Finally the day came to start the cycle!
19th August:Starting in Moville, Co. Donegal. I found a little café open at 8am and had the first of many scrambled eggs on toast and coffee breakfasts!
The morning was grey but dry as I set of with Garmin in place to record my kilometres, Go-pro on my head to film the trip, saddle bags that weighed the equivalent of a small child, packed with a change of cycling clothes, rain gear, shoes and “ordinary” clothes for wearing around my destination each evening, pyjamas, book to read, reading glasses, sun glasses -which I wore twice in 30 days- notebook to record my trip, fruit and nuts to sustain me on route and a weird feeling I could not name.
As I left Moville I headed into the unknown, I had never been in this part of Donegal before let alone cycled it. I followed the signs for the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) and approximately 3 km outside Moville I encountered a companion who would accompany me on every day of the cycle, namely The Wind. I have to say writing this blog from the perspective of having completed the trip I tried every tactic in my repertoire to befriend the wind but failed miserably. The wind won every battle as I cycled into it , across it, battled with it , was knocked off by the force of it and one late evening experienced the pure joy of having it at my back as I cycled into Tralee……but that is to come. Right now I was cycling into a fairly forceful headwind as I made my way to Malin Head.
An interesting aspect of cycling in Donegal was the hills. I am truly convinced that engineers in Donegal Co. Council walk around looking upwards seeing potential to build roads that all seem to go uphill!!! Initially I comforted myself with the reasoning if I go up I must come down and I like hilly cycling for the thrill of downhill free wheeling…well in Donegal many times when I thought I was on top ready to come downhill, the road took another dive upwards….the songs “The Hills Of Donegal” came to mind. It must be the hilliest county in Ireland.
My route took me to Malin Head via Leckemy, Ballymagaraghy, Culldaff, Portaleen and Ballygorman. The coastal scenery was beautiful in the grey dull light. I encountered an interesting issue on the WAW . It is not designed for cyclists as the signs are too far apart and have next to no millage/Kilometres on them. I got lost and had to flag down one of the very few cars I met to get back on track. Getting lost in a car is a totally different experience than on a bike. Each time getting lost added a degree of anxiety and extra kilometres as much of the time I was on my own on the roads, with no cars, no buses and definitely no cyclists meant hoping I was going the right direction.
Finally I arrived in Malin Head Light House the most northerly point of Ireland . It is a spectacular setting. And most importantly it had a mobile coffee shop. Oh that cup of coffee was the nicest I ever had!
I headed for Carndonagh via all the little roads hugging the coastline. And then to Ballyliffin. I had never heard of Ballyliffin until this year when it was announced that they are holding the Irish Open Golf competition there in 2018. I have to say the golf club is in a stunning setting. Finally I arrived into my destination for the night, Clonmany a lovely village with a good supermarket and a few nice pubs and take away cafes.
I found my b&b in a lovely housing estate on the edge of the village. I have to confess I still have not met my landlord! We were in text contact. He was playing in a golf competition and we missed each other twice as I went to the pub for a much needed bottle of cider. All I know is he is very generous with the use of his house ….”help yourself to any food or drink in the kitchen” was written in the note he left me. And in the morning he had breakfast of fruit, cereal, yogurt and bread left out for me. I heard him snoring soundly as I left early next day.
From my diary ” So this is it- it has started, no longer in my imagination but definitely in my body. Am wondering how will I manage it-on my own, days cycling, wind, rain. I keep wondering who am I these days? Like I don’t know what has happen with me and my neighbours and the impact it has had on me. How I feel full of anxiety and not able to bring joy into my mind …feeling as if I am living outside myself, on someone else’s terms…….”
I had an immediate example of how this anxiety was going to affect me on the cycle. I met a young man who was also staying in the b&b in the evening. He was cycling around Northern Ireland and Donegal in the opposite direction to me for the weekend. We compared notes on what was ahead of each other the next day. ” Are you heading up Mamór? ” “Yea ” Oh my god its brutal, absolutely brutal climb”.
