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.

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