Dursey island

Dursey island

As I drove down towards Allihies, the black clouds hovered ominously in the distance. Was I mad to be going across to Dursey today? With a long walk ahead of me and a lack of amenities on the island, I'd be stuck there with no shelter if the weather turned. Driving down the narrow winding road to the cable car, the sun peeped out and lit up the scene before me. I decided this was a good sign. As I paid for my ticket across, Paddy Sheehan, the ticket operator informed me that the cable car was now continuous all day up until 7 in the evening as opposed to the old schedule of morning, lunch and dinner. I shared the cable car with an American couple and three Germans. It wobbled as we climbed in. Paddy's voice came over the intercom and asked us to shut the doors. No automatic doors here. A few nervous looks around the group were soon replaced by awe as we crossed over the waves below in the Dursey Sound. The views were amazing and within minutes we were on the other side.

View from the cable car above the Dursey Sound

View from the cable car above the Dursey Sound

Dursey Island is an inhabited island that lies off the Beara peninsula in West Cork. The island is separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water called the Dursey Sound. With a seriously strong current and a reef of submerged rocks in the centre of the channel, the island can only be accessed by cable car. Up until recent years, it was not unusual to share this transport with farm animals. The cable car, the only one in Ireland, had been used for years to take cattle and sheep across the treacherous waters of the 374m Dursey Sound, until the county council changed the laws due to health and safety regulations. With so many sheep on the island, mart day must have been a real sight.

At 6.5 km long by 1.5 km wide, Dursey is an absolute paradise for walkers. There is a loop walk carefully marked out all over the island. Starting from the cable car, the trail runs up over the hills above the road, tracing the spine of the island to reach a signal tower at the highest point. At 252m, there are spectacular 360 degree views of the island itself and the beautiful scenery of the West Cork coastline. The trail descends down the slope towards the 'back of the island' or Dursey Head. From here, there are fantastic views of the Bull and Cow islands just off the coast. The way back follows the island road the whole way to the cable car. Passing farmland and abandoned houses on the slopes running down to the sea, the road begins to climb and the slopes steepen. The road hugs these cliffs for the next 2 kms so walkers are literally walking on the edge of the island, stepping into the grass as the islanders trundle past in their cars. The trail descends slowly down through two villages, Kimichael and Ballynacallagh, before completing the loop by the cable car.

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I decided to follow the island road and walk to the end of the island and back. As I approached Kilmichael village, I could hear a strange huffing noise. It was getting louder and louder. Further along the road, I could see a lone bull with his head over a fence. From where I was standing, he was the size of a house. My imagination went into overdrive as I envisioned him stepping over the ditch to pick off lone walkers on the road. I ploughed on regardless even though the huffing had now turned to hissing. I really believed that I was being absolutely calm until my legs took off ahead of my body.  Like a hysterical mad woman, I sprinted up the road, finally coming to a halt at a nearby house. Gasping for breath, I looked back and of course he hadn't moved an inch. Hoping that no one saw my imaginary demise, I turned around to see a couple standing in front of me. There might only be about 10 residents on the island, but unfortunately nothing goes by them. Gerard Murphy, a farmer and resident postman on the island, and his wife were moving cows from the field on one side of the road to the other. He also owned the bull. I watched as Gerard's sheepdog gently herded the cows towards the gate and across the road to the other field. The bull suddenly perked up and followed suit as all his women entered the field beside him. Knowing now that it was absolutely safe, I asked Gerard if I could take a picture of his bull and he told me to go on away up the field behind his house and catch him at the fence. I followed the cows and grabbed one shot as he was distracted by his new neighbours.

Further along the road, a van full of tourists pulled in and the driver asked if I needed a lift. I thanked him and told him I would continue on and enjoy the walk. He even offered to transport my bag to the end of the road but I needed everything in it so I declined. The weather was amazing and I wanted to take it all in. This was the new shuttle service from the cable car to the back of the island which runs all day. It is a brilliant service, perfect for those who are strapped for time and cannot complete a long walk on the island. Visitors can hop on and off where needs be. The driver must have passed me another 15 times that day and each time he would wave or stop for a chat.

Road to the back of the island

Road to the back of the island

As I approached Dursey head, another farmer and his sheep dog were herding sheep down a track to an abandoned farmhouse. Like a well orchestrated dance, the sheep followed instruction and filed one by one into their pen outside the door. A farm hand stepped from inside the empty house and picked one of the sheep up by its horns and lifted it inside to be sheared. The buzzing of the shearing clippers whipped the sheep into a nervous frenzy, only made worse by the sight of their little friend being ejected into a separate pen when finished, looking a lot smaller without his wool. I left them behind and walked on towards the back of the island. Reaching Dursey Head, I sat for a while and surveyed the sea below. As luck would have it, a pod of about 20 dolphins put on an amazing acrobatic show as they slowly made their way round the end of the island.

Walking trail on Dursey island

Walking trail on Dursey island

On the way back, I met James, a resident on the island. We chatted for a while by his house when I noticed a black cat approaching, with cobwebs all over her face. James immediately started talking to her and asking where she had been exploring before cleaning her face. He told me that she had been left behind on the island as a kitten and he started feeding her. James is a fisherman so I can guess why this cat stayed. To say he was mad about her was an understatement. Although an avid hunter in the surrounding fields, she also liked to wander the 4 kilometres down to the back of the island at night. When she wasn't rambling along the road, she was travelling by car with James as they went about their daily business. Just then, James asked her if she wanted some fish and she meowed with delight. This cat might have been abandoned but she had certainly landed on her feet.

Back at the cable car, I met Linda at her coffee dock, another new addition to the island. In a little van at the roadside, she sells an array of hot drinks and chocolate to hungry walkers. Living on the mainland, she comes across each day from June to August to feed the visitors. We chatted for a while and then it was time to leave. I joined a queue for the cable car and was soon back on the mainland. If you want to get away from it all and stretch the legs at the same time, then Dursey is the place. Not only will you work those muscles, the beautiful scenery will recharge your soul.