Thursday, 16 April 2015

Trekking and Wild Camping in the Brandon Massif, Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry

Cloghane to Masatiompan

Mist floats above the retreating waters of the creek through which the Owenmore River empties into Brandon Bay, laying bare huge swathes of gleaming wet bladder wrack seaweed. From somewhere out on the mud flats beneath the rolling mist, the haunting, plaintive call of curlews drift ashore. The mid-morning air is crisp and pungent with the briny smell of the ocean and a glassy luminescence cast by the sun almost breaking through the white blanket of mist lends something of an ethereal atmosphere to the chocolate box pretty village of Cloghane, a thin thread of colourful houses built along the shoreline at the southern end of the creek.

We have just stayed overnight at the excellent Mount Brandon Hostel, run by a gregarious and wonderfully welcoming lady named Mary, and, after regaling ourselves with a wholesome Irish breakfast, we set off along the road weaving its way above the creek towards Cappagh to begin a three day trek of the Brandon massif. Our objective is to road test items of our camping kit in preparation for some wilderness trekking we are planning overseas later this year. Consequently, we are each burdened with very heavy rucksacks, and, on this Easter weekend, somewhat fittingly this is a cross I simply have to bear!

The promise of a fine day has brought out numerous people of this small community who greet us cordially with waves and cheery smiles as we pass along the road, stopping every so often to admire the fine vistas of the creek flashing in and out of the moving mist and tantalising glimpses of the golden sandy arc of Fermoyle Strand and the rising ground to the east. Signs of spring are everywhere. Crows are nesting noisily in the bare upper branches of the trees eyed by nervous wood pigeons and song birds flit from branch to branch, their elaborate vocalisations filling the air. The hedgerows are speckled with brilliant dots of colour, betraying the presence of celandines, wood cranesbill, wild strawberry, primroses and violets that are shaded by the boughs of trees sporting the pale green buds of new leaves, plump pussy willows and misty white blackthorn blossom.

We turn inland towards An Teer, crossing an old stone bridge over the rushing waters of the Owennafeana River to confront a rolling patchwork quilt of small brown and green fields dotted with farmsteads sweeping up to the very feet of the mountains beyond. Vapour, lifted from the sea and borne inland on the slightest of breezes, is settling on the tops of the mountains, obscuring their peaks. The heady, sweet perfume of gorse, blazing golden yellow, hangs in the stillness of the morning air, and, behind the crumbling stone walled hedges in tiny paddocks grazed by sheep, I spy the pale green spear tips of yellow flag irises thrusting through the ground to proclaim the imminent arrival of high spring. This flora accompanies us until we join a stony boreen, part of the Masatiopman Walking Trail and the Dingle Way, which gradually elevates us onto bogland heath.

Here we are instantly serenaded by skylarks, whose warbling song seems to me to announce the end of the long, interminable dark days of winter and the final arrival of spring to these shores. We eventually spot the diminutive body of one of these little birds, hovering some 50 metres above our heads. Quite suddenly it ceases its melody and plummets like a stone to the ground where it instantly finds camouflage amid the tangle of heather and bog grass. We soon leave the old boreen to strike uphill towards Faill an tSáis and I feel every single gram of my weighty rucksack as we climb the rough and occasionally boggy hillside. Warmed by the sun which is struggling to break through the cloud, the air is close and mizzle occasionally dampens my face. I am glad when we finally reach the rocky summit where a cooling breeze provides some relief.

Here, we are treated to majestic scenes of the cloud sailing over the jagged peaks of the Faha Ridge opposite, a long arm of rock that thrusts its way upwards towards Mount Brandon before being swallowed in the churning gloom rumbling about its peak. Far below us, a solitary figure is moving about in the bog: a turf cutter going methodically about his work. Seawards, huge columns of white cloud are being lifted up over the cliffs of the gaping chasm that is Sauce Creek, beyond which lies the endless aquamarine expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, totally free of cloud. A family of four threads its way along the top of these cliffs and passes below us making for the Dingle Way back towards Cloghane. We too descend towards a series of way markers but head for Masatiompan which looms ahead of us, summit enveloped in cloud, startling a red grouse which flies off protesting noisily.

