Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 4)
September 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
Part 1 is here
Part 2 is here
Part 3 is here
Day 5: Dingle to Dunquin
Distance covered: 20 km 22 km (approx.); total ascent: 370 m
My room in Dingle is right under the roof, and I’m awakened in the small hours by the drumming of rain on the skylight. I lie awake listening to it, torn between hope that it will stop and resignation (this is Ireland, after all) before drifting back to sleep. I dream that I’m wandering the galleries of the Hunterian Museum and in each specimen jar is a small mermaid, very much alive, each one with a tail the colour of a half-ripe blackberry and beating her hands against the wall of the jar. Let us out! Let us out!
When I wake up properly, it’s still raining.
At breakfast I have a pleasant chat with the owner of the B&B, a retired fisherman whose first language is Irish and whose sister lives in… you guessed it, Chicago. Once I’ve sorted out with him the transfer of my big rucksack to my next B&B, I venture to ask him about the weather.
‘It’s meant to rain all day,’ he says. At my disappointed sign, he offers to give me a lift to Dunquin. I recoil as if stung. This is like someone offering Bradley Wiggins a lift to the Champs Elysées on the last day of the Tour – unthinkable. I get hold of myself quickly enough to refuse politely.
The rain, as I head out of Dingle toward Ventry, isn’t terrible – a light, steady drizzle. It’s not enough to drive away the birds, and I enjoy watching the herons gathered in Milltown Creek. The trail itself is more of a problem – it follows the main road, and there’s no verge.
I heave a sigh of relief when the trail branches off into an arc bending inland, but my relief is short-lived: the first part is on a small paved road, but soon I’m tramping along unpaved boreens that are really little more than cattle tracks. They’re all mud, as far as the eye can see, churned by countless hooves. I suppose it’s lucky that the scenery here isn’t especially spectacular, because I’ve no choice but to put my head down and grimly plod on.
At last the boreen spills out onto a paved road at the top of a hill, and I can see the lovely curve of Ventry Harbour spread out below. No doubt even lovelier in the sun, with sparkling water contrasting with golden sand – today I have to make do with a more muted palette of greys, duns and greens.
This is where I had hoped to go swimming. Now all I can do is walk along it in the rain. If ever I had a hard lesson in the importance of seizing the moment, this is it.
The trail winds inland again and uphill and I eventually find myself on the road to Slea Head – another place I travelled on my first trip. The weather had been as grey then as it is now and I’d been hoping that this time I would see the end of the peninsula, dramatic Dunmore Head with the waves crashing against its flanks, in the sun. It looks as if I’m going to see it the same way I did before.
My first proper mountain is ahead of me. The trail passes around and over the shoulder of Mount Eagle – nowhere near as high as Brandon (which looms closer and closer in my itinerary – I’m two days off from it now) but the ground is steep and uneven and sown with rocks that jut out of the ground like the earth’s bones. My feelings about the sheep grazing along the mountainside turn from respect to fierce envy as I lurch and stumble along the uneven ground – even more so when I lose my footing in a bank of ferns made slick with rain and land on my knees.
My knees. Oh god no….
I pick myself up and press on, but sure enough, the pain in the outside of the left one begins to make itself known again. I grit my teeth and keep going. I refuse to give in.
I forget about the pain when I glance down and see something amazing – dozens and dozens of clocháns (beehive huts) studding the mountainside in various states of ruin. All these ruined houses at the edge of the world. What would it have been like to live in them?
Not long past the clocháns, the rain stops and the fog lifts enough that I can finally see Dunmore Head – the westernmost point in Ireland and in Europe – with the Blasket Islands anchored off the tip. And – hallelujah! – the trail is about to descend.
My jubilation quickly turns to dismay. My knee wants nothing less than to make the steep descent. Every step becomes torture. I pick my ginger way down, my normally quick pace reduced to a hobble, leaning on my hiking pole. The physical pain is outweighed by burgeoning fear. How can I possibly tackle Mount Brandon in this state?
At last I make it to the bottom and, once on a paved road, the pain fades into abeyance again. Also, as the road swings round toward Dunmore Head, something extremely welcome appears in my line of sight.
I stumble in, toss my streaming jacket on a chair near the window, and order a scone and a pot of tea. The motherly proprietress brings them to me along with, unasked for, a jug of water, ‘because you’ll have got so thirsty walking from Dingle you’ll be wanting to lick the water off the rocks.’ I drink my tea at the edge of the world and watch the waves crashing against the cliffs with the comforting rise and fall of conversations in Irish and English in the background, and feel somewhat restored.
The Dingle Way itself doesn’t go out onto Dunmore Head, but a path does lead well out on it and, given that one of my frustrations with that coach tour was the fact that we got to stop there for a grand total of five minutes, I decide to take a stroll out there – maybe not all the way to the end but enough to get a good view of the Blaskets.
The wind is so violent that I’ve barely walked a hundred metres before it rips my bandanna (which was pinned into my hair) clean off my head. I only just rescue it from being blown into the sea.
Okay then. Maybe today’s not the day for a little cliff-top walk.
It rains and blows all the way to Dunquin, but the views are gorgeous and I find shelter near the end of the day’s trail in, of all places, a museum: the Blasket Centre. (Is this the westernmost museum in Europe?) I’d read a bit about the Blaskets before I arrived in Ireland so I had a general sense of their history and their desertion in the 1950s, but the display is not only highly informative but also very poignant. I make a mental note to put Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s Islandman on my reading list as soon as I get home.
I have to backtrack about 2 km to find my B&B in Dunquin, only to learn when I arrive that there’s nowhere nearby to eat. The owner offers to book me a taxi to a restaurant a few villages over, but I decline. I’m too cold, wet and tired to face going out again. So, trail mix for dinner (grim perhaps, but I’m so hungry that almost anything would taste good) and once I’ve changed into dry clothes, I curl up in a chair in the conservatory with a book and my camera, hoping to catch the sunset over Inishtooskert.
No such luck. It’s a cloudset.
I fall asleep to the sound of rain against the windows.
Day 6: Dunquin to Feohanagh
Distance covered: 22 km 26 km; total ascent: 100 m
It’s cloudy when I wake up, and there’s fog lying heavy on the tops of the mountains, but it’s not raining. After yesterday, I’ll happily take clouds and fog. The air feels soft and there are a few encouraging cracks in the clouds so I set off with a sense of hope. Maybe it’ll clear up.
The trail starts out gentle and easy, a gravel round looping around headlands, and I soon come upon a fatal distraction – Louis Mulcahy’s pottery. I end up whiling away a very pleasant hour there; if I weren’t hiking I probably would have come out very much poorer, since the wares are extremely beautiful, but I know there’s little sense in buying a vase or a mug only to have it break in my rucksack within minutes or hours. Ah well.
The trail descends to Clogher Strand, another perfect little beach in the same mould as the cove below Minard Castle, but unlike that glass-smooth cove it’s sandwiched between two dramatic headlands, the black rocks jutting diagonally out of the sea. There’s clearly not meant to be any swimming here, but I enjoy exploring the rocks as far as I can go. Actually, given the vast numbers of jellyfish washed up on the sand, clear as glass and the size of my fist, not being able to swim is probably no bad thing.
The trail continues uphill and along the edge of some cliffs, and when it spills out onto a road the first raindrops strike. This isn’t a ‘fine Irish mist’, it’s almost violent, and I don’t manage to get my waterproof on in time. The hood and cuffs of my hoodie get soaked and within moments my trousers are sodden as well. I sneak a quick look at my map before shoving it back into my rucksack and curse under my breath. I have some 16 km to go, most of it exposed.
There’s nothing for it but to carry on. There’s nowhere I can take shelter and wait it out, and in any case the rain looks as if it means business.
I reach the head of Smerwick Strand. I have a more than 3 km walk along a beach. I was, believe it or not, looking forward to this – when I thought the good weather would hold. But now… it’s raining so hard that the sand is pitted with it. The wind is blowing sideways as I struggle along the beach. The sense of peace and contentment that carried me from Tralee to Dingle is a distant memory. I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m miserable and for the first time in six days, I find myself not enjoying being alone. I never imagined I would feel this way, but right now I would give just about anything for company.
I suppose every hike has to have its nadir. I think this is mine.
After what feels an eternity, I finally reach the end of the beach. A little lane leads up to a road below the village of Murreagh. The waymarker at its head points left… and another sign across the road points right, toward Gallarus Oratory. It’s 2 km in the opposite direction.
I weigh an extra 4 km in wind and pelting rain against missing seeing the most perfectly preserved early Christian church in Ireland. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) how that turns out.
I strike off toward Gallarus.
