Shocking Discoveries about Skellig Michael (at least to me)…
My friend Angie and I had booked a summer trip to Ireland. When I had started planning, Skellig Michael was top of my list of places to see. I had seen pictures of the stone huts online and the views were like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was a bonus when I later found out it was the island and beehive huts from Star Wars. Even though it was months before our trip, I needed to book our tickets online to (mostly) guarantee our boat ride. I read that approximately 30 of the 130 tours that run each summer get cancelled due to rough seas so I crossed my fingers our wasn’t going to be one of them. There are 13 boat companies that bring small groups to Skellig Michael. Many of them were already sold out on the dates we needed. I kept searching…nervously one after the next…booked. Finally I clicked on a boat company with availability and began jumping around like a lottery winner.
Once our booking was secured, I began researching what we needed to know before we went. My 1st shocking discovery was that we would need to climb over 600 steps to reach the 6th century monastery. 612 crooked and ancient stone steps to be exact, carved into the rock by monks many centuries ago. It was a steep narrow climb with no railing. I get winded just walking around the block. The next unsettling discovery was that people have died climbing to the top. I normally wear my flip flops everywhere, but this climb was no joke…so I knew I was going to have to strap on my stupid gym shoes.
Then I read that it’s a 4 hour round trip, and there are no bathroom facilities on the boat or island. I was getting a little nervous but so excited it was happening.
Anticipating the 600 Stair Climb to the Skellig Michael Monastery
Our boat was scheduled to depart from Portamagee at 8:30 a.m. We arrived on time and checked in and signed our waivers. I immediately used the restroom, knowing I wouldn’t be able to during the trip. I thought we were boarding right away but we had about a 20 minute wait, during which time I spent my time alternating between thoughts about my potential demise on the uneven stone steps and my questionable ability to make it to the top. Then I changed it up a little, for fun, and began obsessing about the upcoming lack of bathroom and about all the coffee I had had in the car. I subsequently took 4 more desperate trips to the bathroom, determined to not get stuck in a bathroom emergency. I generally don’t think that much about peeing…but having an upcoming restriction created a bit of anxiety about it.
Finally we were ready to board with 14 other passengers, a sea captain and 1st mate. Years of wind and sea had etched deep valleys in the captain’s face. He had frosty white hair that was wild in the wind and crinkled blue eyes. The small boat was docked in a wide bay surrounded by hills and sparse colorful houses. We climbed nervously across the white iron ramp onto the boat and strapped on our life vests. Seating options were first come first serve. There were spots around the square wooden block in the center of the boat that opens to hold the life-vests. There were no seat belts. The 1st mate delivered our safety speech while the captain skillfully steered the small boat from the bay.
“Make sure you have one point of contact at all times, the seas are rough and we don’t want ya to tumble over.”
“Oh boy.” My mind raced, I had not thought of that. Which brings me to my next unsettling thought, ‘The last time I was on a small sea boat I was wildly sick. Well, it should be OK.’
Ireland Seabirds and Wind
As the boat made it’s way to the open sea between the mainland and the islands, the wind began slapping our faces and whipping our hair all around. Once on the open sea, the boat would go up…up…up a wave and then down…down…down. The horizon was disappearing and reappearing from view. Splashes of mist hit us on the down end of the cycle or when cross waves hit the boat and we tightened our hoods.
“Here’s a list of the seabirds in the area,” yelled the 1st mate over the wind. “Pass it around.”
He handed over a dirt smudged photocopy covered in plastic. There were puffins, arctic tern, cormorant, fulmar and a large variety of other seabirds we might see. It said there are over 70,000 gannet on Little Skellig Island, one of the largest colonies in the world. I took a peek and passed it on.
The Ferry Ride to Skellig Michael
About 30 minutes in, I was laser focused on the horizon, attempting to will away the rising nausea. Up the wave, down the wave. Closing my eyes made it worse. The lack of bathroom on the boat made it worse. Knowing what kind of…over the side of the boat… performance I would be giving if I failed, made me focus harder on the horizon line.