We are soon back on the old boreen where large pools of shallow water left over from the recent rains are teeming with wriggling tadpoles. We stop to explore the crumbling remains of a long abandoned settlement at the top of a valley that plunges downwards towards the ocean at Brandon Head and which has a small stream of amber water flowing through it. One of the old buildings has been re-roofed and is probably used for sheep shearing. Having both door and windows, and with a fairly clean flagstone floor, it would offer a welcome respite from the elements for weary walkers should the need arise.

The Dingle Way now leaves the boreen and climbs steeply up the south-eastern slope of Masatiompan to the saddle between it and Piaras Mór. Shielded by the mountain, there is scarcely a breath of air and the first midges of the season make an unwelcome appearance. In the stillness of the air I can hear the cries of sheep, the melodic running of a mountain stream and what appears to be snatches of human voices, but I can see no one. Then, almost on the line of where sunlight meets shadow, I spy a red tent pitched amid the chaos of huge boulders flung down from on high by the action of an ancient glacier. It is a divine, secret camping spot indeed, sheltered in a flat grassy space between two car sized boulders close to the mountain stream and looking out over the boggy basin of the Owennafeana River to Brandon Bay. Two females who are trekking the Dingle Way wave and greet us warmly in east coast American accents as we pass by.

Our calves get a real workout on the final steep and very muddy section of the route but we are amply rewarded for our efforts as we pass from the shadows into the warm, soft sunlight of early evening, arriving on the broad boggy saddle between Masatiompan and Piaras Mór, where we spot an Ogham stone casting a long shadow. Discovered in the 1840s buried in peat almost to its top, the stone was re-erected some 10-12 metres from its discovery site in the 1980s. The old red sandstone is honey coloured now the fierceness of the sun has waned, and we can see distinctive parallel gashes down its sides and a Maltese cross incised on the side facing the sun. The Ogham script apparently states that the stone was erected to the priest Rónán, son of Comgán. I can only wonder at the man Rónán might have been, to have had his name inscribed thus for all eternity and how many feet have passed by his early medieval memorial over the centuries, struggling against the elements on this wild and windswept mountain pass. 

Dumping our heavy packs, we begin the ascent up the steep southern slope of Masatiompan. Our shadows are long as we pass over benign ground comprised of spongy moss, low grasses and wiry heather. There is a distinct chill in the evening air. Below us, the cloud has begun to sink and is spread out towards Brandon Bay like a lustrous pearly blanket, leaving Beenoskee and Stradbally Mountain lifting their purple heads above the smother. Way off in the distance, I can see the Reeks etched against the pale blue sky, their peaks blue like the bloom on plums. The summit of Masatiompan is marked by a small cairn of stones amid which rises a diminutive monolith. The sense of being surrounded by the Atlantic is palpable from here and we stare seaward over the rippling ocean watching great columns of churning white vapour rising skywards. The Brandon ridge to the south looks immeasurably inviting and from this angle, its jagged its eastern rim, sides hollowed and plucked away by the action of glaciers eons ago, resembles a topped egg.

Reluctantly we pull ourselves away and make our descent to the saddle. Reunited with our packs, we begin the search for a camping spot, not as easy as one might think, for to find ground flat enough to pitch our tent and close enough to a source of water is a challenge. We eventually alight upon a suitable spot below some boulders which is sheltered by the rocky ridge that rises up the western slope of Masatiompan and offers grandstand south westerly views towards Feohanagh, Smerwick Harbour, the Three Sisters and an ellipsis of islands petering away into the Atlantic. The ridge, silhouetted against the setting sun, assumes fantastical shapes to my eye: at the seaward end, a vertical section resembles a giant mouse standing erect on its hind paws above which reclines an Incan face in full ceremonial headdress. Not far from our camp is a small bog pool of semi-brackish water which will serve our needs when filtered and UV treated.