The road goes along the flat but in the rain it seems endless and, worryingly, there are no further signs for the oratory. Just when the rain starts to get the better of me, a sign for the turnoff appears ahead.
Gallarus turns out to have been entirely worth the detour. The church is like an upturned boat made of stone, no roof but just walls curving up to meet each other at the top. It looks so perfect that just walking around it and standing in its dark (and miraculously dry) chamber fills me with the peace that’s been notably absent for much of today.
Gallarus’s other attraction is less… well, less exalted. It has a café. A warm, dry café with food and tea. I check my watch for the first time since morning and see that it’s after 3 o’clock. I’ve been walking without break for more than four hours, without food for six (nowhere to stop and eat). No wonder I’ve been feeling so downhearted.
A pot of tea and a ploughman’s sandwich later, I feel slightly more human and ready to hit the trail again. The walk back to rejoin the trail at Murreagh seems to take less than half the time of the outward journey. It helps a bit that the rain has let up to a light drizzle.
Soon the trail takes me out onto Ballydavid Head, onto beetling black cliffs with the Atlantic whipping itself to foam at their base. The views are breathtaking, but the rain has redoubled in force, as has the wind, which makes stopping to admire the view a less tempting (and often risky) proposition. The path passes perilously close to the edge in places, and it’s all I can do to avoid looking down into the void.
This is where I come across the funniest waymarker on the entire length of the Dingle Way.
It points straight on.
It’s at a place where, if you don’t go straight on, you will end up in the sea.
Full points for Stating the Bloomin’ Obvious. (I would have taken a photo if it weren’t so close to the cliff edge, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)
Just when I begin to think I’m never going to see the end of these cliffs, the trail blessedly turns inland. Soon I’m back on paved road heading toward Feohanagh, where I’ll be spending the night.
I straggle my drenched, exhausted way uphill in the rain and then, when I don’t think I can go any further, I see my El Dorado, a grey stone farmhouse called An Riasc.
I knock on the door and a young woman with a round, pleasant face and curly ginger hair opens it. ‘My goodness!’ she gasps. I must present quite a picture – tendrils of wet hair plastering my face, streaming clothes, boots caked with mud. I think the only dry places on me are whatever is covered by my waterproof (bar the wet bits of hoodie) and the couple of inches of sock and boot covered by my gaiters. ‘Please, let me take your wet things!’ Her accent is unusual, a hint of a brogue overlaying something… eastern European? (I later learn she’s Hungarian and has been living here for five years.)
In no time at all she and the lady of the house have divested me of jacket, boots and pole and sent me up to my room with the promise of tea and cake after I’ve dried off. I don’t think a hot shower has ever felt so good, nor have I ever been so grateful to put on dry clothes.
Fifteen minutes later I’m in the sitting room, at last transformed from Drenched Hiker into something resembling a normal human being, with a steaming pot of tea and a saucerful of squares of freshly baked chocolate tiffin. And, even more important, agreeable company. A lovely older couple from County Cork had arrived just behind me, and we’re chatting pleasantly when a second couple joins us – two doctors from Northamptonshire. I like them too, but they’re ever so slightly more abrasive than the Irish couple, and I might be imagining it but I do sense a certain tension building between the two. I also sense that my presence may be slightly defusing things – I’m American enough for the Irish couple and British enough for the English couple (they all remark on my ‘interesting’ accent, which has, all along the Way, been a source of confusion – I’ve had a lot of people guessing that I’m Australian!). While we’re having our tea, something glorious and unexpected happens.
The sky clears. Sunlight pours in the windows. The B&B owner, a woman with a lovely smile, tells us when she comes in to clear the tea things that the good weather is expected to continue tomorrow. I want to shout with joy. Tomorrow is the most fearsome section of the trail. Doing it in weather like today’s just doesn’t bear thinking about.
Tea turns into a lavish dinner that more than makes up for the previous evening’s and we end up lingering around the table chatting away over tea and coffee. The dining room faces west and the sun is setting over Ballydavid Head and the Three Sisters, the sky ablaze with yellow, orange and lime green. A perfect end to a far from perfect day.
Sleep takes me the instant my head hits the pillow but it isn’t peaceful. I dream that I’m about to sit a math exam and I haven’t cracked the textbook for the entire year. It’s a classic anxiety dream and when I wake up I know exactly why I had it.
Tomorrow I’ll be facing something a lot more demanding than a math exam.