Leaving ordinary life behind

 

Leave ordinary life behind … that’s what they ask you to do when you land at Maria Island. And it’s an easy thing to do.

Maria Island is a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s a carefree, car-free haven for walking, biking, camping and watching wildlife with not a single shop, cafe or ice-cream kiosk in sight.

We loved leaving ordinary life behind so much that we decided to camp on for a second night … stretching out the pasta, chicken, cereal and red wine that we’d brought with us.

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A wombat, yes … but can you spot the kangaroo?

We loved watching wallabies, wombats and the strange looking Cape Barren geese grazing around our tent as we cooked. And we absolutely loved stumbling across a herd of over 50 kangaroos quietly grazing on a headland against the setting sun.

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Cape Barren goose

We heard (but didn’t see) Tasmanian devils shrieking at night. It was fortunate that they weren’t too close as the rangers had told us to cover up our bike saddles so little devils couldn’t eat them. 

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The bins are devil protectors

The island has a colourful human history too. It endured two brief periods as a penal colony for reoffenders but was closed in favour of the more secure Port Arthur after repeated escapes.

An ill-fated attempt by a colourful Italian entrepreneur called Diego Bernacchi to develop industry, agriculture and tourism didn’t last either. His large cement works once supported over 500 people with hotels, shops and a tramline. It never came close to break-even and collapsed in the 1930’s Great Depression.

This has left an eclectic mix of ruined buildings on the island.

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A small museum vividly brings to life the experiences of the people who lived there, incarcerated and free. One diarist was William Smith O’Brien, an Irish MP and leader of the Young Irish movement that fought against the potato famine and other injustices. He was imprisoned here in 1849, before being sent to Port Arthur and eventually pardoned some 7 years later.

As well as describing a failed escape attempt on a whaling boat he laments at being cast so far away from his loved ones. So far that he was on a small island, off the coast of an island which was itself off the coast of Australia.

We could sense his isolation.

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These were our last few nights camping as we’re sending our stuff back to Melbourne before we head to the colder mountains in the west.

Camping on Maria Island has made buying and carrying all that gear worthwhile. The tent is a great design and the sleeping bags are warm and cosy. But the air mattresses are seriously embarrassing in the stillness of the night. They squeak so loudly whenever we roll over or so much as move a muscle.

As a man of a certain age, Andy is forced to go to the loo once or twice a night. Not known for his agility, this becomes quite a performance especially with the noisy mattresses. It’s no wonder the devils stayed away from us!

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Painted Cliffs

Fortunately on clear moonless nights the stars have added to his relief. The night sky seems so much more intense down here … especially the Southern Cross and the wide sweep of the Milky Way, a pearly rainbow from one horizon to the other. 

We recently learnt the reason for this. In the southern hemisphere you look down into the centre of the Milky Way, whereas in the north, you’re looking out to it’s edge.

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Saying goodbye to Maria Island on the early ferry, we headed south across country to the small village of Dunalley. This turned into one of those cycling days that are more than we bargained for.

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We were warned!

It was actually over 50km of cycling on ’ripio’ gravel roads! And the road went uphill! And it rained! And Clare got stung by a wasp (presumably one that had followed us expecting yet more honeydew)! 

But … she stayed impressively cheerful as you can see from these pictures, just very relieved to be back on firm, black tarmac.

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Clare at the beginning of the ‘ripio’
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Clare at the end of the ‘ripio’

The wildlife surprised us yet again. We turned a corner and disturbed a large flock of bright green and red parrots who launched themselves up into the sky in a colourful, noisy, irritable carnival. Later it happened again, this time with scores of white cockatoos swirling in front of us like confetti.

A sadder feature of this road was that there was even more roadkill than usual, in various states of decay … small kangaroos, wallabies, possums and (just once) a snake. It made for a pretty stinky ride!

Roadkill is much more noticeable on Tasmanian roads than on the ‘mainland’, but the locals tell us that this also proves the populations are healthy.

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Another feature of country roads are the house numbers. Anyone fancy living at number 29762? The next house a few kilometres down the road might be 25640. This seems confusing until you discover that a new number is allocated every 10 metres.