After 45 minutes I was deep breathing. Focus…focus… focus, no waves here…only smooth horizon. I tried getting up and taking some pictures. The waves made standing up into a wide legged, two handed adventure and I didn’t want to ‘tumble over.’ I found it best to brace my whole body against the side of the boat and snap off a quick couple shots. Then do the stumbling grab walk back to my seat.
We were getting close. The number of seabirds was increasing.
The “Other” Skellig…A.K.A.- Little Skellig Island
“We are now passing by Little Skellig.” The 1st mate shouted above the wind, “We are going to circle around and you will be able to see one of it’s most distinctive rock formations. Little Skellig is about half the size of Skellig Michael but with a larger bird population and no people or boat stops.”
After viewing Little Skellig, it was an additional 15-20 minutes to Skellig Michael. Waves of nausea came and went with the waves of the boat. As we got closer the boat slowed and the captain showed us a lighthouse on the island and views of the distant path we would be walking. The boat was rocking back and forth, back and forth.
“Just please hurry…” I willed the captain in my head, considering just swimming it.
Safety Speech Speech at Skellig Michael
When we finally got to the landing platform it became more clear why the boats don’t run in bad weather or in the winter. It was a tricky dismount. The concrete platform had steps and a metal pole attached to the side. When the boat pulled up we took off our life vests. The 1st mate got out before us and tied up the bouncing boat. We had to take turns pulling ourselves out by the railing and onto the stairs, despite the up and down of the waves.
Once we had all made it safely ashore, we gathered in a group for our safety speech.
“You have 2 and a half hours until the boat will take you back. You need to be here on the platform on time.” the guide announced.
Angie and I looked at each other. My brain started doing frantic math calculations, thinking about the 612 stairs and my steps per hour ratio.
“And if you have vertigo remember… that going up is easier than coming down. If you feel dizzy, just sit down right where you are. If you don’t feel confident you can make it…then only go as far as you feel you can safely get back…and on time” The guide continued. “There’s no one here to carry you down.”
Two Goofballs Vs. The 612 Steps of Skellig Michael
Well I didn’t think I had vertigo but I had images of me having to butt scoot down each of the 612 steps and at a rapid pace so as not to miss the boat. We began the long winding assent. From where we stood, only the first 50-60 steps were visible. Not too difficult.
“One…two…three…” I announced as each foot stomped rock.
“Twelve, thirteen, fourteen.” Angie responded.
“Twenty, twenty-one, twenty two…only like 490 more…” I was not that encouraging.
Then it was silent… just look at steps, don’t fall, breath, breath, stomp, stomp, stomp. Take a picture, stomp, stomp, stomp. Breath…breath…step…step.
“Seventy five, seventy six, seventy seven,” I puffed.
“Let’s stop at 100.” Angie offered.
We sighed and breathed and stomped up the uneven stone steps to 100. Looking down, up and all around was stunning.
Puffins, Puffins, Puffins at Skellig Michael!
“Holy moly! Over here! It’s a puffin!” Angie was already leaned into the rock for a better look.
Suddenly, we noticed them all around us, orange beaks and black and white bodies. They were burrowed into the soft turf growing on the sides of the mountain. Little puffins were hopping, pecking and sleeping on little patchy sod areas tucked between rocks.
“Look over here…” I pointed.
“Did you see the view from over here?” Angie shouted out.
We took a million photos and continued our huffing, counting, stomping and now a good bit of heart pumping and perspiring added in for good measure.
“Three hundred forty seven…”I puffed.”
“No…no…I got three hundred fifty…I’m not down with the extra three.” Angie huffed.
“Yeah, I like your number better, let’s go with that.” I breathed.
We continued loud counting and taking breaks about every 50 steps. Breaks every 50 steps soon turned into breaks every 20 steps.
Thoughts of Star Wars, Beehive Huts and Monks…
Finally arriving at the top near the monastery, we just stood and breathed, taking it all in. For miles around was only sea, uninhabited islands and birds. I imagined the 6th century monks living on this steep rock in the sea and what life must have been.