If this slim, fit young man on a carbon fibre bike with the tiniest little saddle bag found Mamór brutal….how in god’s name was I going to make it up the mountain. All night I tossed and turned worried sick I would not make it up and I’d get stuck in the middle of nowhere. Like all late night mulling catastrophic thinking ran riot….how stupid was I to think I could do this cycle and on and on……
20th August: As the sky brightened I got up, packed the bike, had breakfast and set off to face this brutal mountain. It was dry and quiet as I rode out of the housing estate and along small roads looking out on to the Atlantic with some beautiful empty beaches. As I progressed I felt the road begin to rise and gears began to change. Up and up I went peddling hard until I rounded a corner and saw the WAW sign. I could hardly believe it, the sign for Mamór. I had made it , the view was lovely and I was well……what had all that anxiety been about? ….was I so fit I didn’t find it brutal?…..I took my photos and returned to the bike ready for the downhill. I turned the next corner to discover a wall of a mountain in front of me…..the WAW sign was located 1/3 of the way up Mamór!!!!!!!
Off I took and practiced the most profound mindful meditation ever ….pedal, breathe, pedal, breathe, pedal. breathe, There was absolutely no way to waste any energy thinking about anything else. At one stage I did have the thought my lungs were going to burst but they didn’t! I made it to the top and was so proud of my achievement to cycle a category 1 climb with the equivalent of a small child on my carrier! A huge wave of loneliness hit me as there was no one to share it with in person. I did get lots of positivity from my family viber but I learnt along the way that nothing makes up for face to face physical presence. Loneliness was to be my second companion on this odyssey.
Off I took cycling quite cautiously down Mamór as it was so steep and I had a weight on the back of the bike that made it feel a bit dodgy and sheep wandering from side to side across the road.
I continued on following the WAW signs and arrived at Dunree Head. Here I met two very friendly men walking their dogs in the early morning. Encounters like this became very precious along the way. It was a beautiful spot with stunning views across Lough Swilly, the sea was so calm I began to think maybe the wind was not going to be an issue and my fantasy of meandering the WAW would happen!!!
I flew through Buncrana as at 9,30am there were no coffee shops open and finally ended up sitting outside a petrol station in Burt drinking coffee and eating a sandwich.
I continued to Letterkenny where I was due to stay the night. I arrived there round 2pm and decided it was too early to stop and I was on a roll after my high of Mamór so on I went to Rathmullen. I found a lovely welcoming B&B -actually the only B&B – and was very lucky to get a bed. This was the only time I chanced not booking ahead.
After a hot shower I set off to find a pub where I could watch the match between Kerry (my team) and Mayo and a bottle of cider. I had a most enjoyable time there with a group of men who had a break from “child minding” to watch the match. The craic was mighty and especially when they heard what I was up to I became for a brief moment the centre of much admiration! The match was a draw so I took myself for a walk on a lovely beach full of families enjoying this rare warm evening. The water was cool and refreshing to paddle in.
I ended my day in a beautiful restaurant with the best vegetarian dinner I have had in a long time. All in all it was a good day inspite of my earlier fears.
21st. August. Left my B&B at 9am and made my way to Fanad Head. More spectacular coastline, vast empty beaches, cliffs, mountains and hilly roads. Wind and rain came back to visit. I made my way to Carrigart via the Harry Blaney Bridge -an amazing structure rising up in the middle of this empty rural area.
It spans Mulroy bay and makes a short cut to Carrigart. I arrived in the village of Carrigart at lunchtime. Decided to find my B&B , leave my saddle bags and head around the Downings with less weight. I discovered Upper Carrigart -the location of my B&B- was actually 5km outside Carrigart!!!! So I backtracked, dropped off my luggage and took off to see the Downings. The rain had stopped, so now I only had my companion the wind to contend with. Again more beautiful landscapes. Downings was an interesting mix as part of it has a very busy caravan park and mobile homes whilst the back of it is sparsely populated with lots of empty space.
Back in my B&B that night I reflected on the mix of emotions I was beginning to experience on this cycle. I loved the freedom and growing simplicity of my life , yet the heaviness of heart in the midst of all this beauty was palpable.
