Monday, 30 March 2015

‘Wild Ireland’: A Two Day Trek and Wild Camp in the Derryveagh Mountains, County Donegal

Day One

The early morning air is crisp and penetrating as we leave the comfort of the Errigal Youth Hostel to begin a two day trek and overnight wild camp in some of the less well trodden parts of the Derryveagh Mountains. I look across to Slieve Snaght, caught in the glassy glare of the rising sun, to see a low bank of thick white cloud being lifted up to roll over its domed top before cascading down its opposite slope, a sure sign that the wind must be fairly strong on higher ground. But down here in the valley above Dunlewy Lough, on this fine morning in mid-March as we walk along the R251, the wind is little more than a gentle breeze. Under a speedwell blue sky, the first flush of spring abounds: birdsong fills the air, tentative green shoots sprout from seemingly lifeless brambles, catkins dangle from winter weary boughs and alongside the road, saffron yellow coltsfoot flowers, harbingers of spring, erupt from amid ragged yellow grasses like condensed droplets of sunshine. This morning it feels just simply good to be alive.

The views down over the Prussian blue waters of Dunlewy Lough are exceptionally fine and at its easternmost end we spy the unroofed gaunt shell of the disused Church of Ireland, the four pinnacles atop its lofty tower looking for all the world as if they are endeavouring to pierce the space between heaven and earth. As we pass further along the road, I spot the magnificent outline of a Golden Eagle sweeping down the southern slopes of Errigal; its ragged wing tips etched against the blue sky have distinctive white patches on their undersides and white barring on the tail feathers, meaning it must therefore be a juvenile bird. The sight of this magnificent raptor gives me such an euphoric feeling; its effortless whirling on the spring wind seems to epitomise the very essence of freedom.

After about 4 km we leave the road and strike off across the bog towards Maumlack, the first summit of eight. As I dither by the bank of Owenwee River, contemplating crossing the tops of boulders green with moss and algae, I notice how fronds of paper dry yellow grass have become caught on the prickly branches of the nearby gorse bushes, a hint perhaps of how windy this part of Ireland is. Tentatively, I launch myself across the rushing river towards the first boulder top and the weight of my rucksack causes me to overbalance. I almost slip into the brackish torrent! As the adrenalin rush subsides, with the aid of my walking poles, I step cautiously onto the next slippery rock and finally pick my way across several others to reach the opposite bank unscathed.

The ground is very rough underfoot and eroded peat hags, shallow pools and patches of sly bog abound until the ground steepens and slabs of weather-worn grey granite begin to become more prevalent. We cross a high deer fence into the Glenveagh National Park and as we gain height, the iconic cone-shaped Errigal still clad in its autumnal apparel, towers against the powder blue sky. Its pastel-shaded russet slopes and naked scree remind me of an Impressionist painting. Signs of the on-going winter thaw are everywhere: flattened, gelatinous, semi-transparent yellow grass; blackened and slimy dead moss, lethal if trodden on; patches of weeks-old granular snow that persist between the crevices of the granite rocks and that cling stubbornly to the sunless, shady parts of the hillside. The ground is absolutely sodden and every squelching footstep is an effort on the steepest sections. But the views provide a welcome distraction, for this is magnificent countryside indeed. In the northeast rises the distinctive flat topped hulk of Muckish, one of a cluster of summits that local people affectionately term the ‘Seven Sisters’, which also include Crocknalaragagh, Aghla Beg, Ardloughnabrackbaddy, Aghla More, Mackoght and Errigal, the majority of which can be clearly seen. On the opposite side of the broad valley, pale grey rocky Dooish rises to greet the sky, framed in the near foreground by a score of tiny, brilliant blue bog pools reflecting the cloud scurrying overhead, beyond which is Croloughan Lough, the deepest blue scoop of water imaginable. And in the valley between both ranges of hills, I can see cars crawling like ants along the threadlike R251.

