Fat, hibernating seals, foggy moors and yes, more midges

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Scenic Strandhill – on the west coast of Ireland

A FIERCE wind ripples through the grass covered dunes while a relentless sideways rain beats down on a small line of surfers weaving their way up a rugged track towards the beach.

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The sun setting over the ocean at Strandhill

It’s the middle of summer on the wild west coast of Ireland but the dedicated group resemble hibernating seals with full length wetsuits, boots and even caps to protect themselves from the icy waters of Strandhill’s picturesque beach.

It’s not the place that comes to mind when you picture a relaxing surfing holiday but with another group of surfers jabbering away in French and a family of Germans trundling along, surfboards under arm, behind them, that’s exactly what this quiet, wild spot presents.

Mere metres away a rustic surf shop looks out of the grass covered dunes where two freckled, sun kissed Kiwis wearing board shorts wax down their boards while pondering tomorrow’s swell.

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Treating ourselves to a delicious crepe at the local ice creamery in Strandhill

We had been in this tiny, charming village for just one day since cycling 80km through fierce rain from Enniskillen and with its smattering of shops (there’s a handful of pubs, a convenience store, an ice creamery and even a pint sized “casino”) and colourful cross section of campers, we were already finding ourselves reluctant to leave.

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The beach at Strandhill with the dunes in the background

There was something about this small town, perched on the rocky shores amid soaring sand hills, that made you want to sell your bike, by a board and live the “good life” and even the wind whistling through the sandy grass and ominous storm clouds rolling in just added to the ambience.

With a belly full of homemade ice-cream and a banana, caramel crape from nearby Mammy Johnson’s ice creamery I was as content as the aforementioned fat hibernating seal while wistfully wondering how much it would cost to buy one of the nearby charming white washed stone beach shacks – the kind with red flowers creeping down the sides and bay windows looking out onto the dunes.

Then a dull ache rippled through my stiff thighs and my mind hurtled back to the bike.

We had pushed our stiff legs up narrow winding hills, past sheer mountains with flat tops, green paddocks and crumbing stone cottages to arrive in this little  town almost a week ago with the plan to stay a day and then hug the west coastline towards Galway.

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An old cemetery near Strandhill

We had just one day to get a seriously epic load of washing done, charge our appliances, tell our family we loved them and that we were still alive before setting off on foot to explore the village but as we flopped down on the dunes with a coffee and some chocolate the urge to listen to the waves while reading and napping won over.

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Trekking around Strandhill

We were on a sinking ship of weariness blended with relaxation and so bit the bullet and paid for another night at the beachfront caravan park in a bid to read, drink tea, eat our weight in biscuits and then pretend, for just a few hours, that we weren’t a slave to our stinky lycra shorts but carefree tourists with a fat wallet.

The following day dawned with steel grey clouds and a bitter wind but after crashing from a sugar high and feeling bloated from an enormous dinner we decided to pull on our walking shoes and explore the peninsula which rolled past enormous dunes, 500-year-old cemeteries and crumbling abbeys.

A solid morning of walking rekindled the unquenchable appetite and before attacking the dunes we scoffed down sandwiches, scones and tea while pondering if the heavy grey clouds would open or if it was just another typical, grizzly Irish day.

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Old ruins near Strandhill

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Caught in the rainstorm

After clawing our way up the almost vertical dunes with the grace of a pregnant elephant the heavens opened in full force and a fierce rain pummelled down as we trudged back through wet sand to the camp site in search of a hot shower, a hot chocolate and a hot dinner.

What we found, however, was much better.

Appearing out of the grey gloom in a picture of fluorescent rain gear on a heavily loaded tandem bicycle came Pauline and Miles – a French couple on a three week cycle tour of Ireland. After quick, wet, introductions we discovered this tough pair where headed in precisely the same direction as us with the same plans to tackle the 80km leg from Strandhill via the coast road to the bustling tourist town of Ballina the very next day.

We were stoked – so far this tour, despite the fun, adventure and character-building roads it inflicted on us – was surprisingly lonely as we found ourselves pushing the peddles day after day only to retire to the tent before most people had dinner in a fit of unsociable exhaustion.

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Scott hiking up a dune at Strandhill

The following morning the threat of rain again hung in heavy clouds but we parked our loaded bikes next to Miles and Pauline’s impressive tandem before setting off just before them towards Ballina.

Within minutes our legs were screaming despite our small break and just minutes after that the tandem flew past us with Pauline and Miles waving merrily as they speed off into the distance. It seemed the biscuits and chocolate had taken their toll and our stung pride helped propel the peddles a little harder as we desperately tried to pick up speed.

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Cycling along the Coast to Ballina

Soon the relentless rolling hills of green farmlands brought our pace back to a crawl and while the scenery of the west coast was spectacular the “cyclist tourettes” had started back up with full force.

Halfway up one horrendous climb I threw my feet to the ground screeching “I can’t bloody do it” and instead began the even more arduous push to the top.

Eventually bustling Ballina crawled into view and after a quick pitstop at Tesco we crawled to the campsite, forking out a budget-breaking 18 Euro just as the heavens again opened.

