In advance I thought I had the title of this blog post sorted – “Lough to Atlantic”, Lough Neagh to (nearly) the Atlantic Ocean.
Lough Neagh it is the largest lake on the Island of Ireland, the fifteenth largest freshwater lake within the European Union. Castlerock on the sandy north coast of Northern Ireland is somewhere dear to my heart. It was suggested that if the wind was wrong we might drop the boats in at Newferry, rather than Toome, missing Lough Beg, I knew that it felt wrong and that I would really like to do the whole trail; Toome to Castlerock – 60kms in total. Fresh water to the salty stuff.
The Battle of the Bann title came from my brother’s girlfriend and, having now had the adventure, it somehow seems apt.
Whilst I’d booked the flights to Belfast in April, plans for the trip didn’t come together until the last minute; a point of consternation on a number of occasions. My brother is so laid back he is almost horizontal so when he produced a colour-coded itinerary and packing schedule the week before we flew, I was amazed! I’m the list-maker!
We met the canoes at Toome as planned. With written guidance and a “God bless” from Robin, our canoe guy, we were ready to launch.
You couldn’t tell we were mostly beginners as we eventually worked out which way was downstream and how to avoid the eel traps! Our boat still hadn’t worked out our rhythm and ricocheted of the banks. I blamed the back of the boat and the back blamed me! With hair and ears full of foliage and insects from the riverbank explorations, the river opened up into Lough Beg. I had been looking forward to this part of the trip; it is a place unfamiliar to me I’d read about the islands and pictured something akin to Strangford Lough. It was pretty enough but not Strangfordesque.
The river narrowed again and we aimed for the east bank at Newferry. A convenient picnic table allowed for a drinks stop, caramel square scoffing, taking off of layers and the application of sunscreen! Yes, I did say it; sunscreen in the context of Northern Ireland, in May!
The Mississippi or the Everglades have nothing on the Bann though. I wonder if it has ever been in the water…
Lunch was fab in Portglenone. However, we realised that we had “parked” at the private moorings and had a game of The Crystal Maze in trying to work out how to get out of the private moorings and back in again without getting wet or being arrested. After a few pints of this stuff, it didn’t really matter….
A steady paddle down to Portna Lock, into our first and last lock of the day. The weather certainly wasn’t as nice as when we went into the pub, so it was time to add the layers again.
Mum was convinced that she saw us from the house and waved and hollered frantically, apparently at strangers. We lashed the boats, just as it started lashing with rain. We stretched our legs up the road to the house for steak and sangria!
We hadn’t carried the camping gear with us and had left it at the house. This might be considered cheating in the adventure stakes, but to be honest, I didn’t feel too strongly about that. It wasn’t tough paddling downstream on a sunny day, but there really wasn’t much point in trying to make it more difficult just for difficulty’s sake. In the same vein, as the rain continued to patter on the conservatory roof, we each had our own thoughts about gathering the camping gear and heading back to the river. I think the boys didn’t think it a great idea but they didn’t want to impact upon my microadventure, so they didn’t say too much about what we should do after dinner. In the end, I declared that it was silly leaving a warm and cosy house to pitch tents in the rain just to be on the river. Once the decision was made, an audible sigh of relief was expelled by all and we relaxed into the evening, regaling embellished stories of near-misses with the east bank, the west bank, the east bank again…..
A good night was had by all and an even better breakfast around the kitchen table the following morning. Dull and grey but not wet was a good enough forecast for me. Down to Portneal again where I hoped the boats had escaped prying eyes. They had, but we hadn’t seen fit to turn them so they didn’t fill with rain water! After slopping out, it was time to wave another farewell to mum and off we paddled to the next lock – Movanagher. Dad wasn’t necessarily going to do the whole thing with us but he decided to come with us again for Day 2.
Whilst I knew Day 2 would be a relatively short day, we realised that we would be at the next planned camp site at lunchtime! The lock keeper made a recommendation to stay at The Camus, a picnic/car park area. We paddled on to Carnroe where we were to meet friends. Our boat was lagging behind, battling a head wind when the riverside vegetation allowed the wind to slap us in the face fiercely.