As the ground begins to level out, a bitterly cold easterly wind suddenly makes itself felt, whipping the water of a nearby bog pool into a tempestuous frenzy, so much so that it is literally frothing at the edges. Facing into the chafing wind, we find it hard to remain upright as we soldier on towards the summit of Maumlack, the beehive cairn of which finally floats into view. A bank of thin cirrostratus is spreading stealthily across the sky from the east, lending the sun a watery luminescence and the landscape assumes paler tones. Heading east, we pass numerous tiny deep blue bog pools on the one kilometre route towards Croaghnasaggart, its unremarkable high point sited somewhere within a hummocky broad plateau peppered with peat hags and granite rocks. The views towards Errigal and its small sister, Mackoght, are particularly fine. The gouged out eastern face of the quartzite giant floats into view, the sharp edge where a glacier pulled away from solid rock eons ago clearly visible, as is a huge white scar meandering its way upward towards the summit, testament to the popularity of this, the highest point in County Donegal. It is possible to see the slowly moving dots of people on this pathway.

After finding a semi sheltered spot to fire up our stove for lunch and consuming a sumptuous Thai red curry and couscous with gusto, we strike south-east towards Staghall Mountain past the shore of Lough Naweeloge, the surface of its indigo water agitated by the easterly wind. There’s something about this spot that causes us to tarry awhile. Perhaps it’s the patterns made by the wind rippling across the lake’s surface causing the water to dance ashore in a series of crystalline waves, or maybe the way that a small stream gurgles languidly over water smoothed granite, that creates a feeling of blissful solitude.

The summit of Staghall Mountain is marked by a substantial cairn of granite rocks built round a grassy peat hag atop another flattish plateau of eroded bog and exposed slabs of granite. Here we are treated to 360 degree views of mountains all round. Not a road, farm, sheep or person in sight gives this mountain a truly wild and remote character. We now begin a steep descent down through a gully of dried yellow grass hiding a small stream lying in wait to trap an unwary leg, towards Alteann Burn that runs through the bottom of the steep sided valley like a miniature serpent.

Carrying a heavy rucksack all day has by now begun to take its toll and the concentration required to descend safely from Staghall Mountain has sapped my energy. We find a spot where the water is low enough to cross Alteann Burn without getting our feet wet and begin the steady climb towards Crockmulroney. As we attain height, a thin sliver of blue appears at the far end of the valley towards Glenveagh: Lough Beagh. Somewhere in the distance we hear the high pitched yelp of deer, and although close by, they are so well camouflaged against the russet landscape, we are unable to spot them.

The sun has now sunk below the top of the hill and we continue our ascent in shadow. The temperature drops immediately and I begin to feel cold and very tired. We decide to look for a place to make camp for the night somewhere near Lough Sallagh in order to be close to a supply of water before night fall. It seems to take forever for the lake to float into view, and as we approach it, the ground is very hummocky and interspersed with tracts of bog. We must ascend to find dry, let alone flattish, terrain where we can pitch our tent. With pangs of hunger cramping my stomach, we begin the slog above Lough Sallagh in search of a suitable camping spot. We are soon rewarded with a fairly level patch of ground about five minutes from the summit below some rugged granite cliffs that afford a good degree of shelter from the wind, and offering grandstand views over the reed choked Lough Sallagh, the high ground towards Slieve Snaght and the cone of Errigal.

With the tent securely pitched, we are delighted to find that we do not have to descend to the lough for water – there is a small bog pool just above us which will serve our needs adequately once filtered and UV treated. A Thai green curry and noodles never tasted as good, and stomachs full, we watch the sun setting in a mackerel sky over the high ground to the west from the comfort of our open tent. By degrees, the sky darkens, the wind drops and the cirrostratus cloud begins to clear just as Jupiter makes an appearance, its silvery glow magically reflected on the surface of Lough Sallagh below. The air temperature quickly plummets to below freezing.

