Monday, 5 September 2016

Riding 'Round Part VI: Wales


When I’m travelling I usually have a bit of a research the day before of the area I’m heading into and pin a bunch of potential sights and places to eat and sleep on my map, and then formulate a rough route. After departing the ferry from Dublin, my plans to dine at Anglesey’s most well known (and out of the way) restaurant, Oyster Catcher, were thwarted when I was advised that it was fully booked out, due to the neighbouring towns experiencing a power cut. Oh well.

The road is often filled with too many remarkable sights to stop at every time, and also some that you can’t stop at. The bridge from Anglesey onto mainland Wales at dusk had stunning views over the water, but I could only catch as many glimpses as I dared while taking my eyes off the bridge road and accompanying traffic. I had selected a campsite roughly in the centre of Snowdonia, Wales’ famed national park, to base myself in over the next few days and headed there in the failing light.

All was going well until I went to setup camp and noticed that my sleeping bag was no longer in my employ, and had abandoned me in my hour of need somewhere between there and Dublin. A number of things went through my head such as; oh well I got it for free from the lost and found at work anyway; I’ve only got a week left of my trip and surely I can get thrifty with my motorbike jacket, and; this is so shit I am going to freeze to death. Trusting my luck and sheer optimism I backtracked along the road for about 45 minutes, hoping it had fallen off in the nearby area, rather than somewhere back near the ferry. I guess we’ll never know, because I never did locate my sleeping bag.

But of course things always work out, because when I stopped at a backwater service station for petrol and a sausage roll for dinner (a far cry from the oysters I had planned) there was a whole rack of £15 sleeping bags by the exit. Shazam, day saved! I mean, it really didn’t compare to my arctic, you-can-survive-the-apocalypse-in-this bag, but I wasn’t complaining.

For my first full day in Wales I had splashed out and booked a day-long expedition in an old slate mine with Go Below, which boasted the world’s longest underground zip-line among other things. This was easily one of the best experiences of my ride, if not THE best. I met up with my caving buddies, Michelle, Lee and their daughter Nicole, and another couple, Nicole and Pete, along with our two guides. After kitting up (me in basically my riding gear with gumboots) we trekked up the mine entrance and headed in. The history of the mines and miners itself was really interesting and its effect on the landscape and town unmissable.

I was totally unprepared for what was inside the mine. First up, right off the bat was walking along these tiny lengths of timber that were sitting on bolts, drilled into the smooth stone wall over a massive drop into the dark mine below. After that it was just stepping across on the bolts themselves. It was so amazing that the cave and the experience hadn’t been overtaken with unnecessary safety precautions - of course we were always in harnesses attached to very safe guide lines, but there was still a level of risk and adventure involved. We spent most of the day down there, crossing on lots of mini zip lines, scaling walls and inclines, walking across old beams and bridges that the miners themselves used, and getting down to 300 metres underground. The vibe and camaraderie within the group was really strong and is what topped off a perfect experience.

I’m actually quite scared of heights and it has often been debilitating for me, but I really felt like I conquered it in the mine (granted, I’m also a lot less scared when I’m strapped to something). There was an added level of terror especially on the big zip line because you’re just heading into complete darkness. I also once again proved that my super power is making waterproof things un-waterproof, as my gumboots filled with water even though the water level was never higher than ankle deep.

The experience ended with a 25 metre free fall (you literally just had to step off the edge) into a black cavern, with a machine (and the dashing Dennis) catching us just before we hit the ground. Brilliant. It was hilarious to watch Michelle tackle the drop as she froze up and cackled with laughter. The day ended with much needed hot food and drink at the local cafe.

At this point I should mention that Welsh names really are fantastic, if not seemingly impossible to pronounce. The town near the mine, Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the surrounding landscape was stunning. I don’t think it would be everyone’s cup of tea, but I have an affinity for stone and rock landscapes, and the area was absolutely covered with slate scree, discarded from the mines. Combined with grey skies, green shrubbery and plenty of water, it was so unique. I looped through the town a few times, at one point clambering dangerously up an outcrop I’m pretty sure was in someone’s backyard, for the view.

