REIN OR SHINE Photographer Florian Wagner and Jürgen Schäffer on Clare Island, with two of their trusty steeds, which are rising to the challenge of the testing Irish weather and terrain. Pic: Regina Singelnstein
A Wild Atlantic Way odyssey on horseback
It is early morning and the mists from Mweelrea’s microclimate have closed in around the Delphi Valley and crept across Glen Keen Farm, near Louisburgh. There is a sound of laughter and chatter in the grass courtyard behind the sheep farm’s visitor centre. The smell of freshly brewed coffee takes away the cold kiss of the oceanic air as Bavarian photographer Florian Wagner and his merry bunch of Wild Atlantic Way adventurers eat breakfast under a canopy attached to one of their horse trailers.
In the adjacent field, their four-footed friends – Mara, Soloma, Rooh, Goodwill and Merlin – stand sculpted in morning meditation. Well, it is a day off from their 1,300-kilometre odyssey from Mizen to Malin Head along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Wagner, the leader of the troop, tells this Mayo News biped – now armed with that coffee and steaming hot milk – about the genesis of this adventure, which will culminate with a high-quality coffee-table book and a documentary.
“I have been an adventure photographer for 25 years, working for magazines and newspapers, such as National Geographic, Stern, a weekly news magazine, and Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper.
“Back in 2013, some friends and I crossed Germany from south to north on horseback for a National Geographic project. Our journey began at the Eibsee – a lake at the bottom of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, and after 66 days and 1,720 kilometres on horseback we reached our destination, the Lister Ellenbogen – a stretch of beach near the town of List – the northernmost point in Germany on the island of Sylt,” he explains.
The unique trip was so successful, National Geographic wanted Wagner to organise another one – Norway, Sweden, Italy and Ireland were all mooted, with the latter being the favourite among the famous magazine’s commissioning editors.
Ultimately, a new National Geographic chief executive was appointed who wasn’t interested in the idea, so it was back to the drawing board, where publisher Knesebeck became involved, as well as a slew of other sponsors.
SO, after months of planning, they embarked on ferry journeys from Calais to Dover and Pembroke to Rosslare (always ensuring the horses were comfortable), starting their epic Irish trek on May 31. From the outset, the team – Johannes Maierbacher, the documentary maker; Susanne Aloé, the veterinarian; Jürgen Schäffer, the horse-trekking guide; Regina Singelnstein, the photographic and social media assistant; Barbara Welscher, the camp manager and driver; as well as leader, Florian Wagner – were struck by the warmth and generosity of Irish hospitality and help.
“We were often surprised at the fact that people seemed to know were were arriving in a seaside village before we arrived at all. They thought we were really rich because we are pulling our two [specially designed] trailers with Audi Q7s, but they were actually sponsored for the trip by the company,” says Florian laughing.
THE previous day the team had travelled to Clare Island with three of the horses. “It was quite an adventure, and another brilliant example of Irish hospitality. We tried to get the trailer off the ferry, but it got stuck, so the skipper landed the horses on the beach and one of the crew (Joe O’Malley) took off his shoes, and walked them through the water onto the beach,” he says.
The day-trip was coordinated by Carl O’Grady of the island’s Go-Explore Hostel, at the suggestion of Catherine O’Grady Power of Glen Keen Farm.
“We had a wonderful lunch at the Sailor’s Bar after we visited the castle, where the famous pirate (Granuaile) once lived, and we went along the Green Road and on to the lighthouse,” Wagner tells The Mayo News.
The challenges of the wild west weather have meant the horses have been treated for wind and sunburn. Sudocrem has been useful, says Susanne Aloé, the vet. Grappling with the rocky topography of Connemara has also been a new experience for the horses, and the humans, but all seem very happy with their Irish jaunt.
Jürgen Schäffer adds: “Neither ourselves nor the horses have experience of Irish boglands, so it has been great that there have been local guides.”
Of course, the real work only begins after a day’s trek, which can be up to 40 kilometres. Then all the shots – almost 1,600 were taken on Clare Island – have to be edited and filed and Florian’s blog, which will be the basis for the text in the coffee table book, must be updated.
Then, there is the ceol agus craic, which at the Glen Keen Farm camp included local group, Abú, as well as some neighbours, one of whom danced and sang with members of the German crew joining them on their accordions.
“The hospitality at the farm has just been amazing. Catherine was sitting feeding her baby with her phone hooked into her shoulder organising all sorts of trips and camps for us,” says Wagner.
Island hopping to Achill is next on their agenda – a more journey simple journey, courtesy of the bridge. On their way, they plan to stop off in Westport, where keen horseman Michael Lennon of the Westport Woods Hotel will be their host.
If the experience is anything like the first Irish man they met on the ferry to Rosslare – a trucker who happened to own horses – the Céad Míle Fáilte will continue all the way to Malin Head, with the Celtic sea god, Mannán Mac Lir keeping an eye as they meander along the craggy coastline.
For more information on Florian Wagner and his team’s Irish adventure, visit www.adventureireland.eu. For more on Glen Keen Farm, visit www.glenkeenfarm.com.