once a fortnight to keep the battery from going flat. My Mini just clocked 100,000 miles and after some TLC I rewarded it by taking it out on a tour of the Western Isles and Highlands of Scotland for a total of around a 2,000 miles round-trip. And we enjoyed every mile.
Before you take your Mini on a long journey it's always advisable to go through a few checks. Below is the minimum checks that I carry out before taking Lucy on a journey.
- Check all four road tyres and the spare are inflated to the correct PSI. Check them when cold before use and pack a foot pump
- Check the oil level when the engine is cold and stood still. I top the oil up to the Max level before a long journey. Carry extra oil with you
- Check the radiator water level and top it up if low. Again, check when the car engine is cold. I take a 2 litre bottle of water with me and some antifreeze
- Check brake and clutch fluid levels and top up with Dot4 if low
- Check the air filter element for excessive dirt and replace if dirty. A dirty air filter will mean that more fuel is used to compensate, and with today's fuel prices your adventure may just ending up costing you a lot more than you budgeted for
- Check the carburettor dash pot oil level and top up if low. You can use engine oil, so I don't carry extra oil cans and I can top it up on the road using the oil container cap
- Finally I check that my lights work, especially the hazards, and that I have packed my wheel locking nut tool
When we travel in the Mini we store our bags and gear on the back-seat for easy access and because the Mini boot is very tiny. This frees up the boot space for me to pack everything I need to fix any problems that may happen while on the road. We both carry roadside assistance cards and mobile phones but you could just break down where there are no phones or reception, or assistance may take hours to get to you when the problem is something you could fix yourself if only you'd packed a few tools.
Here is a list of what I take with me when we go on mainland Britain journeys. I say Britain because you need to carry extra stuff if travelling around Europe.
- Spare tyre (obvious one really)
- Car jack
- Petrol can
- 2 litres of water and antifreeze for radiator. I don't premix in case I need water to top up the windscreen reservoir or for something else
- Plastic container of engine oil
- Haynes manual
- Windscreen fluid
- Socket set
- 2 x 1" spanners to adjust Hi-Lo Adjusta-ride suspension
- Stanley knife
- Cable ties
- Wet and dry paper (great for cleaning the connections in your distributor and rotor arm if weak spark)
- Feeler gauges
- Spark plug extractor socket
- Socket for wheel nuts
- Torque wrench to set wheel nuts to correct torque
- Small pot of grease
- Spare fan belt
This lot surprisingly doesn't take up that much space. I could store more in the boot if I wanted but the only other items I put in there are a first aid kit and spare overalls for dirty jobs.
Our first port of call was Oban. We got there late afternoon and checked into our B&B. We prefer staying in B&Bs in Britain because they cost less than hotels and you get a better quality of accommodation with a decent breakfast and friendly hosts.
We explored the town on foot and collected our ferry tickets from the port office. We'd booked the first three days ferry tickets and accommodation in advance on-line but after that we'd be making it up as we went along. It's more fun that way. You book your first one or two nights and then after that you are free to go in any direction you want with no ties, free to stay where you like.
We located a decent restaurant for an evening meal after which we headed back to the B&B to get some rest.
In the morning we were rewarded with beautiful sunshine which stayed with us for the rest of our journey. We checked in for the ferry early enough to be second in the queue for boarding. When waved onto the ferry we were watched with interest by the foot passengers and one ferry employee remarked "I don't think you'll have any trouble finding a space with your wee car".
The ferry journey from Oban to the Isle of Mull was amazing. The sun was shining and the scenery was great. It was cold but coffee and hot chocolate soon warmed us up. We saw the tail fins of dolphins in the water and castles perched on hills sat on outcrops of land.
When we reached Mull we drove off the ferry and into the Tourist Information car park. We grabbed a map of the island which looked like a pirate treasure map. Something for the kids maybe? We headed west to Fionnphort through scenic countryside along a single track road with the occasional passing place. At Fionnphort we watched the small ferry head over to Iona before heading back a bit and taking another small road north through winding, and sometimes cliff-edge roads with some of the most breath taking scenery I have ever seen in Britain.
We located our B&B for the night after getting lost a few times. Although I work in IT and love gadgets, I still haven't got around to GPS and Satellite navigation yet. I rely on addresses and a roadmap. It usually works, but sometimes I have to phone and ask for directions.
Our accommodation was a newly built cottage at the edge of the water on the east coast of Mull. The room was great and the view from the deck outside was amazing. After unpacking we headed north to grab a bite to eat and to explore the north of the island. I think we pretty much drove everywhere on Mull in one day. I have to say that Mull has become my favourite place to live if I ever move from Suffolk, with East Cornwall a close second.
We got back to the B&B before sunset, and over a bottle of red wine we planned tomorrow's route while the sun set over the water.
We had two travel guides to Scotland with us for this journey. A Lonely Planet and a Rough Guide to Scotland. Between them we would make up our own minds where to go and what to see next. The Rough Guide said that the route from Lochaline to Mallaig was one of the dullest drives ever. It turned out to be completely wrong.
After a glorious filling breakfast we checked out of the B&B and headed to the ferry at Fishnish just down the road, after I'd done my usual oil, tyres and radiator checks that is.
The ferry journey back to the mainland was pleasant but with very little to see. Once off the ferry we headed towards Mallaig passing through some remarkable views along both hills and countryside stopping occasionally to view birds of prey circling overhead, or to ask two people sat by the side of the road if they needed any help, their car being in a ditch next to them.