On the way back to camp, wet, sore and tired I had a real scare. I was heading down the highway on a steep incline when it started to rain and so I began to look for somewhere to pull in and put on my wet weather gear. Seeing a spot just up ahead, and with a wet road and slate dust on my tires, I stupidly pulled too hard and too quickly on the brakes and lost control as it started skidding. I then had to just try and hold on as the bike jolted repeatedly, before thankfully righting itself. I had to pull over and take a bit to calm down, because I’m pretty sure if I had come off at that speed I would have broken a lot of bones, if not be dead. Definitely an experience to learn from. The rest of the night was spent thawing out and recovering in the pub across the road from my campsite.

For day two in Snowdonia, I spent the morning wandering a bit around the small, but stunning town of Betws-y-Coed, having already ridden through it twice to and from the mine. This is the kind of town where I could picture myself escaping to if I wanted to hide from the world, much like Bourton-on-the-Water in England. I then dedicated my afternoon to heading over to Llanberis and climbing Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak.

Admittedly I did take the ‘easy’ path up, but it was so incredibly boring and uneventful, apart from when the train (and the clever people who booked a ticket on it ahead of time) went past. There wasn’t much in the way of views on the way up, and then near the summit I was beaten around in blisteringly cold winds and clouds rolled in, making it hard to see past my nose. I decided to abort the mission and headed down the more difficult path (surely that was the obvious choice) hell bent on getting off that mountain as soon as humanly possible. Disappointingly the views riding past and around the mountain were ten times better. I caught the bus back to my bike, basically passing out with exhaustion against the window.

I think this was the first night I realised I hadn’t gone a single day without having a cider and for some reason (unknown to me now) I decided this was an issue, so I had a coke with dinner, just to prove to myself I hadn’t developed alcoholism. 

The following day was a big ride down south. I passed through Harlech and definitely could have spent some time there, but I was running out of time and hedging my bets that there would be more to see before the end. I stopped for lunch in Aberystwyth, which I dubbed the Launceston of Wales, and was too tired and cranky to do anything more than basically collapse in the nearest Starbucks.

By the time I got to Tenby, my destination (because some blog or another listed it as one of the most picturesque places in the UK), it was 8pm and I had to make a decision on whether I was going to find food or a campsite because there wasn’t enough time for both. I opted for food.

As soon as I sat down in the pub and ordered, a couple asked if I was from Ireland. About 30 seconds into the conversation about me and my trip Tony and Caroline had invited me to have a shower and bed at their place, and even offered to do my washing. Because they were true locals and knew everyone, people would stop by to chat and they would say, 'we've found this Australian and we're giving him a bed for the night'. I had run out of clean clothes about two days back, so it sounded a dream. They really ended up being my saviours and to this day I am regularly thinking of them and the amazing generosity they showed me.

They had a big beautiful house with loads of spare rooms as their kids have moved out (one was the exact same age as me!). They fed me, offered to drive me around and Caroline even lent me her rain coat. In true Welsh style, it absolutely poured down the next day, so as I tried to leave to go for a walk, umbrella over my head (poor thing was not up for the task, the wind kept turning it inside out), I walked right into the side of a reversing truck, which then drove over my foot. Of course it was being driven by their son, who had just arrived.

Metatarsal damage aside, I lasted about ten minutes outside in the torrential downpour before I aborted the mission and went back to spend the day inside with my new adopted family, who were just like Pam and Mick but sounded like Gwen and Bryn from Gavin and Stacey, so really it couldn't have gotten any more perfect, especially when they said 'lush' and 'tidy'. In fact sometimes in my head I call them Pam and Mick and have to remind myself that that isn’t their real names. I did manage to walk into Tenby along the coastal path but seriously underestimated the distance and so spent most of the ‘not-as-rainy’ time walking, so by the time I actually go to Tenby it was raining too much again to see anything, and everything was closed. Caroline, obviously with uncanny motherly skills arrived to save me once again. We ordered Indian take out and spent the night together watching Britain’s Got Talent. It was amazing how quickly I felt comfortable and at home - it was truly like they were my family.

