Thursday, 31 July 2014

A 32km Mountain Traverse and Overnight Bivvy in County Kerry, Ireland

Day One

The smell of summer flowers, damp earth and wood smoke waft in through the open window of our B&B. It’s early morning and we’re preparing our kit for a two day traverse of the Mangerton Mountains in County Kerry. The day doesn’t appear to hold much promise; the tops of the nearby hills are shrouded in a line of thick mist, but this is typical of Ireland and we are hopeful that it will burn off as the sun climbs higher.

After a hearty full Irish breakfast, we drive to the end of a minor road off the Glenflesk to Lough Guitane road where we seek permission from the owner of a small farmhouse to leave our car overnight. A young amenable chap, he’s more than happy for us to park our car in his yard and eyed by his two friendly dogs, we don our backpacks and take the stony boreen uphill through trees behind the farmhouse, past some cowsheds and onto the open mountainside. Our kit (sleeping bags, mats, pillows, bivvy sacks, stove, gas, pans, food for 2 days, sundries and water) packed into Osprey Alpine packs, feels heavy, but the temperature is being kind to us even if the mist is obscuring Cruachán, our first summit.

There’s something incredibly soulful about a damp and misty Irish morn. The landscape is somewhere around 100 shades of emerald green; the nearby furze bushes are silvered with the delicate webs of myriad spiders; little drops of water hang like diamonds from the wire fence alongside the boreen and gleam on the prickly leaves and electric mauve heads of thistles, harbingers of high summer. The air is almost still, the silence broken only by the occasional lowing of cattle.

As we gain height, the tear drop shaped Lough Guitane drifts into view, mirror-like below a jumble of old stone walled potato plots now choked with bracken. Beyond its southern shoreline, the ground climbs steeply and is incised by a pair of long narrow valleys, obscured by churning mist. Periodically, the mist shifts enough to afford a glimpse of Bennaunmore, a sharp fin of rock rising steeply between the two valleys. It is one of the summits we will assail. We climb steadily for about two and a half kilometres up the stony boreen which zig-zags up the side of the mountain before suddenly petering out. The ground is now boggy in places, with standing pools of brackish water, and slightly higher up, is interspersed with boulders and strewn with bleached heather stems, the tell-tale scars of a past fire. The climb to the summit is perhaps the steepest section over tussocky grass, and we have no view at all as we arrive at Cruachán’s rocky summit with its scattered batteries from a long defunct TV deflector.

The wind has picked up significantly and wet with sweat, we feel chilly as we pause for a snack. We decide not to tarry for too long and after taking a quick compass bearing, begin our steep descent towards Cruachán SW top. As we descend past a strange standing stone which we speculate might bear the eroded traces of ogham script, the mist begins to lift revealing a green and rugged landscape with the inky blue crests of mountains on the horizon and the patchwork quilt of field systems connected to the white and ochre coloured dots of farmhouses in the valley bottoms. Far below is Lake Crohane, a thin ribbon of grey-blue water. Up valley from this lies the diminutive Lough Nabrean, then the much larger Lough Guitane and beyond this, the vast expanse of Lough Leane and Muckross Lake, dotted with islands and gleaming pale blue under the leaden sky. The town of Killarney lies sprawled on the flat farmland to the east of the lakes, one of its towering church steeples clearly visible.

After attaining the pretty nondescript summit of Cruachán SW top, we begin a steep descent westwards, hand-railing a fence for part of the way before dropping down into a gully to the classic V-shaped Nabroda Valley just north of the lough of the same name. The landscape here is different, the lower slopes of Bennaunmore are characterised by long scree slopes of tumbled down hexagonal shaped boulders of rhyolite, an igneous rock of volcanic derivation. The upper reaches of the mountain are comprised of vertical cliffs which resemble a collection of enormous organ pipes. The mountain is in fact a volcanic plug, sat amid the remnants of a crater formed during a phase of volcanic activity in the Devonian period. These rhyolite columns are Kerry’s version of the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim.

Here seems an ideal place to stop for lunch and we fire up our stove, taking water from Lough Nabroda. The sun is hot on my shoulders as I take in the surroundings. There seems to be a faint pathway running through the bottom of this now desolate valley, which I later learn was used in former times as a short cut from the Glenflesk and Sliabh Luachra area to Kilgarvan and Kenmare to the south. This valley lay in the territory of the O’Donoghue clan, who held sway here despite the dispossessions following the Battle of the Boyne, the English too afraid to take them on after they had meted out their brand of justice to unwelcome settlers in the area.

