In Dungloe, we met a fellow camper who had travelled from his home in Northern Ireland. On asking where we were headed next, we replied Northern Ireland. Oh dear he said, do you realise what date it is tomorrow... it's the 12th of July, the marching season when the Orange men march in the streets and all the Catholics get upset and riots happen. He and his family, and loads of other Northern Irish judging by the numbers on the road, just preferred to get away for the very long weekend (which was to last from Friday till Wednesday). We were assured troubles would only occur in areas where the marches were happening, so to avoid any place where there were lots of flags up and lots of people gathered.
Armed with that knowledge and the fact that we had to press on as our time in Ireland was fast coming to an end, we headed across the border. With regret we skirted around Londonderry/Derry (apparently it is commonly known as 'Stroke City') and headed east along the coast. We wanted to find an ATM for some Sterling and headed for the first major town along the way. But the roads were packed with parked cars, the streets were blocked off and they were lined with loyalist Union Jacks and Ulster flags - time to move on. Fortunately not every town holds a march - some are selected each year to hold them, so we simply got our money at the next one.
The Giant's Causeway is one of the 'biggies' of Northern Ireland and is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. And rightly so - this is an extraordinary natural phenomenon. Everyone has seen pictures of the columnar jointing of the basalt which looks like a stepped pavement running in a broad sloped platform into the sea. But it is much more than that. Look around back at the towering cliffs behind and you see how much bigger the whole geological structure is. The cliffs rise up sheer with gigantic columns reaching skyward, curving around the bay to the next headland and again around that bay to the next. A path leads up to a narrow track halfway up the cliffs around the headland past exposed columns with a diameter as wide as two stretched-out arms. The place was jam-packed with people - all the car parks were full and coaches lined the roads - it was still that long, long weekend - but fortunately people were moving in and out all the time and you could get a good look at it all.
Carrickarede, a bit further east along the same northerly coast, was different experience. A rope bridge links the mainland to a high, rocky island where fishermen in past times fished for the salmon that journey along the coast here. The rope ladder is now an improved version but still not for the timid or faint-hearted who dislike wobbly things and heights. We took the long walk down 160 steps to the bridge and crossed happily - we had arrived early before the hoards had started to arrive. On the island it was possible to see close-up the thousands of seabirds, gulls and guillemots, nesting with their chicks on the small ledges and crevices in the cliff face. But oh the smell - a mixture of off fish and fresh guano! Over the edges of the cliffs, not fenced at all, the water showed us everything below the surface. It was the clearest water we have ever seen. There were schools of huge jellyfish - some orange ones were about 50 cm in diameter and trailed tentacles two to three metres behind. Guillemots floated on the water and then suddenly dived under. We were able to see them literally flying under the water, flapping their wings to propel themselves this way and that looking for fish. The salmon for which the bridge was built swam past in small schools over yellow sand skirting past the beds of red kelp, each fish a good 30-40cms long ... a more than tasty meal in each. By the time we were heading back, the crowds had started to arrive and the waiting time to cross the bridge was rising fast. And the 160 steps down to the bridge now became 160 steps UP.
We stayed on the coast for the most part, straying into the interior only a few times. The cliffs and mountains which plunge into the sea on the north coast gave way to gentler slopes and sandy beaches.
Belfast was also left alone - we had watched the news on the TV and had seen the riots. Although it only affected parts of the city, we didn't know exactly which parts and so took a long detour inland to come out south of the city.
The Mountains of Mourne, famous for the old ballad which talks about them coming 'down to the sea' were a bit of a disappointment. Only for a very small section did they come down to the sea; mostly there was a wide coastal plain. Very few roads led up into the mountains and a drive over one pass and back to the coast over another was pretty tame and the views were only OK. We had seen better in much less well known places in other parts of the island.
And so, it happened that it was a pretty quick trip through Northern Ireland. Which isn't to say it was uninteresting: we stayed on the banks of a river near Ballymoney in the north and on the edge of a forest in the east near Killyleagh. We saw beautiful countryside - green and lush, no more peat bogs or rocky, desolate farms. The coast was ever-changing and interesting and, because the day was clear and blue, we could see Scotland across the water from the north-east. And of course there were plenty of castles to choose from for a visit!