After pitching our tent, we greedily consume our dinner as we watch the throbbing disc of golden light slowly sink below the horizon over the Atlantic. Threads of cream contrails linger in the apricot sky, and a thin band of horizontal cloud turns first orange, then red, finally smoky grey, until all that is left of the sunset is a chalky mauve which in turn melts away as stygian darkness envelopes the heavens. We are then treated to the spectacle of the full moon rising above the saddle to the east, flooding the landscape with a pearly luminescence. It’s bright enough to see without head torches and we spend what seems like an eternity soaking up the sight of the ragged coast far below, shimmering and silvered in the moonlight. Orion appears high over the horizon and pinpoints of light visible through mist laid over the landscape like a gauzy shroud betray the location of farmsteads and houses towards Feohanagh. Chilled to the marrow and tired from the day’s exertions, I finally crawl into my sleeping bag. When I turn off my head torch, it’s as if our tent is pitched beneath a street light, so strong is the light of the full moon.

Masatiompan to Gearhane

I am awoken pre-dawn by the raucous cries of ravens and the plaintive notes of curlews. Martin has already risen to capture the dawn on camera and I open the tent flaps to let in the heavy scent of the dewy bog. Soft white cloud lifted off the ocean drifts above the cliffs below, the sea so far away it is impossible to hear the waves crashing onto the rocks. The head of the giant mouse is blushing ruby red as it catches the first rays of the sun as Martin returns with water. Our kettle burbles into life for an invigorating cup of coffee and pot of porridge as we leisurely welcome a new day. I look at our tiny tent pitched high above the grandeur of the ragged Kerry coastline on this most beautiful of spring mornings. There is no stronger sense of freedom than to be high on a mountainside, alone, to commune, unfettered, with the raw beauty of nature. It balances the mind and salves the soul.

We break camp and head uphill towards Piaras Mór, over another small rocky hill with the crumbling remains of a building on its northern slope that was once a lookout tower. Piaras Mór, a conical jumble of stone on the broad brown ridge sweeping upwards towards Brandon Mountain, looks strangely out of place and would be more at home on the African velt, it so resembles a kopje. Dumping our packs we scramble up its steep rocky slope. The cloud is being rapidly burnt off by the hot morning sunshine and the summits above us are clear. A fine day’s climbing lies ahead and we are lucky indeed to have such exceptionally good conditions in these mountains, renowned for their fickle weather.

As we progress up the ridge, expansive views open out over the sea towards Smerwick Harbour, the Three Sisters and the Blasket Islands; far below us, we can see the tiny dots of people moving along the Dingle Way. As we arrive on the summit of Brandon Far North Top, we have our first view of An Loch Dubh, tucked away below us half hidden in its shadowy corrie. The huge arc of golden sand on Fermoyle Beach bathed by aquamarine waters is revealed in all its majesty and we look back over yesterday’s route to see the rocky ridge of Faill an tSáis and the fabulous U shaped chasm that is Sauce Creek, where the sea has bitten deep into the land. Corrupted from the Irish ‘sás’ which means a trap, it is aptly named.

Formed over 200 million years ago, it’s hard to believe that the layers of red sandstone beneath our feet were laid down in a shallow sea at the edge of an arid desert subject to periodic flash flooding, when this part of Ireland lay close to the Equator. Over time, a mighty mountain chain was raised from the ancient seabed and, as the landmass that became Ireland drifted further north, these mountains were sculpted by the action of wind, rain and latterly ice. Eons of erosion have lent their western slopes a gentle rounded shape, softened by the deposition of blanket bog, but the eastern faces fall abruptly into immense corries while the northern sides sport steep, craggy cliffs. With the Atlantic Ocean visible from the Brandon Massif to the north, south and west, it is a phenomenal landscape offering walkers some of the finest scenery in the whole of Ireland.

From Brandon North Top the Faha Ridge, rippling and bristling with layers of jagged rock, comes clearly into view. I can see the diminutive figures of people standing proud of the ridge like the bristles on a sow’s back. Offering sustained and challenging scrambling, some along very exposed sections, we tackled this ridge way back in September 2009. Its shadowy northern face with exposed bands of purple grey rock interspersed with grassy ledges, drops steeply into the Owennafeana Valley, its upper section rising towards the summit of Brandon by what seems like a razor thin flake of rock. Unbelievably, close to the ridge’s high point, Benagh, the twin ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort are built on the small plateau of a jutting promontory atop sheer cliffs over 800 metres above sea level.

