I’m not what you’d call a supremely athletic person, nor am I very outdoorsy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy nature. I find it wonderfully and epically beautiful, but the reality is that nature doesn’t seem to enjoy me. In my advancing years I’ve developed allergies to just about everything green, bugs flock to the sweet nectar of my blood, and I have a habit of falling down and hurting myself more often than not. So it probably came as a shock to Alan when I proposed we spend the weekend of my 39th birthday hiking and kayaking in Killarney National Park instead of exploring one of Europe’s capital cities. We’d been to Killarney before – during our 12-day trip to Ireland back in 2009 – but that was in November when the sun set at 3:45 p.m. and rain was battering the whole country into submission. We tried exploring the park the day we arrived, but Killarney’s famous lakes were so swollen, they’d jumped their banks and the roads in were flooded and blocked. Deciding to give it a shot during the summer, we drove out on a Friday and scheduled our hike for the following morning.
The Gap of Dunloe is a narrow mountain pass between the McGillycuddy Reeks and the Purple Mountains that is linked by five lakes along the way. There are a few ways you can see the Gap: by jaunting cart, hiking from Kate Kearney’s Cottage to Lord Brandon’s Cottage on the Gearhameen River and taking a boat ride to Ross Castle where you’ll be picked up and brought back into town, or walking as far in as you like and then turning around and heading back to Kate’s and hopping back on the coach. Not at all bothered by the idea of a 14 kilometer hike, we chose the second option and, after a hearty breakfast at our hotel, made our way into the center of town to meet up with the “tour” operator. (I put tour in quotation marks because this isn’t really a tour – it’s transportation to the park and out of it.) I was under the impression that only walkers and jaunting carts were allowed on the path, but early on we were passed by several cars being driven by tourists and it was obvious they didn’t care at all about walker safety. Basically, they were all pretty much assholes. At first the trail was packed, but that was to be expected in late August. But the further in we got, the thinner the crowds became, many of them deciding to turn back around, or taking the jaunting carts only to the halfway mark and then heading back.
Anyone who’s been to Ireland knows the weather is unpredictable but thankfully – even though we were there in the summer – the day was cool, misty, and overcast. Given the elevation gains we experienced over the course of the hike, I’m not sure how I would have coped if we had direct sunlight beating down on us. I’m not sure what the elevation change is, but trust me when I say it’s no joke. You basically start at the bottom of the valley and then have to go up, and up, and up, until you get to the ridge, before you descend back into the Black Valley. When we reached the ridge, I looked down and noticed I was covered, head to toe, in little black dots. Upon closer inspection, we realized they were midges. All. Over. Me. By the time we made it down to Lord Bannon’s Cottage, I’d been eating alive and my hip was on fire. I’d later realize that I’d messed up my hip flexor somehow and it’s a problem I’m still plagued with all these many months later (and another reason why I’m wondering if we’ll be able to do any hillwalking in the Cotswolds this year). It was a long, grueling day but it was so amazing and one of the absolute best ways to see the Irish countryside and celebrate my birthday. If you don’t believe me, check out the photos below.
Click on images below to enlarge