We followed a narrow but thankfully flat, stone walkway towards the bee-hive huts. I was excited and was having feelings of running in and out of the huts and reenacting Star Wars scenes…but there was a guide giving a speech when we walked up. No one was moving. Everyone was standing or sitting still and listening and I was forced to be quiet and wait.
“The island is named after the archangel Michael. Skellig is derived from an Irish word meaning, splinter of stone. The monastery site sits 714 ft above sea level. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.” The pony-tailed guide in the blue windbreaker was saying. “The beehive huts were built between the 6th and 7th centuries. The method they used to build these structures used is called corbelling.”
Stealth Moves to the Skellig Beehive Huts
I eyeballed the closest beehive, then began inching my way slowly past the standing crowd towards the hut…slowly…slowly, not so noticeable.
“The rocks are fitted individually together horizontally, one over the other so each overhangs the last, eventually forming a dome.” I heard her continue…focused on my mission.
I slow motioned myself across the area until I was at the entrance of the hut. I backed up slowly, creeping up the first stone step, eyes facing the guide.
“The rocks slope outward and are wind and water tight, which is important in all of Ireland, but especially here at sea. They have withstood thousands of years of storms and weather.” She informed the silent crowd.
So close now…My foot was now on the last step and the stone doorway framed my body…almost in. I could wait no more. I quickly ducked inside and stood alone, waiting for my eyes to adjust.
I immediately marveled at the aforementioned corbelled stone walls and how long they have stood here. A kid, maybe 8 years old was also doing the backwards creep in as I was making my way out.
“Don’t go in there.” I said gravely. “Jedi…”
His eyes widened, “Really?”
I laughed and stepped out into the bright sun. The speech was over and we could freely explore. We went in and out of the stone huts and looked at the ancient cemetery. We peered over the edges and began to contemplate the trip down.
Going Down? The Dizzying Stone Steps of Skellig Michael
We made a couple more quick rounds then got back on the path towards the steps.
“Wow…looking down is daunting, hope we don’t get vertigo.” I laughed nervously, seeing it was a real possibility.
“I hope we don’t have to do this on our butts.” Angie responded…taking a careful step.
I found it was easier to put my right foot down, then let my left foot join it on the same stair, like a toddler would. It seemed Angie opted for the same method. This seemed to go pretty well except for the narrow areas for the first 200 stairs or so.
“My right leg is shaking like crazy.” Angie said…stopping suddenly.
” I know, me too.” I gazed at the hundreds of steps below us. “I keep hoping my leg doesn’t collapse when I hit the next step.” I came alongside her and we ‘pulled over’ into a rare grassy area. We regrouped and tried it left leg first but it felt awkward.
There were a couple of areas where the steps were wider and not so steep where we got some speed and frightening momentum doing normal left-right steps. Then there were some steep areas where the steps were almost 2 feet tall with several tight turns.
Little tummy jumps kept happening, like going down a quick hill in the car, as we stepped carefully down towards a tight turn staring down into a deadly drop off. Looking down, you could see the sheer drop down to rock and sea. We then had to press our bodies against another rock wall on the path, hoping to claim the ‘wall side’ in a passing situation during a particularly narrow spot.
We stopped for breaks, amazing views and puffins. Before the allocated 2 and a half hours, we proudly made our way to the base of the steps, legs trembling.
The Boat Ride From Skellig to Portamagee
As we waited for our boat to arrive, a woman stepped out of a thin red kayak in a wet suit and climbed the concrete steps.
“Where’d ya paddle in from?” A man shouted down the steps.
“The mainland,” she smiled, tying up her kayak.
And I thought the speedboat was a rough ride. Suddenly our pride for successfully climbing to the top and back felt a little deflated. It didn’t seem as impressive as kayaking the 10 miles over, climbing and descending, and then kayaking the 10 miles back.
Our boat arrived shortly and we were happy to board and not paddle. A group of onlookers had previously hoisted the red kayak up to the platform.
The ride back seemed quicker and less nausea inducing. When we reached the shore, we grabbed some lunch across the bay from the pier at a sunny outdoor spot and then went off for some other adventures before the day was through.
Click here to read about a journey to the bottom of a Mysterious Initiation Well in Sintra, Portugal
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