I should start this by saying I most definitely don’t encourage hitchhiking, especially these days. But now that I’ve got that out of the way, I wanted to share with you one of the most amazing adventures I had in my younger years. To say I am risk adverse in many areas of life would be a pretty fair comment.
I don’t like to leave things to chance, I thrive on structure and routine, and I most definitely think before I act. Most of the time.
All this to illustrate that my trip to Ireland was very, very out of character. Some background first of all…
I was about 19 and travelling around Italy. I’d arranged to meet one of my closest girlfriends, a French flight attendant, and her other mate in Dublin on a certain date. Now this was all pre-tech age. Forget mobile phones and wifi – pre-paid cards used in street phone booths was as sophisticated as a communications savvy traveller could be.
Because I was plebbing my way around the continent, I was travelling light and lean, so my good friend Agnes was responsible for some of the logistics and supplies, including sleeping bags. And because I was plebbing my way around the continent and far, far from becoming anything as professional and sophisticated and grown up as a flight attendant, we were doing this on a shoestring. Let’s make that a second-hand shoestring. Let’s make that almost no shoestring at all.
So here’s how we got it all wrong – and had so much fun in the process.
1. Do double check your supplies before you travel
So the idea with this trip was that we would camp our way around Ireland. We’d done zero research – nobody wanted to carry a bulky guide book around and we figured we’d just wing it once we got there. All very out of character for me but I suppose safety in numbers made me feel like it would all just work out.
Anyway – Agnes was in charge of sleeping blankets. I’d called her several times from phone booths around Italy to remind her of this fact. Was she sure she could bring a blanket for me? Was she sure she wouldn’t forget? Absolutely sure? Yes, she was.
Turned out I should never have doubted her. She lugged three sleeping bags over from France. It wasn’t until we settled into our first night that we realised the sleeping bags were bought for her and her brother. When they were ten. So there we were on a crisp (read mind-numbingly cold) Autumn night in Ireland, with TinTin Explorer sleeping bags up to our sternums. We were sleeping al fresco that night (see point 2.0 below) and TinTin was no match for Ireland in September. We were freezing. We ended up putting our day clothes over our jim-jams, and then piling all remaining clothing over our upper chest and head. It was the first in a series of long, cold nights.
2. Do not sleep al fresco in Ireland in Autumn
Now this has a lot to do with the shoestring budget (actually – all our Ireland adventures have everything to do with being on the backpacker poverty line). Once we arrived in Ireland we realised – der – campsites were not close to towns. And we didn’t exactly have access to transport (see point 3.0 below). And youth hostels were surprisingly more expensive than we’d bargained for… So we decided to sleep outside. This is something I would never, ever normally do. I still sometimes can’t believe we did it, in fact, but we ended up in some amazing locations.
I vividly recall setting up our sleeping bags near a cliff on Aran Islands, off the west coast. We’d duck down into the Atlantic Ocean for our morning bath (nothing like coming out of the water blue to make you feel alive) before quickly running to the nearby pub for some warm soda bread.
One granny took pity on us after hearing about our adventures. We’d approached her in a street in Cork asking for directions. She soon found out that we were essentially homeless nomads and welcomed us into her tiny garden for the night (her own home was just big enough for herself – not sure how the cat squeezed in).
One evening we found ourselves on the beach somewhere in Kerry, if I recall. At various times in the night we all awoke under the impression we were sleeping through a storm. There was no shelter so we had naught to do but bury deeper into the clothes stacked over us and hope it would let up. As day broke and we began to see more clearly, despite our dazed and confused state, we realised there’d been no storm. We were simply attacked by sand bugs that ate their way through absolutely anything they could find, including our Ireland map. We slept by lakes, under quaint country bridges … it was like Airbnb with Mother Nature. And we were positively, absolutely freezing the entire time.
3. Do get around Ireland in a smarter fashion than we did
Well if we didn’t have enough money for regular gigs at youth hostels, then it turns out we didn’t have that much money for all the bus and train travel we thought we’d end up doing, either. So hitch hiking it was to be.
I know, I know – ignorant, poorly-researched, naïve, stupid. We ticked all those boxes.
But boy did we meet some interesting locals.
The hilarious thing was that every single time a car stopped to take us somewhere, we’d get the same advice straight away.
“Girls, girls, girls! You’re doing it all wrong! It’s hard enough sometimes to gift one person a lift let alone three – you’re going to have to split up!”
But as stupid as we were, there were a couple of Golden Rules we’d created when hitchhiking around Ireland:
- Don’t split up
- Don’t accept a lift if there’s only a male or males in the car (yep – there’s that naivety again)
We had a doctor pull over and take us around with him on his house visits. We had a florist stop and allow us to perform Tetris moves in order to fit into the back of her van so we could catch a lift to near the wholesale flower market. We had a young couple who spent the whole time driving telling us Irish jokes. This was hilarious, but didn’t really work when translated into French.
But then, somewhere along the way, things started to get really hard and we just weren’t getting picked up. We walked, and walked, and walked. None of us were very athletic at the time and Monique, Agnes’ friend, had developed the worst chest cold from all our nights with TinTin. Then, suddenly, as the sun was starting to sink and we were all getting very worried about not making it to the next town, a car came to a slow. We ran towards the vehicle.
Oh-oh… The Golden Rules. But it was about to get dark, it was super cold, and we needed to find some safe outdoor space and bed down for the night. We stood outside the car, door open, and peered more closely at the occupants.
“One’s quite old and the other one is really young and very skinny,” observed Agnes in French.
“I agree,” said Monique. “I think worst-case scenario the three of us could take them on.”
And so we hopped into the back and off we went.
They turned out to be the nicest gentlemen. They also turned out to be the current National Champion Kickboxer and his coach heading south for a training camp.
‘Take them on’ indeed… Never judge a book by its cover.
When I think of Ireland I don’t recall warm, cosy pubs, quaint accommodation, and lovely walks through romantic countryside… I recall two French girls and one Aussie with zero idea and zero budget travelling raw. It was an incredible way to meet real locals, discover parts of the country we’d never – absolutely never – have encountered via more traditional/ sensible means and it’s one of the adventures that has stayed clear in my mind despite the decades since…
That said, if ever my niece or god daughters suggested they do something similar, I’d shut that thinking down in a nanosecond.