Bere Island

Scuppered boatWe snuck out of Feargal’s early on before he woke up as we had to meet another friend of Joleen’s to catch a ferry. Caitriona (I think I have the spelling right) lives in Crosshaven, but has a family home on Bere Island, where her father grew up. There are two ferry routes over there and we, of course, found the wrong one first.

We did eventually spot the tiny turn-off for the one we needed (“Pontoon”) and Joleen reversed the car onto it. Nothing as substantial as a roll-on/roll-off job in this area. At a squeezed, the ferry will apparently take five vehicles, though they’d have to be bubble cars. The larger ferry fits five comfortably, I’m told, and seven if they’re sandwiched rather tightly. Caitriona was in that situation once and it wasn’t until she was wedged in that she realised the was completely screwed if the very sank – she had no sunroof and couldn’t open her doors!

Near the firing rangeI’m glad to report that our vessel didn’t sink and that Caitriona stayed outside the car for the trip over. I sat inside and read my book. It’s nice to get a bit of time to lose myself in a novel.

Bere Island’s around 7 x 3 miles in dimensions and the populations floats around the 200 mark. There are only two pubs and they’re pretty far apart. So if one’s shut, you’ve quite a walk to the other. We left pubbing till later and began by driving (the long way round) to Caitriona’s family home.

This turned out to be a fantastic old building set back about 100 yards from the sea within the only section of woodland on the island. The view over the sea was of Hungry Hill on the mainland, something it’s recommended to hike up if you have the time. Which I didn’t, sadly. It’s spectacular, frankly.

Inside the house was spacious and very old-fashioned. It had the kind of clean smell that reminded me of the dentist’s or doctor’s from when I was a child. All old furniture and wood with beds stacked in the rooms as you’d expect from a sizeable family. We stopped long enough to ditch the bags and sort out walking gear. Joleen had a few targets to hit photo-wise and they’d involve some hiking.

Small break in the rocksWe began with a spin round the island and over to one end where the only sandy beach exists. This coincidentally is near to where the Army and reserves (commonly referred to their old name as the An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil, or FCÁ) practise their shooting. There are a series of “pits” where the riflemen ensconce themselves and take aim at targets with a sandy bank behind them.

As it happened, some army types were kicking around in preparation for such an exercise and Joleen had a chat with one of them about the range and so on. I was told to “shut up” due to my accent prior to her engaging him in conversation. I’d not be a convincing spy. We did get to see the area where the “target-holders”, and I assume score-masters, sit. I’m sure if you spent long enough digging through the grey sand used to stop the bullets you could find yourself plenty of spent rounds.

Instead, we walked past and down onto some rather impressive rocks. The structure makes the island look like it was made of lots of narrow rock “plates” stacked up, which then toppled leaving them stuck into the ground at an angle. We found a very small enclave with a sand-like surface made entirely from smashed and ground seashells, predominantly blue and white in colour. The views were just stunning, and we were at sea level.

View over rocksDodging the army types, we drove around seemingly at random taking in the island as a whole. Some of the housing is a little bizarre. One is essentially a boat with the hull cut off. The top half has been dropped into a garden and passes as a small house. Another is a standard-enough looking caravan – with an oversized A-shaped roof quite literally strapped onto it and held in place by industrial-strength tent pegs.

The first major touristy thing to see was the cross – a large white concrete religious symbol sat atop the highest point on the island, so therefore a bit of a walk. Mass is often held there, though there is a drivable track that is used to get the older worshippers up. The track is closed regularly, though, and also on the 31st of January every year to all public passage. Apparently this is to use a loophole in the law to prevent a public right of way being created – as long as it’s shut at least once a year, no right of way can be introduced.

A window…The view from the top was – surprise – impressive, though it was pretty windy and cloud was closing in. We were also getting past the peckish stage and well into “hungry”. The walk back to the car seemed quicker, though it was downhill. Once out of the wind and with feet sighing relief, we opted to find somewhere to eat. Well, not so much “find” as go to the only place that we thought might be open. A cafe next to the ferry dock which is open long hours every day of the week. The food wasn’t brilliant (except the scone I had – delish), but hot, filling and reasonably priced. Entertainment was provided by a small child dropping the white ball into the pockets on a pool table then dashing to the window in the side to try and work out how it got back to the little hole at one end. He did this for about ten minutes. Well cute.

