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8 miles off the coast of Ireland Gerry Feehan’s “Buddy-Hike” discovers the Skellig Islands

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Skellig Islands, Ireland (part 3 of a 3 part series)

Click to read Part 1, Gerry’s buddy trip to Ireland

We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

Click to read Part 2, Hiking in Ireland

Hiking in Ireland (part 2 of a 3 part series)

 

The remains of Skellig Michael’s 6th century monastery

Although the fine details of our trip to the Emerald Isle had been neatly settled months before leaving Canada, the folks at www.irelandwalkhikebike.com contacted me shortly before our departure to suggest a change in the itinerary. We could skip a day of hiking Ireland’s west coast and instead visit the Skellig Islands, a craggy set of rocks poking forlornly out of the Celtic Sea, eight rough miles off the Kerry coast. Initially I was reluctant to dedicate an entire day to seasickness. But there was something in the tone of the email that suggested this was an opportunity not to be missed. And so, foregoing my own health and thinking first of others—as I am wont to do—the boat trip for our group of six was booked.

We arrived in the sleepy seaside town of Cahersiveen on the fourth day of our weeklong Irish trekking adventure. Elaine, our hiking guide, drove us to the boat and cheerily waved goodbye. She doesn’t fare well at sea either and was happy to keep her feet dry for the day. When we arrived at the pier the sky was grey and the sea looked rough. There were a lot of anxious-looking people milling about the wharf. I wandered over to a fellow who was tying knots or scaling barnacles or some such other salty-dog task that identified him as a mariner. He was in fact the first mate. I inquired as to how the boat ride might be.

He turned to me, squinted, looked up at the sky and said, “It’s going to be terrible.”

“How terrible?” I asked.

“Miserable terrible” he said, with conviction.

“Can things get worse than miserable terrible,” I asked.

“Aye,” said he, “there’s awful terrible. That’s when, as you leave the pub, you hold your hand over your face so the wind don’t blow your teeth out.”

Reassured, I stepped around the back of the boat, practiced my vomiting stance, then returned to the gangplank, stepped aboard and prepared myself for a truly awful experience.

The 90-minute motor out was windy, choppy and exposed. The small boat rolled and rocked in the constant swell. But I’ve learned from vast seafaring experience that the best method to prevent seasickness is to stand up, hang on and concentrate unfailingly on the horizon. This I did for an hour and a half and landed with a full stomach—which is more than I can say for the pretty young Irish lass who, by the time the Skelligs came into sight, was tossing her breakfast of rashers and black pudding over the stern.

We weren’t sure what to expect of the Skelligs—other than the rough boat ride, a lot of nesting seabirds and a steep set of steps up a cliff to some ancient Gaelic ruins. As we neared the tight landing at Skellig Michael, birds were soaring and diving in a feeding frenzy. “What are they?” I asked the first mate.

“The big ones, those are gannets,” he answered, “And the little colourful fellars, them are puffins.”

My wife Florence looked up from her knitting. (Yes, she can knit onboard a dinghy in a gale.) “Puffins? Did you say puffins?” “Aye, Atlantic puffins ma’am, in breeding plumage.”

Florence was so excited she nearly dropped a stitch. She has yearned to see puffins for years. I thought we’d need to visit Greenland or Labrador or some other remote, inaccessible place to view these remarkable birds. And lo, here, on a last-minute Irish hiking side-trip, the cute little cliff dwellers appeared in unexpected, colourful brilliance—magnificent mating feathers on full display.

The small boat rocked into the landing. The first mate quickly tied off as the captain helped us hop-step onto the pier. Within seconds the boat was gone, back into the rough offshore sea, where she would wait, bobbing like a cork, for the two hours of our Skellig visit. We stumbled off the landing, regained our land legs and looked up. A narrow, exposed staircase, carved into the uneven rock face rose steeply upward, beyond the ken of craned necks.

Access to the islands is forbidden without a local guide. Our escort, Sinead explained that Skellig Michael was inhabited by Gaelic monks starting in the sixth century and then abandoned a few centuries later. It was these early voyagers who had carved the sheer staircase directly into the rock. At the precarious summit 180 meters up, they had built a few lonely stone structures. Here they lived a life of cold, isolated austerity, living off fish and bird’s eggs—scraping a meagre sustenance from the infertile rock.

The guide told us the steps were steep and uneven, with no handrails – and that those with even an ounce of acrophobia in their veins should not attempt the climb. Properly forewarned and with eyes cast downward to avert the consequences of a misstep, we began our ascent up the 880 steps to the monastery on the stony peak.

