Written by Barry Mottershead, Photos by Toby Butler
We load up the van with gear and a hound named Fia. She likes Toby. She sits next to him on the front seat, sniffing the fresh air, staring at cows and sheep as we duck and weave our van along the stone walled lanes. Toby and I stop in a forest to collect some wood for the days ahead. Plenty of dry limbs are scattered around the forest floor after the recent gales. Fia runs wild through the trees.
Collecting wood in hushed, wind-swept forests, Toby and I talk about our passions. His photography, mine surfing. Both pay more in experiences rather than cold hard cash. We agree that we may never be rich, but will always be happy plying our trades. It feels right to do what you love.
As the tarmac turned to dirt beneath the tyres, I realised our dreams were becoming our realities. The sunset over lost lands, and we too were becoming lost. Lost in a beautiful expanse of possibilities. We spent a long time in the truck after we crossed the border, winding our way through curving mountain passes. The light faded. I itched with expectation. Maps were useless, freedom spanning out before us in every direction visible.
I first met Toby a few years ago. He came over to the west coast of Ireland to take photos, working as an intern for a local photographer. He tagged along, somewhat wide eyed and unprepared on a couple of wave finding sojourns that winter.
That winter, Toby rented a small room in a moldy hotel, and only came out to take pictures when the sun tried to shine. We surfed Mullaghmore almost every swell. The wind blew and the rain fell, as it always seems to do on Mullaghmore days.
After weeks on the same program Toby started to show me his photos. I was blown away. He always found that compelling, unique angle that allows a picture to tell the whole story, to let the viewer “feel” the scene instead of simply seeing it. This quiet, cold kid from the UK had a nice way of doing things — he let his photos do the talking.
Fast forward a few winters, I find an email in my inbox. Toby is coming out again. The surf forecast is not looking great, but we still hash out a plan to hit the road to search for lesser known places along the coastline instead of focusing solely on waves. We plan to pass through ancient mountain ranges, camp in forests, and explore old school parts of Ireland that can so easily be overlooked when the surf is firing.
Our van slips down country lanes in the slanted winter sunlight. No warmth radiates from the sun this time of year, only oblique light that give stone walls a warm orange glow, while are green to the point of unreality. We turn off the tar road and bounce our way down a dirt track towards a wave I stumbled across a decade ago. My brother and I were camping out here and ended up seeing it by chance during a coastal walk. It’s been a go-to for years now, out of the way, wild and beautiful.
There are a few hardy locals out this way, but we end up sharing the waves with seals and sea birds. Fia enjoys her time in the evening air, smelling tufts of grass and running free for the first time in hours. Toby and I get ready to settle into our new home for the night.
In the morning the swell is too raw and the wind carries a freezing bite. I lie in my sleeping bag, and enjoy that feeling of being warm yet so close to the elements. After breakfast we do the dishes in the rock pools on the shoreline, using sand instead of detergent.
One more coffee and we hit the trail again. We drive along mountain passes stopping to look over the edge into the North Atlantic. The wind whips. Low broken clouds scuttle across from the horizon. Gulls use the updraft from the cliff to hover high above, watching us. We are small in these immense landscapes.
Checking the surf report, it’s looking like another few days of small surf. It’s easy to drive hundreds of kilometers looking for waves in this country, but the going is slow so far from the main road. We pull in and boil the kettle. The peat stained water tastes of the earth as much as it tastes of herbal tea. Flasks are filled and we press on.
We arrive into a low bay. The wind is easing now. The sky is bright, about to do its evening dance of light. Our gas stove purrs, warmth grows back into the interior of the van. Fia is happy in her bed, and Toby is out getting some last minute photos. When I look out the door all I can see is nature. No houses or phone lines, roads or people. It's just as it's always has been and it’s a three hour drive from my house. I think I need to come up here more often.
There’s a lot to be said for humble, quiet, and almost melancholic wanderings for destinations unknown. Sometimes we remember trips for the story: what happen along the way, the craziness, the people we meet. But sometimes it’s the simple feeling that travel gives. The way places, geography, and weather permanently leave their mark on us. Through vivid memories or affecting photographs, some experiences stay with us differently than the others.