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In the Outback: Motoring & Surfing

Published: The Scotsman (Motoring) 11 Jul 2008

Put a man in the Outback, and there’s no stopping the fun he’ll be able to have.

THE people at Subaru clearly want their new Outback to be all things to all people. “Whether you’re headed into town, the forest or across mountains,” reads the blurb, “the 2008 Outback is more refined and capable than ever before.”

Hastily throwing surfing and snowboarding gear into the car’s pristine leather interior for a five day trip to the Highlands, however, I can’t help worrying that this vehicle is perhaps a little bit too refined for my purposes. After all, nothing destroys fancy upholstery more effectively than the killer combination of ice, mud, sand and surfboard wax.

Still, there’s no time to waste worrying about mucky seats: the Cairngorms have just had one of their biggest snowfalls of the winter and it’s already 11 o’clock. Time to hit the road.

I’m in such a hurry that I don’t bother getting to grips with the dashboard controls before setting off, but fortunately the cockpit layout is nicely logical so I’m able to work it all out as I go along. Or rather, as I sit seething in gridlocked Edinburgh traffic. It takes the best part of 45 minutes to escape from the city and by that point I’m starting to wonder if I’ll get to the hills before dark.

Luckily the A9 north is almost completely empty, so once I get across the Forth Road Bridge I’m able to put my foot down and make up for lost time. In fact, the Outback gives such a smooth, quiet ride that my main problem is keeping my speed down. (If there’s a speeding ticket winging its way to me now, I’d just like to say in my defence that it’s hard to drive at 60mph when 60mph feels like 40mph.)

Turning right at Aviemore and onto the winding road that leads through the Rothiemurchus Estate to the ski hill, it seems like a good time to experiment with the gear-change paddles behind the steering wheel. The Outback I’ve been given is an automatic, but by flapping these paddles like a Formula One driver I’m able take over from the computer and live out my Lewis Hamilton fantasies.

Oddly, the experience is nowhere near as satisfying as I’d expected. Compared with the natural rhythm of a manual gearchange, the paddles never seem to deliver the power quite when you want it. It’s probably something I’d get used to in time, but I give up long before I reach the car park, my concentration broken by the pristine powder covering everything except the freshly ploughed road.

After a speedy costume change (the driver’s seat slides a good long way back, so I’m able to pull on my thermals in air conditioned comfort) I make it to the ticket office for 2pm and I’m on the top of the mountain by a quarter past. For some reason the whole Coire na Ciste area is closed, but this is where all my favourite runs are so I’m not going to let the absence of lifts get in my way. A couple of skiers and another snowboarder have had the same idea, and the four of us spend a very pleasant afternoon playing in the Aonach Bowl and on the West Wall, hiking out after each run. It’s one of the best days at Cairngorm in this or any other year and we have about a third of the mountain completely to ourselves.

Before heading down to Aviemore for the night, I take the Outback to the car park at Coire na Ciste – deserted and covered in about a foot of snow – and have a quick play. With its all-wheel drive, the car deals manfully with the conditions, and the fact that it sits so high on its wheels means there’s practically no risk of getting stuck. (Which is just as well, because by this stage I don’t have much energy left for digging.)

First thing next morning and I’m heading north through snow flurries towards the surfer’s paradise of Durness. The stretch of road between Ullapool and Scotland’s North Shore (the A835, A837 and A838) is consistently voted one of the best drives in the world, and it’s easy to see why: stunning scenery, plenty of interesting bumps and curves, and hardly any traffic.

Just next to the handbrake there’s a wee, twiddly knob offering “Sport” and “Sport Sharp” functions, so as the roads become single-track I decide to give it bit of a spin. The Sport function makes everything feel a bit tighter, and on Sport Sharp the car feels even more highly strung. These functions certainly make for more entertaining driving, but they don’t do much for the Outback’s fuel efficiency. In fact, it’s so thirsty you can almost watch the fuel needle dropping..

When I get to the campsite at Sango Sands there’s a chilly wind blowing in from the north east and the surf’s almost completely flat. Never mind: the swell’s due to pick up tomorrow. I pitch my tent in the lee of the Outback, which makes an excellent windbreak, and wait for conditions to improve.

I don’t have to wait long. At first light the next day I can tell the surf’s come up without even leaving the tent – it sounds much bigger. Driving east along the coast I’m so busy checking the waves I almost plunge off the road one more than one occasion. The wind’s switched to offshore and a clean, three-to-four foot NW swell is pouring into some of the best surf spots in the country – an embarrassment of riches.

In the end I plump for a pristine left-hander peeling along into a tiny rivermouth. The waves aren’t huge, but they’re lots of fun and, more importantly, there’s no-one else out.

Is Scotland really the best small country in the world? It certainly felt like it in April.

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