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This house is therefore 297.6km from the end of the road in Hobart … a handy way of measuring our progress.

At the end of this particular gravel road was a welcome B&B in a lovely old colonial house. We’ve noticed a few interesting touches that seem to be particular to Tasmania B&B’s … heating lamps in the bathroom ceilings, washing machines and a complimentary decanter of sherry and port to “help you sleep”.

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From Dunalley we rode along the coast to Richmond, a pretty town famous for being the site of Australia’s oldest bridge (convict built of course). Then onto Hobart where our son Chris has joined us for a few days rest and recreation.

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Richmond bridge

Next up is the challenge of the mountainous, wet n’wild West Coast and the road up to Cradle Mountain, the highest point on our circuit.

The weather has turned and there’s a storm on the horizon. Winter is coming!

It doesn’t look like life for the next two weeks will be ordinary at all.

Clare and Andy

Many roads to paradise

Tasmania is a gem … Clare was right! It’s a simply stunning island to cycle around.

As David, our B&B host in Launceston said … “your first few days in the North East will take you through some of the most spectacular scenery on the island. No … some of the most spectacular scenery in Australia. After that it just gets better and better!”

He was not wrong.

The ever changing cinematic view from our handlebars has been both varied and delightful.

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We rolled off the ferry in Devonport at 6am on a misty Friday morning and were relieved to find a bakery serving coffee and huge Aussie croissants. Three hours later and slightly over-caffeinated we decided we couldn’t put off climbing onto our bikes any longer. 

Within a few minutes we were out into big open farmland and wide horizons, the road gently undulating as we headed towards the hills in the distance.

img_0393As most of the heavy traffic takes the highway through the centre of the island, there were very few trucks (hooray!) Some even slowed down a little to pass us.

These roads are for locals and for tourists, which means lots of caravans and motorhomes. It’s ideal motorcycling country and there are large groups of bikers touring the island, all zooming past with a throaty roar and a cheery wave.

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The road then took us down the Tamar valley to Launceston through the heart of Tasmanian wine country, famous for its Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

At Scottsdale we picked up the old North East Railway, now a cycling trail that winds its way gently up to Billycock Hill, 342m above sea level. Sweeping bends never exceed the 2.8% the maximum gradient for a steam train as the trail climbs through a beautiful eucalyptus forest.

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The North East Rail Trail

Later that same day we climbed again to Weldborough. This time more steeply through rich, verdant rain forest thick with tree ferns and knarled, ancient trees.

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Up through the rain forest

After a wet but fun evening with a group of bikers in the Weldborough Tavern, we descended through cattle country until we reached the coast at St Helens. From there it was mile after mile of beautiful coast road, punctuated by small climbs across granite headlands, then down to deserted white sand beaches each lapped by a gin-clear sea.

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Small fishing communities break up this coast offering a good choice of places to stay. But it’s a coast that will forever stay sea-salted and under-developed as it’s protected by a crystal clear, but very cold sea.

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After a week and 400km of pedalling, we reached the jewel in the crown … the unspoilt peninsula of Freycinet National Park at Coles Bay. Here we were lucky enough to find a camping spot at Richardson’s beach (so popular they’re allocated by a ballot in the school holidays) where we threw off our sweaty cycling gear, ran down some private steps to a picture perfect oval beach and plunged into the water.

Then gasped … and quickly ran back out again!

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Camping at Richardson’s Beach
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Wineglass Bay in Freycinet National Park

The cycling has been quite challenging. Anyone who says the East Coast of Tasmania is flat is not telling the whole story!

The land folds itself down to the sea, creating all those pretty bays and headlands but this means that the roads either roll up or roll down again. It’s a good thing as each small hill enhances the view. But it also means a four hour ride feels like four hours of interval training.

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Clare interval training to music

Not all our camping has been as pleasant as Richardson’s beach. At Weldborough it rained hard all night. Then in Swansea we came into much closer contact with nature than we’d bargained for.

We camped in a field under a lonely tree and returned from our harbour-side fish supper to find a brushtail possum hanging upside and feasting on it’s lower branches, just inches from our tent.  It stayed there munching for several hours … and was not a quiet eater.