Weighed down with calories, we returned to the car and drove further round the island to a point where we could walk to the lighthouse. This is a marked walking trail and we followed it for around 45 minutes. The lighthouse is perched on the western edge of the island and – you guessed it – offers a wonderful view. Two men were visible down below taking photos and making notes about it. A popular structure!

Attack of the killer chickens!The sun came out for us, but the wind still gave us a battering as we packed up and trudged down to the car for the last bit of driving. The final sight to see was the Martello tower, again positioned at the top of a hill. Thankfully this one only involved a short walk!

The tower has had a lot of work done on it to make it tourist-friendly, though the lights inside didn’t work and someone’s smashed all the exterior ones that would light it up at night. Also, by the time we got there, the wind was blowing clouds all around and over us to the view was… well. There wasn’t one.

Cross on the hillAfter our hefty late lunch, food wasn’t a huge priority so we returned to the house to relax. Caitriona had a lie down while Joleen and I tinkered with photos and wrote blog articles on our laptops. A light dinner of ham sandwiches and strawberries was munched before we donned footwear again for a walk to the nearest pub, in Rerrin.

As we left the house, Caitriona turned to us. “I just saw a guy with a gun! He saw me and turned, then walked back up the drive to the gate!”

Great. And here’s me with an English accent. I assumed she meant some wandering farmer with a shotgun. Treading delicately out to the front of the house, it turned out it was a couple of soldiers, all camo’d up. Facepaint, leaves in their hats, the lot. And about 18 years old. With big guns.

Bere Island LighthouseThey quickly established this was an occupied residential property and asked very kindly if they could park two Land Rovers down near the water. Essentially, they were playing “hide and seek” with another team and had to remain hidden overnight. As I mentioned earlier, the house was in probably the only wooded spot on the island so I can see why they stopped there.

Caitriona gave them the OK and we disappeared off into the twilight for a couple of pints in O’Sullivan’s. The older army lot were in there. I assume they’d decided it was more fun to have a few drinks than go looking for recruits hiding in Land Rovers. Fair enough, I can understand that.

We walked home around midnight and the roads were completely dark. I’d brought my headlamp and wore it which made finding the path a lot easier. When we got back to the property, we spotted the “hidden” soldiers a little quicker than they perhaps would have liked.

Martello towerGiven that they’d left the interior lights of the Land Rovers on, kept slamming doors and were talking loudly this was hardly a surprise. Then Caitriona had a go at them for setting up shop in one of the old barns as the floors were weak.

We slept well. At least any potential burglars were in for a hell of a shock.

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Getting high in Vietnam (not that kind of high…)

Hanoi has it in for me. You may recall the last time I flew out, just as I was about to walk to the bus stop the heavens opened. Well guess what happened this time as I was waiting to leave and catch the train? Fortunately a taxi to the station was included in my excursion cost, but I was still drenched by the time I got to my carriage.

I shared a “hard sleeper” (6 berths, thin mattresses) with two Dutch girls, an English guy, his Vietnamese wife and a Vietnamese man who ambled in more than an hour after we left Hanoi. He very kindly didn’t complain that one of the Dutch girls had swapped beds with him so as to be on the same level as her friend.

We pulled into Lào Cai much earlier than expected – around 5am. It took ten minutes to convince the Dutch girls that the train wasn’t going any futher! I found my bus, and shortly after, Griff (the English guy from Hanoi) boarded. This is strange as his train arrived earlier than mine. Half an hour or so later and we spotted the Aussie group who got on a different bus.

I dozed on the ride to Sapa and met up with the Aussies again at the tour office. I guess their bus was faster than ours. I was given a room key for a nearby hotel so that I could get showered, then had some nice phở for breakfast before jumping into a big, bouncy Jeep up to the start of the mountain trail by way of an office for my guide to get a permit.