In the morning I (finally) got to Tenby for breakfast and a wander around (yes, it was very picturesque!) before farewelling my family for the road. I headed straight for Barry, the significance of which would be lost on nearly all Australians. There’s a fantastic British comedy called Gavin and Stacey (written and starring James Corden actually!), and Stacey’s house and work are in Barry, the town being the butt of a few jokes in the show. I got some great pics at Barry Island, Stacey and Gwen’s house, and even Pam and Mick’s house in nearby Dinas Powys (even though in the show it’s in England). A neighbour at the latter spotted me and came out for a chat, telling me about the elderly couple that now live in the house and the droves of tourists that came back in the early days.

By the time I got to Cardiff I was done. Done with the day but also done with the trip, just because I was so exhausted and I was ready just to not live out of a small bag and be on the road everyday. There’s not a huge amount to see in Cardiff, but all I managed to do was walk to the mall and eat McDonalds. On my last day I was disappointed I couldn’t use the motorway over the bridge and pay the £5.10 charge (Gavin and Stacey reference), so took the long back back into England and the ride ‘home’.  

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Riding 'Round Part V: Ireland

Arriving with nearly everything I owned damp, the short ride to my hostel in Belfast was a welcome one. I hadn’t actually planned to stay in Belfast at all, so found myself with a day to fill, the first tasks: hot shower, hot tea. Thankfully it was slightly less rainy on this side of the Irish Sea. My strolling brought me first to the opulently decorated Crown Bar where I stopped for my first Irish whiskey - not a fan, but it may be because I didn’t have a fucking clue what the barman was saying because of his accent and ended up with ice, which I hate - and striking up a conversation with a local, if you can call our stilted exchange a conversation because I couldn’t understand him either.

After that I wandered aimlessly; much of it I didn’t pay attention to because I was on the phone to Emily while tipsy, which was a blast. Saw the Titanic building museum thing but was not inspired to go in, City Hall, and the shopping areas. Nothing seemed to jump out food wise so I ended up with a mediocre burger. Sat in another pub for a while with a cider to kill time - another local had also told me about some other hotspots and shows but I wasn’t feeling up to being excitable or sociable so I headed home for a quiet night in.

The following day was glorious; hot, sunny and fresh and perfect for riding north for what ended up being one of my favourite days of the trip. While much of my travels in England took me past Harry Potter filming locations, today was about Game of Thrones! I went to the cave at Cushendun where Mellisandre gives birth to demon-baby-Stannis and was so tempted to recreate the shots, but I thought the other tourists wandering around may have taken it the wrong way. Next was Ballintoy Harbour, which features as two locations on the Iron Islands. The famous rope bridge nearby was closed for the day due to the weather, so I continued on to Bushmills for a tour of the Bushmills Distillery and yes I was that person who asked all the questions. Also the guide was cute. The complimentary whiskey at the end was exactly what I needed when hitting the road as the afternoon wore on. With no baggage storage available I lugged all my bags around the tracks to the Giant’s Causeway. I had high expectations of this landmark and was not disappointed. It was really nice to find little areas on the bizarre hexagonal stones in the warm, late afternoon sun and watch the ocean. I wish that I had more time to sit and spend there but I was conscious of getting out and finding dinner and a campsite before dark.

In the carpark two young boys on bicycles came up to me and made conversation, telling me how cool my bike was and answering my questions about the area. It was really nice and one of the few times I feel like I actually spent time talking to locals … so much of my time was spent travelling alone, and at a fast pace, that the opportunity didn’t often come up.

