Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Grand Day Out

Since we moved to the Middle of Nowhere, there's one thing I've wanted to do more than anything else. Even more than getting a Great Dane puppy or seeing the Fastnet Lighthouse up close(ish - it's not open to the public and I'm not exactly sure how close you can get).

A trip to Skellig Michael has been my personal Holy Grail. I can't quite explain it, but something about its isolation and starkness appeals to me. Even though I think that anyone who'd make the journey in a currach is certifiable, I have a lot of respect for the monks in the 588 who did so. Think about that for a minute. Nearly 1500 years ago, a bunch of guys climbed into currachs, ventured 8 miles into the ocean to a jagged bit of rock, and built structures that are still standing.

Getting to Skellig Michael is highly weather dependent. If the seas are rough, the boats won't go. We tried twice last year and were shut out both times. My dad lucked out on his first attempt, but I stayed behind with my mother and aunts. I had another opportunity in June, when our Minnesota friends were visiting, but the weather was bad at the weekend. They got to go on the Monday, while I got to go to work. (No one ever said life was fair.)

Even though Peter had been twice this year, he was still eager to go again and we made plans for my birthday. Plans that had to be reshuffled because of his work schedule. I looked at the calendar and realised that if I waited on Peter for a Skelligs trip, it probably wouldn't happen until next year. I decided I would make a booking each weekend until I achieved my goal. Yes, it would mean going without Peter, but I'd gotten pretty good at solo outings in the last year. Of course, it also meant going without Toby, so it would be my first solo-solo outing.

I made the booking for Saturday and waited, hoping for decent weather. It's not been a great summer and the days leading up to this weekend made it look like the whole weekend could be a washout. It's a two and a half hour drive to Portmagee, and the deal is that you ring the boat at 8.15 to find out if the sea is passable. So in order to be on time for the boat, I had to leave the house without knowing if the trip was even going to happen.

I tossed my Lonely Planet guide into the backseat, figuring that at least I'd have it if I needed to develop a Plan B. When I rang the boat operator at 8.15, I fully expected to be told that the trips were canceled for the day. When the nice woman told me that it was a lovely day and I should be at the dock at 10, I was astounded. I had to ask her to repeat herself, just to be sure I'd heard her right.

I arrived at Portmagee at 9.20, which gave me more than enough time to change into my hiking boots, use the toilet, and buy extra water. There's something everyone needs to know about Skellig Michael - there are no toilet facilities on the island. I'm the sort of person who sits on the aisle in airplanes and movie theatres because I hate the idea of not being able to go when I need to. I'd carefully managed my fluid intake to ensure that I would be alright for the visit, but that I wouldn't be totally dehydrated. (This is when long distance running comes in handy. Water management is a key skill you learn when training for a marathon.)

After taking care of everything, I ambled down to the dock. It was a lovely day, warm with the sun and some patches of blue sky peeking out between fluffy clouds. I found my boat operator and was directed to his boat.

The boats used to transport people to the Skelligs are uniformly small, typically licensed to carry 12 passengers. If your only experience with boats are river cruises or other large vessels, these boats are a bit of a culture shock. They also require a minimum level of athleticism and grace when boarding. (No gangways here.) The boat I was directed to had nice bench seats and I settled in to read my book while we waited. Another boat, owned by the operator's brother, pulled up and moored alongside our boat. The passengers for the second boat had to board our boat, then climb over the railings of both boats to board the second one. Just before it was time to go, I was asked to move to the other boat, since I was the only singleton on the trip.

I managed to transfer myself, book in hand, over to the other boat. But I found that all the outdoor seating was occupied. I was a little bummed about having to ride in the cabin, since I love being out in the fresh air, especially on the sea. I have a weird relationship with the sea. I love it, but I'm absolutely terrified of it. Even on a flat, calm day, I still find its immensity and depth quite intimidating.

The captain unmoored the boat and off we went. The first part of the journey was through a sheltered harbour area, where the water was glassy smooth and we puttered along with no resistance. The captain encouraged me to sit up in the high co-pilot's seat, which I did. I was a little worried he would be too chatty, but he wasn't. Plus, the cabin was quite loud.

We sailed behind a few small islands and got to see basking seals. Then we left the shelter of the islands and headed for the open sea. It wasn't a horribly rough day, but it wasn't dead flat either. The waves were maybe 1 to 2 feet tall and sometimes the boat jostled hard off the crest of the swell. I loved it, especially the occasional feelings of funny-tum when the boat rose and dropped quickly.

We headed first to the Small Skellig, which is a protected bird habitat. It's home to over 50,000 gannets as well as some assorted other sea birds. It's a squat island with several peaks. If you'd told me Dr. Evil had a secret lair inside of the Small Skellig, I wouldn't have been surprised. The noise of the sea birds is deafening and we once again got to see some basking seals, including a mid-sized baby seal.