After a tasty lunch of Thai curry and noodles, we commence the incredibly steep 175m climb up a narrow gully that leads almost to the summit of Bennaunmore. This ascent averages about 59 percent but the steepest parts are more like 185 percent or 60 degrees and great care is needed to keep our footing, especially as we are carrying heavy backpacks making it hard to maintain our balance. One slip here would be serious and we pick our way slowly upwards, stopping occasionally to enjoy views of the deep blue Lough Nabroda nestled in the bottom of the valley, with Crohane Lake beyond making an appearance as we gain height. I enjoy the challenge of the climb but am somewhat relieved when the gradient levels and we reach a saddle below the rocky crown that is the summit.

We dump our packs and make the short steep climb up to it, where we are rewarded with magnificent scenery to the north west over the brilliantly blue Lough Guitane, Muckross Lake and Lough Leane, with the smoky grey summits of the Slieve Mish Mountains piercing a white, even bank of thick cloud in the far distance. Below, the serpentine coils of the Cappagh River twist and turn through sandy spits past the intense blue ribbon of Lough Nabrean towards Lough Guitane; ahead lie the two summits of Stoompa and beyond them, the massive brown plateau of Mangerton.

It is with some reluctance that we finally tear ourselves away from the ravishing scenery to begin the steep descent from Bennaunmore to the Cappagh River. The scenery now changes dramatically, grassy slopes giving way to a chaotic jumble of boulders and vertical cliffs. This is ankle breaking territory and we carefully pick our way down a steep gully taking care not to fall into one of the numerous deep holes obscured by thick carpets of moss and heather that lie between the boulders. The valley bottom does not appear to be getting any closer, and it is impossible to make much speed. But why would you want to, when there is so much to see and savour?

A tributary of the Cappagh River, fed by Lough Fineen too high to be visible, has carved a small valley that joins the Cappagh at right angles. The valley is filled with a strange splendour, lush and verdant and densely wooded in places, its broad bottom carpeted with reeds and bracken, criss-crossed by the tracks of deer who graze here.

We finally pass out of the interminable boulder field to emerge into thigh high whispering rushes. Across the valley, a lone deer lifts its head to eye us suspiciously before taking fright and vanishing into the reeds. We are drawn towards the slow sound of the water running in the river which we must cross. We seem to have entered another world, one where time could easily stand still. The solitude is intense. Picking our way across the tops of exposed boulders, we safely traverse the brown waters of the Cappagh River and enter a grove of ancient oak trees, boughs gnarled and bedecked in thick emerald moss. The air has become hot and stuffy and the humidity has drawn clouds of midges from the boggy ground which proceed to torment us with their incessant bites.

We begin the long climb out of the Cappagh Valley following the north bank of the small tributary obscured by dense foliage which tumbles noisily down over a series of boulders. We eventually pass out of the oak grove and catch sight of a number of waterfalls throwing up columns of fine spray as they cascade over the jagged cliffs from Lough Fineen high on the plateau above. As we climb higher, their strident hiss seems to fill this little valley with sound. Near the top of the valley we stop close to a pool of clear water fed by a small stream. I sit on a sun warmed smooth grey boulder and pick a number of ticks off my trousers. The sight of the water cascading down over the rocks in a shower of crystal droplets is relaxing, while the proximity to the rushing water has a cooling effect and I soon feel refreshed. We decide to replenish our water supply here in case we encounter no water higher up where we intend to bivvy for the night.

Leaving this delightful little stream, we now turn NW towards Stoompa East top across steadily rising boggy and tussocky ground which begins to sap our energy. But the views back over the way we had journeyed, of the summits we had surmounted glowing in the warm rich colours of early evening, lift our spirits. A short steep pull brings us to the flat and featureless boggy summit of Stoompa East top, marked by a small pile of rocks. We quickly press on towards Stoompa, where we select a bivvy spot for the night just below and east of the summit where the ground is fairly dry and level and which offers some shelter from the wind.

