Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Ballydavid Head

Views from my B&B, the Old Pier at Ballydavid Head, 10km north of Dingle.

Around Killarney - To Dingle

[Wednesday 31st] Since Bondi and I were both totally rooted after yesterday's expedition, we had a gentle morning. I checked out of the B&B (Farmstead Lodge: heartily recommended) and went into Killarney for email & coffee, then into Killarney National Park at Ross Castle.

Ross Castle is a 15th century tower house on the edge of Lough Leane. I didn't really want to look inside, but the surrounds were very pleasant, and we found some lakeside steps under a tree to pass some time.

Then it was a short drive to Muckross House & Gardens, the main centre of the Killarney National Park. The grounds are very lovely to stroll around in, and you have the option of visiting the working farm, their arboretum or riding one of the horse-pulled jaunting cars that ply the area. There's no entrance fee, and although it's quite busy, you never feel like the place is crowded. The cafe/restaurant at the main building centre puts every other big house or garden centre (including Kew) I have visited anywhere in the British Isles completely in the shade: a good selection of pre-prepared sandwiches, and hot food, or you can go a-la-carte. Everything is fresh, hearty portions and cheap! Certainly a contrast to queuing for ages at Kew Gardens in an atmosphere of stale chip-fat to talk to completely indifferent stadd. If I'd known about Muckross several days ago, I would have come for lunch more often. As it is, I've skipped dinner tonight as lunch filled me up so well.

After Muckross, we returned to our lakeside steps at Ross Castle for an hour or so. Bondi kipping under a tree, and me idling over my volume of Fiendish Su Doku, having misplaced my novel.

At 4.30 we left for Dingle, passing through Milltown and then Castlemaine, which bills itself as "Home of the Wild Colonial Boy". After this you turn west onto the Dingle Peninsula, the last of the five peninsular fingers we had to explore. About 20km along the road we stopped at Inch, which had a long beach strand, sheltering Castlemaine Harbour from the rest of Dingle Bay. On the beach I could see a sail-cart making several laps of the water's edge, and Bondi invaded a 4 on 4 soccer game being played on a small field marked out in the hard flat sand. At Sammy's Store & Cafe, I bought a copy of Ryan's Daughter on DVD, so I can quickly check my memories against the upcoming landscape.

I talked at some length with a lady at the store about walking dogs in the area. She backed up all my earlier contacts by warning strongly against it, as local farmers will take matters into their own hands if walkers on the waymarked paths have dogs with them.

The outside wall of Sammy's has a painted, unattributed inscription:

Dear Inch must I leave you
I have promises to keep
Perhaps miles to go to my last sleep

With that thought, it was definitely time to look for our B&B tonight, the Old Pier at Ballydavid Head. We passed quickly through Dingle town and after a frustrating search via roads and crossroads without any useful signposts, I got to the Old Pier about 8pm. The location is extraordinary, looking over Smerwick Harbour one way, and across a valley to the Blasket Islands off the end of the peninsula. After unpacking, we sat on the front lawn watching the sun

The headland facing the Blaskets is the most westerly point of mainland Ireland, and Dingle is the most westerly town in Europe. I saw a reference to it being "the next parish over from America." The west-coast of Ireland sticks out a bit further than Portugal, but if Iceland joins the EU, I guess that will give Reykjavik the crown. I guess Denmark's stake in Greenland doesn't count.
I've got accommodation booked in Dublin for the week of the 11th, so I'll be providing light relief for my friends Vance & Meme, over from Australia, and may get some time in some Records Office to work on my family history.

My map software says there are ferries from Belfast back to the UK. I might consider the one making the shortest crossing, which is to Stranraer in Scotland. That puts it close to Ballantrae, another of my ancestral haunts, and it's also a short-ish drive over to Newcastle-upon-Tyne area where Chris hails from.

By the lake in Killarney

After the last two days, I wanted to minimise the amount of driving, so decided to just have a day around Killarney and the lakes. Spent a couple of hours at an internet cafe uploading the last two blogs, dealing with email and looking for pet-friendly accommodation around Dublin. Grabbed coffee and a sandwich and then hunted down one of the two benches in Killarney town centre - the other had been commandeered by a large family, each member of which was slack-jawedly working their way through a shovelful of potato chips.