Then finally, we approached Skellig Michael, which has only one landing site. We had to wait while the passengers of another boat disembarked. I left the shelter of the cabin and discovered that I'd definitely had the best seat on the boat. The majority of the outside seating area was just a big, backless square, with a hand hold bar that would have been a bit lower that ones' knees. Plus, someone had puked on the trip over.

When it was our boat's turn, we sailed in and the captain tied up the boat, then helped us each off over the railing and onto a very narrow, very wet open staircase. I held onto the railing for dear life and scrambled up the cramped stairs. Then I was on a small concrete dock and was able to start walking up the road.

In the 1800s, they built two lighthouses on the island, which necessitated building a sort of access road. The road is narrow but well-paved with a wall on the open side. I was so excited to be on the island that I nearly skipped up the road. I was about five minutes into my joyous journey when I realised that I didn't know when the boat was going to return for us. I dashed back to the dock, but the boat was already gone. Ah well, I figured we'd have at least two hours and that if I saw someone from our boat, I'd ask them.

The road winds along the side of the island and terminates shortly after the lighthouses' outbuildings. (Then you get to scramble up the very stone stairs that the monks built all those years ago. The climb is steep and the views are breathtaking. You can still see the mainland, but it's a distant, hazy dream.

Skellig Michael is quite rocky and rugged with several interesting rock formations. But it also has a fair bit of grass and little spots where you can comfortably rest and take in the views. But I wasn't interested in resting. I was interested in scrambling up, up, up as fast as my little legs (and my heaving lungs) would allow.

It was surprisingly hot on the island and I soon had to take a break to remove some of my layers. Given the climb and the out-at-sea location, I'd expected the place to be a bit chilly. I later learned that the climate on Skellig Michael is quite mild and the monks were able to grow vegetables rather easily.

After my dad's visit, he told us that one of the most amazing things about the place is what it does not have: guard rails, danger signs, and other safety equipment. The island has a single sign that warns of "an element of danger". After that, you're on your own. On the way up, it's not that big a deal. You just trot (or trudge) up the grey stone stairs. The biggest risks on the way up are tripping on uneven ground or collapsing in a heap due to the exertion.

I don't know how long it took me to get to the monastery. I know I didn't rest very much, maybe a handful of pauses to soak in the scenery and catch my breath. I did marvel that my dad, he of the wonky knee, was able to climb the stairs. (Later, when I asked Peter how Dad managed it, he responded "He rested a lot.") Eventually, all my scrambling paid off and I reached my destination.

I walked through the entrance, through the monk's walled garden, and into the monastery proper, which consisted mainly of several beehive huts, a chapel, and a stone cross. A docent was giving a talk about the history of the island and people were sitting on a stone wall or stone embankment that almost seemed like it was purposely designed to act as amphitheater seating. (I missed part of the talk, so I doubt it, but it served the purpose well.) The sun was beating down on the place and I wanted to explore, not listen to some history lecture.

I ducked into a beehive hut and downed half a litre of water in what seemed like a single gulp. The hut was cool and dry and very dark, even after my eyes adjusted to it. I could picture living in it, although I don't think I would fare very well sleeping on a hard slab of rock. (I'm a Simmons Beautyrest sort of girl.)

After appreciating the construction of the hut and collecting myself, I stepped back outside and found a spot on the edge of the audience. The woman was great, very well versed in the history of the island, but I was still impatient. My ears perked up when she talked about an experiment they ran a few years back to see what the monk's garden could produce. It turns out that the soil is of very good quality and the garden gets an excellent amount of light. The vegetables flourished, much to the delight of the local rabbit population. (The rabbits were introduced in the 1800s as a food source for the lighthouse keepers and their families. Due to automation, the lighthouse keepers are gone, but the descendants of the rabbits live on.)

The other interesting point the docent made was that the monks were quite brave to venture out to set up their monastery, and she wasn't just talking about the journey. The island has no natural spring or other fresh water supply. The monks studied the topography of the island and built two cisterns to collect rainwater. I think she said that each cistern held 100 liters, but I could be wrong on that.

Finally, we were released to explore the monastery. I was quite taken with the walled garden. I don't know why, exactly, except that it was a cosy, sunny spot with great views. I also liked that you could look over the edge of the wall and see some other sort of lower habitation. (Since I missed the construction part of the history talk, I don't really know what it was.)

I smiled as I remembered a diorama depicting the garden, which I'd seen at the Skellig interpretive centre. One monk tended to tidy rows of vegetables. Laundry hung on a line. A pair of goats grazed. A cat lazed in the sun. And my favourite bit: a monk with an upraised club snuck up on an unsuspecting seabird that was perched on the wall.

Since I hadn't seen anyone from my group, I still wasn't exactly sure when the boat left. I decided not to linger too long. I knew I'd be back sometime and I didn't want to be responsible for holding up the boat. Plus, I had no idea how long it was going to take me to get down to the boat dock.