I had one last thing in the area to see; The Dark Hedges, which feature in both The Lord of the Rings and in Game of Thrones as the King’s Road. While it was a great sight, it was frustrating to try and get photos of as people would continually drive through and stop right in the middle. I even got annoyed enough to ride up to two bikers and ask them why the hell they were spoiling it for everyone else who was obviously all waiting up one end. I was still at a bit of a loss for dinner and lodgings, but ended up lucking out at The Old Courthouse in Coleraine, which was a fantastic pub. Unfortunately when I left it was a dark, moonless night and as soon as I left the town I was plunged into complete blackness, making finding a campsite impossible. I backtracked to a roundabout and found a wheat field, illuminated by some street light - and if I could camp at the gates of Trinity College, I obviously had no issue with throwing all my bags over a gate, stamping down some vegetation and getting some shut eye.

A benefit of ‘stealth camping’ is that you have a number of motivations to get up and hit the road early. I rode west through Derry and stopped only long enough to be told that waterproof boot covers basically don’t exist, before crossing the border into Ireland and only noticing because the petrol I bought was in euros. I powered on through to Donegal to stop for lunch (from Aldi - on a budget, people!) and a phone debrief with Bec Jones from the carpark. A local tourism dude recommended I stop in quite a number of places (ain’t nobody got time for that) including the bay at Mullaghmore. This is where context is often important because while Mullaghmore was undoubtedly an attractive location for local families, it provided little for me as a traveller on a ten-country road trip. Looking at the map now I have no idea how I then made it all the way to Clifden on the west coast, but I do remember throwing my tent up with wild abandon and driving at less-than-safe speeds for food and cider. Clifden was the first place on my whole trip where I couldn’t find a table in a pub to relax with a powerpoint. The whole town was disappointingly over-touristed and every venue packed with visitors, and you could tell that much of it had been designed for that. After wandering around and getting hungrier and crankier I settled for a spot at the bar, where thankfully the staff charged my phone for me. The pub after was equally as unfruitful but I did have a great conversation with an Irish mother about my trip and life in general. Unfortunately her babe of a son did not come over to partake.

There are a lot of recommended rides around Clifden, but as I had already seen a lot of the great scenery when riding in, I opted only to do the Sky Road out on the peninsula before moving on. It was a short and sweet little road with some good views at the end, but I was confident that further down the coast would bring more impressive ones. The next stop was Galway, which while it had a lot going on, felt entirely manufactured for tourists. I only stayed long enough to have lunch with two guys I met, who were also on holiday, before sallying forth to the Cliffs of Moher, which I basically only went to because I had heard Ange bang on about them so much. On the way I unexpectedly came across this completely grey stone coastline, apparently part of The Burren. I honestly could have stayed there all day, it was so breath taking, and I felt a really strong synergy with the place.

In what felt like a daily reoccurrence I arrived in the late afternoon with not really enough time to fully appreciate the cliffs (which were spectacular), but still enough to see and photograph a lot of them. The incredibly friendly girl in the carpark ticket booth told me that in Doolin, the next village over, there was actually a craft beer festival on tonight, which I should definitely check out. This night was another highlight of my trip - the festival had some great live music and ciders (including my absolute favourite that I had there and in Clifden, Stonewell Cider) and I met a couple over dinner who were in the area for their friend’s gay wedding the next day. We also bonded over the absurd amount of butter in our pots of mussels and mutual annoyance at the children scattering pebbles around the outdoor eating area. Upon arriving back to my tent I was hailed by a group of loud Irish campers with cheap booze, who convinced me to drink with them around their fire before they were swiftly scolded by the campsite manager and told to put the fire out and shut the fuck up.

