Great Saltee

A visit to the Saltee Islands in June

It was my second visit to the Saltee Islands. A photograph trip to capture the wild and natural landscape and wildlife that live on the island, undisturbed except for a few ambitious photographers. We were there to shoot the birds. I mean, shoot the birds, not shoot the birds.

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According to Lonely Planet, it was once the haunt of smugglers. It is now an important bird sanctuary, one of the world’s major sanctuaries. It can be found 5km from Kylemore Quay in Co. Wexford. A ferry takes passengers on the 30 minute journey across to the Great Saltee (the Little Saltee is not open to visitors). You scramble out of the ferry onto a dingy and clamber onto the sand hopefully with your dignity, although that is not always guaranteed.

The Great Saltee is privately owned by the Neale family, since 1943, and visits are limited to certain times of the year. An empty house can be found on the island, close to the pier. The curtains are drawn and even thinking of peering in the windows is somehow forbidden. Leaving the pier and the house behind, you walk past the throne (a memorial to the owner’s mother complete with coat of arms and an inscription) and out onto the cliff edge, where you will find puffin and razorbills. The island is also a breeding ground for gannets, guillemots and lots of other birds. Spring or early summer is the best time to visit. It’s nesting time and once nesting is over, the birds leave.

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My goal this time was to get that elusive shot of a puffin with fish in its mouth. We spent about 7 hours on the island, from the pier to the southern tip that is home to thousands of noisy gannets. It is a green oasis away from technology and the intrusions of modern life. Photographers are the only things you will have to grapple with. Bring a camera, lunch and beware there are no toilet facilities on the island. It’s a beautiful quiet place, a sanctuary for more than just the birds.

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Visting Inishbofin – Part Four The West Quarter Loop

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Sunday arrived. The last day of my Inishbofin adventures. The rain was intermittent. I layered on my clothing before I left the hostel and four minutes down the road, before the sheep and its hungry lamb appeared, I pealed it all off again. The sheep weren’t interested in my rolled up water proof protectors. Looking briefly before resuming their interrogation of a clump of grass, I set off again, towards the western side of the island. My last day and my last loop walk.

I passed the double decker bus, but the shutter was down. Birds perched on the roof, flitting off to chase insects. The grass around the wheels shuddered in the breeze. In the distance sheep bleated messages to each other. Life started later on a Sunday. I followed the coastline passed whitewashed cottages and a hotel, and a triumvirate of cows on what looked like a regular stroll down the quiet Sunday road. Representing all colours, sandy, then red, then brown, they neatly stuck to the left hand side, allowing for passing traffic. They’d obviously taken this route before.

Further up, passed the ram’s head skull, I came upon the gate into the loop path, guarded by a sheep mother and infant. Horned and purple streaked, like gate keepers from a sci-fi movie, I cowered. I stood and went through all possible outcomes of this standoff. The sheep gazed back and eventually moved off, through a very convenient hole in the wire. I breathed a sigh of relief. I scrambled over the ladder and followed. The track was accidental, created by farmers’ vehicles as they rounded up their livestock I imagined. I was bracketed on one side by the grassy mountain itself, dotted with sheep of every colour. On the other, the wild Atlantic ocean, made wilder on this day by unforgiving winds that lashed the ruins of abandoned houses on Inishark. Bring binoculars to see them more clearly, for they are a strange sight. Abandoned in 1960, the ruins are a reminder of the cost of progress.

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I kept going, following the track passed Inishark, grazing sheep and napping lambs to Dún Mor cliffs, all the way to the sea stags and the island’s seal colony, where two seals frolicked among the rocks. I sat for a while, watching the other visitors as they took in this breathtaking landscape. This was by far my favourite walk. It even included bog in the process of being cut. Mounds of turf were protected under tarp, awaiting their owners return, and soft white bog cotton held onto their roots as the wind whipped them around. Bikes were strewn here and there as cyclists abandoned their horses for escapes up hills and out onto cliffs.

