Present: Catherine (organiser), Paula, Richard, Jan, Simon P.
Five intrepid adventurers set off for the west coast of Ireland and for the first 24 hours it was a case of ferries, planes and automobiles. Catherine and Paula left the UK first on 6 June and decided to avail themselves of the recently reopened ferry service between Swansea and Cork: this would mean spending 10 hours on the ferry in exchange for a much shortened road journey. And their verdict of the experience was that they would definitely recommend it, although it did have its almost surreal moments which included being towed out of Cork harbour by a tug boat which was piloted by a topless and rather overweight gentleman (we think the ferry went the wrong way although they never officially confirmed this). The ferry is called the Julia and seems to have spent most of her life operating in the Baltic sea which would explain all the maps of the Nordics adorning the walls and the signs in Russian on board. Most of the staff on board seemed to hail from northern regions as well, which probably goes some way to explaining how spotlessly clean the vessel was and how helpful everybody was. Ten hours may seem like a long time but it turned out not to be long enough. It was not enough time to take in all of the activities on offer which included dining, drinking, shopping, watching the sun go down from the deck, playing with a Rubik’s cube (still not solved!), going to the cinema and getting to bed at a reasonable hour.
The weather did not auger well when we arrived in a drizzly Cork on the Monday morning and the rain accompanied us on the short journey to Killarney where Siobhan of Leen’s B&B had a welcome and a cup of tea waiting. Leen’s is a great traditional Irish B&B – the rooms are cosy, the welcome is very warm and the breakfasts are large and delicious. Roxy the dog was also happy to see us. We spent the morning scouting out important things like where to buy humongous sandwiches (they were home-made, delicious and lasted on average for two days of eating), and finding the starting point for some of the walks. The plan was to do a short hike up Torc mountain to see how Paula, who had recently broken her collar bone, could handle it (she was one of the fastest walkers all week!). Torc is a wonderful introduction to the Kerry mountains in that it is very accessible from a carpark that goes past the impressive Torc waterfall. Torc mountain is not very high (535m), has a railway sleeper path to the top and yet for very little effort the summit rewards the hiker with some wonderful views. The Irish weather was on side. The rain stopped once we had donned our wet gear and the sun was actually shining when we got to the summit to reveal beautiful views of lakes and mountains. Later that afternoon we took in more wonderful views from Ladies View (so named because Queen Victoria was impressed by the scenery at this point) and Moll’s Gap where the weather had cleared to reveal a perfect view of the U-shaped Gap of Dunloe and the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. Ladies View also proved popular with a group of swallows who had built several nests in the eves of the cafe and shop and seemed to be oblivious to the humans below as they went about their business.
Simon arrived by plane into Kerry airport that evening, and Paula and Simon had their first proper Guinness later on (yes, it does taste better in Ireland, something to do with how it is stored and the way that it is poured). Paula was able to compare the Guinness with the Murphy’s she had been introduced to on the ferry the previous night. The final two members of our group, Richard and Jan, arrived later that night.
On Tuesday we had an early start as we set off for the Gap of Dunloe. The plan was to complete the Purple Mountain (832m) circuit, which is a long but not difficult walk which starts with a rough and arduous climb up through heather to the top of Tomies (568m). Unlike other countries, very few Irish mountains have proper paths. What paths there are are usually as a result of erosion by hikers or sheep rather than deliberate construction, and Tomies is a classic example of this. There is a path of sorts at the bottom which peters out at a large deer fence which cuts off the most obvious route up the mountain and forces the hiker to follow the fence for a few hundred metres before you come to a stile of sorts. Then it is a case of aiming for the top through the heather and it is every man for himself until you get to the top. Some hours later you arrive at the cairn that marks the top and then the path magically reappears and stays with you to the top of An Chathair (735m) until you get to the top of Purple Mountain. Although it is no secret that Ireland gets a lot of rain and Kerry is the wettest county in Ireland, Tuesday was the only day that we got proper rain. We got lots of mist and some drizzle but amazingly no rain for the rest of the week which counts as good weather in Kerry terms. This day our views were often obscured, although occasionally the scenery would be tantalisingly revealed only to be rapidly swallowed up by the mist again. This also made for some interesting navigation – Catherine was very grateful for her GPS on this day which proved very useful in the very thick mist and to Simon for his back-up navigation. The descent from Purple Mountain takes you to the Head of the Gap of Dunloe and then it is a walk along an old track through the valley back to the famous Kate Kearney’s cottage where a welcome fire and food awaited us.
