Greetings, dear reader. This is the first of a new series of travelogues written from the perspective of a pillion passenger on a motorcycle. Now I'm fairly new to this motorbiking malarky, and this was to be my first long trip away for the weekend: Kerry, 300 miles away in the south west corner of Ireland. About as far away from Belfast as it's possible to go without falling off the other end, really. How did I fare? Read on...
The Journey There
Perversely enough, I started my journey with every form of transport except a bike! Work committments prevented me from leaving with the bike's owner and pilot, Dai-the-Death, so I opted to try out the new coach service to Dublin, which leaves every hour from Belfast and costs about a fiver. Given the price of petrol and the annoyance of parking at Dublin airport, this is a real bargain. Plus it's much more relaxing to be able to snooze/read/listen to music while someone else does the driving. At Dublin airport I managed to check in quickly enough, and even the 'take your shoes off' that I'd been expecting at security1 was smoother than I'd imagined, given that my shoes were big heavy biking boots. I did get a few funny looks on the plane with my helmet tucked under my arm, but it was defintely impressive to be met at Kerry airport by Dai, pop the helmet on, swing my leg over and zoom off into the sunset, James Bond style.
And what a sunset it was too! Kerry has some of the most stunning scenery in Ireland, with dramatic cliffs that drop away sharply into the Atlantic Ocean, fabulous mountains and long golden beaches.
I'd being trying to cure a sore throat and cough before I got there, but managed to almost deafen poor Dai over the intercom during one coughing fit. Tears were streaming from my eyes and snot drizzled from my nostrils. I wondered whether I should snort it back up, lick it off when it reached my lips, or just let it dry into a rather fetching crusty moustache. Needless to say, I soon developed certain strategies for dealing with a cough inside the confines of a helmet:
- *Do not sing.
- *Do not laugh.
- *Difficult this one - but try to keep talking to a minimum.
- *Press your tongue up against the roof of your mouth and concentrate on breathing deeply and slowly through your nose.
- *Always keep a Fishermans Friend2 handy to pop into your mouth - but remember, no crunching! The objective is to make it last as long as possible.
- *If you MUST cough, open your visor, cover the microphone with your fingers or thumb, and cough outwards, 'computer says no' stylee.
- *In extremis, unplug the intercom.
And Dai's handy tips for cleaning the inside of a visor that's been spluttered all over are - use diluted washing up liquid. Aside from the coughing paroxysms, we had a very pleasant ride to our hostel, at the foot of Mount Brandon, Ireland's second highest peak. We dined in the pub next door on delicious local scampi and greeted the fellow bikers who were joing us.
Day 1 - Ballybeama Gap
Well I guess that if bikes are the ultimate in boys toys, then this part of the world, with single track roads snaking their way through Ireland's highest mountains, jaw-dropping vistas around every corner, and a good night's crack guaranteed in the pub at the end of the day, must surely rank amongst the ultimate in playgrounds. Friday's rideout past Magillicuddy's Reeks and across Ballybeama Gap was just unbelievable. We had an extremely civilised lunch - silver teapots and smoked salmon sandwiches - at the Great Southern Hotel, overlooking the Kenmare inlet. On the way home we split into two groups, as some of the more foolhardy... er... adventurous riders wanted to try off-roading in the forests, whilst others wanted to get back to a television set in time for some football match thing that was starting. All safely home, Saturday evening's entertainment in the bar was provided by a lively Glaswegian from The Gorbals who seemed to know all of Christy Moore's back catalogue, and the local head-the-ball. Actually, we couldn't work out if the latter was a genuine nutter, or whether that distinctly hippy patchouli-like smell in the smoking garden had anything to do with it.
You can see why this place is such a magnet for artists - the light across the hillsides and seascape is just fantastic, continually changing, and the landscapes are simply stunning. As well as attracting visitors especially from the USA and Germany, there is a palpable holistic hippy feel to the place... wholefood shops and vegetarian restaurants abound and I was even able to get a very welcome shiatsu massage at the hostel where we were staying.
Day 2 - Beara Peninsula
Saturday dawned accompanied by the twin terrors of a hangover, plus a gale warning. We adopted a positive mental attitude and opted for the longer suggested ride, convinced that the gale would not give us much bother. The journey down to Beara Peninsula3 was blustery and a few spots of rain were starting to fall, but we persevered. The hedgerows on the inland side are a colourful cornucopia of ferns and foxgloves, furze and fuschia4, but a less welcome sight are the rhododendrons which proliferate in this climate. They may be pretty to look at, but they are a threat to the native biodiversity. Remember, a weed is anything that is growing where its not wanted. Meanwhile, the Atlantic side of the peninsula has a landscape which is a contratsing barren wilderness of undulating rock formations and windswept crags. We kept going till lunchtime, but the plan was then to ride over Healy Pass and the Priests Leap. While it's all very well riding up steep and twisty roadways just for the sheer machismo, it's not much cop if you can't see the stunning view from the top because your visor's covered in raindrops and the mist is so low that there's no view anyway.
So we bade farwell to the more hardy members of the group and made our way home at our own pace (ie we had a shopping stop in the delightful town of Kenmare, where I bought a truly gorgeous modern-style aran caridgan in pale green and we both invested in whatever long-sleeved Tshirts were on the sale rail to wear straight away). Relieved to be back at the hostel, albeit damp and miserable, I took off my gloves to let about a cupful of water drain out of each of them, my poor fingers pruned as raisins. We rationalised that, yes, if there IS a gale forecast then it IS a good idea to take 5 minutes and make sure you have proper wet weather gear with you. And here's another handy tip - when it's raining, make sure your gloves are inside the sleeve of your jacket.
Day 3 - The Journey Home
Topologically speaking, Ireland is shaped a bit like a saucer: all the mountains are round the edges. So the ride home across the central plain was a) boring, b) provided no shelter from the strong winds that were still gusting and c) punctuated only by the monotone instructions from the GPS: 'In.Thirty. Eight. Miles. Enter roundabout.'
However, we managed the 300 odd miles with pleasant stops for:
- *fill up in Tralee - petrol and McMuffins
- *fag break/stretch legs amongst the picturesque thatched cottages of Adare
- *toasted sandwiches in Mountrath
- *petrol fill-up and ice lolly at the horrible junction of the Naas Road and Dublin's overcrowded ring road. Where are all these people going on a Sunday afternoon, eh?
- *McFlurry in Newry
Back home, we agreed that we were both truly astounded by this amazing, uniquely beautiful place, and it's rightly high on the list of must-see places for any visitors to Ireland. Meanwhile, I've just booked a holiday cottage for a week in July to take all my family, when we want to climb Carraun Toohil5, dive the Maharee Islands, do the scenic drive of the Ring of Kerry, see seals and dolphins, ride horses through Kilarney National Park... sheesh a week's not going to be nearly enough!