‘Here beneath the stars I’m mending, I’m here beneath the stars unending.’ – Kate Rusby
There are times when we get ourselves into situations and we get through them and afterwards the story can be recounted with all the excitement, the peril and a sense of achievement. That bend you took too fast, that time the back wheel slid out, that time you rode through a firestorm and both you and the bike were on fire, you know the stuff. It’s quite another thing to plan to deliberately ride over sea cliffs at 2am with no moon with 60mph gusts along tracks that cling to the cliffs, switching back 180 degrees every 200 yards. You think about those risks all day long before you get on the bike and that’s exactly what I was doing as I stared into the bottom of a coffee mug.
A lazy morning, backing up photos and reading up on how to do astro photography. I’d bought a cheap lens (an f2 12mm) and by lunchtime, I’d been out, prefocussed it to infinity, taped the focus ring up and put the settings into the various programs on the camera so that I didn’t have to try and work it out overnight. A bit of cheese and bread, yet another coffee and then I got my head down for a few hours. As always happens, I just tossed and turned, dozed for a while and then gave up and got up and went for a walk.
It had been calm in the morning as I’d looked over the Dingle peninsula. When I went for he walk, the winds were wrong and gusting and could cover was almost full. If you’re going to do astro photography and catch the milky way then you need a certain set of conditions. You need a new moon (i.e. no moon), no cloud cover and no light pollution. At the very Western tip of Kerry is the only dark sky reserve in the Northern Hemisphere – a thin band of land right on the coast where light pollution is almost non-existent.
Tonight was a new moon but at three in the afternoon, the clouds were thick and completely blotted out the sky. Looked like I might be out of luck but I headed back to the room, opened up the weather apps on my phone and kept refreshing the page like an expectant father. By 1700, cloud cover was down to 30% and the overnight forecast was for 20-30% which made things a non runner. I paced up and down, sat back down, looked at the apps some more and then paced again. At 1800, I was on the bike, riding in heavy winds for 30 miles to get to the last village before the climb over the cliffs.
The door of the pub needed a hefty tug to pull open because of the winds. I ordered some food, a coke and watched the boats in the bay dance up and down in the heavy swell. The flags on the masts stood proud and even from inside you could hear their incessant flapping as they tried to fight against the gusts. I’ve ridden in some serious winds before (most notably Zaragoza and in Sicily) and I still hate it. With only 10 miles to go, my plan was to wait until the pub closed and keep my eye on the weather apps – I could call it off at any point I reasoned.
If I’m honest, I was probably looking for a reason to call it off but when you’re on your own, you don’t have that dialogue you’d have if you were with someone else (‘do you want to go’, ‘erm, i guess, do you?’, ‘well, erm it probably going to be cloudy’, ‘yeah probably won’t happen so lets head back’, you know the rest). So there I sat, watching the cloud cover forecast, live meteorological feeds and pushing a few overly crispy chips round my plate. To be honest, it was pretty much the same feeling as being in the waiting room before having a root canal done.
A bit of chat with a German couple who were staying in the pub passed some of the time, they were touring Ireland and so we swapped stories of great places to see and things to do. They asked about how windy it was and then asked me if I was staying overnight or headed home. Neither, I replied, I’m heading up on to the cliffs at midnight and just killing time until then. Priceless look on their faces. I should have felt all macho and explorer type at that point. The reality, I guess, was that their expressions probably mirrored my own. Being honest, I probably would have taken a midnight train going anywhere rather than that ride.
An eclectic mix in that pub, a few locals, some tourists obviously staying in the village. Couples sunbathing in the glow from their screens to fill in the awkward silences with thoughts of someone else life, someone else moments. The guy with a face that had seen a thousand lifetimes, desperately searching for a piece of solace in the bottom of every pint, the waitresses scurrying to and fro, pocketing every tip and no doubt exchanging them for beer tokens in some far flung University city. An odd assortment indeed, made even odder with the guy sat in bike gear, layered to the hilt, glued to weather forecasts and nursing an ever diminishing glass of coke.