The southern face of Faha is bathed in sunlight, and the grass, not yet green, is a golden brown. The great bands of rock, contorted and bent like plasticine, blush pinky-grey. We feast our eyes on a series of twinkling lakes, each one a deep cobalt blue with hues of metallic green, strung out like rosary beads between the chaos of huge boulders and shelves of jagged, naked rock. These magnificent paternoster lakes are connected by a mountain stream that flows through each one, eventually emptying into the largest lake, Loch Cruite, from whence it flows into the Owenmore River in the valley far below. I spy people threading their way through this vast glacial obstacle course on a pathway past Loch Chom an Chnoic that rises steeply to the Brandon ridge. The wind is quite chilly and gusty, sending white fluffy clouds scurrying across the sky as we begin the steep pull uphill to the bare and exposed summit area, crowned with a huge wooden cross. It’s Easter Sunday and the exceptionally fine weather has undoubtedly encouraged numerous people, who are sitting in the lee of the mountain eating their lunch, to make the 952 metre climb up this holy mountain. Several walkers comment on our heavy packs as we arrive at the summit cross to join a score of other climbers celebrating attaining one of the highest peaks in Ireland.

The mountain is said to have taken its name from Saint Brendan ‘The Navigator’, who legend suggests climbed to the summit around AD 530 and reflected here before setting out in a currach with a band of monks for Greenland and the Americas. His act of piety strikes a chord, for we too are contemplating our journey to Greenland this summer! The remains of Teampaillin Breanainn (St Brendan’s Oratory) are sited close to the summit and are providing some shelter for a group of Polish hikers sipping mugs of steaming hot tea. Disliking the loud shrieking and cheering of a large group of teenage girls in florescent pink and green lycra who are swarming all over the summit cross for umpteen group photos, we don’t hang around long, making a rapid descent towards Brandon South Top. We stop occasionally to gaze down on the paternoster lakes from the rim of the ridge from where we can now clearly see the steep pathway zig-zagging its way up from Loch Chom an Chnoic to the Brandon ridge. The sound of rushing water from a series of waterfalls mixed with human voices are borne upward on the wind and I finally spot several groups of people sunbathing close to the various lakes. Beyond the golden brown Faha Ridge, the aquamarine ocean looks divine. We follow the progress of a red and white bauxite ship leaving the confines of Brandon Bay for the open ocean, having delivered its cargo to the aluminium smelter at Aughinish in the Shannon Estuary.

A sinuous stone wall now makes an appearance, built probably to prevent sheep from plunging to their death over the edge of the ridge above. By now hungry, we stop in a sheltered spot behind this old wall where the sun beats down on us relentlessly as we fire up our stove to boil some water for a packet of freeze dried food. The light weight but high carb Mountain House salmon and potatoes in a dill sauce is very tasty indeed, and is one of the products we are road testing for our wilderness trekking later this summer. Suitably rested and refreshed, we follow the wall until we are almost below Brandon South Top. Here we clamber over it, and, leaving our rucksacks hidden behind it, make the steep uphill climb to the unmarked summit. Yet more stunning views unfold; particularly fine is the series of waterfalls leading down to Lough Nalacken and Loch Cruite, with the stunning panorama continuing towards Fermoyle Beach and Cloghane nestled on the southern shore of Brandon Creek, where the tide is beginning to come in.

From here the route drops down to a grassy col and then begins to climb very steeply up the rocky side of Brandon Peak. In the lee of the mountain, the air is still and the heat, reflected off the sandstone, is stifling. I begin to sweat profusely and although lighter than yesterday, I still strain under the weight of my pack. Martin, carrying more than me, lags way behind, clearly struggling in the heat which he does not like at all! It is a great relief to finally reach the summit cairn where we are revived by a refreshing breeze blowing in off the sea. Here we feast our eyes on a truly magnificent landscape bathed in the warm tones of late afternoon sunshine. The tide is now fully in at Brandon Creek and looking west down through the valley of the Feohanagh River towards Smerwick Harbour into the glassy glare of the sun now low in the sky, are the Blasket Islands, An Tearacht rising like a pyramid from the steel grey ocean. Looking towards the southeast, I can clearly see the glint of glass and metal of cars parked at the Connor Pass, and my eye follows the line of hills we will traverse tomorrow morning culminating in An Bhinn Dubh above the car park. To the right of Slievanea, soaring above the pass, is the deep blue Dingle Bay and a horizon crowded by literally dozens of smoky grey peaks on the Iveragh Peninsula. I also see that there will be numerous more loughs feeding the Cloghane River to enliven one’s eyes en route.