I saw it all in slow motion, dad turning round to see where we were and the boat pushing away from the pontoon at an obscure angle. Dad was dumped unceremoniously in the river between the boat and the pontoon. I hollered for help from the river while the lock keeper hollered “capsize” (much more professional!). My brother thought he was being admonished for making an inappropriate choice for a pee stop before he realised what was going on.
As the guys were helping dad out of the water, a friend and her young daughter walked down the pontoon. “Hello Brian! How are you?” Half in and half out of the drink, dad calmly replies ” Hello Andrea. Not too bad thanks!”. It diffused the situation brilliantly!
Up in the car park there was a rally for dry clothes, hot coffee and a nip of sloe gin. The fishermen were not entirely happy that a sodden change took place in their restroom but quite frankly, it didn’t matter. Both shaken and stirred, we gathered ourselves for a group paddle down to Drumaheglis.
Andrea’s family joined us in a beautiful Canadian and Andy had the sleekest, raciest looking kayak I’ve seen! Everyone seemed to paddle with ease but my shoulders and arms were running out of energy. We landed on the east bank at the Agivey Bridge for fuel and a pee stop, unwittingly in the middle of a fishing competition!
We were long behind the advanced party when we once again battled the headwind and the speedboats to get alongside the pontoon at Drumaheglis. They’d had lunch by the time we cracked open our sandwiches. Helpful staff in the cafe filled the kettle with hot water to get the coffee brewing, having rinsed the Bann water out of it after the little “incident” at Carnroe.
Sometimes it is the little things that make life good. Andrew’s Aeropress coffee maker and the warm hand driers at Drumaheglis made life bearable again after lunch! It looked a nice place to camp for the night but it was barely mid afternoon, so we all agreed that another 4kms or so would take the pressure off the last day. We bade farewell to our escorts, having agreed what went on tour stayed on tour in regard to the “incident at Carnroe”!
We negotiated the waterskiers on the way down the river, impressed by tricks and riding the wake ourselves. The topography and riverside vegetation helped to break up the wind in places so that it was actually pleasant!
We had realised the previous day that when dad took up “tour guide mode” he was really looking for a break from the paddling! “That there is so-and-so’s house”, pointing at something and talking about someone I didn’t know with paddle laying across the boat.
We pulled up alongside a speed boat at the Camus pontoon. They were drinking beer. I wanted some. None was offered. I held that against them until mum arrived with Lola and the BBQ food and wine! Top trumps!
Dad confessed to the “incident at Carnroe”; after all he was never going to be able to sneak the wet and muddy clothes into the washing machine without suspicion!
We ate, drank and gathered wood for a fire. Lola kept stealing it. .
Mum and dad left and we settled into the evening around the lovely camp fire. The wind had dropped and the view overlooking the river was something else. People kept coming to see what a great camp we had! They just kept coming; driving in, turning round and driving away again. They must have been terribly jealous ‘cos some cars just kept visiting over and over. If we hadn’t googled the comings and goings on our phone, the Landie with the tannoy system at midnight would have enlightened us that we were camped at a gay hookup site!
I didn’t want the camp fire to go out. I wanted the headlights to stop. They weren’t sinister any more but I wasn’t entirely comfortable and was sure the Landie would be back to wake me with a jolt. But my thoughts were way worse than reality. A few more cars did a loop of the car park after the camp fire was extinguished, lighting up the tent with the sweep of the beams. But no one stopped and we were left to rest in peace.
We texted between the tents to endure it was safe to emerge into the mizzle of the morning of Day 3. Coffee with a chaser of porridge, before mum arrived with dad and a second breakfast. We told stories of a peaceful night and were waved off again, boats light without the camping gear that the support vehicle took back to the house.
No sooner was the car out of sight when my brother turned to my dad to tell him of the adventure we had! How he laughed! We giggled about it for a few kms down the river.
Just as we are heading towards the shute into the lock at The Cutts on the outskirts of Coleraine, I holler at the boat in front to look to the right where a swan was beating its huge wings and feet in take off. Just a second later I realise it isn’t taking off but rather coming straight for us! Boy he was pissed! I have never seen such powerful strokes – and that was not from me! He surged forward with each paddle of his foot, arched wings and growling! Alex fended him off with a paddle, all the while telling me not to panic and capsize us. I paddled for all I was worth. I saw dad and Andrew glide into the lock unconcerned. Head down, I dug deep hoping to leave him behind. Damn it! He followed us to the mouth of the lock gate. I had no idea what to do next. I pictured him inside the lock with the gates closed and he is going mad at our heads in the enclosed space. Then I do panic! Trembling, I’m in the lock and the lock keeper is watching. Why won’t he close the freaking gate??!! The damn bird patrols the lock gate with menace.