At 11pm, the forecasts on the app showed 0% cloud cover expected by 0100. As the song says, don’t stop believin’ No excuses left, I checked my camera one last time and popped my torch in my pocket for easy access.
It’s amazing how long you can make a glass of coke last but as the last of the locals picked up his coat, slugged the last of his pint and tapped it twice on the bar I knew it was time to leave. I left a tip (reasoning that I had been frugal all evening and they thought I was mad to even go over the cliffs in these winds). As soon as the door opened, the wind forced into my lungs and I lost my breath. Things suddenly felt real.
I’d walked in to the pub in daylight and now it was pitch black with just the reassuring neon glow deftly escaping from behind heavy curtains. The harbour was dark and I could only just make out the decks of the fishing boats – and only then because they were a darker shade of black. I could hear the wind and the crash of the waves though and it was a relief to pull my helmet down and close the visor – if you can’t hear it, it isn’t there is it?
I’ve ridden that road up to the top of the cliffs many times before in previous years. However, the darkness was so utter and so complete that I got lost and ended up down some muddy track with a farmers yard at the end. I stopped, looking around to try and get my bearings…which of course was completely futile as anything outside of the main beam on the bike was a void. Twenty minutes later I arrived back at the pub, slowed my speed right down and finally made the right turn on to the cliff road.
The road runs for a few miles before a rapid narrow ascent. With the gravel, the high winds and the darkness, my eyes were straining and my heart was racing. A gust near the summit forced me to the right and almost into the culvert. I stopped at the top, pausing for a breath but that was short lived as the winds meant I couldn’t steady the bike. Back into gear and then a descent through multiple switch bars on narrow lanes which was far easier than the ascent as the gusts didn’t catch me on the corners. The bike slid out on one corner on gravel and that gave me pause for thought – I was going to have to come back up this in a few hours and it is a lot harder climbing up a steep gradient with 180 degree switchbacks – especially in heavy winds and with gravel on the best lines. Worry about that later I thought. Not sure I entirely convinced myself of that.
As I reached the coastline and finished the descent, I realised just how dark it had become – zero visibility outside of the main beam of honey bunny. Focussing on just a few feet of road in front of me and always alert to sheep, potholes and casually strewn gravel, I rode slowly and steadily down to the bay, pulled up by the beach, almost dropped the bike as the rear tyre found a deep pothole and eventually, took off my helmet and breathed a huge sign of relief. With the bike lights off, I could see nothing whatsoever. I couldn’t even see the bike nor my hand in front of my face.
I stood there for a few minutes, my eyes struggling to adapt and zipping up all the layers I had on. My other senses took over, the smell of salt air and the relentless crashing of the waves on the rocks reminded me how close I was to the edge. The rocks and the drop were about 2 metres from me and I made a mental note to stay well away from an imaginary line off the back tyre of the bike. Night swimming is a great song but not something I wanted to try tonight. Fumbling around with the tripod, release cable and then attaching the camera seemed to take forever.
That time though had, without me realising it, allowed my eyes to adjust. I turned the tripod around to face out to sea, knowing that the milky way wouldn’t rise for another hour and as I turned I just stopped dead. A million points of light ahead, overhead and behind – everywhere I looked. I didn’t touch the camera for 20 minutes or more, I just stood there gazing upwards and then to the left and behind in awe of the view. If it was the 70’s, I would have said it was cosmic, man.
With the tripod set up, time lapse active for one hour on the camera to catch star trails, I paced around the bike, forever stargazing. I couldn’t name any of them of course but that didn’t matter, the beauty was enough for me. With the odd plane passing high overhead on its way to the USA, I wonder if anyone was looking down and watching the Irish coastline disappearing from sight. The slow hypnotic pulse of the red tail light wound its way across the sky until the darkness eventually won the battle and I was left with the millions of other points of light. An odd feeling when that plane vanished from sight, I felt alone and very, very small.