It’s 880 precarious stone steps to the summit

As we climbed nesting puffins, mere feet away, went about their business, oblivious to our presence. These birds evolved in an environment lacking predators. With its magnificent ruins and endemic unworried birds, Skellig Michael is a perfect mix between Machu Pichu and the Galapagos Islands.

Atlantic puffins in full breeding plumage

When we reached the top, the summit flattened into a small walled compound of beehive structures made entirely of stacked stone. And despite the absence of masonry, these lonely dwellings have withstood a thousand battering years of Irish rain and wind.

 

The Skellig Islands poke forlornly out of the Celtic Sea

The opening scene in the newest Star Wars movie was filmed at Skellig Michael. An unfortunate bi-product of this Hollywood notoriety will be a “Star Wars” chaser industry, where tourists converge on the island, not to observe the stark beauty of a 6th century monastery or the glorious plumage of horny puffins, but to see where Luke Skywalker eerily pronounced, “It is time for the Jedi to end.” Even without the boat ride, it makes one want to puke.

When we returned to the wharf, the weather had softened. The return boat trip was reasonably benign. Elaine awaited us when we docked, looking refreshed after a quiet stroll in the green fens above Cahersiveen. “Well, how was it?” she asked. The others gushed on about the stone stairs, the view, the ruins and the Darwinian fauna experience. I looked at her, holding my hand over my mouth in feigned illness, and said, “Wow”.

If you go: www.irelandwalkhikebike.com

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in Kimberley, BC!

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

Angling and adventure greet our intrepid traveller on Padre Island

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Sailing the Nile – Parts 1 and 2

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Sailing the Nile

This is the second in a two-part series “Sailing the Nile”.

There were only 15 guests on board the Malouka: nine polite Americans and our group of six raucous Canadians. We were on a six-day sail up the Nile River. The vessel was a traditional double-masted dahabiya, part of the Nour el Nil fleet https://www.nourelnil.com/

Dahabiyas have been plying the waters of the Nile for millennia. But this was a cleverly-constructed, modern, luxurious craft for us clever, modern, luxuriant folk.

Egypt: Sailing the Nile by Gerry Feehan

 

In addition to the crew – who outnumbered the guests – we were graced with the presence of Jean-Pierre, a gentle man with a charming Parisian accent whose only responsibility aboard ship (from what we could glean) was to hop from boat to boat, entertaining the guests with his relaxed septuagenarian spirit – and to act as self-appointed ‘bodyguard’ to Eleanor, one of the fleet’s owners. Eleanor, an elegant French lady, maintained her sumptuous quarters on the Malouka’s sister ship, the Meroe.

Every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, was served in style, on deck, in the open air. The food was amazing. We were waited on like Pharaohs and Queens: fresh-netted Nile perch, crisp fried falafel and baba ghanouj; straight-from–the-oven flatbread to scoop up the tahini, hummus and yogurt sauces. Each afternoon, we were offered the refreshing juice of some exotic fruit. After dinner, often just a simple desert of dates and figs.

After feeding the guests, the crew enjoys lunch on the lower deck

We quickly bonded with the crew. Where English/Arabic language issues arose, the occasional knowing nod, some common courtesy and a mutual admiration for the beauty of the Nile, sufficed. The Egyptian crew was polite and attentive. And even the most hardened of these river seamen displayed a boyish sense of humour.

Each time we neared shore to dock for an excursion, the captain – whom the staff had inexplicably nicknamed Humpty Dumpty – commenced a routine of alarmed shouts directed at the bow crew—while simultaneously engaging in a frantic arm-waving ceremony toward the helmsman. As we neared Edfu, and before he could start this inevitable daily performance, I jumped into his station at the bow and began gesticulating and yelling in my best pidgin Arabic.

Humpty looked at me in astonishment. The crew was momentarily dumfounded. Then one-by-one they burst into hysterical laughter. The cook, abandoning the galley, fell to the floor, pounding his fists on the deck with unrestrained glee.

I looked at the captain apologetically and said, “Asif.” But I wasn’t really sorry—and Humpty was laughing just as hard as the others.

The sun began to redden over the Nile. The barge passed fertile fields of cotton and sugar cane; lush orchards of pomegranates and figs. Galabiya-clad shepherds looked up from their flocks. Women washed clothes in the fading light. Children leapt into the clear warm water. A startled grey heron squawked. A young boy astride a thin donkey waived hello. Everything was fun and games. Then the squall hit.