Ahead of us is the grassy rock strewn ridge connecting Brandon Peak with Gearhane, which has been whittled down by the action of ice to a knife edge arête as it approaches Gearhane. I tentatively navigate the rocky obstacles and try not to think too much about how serious a fall might be here with a heavy rucksack as I cross the arête with the ground falling away steeply and dramatically on both sides. I am relieved to reach the grassy summit and after enjoying the views down over the partially hidden Loch an Mhónáin, which is so blue it looks as if it has pigged out on the entire sky, and the spiky shadows of Brandon Peak and Gearhane cast on the golden bog below, we clamber over a metal gate which inexplicably does not open and head off down the steep and boggy southern slope of Gearhane to locate a camping spot.

After much searching amid the squelching bog for a dry enough spot to pitch our tent that is out of the wind, we find a bone dry, level, grassy area close to a bog pool and in the lee of a peat hag looking down the Feohanagh valley to the Three Sisters, the ocean and the Blasket Islands. Serenaded by the song of skylarks, we lie inside our tent enjoying the warm sunlight streaming in through the open flaps. The sinking sun enflames the golden grasses and russet heather as it descends towards the horizon where it enters a horizontal bank of cloud far out to sea. It sails downward through the cloud, a throbbing red disc broken by thin bands of white cloud so that it resembles the red giant, Jupiter, before it vanishes from sight. By degrees, the sky turns from tangerine, to maroon, through neon pink and finally majestic purple. We are eating our dinner when the first stars wink in the heavens and turn into our sleeping bags as the opal like moon floats up over the bog behind us.

Gearhane to Cloghane

The sight of the moon floating like a paper lantern in a mauve predawn sky above the brownish-pink Mount Eagle, the Three Sisters and the steel grey Blasket Islands is a sight I will never forget. I lie cocooned in my sleeping bag watching the shimmering pearly moonlight dim as the rising sun claims the sky, swallowing the remaining stars as the moon is banished below the horizon. The morning is calm and still, the sky somewhat overcast with thick bands of cloud in various hues of apricot and smoky grey, and the landscape is bathed in countless shades of sepia. But the cloud is high, there isn’t the least threat of rain in the air and we expect it to burn off later in the morning.

After a leisurely breakfast, we break camp heading out across the bleak, windswept bog heath past brackish pools, weaving our way between eroded, dank peat hags sending forth little rivulets of straw coloured water. We begin the downhill slog towards Fallaghnamara to spot height 623 after which the ground gets much steeper, but comprised of bog grass, moss and sheep nibbled heather, is fairly benign. The views down to a lonely farmhouse sited between An Loch Dubh and An Loch Gealare amid a cluster of small green fields at the end of the road at Mullaghveal are particularly fine. A rough track zig-zags its way up the mountainside from the farmhouse past the diminutive Loch na mBan to the ridge, used no doubt by the farmer to gain access to his sheep. There isn’t a breath of wind and the lochs in this valley are mirror flat, reflecting the forms of the surrounding mountains. Distances on this soft spring morn are hazed; valleys, cliffs, hills and sky all being a faint shade of luminous grey-blue with no great detail. In the cliffs below Beennabrack, I seek out Loch Tarbh, almost hidden from sight high up in its shadowy, rocky cirque, while opposite, the steep slopes of Ballysitteragh lie in wait.

The 300m plus pull up to this summit is steep but made bearable by the fact that the sun has not yet broken through the cloud. We finally arrive on a broad, flat boggy plateau where a jumble of stone slabs have been placed to mark the high point. Expansive views back over the way we have walked are savoured. My eye alights on the twin peaks of Gearhane and Brandon Peak and then follows the jagged, broken edge of the ridge all the way up to mighty Mount Brandon which overshadows all. On the green plains to the south are Dingle and Ventry Harbours with Valentia Island just visible in the hazy grey distance.