I had to make a decision on whether to head further south to see the Dingle Peninsula and Cork or not, as I really didn’t have enough time, and my trip was rushed enough as it was. I made the sensible decision to forego the south and instead head straight through the centre of Ireland to the east coast and allow myself plenty of time to experience Dublin. That day was a hard slog, but I was rewarded with a beautiful full Irish breakfast at a spot in Athlone, made by the loveliest women who took pity on my tired and weathered self. You guessed it, I made it just in time to Newgrange for the last tour. Panic set in when I saw the signs saying all the tours were full for the day, but the guide fit me in - benefits of travelling solo. I was so tired I practically passed out on the thirty minute bus ride out to the site (and also on the way back). Newgrange, Ireland’s answer to Stonehenge, was pretty cool, although the exterior was a complete restoration, so the authenticity of other sites like Stonehenge and Carnac was lost a little.

The lovely tour guide came to my rescue again, recommending and ranting about a great little pub in the next town I could go for dinner - I was exhausted and famished. However I was dismayed to find I had been misled as said establishment did not offer food at all, and neither did any place in that town. Or the surrounding three towns. I honestly just felt like rolling up in a ball on the footpath and sleeping and could think of nothing worse than riding even further. I put my fuck it boots on and decided to start riding in the direction of Dublin and to keep going until I found somewhere.

I swear good pubs and beautiful middle-aged women were the saving grace of my trip and I was so, so lucky to stumble across so many in my hours of need. It’s like they saw how desperate I was and their innate motherly instincts would kick in, calling me things like ‘pet’ and ‘duck’. The roadhouse only just outside Dublin was like paradise in that moment. That night was my ultimate stealth camping experience, as I practically ended up camping behind someone’s hedge after a suitable wheat field failed to present itself. I had to be as silent as possible as I was setting up in full view of their upstairs window. I’m sure if I had knocked and asked, or even if they had found me, they wouldn’t have minded at all, but I didn’t have any experience with the temperaments of rural Irish landowners. 

It turns out I made the wrong decision about heading east to spend more time in Dublin, because the two and half days I spent there was about two too many. I think as a solo traveller I was really underwhelmed by the city, which was much more about getting drunk at the pub with friends. I didn’t have much luck in that regard; the only other person I encountered in my dorm room was a girl who narrated everything she did out loud. There’s not much to do or see in Dublin apart from the Guinness Storehouse (I’m not a fan of vegemite water) and Trinity College (the price to see the Book of Kells was disproportionately high for my level of interest). I did have some good food and ciders though, and it was a great chance to take a break from riding. Early one evening I did go to a pub with a guy I met and his friends (it was his birthday!) which was nice, but ended quite early when he became extremely drunk and had to be taken home (bless).

I spent one lunch time splashing out on an expensive cheese platter on a rooftop terrace (not many of those in Dublin, unsurprisingly) because the weather was spectacular. I also got some great Dublin tips from the waitress - people were really so nice to me! Walking along the river and harbour, I took my one and only photo of Dublin. Cider, cider etc. Oh also, I did have the most fantastic mexican wrap thing, like world changing, from El Grito.

On my final morning before catching the ferry I asked in the hostel about somewhere for lunch and was rewarded with O’Neill’s; a pub with the best vibe and atmosphere and a massive buffet to pick from for lunch. I also had my first Guinness from Ireland because how could I not, but I really couldn’t tell the difference. But man, how I wished I had found that place on the first day!

It was then onto the ferry, back across the Irish Sea! I actually thought it was taking me to Liverpool, but in fact it was headed further south to Anglesey in Wales, which actually saved me a bunch of riding. The weather was so perfect and an older couple and I were the only ones who discovered the top deck where you could sit in the sunshine and watch the coast disappear, while everyone else was cooped up downstairs. It was like a tropical cruise. We got talking quite a bit and sadly they told me about spending time in Australia because their son who was visiting came off his motorbike and broke his spine and is now in a wheelchair. It was definitely a big reminder to me how dangerous bikes can be and how much I had to ride carefully.

They also shouted me a cider!