The sudden gale propelled the dahabiya sideways. We were headed for an inevitable collision with shore. All hands were on deck as the bow slowly crushed into a thick grove of papyrus. I looked at the captain. He was not laughing. Orders were shouted. Two crewmen jumped overboard with tie-lines in hand, frantically swimming through the thick reeds. On shore they pounded grounding stakes into the hard bank. Then the entire team, from first mate to cook, hauled fast the lines.

When you are a ship’s captain you are on duty 24/7 and can never break, even if your name is Humpty.

As quickly as it started the squall ebbed and all was well again.

Humpty at the helm

This motley crew was not much help during the squall

After the calm we resumed our drift. Near the Temple of Horemheb we tied up for the night, went ashore and visited a small village. We popped in for shai (tea) at what can only be described as the neighbourhood pub, although no alcohol was served. The place smelled of desert grime seasoned with stale tobacco smoke. In the dim murky light an animated group of men were huddled around a table, taking turns smashing domino tiles down upon the battered old piece of furniture. They offered us shai and thick, sweet Turkish coffee, then invited us to join the game and share shisha—a water pipe. The local tobacco is flavoured with fruit and the taste is very mild. Even a deep inhale doesn’t burn the lungs. Or so I’m told.

It was evident that the people here were desperately poor. And yet they welcomed us politely, with expressions of sincere gratitude for our visit to their country. Proffered payment for the shai, coffee, shisha—and our domino debts—were all firmly refused.

Young and old, Nile folk were friendly and welcoming

Egypt needs visitors. Tourism has been hard hit by an unfortunate series of events: 9/11, middle-east concerns, terrorist threats – both real and imagined. The 2010 ‘Arab Spring’ democratic uprising was, ironically, particularly devastating. Tourist numbers plummeted to near zero, but are now recovering. Still, only about 150 of the 350 tour boats that formerly plied this section of the Nile are operating.

We left the village and climbed to a high vantage point overlooking the mighty river. It began to rain. Soon we were all soaked to the skin. Sawi, Alberto and Mahmoud (our on-board waiters and off-board protectors) danced gleefully in the desert downpour. This part of Egypt had not seen rain for four years.

In the morning, docked below the high dam at Aswan, we enjoyed a solemn breakfast while watching a last sunrise over the Nile. Our toast was served with marmalade and melancholy. Our time aboard the Melouka was over. Jean-Pierre and Eleanor came to bid us adieu. All of the crew were emotional. Mahmoud’s eyes were glued to the floor. You know I hate to see a grown man cry… so I avoided looking in the mirror.

We walked the gangplank off the dahabiya. A van awaited us dockside. There we were introduced to Sayed Mansour, from Exodus Travel, who would be our guide for the rest of our Egyptian adventure. He hurried us into the van. A plane awaited us. We were bound for the ancient temple of Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser.

Exodus Travel skillfully handled every detail of our Egypt adventure: www.exodustravels.com/‎

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in Kimberley, BC!

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

Click to read more travel stories.

 

8 miles off the coast of Ireland Gerry Feehan’s “Buddy-Hike” discovers the Skellig Islands

 

 

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Egypt: Sailing the Nile Part 1 by Gerry Feehan

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Sure, there’s no travel now, but one day, when the world opens up, we will travel again. In the meantime, enjoy the first in a two-part series “Sailing the Nile”

The Nile River is a mind-boggling 6853 km long. It is the longest river in the world. Mind you we were only sailing about 200 km of it, from Luxor to Aswan, on an Egyptian dahabiya. But since we were relying on the prevailing north wind to carry us upstream—to the south—even that took nearly a week.

Dahabiyas are shallow-bottomed, barge-like vessels. These two-masted craft have been plying the waters of the Nile, in one form or another, for thousands of years. We were on the Malouka, a 45-meter long beauty, part of the four-boat Nour el Nil fleet. For the entire voyage, all four boats sailed together in a colourful flotilla. https://www.nourelnil.com/

Our captain was Humpty Dumpty (the crew had given each other very entertaining nicknames). Humpty was a musical fellow. When he wasn’t shouting orders he was humming quietly to himself. As my travels have repeatedly confirmed, music is the world’s great unifier. Thus, on our second evening aboard, I uncased my ever-present ukulele and began strumming a few tunes. Soon, the captain and a few other crewmembers wandered up from below deck, listening appreciatively, attentively—and patiently.

