Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Wild camp at Lough Dan, Wicklow Mountains, Ireland

There can be nothing more delightful than the Wicklow Mountains in early spring. The black bogs replete with the sweet odour of wet earth; the hedgerows snowy with blackthorn blossom; in the valleys, the first fragile green leaves bursting forth from winter weary boughs, and beneath, nestling amid carpets of emerald moss, patches of shy spring flowers: celandines, violets, primrose and wood sorrel.

A call to the wild beckons, a rough camp on the crescent of golden sand fringed with willow and alder, the place where the serpentine coils of the Inchavore River greet Lough Dan. Following the Wicklow Way, we climb Ballinafunshoge, which can only be described as a tree graveyard, eerie, dank and miserable, and Sleamaine, which only has views towards Lough Tay to commend it. We then head down the remote Cloghoge Valley, crossing the river at a series of stepping stones by a lonely whitewashed cottage shaded by a sycamore of Tolkienesque proportions, standing sentinel close to where the river discharges into the lake.

The sun is setting as we pitch our tent beneath twisted branches of alder on the sandy shore of Lough Dan. Across the lake, the ghostly ridges of lazy beds are momentarily brought back to life in the shafts of sinking sunlight; the lake, mirror flat, slowly turns a mysterious indigo and bats begin to flit about in the darkening sky. Our campfire crackles and bursts into life, sending a volley of sparks heavenward towards a hazy crescent moon that casts a feeble silvery glow over the indistinct shapes of the surrounding hills and the mysterious lake. Instant comfort emanates from its flaming embers, embracing us in warmth and a sense of security.

Belly full, I retire to our tent; cocooned and toasty inside my sleeping bag, I listen to the faint murmur of the lake lapping at the nearby shore and the cries of the creatures of the night: the shriek of a critter falling victim to a fox; away in the heather, the constant churring of a nightjar filling the air with tremulous cadence, and across the valley, deer trading strange yelps and squeals. And amid it all, I think I hear ghostly voices carried on the wind from a group of shattered stone cottages upstream.

A riotous dawn chorus heralds the coming of day. I emerge from our tent to see the sunrise casting an almost supernatural golden radiance across the deep purple lough. I sit transfixed on the cold sand, watching fish periodically breaking the surface of this liquid landscape, creating languid concentric circles. I am being watched by a herd of deer, nervously nibbling the grass on a nearby rocky slope. As I set out across the beach admiring the reflection of the surrounding mountains on the still surface of the lough, the deer melt away into the landscape of russet vegetation and grey granite. A startled heron takes off clumsily from the ragged reeds at the edge of the water, while the sun’s rays illuminate dew covered, gossamer threads of spiders’ webs strung out like silvery nets on the grass and gorse at the back of the beach.

A cheeky chaffinch, half hidden by plump pussy willows, chirps loudly in the tree above our tent. Bumble bees float heavily through the still morning air as our kettle burbles into life. The sun is rising rapidly now and the air has become stuffy and heavy with the fragrance of gorse. As we leave the tree-shaded beach, the silence is so profound, our footsteps crunching on the sandy gravel seem to fill the whole valley with sound. And for one moment, the sense of being the only two people in the world has no equal.

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