Trail of the unexpected: Northern Ireland
A new kayaking trail presents a different view of Ulster's dramatic shores.
Saturday 27 August 2011
Great journeys always used to be made by sea – and arrival was something to be savoured. You'd be standing on the deck, watching a strip of land appear on the horizon, before it gradually mushroomed into view and finally filled the frame. Sounds would reach out in waves towards you, and scents of something new and enticing would fill your nostrils. You'd arrived.
I was reminded of this as I paddled my kayak along Northern Ireland's dramatic Causeway Coast towards the geological oddity that is the Giant's Causeway. I realised that the sea kayak provides a far more detailed perspective of your destination. Visit this area by road and you'll be whisked along to the Causeway in a jiffy; but explore by kayak and you'll understand its context as you negotiate the geology of the coastline that surrounds the otherworldly basalt towers.
I was previewing the North Coast Canoe Trail, which launches this Thursday, and runs 70 nautical miles from blustery Magilligan Point to Waterfoot at the base of Glenariff. The trail has been created by Northern Ireland's Countryside Access and Activities Network to open up this dramatic and geologically diverse stretch of coastline to all kayaking abilities – even to beginners like me.
In the seaside resort of Portrush, I clambered aboard the kayak that I was to share with my guide, Steve, for the next two days.
The Giant's Causeway seemed elusive – more than 10 miles away. There were a lot of jutting headlands and craggy outcrops to navigate before we would get even a glimpse. Sea kayaking, Steve instructed me, is a fast-growing pursuit. Because a kayak has bulkheads, it doesn't take on water in the way that an ordinary canoe might, even in the choppiest of seas. What's more, kayaks are small and light, with hardly any of their mass submerged in the water, meaning they can be manoeuvred into the tightest of spaces – be they caves, rock channels or shallow pools.
And so it was on our first day. We backed slowly into narrow grottos at White Rocks, which only moments before had seemed a solid part of the cliff. We got within touching distance of mini causeways of basalt, towering ridges of bright limestone and glinting fissures of deep black flint. We even saw an apparently dull rock face light up with shades of rose and russet as we paddled out of the daylight and into Cathedral Cave, dodging the sharp black rocks that jutted out like giant teeth. And all the while my senses sung with one, unassailable truth – we couldn't have seen this any other way.
Not content with navigating the craggy coastline, Steve got us into what can only be described as a tight spot near the picturesque village of Ballintoy. Having been convinced to do some of what he called "rock hopping" – paddling very close to the rocks and slipping through the narrow channels between them – in the shallow waters that lap at the spiky basalt cliffs, I found myself scouring the rocks for gaps we could squeeze through. We got up close and rather personal with some barnacles, tangled in sticky patches of seaweed and ended up beaching ourselves on a smudge of sand concealed under the waves. But in doing so, we got to see a gannet dive into the water, landing so close I felt the salty splash on my face.
It's not just seabirds that kayakers can get close to here. Dolphins regularly surface to check out any interloper in their waters, and Steve has seen basking sharks breaching within 100 yards of his kayak. There was one moment of wildlife-generated rapture, which came as a welcome pick-me-up after a long paddle out to the offshore islands of the Skerries. Just as I was starting to tire, Steve gestured excitedly towards something off to our right.
I turned my head just in time to see a grey seal's head disappear beneath the even greyer waters. It returned to the surface three or four more times, on each occasion snapping into view suddenly in an entirely different place from the last.
Other vivid images punctuated the trip: the moment we saw hikers on the cliffs just above Runkerry Cave, then realised that they couldn't hope to glimpse the cormorants we had just seen nesting below them. And, of course, there was the moment we rounded the corner that brought the Causeway's headland into view. Arriving from the water, I saw the 40,000 or so basalt columns of the Causeway in a way most people never do – towering above me in pillars of all sizes like some spooky stage set. Bobbing rhythmically on the vast calm of the Atlantic and detached from the visitors ashore, I felt like I had the place to myself. Steve told me the legend most people already know – of giant Finn McCool, the Causeway's architect. But for me, the reality was far more dramatic than a myth could ever be.
* The most convenient airports are City of Derry and Belfast International, served from a wide range of British airports.
* Simply Sea Kayaking (07773 359773; simplyseakayak.com) operates tours for all abilities along the North Coast Canoe Trail.
* The North Coast Canoe Trail opens on Thursday: 028 9030 3930; canoeni.com
* Tourism Ireland: 0800 039 7000; discoverireland.com
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