Surreal islands, magical bogs, and lofty peaks

Trip Start Apr 26, 2006
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Trip End May 07, 2006


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Saturday, May 6, 2006

I have finally arrived at my final cycling destination. My body is tired, but my mind is relaxed. A calm is pulsing through me that can only result from true physical exhaustion. I am delighted at my accomplishment and feel I have gained a great deal of appreciation for the elements, my own will, and the island of Ireland. Now I all I have left to do is enjoy Ireland in my last couple of days in a leisurely manner that comes as a reward for a long journey.

The busy streets of Galway gave way to the blustery coast that made cycling slow and arduous. The traffic slowly began to lighten and the landscape opened up before me into a desolate flatness of grasses and rocks. I made a turn towards the port town of Rossaveal. I passed through a community of traveling people known as Tinkers who lived in mobile homes with a prodigious amount of gadgetry attached to their moving homes. With the turn the wind began a tail wind and the last several kilometers were effortless all the way to the ferry. I bought my ticket having made the trip from Galway in record time according to the ticket seller and waited to get on the ferry to Inishmor.

Inishmor is the largest of three Aran islands off of the western coast of Ireland. The ferry ride took about 45 minutes and cut through fierce wind and dark seas. Although the weather was clear and sunny, the ferry rocked violently as it was smashed by waves and wind from all sides. I arrived in Kilronan and disembarked with my bike filled with excitement at the prospects of a bright afternoon cycling around Inishmor.

I headed around bends and up steep hills to get to the hostel towards the center of the island. After waiting for about an hour with not a soul around mesmerized by the coast below, I was told there were no beds for me. The proprieter was receiving a large group of school kids from Dublin which had been on the ferry with me. A raucous crowd of young teens that ran around the ferry in cliques, yelling and screeching with each heave of the ferry. I thankfully went back down the hill to the smaller Artist's Hostel with a cheery woman with a forward manner as proprietor. I was shown a bed and made my temporary home immediately by unpacking my things.

After cooking lunch and enjoying a hot cup of tea out on the benches outside, I jumped on my bike with map in hand to explore the island. It was after 4PM and the island was blissfully human free. I made my way up to the lighthouse on the highest point of the island first. It was closed so I snuck around the barriers and explored around. Further off I saw a large stone ring which I decided to venture towards. Upon approaching I noticed yet another ring of gray marble below. I climbed the first and marveled at the landscape before me. Small settlements of green on the north side and vast expanses of gray stone on the other. I climbed off the structure and headed back to my bike.

After leaving the lighthouse the road suddenly became rocky and unpaved. It was walled in with stone hedges about 3 feet high and swerved down towards the gray expanses below. I walked through this labyrinth of stone hedges, a land of megalithic tombs and ancient Celtic rights. A land completely altered by man and beast over the thousands of years of its inhabitation. Chiseled stone set in rows among the scarred face of its landscape. Just as I became completely engrossed in the surreal quality of this landscape and white horse appeared before me. I was for some reason shocked and delighted at this white steed a mythic creature conjured by the landscape itself looking directly at me. I had not noticed it till I was almost in front of it as the landscape plays tricks with the eyes. As I passed further this netherworld of stone opened again to a lone road. I hoped on my bike and made my way towards an early Christian home and Dun Aengus.

I passed several houses in the middle of small green patches of grass and past a small beach. Going down a gravelly path that sloped down steeply I made my way to the entrance of a field within which stood an perfectly preserved early Christian home from the 8th to 11th century. Traversing several fields I came upon the tiny stone dwelling reminiscent of the beehive huts on the Dingle peninsula. I made my way in to sit in the quiet cool interior and absorb the memory of the place. Rounded river rocks made up the floor and the inside was surprisingly angular as compared to its circular exterior. I exited out the other way and headed towards Dun Aengus, a 2000 BC Celtic fort.

On my way through narrow paved roads that meandered past small cottages I noticed two white shaggy dogs and a kid (goat) with a blue collar. Not knowing how to proceed the choice was made for me as all three bolted towards me. I had apparently come across the three in mid play and they were excited to see me. Relieved that they were not going to attack, they vyed for my attention as I took pictures. The three were apparently the best of friends and very excitable. I got back on my bike after thorough dog and goat petting and cranked my wheels up the steep hill. The dogs to my surprise kept pace and made a game out of heading me off and outracing me.