During the night we noticed a spattering noise, like the sound of gentle rain. This was confusing as it was a dry clear night … but, in the morning our tent was covered in water droplets. We thought it must be dew and left the tent to dry in the sun.

Just as we noticed that the droplets were hardening into a kind of resin the wasps arrived. Ten … twenty … forty … all greedily feasting on these lumps of nectar that now covered the entire tent.

Was it sap from the tree?

No … it turns out the tree was infested by aphids and this was honeydew … the sugary, sticky liquid that aphids excrete as they chew the leaves.

To wasps it is the milk of paradise and they were having a party!

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Two of many feasting wasps
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Trying to shake the wasps off

We’re not sure whether Samuel Coleridge was referring to wasps or not in his famous poem, Kubla Khan, but it feels like he might have been …

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
Their flashing eyes, their floating hair!
Weave a circle round them thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For they on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Kubla Khan by Samuel Coleridge (slightly modified)

We didn’t stop to weave any circles. We just stuffed the tent in its bag and pedalled out of there as fast as we could.

When we got the tent out the next day, to soak away the honeydew in warm water, half a dozen wasps fell out. All alive, they were now miles from home but they had such a satisfied expression on their faces … we knew they didn’t care.

Clare and Andy

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Aussie humour is alive and well!

Around and round and up and down we go again

Thanks to you we’ve twisted and are now safely in Tasmania. Phew!

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I loved all your comments, many thanks for your support. Much to my surprise the vote was almost unanimous, with just one (male) exception! I can’t agree more that we should get away from those long roads and huge trucks. It was also great to hear about the highlights of Tasmania from those of you who have already been here.

Let’s twist again
Like you did last summer
Yeah, let’s twist again
Like you did last year
Well, around and round and up and down
We go again
Come on baby make me know you love me so again
Chubby Checker

By the time we boarded the ferry Andy was genuinely excited about going to Tasmania and our new adventure ahead.

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We’ve been arguing about what constitutes a journey. The English Oxford Dictionary says it’s ‘travelling from one place to another’ and this is Andy’s argument too … you have to go from A to B.

But in my opinion it’s just as valid to go ‘around and round’ from A to A. If you lay out a piece of string along our route through Tasmania it looks like a circle. But if you pull that string tight it becomes a straight line which makes it a journey!

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We’ll be going clockwise

What have I let myself in for? Tasmania is actually a much bigger challenge than Melbourne to Sydney. Mountains dominate the western side of the island but there are some serious hills in the North East too.

Lots of ‘up and down to go again’!

I honestly don’t think Andy realised how difficult it was going to be. He kept telling me that Tasmania was “only about the same size as Wales”. I was so confident it was bigger that I made a bet with him … and even upped the stakes.

It turns out TASMANIA IS OVER 3 TIMES BIGGER THAN WALES!

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Last day in Melbourne

What turned out to be our warm-up ride out of Melbourne and back again took us 380km with over 4000m of climbing. And due to the bush fires we never did make it to Wilsons Promontory so took an inland route instead.

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We reached the point of no return in a tiny village called Koonwarra, which lies on the 72km Victoria Southern Rail cycling trail. If we’d turned right down the trail we’d have gone to Sydney. Left to go back to Melbourne.

Thankfully it had one of the nicest cafes we’ve ever cycled past so at least we had good coffee to help make the decision.

We turned left and were soon heading west along this quiet and delightful trail.

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The Southern Rail cycle track

Sadly, it didn’t last!

In his efforts to avoid the main highway, Andy took us cross-country on some quieter country roads that he’d spotted on ViewRanger. Some of these were nice but others turned out to be the dreaded gravel ripio, built for the remote Victorian faming community. It was a nasty reminder of some parts of Chile.

They were so corrugated that at one point both Andy’s panniers crashed off the back of his bike as he careered over some bumps too quickly.

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While he was picking them up, a lovely local lady in a big 4×4 stopped to ask me “what on earth we were doing there?”  She’d never seen anyone trying to ride a bike on these roads before.

In contrast to the searing temperatures of a few days earlier, the weather that day was decidedly cool and very windy.

