Step Out (and Off) in Donegal
I am just metres from the surging waves of the wild Donegal coastline. It’s so close I notice the salt in the air lingering a little longer on my lips while I plot where next to move my hand. The whitecaps match the colour of my knuckles and bull kelp laps angrily at my toes. The only thing keeping me attached to the rock face is Iain’s smile and a will to survive.
“Yes you can, mate,” the Unique Ascent guide shouts back. “Push your shoulder into the crevice, use your legs and remember I’m not going anywhere. You’ll have to pull me down with you!” His response is a mixture of candour and comedy I’ve come to expect from every local I meet on this hidden piece of coastline.
It’s at this point Iain’s smile, reminiscent of that of a cheesy game-show host, begins making me want to throttle him the moment we are finally standing face to face again. Still, I know his demeanour is all theatre in an attempt to allay the obvious terror he can detect from my voice.
With a deep breath and the slack on my belay line firmly in Iain’s grip, I heave my wet, trembling body up Tor na Dumhcha. It’s the name given to this particular sea stack, which rises from the ocean like a dark clenched fist punching through the waves.
Ten minutes of climbing later, I finally drag my limp torso onto the ledge where Iain has been patiently waiting. At the top we embrace like old friends, and I feel the adrenaline surge through me as if I’ve just conquered my own Mount Everest.
The view in front of me is the Atlantic, but just behind me are the unmistakable rolling emerald hills bleeding over the grey basalt cliffs of the Irish mainland.
This is the second time in an hour I’ve had to literally “step off” and push through the fear that this might well be my last-ever travel adventure. But first I had to get to this precarious outcrop surrounded by ocean by traversing a makeshift slackline in a harness Iain had set up the day before.
But perceived fear is very different to real danger, Iain later tells me. He assures me after my climb that at no point was my life ever in real danger. In fact, tucked around the corner of the sea stack, out of sight, is the inflatable lifeboat he was going to use to rescue me if I had given up at any stage.
I trust what Iain is telling me because people in this part of Ireland know a thing or two about struggle, survival and real danger.
Donegal is an ancient land, both in its topography and culture. People have always lived their lives here in balance. When you meet locals, there’s an obvious mixture of those who are thriving and ones who are merely surviving in a place very different to the rest of the country. Its geography is partly responsible for this, but because it shares most of its border with Northern Ireland, County Donegal has a distinct cultural identity and pride of place in the country’s Gaelic community.
It was the people of Donegal who suffered the worst during the cataclysmic potato famine of the 1840s, leading to starvation and mass emigration to the Americas. Spend a day in the nearby Doagh Famine Village, a makeshift museum-cum-memorial of life in those dangerous times, and you begin to realise partly why they are who they are today. In contrast, the place brings my recent experience of stepping off the edge of a sea stack into stark focus and it makes it look as if I had simply walked off my front porch.
Sea stacks like Tor na Dumhcha are formed when a part of a headland is eroded by wind and water. An arch slowly forms then eventually collapses leaving just the stack perched as an island out at sea. Iain has explored and climbed every single one of the near hundred sea stacks along the Donegal coastline, including the undisputed king of stacks, Cnoc na Mara – the name means hill of the sea.
Unique Ascent collects its semi-adventurous, zero-experience clients from the nearby Teac Jack hotel in Glassagh and, along with company from Iain’s friendly Australian sheepdog, provides guests with all the necessary kit and climbing equipment they might need for an exhilarating day out.
“For most Irish, adventure is a brisk afternoon walk in the sunshine,” Iain tells me once we are both safely back on terra firma. “But there is so much more to see and do here.”
Most visitors know this region for its tourist trail, the Wild Atlantic Way. Donegal’s coastline forms a large part of the more than 2,500-kilometre route. The reason for its popularity is that driving in Ireland is easy once you become accustomed to navigating the tight roads and stone walls that threaten your hire car’s duco on just about every corner.
The distances between marked tourist destinations in Donegal are short too, but to understand the real story of this county and the Wild Atlantic Way you need to push your exploration off the main inland roads and right to the edge of the coast.
One such spot is Donegal’s hidden Magic Road, which is accessed through the breathtaking Mamore Gap. Without a car, it’s impossible to witness this seemingly gravity-defying experience, where you stop on what appears to be an uphill slope then release the handbrake and magically roll forward towards the coastline. It’s an optical illusion I have to repeat no less than three times in a bid to ensure I haven’t gone mad.
But it’s the entirety of the jaw-dropping Inishowen peninsula that has captured the imaginations of writers, as well as modern-day filmmakers like Rian Johnson who, in 2016, filmed sections of Star Wars: The Last Jedi at Malin Head, the most northerly point of mainland Ireland. As I pass through, dodging wandering sheep that are another danger to my rental car, my eye is caught by a giant Yoda emblazoned on the side of the pub. It makes it impossible not to stop at Farren’s Bar for a beer with a few local farmers. It also confirms my suspicion that the Guinness tastes better the further north you travel.
From Malin Head, my journey takes me to the very tip of the adjoining peninsula. After a near two-hour drive through Letterkenny I reach Fanad Lighthouse for an overnight stay. Perched on the headland with commanding views of Lough Swilly, this structure has stood here for more than 200 years. A sign on the door asks guests to be kind to its imperfections – a nice reminder you’re entering a building that’s as much a historical entity as a guesthouse.
There are three styles of self-catering accommodation for both families and couples – all have peat fires and a soundtrack of crashing waves – at Fanad Lighthouse, offering the perfect off-the-grid escape. It also makes real my childhood fantasy of Round The Twist-style adventures in a working lighthouse. That is until a young Irish couple staying in the next-door room invites me over for an Irish whisky and we muse about local banshee spirits, who are believed to wail along parts of this coastline.
Thankfully morning breaks before I have to deal with screaming spirits, and the lough is flat right to the horizon. I brew the fresh coffee provided in the kitchen and stumble outside in my pyjamas where I catch sight of a pod of dolphins breaking the surface of the water like lumps in freshly blown glass.
Sliabh Liag (pronounced slee-ve league) is yet another chance to go right to the edge on County Donegal’s coastline. It’s a hikers’ paradise, but even the walk up to the main viewing point is not for the faint of heart. At 596 metres high, these fog-covered mountains plunging steeply into the sea are almost three times bigger than their more famous southern counterparts, the Cliffs of Moher. Plus, these sea cliffs come free from tourists and fees.
From the very top of Sliabh Liag, I take one last glance across an angry Atlantic. I feel like I’ve seen it in all shapes and colours during this road trip. More importantly, though, just below the viewing point is a set of modest, very climbable sea stacks. I think back to Iain’s cheeky game-show–host grin and once again feel ready to step off.
Qatar Airways flies from major Australian cities direct to Doha with onward connections to Dublin. To explore County Donegal you’ll need a hire car, and there are a number of companies located at Dublin Airport Terminal 1, including Avis and Budget.
In the town of Glassagh, you’ll find rooms at Teac Jack. The pub has live music, good food and views of the ocean. Prices start at AU$150 a night. Fanad Lighthouse has self-catering accommodation in three cottages for between two and four people. Doubles start at about AU$245 a night, with a minimum two-night stay. In Donegal, Harvey’s Point is a four-star hotel with 64 suites and an award-winning restaurant that hosts three meals a day, afternoon tea and a Sunday carvery lunch. Prices start at about AU$160 for two in a Twin Lodge room, including breakfast.