The weather had been a bit iffy all morning, but I wanted to just sit by a lake, finish my book and give Bondi a wash. Malamutes don't have a natural odour, but after a few days of dipping into saltwater he had a distinct marine air.

On the way to the lakes, we stopped at Torc waterfall, which has an easily accessible lower section and then a steep half kilometre hike or thereabouts up past some wonderful lake panoramas before rejoining the the falls.

The rest of the afternoon was spent by the side of a lake. I had a bit of a struggle getting Bondi into the water for a proper rinse out. He was happy enough going in to wade and scoop water but he doesn't like cold water baths. After he'd settled down on some rocks to dry and sulk, I discovered that he still had shampoo on the top of his head, so emptied a bucket of water over it. Double sulks for the next hour.

Meanwhile, on the next rock over, I finished reading "Animals in Translation". Temple Grandin touches on some recent Australian work on co-evolution of man and dog. Evidence from several sources suggests that man & wolf may have started working together around the time of Homo erectus, much earlier than hitherto suspected. These early humans learnt wolf social skills and the pairing of the two species conferred an advantage over contemperaneous Neanderthals. An additional point made is that domestication reduces the brain-size of species since certain survival skills are forgone. After the time at which man and wolf/dog got together, the brain-size of humans reduced by about 10%, in particular the areas related to certain sensory perceptions, begging for treats and chasing cars. Interesting stuff if it's true.

There's also a great little section on music & language skills, particularly in relation to birds. The book is definitely one of the best things I've read recently. I commend it to anyone interested in cognition, language or animals.

We got back into the town about 7 and settled down outside the Lir Cafe (which does REAL coffee). I chatted a while with the head porter from the hotel next door about our travels and plans for the area over the week. He said that David Lean's film "Ryan's Daughter" had been filmed in one part of the Dingle peninsula - which I'll be exploring in a couple of days.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Skellig Michael

I got an early start this morning, driving down the Kerry Way (Inveragh Peninsula: finger #4) via Cahersiveen to catch the car ferry at Knights Town over to Valencia Island. I drove over the island to to get to the Skellig Experience on the other side. The gates were locked, without an indication of opening time (it was now about 8.30am), so I crossed the bridge back to the mainland at Port Magee to look for some breakfast. The local coffee shop advertised "Cakes and Gateaux's" but at least their baking skills were better than their coffee-making skills, as I turned down an unholy concoction of espresso, boiled water and microwaved milk being sold as an expensive latte.

I met up with some other tourists, also looking for a boat ride out to the Skellig Islands, 12km offshore. We queried a local, who turned out to be one of the boat coordinators - and to cut a long story short, after a 90 minute wait, I secured a berth on one of the boats leaving that morning.

I was very fortunate to get a ride today, as it was the first really fine day for the season. Watching the boats load up with their 12-passenger complements, I was a bit nervous about how Bondi could be put on board, given that it was an 3 metre descent via ladder from the dock to the decks. I was eyeing various fishnets and broken lobster pots around the dock, with a view to lowering-him myself. Luckily the skipper of my boat was happy enough to reposition his vessel next to one of the concrete stairs at a different part of the dock, and so Bondi was shuffled across with only a little bit of fuss. Some late-arriving passengers (also with a dog) jumped across at the same time.

The boat-ride out was slow but smooth. After 40 minutes or so, the pair of rocky islands appeared like grey & green fractal nightmares. We passed by Small Skellig, and Skellig Michael rose before us like King Kong's Skull Island. The captain offloaded us at 11.45 and told us he'd return at 2.15.

We followed up a wide, gently ascending path around the island, pass some minimal 20th-century structures and a helipad to the beginning of the 200m vertical ascent to the 6th century monastery at the top of the 44 acre island's highest point. The island is covered thousands of noisy birds: gulls, gannets, terns - and with any luck, puffins. On the way around I spotted about 7 seals sunning themselves like fat spotted monks on a boat-ramp, and a dolphin or two could be spotted playing offshore.