Storms blew up out of nowhere. One minute, we were happily cycling along. A few seconds later we’re sheltering in a hedge from gale force winds and scarily large hail stones. The storms passed quickly but did not add to the fun in any way.

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They were big hailstones, honest

During our tour of Victoria, I’d noticed that so many places are named after English towns. We’ve been to Brighton, Sandringham, Cheltenham, Hampton, Hastings and Shoreham to name but a few. Phillip Island must have originally been settled by folk from the Isle of Wight … Cowes, Rhyll and Ventnor.

Now we’re in Tasmania, I’m looking forward to visiting Launceston, Exeter, Derby, St Helens and Swansea.

Clare

 

Clare is often right and she certainly was this time! Already I’m loving Tasmania and looking forward to exploring this fascinating island.

Thanks for helping me see that it’s more important to relax and have fun than to complete a journey!

Andy

Stick or Twist?

We have a mutiny on our saddles.

True … it’s not quite on the scale of Fletcher Christians Mutiny-on-the-Bounty, but it is a mutiny just the same.

After months of researching the route from Melbourne to Sydney, of downloading vast numbers of maps from ViewRanger, of checking how many climbs, how many kilometres each day … Clare has suggested we might cycle 1200km (750 miles) around Tasmania instead.

And we’ve even cycled towards Sydney for a couple of days!

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Credit: Discovery Holiday Parks

Like many people before her, Clare was inspired by a boat. It was the sight of The Spirit of Tasmania ferry chugging out of Melbourne harbour that got her thinking …

  1. It’s a bloody long way to Sydney … and she’s not training for an Ironman.
  2. People telling us that Tasmania is their favourite part of Australia.
  3. Andy’s near miss with a ‘road-train’ truck.

The road-train incident was genuinely scary. On a narrow country road, one of these massive beasts passed within a few inches of Andy at extremely high speed, causing him to wobble dangerously in it’s wake. 

Had the driver bothered to look at the angry cyclist in his rear view mirror, it’s fair to say he would have had no doubt about how Andy felt.

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A ‘Double’ Road Train.  Credit: Scott Bourne

Cycling in Australia seems to be more challenging than other countries we’ve toured through. 

Cities are brilliant with loads of dedicated cycling lanes. But outside the cities there’s often only one busy main road between distant towns. There isn’t the network of quiet country roads that cyclists love.

On our travels, we’ve found the Irish to be the most patient drivers with cyclists. So far I’m afraid we’ve found Australians to be amongst the least tolerant, often seeing no need to slow down or deviate even slightly. 

This is particularly true of truck drivers … they ‘own the road’ and they know it. To be fair, they don’t pass many foolhardy touring cyclists on their long, dull journeys. 

But it seems that snakes and spiders are not our biggest danger after all.

It’s the truck drivers!

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Riding out of Melbourne was beautiful, gliding around Port Phillip Bay on a lovely coastal cycle path. It was easily the hottest day we’ve ever experienced on a bike, peaking at over 40°C (104°F). We both drank more than 6 litres of water but still didn’t need to pee for 24 hours. When we stopped for lunch we just wanted to rub ourselves down with towels and ice cubes.

After 70km of sweaty peddling, we were very happy to board the small, local ferry across to Phillip Island and cool down in the gentle sea breeze.

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On the ferry to Phillip Island

Phillip Island is home to the nightly Penguin Parade. Hundreds of Little Penguins, just one foot tall, commute back to their burrows at dusk after a busy day fishing. It was delightful to see these cute little creatures tumbling out of the sea and waddling back to their mates.

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Little Penguins   Credit: Phillip Island Nature Parks

As we rode along the coast the next day, we began to appreciate how big and  dry Australia is. We noticed a huge cloud forming inland. It turned out this was caused by a number of bushfires merging together. They are often started by lightening strikes from the dry storms (no rain) that build up in the intense heat.

It’s an increasing and dangerous problem across Australia.

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Credit: The Guardian

One such lightening strike had hit Wilson’s Promontory National Park, one of the most spectacular parts of the Victorian coastline and a highly anticipated highlight on our ride to Sydney. 