It seems Fansipan can be spelt many ways, just looking at the posters and signs. The other two I spotted were “Fanxipan” (used on many of the direction signs on the climb itself) and “Phan si păng” (also printed as one whole word). Either way, it’s quite a hike up to 3143m.

The weather wasn’t great, but at least this means I was cooler than on my last visit. No great views, but the sounds, smells and close-up vegitation were stunning. If I could bottle some of the scents, I’d make a fortune.

My guide, Paó (pronounced Paho), spotted some plants which he picked. One he called “cinnamon” but with a hard “k”. It grew close to the ground and was a reddish bulb with leaves tucked around it. True enough, a nibble of the exposed flesh where he had snapped it from its root did indeed taste vaguely of cinnamon. Further on he found three young, juice bamboo shoots which went in his rucksack, presumably for use in dinner.

Footing wasn’t exactly treacherous, but could be slippy in places. Several times I heard “mind head” and realised I had been watching my step so much I’d neglected to care about anything above shoulder height. Not good when some of it is spiky and extremely solid.

Just before midday we stopped for a picnic lunch which was really needed by then. I was impressed by how much Paó had crammed into his small rucksack. I provided dessert in the form of some peanut butter & chocolate Oreos I’d brought from Hanoi.

A little over an hour later we arrived at where we would be spending the night. Much earlier than I had expected and I wished I had brought my PSP after all. I certainly didn’t have enough left in the book I was reading and only one Biro to scribble with! As I sat drinking tea with a Japanese man who was on his way back down, an exhausted English tourist staggered in. He’d summited and come down again already after starting at 6am – and didn’t recommend anyone else ever do it! I’d have been tempted actually, but realistically it would mean staying in Sapa a full day beforehand due to the train times. Either way it would be a 2-day trip. But well done to him – it’s hard work and he really had to talk his hotel into letting him do it in the single day! I bet he didn’t really regret it once he settled in for the night.

It’s also a shame we couldn’t summit that afternoon as the sun put in a brief appearance, but it would almost certainly have meant descending at least some of the way in darkness.

The accommodation was a simple bamboo structure covered with blue plastic tarpaulin – sure to make a noise like a million snare drums in heavy rain. The beds were woven reed mats on suspended bamboo slats and certainly no less comfortable (or more comfortable) than the hard sleeper train.

A handful of rucksacks were already in place and Paó told me that six tourists were ahead of us on the second of their three-day ascent. They would be at the village in time for dinner in the evening. With my two-day schedule, I would also pass back through this village on the way back to Sapa.

It was bizarre sitting in my home for the night and watching the mist visibly swirl in through the doorway, making all my stuff wet. By mid-afternoon the could had once again moved in to cover the mountain and the temperature dropped accordingly.

Thankfully, around 5pm the other group returned. By this time I’d finished my book (the excellent Voices From D-Day by Jonathan Bastable) and run out of things to scrawl in my notebook. The group consisted of four Israeli guys, a girl from Canada and her Kiwi boyfriend. They’d set off at 7am that morning, but reckoned with one person the climb would be a lot quicker.

Dinner was superb, cooked over an open fire by Paó. He was obviously used to larger groups as there was enough food for four people! Spring rolls, tofu, pork, bamboo shoots, pineapple, tomato, rice… and the inevitable industrial-strength rice wine. Every few mouthfuls of food, he would cry “Cheers! Good health!” and make me neck some.

During dinner, the first pitter-patter of rain was heard, followed by thunder. This would make ablutions awkward as the WC consisted of a plank of wood over a slope with what looked like a ragged wind-breaker in front of it. Even Leeds Festival looked palatial in comparison.

Barely even 8pm, I crawled into my sleeping bag and started to nod as everyone else played cards. Tomorrow promised to be damn hard work.

[UPDATE: If you’re after more information on the climb, how to book it, what you need and so on, please go to the new post I added elsewhere. I hope it answers a lot more of your questions. Alternatively, check out the emails I got from Geoff after his visit.]