Sweeping swiftly over Swilly


GO SEA ROAD:A trip from Portsalon to Fanad Head takes GARY QUINNto hidden caves and beneath jagged arches

THEY SAY MY great-grandmother, Sarah Gibbons, used to ride bareback across the hills and fields of Fanad in Co Donegal. Then, one day, this tall, strait-laced, straight-backed woman got off her horse and onto a boat at Portsalon and crossed Lough Swilly to work as a kitchen maid in a rectory in Inishowen. While walking the road to Mass each week, she got to know a man from Inch island who decided she would make a very suitable wife for his son. He was right, and so, another branch of my family tree began. These places – Fanad, Inch Island, Inishowen, Portsalon – form the shoulders and backbone of Lough Swilly and so it’s fitting that the last story in the Sea Road series begins and ends here.

It’s also fitting that two great female paddlers are leading me out on this beautiful route. Ursula MacPherson, director of Gartan Outdoor Education Centre, and Mary Butler, an environmental expert and trainer at Gartan, chose the destination.

Our original plan had been to try and get around Tory island – a magnificent route that demands good weather. We didn’t get that and so lots of ideas were tossed around before settling on Lough Swilly.

Loch Súilí means the lake of eyes or as it’s more commonly known, the lake of shadows. It’s a glacial fjord that is bordered by two peninsulas: Inishowen and Fanad and although it continues on beyond Inch, this landbridged island holds its southern end.

I was concerned that it might be a tame location. Donegal is so dramatic and I wanted to capture some of that. I shouldn’t worry. This 20km circular route is stunning and a great alternative on big weather days. We’re sheltered from the wind and have fantastic blue skies all day.

Sticking close to the cliffs and beaches of Fanad brings us into and through caves and under magnificent sea arches. The tides aren’t strong and views up and down the coast are great.

Malin Head sits out on the horizon on Inishowen and Fanad Head, with its beautiful lighthouse, matches it as it casts its view ever north. Inishowen looks wild from here. It’s mountains and cliffs bear few scars of the recent boom. In fact the bungalow blitz which has eaten up large swathes of Donegal is nowhere to be seen. From this vantage point at least, the landscape here is as natural and untamed as it was when my great grandmother strode the land.

And that is a remarkable thing. MacPherson and Butler, my guides, talk about the environment a lot during our trip. It’s hard to ignore when the water is so clean, the beaches so untouched. Protecting it has long been a part of their lives but they are passionate about how it is becoming more central to everything we do. The education programme at Gartan plays a big part in this, bringing young and old out not only to experience this incredible landscape through sport, but to learn about how to maintain it too.

The Great Pollet Arch is a incredible find. It’s huge: solid and imposing. It’s hard to imagine the sea was ever able to push through and create such a beautiful piece of architecture. We’re dwarfed by it and I scare a family of French tourists in my excitement to have my photograph taken beneath it. They’re sitting on a rock, contemplating the silence when I come whooping around the corner, shouting, “Hello, can you take my picture?” I might have spoiled things for them but it was worth it.

Fanad Head lighthouse too, man-made as it is, is another stunning piece of architecture. Paddling beneath and around it MacPherson tells stories of the ship wrecks and lost lives that necessitated it. Indeed, Lough Swilly is full of ship wrecks making it a great place for diving, she says.

MacPherson and Butler are both strong paddlers, who laugh and chat as they push through the sea. They challenge each other, enjoying pushing their boats through small fissures in rocks,that I protect my hull from, and finding deep spectacular caves in hidden corners.

Butler is in search of fresh water. She knows it’s nearby. The two women consult maps, read the land and laugh when Butler puts her hand in the water and notices a change in temperature, a clue that spurs her on. I’m intrigued as to why they would search so long and hard for an ordinary thing like a river meeting the sea. But then we come upon it, a gushing, beautiful surge of cold river water tumbling from a height into the Swilly. It’s not a waterfall. It’s just a meeting of waters, but tremendous, and well worth the search.

Both women love expedition and MacPherson in particular is known for her long-distance open-water paddles, paddling the Irish Sea to Wales, Scotland and beyond while Butler talks with passion about her trips, particularly to Alaska, a place she says she will probably never return to since that trip and its meeting with whales, sightings of bears and glaciers was so perfect it could never be repeated.

Their sport clearly grips them. At times it feels as though they are seeing it all for the first time and this burst of positivity is a great tonic.

I feel sad that this is my last trip in the series and so on our return leg allow myself to drift away a little to allow the landscape to settle in, to watch for ghosts on the hills.

But MacPherson and Butler’s voices carry towards me, their laughter and enthusiasm encouraging me to follow them. We paddle into a cave, deeper than the others, with three branches. I follow MacPherson and suddenly I am coming onto a beach; the suns streams through the rock and the space opens to the sky above.

It’s possibly the most beautiful hideaway you can imagine. A child’s dream of a secret place. And that, to me, is what Donegal is, a place unknown, just waiting to be found.


All about sea kayaking in Co Donegal

IN THE PLANNING of the Sea Road, I joked with Gary that a person could spend a lifetime exploring Co Donegal and that all the routes we planned for the series could be accommodated within the county! The coastline from Donegal town to Lough Foyle has it all for the sea kayaker: dramatic cliffs, rugged headlands, sea arches and caves, a wealth of islands, surf beaches, and estuaries with good tidal flows. Around every corner, a hidden beach, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colour, aquamarine greens to blue, ochre sands to pink granite, while Mount Errigal calmly watches.

So today’s article is not so much a suggested route choice rather a celebration of a sea kayaking destination that is world class. Donegal’s sea kayaking is rich and varied. The sea kayaker “on passage” is challenged constantly as the sea changes rapidly and tests the complete skill-set of the paddler. Dealing with Atlantic swell, crossing bays, rounding headlands, landing on surf beaches and coping with tidal flows all come at the kayaker quickly and continuously.

But Donegal also has smaller day trips, safe weather bays and a wealth of exploring options. I once spent an entire day mostly underground yet at sea, travelled four miles and never left my kayak! Donegal’s islands offer all sorts of challenges and experiences. A day on Tory, Aranmore, Gola, Owey or Inishtrahull is not enough to see all that is on offer. You must stay overnight and you need to revisit.

You can only hear Inishbofin’s Corncrakes in June, and catch the returning Barnacle Geese “whiffling” down onto Inishfree after flying from Greenland if you are there in October. The evocative calls of Great Northern Divers fill Aranmore Sound in April, and the seabird colonies of Horn Head come alive in May and June. Donegal Bay feeds many species of Shearwaters from as far away as the South Atlantic from July to September and Donegal is the Basking Shark capital of Ireland.

Donegal is “nay bother” and no matter what the weather there is a place to see “hey”.