Wrapped in my sleeping bag with a comforting hot chocolate, tasty muesli bar and a nalgene bottle full of hot water to keep me warm, I watch a magnificent celestial light show, as thousands of stars erupt in the purple firmament above this wild and remote spot. Jupiter sinks lower in the sky, glows rose pink and finally sets. We spend hours gazing heavenward watching the progress of the open star cluster of Pleiades, a heavenly version of the Derryveagh ‘Seven Sisters’, as it slides across the sky. There’s very little light pollution here and we spot numerous shooting stars. Martin points out the less visible cloud-like smudge which is Andromeda, a spiral galaxy 2.5 million light years from Earth and the nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way, containing one trillion stars. In our lonely camp far from human habitation, we might have been the only two people in the world on this incredible starry night and I suddenly feel infinitesimal and very inconsequential indeed beneath the vastness of space. Laid bare, I hastily withdraw into the comforting warmth and security of my sleeping bag. Zipping up the tent flaps, we close our eyes to the sound of the wind gently playing over the canvas.

Day Two

We are woken just before dawn by the deep trilling of red grouse nearby and open the tent flaps to a shower of fine ice crystals and a rush of bitterly cold morning air laden with the heavy fragrance of the bog. Our tent is silvered with frost and the stars are retreating into a clear pre-dawn sky. Leaving some water on the stove to gently boil, we make our way to the rocky summit of Crockmulroney past frozen bog pools, icy peat hags and vegetation white with frost. Close to the summit we find a rocky ledge facing the reddening eastern horizon and erect the tripod and camera to capture the sunrise.

Finally, the throbbing red orb of the sun pierces the horizon, floating through a thin horizontal layer of cloud before arching higher, passing through shades of vermilion, orange and saffron yellow before becoming too bright to look at with a naked eye. In this most magnificent of dawns, the eastern sky is burnished apricot and the frigid landscape bathed in rich warm tones. We leave the camera running and descend to our tent for coffee and porridge.  

Breakfast complete, we return to the summit to retrieve the camera and clamber over gigantic shelves of granite eroded over the eons into myriad shapes. The summit of this little known and climbed mountain is an absolute delight, giving a true wilderness feel. No sights or sounds of human habitation and 360 degree eye candy all round. From a protruding ledge of rock I gaze down towards the chilled blue surface of Lough Sallagh, languishing in the shadow cast by the mountain, and spy our tiny green tent tucked away on its secret ledge at the foot of the granite cliffs below. It looks lost in the enormity of the landscape. The quartzite cone of Errigal, blushing pink in the rising sun, strides high on the northwest horizon, to the south I can see Moylenanav and beyond, the inky blue tops of the Bluestack Mountain range. It’s not quite possible to see Glenveagh from here, but the sense of there being a deep valley between us and Moylenanav is palpable. The sun is warm on my back as I watch small puffs of white cloud begin to drift over the top of the high ground westwards towards Drumnalifferny Mountain and Slieve Snaght, but the wind, a Baltic Easterly, begins to strengthen as the sun rises. Our hands are chilled to the marrow trying to commit the scenery to camera for posterity and we are eventually forced to retreat to lower ground where we break camp.

Lough Sallagh is just beginning to emerge from the shadow of the mountain as we pass by, the thin sheets of ice that have formed close to its shoreline glisten in the feeble morning light. Trapped yellow reeds stuck fast like insects set in amber tremble in the wind as if trying to escape the lake’s icy clutches. Indeed, the ground is frozen which makes progress over the bog much easier. As we head west to scale the slopes leading up to Crockballaghgeeha over verglas smeared naked granite, we spot numerous examples of water, trapped between rock and thawing ice, dribbling downwards. These small rivulets resemble black tadpoles and are a mesmerising sight indeed. So too is a scoopful of thin ice lying in a shallow depression of a granite outcrop, which, through my polarising sunglasses, is seen in all the colours of the spectrum.