Loneliness was not a feeling I had allowed myself to experience most of my life. I learned at a very early age that loneliness was associated with being ungrateful. I was used to cycling on my own. I had never joined a club as I am not a fast cyclist -I have endurance rather than speed, and I imagined I’d not be able to keep up with a club. Also being on my own and doing things on my own had been a way of life I took for granted. But now the loneliness came to the forefront with a vengeance. Much of the landscape I was moving through held a deep sense of loneliness. So my inside emotional life and the outer landscape where mirroring each other.
22nd. August: This was a day of two starkly different halves. I left my B&B on a warm, dry, quiet morning off to see the Glenties. I was closer to the coastline this time out of the high hills but being Donegal they still managed to created roller coaster roads. I was so surprised by this area as it looked like “Lego-land” with the amount of houses scattered all over the landscape. I could not make out any order and wondered what kind of planning permission is given to build! I did imagine there must be a lot of coffee shops here …..but no I did not find any so continued on to a village called Dáire Beag. As I approached the village I got a text from my friend asking was I ok, as the rain was so bad….I looked around and saw no sign of rain and began to make a story that Donegal had less rain than other places!!!!!
Boy was I wrong. As I ate my lunch in the little café I spotted a dark cloud approaching and within minutes the heavens had opened. On went all my raingear as I decided I would be wise to head straight to Dungloe -my stop for the night.
After a few kms the rain began to ease up so I backtracked and headed on the WAW round The Rosses. I was no sooner off again when the heavens opened and I just had to continue. I cycled through walls of water as motorists sped through the many floods that had appeared on the roads. The landscaped disappeared as the rain poured down. I could barely see ahead of me. I arrived to my hostel in Dungloe like a drowned rat. Every stitch of clothes I was wearing was soaked.
The welcome I received from the River House hostel owners was so heart warming I will never forget it. They helped me put my bike away and took all my wet clothes to wash and dry. They guided me to a spacious lovely room and gave me directions to a warm comfortable pub to have dinner.
A quote from my diary entry :” Today I learnt about the fear of the unknown. I have been holding fear of not being able to cycle the high hilly roads or of not managing the wind and rain as I listened to the weather forecasts. Today I cycled the roller coaster roads and into buckets of rain and high winds. I realise how the fear of “what might be”23rd, is draining and actually cycling through these fear filled situations is so liberating. I felt so proud of myself as I cycled into Dungloe having achieved way more than I could have believed this morning!”
All night the rained poured down relentlessly and I awoke next morning to hear of the awful destruction that had been visited on the people of the Inishown Peninsula by the deluge that hit them. Villages I had stayed in or stopped for lunch had mudslides which destroy houses, roads and bridges were washed away. It felt very real as I knew the names of all the places they spoke about. Sadness was the prevailing emotion as I set off from Dungloe.
The wind was relentless and heavy showers made the roads very slippy. The landscape to Glencolmcille was empty, desolate and steeped in loneliness. I honestly do not know how people can make a living here. It was emotionally the toughest day so far. I could not shake off the heaviness in myself. I felt as if I was cycling through sludge at times. I truly wondered what I was doing and yet could not countenance stopping. I arrived into Killybegs as the rain stopped and sun appeared in in the late evening. This time I had booked a little hotel which proved to be a good choice as the bar I had my dinner in was busy and noisy with holiday makers.
I had a nice walk around the fishing port viewing some of the fishing boats in the harbour. This was my last night in Donegal.
24th. August. Off to Sligo and a rest day with my friend Rita. More wind and rain.
Finally I found my idea of a lovely coffee shop in Donegal town. I sat outside under the awning in the rain drinking delightful coffee and brown scones- a little bit of heaven- . The young woman serving me was amused that I would sit outside on such a wet day . I explained I just could not countenance taking off my rain gear to sit inside and anyway I could keep an eye on my bike.
After being fortified I set off for Sligo town. This part of the WAW is on the main roads and is awful. I had to contend with busses, trucks and motorists in the rain and wind. The road was very narrow in spots and where there was a hard shoulder it was full of potholes. I left the main road at one point to visit Rossnowlagh. Those roads were quiet and gave me a break. Unfortunately it was too wet to enjoy this lovely area.
I was very relieved to arrive in Rosses Point and to meet Rita and finally be in company I knew and knew me.
End of part 3.