Blue Mountain Bicycle Trip

Gorgeous scenery in coffee country (c) Iain Purdie

Our only full-day trip of the holiday set off around 9am with a very friendly driver, Cleve. It’s around 2.5 to 3 hours to get to the cycle route, and he took the time to point out many interesting sites on the way there. These included one of the oldest churches on the island, a house built in the shape of a cruise ship and the areas where several of the island’s “heroes” were born.

Jamaica has many of these heroes, and they range from early politicians to freedom fighters and athletes. Their coins have some of these on the “heads” side and I love the way they’ve been gifted the title of “Excellent” or “Right Excellent”. It makes our political “Right Honourable” sound distinctly dry and boring in comparison. I know I’d rather be excellent than honourable any day.

Little Mister rode up front for a large part of the journey with Cleve keeping him entertained and, indeed, for the whole day. He was very well behaved given that he wasn’t taking part in the cycling. Come on, a 4 1/2 year old stuck on a bus for roughly 7 hours out of a 9-hour day? Most adults I know would have gone stir crazy.

As with all the staff we’ve met pretty much everywhere, the guides and assistants on the ride were cheery, fun, outgoing and just plain brilliant. We began up in the hills with a brunch and a quick demonstration of coffee manufacture – only a short show detailing how coffee is made in the plantations around the Blue Mountains, using manual techniques rather than mass mechanical means.

We were driven further uphill to the start point and to collect our cycles. The climate (and more specifically the change from where we’d begun the morning) reminded me very much of the trip from Kuala Lumpur to the Cameron Highlands I did a few years ago. Scale it down in size a bit and swap tea for coffee and there is a host of similarities. There are even similar examples of plant life with the ferns that fold up when touched. Views from the top down valleys are just gorgeous, even with the low cloud cover we had to accompany us.

Yes, because I need to know that on a bike with one brake (c) Iain Purdie

The bikes were a little scary, being “beach bikes” which only had a front brake lever. The rear brake was activated by pushing the pedals backwards which takes a lot of getting used to! My bike was very sensitive – one wrong push and the back wheel would lock up. I ended up swapping with the guide later on as he reckoned it didn’t “sound” right. His was a little easier to control!

My mum can’t ride a bike and they supplied her with a tandem and “pilot” for the trip. All she had to do was keep her feet away from the pedals – chueffeur-driven, basically.

Lunch was supplied at the same place we had brunch, and there were a handful of stop-offs on the way down for our guide to point out little items of interest. There was very little pedalling with the downhill route, and the final section was done through some moderate rain. Our guide was wondering why we weren’t bothering to use the (free) plastic ponchos – he didn’t appreciate that a bit of rain is nothing new to the British, and that we’re more used to it coming down in temperatures a quarter of the ones we were experiencing!

Little Miss was near the front of the pack for the majority of the ride, only stopping briefly when she hit a pothole and rammed the handlebars into her midriff when she fell off. Ouch. It didn’t stop her though – straight back in the saddle.

I passed a little pub towards the end with a great licensing sign which looked very genuine but was along the lines of “I promise, during the next session of court, that I will trail into town and apply for a liquor license so that I can serve alcohol to be consumed on and off the premises legally. Honest.”

We rounded things off with a dip in a pool beneath a gorgeous waterfall and a beer-drinking contest. Out of all the nations present, the only three people who volunteered to take part were British. Tut. I came a close second and narrowly missed out on the prize of… another beer!

The trip back was quiet, Little Mister up front again for most of it. We got back to the resort in time to chow down some more lovely food and back up the photos.

Definitely a trip I’d recommend. The change in climate will suit some people, the scenery is excellent and there’s very little exercise involved so as long as you can ride a bike (or share a tandem), there’s no reason not to do it.

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Bantry via Sheepshead

Horseshoe BayWaking did not come easy. Joleen’s 8:30 breakfast request was something she’d be taking a ribbing about. Mind, we did still had a lot to do and see so an early start would still be useful. Even if we were both wrecked from the partying the night before.

After a lovely breakfast of muesli, locally-made raspberry yoghurt (absolutely delicious) and proper sausages and bacon we donned boots and hiked out towards the lighthouse that sits opposite the Beacon. It was only a short walk from the B&B and we were surprised to find that it actually sits inside someone’s back garden.

As we were prowling around the cliff edge to get some shots, the house’s owner – a chap called Ken – popped out and told us we were more than welcome to come into the garden if we wanted. Although the lighthouse is on his property, he has nothing to do with it. It’s fully maintained and operated (automatically these days) by the council – white light to sea, red light to the harbour.

Shirkin lighthouseKen’s owned the house for around 40 years, though has only settled there in moderately recent history after spending a lot of time travelling with his wife. He’s a real character and knows a load of history about the island, the lighthouse and the surrounding area. We only spent ten minutes or so chatting but you just know he’d be great to sit and talk to for an hour over a beer or a hot chocolate.

Today the weather was gorgeous, but during winter the winds will blow the waters into the cliffs and send waves over the lighthouse – and Ken’s house. Hence this being predominantly a summer abode for them! He had work to do, so we left him to potter as we clambered over the wall and had a better look at the lighthouse then walked back down to the Islander’s Rest to check the ferry times.

Where we found we’d just missed one and had two hours to wait for the next. Ah well. I could think of worse places to be stuck.

We killed time by reading and backing up photos, then marched off to catch the 14:30 boat back to the mainland. Just outside Baltimore we stopped at a hotel for a late lunch, then took a drive out to Sheep’s Head. This is a peninsula with some gorgeous views along its length. There was much stopping and snapping of photographs as we made our way along the rollercoaster-like bends and dips of the single track roads.