Abandoning our eggs, we all scrambled from the table and donned bathing attire.

Then it was their turn. In moments the entire crew had gathered on deck, instruments in hand. They began clapping as the captain sang out an Arabic folk song. The loud thumping of the cook’s doumbec filled the Nile valley with contagious percussion. The floorboards reverberated as every soul on board bounced wildly in unison. Our quiet jam session on a soft Egyptian night had quickly evolved into a raucous international jamboree. It was magical.

In the morning we were enjoying a reflective, leisurely breakfast when someone shouted, ‘There’s a woman floating in the river!’ The lady casually waved as she drifted by. It was Eleanor, one of Nour el Nil’s owners. Eleanor’s cabin was on the Malouka’s sister ship, the Meroe. We were invited to join Eleanor in the water. I had no idea that swimming in the Nile was safe—or part of the agenda.

Abandoning our eggs, we all scrambled from the table and donned bathing attire. The procedure was simple: walk a few hundred meters upstream, jump in and simply go with the flow. Drift down to the dahabiya, swim to shore and… repeat. This unexpected treat—and respite from the hot Egyptian sun—quickly became a daily ritual. Surprisingly, the Nile River is not overly wide. But it has a subtle incessant strength. A dip in this great watercourse reveals its unmistakable power. Each of us tried futilely to buck the current and swim upstream. None made any headway, all eventually succumbing to the Nile’s deep, relentless, perpetual force.

Ancient Egyptians relied on this coincidence of opposing wind and current to build the greatest civilization the world had ever known. It is what enabled the construction of the pyramids 4500 years ago. Vast blocks of granite and sandstone were quarried and, during the annual flood, floated downstream and unloaded. Then the barges were sailed back upstream and loaded anew. The Great Pyramid of Cheops near Cairo contains over two million blocks, each weighing in excess of a tonne, every stone stacked in place by hand. That’s a lot of barging—not to mention the heavy lifting.

There is no more luxurious—or relaxing way—to see Egypt and appreciate its spectacular ancient tombs and temples, than to embark on a quiet sail up the Nile on a dahabiya. Muslim rulers in the middle ages ostentatiously gilded these barges the colour of the sun. The name is thus derived from the Arabic word for gold.

Each day we moved a little further south. We’d dock, disembark and, after enduring a gauntlet of incessant, tenacious, persistent street hawkers, we’d be in the portal of one of ancient Egypt’s incredible monuments. All these sites are located just a short walk from shore, above the high-water mark of the historical Nile flood. First we visited Esna, then Al-Kab, then Edfu and Horemheb. Our final stop was Kom-Ombo and its Crocodile Museum, where 3000 year-old mummified reptiles stared at us, teeth bared, looking malevolently alive. The Pharaohs venerated these beasts, preserving them for their mutual journey to the afterlife.

Temple guard

Kom-Ombo

At each stop we were met on shore by Adele, a young Egyptologist, who guided us through the complex history of these wonders. He patiently explained the ancient hieroglyphs that adorned the sandstone walls—but only after our group gave him our complete attention. Any noisy transgressors received a stony stare until they were embarrassed into silence. Then in a quiet but commanding baritone the lesson would begin. And god forbid you were caught snapping a photo of a frieze from the middle kingdom during one of his talks. Another cold glare would ensue, together with the admonition, “Time for pictures later.”

Adele explaining a cartouche

On the hike to Al-Kab, I noticed Adele fidgeting with something in his hands. “Why the worry beads?” I asked. “Prayer beads,” he corrected. He didn’t look like the devout type. “I’m trying to quit smoking,” he explained sheepishly.

Inside the tomb, Adele was showing us how to read a 30-century-old cartouche carved into the stone, pointing out a few of the multitude of gods worshiped by the early Egyptians. Osiris, god of the dead, Horus, with his falcon head and Isis, Horus’s mother. We all stood, obediently quiet in the dim sweltering closeness of the crypt. Then with a flashlight he pointed out some additional markings in the rock: ‘John Edwards 1819.’ We looked closer and saw many other similar autographs. British soldiers had clumsily scratched graffiti into these magnificent ancient works 200 years ago.

Kilroy, it seems, has been just about everywhere.

Next time: Part 2: Sailing the Nile on a Dahabiya.

Exodus Travel skillfully handled every detail of our Egypt adventure: www.exodustravels.com/

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in Kimberley, BC!

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

Click to read more travel stories.

We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

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