The day was warming up, and there was no way I was going to try to manage Bondi going up a precarious 1500 year old stair-case made out of dry-slate, so I lashed him to a rail in the shade, and made my first halting steps upwards.

I have no head for heights. More precisely I have strong vertigo (fear of falling) rather than acrophobia (fear of heights). This was going to be a challenge, but I thought that I could try to handle it like one of the Mayan pyramids at Tikal in Guatemala, where I "arsed it" up and down the 12-stories of stairs...although at least those stairs didn't look and feel like they were going to crumble under me.

Thus by foot, crawling and arsing I managed to get ALMOST to the top. I got to a plateau which just seemed to be surrounded by nothing but sky and realised that I was just not going any further. Just watching other people trip past in their loose sandals and peer-over-the-edge attitude just made me feel ill. So after 10 minutes of chiding myself, the return stairs looked empty enough for me to arse it downwards. Luckily I had on slate-coloured shorts, and any bum scrapes were invisible on them. As Bondi came back into view, I could see that he had been searching the skies for me. A lady sitting with him said that his eyes had not left the staircase during the 1/2 hour I was up there, as he waited for dad's return from heaven.

I missed seeing the 1400 year old monastic remains at the top of the island, which was very disappointing, but evenso it's just an extraordinary place to be, out at the very edge of known world, as it was. To think this island supported a community for over 700 years is quite staggering. Even more staggering was that I had decent cell-phone reception, and I can't get it in half of Scotland!

Before leaving I did spot a couple of puffins, perched on ledges above the main sheltered rookery, also above the sunning seals. More seals could be seen in the waters if you craned your head around to look at the very awkward view. Some more boats had dropped off passengers and they were quite surprised to see Bondi at the dock. I told them that malamutes were being given away at the top, and they should hurry before they ran out. I also spoke to a lady who was one of three scientists stationed on the island over summer. There are

Heading back to Port Magee, the boat circled Small Skellig, which apparently has 40-50 thousand birds on it. From a distance you think the white is snow or guano, but it's just wall to wall birds.

A bumpy ride back to shore: we were given huge waterproof ponchos, and Bondi sat between my legs under the poncho as we bounced back. I was very engrossed in Mike McCormack's "Notes from a Coma", which made the time pass.

We then visited the Skellig Experience centre. Bondi crashed out in front of the reception desk, while I viewed the exhibits and a 15-minute film about the islands. When I came out of the theatre, the Bondi Experience was in full swing. I think he'd absolutely made a few people's week.

On the road again, I completed the Skellig Ring, which is an offshoot of the Ring of Kerry. One can see a magnificent view back over Port Magee, and also caught sight of the two Skelligs from a ridge.

The rest of the ring was a bit of a let down, not much to see on the southern side of the peninsula. In Waterville I talked to a store-owner about Bondi's travels: he said there was a link between Skellig Michael and Mont Saint Michel, going beyond their dedication to Saint Michael. My hunch was that the latter was formed around the time the Skellig monastery closed its cliffs. As I entered the store, he had started reciting:
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up
in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box
was hitting a jag-time tune;
from the Robert Service poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew.

I spied a statue of Charlie Chaplin on Waterville's sea-front: apparently this area was a favourite retreat.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Gap of Dunloe & Beara Peninsula

Today's assault was on the third finger*: the Beara Peninsula. This meant passing back through Kenmare, but I did so via the long long scenic route through the Gap of Dunloe. The "Gap" section is very scenic indeed, although slow going with many pony-carts carrying tourists along the narrow roads. After that there's a very long section of aimless valley floor driving until we could exit via Moll's Gap and head down to Kenmare.

*I'm reminded of an expression I heard on the radio earlier in the week "do it now or put it on the long finger" which I assumed meant "tie a knot to the long finger to remember something for the distant future".