Mallaig turned out to be nothing more than a small town based around the ferry terminal. We were almost out of fuel and running on fumes so we stopped to fill up both the car and our stomachs before boarding our ferry.
I have to admit to being a little disappointed with Skye. Everyone that I know that has been there said it is great. Maybe we were a little spoilt with having just visited Mull but Skye just seemed plain and somewhat dull. We drove north to Portree but failed to see much in the way of amazing scenery.
Portree, Skye's main town wasn't very big but it offered a few restaurants (avoid Marmalade!) and the usual amenities. Our B&B for the night was just above the town and was very comfy. After grabbing a bite to eat in town we headed north for a drive to look at the waterfalls. Back at the B&B I surfed the net using my PSP with WiFi.
The next morning we checked out just after breakfast and headed south towards the Skye Bridge. We stopped at a tourist centre just outside of Portree and went for a forest walk as it was such a great morning with the sun blaring down on us.
The drive to the mainland was uneventful. We stopped at Kyle of Lochalsh to take a trip on the Seaprobe Atlantis, a glass bottom boat that lets you look underwater. We'd booked the slightly longer tour that takes in a sunken WWII ship. As it turned out, all you could see of the ship was lots of kelp and the occasional hint of something metal. Combined with the fact that you spend 95% of the time on the deck of the boat looking at seals and birds, I wouldn't recommend this activity for the money.
Back on the road we headed north through twisting winding roads with the occasional passing place. Our next stop was Ullapool where I attempted to sample the local beers. I've come to the conclusion that Scotland does not produce good beer. When in England drink beer or ale, when in Ireland drink Stout, when in Scotland drink Whisky! As for Wales.. a nice Pinot Grigio goes well with just about anything.
Our B&B in Ullapool overlooked Loch Broom and had it's own balcony. After breakfast we headed north through even more amazing scenery. The roads were narrow and twisty as they went up and over hills and mountains. I really enjoyed driving the Mini in the Highlands.
We headed to the top of Scotland and stopped at Durness where we went for a paddle in the ice cool water. Here you will find beautiful clean white sand beaches with crystal clear water. What you won't find is many people. Either the water is too cold for them or no one knows about this place.
There are a lot of castle and church ruins in this part of the country. Also, the gravestones in the churchyards all look like chess pieces for some reason.
We headed East to Smoo where we went underground into water filled caves in a rubber dinghy, before continuing onwards to Thurso where we stopped for the night.
Thurso has a bad rep for being dull but the sun was shinning and we found a great B&B once again so we enjoyed our stay.
Note: WRT B&B's I look for one that looks ok on the outside, then knock and enquire if there are any double en-suite rooms available, and if there are, ask the price and take a look. I'm also not afraid to say if it is not what we are looking for and to thank them for letting me look before walking away. I've worked my way up a street of B&Bs in the past doing this until I find what I'm after, comfort at a reasonable price.
We found a great restaurant in Thurso and after a great meal and nice bottle of wine we went for a walk through town, bought ice creams, and headed to the beach where the locals had gathered to see an old sailing ship that had moored just off the coast.
The next morning we stopped at Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Scotland. Not John o'Groats as most people believe, although we stopped there too albeit briefly for a toilet break and to say we had been there (having been to Lands End the previous year).
The north east coastal route is pretty bland until you get south of Inverness. We stopped at Dunrobin Castle and made straight for the tea room to grab a quick bite as we were famished. The fire alarm went off just as we were considering dessert and everyone was kicked out while they waited for the fire engines to turn up and declare it a false alarm. While everyone else stood around in the car park we sat in the Mini drinking coffee until we were allowed back in.
We headed south without a clue where we would be staying tonight. We avoided the Cairngorns because we'd been that way before, opting instead to head into Speyside. We found a great little town called Granton-on-Spey and located an amazing B&B with a double bed available that was a four poster with a bathroom that was bigger than my first flat.
As an experiment I took my PSP with me as we went to look for a restaurant for an evening meal. We walked up the high-street and while Emma looked at menus, I scanned for WiFi access points. I surprisingly found quite a few, mostly unsecured. I didn't connect because I only wanted to see if WiFi was popular out here and if WEP/WPA was being used.
We located a nice restaurant and had the most delicious food and wine. Later we found an RAF pub near the B&B where an enthusiastic barman served me single malts while explaining where they are from and how to buy them cheap. I discovered a new single malt called Tomintoul, and as luck would have it we passed through Tomintoul the next morning and I bought myself a bottle of their 10 year old single malt.
We stopped at Scone Palace that day. The car park attendant popped over in full Scottish dress and proceeded to tell us about how his first car was a Mini and how they were a great little car (they still are). We explored the Palace and the grounds and then headed south towards the borders.
We weren't sure where we were going to stop for the night so we kept on driving until I decided to try Melrose, a small quaint town we'd discovered on a previous trip.
Most B&Bs were fully booked but I found one with one double room left. It turned out to be an amazing find. In its previous life it was a bank. These days it is a luxurious B&B and our room was on the top floor with a view of the abbey.
After a few minutes relaxing we headed out to find food and drink. We ended up at a restaurant where people kept coming and going in Mitsubishi rally gear. Apparently there was a rally happening and the Mitsubishi team were stopping here tonight.
The next morning we took a nice scenic route through the borders and back into England.