We suddenly spot a distinctive arrow shaped formation of black dots heading towards us from the west. As they approach, we see it is a gaggle of geese migrating eastwards, a sure sign that spring is upon us, although with the penetrating wind and Arctic air temperature, you’d be forgiven for thinking so today! As they pass over head, we can clearly hear their honking which brings a smile to our faces.

We climb steadily upwards past deep blue bog pools covered in sheets of thin ice, past an unsuspecting brace of red grouse who take off noisily, their strange cry sounding like ‘go-back, back, back’, and eventually find ourselves on a wind blasted broad plateau of naked granite. We soon spot the triangular summit cairn marking the summit of Crockballaghgeeha. Here our tripod and camera get blown over in the gusting wind which forbids conversation and numbs one’s face and hands to such a degree they begin to sting with the bitter cold. But the views over this remote and hauntingly beautiful wilderness more than compensate for this vicious easterly wind, and the scenery down over the Poisoned Glen from just below the summit cairn is utterly ravishing. I find a sheltered spot and rest awhile, enjoying the expansive views across to Dunlewy Lough and Lough Nacung Upper, the great knuckles of rock that soar upwards from the valley floor to form the northern ramparts of Slieve Snaght opposite and the sinuous pattern created by Croananiv Burn way down in the bottom of the Poisoned Glen. With such a dramatic landscape, it’s no surprise to learn that legends abound, and the glen is said to have received its eerie name when the ancient one-eyed giant king of Tory, Balor, was killed here by his exiled grandson, Lughaidh, whereupon the poison from his eye split the rock and poisoned the glen. The truth is perhaps more prosaic. Gleann Nemhe in Irish means Heavenly Glen and on a day like today, it’s not hard to see why. But an English cartographer mistakenly corrupted the spelling, for the word for poison in Irish is neimhe, and so the Glen became poisoned rather than heavenly. I prefer the colourful folk story of a giant killer myself, it seems to resonate with the epic scale of this incredible landscape.

Buffeted by the cruel east wind, we pick our way westwards over naked granite and past large glacial erratics towards Crockfadda via its east top. The views down into the Poisoned Glen from Crockfadda are extraordinary and finding a spot in the lee of the wind, we pause for a muesli bar. Clouds scurrying across a cornflower blue sky cast huge shadows upon vast swathes of golden brown bog in the amphitheatre below and gambol towards the slopes of Errigal, garlanding its iconic top. Dunlewy Lough and Lough Nacung Upper never looked as blue and in the far distance I can see a strip of aquamarine that is the Atlantic Ocean.

We now press on towards Drumnalifferny Mountain which is some distance away across very rugged and rough terrain through rocky gullies and past umpteen bog pools, the shallow waters of which are roiled by the gusting easterly wind which seems to have strengthened. As we gain height, it becomes apparent that winter has yet to release its icy grip on the highest ground despite the abundant signs of approaching spring in the valley below. Slieve Snaght is streaked with snow, snarling bog pools are ringed with slushy ice and exposed peat hags ooze dripping icicles. Finally we arrive atop a plateau studded with glacial erratics and comprised of flat granite outcrops that resemble a pavement with wiry grass growing between. Locating the small summit cairn of granite stones, we pause momentarily to appreciate the superb views north-eastwards to the majestic line of tops from Muckish to Errigal and back along the high ground we had just traversed towards the summit of Dooish, gleaming pale grey with rock. Reason enough to save this walk for a fine day, but also because in mist the terrain round here could be treacherous. The action of ice has created sheer northern and western craggy faces with vertiginous drops into the Poisoned Glen.


