Last month, I flew halfway across the world to take part in a Game Of Thrones bus tour of Dublin which doubles as the North on the show. It was meant to be a beautiful culmination of nearly two decades of dedicated fandom. Instead, I ended up stranded on the side of the road in a silly dog helmet. This is that story.
Game Of Thrones devotees can be divided into three distinct camps: There are fans. There are super fans. And then there’s me. I've been a voracious devourer of all things Westeros since the mid-1990s, at a time when the books were still envisioned as a trilogy and the notion of a TV show was a ludicrous pipe dream.
Back then, there were no celebrity GoT addicts or Khaleesi cosplayers; it was just me and a gaggle of fellow neck-beards. Together, we pontificated about the validity of "R+L=J" on Firefox, shared terrible, terrible fan art and blubbered bitter man tears over the Red Wedding in its original prose form. We were the real-world equivalent to the First Men, and we were fricking awesome.
In the intervening years, I've watched my beloved fantasy saga unfold into the multimedia behemoth we know today, encompassing television, video games and all manner of plastic pap festooned with wolves and dragons. You can even go on Game Of Thrones bus tours, visiting the stunning vistas and castles that feature in HBO's television adaptation. How cool is that?
When Lifehacker suggested I go on an official Game Of Thrones tour of Ireland, it felt like all my Christmases had come at once. I was going to see Winterfell! The Wall! The Fist Of The First Men! That patch of snow where Jon frowns at an albino puppy!
The fact that many of the castles are authentic Irish landmarks only made it more exciting. (I'm also a history buff, y'see.) This was clearly going to be the best work assignment ever. Unfortunately, it all went south faster than Robb Stark's nuptials.
My dream journey was facilitated through a company called Game of Thrones Tours which operates in both Belfast and Dublin. Despite a bunch of HBO branding on the brochure, the tour is an independent operation that has no connection to the makers of the TV show.
Tickets cost a fairly steep 55 euros ($AU78), but for that you get a full day of sight-seeing in the countryside, complete with guided treks through several Game Of Thrones shooting locations. Also included was a bang-up lunch and optional extras like archery lessons and photos in Stark costumes. Unfortunately, I didn't get to experience any of this — because the bus failed to pick me up.
The first clue that Game of Thrones Tours was potentially dodgy came soon after ordering my ticket. A few days before the trip, customers were sent a bulk email cheekily informing them that lunch was no longer included in the ticket price. Instead, we'd need to buy our own. In addition, the pickup time had been changed from 9am to 8am.
This was all a bit "flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants" for my liking, but by that point my flights had been booked and it was too late to cancel. As it turns out, the worst was yet to come.
On the morning of the tour, I arrived at the hotel pickup location with a Game Of Thrones Hound helmet surreptitiously tucked under my arm. I'd lugged this thing all the way from Australia in a bid to make my travelogue more visually interesting. (Side-note: smuggling fearsome Medieval armour in your carry-on luggage is surprisingly easy. Just don't don it mid-flight.)
As the minutes ticked by, I began to realise something was horribly wrong. The bus and the other guests were nowhere to be seen. I re-read the email to confirm I had the right time and place: everything checked out. Perplexed, I decided to wait a bit longer. Maybe the bus was just stuck in traffic?
Eventually, a pair of anxious looking Costa Ricans approached me and asked if I was also waiting for the Game Of Thrones Bus Tour (I wonder what gave me away?) Together, we headed inside the hotel and asked the concierge if they knew what was going on. After around 20 minutes of ignored phone calls, the tour organisers finally picked up. Apparently, the bus had already left without us.
I couldn't believe it. How was this even possible? I had been at the prescribed pickup location a good ten minutes before the departure time. The fact that the times were hastily changed via email leads me to believe that an administration error could be to blame. Perhaps the bus showed up at the originally advertised time of 9am? By then, we were busy trying to contact the organisers inside the hotel, which means we wouldn't have seen our ride pull up. In any event, we had effectively been abandoned on the side of the road, through no fault of our own.
One of the Costa Ricans then suggested a brilliant solution — if we ordered a taxi to the first location on the map, we would be able to join the bus for the rest of the tour. What followed was a mad scramble to Castlebelingham, where the bus was scheduled to make a 15 minute comfort stop. This was our one and only chance to catch up; the next stop was miles away and would cost hundreds of euros to reach via taxi.
To increase our chances, we rang the organisers and asked them if they could hold the bus for a few extra minutes at the first stop. Astonishingly, this request was sternly refused.
"We can't delay the tour for any reason, not even for just a few minutes," the manager informed us. Dafuq? Naturally, I mentioned I was a journalist who was planning to review the service (indeed, this was the only reason I was in Ireland.) Even that failed to sway them. As customer service goes, it left a lot to be desired.
Ultimately, we missed the tour bus at Castlebelingham by a matter of minutes. Nearly 100 euros down, and all for naught. With nothing else to do, I asked my fellow Westerosi refugees to supply a testimonial about their experience. Personally, I think they held back a bit:
To its credit, Game Of Thrones Tours did refund our tickets. And the day was not a total write-off either: Our taxi driver — who clearly has a heart bigger than Samwell Tarly's belly — took pity on our plight and gave us a guided tour of the surrounding lochs, castles and countryside: completely free of charge! If you're reading Paul, you are a bloody legend.
We also met a band of pot-toking Swedish folksingers who put on an impromptu performance for us by the side of a lake. They had accordions and everything. It was the kind of earthy, Old World encounter you would expect to find in a fantasy novel. So maybe I got to go on a Game Of Thrones tour after all.
Unfortunately, the next morning I missed my connecting flight out of the country and had to spend an entire night in Heathrow Airport. It was simultaneously the best and worst trip ever. Valar dohaeris.