On Wednesday, Richard and Jan decided that they wanted a day off and went to Kenmare for the day. Simon, Paula and Catherine decided to climb Mangerton (839m) following an old bridle path that dates from Victorian times and was used to take well-heeled tourists on horseback up to the Devil’s Punchbowl lake near the top of the mountain. The drive to the start point included a close encounter with 3 red deer (Ireland’s only native species of deer) and a very friendly and overweight dog called Ben. Catherine had optimistically hoped that this would be a gentle walk up a proper path but unfortunately the path has not been maintained and so resembles most other Irish mountain paths (see above) as in it looks like bog rather than a path a lot of the time and this one had a few very wet river and stream crossings thrown in for good measure. This day we encountered mist from about 300 feet and it just got thicker the higher we got. When we got to the rim of the Devil’s Punchbowl we could hear but could not see the lake. At this point Catherine and Paula decided that there was no point in trudging through the bog for another 300 feet to the summit for yet another view of the mist but Simon gamely went on and bagged the summit. That evening the group reconvened for some delicious food in the Stonechat restaurant.
Thursday was the day of the big climb. The plan was to complete the Coomloughra Horseshoe which takes in the summits of the three highest mountains in Ireland – Carrauntoohil (1,039m), Beenkeragh (1,010m) and Caher (1,001m). Jan had enjoyed her previous day off so much she decided to take another day off and made it as far as Tescos. So Richard, Simon, Paula and Catherine headed down various winding roads (the kind that don’t appear on your average road map) to the start point at track that goes up to an hydro electric dam in the Coomloughra Valley. In many ways the track is the worst part of the climb. The road rises extremely steeply at the start and by the time you arrive at the dam you have gained about 300m in height. At the dam the horseshoe circuit is revealed in all of its glory. We decided to start with Caher which is an easier climb and also meant that anyone who did not want to cross the knife-edge Beenkeragh Ridge would still have the satisfaction of having summitted Carrauntoohil and Caher. It was another day of low cloud and so we summited Caher and Carrountoohil in the mist but still got to see the views lower down. The summit of Carrauntoohil is like the summits of many highest mountains, it is always surprisingly crowded. While we met relatively few people on Caher, there was a school trip from Rossbeigh and three chatty Corkmen on the summit of Carrauntoohil. Richard was roped in to act as official photographer for the school kids while we roped in one of the Corkmen to take our group photo beside the large cross on the summit. Nobody wanted to cross the Ridge in the mist and wind and so we retraced our steps back to Caher. That evening we had a farewell dinner for Richard and Jan in the Vanilla Pod. They left early the next morning to drive across Ireland and get the ferry from Larne to Scotland.
Simon, Paula and Catherine decided to have a well-earned day off from hiking on the Friday and went on a boat trip to the Skelligs. The Skelligs are a group of islands about 8 miles off the Kerry coast. Little Skellig is home to a large gannet colony. Neighbouring Skellig Michael is a steep rocky island which contains the ruins of a 7th century monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230m high rock. Skellig Michael became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and is a spectacular and unique site. We took a boat from Portmagee. Because of the inaccessible location of the islands, the boats that go there are small fishing boats with few facilities and little shelter on board and in the rough seas the trip to the islands is not for the faint-hearted. We were lucky enough to end up on a boat which leaves last and transports the OPW rangers to and from the island. Arriving last initially did not sound great but it meant that before the return journey we got about half an hour on Skellig Michael when we were the only tourists left on the island. It also meant that we got a lot of information and some great stories from the rangers about the islands and their work there. However, when Catherine enquired about the possibility of spending the night on the island she was informed that it would cost at least EUR700 and there are some other conditions attached which made it an unattractive proposition! Our luck continued when we arrived at the islands. June is nesting season for the puffins but these birds normally spend the day at sea fishing and only return to their burrows in the late evening and so are not normally seen by the visitors to the island. However, because a storm was brewing the day we visited, all the puffins had decided to remain on the island and so we got to see hundreds and hundreds of them. They were literally everywhere. They are such comical looking birds and make a weird groaning sound almost as if they were suffering from severe indigestion. It was a fantastic sight. The island was covered in a profusion of wild flowers – mainly sea campion – the lushness caused by the fertilising properties of the bird’s guano. And if puffins and flowers were not enough, the monestery at the top of the island is very atmospheric. Visitors get to spend about 2-3 hours on the island and it is really not long enough – we were very reluctant to leave. The trip back was not without its moments – the storm which the puffins had predicted was on its way. The swell produced big waves that hit the side of the boat that Paula was sitting on, saturating Paula and then hitting Simon. Both of them arrived back in Portmagee soaked to the skin but even a soaking did not detract from our enjoyment of the trip.
Catherine caught up with some relatives on the Saturday and Paula and Simon walked from the Killarney Demense to Ross Castle. Simon caught his flight from Kerry airport and Catherine and Paula had more fun on the ferry back to Swansea.