Exploring the Skellig Islands
Feel the fear and do it anyway
We woke up early as the boat was set to leave at 8.30a.m. I was 100% sure something would prevent us from actually getting to visit the islands. I was all over the place in fact! Dead excited at the thoughts that finally we'd get to set foot on the islands, worried we'd be disappointed with a last minute cancellation, apprehensive about the journey across the waves (do I get seasick?), terrified of the leap from boat to pier (my granny, Bridie, an incredibly brave and strong woman had a pretty bad experience of this back in the 1980’s) and stricken by the thoughts of not being able to climb to the top of Skellig Michael. I had a lot going through my mind and Neil, who is prone to vertigo, was ten times worse! A teeny, tiny part of both of us wanted a cancellation to avoid this whole mess of emotions! I endorse yet discourage watching the safety video on YouTube before deciding whether to invest in the landing trip (around €80pp) or just to do the boat trip (€35pp). I think because Paula had personally secured our spot on the full trip, we couldn't back out so it was now or never!
Across the waves
Even with a moody sea, the boat trip out to the islands was a highlight in itself. As I've said in previous posts, mist and low clouds add such an air of mystery and magic to Ireland's landscape, that in some respects it's almost preferable. Leaving the port, we could see the base of Bolus Head that we had climbed, stretching up beyond the mist and waves. In the direction we were headed, there was just the Unknown, an expanse of nothing but sea and sky. No sign of the islands at all and the trip lasted forty-five minutes. Then, all of a sudden like something out of The Lost World arose the mighty cliffs of Little Skellig. Thousands of birds covered the cliff sides and they swooped and dived from heady heights straight into the grey-green waters around us. The boat skirted around the base giving us a great perspective on just how precious this place is as a bird habitat (it’s the second largest gannet colony in the world). As we left Little Skellig we headed further out to sea and in a few minutes started to get a glimpse of the bulk of Skellig Michael looming out of the mist ahead. The goosebumps rose immediately! Although the cloud covered most of the island we could tell it was massive and our legs would have their work cut out for them.
It was quite choppy at the little pier but the crew of our boat were experienced and confident helping us jump from the boat deck to the landing. Everything is perfectly timed ensuring each boat unloads groups at steady intervals to keep the paths from getting overcrowded. We had ample opportunity to admire the seabirds and the cute puffins on the walk from the pier to the bottom of the 600 stone steps that had been hand carved by the monks in the 6th Century. We were met by a caretaker for the island who lives there during the summer months along with scientists and researchers. Together, they work as a team to monitor conditions and report back to the tour boat captains. They continuously study the wildlife and also try to ensure as little damage as possible is occurring on the well-worn path that climbs 714 feet to where the ancient monastery is perched. We were given a health and safety talk and assured that it’s OK to turn back if we felt afraid or were not feeling fully confident about the heights. Lots of people did turn back and Neil was happier to make the decision to stay on solid ground and enjoy photographing the birds (check out his post about the puffins here). It’s pretty scary on the path with some parts having steep drops on either side. I kept going but took lots of breaks to hunker down and get over the dizziness. The mist at least concealed some of the distance there is to fall which only gave me a tiny bit more courage. I think on a clear day I wouldn’t have gone the whole way. It’s mind-boggling that the monks back then carved the steps by hand, clinging to the sheer face of this giant rock far out in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s cliché to say but it really does remind you of Machu Picchu in Peru and yet it predates it by about six hundred years (take that Incas! ;p ).
Monastery in the clouds
By the time I reached the top I was soaking wet as the mist had turned to rain. My legs were shaking so I found a spot with a view overlooking the monastic site and had my cheese sandwich while more people made their way up the path. It got fairly packed among the beehive huts and the clouds closing in all around us made it feel a little claustrophobic. The guides at the site explained life on the island for the monks and then the lighthouse builders and keepers that followed. Harsh living conditions is an understatement and some of the stories are heartbreaking but fascinating nonetheless. I won’t give anything away here as the stories are best revealed while standing among the stone structures, the only protection from the wild Atlantic weather. The views from this ancient site would have been spectacular had the weather been clear but then I probably wouldn’t have reached it! Regardless of what you may see from the top, stepping inside the monks’ living quarters and back in time to fifteen hundred years ago is worth the trek. Why and how they lived here defies all logic! I didn’t linger too long pondering that thought because I was anxious about getting back down in time for the boat. It usually takes people half an hour to get down but it took me nearly an hour! The rain had made the rocky path dangerously slippy and I felt my boots sliding on a few of the steps. I had to let people pass me which was nerve-wracking as they had to squeeze passed at impossibly narrow ledges. I was exhausted at the end of it all but the whole experience was a thrill I’ll never forget.
We made the boat in the nick of time and the trip back to the mainland was terrific. The crew were eager to tell us all about the birds we had seen on the way out and the boat was taken on a tighter loop around Little Skellig to give us a more intimate experience. They are passionate about the Skelligs and clearly enjoy imparting their expert knowledge and passing on their respect for the islands. We kept an eye out for dolphins who didn’t show up but we were quite content to watch the gannets dive dramatically into the sea to catch their fish suppers. The islands eventually disappeared again back into the mist behind us and we looked forward to hot showers back at our B&B. We highly recommend taking the time to get to Portmagee and booking a space on a boat, even if it’s only a trip around the islands, it’s worth every penny and you won’t regret it.