My time lapse didn’t work – I put the wrong setting in but hey, some you win, some you lose when you’re hiding in the night. I did however, get a hundred shots of the Universe in all its glory.
The arch of the milky way rose over the hills and became visible at about 2am. If the stars had been an amazing sight, this was breath taking. The weave of light and dark in all those galaxies, stretched above and behind me makes you feel your insignificance in the Universe, it really does. Leaning against the bike, balaclava on and my neck forced down into the warmth of the top of my jacket, I was hypnotised. No wonder ancient peoples looked to the stars, they would see it every night because of the lack of light pollution. All those shooting stars I saw during those few hours just heaped mysticism on to awe.
With significant time spent on positioning a torch to illuminate the bike to get a good shot (hard to balance the amount of light and not drown out the stars!), I packed the gear back up and took one last long look, spinning around, making myself dizzy and then being glad that (1) I hadn’t fell on to the rocks which I had completely lost track of and (2) No one else was watching this rather awkward dance.
It’s am amazing thing to be out in the middle of nowhere, completely peaceful and I seek that out whenever I can. It’s a different thing at night. The peace is there, the moment is there but its different. Every sense is heightened and the darkness feels like it is pushing on to you all the time, eager to assimilate you. The faint glow of the stars seem to be the only thing that prevents that. As the wind whips and the waves crash your mind tries to make sense of the darkness. All I could think about was the sea devils from dr who who had terrified me as a child. For the second time that night, I turned away from the sea, reasoning that even if they were walking up the beach, if I couldn’t see them then it was OK. Seem to recall hiding behind the sofa doing exactly the same thing many years ago.
Whilst seeing and shooting the milky way was important, there was one other thing I had to do whilst I was underneath the stars. Looking out to the West, following the path that the planes had taken, I whispered three words into the wind. Go gently.
I forget the time, maybe 3am. I got back on the bike and paused. The winds were strong and pushing the bike to one side even before I had taken her off the side stand. Like so many other times before, I gave myself a good talking to. I knew that ascent back up the hairpins was going to be tricky. Winds, gravel and the added complication this time of climbing and so no chance to slow things down and take a look in the limited beam of the headlights. The engine turned over, I nodded my head, shuffled my bum and launched off into the dark.
From memory, its about a 30 degree ascent over 2-3 miles and with a section that has three 180 degree switchbacks in rapid succession. Once you start them, you’re committed and you just have to go for it and keep the pace up. I knew from earlier that there was gravel on the second hairpin, I just didn’t know where exactly. I slowed the speed just before the first one, breathed deeply and then accelerated, tipping the bike in and getting round with relative ease, bike straightened and immediately on to the next one. Much tighter this one, revs dropped off and I feathered the clutch and then slammed down a gear, the bike lurching forward and I could hear the spit of the gravel and the loss of traction at the rear. Don’t mind to admit that I dumped the throttle then and accelerated hard into the final hairpin as being overly cautious is worse than being too confident. I got away with it.
The winds were horrendous when I reached the top and the long descent down was deeply uncomfortable – I had been worried about the ascent and the hairpins but this was far worse. The bike was all over the place in the gusts and the road at this point is very narrow with a ditch on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Forcing myself to relax, I let the bike do her thing and reached the bottom and back into the village. Just the limited glow of the odd streetlight and a single house with a downstairs light on, perhaps a fisherman getting ready to go on the swell.
The remainder of the night ride back to Cautins along the coast was glorious. Nothing and no one around, just me, empty twisty roads and pure focus. It’s a different feeling riding twisties at night, more adrenaline, more focus, more fun as you tip right into bend after bend, pushing yourself just that little farther every time. Made good time back. If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have carried on riding but I figured I’d already pushed my luck for one (albeit two) days.
I dumped all my gear on the floor of my room like some teenager, threw a toothbrush around my teeth for a few seconds and collapsed into bed, wrapping the sheets completely around me and sank into the comforting arms of sleep.