The resulting bushfire meant that 300 campers had to be evacuated. It’s serious enough to keep the park closed for two weeks but we’re glad to say that the fire looks like it will be controlled before it causes to much damage to this pristine wilderness.

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Sunset across the estuary at Inverloch

Instead, we stayed an extra night at a lovely campsite in Inverloch, just metres from a beautiful, empty beach that led out to a wide estuary.

The camping has been great. The equipment is working well and we’re relishing the outdoor life that we miss when we only stay in hotels or B&B’s.

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Camping just behind the sand dunes

Because of the bushfire, we’re now no longer going to Wilsons Promontory. But where are we going? Sydney or Tasmania?

Here are Clare’s arguments for a tour around Tasmania:

  • It’s one of the great cycling destinations … lots of people cycle around Tasmania and very few cycle from Melbourne to Sydney (there must be a reason for that!)
  • The scenery is stunning
  • We’ve never been there
  • We’ll have two trips on an iconic ferry
  • It’s great for camping
  • It won’t be as hot and sweaty for cycling
  • There are less long, dull roads
  • There are less big trucks
  • There are less snakes and spiders
  • The bushfire on Wilsons Promontory was a bad omen

And here are Andy’s arguments for cycling to Sydney:

  • It’s the original plan
  • It’s a proper journey (not a circle)
  • It might be a bit cold in Tasmania

What do you think we should do? Should we stick or twist?

Clare and Andy

Goodbye Galway Girls & Danny Boys

The Irish have a great talent for making a lot out of a little.

As we drove to Rosslare to catch our ferry back home, we couldn’t help but smile at a sign announcing ‘President Obama’s Ancestral Village’. This is Moneygall where a young man called Falmouth Kearney lived before he emigrated to the United States in 1850. He was Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandfather.

Now this might seem like a distant connection to you and me but for Moneygall it’s enough for a visitor centre called the Barack Obama Plaza and the preservation of a terraced house as his ancestral home.

We found a similar story when we stayed in New Ross on our first night in Ireland. Birthplace of John F Kennedy’s great-grandfather, it now boasts a Kennedy homestead, Kennedy museum, Kennedy arboretum, Kennedy summer school and Kennedy hotel.

As far as we know, there isn’t a Trump visitor centre in Ireland yet … just an ostentatious golf course and luxury hotel that took us a long time to cycle past.

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Kinvara

During our last two days on the Wild Atlantic Way, we cycled from Doolin to Galway, staying overnight in the lovely small town of Kinvara.

This took us through the Burren, one of the finest examples of a glacio-karst landscape in the world. Huge limestone sheets have been eroded by glaciers and then by rainwater which gets into any cracks and crevices.

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Limestone pavements

The effect is dramatic. Limestone pavements with perfect parallel lines sit beneath smooth hills that are strewn with so many rocks that they appear from a distance to be sugar coated with snow.

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A light covering of snow in August? 

The name Burren comes from the Gaelic Boíreann which simply means a rocky place. Many years ago, farmers cleared all the rocks from the fields, piling them into a striking mosaic of dry stone walls.

The walls go right down to sea, sometimes running across vast limestone pavements. Cattle were brought down onto the flat rocks for winterage, as they held onto the summer heat for longer encouraging the grass in the crevices to keep growing.

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Galway turned out to be a vibrant city with a lively centre full of small shops, restaurants and music bars, all buzzing with people chatting away in Gaelic. So much so that it’s often referred to as the bilingual capital of Ireland.

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There were lots of amusing shop signs, including a trading notice outside this jewellers…

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And a special offer from this café…

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To our surprise, the highlight of our visit to Galway was an extraordinary show that’s been entertaining tourists for the last fourteen summers.

Trad on the Prom is an evening of traditional Gaellic music and dance presented by some of the creators of big, famous shows such as Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. Despite taking place in the unlikely surroundings of a leisure centre sports hall, it was magical and captivating as the quality of the musicians and dancers was so high. Indeed, many of them were world champions.

Trad on the Prom
Credit: Trad on the Prom

As we caught the train back to Ennis to pick up our car, we added up the distance we’d cycled on the Wild Atlantic Way.

