THE sound of loud, drunken Irish tunes sung by tone deaf lungs berated my ears as a group of men in ruffled suits wobbled down the damp and dark cobble-stoned lane of Quay St, Galway.
To the left, a 20-year-old boy has his pale buttocks pressed up against a glass shop front, grey underpants dangling past his knees and face screwed up in drunken concentration in an attempt to relieve himself.
I don’t know whether to laugh or wash my eyes out with soap but 10 seconds later I’m immediately distracted by a gaggle of inebriated girls who have unceremoniously slung their high heels over their naked shoulders while threatening to burst out of tight dresses that scarcely cover their fake tanned bum cheeks.
They blindly barge into me before one particularly painted up trollop screeches “Where the fuck is the fucking King’s Head?”.
The scene resembles 3am on New Years Eve but it’s scarcely 10.30am on a Thursday night in this heaving, bustling city where Irish is as freely spoken as English and university students run amok – bellies full of Guinness – in what’s otherwise a spectacular and colourful hub on the west coast of Ireland.
We arrived just hours earlier after an 80km sprint from a deserted and boggy island near Carna with the promise of our first shower in four days and a rare restaurant meal helping to turn the peddles up and down consistently rolling hills.
Icy winds ruffled our dirty hair and narrow roads skirted past the breathtaking scenery synonymous with the west coast that we’d come to expect in the last four days of riding since leaving tiny, wild and picturesque Achill Island.
The pint-sized island had seemed forever stuck in the 19th century and we’d spent a memorable day off, bikes and tent parked at a beachfront campsite, forging a firm friendship with the tandem cyclists Pauline and Mael from France.
The couple had rolled into the campsite late the night before and after a couple of celebratory Guinness pints Mael had informed us of a small walk and cycle we simply must take the next day to see a secluded beach and Europe’s highest cliffs.
After a lazy morning of reading we hitched a back pack and wheeled the bikes back onto the rough and gravelly tarmac only to discover Mael’s “small cycle” was up the most ferocious hills we had yet tackled on the trip.
Almost an hour of puffing, panting and sweating later I was ready to hurl my bike at Mael’s head but then the clouds parted, the hill sloped back down and Ireland’s most truly picturesque beach came into view.
White sand merged into turquoise waters while a steep green mountain rose beyond it to house crumbling stone cottages that stood starkly against the steel grey horizon.
If it was 10 degrees warmer, we could have been at the Caribbean but as a piercing wind cut through our jackets I pondered exactly how many Guinnesses it would take for me to get into a bikini and those freezing cold waters.
With a cheeky smile Mael announced our destination was the top of the distant mountain, leaving us with an almost vertical climb.
Red-faced and with screaming calves we eventually scrambled to the summit, which revealed the most spectacular scenery we’d witnessed yet.
Wind swept tussocks, bright flowering thistles and a smattering of tough sheep dotted the landscape which opened up to ocean – stretching as far out as the eye could see.
Directly below us cliffs crumbled down to jagged rocks where white waves smashed ruthlessly against it.
It felt like nothing had changed in a few hundred years with just the wind swept grass laying testament to the passage of time.
Two hours later we’d trekked up and down cliffs and through bogs before facing the cycle back to the campsite in search for a hot dinner and a warm shower.
When I finally lay my aching muscles down in the tent I ruefully wondered how I’d feel on the 70km cycle to Westport the next day.
The awesome foursome where set to ride together again today and so with Bob the tandem bike and Scott and my epically loaded Surly Long Haul Truckers in tow we weaved out of Achill Island via a disused railway track that had since been converted into a walk and cycle track.
Despite a brief stop for ham and cheese sandwiches, biscuits and photos we plodded on to reach Westport House – the town’s sole campsite.
As we wheeled through fancy stone gates and past lush, manicured lawns I wondered just how upmarket this establishment was and after a heavily made up receptionist announced it would be a whopping 26 euro for two people for one night my worst suspicions were realised.
This outrageous price meant we were left with just four euro to buy food – a figure we spectacular blew with a bottle of wine and a few bars of chocolate.
This minor blow out meant the four of us had just one option for the next two nights at least – wild camping.
A pair of Swiss cycle tourists, who were pitched just metres from us, announced spectacular scenery awaited us but warned of some big hills on the route south west that hugged Ireland’s west coast to the famous Connemara National Park.
