Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 2)
September 1, 2014 § 4 Comments
(Part 1 is here)
Day 2: Tralee to Camp
Distance covered: 18 km 22 km (approx.); total ascent: 200 m
‘This is my Main Street,’ he said as he started off
That morning, leaving the town to the others,
Entering the high-woods tipped in pink
By the rising sun but still dark where he walked.
‘This is the way,’ he continued as he watched
For the great space that he felt sure
Would open before him…
‘This is the life,’ he said, as he reached the first
Of many outer edges to the sea he sought, and he buttoned
His coat, and turned up his collar, and began to breathe.
– Mark Strand, Dark Harbor
I wake to a worryingly grey sky, but I’m humming with excitement as I dress, feeling a bit like a knight arming for a quest (an impression reinforced by a few new bits of equipment – gaiters and a walking pole, neither of which I’ve ever used before). Under the excitement lurk nerves. I’ve never done this before – a hike of this distance, or of this solitude (apart from the weekend morning hikes I used to do on my own in Temescal Canyon when I lived in LA, but given that the trail was always jammed with Angelenos using it as an outdoor gym (which used to drive me mad), it hardly counts). Have I bitten off more than I can chew?
I head back to the gates behind the museum. The trailhead may look unspectacular – it starts in a town park – but a burst of elation takes me as I pass through the gate, the words of Strand’s poem (above) at the front of my mind. Never mind that the sky is getting steadily darker.
As I reach the head of the canal, I feel the first drops of rain. I barely have time to dig my waterproof out of my rucksack and put it on before it starts to rain in earnest – a light but steady drizzle. How… how absolutely typical. Could a hike in Ireland start any other way? Suddenly I remember how my stepfather (who is of Irish descent) always says, whenever it rains, in a comedy brogue, ‘Ah, ‘tis a fine Irish mist’, and I’m laughing uncontrollably. Because really, how else can you respond? I’m sure any passing driver must be questioning the sanity of the woman in hiking gear walking along the canal path laughing her head off, but I don’t care.
Five minutes later, the rain stops. There are a few more brief spells of ‘fine Irish mist’ that afternoon, but that’s it.
A few minutes after the rain ceases, I’m out of Tralee, crossing the bridge into its port, Blennerville. In contrast to Tralee, Blennerville is a lovely little town, dominated by a white-painted windmill, but I pass through it quickly. Soon I’m out in the countryside, walking past farms and shamelessly plundering the hedgerows of blackberries. (I don’t think I quite end up eating my weight in blackberries over the course of the hike, but I probably come fairly close.)
I’ve been following the directions in my guidebook without incident for the better part of an hour when things take an odd turn. The book tells me to go left, so I do – and left is onto the N86, the national road between Tralee and Dingle. There are at least signs pointing in the direction of Camp, but I’m not going uphill (as the books says I should be), I don’t see the three streams it tells me I’ll cross, and the conviction that I’m not meant to be marching down the side of a motorway is growing steadily (even if nearly half the Way is over paved roads).
After I’ve gone about 1.5 km, I encounter two road workers and ask them for directions. ‘Oh no, this isn’t the Dingle Way at all,’ the older of the two shakes his head. He points up to the mountains. ‘It runs along up there. If you take one of these small roads you should be able to find it again.’ I thank him and hurry off, feeling annoyed both with myself and with the guidebook.
I take the first turn off the N86 and head uphill. It looks promising, becoming smaller and quieter… until it dead-ends at the gate to a field. I know better than to try trespassing on a farmer’s property (right-of-way is virtually nonexistent in Ireland). Feeling defeated, I retrace my steps back to the motorway and head back in the direction from which I came. The turn must be somewhere back there…
A few minutes later someone shouts out of a car, ‘Are ye lookin’ for the Dingle Way?’ I whip my head round and see a man who’s pulled over. I admit, rather pathetically, that I am indeed.
‘Ah, I see lost hikers along here all the time. Everyone misses the sign for the turn.’ (Okay, at least it’s not just me.) ‘Hop in, I’ll give you a lift back.’
In London I would never in a million years accept a lift from a stranger, but this is rural Ireland, it’s broad daylight with lots of traffic, he seems friendly and my hiking pole would probably be pretty good in a fight if it came to that. I gratefully accept.
My saviour is named Sean and he owns a B&B in Camp (not the one I’m booked into, it transpires). When he asks me where I’m from, I hesitate only a moment before saying Chicago (I haven’t lived there since I was 18, but I have a feeling this is going to be a safer answer in Ireland than saying I’m from London). He beams. ‘I was born in Chicago,’ he says proudly. ‘South Side.’
Sean drops me at the bottom of another minor road and tells me it should get me back up to the trail. I thank him and head off.
The road dead-ends at another gate into a field. Today is really not my day.
I turn around and walk back down. There is only one possible option left, a little road just before the turning onto the N86 that wasn’t waymarked. I take it.
The road begins to rise, just as described. And about 200 metres on, there’s finally a waymarker, the little black-and-yellow hiker who will become my constant companion and guide over the next week. (For the record, this is the first and last time I ever lose the trail.)