The wind begins to drop as the sun, now low in the western sky, casts huge shafts of golden light onto Lough Leane from a brilliant orange gap amid a churning mass of grey and white cloud. Shehy and Tomies Mountains look enormous and unnaturally close, silhouetted against this burnished sky. To the east, the summit of Cruachán blushes rose pink in the last rays of sunlight and beyond, the grey green twin peaks of the Paps crown the distant horizon, their tops almost touching a pillow of soft apricot cloud. Even further away to the SE, the TV mast atop Mullaghanish pierces a thin strip of blue sky.

Then suddenly, a stealthy mist begins to blow in from the sea and the cloud quickly descends, enveloping the landscape in a white silent shroud. As dusk begins to fall, we gather the stems of dead heather to light a small fire. The fragrant smoke instantly banishes the midges and in silence we crouch next to it, eyes fixed on the flickering flames, each lost in our own thoughts. Knowing we have this mountain to ourselves for the night fills me with unbridled feelings of freedom and elation. Belly full after a warming meal of chicken korma and noodles, sleepiness washes over me in waves and I am grateful to climb into my sleeping bag. I fall asleep inside my bivvy bag to the gentle sound of the wind playing across the open heath.

Day Two

I am awakened by the soft and intermittent patter of light rain on my bivvy bag. By the time I poke my head out, the sun has risen behind a bank of grey cloud, casting a glassy glare across the entire sky. The peat covered summit of Stoompa East top is clear, but masses of luminescent white cloud is boiling up through the Cappagh Valley, obscuring Cruachán and the hills beyond. Martin brings me a welcome mug of coffee but we decide to forego breakfast until we source more water to make our porridge. Breaking camp, we head upslope to Stoompa. The cloud begins to lift, revealing Lough Fineen nestled in a boggy bowl below. As we climb higher, the gaping chasm of the Horses Glen and a vast panorama of towering pink-grey sandstone walls mottled with sunlight below Glenacappul Top and Mangerton North Top, lightly brushed by wisps of cloud, loom into view. Opposite Mangerton lies in wait, its broad brown expanse cracked like pie crust.

Stoompa boasts magnificent scenery over Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. The castle at Ross Island, gleaming in the feeble morning sunshine, pokes out above the densely forested surrounding demesne, and the pebbly limestone beach on the lake shore where we were inspecting Bronze Age copper mines back in the spring dazzles white. Below us, the inky blue glacial corrie of Lough Erhogh has revealed itself, and, as we descend Stoompa to begin a spectacular traverse around the eastern and southern rims of the Horses Glen, we see that it is in fact a hanging lake from which the Owengarriff River spills into Lough Managh below, which in turn feeds the much larger Loch Garagarry. Care is needed as the winding pathway is badly eroded in places and threads its way very close to precipitous drops into the gaping glen.

The route then meanders away from the corrie rim for a short distance which takes us past a rushing mountain stream. The perfect place to top up our water bladders and boil some water to make our porridge, after which we continue upwards across a boggy slope and arrive once more at the track way along the rim of the Horses Glen. There are fine views back towards Stoompa and down into Lough Erhogh, which now lies at right angles to Lough Managh. Before long, the stony path brings us onto a flatter area and the Devil’s Punch Bowl, shining like a spoonful of liquid mercury, floats into view. The towering smoky grey peaks of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks heaped on the horizon and Lough Leane spread like a giant mirror, form a dramatic backdrop.

We pass a small cairn of stones marking a descent towards the Punch Bowl as tiny drops of rain begin to fall from a leaden sky. Mist begins churning into a series of extraordinary and contorted shapes, as if seeking to escape the top of the Horses Glen, and in no time at all we are cut off in a silent white fog. As we approach a larger stone cairn, figures loom out of the gloom ahead of us: two German women, panting and elated to have reached what they believe to be the summit of Mangerton. We exchange pleasantries and they ask if we would be kind enough to capture this moment of glory on their iphones. We watch them proceed on their way, chatting loudly and laughing. One would think they had conquered Everest. We, meanwhile, strike out across the eroded bog, peat hags looking enormous in the mist, towards the trig point which marks the true and very nondescript summit of Mangerton.

The mist has completely lifted as we leave the peat hags behind and pass down a long grassy slope. The going is now much easier. The views of the mountains we have already climbed have vanished, blocked from view by the enormous mass that is Mangerton. But by way of compensation, the north western horizon is literally crammed with dozens of smoky blue peaks, including Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and the Dunkerrons. Closer still, Purple Mountain is separated from the Reeks by a deep gash which is the Gap of Dunloe, while Kenmare Bay appears as a sliver of silver to the south.