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I could have stayed there forever, just watching the water, feeling the wind wrap itself around me. I saw a vision of Ireland I thought was long gone. Stone houses, wooden gates, wandering sheep and colonies of seagulls, all existing effortlessly beside each other. It seemed to have sprung straight from a Paul Henry canvas. I trudged back to the hostel three hours after I took off that morning with a heavy heart. I was leaving the following day. I was leaving behind this landscape, soft and resilient.

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The Sugar Loaf Mountain

On a cold and windy morning in February we tackled the Sugar Loaf mountain in Co. Wicklow. ‘Showers’ was what the weather forecast stated. The drive out was uneventful, straight out on the N11, a turn missed and a curse echoing around the car. Once the satnav voice declared the turn off was upon us, it was a slow and cautious drive up Red Lane to the base of the mountain and a very well maintained car park with an interesting stone arch entry way.

The minute we stepped out of the car it started to snow. But not the light and fluffy snow you see in movies. This snow was sharp, piercing and excellent at hitting its mark. So we hesitated. Hopping back into the car wouldn’t have been acceptable. We had gotten this far and turning back after just looking at the mountain would have been disappointing, even sad. So we trudged up the Sugar Loaf as a respectful pace, watching every step as the wind lashed snow against out faces. The mist rolled across the top of the mountain, giving it a mysterious air. The higher we climbed the strong the wind blew, as if it didn’t want us to ascend its protected possession. Passing one or two climbers on the way up who looked beaten by the weather and rocky ground we should have taken the hint.

As the snow fell even faster and the wind blew event stronger, we accepted defeat and headed for home, or at least the car park. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by a patchwork of green fields, snowy paths and dotted with isolated houses. I’ll be back to try again soon, when it’s warmer of course.

 

A greater union on Skellig Michael

It was a long wait for 2nd October to arrive.

Woken by an alarm clock that is not programmed to ring on a valuable weekend morning, the morning finally arrived when we were going to set off on the final leg of our trip to portmagee, and Skellig Michael. Having trekked all the way down from Dublin the night before, we reached Limerick just after 10pm. My parents insisted we have a drink in the kitchen with them; the warmth of the house always gathered in the kitchen first. I took a sip of a lukewarm beer and promised it would only be one bottle and then off to bed. We still had a 2.5 hour drive to Portmagee in the morning and a groggy head wasn’t going to get us there. Falling into bed at 1am, I sensed the inevitable hangover creeping its way to my head, ready to set up camp for the day. Chris found the OPW safety video and with absolute naiveté I perched on the arm of her chair and prepared to be bored. I knew little about the island and avoided doing any preparation for this trip whatsoever, in case the preparation ruined things. This decision proved correct. Thanks to the safety video, I started to prepare for inevitable death, tumbling off the side of the island into the cold and inhospitable Atlantic. Dragged under only to resurface in Nova Scotia, a warning to others to watch their footing and a new instalment in the safety video.

At 6am it was confirmed. I was indeed hungover. A bowl of salty porridge and a sip of coffee later, we bundled into the car for 2.5 hours of techno music and google directions. My companions seemed oblivious to the fogginess that hung before my eyes. Eoin was the captain of our vessel for the day, the Agnes Olibhear, and as we pulled up outside the Skellig Visitor Centre I wondered if our vessel had just spit out the small orange boat gently bobbing around the pier like a perky toddler at a wedding trying to find the rhythm. This was indeed going to be our boat for the day. Only 12 people fit on the Agnes Olibhear and every day Skellig Michael sees 180 people climb its rock face. From April to October only, the Great Skellig (Michael) welcomes visitors to its stony surface. Those who survive the boat trip are rewarded with views of another world as the Atlantic glistens and blankets of moss wrap themselves around towering sea crags. For a moment, I fell under its spell of beauty and solitude.

Mythical, ancient, daunting Skellig Michael was the perfect end to a summer of travels.