The farms and hedgerows fall away and the road comes out into open moorland on the side of the mountain. I push my way through a gate and suddenly I’m on a rocky path clinging to the mountainside, gazing down on Tralee Bay. If I felt a rush at the trailhead, the feeling is more than doubled as the gate clangs shut and I’m finally out in the wild.
The path snakes along the slopes. It’s rough and rocky, and I can tell my ankles are going to be protesting later, but for the moment I just enjoy the scents of heather and gorse and the spectacular views, the purple bulk of Caherconree looming ahead, its sides seamed with rivers and streams. It’s wonderfully quiet, the only sounds are the wind and birdsong and the soft metallic clank of my pole, punctuated by the bleating of my only other companions thus far – innumerable herds of sheep grazing on the mountainside.
My first name means ‘ewe’ in Hebrew and I’ve always furiously resented this – sheep are not, after all, known for their intellect, beauty, initiative or independence of mind. (Okay, without them my winter wardrobe would be considerably poorer and there would be no Pecorino or Roquefort. And lambs are extremely cute. But still.) But now, as I struggle and occasionally stumble over rock after rock, I begin to see them in a new light. They may not be bright, they may not be beautiful but they are awesomely surefooted.
Just ahead of me, a ewe picks her way delicately but without a shadow of hesitation up a particularly steep and stony slope and stands placidly munching away at the grass as I gape in admiration.
From now on, I’m not going to be a snob about sheep.
I’ve been walking along the mountain for perhaps an hour without encountering another hiker, and enjoying it very much, thanks. But it’s not to last.
I smell them before I see them – a whiff of cigarettes. Who the hell smokes on the trail? Ahead of me, sitting on a rock, sit a man and a woman, presumably a couple, dressed like serious hikers but both smoking. (Not something I ever encountered in California, needless to say.) I don’t really want company but I figure I should at least be polite and friendly, so I say hello as I pass. The man, who looks nice enough, returns my greeting; the woman doesn’t. I push on and soon lose them.
The trail gets tougher. It crosses three rivers, rivers flowing between almost tropically lush stands of fern with sometimes perilously steep banks. The views are stunning but I’m starting to worry – I probably added an extra 4-5 km to my hike by getting lost at the beginning, will I have enough stamina to get me to the end of the trail today?
I pass another couple, slightly friendlier but speaking an odd-sounding German, and struggle gamely on. And now is where the trail gets nasty. It’s starting to descend, but now it’s not just rocks, it’s rocks and mud. And then I step on an innocent-looking clump of sphagnum moss and suddenly I’m in water to the ankle.
I bought my boots four years ago in a sporting goods shop in Santa Monica. They are excellent for hiking in a hot, dry climate. What a way to find out they aren’t waterproof…
The worst thing about the boggy bits of the trail is that there’s no predicting where they’ll be. They can be on high ground or low, between rocks or on open ground. Sometimes the only sign of them is the presence of sphagnum moss, which I quickly learn to fear and loathe.
At the base of the mountain, after I’ve begun to think it’s going to be nothing but rocks and bogs all the way to Camp, the trail is suddenly tamed into a soft green boreen bordered by hedgerow. There are thick clusters of ripe blackberries and I fall upon them gratefully, only now realising how tired and thirsty I am, before continuing on my way. For some reason I now have ‘The Star of the County Down’ stuck in my head:
Near Banbridge town, in the County Down
One morning in July
Down a boreen green came a sweet colleen
And she smiled as she passed me by…
I laugh inwardly. I am indeed walking down a boreen green but I’m in Kerry and in my wet boots I don’t think I exactly qualify as the song’s ‘sweet colleen’.
The path (which is now following the old Tralee-Dingle road) passes into a thick growth of holly and birch and then I start to spot ruined cottages – the ghost town of Killelton. I veer off to visit the ruined church. It’s nowhere near as majestic or well preserved as Gallarus Oratory (which I’ll visit on Day 6) but I enjoy the quiet melancholy of the place. Nor is it entirely abandoned – there’s a wish tree obviously very much in use standing just outside the walls.
As I emerge from the boreen onto a paved road, I pass the first couple I encountered earlier (how did they get ahead of me without my seeing them? Perhaps when I stopped in Killelton?). ‘So schnell!’ the woman remarks in an ambiguous tone that could be either admiring or disapproving, and when I turn round she translates, ‘So fast!’, her tone unaltered.
I’m a firm believer in not judging a book by its cover, but I also think there’s some justice in the idea that everyone has the face they deserve by the time they’re 40, and there’s something tough and cynical and ungenerous about this woman’s face. I flash her a quick grin and hurry on, eager to be out of her presence.
The last bit of trail crosses the Finglas River on a path of steppingstones. It’s dark and quiet, the river heavily shaded, and if it were earlier in the day I’d happily sit on one of the stones and watch the water rushing around me.
I reach my B&B just before 5. The owner, a redoubtable old Irishwoman, makes quick work of my boots, stuffing them with newspaper and putting them in the airing cupboard to dry overnight. The one pub in Camp has no music tonight, so this evening is a repeat of the previous – dinner, then photographing the sunset, then collapsing gratefully into bed. I’m bone-tired, my ankles do indeed hurt, but I feel triumphant. I can do this.