Miles and Pauline had arrived 15 minutes earlier (they’d cycled even further and even squeezed in a swim) and had already flung up their tent. We quickly threw our panniers on the ground in an effort to get the “house” ready before the relentless rain drenched us.

We stayed up past our bedtime chatting to Pauline and Miles and yet another bike tourer from England before crawling into our tents, bellies full of cheap pasta, olives and sausage.

Forking out the equivalent of almost $30 for a patch of grass stung and the next morning we were determined to at last try our hand at wild camping – something fear and the love of a hot shower had prevented us from even seriously having a crack at.

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Our first wild camping effort in a national forest – just us and the midges

Miles and Pauline were tackling a more scenic coastal route than what we aimed to cycle so with hopes of seeing the pair further down the track we set off towards Ballycroy National Park – a cruisy 60km away.

We’d figured this national park would be the perfect spot to pitch a tent “in the wild” so we sluggishly left the pricey site and meandered up the again hilly roads.

Hunger pains struck as both just 20km in and we stopped for a long and early lunch in the gorgeous and cheerful village of Crossmolina. It was a nasty bee sting on Scott’s calf that finally motivated us to get back on the road at 2pm and we reluctantly made for the town of Bangor where we aimed to pick up extra food and fill our water bottles before cycling south for the national park.

We wheeled into the tiny town at just after 4pm suffering from something we had yet experience on our entire trip – heat exhaustion. The threat of rain had sparked a stifling humidity and we felt drained, dehydrated and bloody cranky.

A loaf of bread and an energy drink later we wobbled south with an extra four litres of water while desperately hoping a magical wild camp site would just appear in front of us.

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Fog and sheep kept us company on the cycle to Achill Island

Half an hour later rough, fenced farm lands continued to dominate the scenery on both sides of the road and we started to panic. According to Google Maps the national park sat just south of the town but all we could see were cows, poo and old crumbling stone houses.

Eventually a thick pine plantation emerged on the horizon and after another 15 minutes of slow cycling we came across an old forest path that veered off to the left with a boom gate that prevented vehicle access.

It didn’t necessarily look like national park land but we were desperate and so with a furtive look for cars we quickly ducked off the road, pushing through damp gravel to find a flat clearing.

Five minutes later the perfect clearing presented itself and we dumped the bikes unceremoniously on the side of the road and quickly began to throw up the tent up.

Just seconds later it became clear we were anything but alone.

An angry horde of midges swooped down on us with a vengeance and no amount of screaming, swearing, death threats and arm waving could make the little bastards bugger off.

Any thoughts of a hot dinner on the camp stove were quickly forgotten and as we began throwing the panniers in the tent the heavens opened in what was the icing on one hell of a stale cake.

Thirty minutes later we sat huddled, sweaty and smelly, in our small tent while munching miserably on bread and butter while hoping like hell neither of us had to get up to go to the loo in the middle of the night. It was just 7pm.

In a bid to beat early morning farmers and god forbid it, the midges, we set the alarm for 5am the next day. I’d slept badly thanks to an irrational fear of intruders so with puffy eyes I reluctantly began letting down my mat and preparing to pack up the panniers.

Like a fly drawn to a turd the midges were already waiting for us and with not so much as a coffee or breakfast to appease us we threw down the soggy tent, loaded up the bikes, and began miserably peddling towards Achill Island – some 50km down the road.

The day before we’d bumped into another French couple cycling in the opposite direction who had informed us this mild stretch of tarmac was “seemply a breeze” and they had easily knocked it over in just a couple of hours.

Ten kilometres of steady, heartbreaking, climbs later it became abundantly clear why their ride in the other direction was so bloody easy.

I know it wasn’t their fault but I felt as though this steep road was all their fault and I began viciously imagining the pain I would inflict on them for lying to us.

It didn’t help that I was hungry, cold and miserable thanks to a heavy mist that created an eerie landscape akin to a wet moors that prevented us from seeing further than a few metres in front of us.

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Sarah and sheep

Any attempt to stop for food invited a horde of midges and with no shops yet open we peddled sadly on towards Achill Island.

Forty kilometres later it was scarcely 9am and we had arrived in the still foggy town of Achill Sound. A warm and cheerful bakery had just thrown open its doors and we quickly pushed the bikes against the wall and trudged in for a “big breakfast” and steaming hot coffees.

Two hours later we cycled the remaining, hilly 12 kilometres to a stunning beachside village called Keel where sheep grazed just metres from soaring cliffs overlooking a crystal clear bay.

A colourful carnival was set up just metres from the caravan site and while the price of 15 euros for a patch of grass still seemed steep we were for once, happy to pay it.

It was after a lazy day of naps, tea, biscuits and short walks that we were contemplating retiring to the tent for a long luxurious sleep (at the retirees’ time of 7pm) that a familiar tandem bike wove steadily into view.

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The awesome Pauline and Miles on their equally awesome tandem bike

Pauline and Miles had cycled an epic 110km to get to the island and after regaling us with stories of their own midge-infested wild camping experience we ditched the tent for a pint of Guinness at the local pub.

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A well deserved Guinness – or two

dIt was almost 1am when we crawled blissfully into our tents with sleep washing over us the minute our heads hit the pillow

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