I finally arrived at the road leading up to Dun Aengus with dogs in tow. I climbed the rocky road leading to the coastal home of the fort. The dogs bolted up and into first door ahead. Upon entering a lush field of green grass unfolded before me surrounded by a thick wall of stone and the central fort ahead. The structure is two semicircles around the edge of a high rocky ledge. The dogs frolicked and barked and led my way up to the top central fort enclosure. The sound of beating waves became evident as I entered the main enclosure. I walked to the edge and looked down. Th wind was strong and waves frothed and pounded the rock below. The violent meeting of land and sea was playing out before me. A battle eons old and me a witness to a split second of its cataclysmic wonder. The sun was setting and shedding golden warm shades of light across the island. The dogs weary of my proximity to the cliff edge barked out warnings and came by to check if I was ok. I was spellbound.

From there we descended back to the rock fields of labyrinth hedges as the sun began its final descent into the ocean. The gray fields ahead of me and the sinking ball of color behind me. I kept stealing glances to see the sun dip behind Dun Aengus and extinguish in the churning sea. Then I sped off over the gravelly road towards the other end of the island just fast enough to lose my two canine friends. Despite being tired they kept pace and I finally had to outrace them going downhill towards the hostel. There I was greeted by two Dutch roommates who sat and talked with me while I made and ate dinner. We compared notes and perspectives on life and travel and then headed to bed.

Distance covered: 55.7 kiometers

I awoke the next morning before everyone to take in the more atmosphere outside. The lazy sun just above the horizon casting long shadows over the landscape, I packed up and got on my bike. I wanted just one more quick tour around the northern road to marvel at islands splendid uniqueness. I then headed towards the port for the early morning fairy back to the main island. The wind was brisk and the sea was a deep blue. I waited to board and dozed during the ride over as the ferry dipped and crested over the waves.

The wind howled in my ears as I made my way deeper into the Connemara. After turning off the main road a moderate climb of several kilometers loomed ahead. Then the wild grassy expanses began to unfold. Once past Cashel a gentle tail wind joined me and before me waited peacefully graded hills. I traversed the landscape with ease. The bog grasses rustled as I passed and deep blue loughs lapped gently with the carressing wind. A few sheep her and there roamed unattended and unfenced through the waterlogged terrain and I marvelled at the the vistas ahead. The Twelved Bens loomed in the distance guardians of the bogs below. A magical landscape of gentle hills and lonely roads. I barely saw any cars or people in this landscape save for the peat diggers that stood silent and abandoned. The evidence of human activity were evident in several places as the landscape had been dug to extract the peat that was used as heating fuel in village homes. I passed one larger lough that displayed white swans gliding across its wind whipped surface. The sound of water was evident throughout the ride from the gentle waves on the small loughs to small streams burbling on their course.

The hills presented themselves the perfect size to traverse as the slope of one was perfectly suited for the momentum I had built up descending the prior. The sun filtered down through the clouds and soon the emptiness of the bogs opened into populated coutryside. A short ride later I caught my first glimpse of Clifden. A stately town above the coutryside with several streets bisecting its middle. I stopped at the Two Dog Cafe off the main square to relax and enjoy a tea and a slice of almond-orange cake. Refreshed I hoped on my bike to cycle the last several kilometers to Letterfrack.

After a longish climb out of town and after a turnoff the main road I was back in the Connemara bogs. Slowly I was approaching the Twelve Bens. After several kilometers the bog again gave way to trees and past Connemara Park. Up the steep slope past the park the tiny village of Letterfrack appeared from the trees. I was headed for the Old Monastery Hostel to spend the night and base myself for some hiking around the park.

I was greeted by a small group of Germans outside sipping tea. I entered the hostel and the decor threw itself at me. Old quaker dressers along the wall piled neatly with viles, vases, and old pictures. The floor made of large well worn boards of wood that creaked and groaned as I stepped on them. I opened a door ahead and the living room presented itself warm and inviting. The sun was streaming through the large front window and a peat fire was burning in the ornate fireplace. A large quaker table set heavy upon the floor and was decorated with three lone viles filled with white meadow flowers. Candelabras set well used on several surfaces. Old fading mirrors clung to the walls and old lamps sat crooked and lazy among the furniture. In front of the fireplace was a blue couch and two matching chairs. On one of the chairs sat an older gentleman flipping pages of a photography book. I spotted a cat napping in the brightly sunlit windowsill and gave him several strokes. The man had barely looked up as I explored the curios.

I made my way into the adjoining room which was the kitchen. Everything there was worn in, inviting, home like. The basement was the same with skulls of sheep on the wall displayed among red string lights. Old butcher scales, traditional woollen sweaters displayed on walls, old books, glass cases and all sorts of knick knacks peered from around every wall , corner, and crevice. There was no one that ran the place to be found. I decided to sit on the couch and relax in the living room. Immediately a sleepy calm settled over me and I dozed off.

I was awoken by two German women entering the room talking to each other. They sat down on the chairs in front of me and introduced themselves. We talked briefly and I dozed again. I finally came to again feeling hungry. I however had no room still so I decided to read a bit. Eventually hours later a woman came in looking for me. She had long hair and a accent that was hard to place. She picked a room for me off of the main hallway and I set my bags down. I then hopped on my bike to go to the nearby store to buy some food to prepare for dinner.

I got some basic ingredients and on my way out I was stopped by a lively group speaking english and drinking Guiness outside. The older gentleman from the living room was there and 3 other americans were with him. Two of them happened to be from Astoria in New York and the other one was a visitor from North Carolina with a heavy southern accent and pleasant demeanor. However, I was hungry so I excused myself and headed back to wolf down some much needed calories.

The evening rolled by lazily and slowly with me meeting other friendly hostel guests. I spent the evening reading next to two very butch lesbians who told me a bit about the history to Letterfrack and the hostel. The village was actually the home of a sect of Catholic monks called the Christian Borthers, acclaimed for the severity of their punishment and brutality of their reform school. A small graveyard sits out back of the old church that claimed several bodies of boys from the school. The hostel which was originally built by Quakers was the residence of the monks. The place quickly developed an eerie feeling filled with memory and age. I revelled in this new found knowledge.

Distance covered: 71.2 kilometers

The next morning I awoke to a bright day. I had breakfast which was freshly prepared downstairs with porridge and fresh scones. I said goodbye to the guests I had met and made my way down to hike around the park. There I took in an informative documentary on the region and visited the history museum on the Connemara. The region has many folk myths and legends associated with it dealing with fairies and will-o-wisps. The history was also very interesting explaining that the bogs were man made thousands of years ago when the great forests were felled and the terrain overgrazed. The high amount of carbon from felled and burned down trees made the soil waterlogged and the area turned into a bog. The hike through the park was short and I was lucky to see some wild Connemara ponies grazing.

The ride out of the park and into the wild expanses of the Connemara bogs was arduous. I was finally among the peaks of the Twelve Bens. The wind was merciless as it whipped down from the high peaks. The valleys concentrated the wind and focused its strength to be brutal to those passing through. Large loughs lay in the valleys and accepted the steady punishing gails from above. I fought against the wind through the entire area of the Twelve Bens. They were ceaseless in their desire to exhaust me. However, I continued peddling diligently albeit slowly.

The valleys eventually gave way to Killary Harbor and its tiny town of Leenane. I stopped for lunch after an easy coast down the valley side. There I had only enough mony for a small sandwich and a bowl of soup. Ireland is very expensive but particularly the cost of food. I unwound a bit and then hopped on my bike on my way into Mayo county and eventually Westport.

The ride around the bay was scenic and slow going. After climbing over a low peak a flater plateau extended out among the remaining few low mountains. The ride was easier and less windy. I eventually came around a bend and Doo Lough lay peaceful and brooding before me. I cycled around the edge and stopped at a small peninsula to sit and absorb the view. It was stunning in its solitude. Only a small boat of fly fisherman passed idlly by casting and recasting their lines. After a while I urged myself up and back on my bike.

The ride to Westport traversed some more bog landscape, but eventually opened up to the coast. A busy road ensued and I peddled my final kilometers to my ending destination. I took in the views of Croagh Patrick, the mountain from which St. Patrick expelled th snakes from Ireland. It is used as a pilgrimage site for many Irish every last Sunday in July. Across from it was the bronze Famine Memorial and an old 15th century ruined abbey. I explored both and wandered around the graveyard trying to make out the dates on the grave markers.

The final ascent to Westport was the usual country meets village scenery. The town itself was clean and well partitioned. The evening sun was casting a warm glow on the city shops and pubs as I cycled through towards the Old Mill Hostel. The day had been long a tiring so I was glad to check in without problems into the Old Mill. The person working there was Italian and very helpful in showing me around. I was one of the few guests in this well maintained and spotless establishment. The building was an old converted mill with stone walls and small red painted windows. The kitchen awaited me to cook a quick meal and my bed to get some sleep.

Distance: 79.9 kiometers
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Comments

Kim Daugherty on

I am so proud of you...biking, hiking....you ROCK girl

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