Forget midges, there’s a different kind of plague sweeping Northern Ireland and it comes complete with a batch of squealing children, two equally loud parents and a portable privacy fence.
As we headed south west of Belfast school holiday spirit quickly overpowered the lingering Orange Day celebrations and with it a horde of caravans hell bent for the region’s campsites in a bid to taste some “fresh air”.
Still heartbroken from leaving our temporary Belfast home we peddled sluggishly out of the almost dead city on Sunday morning while dodging glittering masses of smashed glass scattered throughout the streets (and the occasional still drunk parade reveller). We were heading steadily towards a campsite nestled on the shores of Lough Neagh – an enormous mass of water believed to be Europe’s largest fresh water lake.
The minute we left Belfast’s hungover streets the roads became a highway for the hundreds of houses on wheels causing us to scowl grumpily as they narrowly passed us in the comfort of their climate controlled “tourer”.
A few hours later (and one brief stop for hot chips at a crumbling old pub) we wheeled into the neat-as-a-pin site called Kinnego Marina to discover any serenity had long been chased out by the gaggle of children sprinting like maniacs between the rows of campervans while mum and dad kicked back with a brew while listening to tunes being blasted out on their portable stereos while watching football on their portable tvs.
Even the “tenters” were pimped out with separate gazebos for cooking (or just enjoying the great outdoors midge free) and this popular UK phenomenon of privacy fences – a coloured tarp fence to pop in front of your tent to ensure the camping experience isn’t tainted by human interaction.
Feeling a bit self conscious and just slightly resentful we pitched our tiny tents and parked our pitiful bikes before shelling out a fat 12 pounds (about $24 AU) to pitch just inches from a super sized tent with its gaggle of kids and boom box.
The extortionate price is typical of almost every campsite across the UK with accommodation of any description dreadfully high (even backpackers charge up to $50 for one person in a dorm).
The next day rain hammered down on our wee tent and after a quick, half asleep, discussion we happily decided on a rest day spent in the campsite’s budget cafe where we downed copious cups of 80 pence coffee while scoffing down scones and fluffy baps. Otherwise known as a bread roll, baps (which unfortunately is also slang for boobs) are an institution across the country and when a break in the rain allowed us to duck into the nearest shop for supplies we discovered the absolute king of these baked goods – the Belfast bap.
Almost black on top these DD cup sized buns can be eaten with just butter (one’s enough to feed two of you) and with a slightly crusty shell and soft, subtly sweet fluffy insides they are nothing short of mouthwatering.
In fact the seeds of addiction were planted after just the first mouthful and from there on in Scott and I would dart into any bakery we saw in case they sold the tasty morsels.
For a brief moment I even considered giving up bicycle touring for full time bap consumption but after a quick glimpse at my bakery bloated belly I realised the two, sadly, would have to go hand in hand.
When the rain eased and the baps ran out we headed south towards Newry – spending the night in a fly blown camp – before heading back up and west to Fivemiletown.
Whether it was excessive bap consumption or something else the first leg was pitiful as we pushed out a pathetic 30km through Northern Irelands’s farming districts.
It was here that we discovered a huge flip side to this gorgeous green countryside that our dear caravanning friends would be blissfully unaware of – cow poo.
For some reason the country’s farms smell nothing short of putrid and while delightful and colourful villages broke up the stench every five miles a face full of fetid fumes almost knocked us off our bikes.
The dung also brought with it hordes of “blue bottles” the name the Irish give to the big dirty flies that love nothing more than a face full of poo for morning tea.
Each night the outer shell of the tent would fill with hundreds of these dirty pests creating a cacophony of buzzing that sounded like a static filled tv on full blast.
This also sparked a rather alarming reaction in Scott who took to bellowing terrifying death threats at the plague of flies.
For not the first time I wondered if we should be camping so close to other people.
From the poo grounds we tackled an 80km leg to Fivemiletown – appreciating not for the first time how utterly not charming the bloody rolling hills of Ireland are.
Averaging a pitiful 15km per hour we rolled into yet another classic old town called Aughnacloy for lunch where we pulled up outside of a white washed pub and proceeded to meet what had to be the town drunk.
Dear old Brian was rip-roaring drunk and as crazy as a loon but with so many Irish being charming, friendly and nothing short of welcoming we were willing to initially give the staggering old boozer the benefit of the doubt.
Then Scott, the traitor, ducked off to the loo to leave me with a rare insight into just how crazy Brian was.
“You’re beautiful – yer know – just beautiful,” he slurred at me as soon as Scott’s figure disappeared from view.
I laughed nervously and said: “Well I don’t feel it.”
“Why the fuck not!” He shouted aggressively.
I was stunned and then said.
“Well I’ve just cycled 50km Brian and I smell like a pig and look like a homeless woman.”
It seemed Brian, however, was not listening and he interrupted drunkely to ask:
“Do you know what I’m about to do?”
I froze. Was he about to tell me of a premeditated murder he planned?
“Um no, what are you about to do?” I asked nervously.
“I’m going to give you a book of my poetry.” he beamed.
Relief washed through me.
“Oh, wow thanks Brian – and congratulations on the book.”
“What the fuck are you congratulating me for!”
Countless more swear words and drunken tangents later Scott returned and Brian indeed presented us with his book before we were able to escape (we’d spied a bakery up the road) where we consoled ourselves with cupcakes because the bastards had sold out of Belfast baps.
The remaining 30km went by in a daze of tantrums and curses as we battled rough tarmac and dozens of lorries to reach Fivemiletown.
The local campsite sat just a mile out of the village and when we rocked up our delight at the cheap 10 pound rate was quickly shattered by the site itself. It was an overgrown swamp of gravel and prickly bushes and so like true rebels we instead set up in the nearby children’s park where the grass was lovely and soft – even if it did come with squealing children.
Later that night the park’s caretaker caught up with us but rather than rouse on us for clearly camping in the wrong spot he gave us a key to get into the nearby facilities (which had a tv room and a kitchen) and proceeded to give us two free trays of cupcakes from the nearby Scotts Bakery factory where he worked.
Despite being knackered from the long day we stayed up until 11pm watching tele, drinking tea and munching on lemon cream cupcakes in an absolute bubble of exhausted bliss.
At 7.30am we crawled out of the tent with shagged legs and a cupcake hangover in a bid to head further west to Enniskillen – a touristy fishing town which would bring us just a stone’s throw from the border.
It was just under 40km but even with the help of a gentle tail wind the ride felt tough and when we pulled into the town any thoughts of peddling further were dashed as we fell into an exhausted heap in the town’s McDonalds.
Sipping on a latte we quickly looked up nearby accommodation but it seemed the closest campsite was 20km away and there was no hostel to speak of.
I just couldn’t face cycling further and so feeling extremely guilty we booked into the cheapest pub we could find in the dated Railway Hotel.
It cost a whopping 80 pounds and the room looked like it would have been extremely fashionable 30 years ago but with the rain again setting in we forgave the price and decor to fall into an exhausted slump on the surprisingly comfortable bed (while munching on Belfast gaps) pondering the next leg of the trip to the beachside haven of Strandhill (80km away) and from there the stunning western coastline which would lead us to Galway.