It came to 961km cycling and 438km driving*.

This means we did fulfil our carbiking promise to cycle more than we drove. But we missed our 1000km target … defeated by the weather on the Dingle.

Southern Route Full

So how was our first experience of carbiking?

There are lots of good things:

  • It’s really easy to get to the place you plan to cycle from. You don’t have cram your bikes onto public transport.
  • It’s more versatile. You can take a detour, stay in different places or get to a remote restaurant.
  • You can miss out those parts of the route with lots of main roads or boring scenery.
  • If you need to, you can check out a mountain pass in the car before you ride over it.
  • You can drive on rainy days.
  • For day rides, the panniers can stay in the car.
  • It means you can bring loads more stuff such as heavy camping gear, a box of food or even that all important hairdryer!

And a few less good things:

  • You always have to get back to your car, which can mean cycling in a circle.
  • The comfort of the car makes it feel less adventurous, less of a journey.
  • It makes it too easy to bring loads more stuff!

We thought it worked out surprisingly well especially as there were so many peninsulas to loop round on this trip. We’d definitely recommend it.

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Now … we’ve heard some people say that the Wild Atlantic Way is one example of the Irish making-a-lot-out-of-a-little.

It is a clever way of joining all the small roads together and claiming that it’s the longest coastal touring route in the world’.

But … the southern half is so beautiful, so varied and, yes, so wild that we think it’s actually making-a-lot-out-of-a-lot!

Now we can’t wait to return and explore the northern half from Galway to Malin Head.

Clare and Andy


Southern Half of the Wild Atlantic Way: Kinsale to Galway
By bike: 961km, 11825m climbed
By car: 438km*

* If we cycled and drove along the same roads, we only counted the cycling distance.
* We didn’t include driving to Ireland and back.
* Which is not cheating!

Clare goes to County Clare

Heritage is important to Irish people. They’re always proud to say which county they’re from whether it’s Wicklow, Cork, Kerry, Galway.

I don’t have any Irish heritage but I like it that my name is spelt the same way as County Clare, without the ‘i’.

Whilst cycling in Clare we came another way that the Irish celebrate their heritage. The final of the Rose of Tralee competition was broadcast live on RTE1 (the main TV channel) for two consecutive nights and attracts the biggest TV audience of the year.

It’s a competition to crown a young lady who embodies the qualities set out in the famous Victorian poem and becomes an ambassador for Ireland.

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet ’twas not her beauty alone that won me;
Oh no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning,
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

Definitely not a beauty pageant, it’s open to all young women of Irish heritage from home and abroad. They might be a nurse, teacher or lawyer but to the girls lining the streets of Tralee for the annual parade, they’re rock stars!

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The 2018 winner from Waterford    Credit: Stay in Kerry

Defeated by the Dingle and with wet camping gear happily packed away, we left the Southern Peninsulas, parked our car in the medieval town of Ennis and set off with our panniers for a week. It felt good to be back on our bikes.

Andy wanted to see the Shannon, Ireland’s longest and widest river, which meant pedalling an additional 50kms away from the Wild Atlantic Way.

It wasn’t worth it!

The views of the muddy estuary were unremarkable and long stretches of undulating country roads were unrelenting. I’m sure other parts of the 360km long Shannon are far more beautiful.

County Clare Full

Re-joining the Wild Atlantic Way at Kilrush, the scenery became more interesting again but strong headwinds were now the challenge.

This part of Clare is notorious for wind as it faces the open Atlantic and there are no trees to break it up. We quickly learnt that the local rule is ‘whichever way you go, the wind will always be ahead of you!’

As we cycled towards Loop Head Lighthouse the gusts increased to over 40mph. When I stopped pedalling, I was quickly forced to a standstill or even sent backwards!

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Built in 1845 the lighthouse was the first of many interesting sights along the Clare coastline. In World War II a big ‘EIRE’ sign was laid out in stones on the headland, to warn Allied and German pilots that this was a neutral country.

Thankfully we left the lighthouse with the wind behind us so enjoyed the luxurious feeling of being pushed along. For those of you familiar with sailing, it was like being on a broad reach.

The Bridges of Ross were originally a trio of natural sea arches until two of them fell in to the sea, leaving just one remaining arch today. As we peered over the cliff ledge we saw a very amusing sight – over 20 photographers huddled together, all pointing huge lenses out to sea.

Perched on stools, clothed in waterproofs with flasks at their sides they seemed to be waiting for something special to happen. Whales, dolphins, seals? No, they were a group of birdwatchers trying to capture the ultimate photo of a puffin, guillemot or kittiwake!

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Continuing northwards we were suddenly surrounded by a flurry of coaches all heading to the Cliffs of Moher, a major tourist attraction.

The climb up Moher Hill was both steep and again into a headwind. As we fought our way up we were drenched by a sudden downpour which meant we arrived at the Visitor Centre looking like drowned rats.

We were rewarded with some early evening sunshine and free entry (8 Euro’s each), offered to all cyclists for the making the effort to climb up the hill.

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By contrast to the crowds at Moher, the major attraction on the Aran Islands was understated but seemed to us to be even more dramatic.

Dun Aonghasa is a spectacular pre-historic stone fort on Inishmore, the largest of the 3 Aran Islands. It stands in a semi-circle on the highest point of the cliffs facing directly out to the Atlantic beyond.

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No-one is quite sure why it is there.

There was no guard rail to protect you from the sheer drop 100m down to the waves crashing below. I felt terrified, staying well away from the edge, not looking as Andy leant over the side to take photos!

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After listening to lots of accordions, Andy was desperate to find an Irish band with a good fiddle player. In Jack’s Bar that evening his wish came true.

We were listening to a dreary male singer when a young mum and her small daughter suddenly got up from their dinner and pulled out their fiddles. She was fabulous and got the whole bar clapping along to her traditional jigs and reels.

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Leaving the island the following morning we had an amusing incident as we patiently joined the queue for our ferry. This is the boat we thought we were getting.

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But our ticket was the wrong colour. Green, not pink. That meant we had to get this ferry instead!

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Despite being called the ‘Happy Hooker’ (a hooker is a traditional West Ireland fishing boat), the passage back wasn’t a happy one as she rolled heavily from side to side in the huge swell.

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There are highs and lows with every cycling trip.

From a female perspective cycling in Ireland is lots of fun. Distances are manageable, there are lots of comfortable places to stay and the food is great.

The fish and seafood are particularly good, served in generous portions. Seafood Chowder is on every menu, taken so seriously that an All-Ireland Seafood Chowder competition is held every year.

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Credit: Good Food Ireland

The delicious cakes at every coffee stop haven’t helped reduce our waistlines but then cakes are one of the great pleasures of cycling touring. And pedalling into a headwind doubles the amount of energy you use, so why hold back?

The biggest challenge in Ireland is the weather although we have probably had just as much sunshine as rain and wind.

It changes so often, we now call it ‘on-again-off-again-weather’.

No sooner do I stop to take a top off, I needed to put it on again. My rain jacket is continually kept at the ready and my glasses are always being swapped for sunglasses … and back again.

So if you do come to Ireland, my advice is to leave your hairdryer at home and bring an umbrella … and some sunscreen!

Clare

County Clare
By bike: 237km, 2316m climbed
By car: 95km

Wild Atlantic Way (so far)
By bike: 877km, 11194m climbed
By car: 382km

Defeated by the Dingle

On Saturday 21st May 1927 Charles Lindbergh peered down from the cockpit of the Spirit of St Louis on his historic solo transatlantic flight to see the Three Sisters, small coastal peaks at the end of the Dingle peninsula. At last had reached Europe!

The weather must have been better that day.

We pitched our tent in a full-on gale at Europe’s most westerly campsite, advertising a ‘view’ across to those same Sisters.

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Clouds obscuring the Three Sisters

We used to love camping and have many fond memories of family holidays under canvas when our children were small. Mostly in the warmth of France. But we hadn’t tried it for 10 years.

So why are we camping now?

Because real touring cyclists camp. Because we think it might be magical. Because it will certainly be cheaper.

Before investing in a super-lightweight-cycle-touring tent, we decided to give it a go in Ireland with some of our old, heavy gear.

We imagined waking to a beautiful, calm dawn in a gorgeous bay refreshed from a full night of sleep and listening only to the sea gently lapping against the shore.

The reality was that we woke to another wet and windy day in a field full of campervans, sleep broken by our air-mat deflating and listened to the kids next door squabbling over their Coco Pops.

We managed seven nights, but it wasn’t an unqualified success. Camping is not that popular in Ireland … probably because it can be a teeny bit wet.

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The Dingle Peninsula is said to be one of the most beautiful in Ireland. But we didn’t really see it.

Heavy cloud had settled languidly over this part of the country, putting its feet up and refusing to move on. And with the clouds came the gentle Irish rain that feels so soft and seeps into every fold of clothing.

Not the best weather for cycling.

So instead, we headed into the town of Dingle to see what it had to offer. It turned out to be a lot.

The Dingle regatta was in full swing, with rowers braving the rain to race naomhóg, traditional boats made of tarred canvas stretched over a wooden lattice.

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In the evening, we saw a one-man play about the life of a local fisherman and his deep connection to a dolphin that appeared off the coast and never left.

This is based on a truth … there is a bottlenose dolphin in Dingle harbour called Fungie who has been entertaining visitors for 32 years.

Fungie the Dolphin
Fungie      Photo Credit: Dingle Dolphin Boat Tours

The pubs of Dingle are famous for their music, their character and their window displays.

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Dick Macks: Probably the most famous pub in Dingle

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Foxy Johns is also a hardware & bicycle store

They were all full on this Saturday afternoon for one of the sporting occasions of the year – the All Ireland Hurling Final.

So we became sons and daughters of nearby Limerick for a day cheering on their team against Galway, the defending champions. Making the final was a very big deal for Limerick as it is 45 years since they last won.

Hurling players use a wooden stick called a hurley to hit a small ball called a sliotar between the opponents goal posts. These look like a football goal with two rugby posts on top. Hit it in the net for a 3 point goal, hit it over the bar for 1 point.

At the end of normal time Limerick were leading by 8 points, a huge margin. But as the referee indicated eight minutes of injury time, the green shirted fans around us started muttering about the curse of ’94 when they had lost to Offaly from just as strong a winning position.

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A Galway player lining up a free hit

Surely it couldn’t happen again!

It could … in injury time Galway roused themselves to score again and again and again. Limerick wobbled but to tears of relief all round, they managed to score the single point they needed to cling on and win.

Cue raucous celebrations!

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Limerick are Champions after 45 years

Hurling is an incredibly fast, tough and skilful sport. It’s a sport that almost makes us wish we were Irish.

Dingle

We only managed one 40km bike ride around the end of the peninsula but it was just as beautiful as we were promised with views out over the Blasket Islands and lots of fascinating local history to discover.

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Looking out to the Blasket Islands

We especially liked the moodiness of Brandon Creek where St Brendan and 14 monks are reputed to have set off in a small boat sometime around AD 535 to cross the Atlantic and eventually reach Newfoundland, stopping at islands along the way (Hebrides, Faroe Islands, Iceland etc.)

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Brandon Creek

This journey was repeated to prove it was possible in 1976 by Oxford graduate, Tim Severin, who made the journey in a replica boat made out of wood, flax, oak bark and wool grease.

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Tim Severin and his replica boat

Not made of such stern stuff, we have to admit we were defeated by the Dingle.

We drove more that we cycled. And we failed to ride over Conor Pass, Ireland’s highest, as it was blowing a gale in thick cloud at the time.

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An optimistic ice-cream van at the top of Conor Pass

On the last morning the sun came out at last. We woke up to see the Three Sisters in all their glory through the flap of our tent. As we sat on the lush grass, drinking coffee and listening to birdsong it almost felt like a moment of magic.

So we hope to come back one day to see the Dingle properly in the sunshine.

And we might rediscover the joy of camping after all. The jury’s still out on that one.

Clare and Andy

Dingle Peninsula
By bike: 40km, 540m climbed
By car: 101km

Wild Atlantic Way (so far)
By bike: 640km, 8878m climbed
By car: 287km