“Yeah”, says the lock keeper. “A bit aggressive that one.” Shut the freaking gate then!
In checking that we had paid our lock fees, the lock keeper asked our names. On reply, he looked at my dad and said “Dried out then?”. The news of the “incident at Carnroe” had spread some way down river, like folklore.
With a great deal of trepidation our boat paddled out of the lock first. I was convinced Mr Swan was awaiting our departure with some form of torture in mind. He wasn’t and we passed through Coleraine without incident. We were paddling towards our lunch stop at Crusoes at The Crannagh where we would meet mum and Lola. The pontoon here was welcoming, wide and easy to get out onto.
After a gorgeous feed, taking our time so that the tide was falling, we returned to the boats to finish the 5kms we thought we had left. One of the guys from the cafe ran out to take our photo for their Facebook page. Not only was our trip epic in my own mind, Crusoes thought so too!
I was really looking forward to the estuary paddle. The scenery would be different to the river and it is a part of the river that should be familiar but isn’t. I didn’t see the seal because my head was down battling another head wind, cancelling out any advantage that the falling tide gave. It really was grit the teeth time. The mud beaches along the west side of the river were inviting for a breather stop. At one stage a oyster catcher was wading faster than we were paddling.
The river wasn’t as glassy as it once was and the waves from the Atlantic were making their presence known. This was the first time that our safety came to the forefront of my mind. That and what would I do without my phone!
We saw the cottages at Ballywoolen and for what seemed like an eternity they didn’t get any closer. Finally, Andrew picked a landing point and we aimed for the same spot. We had to stop for the obligatory selfie!
Hauling the boats up the mud/sand was comparatively easy compared to getting them to the road. Salt marsh fissures set traps for unwary ankles and damn, those boats were heaving after paddling 60kms!
An O2 outage meant that I couldn’t raise the canoe guy to say we had finished and to come and collect the boats. As we were phaffing trying to get the boats to a place where we could leave them and he could get them, I mistook from afar an offer of help for nosiness. Perhaps I have been living in England too long! People are kind and saw all sorts sketched in our faces. He wanted to see if he could help – something I should have given credit for rather than jumping to wrong conclusions.
We abandoned the boats as chill and tiredness were setting in. I was uncomfortable leaving our trusty steeds to the wilds of Ballywoolen, but there was little choice.
We regrouped back at the house with warm drinks and more food, regaling the stories of the trip. With hindsight I mostly enjoyed it. The wind played its part in damping my spirits. Will I do it again? No. Tick. I’d seen the brown canoe trail signs for years along that stretch of river and wondered what it would be like. Now I know and I don’t feel a particular drawn to explore more the lovely canoe trials across the Province (except maybe for Strangford on a beautiful sunny day). It was the Battle with/of the Bann but I won’t have it any other way!
Kudos to my seventysomething year old dad for joining us, not for the pretty day, but for the whole damn thing. It would have taken some guts to get back in and out of that canoe having been dumped in the drink. My brother’s organisation skills continued to manifest themselves throughout the trip. I did rely upon him, perhaps a little too heavily, but he is the “weekend warrior adventure racer” and his skills were second to none. He was patient while I lost my sense of humour while attempting to teach me an efficient stroke. For all of that, and the sleeping mats left on the bed in Belfast, I am grateful. Alex and I worked at being a team. For all the zig-zagging we did from bank to bank we saw more of the Bann than the others did! We plotted our own course and adventure, learning strengths and weaknesses and how to ignore them or deal with them.
Thanks to mum for the logistical support both on and off the river. She made the adventure easier, lugging food and gear and people from point to point. Lola was just, well, Lola. And Molly was MIA in the US of A but her avatar travelled the whole thing with us. I know she would have been in the thick of it all if she could.
And thanks to Andrea, Jonny, Tillie and Andy for the escort from Carnroe to Drumaheglis. May the wind be always at your back.
And finally, thanks to the lock keeper for that great camp site recommendation!
Another little taster of the pics from the trip can be viewed here