With mind’s set for big climbs followed by wild camping the four of us rolled out of the site at 11am the next day with the hope of reaching Tully cross, some 65km up the winding Connemara mountain ranges to a rugged peninsula.
French lessons, English slang classes and bouts of woeful singing broke up the cycling as we chugged past untamed scenery that swung from rocky steep mountains to rolling, green hills, cobalt loughs and quaint villages.
At 7.30pm we rolled into Renvyle on the hunt for the perfect wild camp spot and five minutes later we were rewarded with a stony patch of grass just metres from a quiet beach.
A lone van was parked to one side revealing yet another French couple – the gorgeous Laurent and Severine
Within minutes the laid-back pair had invited us to their van for organic French red wine, cheese, bread and pate while sharing hilarious travel stories.
As the night matured our glasses continued to be magically refilled and the laughs got louder sparking me to eventually make my excuses and sneak back to the tent.
Before I could wobble off Laurent insisted I try a night cap of carvados – a French double distilled cider that I was told held apple notes but to me tasted like a particularly strong drop of petrol.
I choked back the cap full of potent liquid and all but sprinted to the tent before any more carvados could be thrust on me.
Two hours later Scott crawled back into the tent smelling like a Russian vodka house sparking me to smile nastily to myself at the elephants set to run rampant in his head the next morning.
Steel grey clouds welcomed in a new day and I was the first out of the tent followed by three bleary-eyed cyclists.
At 11am we eventually pushed our bikes up a steep, gravel rise to the main road and just 10 minutes later we rolled into a pub for a greasy lunch and some coffee.
Just a couple of days earlier we’d told Pauline and Mael that drinking on a hangover was fondly dubbed “hair of the dog” in English.
Mael had gotten a little confused at this sentiment and upon ordering a cider with his plate of mussels he announced he was “killing the dog”.
One dead dog later we trundled slowly up nasty, narrow hills towards Ballyconnely for our second night of wild camping.
The god of travels would again bless us with another secluded beach as we took a dirt track down to white sands and more turquoise water but it was here that we made our first epic camping mistake.
Pitching on the sand.
It seemed like a fabulous idea for about five minutes but after that sand crept its way into our every orifice, the tent, the sleeping bags and even our bloody clothes as any thought of a peaceful evening was washed away in a fit of sandy frustration.
Even a gourmet feast of baked beans, sausages and mushrooms couldn’t assuage us and we brought half the beach back into our tent when we eventually turned in for the night.
The next morning I felt sticky, sandy, sweaty and disgusting sparking stupid decision number two – a swim.
Ireland’s west coast waters might look postcard perfect but only a local or an extremely drunk tourist can handle their icy depths. Since I was neither my early morning swim lasted all of 30 seconds and left me swearing, shivering and more foul than the night before as I managed to get more sand into my every orifice before the day’s cycling had begun.
The plan for the now permanent awesome foursome was to head to Carna but it seemed a two day hangover was effecting half the party and within just 15km a spot of rain sent us running for the nearest cafe where we guiltily hibernated for three hours before reluctantly getting on the bike.
I was desperately close to throwing in the towel and booking into a B&B but pride eventually put as back on our loaded beasts.
My legs felt shagged and my backside bruised as we passed into true Irish country where road signs were all in Gaelic (English was left by the wayside some 20km north) and farmers chatted amicably away in their native Irish at the local pub/shop/petrol station.
Eventually tiny Carna popped into view and we found a winding track out of the village towards tussock and bog covered islands that sloped down into a wild series of beaches.
A friendly local pointed us to the perfect camping spot and we pitched beside a crumbling stone ruin that overlooked dark ocean waters, rocks and creamy sand.
After a dinner of two minute noodles and chocolate biscuits our even sweatier bodies rolled into the tent as we dreamed fitfully of showers, kettles and other long lost luxuries.
The next day a ferocious head wind pushed our energy reserves to dangerous lows for the first 40km before the road twisted and a blissful tail gust blew us the remaining 38km to Galway.
Pauline and Mael had powered on ahead to a campsite in the western seaside suburb of Salt Hill and at 7.30pm we pitched, blew the mats up and prepared for our first wash in four days.
I’m not sure if it was the “free” hot water or the fact that I looked, smelt and felt like a homeless gypsy woman but the shower easily rated in my top 10 of all time.
Looking like real humans we happily caught a bus into the city for a restaurant meal that even drunk, tarted up university students couldn’t ruin.