The benign terrain is short lived and we are soon passing across rocky and sodden ground as we head towards Dromeralough NE Top. From its summit we can see Dromeralough which is just over a kilometre away, but getting across a bleak expanse of olive green bog and rocky knolls, the hollows between them home to a multitude of small lakes and pools whose ragged shorelines we must laboriously weave around, takes time. We pause by one of these lakes, choked with bog bean, for yet another feast of curry and noddles before making the ascent to Dromeralough, marked by a small cairn of rocks.

Similar ground is encountered on the traverse to Knockbrack, one of the more curious sights being glacial erratics stranded high on huge shelves of rock. We pass many pretty lakes choked with weed and fringed with brilliant white heads of bog cotton which nod joyously in the wind. The summit of Knockbrack provides stunning views to the southwest over the Shehy and Caha Mountains and down towards the Beara Peninsula in neighbouring Cork, the blade-shaped Kenmare Bay slicing right through the landscape almost to the very feet of the mountains.

We can see the final summit, Knockrower from here, but decide not to take the direct route past Lough Nambrackdarrig in order to avoid what looks like tussocky grass and boot sucking bog, and instead almost double back the way we had come, keeping to the high ground. The summit is marked by a large boulder, another erratic, which makes a perfect seat to view the magnificent landscape and to contemplate the traverse we had now almost completed. Muckross Lake appears as a triangle of blue  between Torc and Purple Mountains with the island speckled Upper Lake below them, beyond which are the incredible peaks of the Reeks and Dunkerrons, stretching away almost for as far as the eye can see. Particularly prevalent is the pyramid shaped Mullaghanattin, which Richard Mersey in his Hills of Cork and Kerry, refers to as ‘the Matterhorn of Kerry’. To the southwest, I spot the characteristic top of Cnoc Bólais on Dursey Island and farther out to sea, the jagged canine shaped Bull Rock.

Thoughts inevitably shift to the descent from the summit and we are hopeful that we will not experience the same terrain as on our descent yesterday from Bennaunmore. As it happens, the route turns out to be quite easy, the higher slopes being a mixture of very low heather and bilberry with boulders that are easily navigated. This gives way to lush long grass interspersed with bracken as we approach an old boreen running through the valley below. We follow this southward for about two kilometres, losing it occasionally in places where it has been swallowed by the bog. The route is delightful, passing close to Cummmeenslaun Lake, grand views of the rocky slopes of Knockanaguish and Peakeen Mountain filling our line of vision. A number of crumbling stone cottages built into the bank of the boreen and abandoned in the famine, are a reminder of how much more populated this corner of the island once was.

Eventually the boreen joins an unsealed track lined with deep purple thistles and ragged reeds which passes through a valley with forestry sweeping down from Coombane almost to the Cummeenboy Stream. Startled sheep flee in all directions. We pass through a farm yard and onto a narrow sealed road, hedgerows bursting with the mid-summer fragrance and colours of meadow sweet, dog rose and honeysuckle, past fields where brown and white cows are grazing. Eventually we arrive at a quiet cross roads where the road meets the old Kenmare road and the Kerry Way. Here we call for a taxi from Kenmare to take us back to Glenflesk to collect our car.

As the taxi arrives, it is with a mixture of relief and regret that I sink into the comfortable back seat. This had been one of the most challenging, yet at the same time most enjoyable, multi-day treks we have undertaken across one of Ireland’s most impressive and scenic mountain ranges. Apart from the pathway above the Devil’s Punchbowl, we didn’t see a soul for two days and the route is wild, largely unspoilt and offers a real test of endurance, crossing as it does such varied, and at times, tricky terrain. 

Everyone has heard of County Kerry: its lakes, towns and villages, mountains, beaches and coastline are chocolate box pretty. But while people may argue over their favourite part of this island, everyone genuflects to the picture-perfect landscape that is the Kingdom of Kerry. If you don’t believe me, go and walk the Mangertons and see for yourself.

Scenes from this hike appear in the video 'Hillwalking in County Kerry, Ireland'.
Watch it on Vimeo: