A Lesson in Travelling

The ferry’s disembodied voice scratches into life, announcing that all passengers should begin their descent to the car deck, foot passengers to remain and wait for further directions. The voice clicks off and a general murmur of shuffling and sleepy conversation fills the seating lounge. People wriggle into jackets, others repack bags, unplug tablets and remove earphones. Slowly the masses move through the corridors and descend the tight stairway.

The orderly queue becomes disrupted; some people involuntarily step backwards onto the feet of those following behind. The smell has begun to travel up through the stairway with the newly opened doors. People begin to smell the stench. Wafting up from the bowels of the ship, mingling with the sea salt and diesel comes the pungent smell of agricultural manure, or to be blunt shit. It hits the nose. It worms it way into our brains and those who are boarded last happily make their way away from the offence and race to the back of the boat. Ours is not to be a blissful retreat. Instead, we are parked beside it.

Earlier we had watched as the truck rolled onto deck, and wondered as to its cargo. From a distance it looked to be sheep. We could only see dim small eyes staring out from within the darkened void. Two more trucks were directed into the bowels of the ship and then the waving at the rows of cars begins. We are second to board and directed to park alongside the previously studied truck.

It wasn’t sheep but pigs. Piggy noses sticking out from the between the slats, sniffing and inspecting the air around, curious and raucous. The truck was three levels tall and nearly touched the roof of the parking deck. We wondered at the obviously still used practice of transporting live livestock across sea boundaries, while technically staying within the country of origin. Still the Irish Sea is a vast expanse for more that forty pigs to be shipped across.

Holding our breaths, we dive into our parked car, instantly blasting the air conditioner on and gulping down the recycled air. My passenger had peeked in through the slated windows, as he raced between the two vehicles and while still wondering at the ethical method of transport, he reported that there was enough room for the pigs to lie down and sleep, as befitting the late hour and darkened skies.

The calm crossing with barely a roll had acted as the perfect pacifier and most were fast asleep. Inside our quite world, we discussed the road, the best way to head, and the expected time to our destination, while we waited for say-so to turn our engines over and disembark.

Without authorisation, I hear a number of trucks sitting with the low rumble of idling engines. The pig transport was one such truck. With the change of vibrations, either by the ship reversing the engines or by the truck idling in its allotted space the pigs awoke. At first they were calm only some gentle shifting around of the animals and we continued to discuss the location of Oban on the west coast. Was it above or below Glasgow?

An almighty wail assaulted our ears. It was painful. Painful on the ears and painful for the frustrated pig that wailed and wailed. Stamping and banging began.

The wailing pig began trampling through his space, he slammed his trotters into the wooden flooring, wailing and rutting at the top of his voice. It was infectious.

What I had thought was a wailing animal, in pain was only a rouse. As the noise continued other pigs joined. I began to discern the difference in frequency of pitch and movements. The truck, although strongly built, was gently rocking with the fracas. The pig which had started the ruckus could be heard pacing and attacking another animal. Squeals of pain ripped through the enclosed confines of the boat’s bowels. I couldn’t help but wonder if we hadn’t been on this ship beside this particular truck would we have noticed any problems. The air of an open road would vanish any noise away with the rushing wind around the travelling truck.

But, we were trapped in a steel box with nothing to smoother the sound, the boats engines having been turned off, was present and fresh for all to hear. I noticed some car and van passengers a few away open their window and with confused faces search the deck to locate the origin.

The noise built, the second pig was screaming and the aggressor continued to wail, rut, stamp and throw himself around. Workers from the shipping company, kept walking between our car and the truck. Everytime, they would stare in through our windscreen, and look through the slated windows, then turn away paler then before. Yet they could do nothing.

More pigs joined the crescendo. It was deafening and we had stopped talking, no longer concerned as to the location of Oban. It continued to be painful, only now it was an escalating level of pain on the ears.

The towering boarding ramp was lowered. The hand whirling signal from the deckhand in his high-viz jacket, signaled to start our engines. The jeep in front tapped the brakes, the red light flashed across the dashboard.

Squeals, wails and stamps, fighting with the noise of awaiting vehicles. The jeep moved forward and down the ramp. We followed. Fifty feet away and the silence of Cairnryan enveloped the car, guiltily welcomed. Our ears had been ringing, bleeding nearly, for twenty minutes and the peaceful solitude of this darkened coastline was pristine.

We rounded the roundabout and turned left to Glasgow, and left the radio silent. Still, I thought I could still hear the wailing. I imagined it, as we wound our way carefully through the narrow and precarious roads, driving against the harsh lights of tall trucks carrying unknown cargos.

[Note: Oban is 97 miles north west of Glasgow following the A82 and A85]

Photo: by Mary-Chris Staples