The walking atop this undulating broad plateau, dull and monotonous in its muted winter palette of earthy browns and greens, is now easy over short bog grass with just the occasional patch of mire to avoid. Skylarks accompany us all the way. Huge shafts of sunlight stream down from between widening gaps in the cloud as it begins to break up in the strengthening heat, and patches of blue sky appear over Dingle Bay. The unremarkable and unmarked summit of Beennabrack is something of a let down, but is amply compensated by the stupendous view northwards from its vicinity, where one can see the full extent of the valley leading to Cloghane and Brandon Creek. Nestled in its shady cirque below, is the deep blue spoonful of water called Loch Tarbh, sited atop cliffs that plunge dramatically to the valley floor where Lochs Ui Fhiannachta and Neil Phadraig lie motionless, reflecting the azure of rapidly clearing skies.

We make speedy progress down to the bottom of Beennabrack and in hot, late morning sunshine begin the climb to our last summit, An Bhinn Dubh. The actual summit is unmarked, but most of the day trippers encountered hereabouts do not realise this and gravitate towards a large pile of stones forming an incorrectly placed summit cairn. Scores of people who have walked up from the Connor Pass car park are buzzing about this so we do not tarry long, instead heading for the busy parking place where an ice cream van is prominently sited. Here we remove our gaiters and make for Cloghane down the scenic tarred road from the pass.

The sun is hot on our backs as we set off and we are glad to pass into the shade of the Maughanablagher cliffs into which this narrow old road has been cut and which is now part of the Wild Atlantic Way. Jostling with the traffic on the narrowest, winding sections, we pass the waterfall below Loch Doon, the small car park of which is crammed with families and small children squealing with delight as they frolic in the cold water. After this, the road is both straighter and wider and the views over the Brandon massif that we had just traversed are quite magnificent. On the valley floor, close to the shore of Loch Ui Fhiannachta, are the crumbling ruins of an old settlement: a grassy boreen, the parallel ridges of lazy beds and meandering stone hedges are clearly visible. The heat though is stifling and my feet begin to protest at the relentless pounding they are receiving along this hot, tarred road. As we descend, the terrain gradually changes as the bog heath with its dull winter palette passes into the glorious technicolour of the early spring hedgerows lining narrow country lanes mottled with flowers and shaded by trees misty with blossom and pale green buds. The still air is alive with birdsong and bees.

Some 8 km from the Connor Pass, we are walking along a quiet country road above the southern shore of Brandon Creek towards the pretty village of Cloghane back to the Mount Brandon Hostel where we are greeted warmly by the proprietor, Mary, who is awaiting our return. A good soul, she insists we take a shower to refresh ourselves before our long drive back to the East Coast, a small act of kindness that is deeply appreciated. Right next door to the hostel is O’Donnell’s Bar, a traditional Irish pub with a quaint thatched roof. The sweet fragrance of wood smoke is emanating from its chimney which entices us in.

Sitting next to the glowing embers of a homely log fire, I reflect on our three day 45km trek. We have climbed through hundreds of millions of years of geologic history, millennia of myth, and centuries of Irish history and mystery. It would be possible to do the whole trek in one day with a very light pack in high summer, but why rush when you can take your time and savour this fabulous landscape as we have done? Indeed, we have been very fortunate to have had three consecutive days of excellent weather in which to enjoy some of the most ravishing mountain and coastal scenery in this island. And what better way to celebrate such a memorable time in our hills, than with a delicious cold craft porter, Carraig Dubh, brewed right here in the Kerry Gaeltacht by Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne, Europe’s most westerly brewery? Why, even the label seems to sport the distinctive Three Sisters which were constant and iconic companions on our trek. Oh yes, Dingle has far more to offer than just it’s majestic hills, picture postcard pretty villages, magnificent glacial valleys and the stunning coastline of the Wild Atlantic Way. Believe you me, a glass of this divine black stuff is every bit as memorable! 

Watch the video of our trek at:
To download a GPS track of our route see:


  1. One of Ireland's great walks. I loved the Blog and can't wait for the video. Much thanks. Paul Moore

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Paul. We got the weather and views to die for. I thoroughly enjoyed the three days of walking, even though my pack felt like it was full of concrete blocks! Hope to get the film released next week!

  3. Replies
    1. Monica, you're welcome! Thanks for reading and I hope you found this blog informative and useful.

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