(The Gear Loop) - An ominous red warning sign hangs on the gate that marks the beginning of the Applecross Pass in the north westernmost reaches of the Scottish Highlands.
"This road is impassable in wintry conditions. Not suitable for large vehicles or learner drivers" it heeds. The gate upon which it hangs is often closed during heavy bouts of snowfall or other adverse weather conditions.
But today, despite the Land Rover Defender’s temperature gauge hovering around the 0°C mark, the pass is open and it’s like a red rag to a bull for anyone behind the wheel of one of Land Rover’s most formidable and cherished off-road vehicles.
In search of the stars
Rewind the clock 24 hours and we had touched down in Edinburghs main airport, a fleet of shiny new Defenders greeting us upon arrival. The brief was simple: to navigate up through Scotland to a stopover in Torridon, where we were tasked with capturing some of the clearest and brightest night skies in the UK.
The journey began without a hitch, the handful of Defenders motoring in convoy along some of Scotland’s largest motorways. Although the warnings flashing on the roadside displays would perhaps be the first indicator that this trip wasn’t to be entirely without a challenge.
With much of the UK still reeling from Storm Eunice, which brought 122mph winds and eventuallyclaimed four lives, the weather was still changeable to say the least, with most of Scotland braced for strong winds and a predicted dump of snow that could isolate remote communities and close roads.
Still, we ploughed on, despite the gales buffeting the side of the Defender, motoring towards a remote estate for our first taste of true off-road driving… and foraged cuisine.
Food for the soul
Simon Stallard specialises in outdoor cooking, using fresh, natural and often foraged ingredients to create feasts and banquets in places too remote or inhospitable to house a real kitchen.
After a short trundle along some mildly challenging off-road terrain (there’s no need to trouble the all-wheel-drive system just yet), we arrived at disused barn as rain pummelled the farm building from all angles.
From inside, Simon was busy stoking coals on a large fire pit, placing lengths of freshly chopped wood into the flames, adding heather and all manner of foraged flora and fauna.
It was here that we get our taste of proper outdoor cooking, with venison freshly butchered by the estate where we sat, scallops caught just a few miles away, local beef and fresh squash that had been roasting for hours.
Simon, the owner of The Hidden Hut in Cornwall and outdoor chef to the stars, talked us through "charging" wood over roaring flames to add flavour to meats, not being afraid to plonk fresh meat directly into coals and demonstrating how spraying champagne onto sizzling scallops adds a caramel flavour like no other. It also looks great for your Instagram Stories.
Bellies full with some of the finest local produce, we cracked on with our journey, hacking across ground that test the hardiness of our vehicles and deliver us to crystal clear skies and twinkling stars. Or so we thought.
For over an hour, we picked our way across challenging off-road terrain, crawling over rocks, wading through deep water and traversing narrow log bridges. It’s the sort of stuff the Defender was designed to devour and this latest generation is packed to the gunwales with terrain sensing, traction control and all-wheel drive technology, sending exactly the right power to the right wheel at all times.
Spin the dial located in the centre of the dash and you can select from pre-determined programmes, such as Mud Ruts or Snow and Sand, while a low range gearbox, hill descent control ands its impressive approach and departure angles ensures new Defender can handle most obstacles.
It was slow going but it stopped raining at some point during the slow trudge and Scotland’s beauty revealed itself, blades of light illuminated the flanks of hills and mountains. Even the rainbows seemed brighter in these parts.
The rocks and mud ruts turned to smooth tarmac, which in turn transformed into dual carriageways and the ominous motorway signs again warned of imminent heavy weather.
We sliced through low valleys as the sun started to drop behind the peaks that surround the A896, the narrow slither of a road that would lead us towards our final destination of Torridon - a village that hosts the peaks of Liathach, Beinn Alligin and Beinn Eighe, all over 3,000ft and all imposing.
We arrived in inky blackness, the peaks of Beinn Alligin and Beinn Eighe only visible thanks to the dusting of snow reflecting the moonlight.
The plan was to capture the night skies, which on a clear day can play host to dancing aurora borealis, but on a night like we experienced, were shrouded with cloud that sometimes made way for stars depending on the strength of the wind.
Rain and sleet pelted it down, but that didn’t stop up from setting up a tripod, pointing the camera at a carefully placed Land Rover Defender and firing off shots with lengthy exposures.
The results were great, with the camera capturing arguably the only patches of clear skies we enjoyed that evening, the orange glow of our nearby fire pit clearly visible in shot. Although what you can’t see are the pans of melting Camembert cheese Simon Stallard couldn’t resist cooking up.
You shall not pass
The following morning was a different scene entirely, as according to reliable weather apps, the east coast of Scotland had received a blanket of snow, which was apparently marching its way across country.
Thankfully, we had all day to pick our way down to the return flight home from Edinburgh, so decided it was best to point the Defender towards the famous Applecross Pass south of Torridon.
Beloved of cyclists and car enthusiasts in the summer, the slithering single track rises to 2,054ft above sea level and affords some amazing views out across the Highlands, but it is narrow and the switchbacks are tricky at the best of times.
Despite the snowfall to the east, the Pass remained open, so we cautiously made our up the steep single track road. The fact we hadn't seen another car for hours should have been a sign to take an alternative route, but surely the big Defender would be capable enough to tackle anything?
After around 20 minutes of slow driving, visibility reduced to almost nothing and large chunks of snow began to pelt the windscreen, seemingly flying horizontally thanks to he gale force winds whipping through the valleys.
Half-way into the route, we stopped to attempt to take some photos, but the wind threatened to rip the door of the Defender off its hinges and our camera toppled over from its tripod, so ghastly were the conditions. After a few more minutes, the road completely disappeared under a blanket of heavy snow.
The only thing for it was to beat a hasty retreat, turn around and find a safer route back towards civilisation. We ventured to photograph dark skies, but came away feeling like we experienced an epic Alpine mission.
The Defender was stoic and faultless all the way, Scotland was reassuringly unpredictable. A reminder that some of the most memorable trips don't have to go to plan.