As a runner with wide hips, I can say with great authority that down is always harder than up. Up might be more obviously taxing aerobically, but down is a killer on the joints. And that's just on a normal road with a moderate pitch. Going down the steep sides of Skellig Michael is an adventure and a half. I'm not afraid of heights but I was unable to put the idea of falling out of my mind. As I made my way down, I was quite aware that one false step would lead to a painful tumble down the rocky embankments.

I took several rest breaks on the way down. I had a good long rest at the spot where you can see the hermitage. Clinging to the top of the highest peak, with only enough room for one person to sleep, the hermitage pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. It's the place where a monk went to have some serious meditation and prayer time. I would have loved to have gone up there, but, for obvious reasons, it's not open to the public.

When I talked to Peter after my big adventure, he asked me what had surprised me most about Skellig Michael. I didn't even have to think about the answer. It's the way the island is able to absorb 200 people. It's amazing to think that the boats disgorge all of these people, who have to travel up and down the same narrow, steep path. But you have many moments were you swear you're the only person on the island. Because the path must twist and turn sharply up the steep incline, the sight lines are rather limited. This creates loads of places where you can sit and not see anyone. There might be 10 people within 10 meters of your resting spot, but you'd never know it.

Although I don't know how long it took me to reach the monastery, I can tell you that it took me about 30 minutes to get back to the boat dock. I was taking it easy though, creeping down the stairs like a toddler who has just learned to walk. My caution paid off, since I survived the trip down. (I did have one tiny nerve-wracking wobble, but I bet everyone does.)

Back at the dock, I soaked in the sunshine and read my book, taking periodic breaks to enjoy the scenery and watch the various boats pull in to collect their passengers. One boat really made me laugh. The crew consisted of a long-haired captain, maybe in his early 40s, and five dachshunds. After the boat tied up to the dock, the dogs stood on their hind legs, with their front paws on the railings, barking instructions at the passengers. I imagine they were saying things like "Mind your step! Careful now! Welcome aboard!" That's the boat I want to take next time.

If I have a regret about the trip, it's that I went down to the boat dock too early. I could have spent more time in the monastery or had a more leisurely ascent. The thought crossed my mind as I read my book, but I decided to forget about it. I'd had a fantastic visit and it was nice to have a little quiet time by the water. Next time, I'll remember to ask when the collection time is and I won't be so concerned about missing the boat.

Soon enough, my boat did arrive. I returned to my nice comfy co-captain's seat and enjoyed a last look at Skellig Michael. The ride back was smooth and I found myself drifting off to sleep (then jerking awake in a panic as I started to fall off the seat). Now I can say with great authority that Skellig Michael is absolutely something you must see when you visit Ireland.

A note on the pictures: the beehive huts and the last picture of the island are my dad's. Thanks, Dad. The rest are mine, taken with my mobile phone.

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At 13 August 2008 at 23:09, Blogger Babaloo said...

Sounds like a wonderful trip! I haven't been to Skellig Michael yet but I guess it's not going anywhere soon. :) Glad you enjoyed your solo-solo trip!

At 13 August 2008 at 23:12, Blogger Felix said...

Thanks, Anne for a mouthwatering description. We'll definitely have to go and see for ourselves.

At 14 August 2008 at 16:26, Blogger -Ann said...

Babaloo - You should try sometime this year. They go out throughout September, weather permitting.

Felix - Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it and hope you get a chance to go out there soon.

At 14 August 2008 at 17:27, Blogger Irene said...

Wow Ann, what a wonderful story about this special trip. It was as if i was there with you. Very exciting. I suppose they had all their building materials right there on the island and must have brought whatever tools with them. Such courageous people, though. Monks do have a tendency to choose the hard way, don't they?

At 15 August 2008 at 08:14, Blogger Babaloo said...

Ann, love your new profile picture! Looks more like you than the old one. ;-)

At 15 August 2008 at 12:56, Blogger laurie said...

you should sell this post to "ireland of the welcomes" or some such magazine, as a travel piece.

i want to go there, too, now.

At 15 August 2008 at 12:57, Blogger laurie said...

ps when we were on the aran islands the boat back to doolin was canceled one day because of weather. but it was a beautiful sunny calm day.

the next day the boat ran. and it was so choppy and rough that the song "shipwrecked at doolin" kept going through my head....

those irish.

At 15 August 2008 at 22:48, Blogger -Ann said...

Irene - It was a great trip. Monks are a little funny that way alright.

Babaloo - Thanks - I love those sites where you can make cartoon versions of yourself.

Laurie - I'll have to look into that. I love your story of the Doolin ferry.

At 17 August 2008 at 00:59, Blogger Career Guy said...

Yay! You finally made it to that magical place. I loved your descriptions. You pretty much said what I was thinking while I was out there. You're welcome for using my photos. The last one was a good way to end the story. I liked your one of the archway-door thingie. Next time we're in your neighborhood, maybe we can go together.


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