Although the sign-posted distances between towns are not great on the peninsula, the twisting roads seem to treble them on the odometer. Where the roads were straight and signposted for 100Kph limits there was inevitably a very slow driver accumulating a chain of frustrated followers who would trundle along looking at the sky and never pulling out to allow us to pass. I got stuck behind this same driver 3 times in the course of the day in different parts of the peninsula. The roads reminded me of the "space-filling curves" I learnt about in Pure Mathematics an age ago.

On a whim, I detoured off the "Ring of Beara" on the northern side of the peninsula to trundle along a pot-holed road to Kilcatherine Point. The headland was carpeted in all manner of squelchiflora and other squigenous material. It was very pleasant to walk over, but I discovered when I knelt down that it was also very prickly and probably not a great experience for Bondi

Rejoining the Ring, I kept thinking we were nearing the very end of the peninsula where there's a cable car rated "for 3 men and a cow" to Dursey Island. There were some truly spectacular vistas out toward the end of the island (between Eyeries & Allihies IIRC), but I thought I'd stop for photos on my return, when there was less traffic. Unfortunately I miscalculated where I was and didn't retrace these roads. I actually missed the turn off to Dursey and overshot to Castletown Bearhaven about 15 km later - none of the intervening hamlets being signposted. I finally got out to the cable car site at about 3pm, only to find that it ran very fitfully - especially on Sundays - and I'd basically missed the chance to ride it out to the island.

After that it was just a weary drive back to Castletown Bearhaven, and then up through Healy Pass and onto Kenmare, down to Killarney and thence to the farm.


Sheeps Head - Kenmare - Killarney

[Saturday] Checked out of Clonakilty and drove west again, and then north at Ballydehob. Today's peninsular finger was to be Sheeps Head. It's a pleasant drive down the lower side, and then you hit a set of roads variously indicating cycle or walking paths to the Head itself, without offering a suggestion as to which one to drive on (all being roads of equal width).

I headed up the central (walking) road and saw that there was actually a side path for actual walking, with an indication of another stone circle. We walked up it for a short way, past a roaring cascading stream, through a long section of boggy peaty path lined only with nettles, holly and other things one shouldn't grab at when stumbling. The stone circle was a very small affair, with two stones standing, and I might have just walked past it if it hadn't been signposted earlier. There wasn't an indication of how far we might have to walk, so we turned back through the bog and nettles, jumped back in the car, and then drove down the cycle road.

As with our journey to Mizen head yesterday, heavy fog made the last section of the journey rather pointless as there was less and less to see as we forged on. At the last descent into the wool-like fog, I decided enough was enough and turned around. Back at the main loop and fog-free, we turned toward the northern side of the peninsula, and climbed quickly onto another fog-bound ridge. Almost as quickly we were out of it and looked down on a spectacular view of Bantry Bay.

We turned around the high street of Bantry, looking for a place to eat. Nothing caught my eye, so I drove into the grounds of Bantry House but was deterred by a 5€ overhead on just entering the grounds before getting hit-up for lunch cost.

Back on the N71, north again. Stopped in pretty Glengariff (?) but the cafe was full of post-communion diners, so north again. Passing through a short but primitively cut road-tunnel we left County Cork for County Derry. The roads were in a pretty bad state - early works on their upgrading notwithstanding. Much of the N71 north of Ballydehob is very narrow one lane road with few opportunities to overtake slow farm machinery or tourist coaches. One must slow to crawl-speed to pass all oncoming traffic, especially such wider loads. At one point I was following a geriatrically slow Fiat Panda, which couldn't have been slower if the passengers were actually riding a giant bear that stopped every few minutes to eat bamboo shoots in the middle of the road.

My tummy was really rumbling and so I pulled over at a farm cafe overlooking a lovely valley that recalled some of the Basque country I had traversed in November. The cafe, called something like Jolly Molly and her holly (golly!) didn't have much food on offer so I settled on a coffee and scone.

Soon however we reached the perky little town of Kenmare, which had real food and real coffee on offer (at Jam cafe) and I topped up for the afternoon. Perched at the nexus of the Ring of Kerry and the Ring of Bera (peninsular fingers 3 & 4) it was doing a roaring tourist trade. In a music store I picked up a couple of old albums by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, who has produced some wonderful piano/chamber pieces reworking traditional Irish tunes. I've been trying to track down some print scores of his work for years, but he remains unpublished. His surname is pronounced O'Sulleveen, the 'bh' being like that in Cobh/Cove.