Day 3: Camp to Anascaul
Distance covered: 17 km 20 km (approx.); total ascent: 270 m
The second couple I passed on the trail yesterday turn out to be staying in my B&B, so they’re my companions at breakfast. The reason for their odd-sounding German turns out to be that… they’re Swiss. Thankfully it turns out they’re from Lausanne, so I am at least able to say complimentary things about their hometown. They’re nice enough, but dreadfully stiff and humourless, and I’m glad to get away from them.
As a reward for braving the rocky, boggy trail yesterday, the way from Camp to Anascaul is much gentler and almost entirely on paved roads. As I set off from Camp along roads ablaze with orange montbretia, it starts to rain. Remembering what happened yesterday, I simply find a nice big tree to stand under and wait it out. Sure enough, the rain is over in a few minutes and it’s sunny and warm for the rest of the day.*
The road winds through hedgerows and gradually rises to a pass between two mountains (Corrin and Knockbrack). I glance back one last time at Caherconree as I reach the top of the pass and then it drops away as I descend into the valley of the Emlagh River.
The most silent place on earth I’ve ever been up to now is the centre of Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley. The Emlagh Valley is very nearly as silent but its beauty couldn’t be more different from the canyon: green mountains sloping gently down under a glorious expanse of clear sky. I am the only living soul for miles around. For the entire length of the valley I do not pass a single other person, just flock after flock of sheep. (The Emlagh sheep are particularly skittish and invariably scatter at my approach. Maybe if I were the heroine of some obscure Celtic epic my epithet would be ‘terroriser of sheep’. Well, it sounds a bit more intimidating than ‘scourge of blackberries’…) Yet despite (or perhaps because of) the isolation, I don’t feel frightened. I feel safely enfolded in the valley and a great sense of peace descends on me.
The trail finally emerges from the valley near the mouth of the river and begins to wind uphill. For the first time since leaving Tralee, I can see the sea but it’s a different one now – Dingle Bay, glistening in the sun, with the mountains of the Iveragh Peninsula a soft misty blue on the other side and the vast golden expanse of Inch Strand stretching toward it.
Inch Strand isn’t technically on the trail, but I’m making excellent time and I can easily afford to spend a couple of hours there. I’d planned to go swimming there but am scared out of doing so by the fact that the only people in the water are wetsuit-clad surfers. The air is more than warm enough for a walk on the beach, though, so I shuck off my boots, roll my trousers to the knee and go for a long walk at the water’s edge, on sand almost as fine as flour. The shallows are much warmer than I expected, so I promise myself that I will go for a swim two days from now in Ventry Harbour instead.**
About halfway down the beach I find a dune, sit down to eat my lunch, then lie back with my head on my rucksack and shamelessly indulge in a spot of cloud watching. Who needs a tropical beach? This is perfect.
All good things must come to an end, though, and eventually the wind picks up too much for lying in the sand to remain comfortable. I lace my boots back on and head back up to the trail. It begins to wind inland again, passing into another broad valley – this one is obviously carved out by a glacier, with Lough Anascaul (the source of Anascaul’s river) cradled between two mountains. Anascaul itself is nestled in the bottom of the valley with the road going straight down to it. As I start to descend I feel a twinge in the outside of my left knee. With each step it becomes more and more violent, until I have to stop at the side of the road, my heart racing. What’s wrong with me? I don’t remember having done anything to my knee. This is only my second day on the trail. If I’m injured how am I going to make it another five days, on much rougher trail, on a bad knee?
I gingerly take a few steps. It hurts, but by the time I reach the bottom of the hill the pain is gone – or at least at bay. Please, let it stay there….
Anascaul is a pretty village folded into the dip of the valley. It’s slightly larger than Camp, which means it has a grand total of four pubs, but one of them is head and shoulders above the rest – the South Pole Inn, founded by local hero Tom Crean (who accompanied Scott and Shackleton on no less than three Antarctic journeys) – and it also seems to be the only one with decent food. Well, that’s dinner sorted.
Unfortunately, I’m not the only out-of-towner in South Pole Inn. I’m halfway through dinner when I notice the Swiss couple a few tables away. They’ve spotted me and give me an awkward little smile, which I return equally awkwardly. At least there’s no chance of them asking me to join them (there’s no space at their table).
Then in the corner opposite I see the German couple. The woman has definitely noticed me and I find myself again on the receiving end of her equivocal-shading-toward-unfriendly gaze, her words from yesterday echoing in my mind. So schnell. I try to ignore her but every time I look up I find her eyes on me. Perhaps I’m just imagining things, but… I swallow the last few drops of my Guinness, hail the waitress and pay her, and stalk out of the pub without a backward glance. I hope I can lose them all in Dingle.***
*NB this is not always a wise or practical approach to the rain in Ireland: see Day 5 and Day 6.
**NB this is also not a wise or practical thing to do in Ireland: see Day 5. When it’s warm and sunny and you are on a beach, carpe diem and cold water be damned!
***I did. I didn’t see either couple again after I left Anascaul.