It’s safe to say I’m in a tight squeeze.
Slipping through a narrow fissure, I’m delving deep into the entrails of the earth. A trickle of pale light guides my footing along the narrow ridges of craggy granite rock. As the clammy ceiling narrows to nose-grazing proximity, I belly-snake awkwardly but with unfaltering concentration; misjudge a move and only fearsome gloom waits below.
Just an hour earlier, I’d boarded a rickety motorboat with Charles the ferryman and Oscar the dog to cross a choppy strait to Owey Island. Known as Uaigh, meaning ‘cave’ in the native Gaelic tongue, it’s one of 20 or so rocky islets that splinter off County Donegal’s trembling west coast. I’d come to Ireland’s northerly littoral for end-of-the-world scenery; the battered clifftops and furious, foaming ocean. Secret caves are a delightfully unexpected extra.
My guide, Iain Miller, shimmies down the shaft ahead of me with enviable ease. For the past 10 years, he’s been devoted to discovering Donegal’s most thrilling natural wonders, from perilous climbs up precarious sea stacks to night-time hill hikes under aurora-swirled skies. “I came across these caves back in 2008,” he tells me. “Me and my 11-year-old son were the first to paddle to the end of their lake. You’d be about the 30th person to see inside.”
The descent softens and we reach flat, boggy terrain where Iain pulls from his backpack a miniature rubber dingy and energetically begins to pump. Thick silt covers every nook and crevice. I take a step forward and sink up to my knees; grasping blindly at the closest surface, it oozes sludge under my fingernails. “Try not to touch anything” is Iain’s wise but rather ill-timed advice.
We’re standing at the edge of what’s known as the ‘lake of tranquillity’. I understand why when Iain flicks on a flashlight to reveal a serene subterranean lagoon, flowing silently within a cave so vast I can barely make out its roof. “It’s fed by the island’s fresh water source, which is directly above,” he tells me.
We cast off from the silt beach. I shiver in the back of the dingy, watching my breath cloud the brine-laced air, while Iain uses his beam to pick out strange algae blooming below the water’s surface and sparkling bioluminescence clinging to the cavern’s walls. The put-put of the paddle cuts through the quiet until we reach the centre of the lake. “Do you want to know real darkness? Iain asks me. “Turn off your head torch.”
Darkness, I learn, is a vast and shapeless beast. It floods your vision, empties all thoughts, and wreaks havoc with any sense of space and time. For what feels like eternity, we wade through the water, listening to the eerie dripping of droplets that echo their tearful music all around.
Reaching the lake’s edge is our signal to to turn around and journey back to the world above. Emerging mud-caked and blinking into the daylight, we wash hands and feet in the glassy waters of Owey’s upper ponds. Gulls swoop, a vivid sun winks between cotton-wool clouds, and I feel more alive than ever, stirred by what lies below.
Tours of Donegal’s islands including visits to Owey Island’s caves can be organised with Unique Ascents