After Kenmare, the terrain became much starker, sheep and stones sometimes indistinguishable in roadside pasture. The Macgillycuddy's Reeks dominated the landscape, and then we came over Moll's Pass after which tourists (mostly American, German and some Poles or Russians) multiplied furiously. The clouds were dispersing as quickly and I was seeing more blue-sky than at any time since arriving in Ireland.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Lot's Wife and the standing stones

After a late start, I drove westwards to Skibbereen, the major centre for West Cork. I quickly found out why the guidebooks give it short shrift: if Clonakilty is tidy town, then Skibbereen is its opposite. The people I spoke to on the streets were very pleasant but the town was very unattractive, especially after the sequence of pleasant villages extending all the way back to Cork city. It reminded me of a bit of Fraserburgh in northern Scotland.

Then it was south to Baltimore, a small village on the peninsula below Skibbereen famous for having had a hundred of its people kidnapped by Algerian pirates in 1631: "The Sack of Baltimore". Today was supposed to be the first day of a 3 day Wooden Boat Festival (I guess like the one in Vancouver BC) but the place was decidedly nonfestive and gave little sign that anything was happening. One of my guidebooks mentioned an interesting beacon/lighthouse, known as Lot's Wife, which we eventually found as it was not signposted anywhere in Baltimore. It's perched on a headland south of the town, with unfenced cliff edges abounding, the thought of which is enough to make my stomach turn over several times. I climbed to higher ground to be level with the 30m+ structure but couldn't pursuade myself to walk closer.

Turning back we followed some lovely countryside to ex-hippy town of Ballydehob and walked around 12 Arches Bridge. This town is at the base of the lowest of the 5 peninsular fingers marking Ireland's southwest. At the other end of this peninsula is Crookhaven with "the last inn in Ireland" and Mizen Head, supposedly the most southwesterly point of Ireland. I'm not sure how they worked this out: I would figure that point had to be where a 45degree line (like a weather front) would first hit the mainland as it moved from the southwest. To my eye, it looks like Crow Head, "two fingers north" on the Beara peninsula would be a better candidate for the title.

Stopped between Toormore & Goleen for a late lunch (a surprisingly good goats cheese salad and a wonderful carrot cake), challenging the proprietor to make me a strong cup of coffee.

Reaching Mizen Head through a few miles of fog, the visitor centre was visible but not much else - the lighthouse beyond it couldn't be seen, let alone any view of the coastline. I decided to forgo visiting the lighthouse today: it would have been like my foggy visit to the Eiffel Tower a few years ago where I could only see things under the tower.

We left the centre and made a wrong turn at an unsignposted intersection (not helped by the fog). I figured that since the peninsula was so narrow, anywhere we went would take us landwards. We had an interesting ride around country roads, but seemed to have found one of the few long cul-de-sacs on the peninsula, dropping us at (I assume) Three Castle Head. I retraced the road back to the intersection and then around to Crookhaven via Barley Cove.

Leaving the peninsula I had stop to make on the way back to Clonakilty: the Drombeg stone
. Turning off the N71 at Leap, the road through Glandore is very attractive, and I see now is marked on my map as a scenic route. It took a little while to find the stone circle as one of my maps had it marked incorrectly. The only road-indication is a small sign at the actual turn off to the private property where you can visit the circle. For those planning a tour of Ireland: (1) stop at every intersection to read signs & (2) don't expect guidebook-listed attractions to be signposted.

The circle is fairly small - about the size of a master bedroom, with the tallest of ~16 stones being a little taller than me, and the shortest about knee-height. Nearby is the remains of a stone-hut and a cooking-room where hot stones were used to boil water for cooking meat.

The final pictures here are from Clonakilty: the statue is of Michael Collins, and was unveiled a few years ago by Liam Neeson, who had portrayed him on film.