Shirkin Island ferry stepsAfter reaching the end, we doubled back and headed for Bantry – again stopping and diverting slightly for photo ops. We found one viewpoint with a handy map of the sights visible from where we were standing. Joleen was astounded to see the Fastnet rock pictured on the map. And even more astounded that it was – on this clear day – very much visible even at a substantial distance.

Bantry is by far the largest place I’d been in for almost three days. A harbour town with some character – and a horrific new hotel complex that looks like a set of white blocks. Whoever gave that monstrosity planning permission needs to be shot.

Our options for the evening has been threefold: go to another session in Schule, stay at a Buddhist retreat, or visit another of Joleen’s friends. We narrowed down on option three and Joleen told me “you’ll love Feargal – he’s one of a kind”. After some of the people I’d met who I already considered quite “individual”, for her to make a point of mentioning this one almost filled me with forboding. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Jelly fishy thingyAnd I’d not have expected what I did find. Feargal’s actually a couchsurfer, though more active as a host than a visitor. He’s also very popular. I can see why. The man’s mad, but in one of those wonderfully endearing ways. Imagine an ecological Wilf Lunn – the guy with the mad moustache who used to build crazy contraptions on children’s TV shows in the 80’s. Feargal’s house shouldn’t just be visited by couchsurfers, it should be a stopping point for tourists. It’s mental. Remember when you were a child and you’d think of these really wild things and wish “wouldn’t it be great if…”? Well, as far as household stuff goes, Feargal’s not let the “if” stop him. Or the “what”, come to think of it. He just “does”.

Feargal himself is small and unassuming. He’s very quiet but passionate about a lot of subjects. Conservation, recycling and so forth are very high up that list. So much stuff in his house is made from recycled junk. From the lamp in the spare room to the framework holding up his recycle collection bags in the kitchen. The soap holder in the bathroom is a large seashell suspended from wire wrapped round a bolt nailed into the wall – all junk found on the beach. The toilet roll holder is made of similar bits of scrap metal.

And the 6-or-so-person hammock suspended over his back yard.

Disrepaired boat and landscapeOh, yes. A huge hammock made from scaffolding poles and fishing net. Which Feargall wriggled his way up to with ease while Joleen and I scrambled up his wood-and-shopping trolley stairway like a pair of paraplegic gymnasts. We sat and chilled for a while then decided to get food. Indian was settled on which meant a short jaunt into town.

Ever ecological, Feargal suggested cycling in – a fine idea. Then I saw the bikes. A rusty girl’s bike with a basket full of driftwood and flotsam, and an ageing tandem. Sorry, not ageing. “Classic”.

It gets better. One of Feargal’s recent couchsurfers had adapted an old radio to run off the dynamo that’s meant to power the front light. With careful use of diodes and rechargeables, when you pedal, the batteries are charged and the radio runs from human power. The tape works if you have the light turned off and direct all your pedalling to the player.

Tape? Ah, yes. Feargal’s still using audio cassettes. I’ve not seen such a huge collection of cassettes in one place since I was in Jordan. And I’ve not even mentioned the tape player in the bathroom that comes on automatically when you switch the light on.

Well, I have now.

Fort and landscapeWhere were we? Ah, yes. Bikes, stereos. Fluorescent jackets. And a stereo playing Ireland’s answer to Classic FM. “Don’t worry”, I was informed, “nobody will know where the music’s coming from.” I was cursing the radio for not playing Ride of the Valkyries when Feargal took off downhill with Joleen in fits of giggles on the back seat of the tandem. I followed, trying to video it before realising I needed both hands to brake, shoved my camera in my mouth, panicked and nearly swallowed the damn thing. Good job it’s waterproof.

The jaunt to the curry house was pretty short and Joleen was grinning like a loon by the time we got there. What struck me as bizarre was how the younger generation ignored us (or pretended to) while the older folk stood and stared at the numpties in bright jackets with the musical bike basket.

We ordered food and had a while to wait, so Feargal announced it was my turn on the back seat. Great. Death by tandem. I could think of better ways to die. But I’ve survived rickshaws, motos and tuk-tuks so I could hardly chicken out.

I’ll tell you, with two people pedalling they go fast. Within a couple of minutes we were at the beach where a chav/ned/whatever-the-Irish-call-them was showing off to his mates on a quad bike, kicking up sand and winding a dog up.

Jolene and Feargal“Now you go in front,” said my Nemesis. I swear this guy was trying to kill me. I admire him for being prepared to wipe himself out in the process. That takes devotion. The thing is, he didn’t reckon with my amazing cycling skills. And sense of self-preservation. We made it back to the curry house in one piece, despite my efforts to slalom between some bollards set about two feet apart earning a squawk from the back seat. That’ll teach him.

I was relegated to the back seat for the cycle back to the house where our mixed bag of veggie Indian deliciousness was accompanied by gorgeous apple and blackberry juice. You know the tetrapaks you get “made from concentrate”? Feargal knows an organic shop that sell the concentrate. Lining the bottom of a glass is enough to mix with a pint of water and still make your teeth auto-dial the dentist. Lovely.

We chatted about all kinds of weird stuff (we now have mathematical proof that gravity doesn’t work at the North Pole) then retired; Feargal pausing only long enough to show me how to hang by your toes from a pull-up bar (he has seriously strong foot muscles). The man’s utterly and completely hatstand. Every country should have one.

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