The terrain between Slieve Snaght and Drumnaliffernn is a high and wild ice scoured wilderness of desolate bog studded with loughs and granite buttresses and outcrops, time-weathered into fantastical shapes, some resembling the masonry of Incan temples with their myriad eroded joints. The weather now begins to take a turn for the worse as the sun is swallowed by a bank of grey cloud approaching from the east, the mercury plummets and the wind gusts with gale force strength causing the bog grass to hiss loudly in protest. We find it hard to remain standing at times and after crossing a deer fence out of the Glenveagh National Park, we pass above Lough Atirrive and is diminutive twin, grey and moody amid the wind tormented russet bogland. By now famished, we head towards the rocky shore of Lough Maumbeg, hemmed in on one side by towering granite cliffs, its deep grey waters agitated by the wind which we manage to shelter from just about enough in order to fire up our gas stove for a hot meal. The cold is so intense that the gas really struggles to heat the water for our freeze dried meal which we consume ravenously. It’s too cold to remain still for any length of time, and bellies full, we plough on toward the broad saddle of exposed granite and eroded bog between Drumnaliffernn Mountain and Slieve Snaght, which is living up to its name. Dirty patches of granular snow cling stubbornly beneath peat hags on its eastern slopes, we pass by a bog lough that has crystalline rings of crusty ice all along its shoreline and, as we make our descent towards Lough Slievesnaght, it feels like we have entered a sub-zero wind tunnel. We eschew climbing Slieve Snaght in such inclement weather conditions and opt to descend to Lough Maam via a col leading off the saddle.

The terrain down through the col is surprisingly benign, not too steep or boggy and we finally breathe a sigh of relief to be out of the infernal wind! Lough Maam soon floats into view, an almost circular scoop of grey water ringed with granite boulders set amid a russet amphitheatre of boggy ground. We enjoy a few minutes by its shoreline before beginning the slow descent down towards the Devlin River over ground that is harsh and unforgiving, ankle breaking terrain of large tussocks tangled amid wiry heather and dwarf alder and everywhere, patches of boot sucking bog. Progress is slow and I’d hate to be traversing this valley on an airless day at the height of midge season!

The cloud is beginning to break up a little as the sun slides lower in the western sky, flooding swatches of the russet bog with golden pools of light. The views back up towards Slieve Snaght and the buttresses of Drumnaliffernn Mountain are grand indeed. But the minutiae of detail do not escape our attention for there is immense beauty in these seemingly desolate boglands for those who care to look. Underfoot is a riot of colour - magenta, rose, cadmium lemon and olive green - a miniature world of various feathery-edged and star shaped mosses and the first barely visible green shoots sprouting from winter weary heather. We happen upon a rabbit; too startled to bound off across the bog, it cowers frozen in fear as we pass by.

Heading north, Errigal, massive and pink hued in the setting sun, now completely fills our field of vision. As we approach the bottom reaches of the valley, the ground drops steeply causing the Devlin River to enter a small gorge. Filled with oak trees, this hidden grove next to the rushing river will be delightful in summer. We finally come to the Owenwee River which we manage to cross close to its junction with Croananiv Burn. Here it is shallow enough to hop across the tops of some exposed but slippery boulders, but if in spate, it would be preferable to use an old stone bridge about 60 metres away that will bring you safety over Croananiv Burn. We scramble up the bank to hit a stony boreen and before long we join the tarmac road past the disused Church of Ireland which we had looked down on yesterday from the R251. Long deprived the succour of a congregation, its gaunt outline silhouetted against a darkening sky exudes a deep melancholy.

As darkness falls, we walk uphill to meet the R251, and, by the light of our head torches, complete the 2.5 km back to the excellent Errigal Youth Hotel where, after a very welcome hot shower, we feast on a dinner of fillet steak washed down with craft ales. Thirty five kilometres and two days spent in one of the least travelled parts of the island and we had not met with a single soul. In this remote and pathless wonderland seemingly untrodden by humankind, we might have been the only people left alive in the world. Many visitors experience the scenic wonders of the Derryveagh Mountains by climbing the higher peaks of Muckish or Errigal, but for a true, unadulterated taste of wild Ireland, the way that we went really takes some beating. 

Watch the film of our two day trek and wild camp at:

Download a GPS track of our route at: