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Over the August Bank Holiday weekend we had a smashing cycling trip in the beautiful county of Donegal. Five of us set off from Donegal town on Friday evening - straight away we headed off the main road and up two big hills that the boys from the Ordinance Survey neglected to put on the map. Jim, who had come over all the way from Glasgow was saying that the boys back home were teasing him about being home by Saturday, but after those two hills he was all set to confound them by being home on Friday!
However, it was only a case of the legs not being warmed up properly - we soon made our way around the side of the Bluestack Mountains (probably one of the few places left in Ireland where you could safely wander for 4 or 5 days without seeing a soul), and looked for a place to rest close to the village of Glenties. We were a little apprehensive about camping on someone's land - obviously we had been immersed in unfriendly city life for too long, because when we did get around to ringing a few doorbells and asking, the welcome we got was great - one woman even offered to let us camp in her back lawn!
We chose a nice patch of land and prepared to bed down, completely unprepared for our first encounter with the dreaded midges. During the trip we used three cans of insect repellant - people were fumigating themselves with the stuff. The midges didn't bother us once we were on the move, but once we stopped for a moment then that was their chance to home in.
After a nice insect-repellant-assisted sunrise meditation and a good brekkie we were off again. We were blessed with the most sunny day we'd had all summer, so much so that we were obliged to take a dip in a lake a couple of hours into the cycle! Journeying northwards, we let ourselves in the back gate of Glenveigh National Park and freewheeled downhill into the valley along a treacherous path that probably wasn't fit for walking let alone cycling. It was a miracle I stayed upright at all - I could feel the whole bike swaying underneath me! It was here that the midges were at their worst, but the views were at their best!
A nice cup of tea there and then onwards - we headed through the pass at Muckish Mountain and then on to the village of Falcarragh. We decided to stay on the beach - there was another couple of tents there and the occupants looked like they were all set for a late and loud night but we thought we would still be able to get a good night's sleep if we camped a distance away. What we didn't know was that five foot high speakers and sound system (powered by a generator!) were on their way, and that the party wasn't going to end until nine o'clock the next morning! We were just preparing to go to bed when they started up in earnest, and I daresay you could have heard the noise a mile away.
Amazingly, we all managed to get a little sleep - I stayed up for a while watching the full moon rise over Muckish (to dubious soundtrack). I know Sri Chinmoy wrote about an exercise where you could obtain 15 minutes worth of rest in a second if you tried really hard to feel that you are an infinite sea of peace - I'm not sure you are supposed to fall asleep during this exercise, but that's what I use it for! It worked a treat on this occasion. Thankfully the roar of the ocean drowned out the music at morning meditation and we got out of there in a hurry.
Gary joined us for our next stop in Tory Island, so we left all the heavy stuff in his car and took the bikes over on the ferry. The ball bearings were falling out the front wheel on Jim's bike - there was a bike rental shop on the island and they were so helpful, they took apart 3 or 4 wheels they had lying around the back to see if the bearings were the same, which unfortunately they weren't. The bike managed to hold up for the rest of the trip, provided we kept pouring oil on the axle.
I find Donegal Irish hard enough to understand at the best of times, but the Irish these boys were speaking evaded me completely. The bike shop owner's wife was from Edinburgh - she had come over for a weekend holiday 20 years ago! Whilst fixing the bike they were talking about the goings-on of some other guy we could see down the road - on an island like this everyone knows everyone's business and it's impossible to keep a secret.
There were no fields, which meant lots of offroad scrambling for the bike - great fun. We had an hour's horizontal meditation (sleep, in other words) just to make sure we were completely recovered from the night before - we were woken up by Paula, who was touring around Donegal by car with a friend, and by sheer coincidence just happened to be visiting this remote island at the same time! Then we had a game of football in which myself, Ambarish, and Jim were comprehensively thrashed by Gary, Colm and Vinny, followed by another dip and a cycle to some fantastic cliffs. The return boat took us further down the coast and saved us 2 hours cycling. We found an amazing camping spot beside a beach which looked like no-one had ever set foot on it.
The next day we had to say good bye to Gary and Vinny in Dunloe (something called work, apparently - they didn't stay around long enough to explain the concept to me), and we made our way down along the coast over the Gweebarra bridge - a breathtaking sandy estuary. We went down to Ardara over another hill, and again I shipped the blame because the O.S. boys didn't put it on the map. We had picked out a valley to camp in on the map, but when we climbed up the hill to it, the women at the house said the land wasn't theirs and they couldn't give us permission. Just then a nasty shower came down and we had to stand under a tree. A woman came back out again and said we could sleep in their shed! We were ushered into their living room and cups of tea were pressed into our hands - a typical Irish all- over-the-place conversation ensued ranging from electing parliamentarians in protest at having to pay for English television (yes, they did!) to the President ironing her own curtains. We were all really struck by the the warmth and jolliness of the whole family. Afterwards myself and Colm did a spot of walking in the mountains behind us.
On Tuesday we had only a couple of hours of (hilly) cycling left until we reached Donegal town again - the guy Jim rented his bike from graciously agreed to take only a day and a half's rent. For me the whole trip was a bit of an eyeopener...
- First, Ireland has gotten so built up nowadays and I thought all of our natural beauty was in danger of being confined to isolated, carefully managed spots - I didn't think it was still possible to travel from one end of a county to another and see beauty, beauty, beauty all the way.
- Second, living in a city can sometimes lead one to believe that such things as kindness and generosity no longer exist, and that we have to resuscitate them from scratch. The trip made me realise that Ireland may have become much more prosperous in the last 15 years, but we haven't yet become as selfish and inward looking as some people would have us believe.