Immovable objects, irresistible forces, ancient myths and modern legends: we’re about to embark on the North Coast 500, an epic road trip from Inverness around the wild and wonderful Scottish Highlands and back again. We’re taking on this challenging 500-mile journey in the new Audi RS 6 Avant performance, which offers 45PS more than the standard model and a 0-62mph time of 3.7 seconds.
We seem to be in luck: the sun is shining down on us as we leave Inverness. A metaphorical leg stretching is the order of the day for the first section, which quickly leaves the city behind and heads north, then west, winding lazily between Loch Garve and Loch Luichart in Easter Ross. The road is wide and fairly straight, but we resist the temptation to push the RS 6, which is barely loping along at this gentle pace, dispatching the odd caravan puffing up long hills with barely a rise in revs. The roads become commensurately more taxing, the surface crumbling, the bends that bit tighter. The hills begin to butt up closer to the lochs and narrow into the Bealach na Bà, the ‘Pass of the Cattle’, which is the highest climb of any road in the UK, rising from sea level to 626 metres.
In less than 30 seconds we go from sunglasses to being pummelled by torrents of icy water. The wipers are going so fast they are a blur and can barely shift the volume of rain sluicing down the windscreen. Full-beam lights, tight, skittery, flooded mountain roads with hairpins and a light sprinkling of gravel can’t defeat the RS 6 – it just blasts on. This is what quattro is made for. When we reach the top of the pass and dive over the ridge, it’s as though the doors to summer have been flung open. Far off, the Isles of Raasay and Skye sit in a brilliant azure blue sea, while around us the upper flatlands, scoured from wind and rain, are like a bare planet from a sci-fi film. Utterly breathtaking.
We stop for coffee at Durness on the very north-west tip of the kingdom. While here it seems remiss not to visit Smoo Cave, and so we head to the beach and into the vast rocky hangar that towers 20 metres above us. Colin Coventry gives tours of the cave in the summer and explores the miles of underground tunnels in the winter. He has seen a marked increase in visitors since the North Coast 500 was created two years ago. ‘Connecting all these roads and then telling people about them is a genius idea,’ he says with a smile. ‘And it has been incredible for the area.’
After two days of driving, we are in Caithness on the most north eastern corner of the North Coast 500, and the edge of Europe. We roll into John O’Groats, but it’s not the end of our journey. As we coast down the east side of the Highlands, I start to feel slightly embarrassed. I’m British – how did I not know that such places existed in the UK? We moan about congestion and grind, and yet a few hours’ drive away is one of the finest, emptiest places in Europe. The Vikings may have once tamed the Highlands, but not much has managed to since. Until now. There’s only one winner on this drive – the Audi RS 6 Avant performance.
Written by Steve Moody. Photographs by John Wycherley.