The West Coast of Ireland (Wild Atlantic Way), a wild and rugged coastline, battered and eroded by huge waves and driving storms. Littered with islands, lighthouses and wildlife. There is certainly plenty to see here: whales, dolphins, puffins, 20,000 gannets, you can even go looking for Luke Skywalker (I didn’t manage see him on my boat trip to the Skelligs).
The landscape of this coastline has been shaped by its weather, and in my opinion the unpredictability of the weather actually adds something to the excitement of cycling here. It wouldn’t have been a legitimate Irish experience if I didn’t experience at least one storm blowing in off the Atlantic. To be exposed to its full force on the most westerly coastal roads watching the sheets of rain blow in across the ocean towards me. I was cycling in early August, so I experienced a lot of summer weather, but that by no means guarantees sunshine. If you want a quotable line about travelling through Ireland then I’ll say this:
“It’s driving rain and gale force winds, and I find myself stopping again to take more photographs of the landscape.”
If the scenery is impressive enough to photograph in the rain then it is indeed impressive. Sure on a good day it’s beautiful as well, but on a bad day it feels like a truly wild place – It’s more than just a view, it’s a place that stimulates the senses and stirs emotions.
In the interests of balance I should point out that the weather wasn’t always challenging, I also got sunburned. So it was with my burnt and peeling nose I headed out, Gore Tex and sun lotion at the ready, to see what each day would have in store.
As is often the way with bicycle touring, it’s the hardest days that stick in your mind as the most memorable achievements. Normally it’s crossing mountain ranges with the reward a spectacular view from the top. Ireland, with nothing being truly mountainous, the gale force winds offered both joyous help and soul crushing hindrance. The reward? Roaring seas, salt spray in your face, sand in your eyes and the wind howling through telegraph wires, it can be delightfully savage out there. I found myself 100km from the daily target, crawling along screaming profanities into a gale-force headwind. Another day I would be barreling along with a strengthening evening tailwind comfortably approaching 200km for the day. Following the Wild Atlantic Way makes a 500km direct route into over 1600km of coast hugging; so whichever way the wind blows it will be both a blessing and a curse, often all in the same day.
I got wet too, one whole day of near permanent driving rain. I actually feared a whole day of rain, but once I’d done it and not just endured it but enjoyed the cycling, the views and exceeded my target distance for the day I feared it no longer. On top of the Connor Pass in driving rain and howling wind, a river running down the road, and waterfalls pouring off the rocks around me. A lone car in the summit carpark, windows steamed up, its inhabitants reluctant to emerge into the tumultuous weather. A driver taps on his window to get my attention, and gives me a thumbs up. It’s wild up here, I think to myself, as a smile draws across my face, what a wild place to be. It’s almost white out but I can see enough to know it’s a spectacular view beyond the cloud. The road cut into the hill side, a shear drop into the clouds below me. A few rocks jutting out, and as the cloud moves below a lake emerges into view. Yeah perhaps my photos would have looked better in sunshine (sunny pictures are available in shops in the postcard section and on the internet), but on this almost deserted pass, permeated by rain and battered by wind, my experience is one of solitude. Despite the relatively small altitude change, it has the feel of something much bigger; the exposure, the weather I guess adding to the experience. Call me weird if you like but I loved it up there.
After visiting the Cliffs of Mohar I cycled onto Doolin, knowing that a storm would hit in the early hours of the morning, with 45mph (73km/h) winds forecast I knew the sensible thing to do was to seek some kind of solid shelter, but part of me wanted to try camping in it, just to see if I could. So I started sensibly at least, seeking out the first hostel I could find.
“Do you have a room for the night please?” I asked,
“We’re fully booked, but you can camp outside”
It was decided, I’d fallen at the first hurdle and landed in a tent. “Ok, camping should be fun”.
There were more hostels and B&B’s to choose from, but I didn’t need much to persuade me camping was the more exciting idea in the storm. I used my compass to try and lessen the effects of the forecast westerly wind, and tucked my tent close to a wall and a bush. Did I sleep well? I slept with my face buried in the sleeping bag to stop the tent fabric from beating me around the head, but yes I managed to actually sleep. I met a German cyclist the next morning who didn’t sleep quite so well in his tent, and he was not at all happy about it. I had 3 days of strong winds; only 2 of those would be classified as gale force. Here is a short video from the second day of gale force winds up on the North West coast:
The Wild Atlantic Way is definitely wild, and that is what drew me to it. But I discovered it’s also lined with the comforts of hostels, B&B’s and campsites, with friendly faces that ask “How are ya?” and launch into full friendly conversation. There were times I felt in the middle of nowhere, but I could always find food, shelter and friendly faces to look after me (it did actually feel like I was being looked after in many places). So whatever the weather throws at you, a warm welcome and dry bed is sure to be waiting in the next town if you need it.