Hiking wild, windswept Connemara
Hobbling at the back of the pack (with one broken shoe) Jini Reddy hikes the heights of Connemara, Ireland – home to staggering landscapes and well-earned seafood suppers
Wednesday 30 April 2014
Three quarters of the way up County Mayo's Mweelrea, the highest peak in west Ireland, the unthinkable happens: I lose my sole. The rubber tread of my hiking boot had started to come apart earlier in the day. Already the slowest in the group by a mile (at least), this was all I needed.
I'd made it beyond the shores of Lake Doolough, otherwise known as "the black lake" (where hundreds had perished during the Great Famine that swept Ireland in the mid 1800s), up the near-vertical trail and beyond the hairy "ramp", a narrow pass which falls away into a gully, with boot intact. Now I was on "the saddle", a flattish stretch beyond the cairn on Ben Bury (one of the lesser peaks in the Mweelrea range) ready to make a final push to the summit. So, what to do?
I waved my detached sole at our guide, Henry, who was further ahead with the faster members of the group (ie, everyone else). He hiked back to investigate and I could sense him groan inwardly.
"See these," he said, pointing to his sunglasses. "These are my angry eyes behind here." Oh dear. I hated to disappoint Henry. He was a superb guide: skilled, fun, patient and the kind who wore his considerable knowledge of the flora, fauna and history of the area lightly. Nimble as a goat, he could probably scale the peaks and ridges of Connemara – this ravishing region in the west of County Galway that sweeps over the border into the south of County Mayo – in his sleep. I held my breath as he examined the offending footwear. Then, gingerly, I took a few steps with my sole-less boot. He asked if I could still walk OK. I could, it seemed. And that was it – ascent back on.
Forty minutes later and four hours after our 10am start, I'd made it to the top, laboriously negotiating that last slope of boulders and rocks. I drank in the staggering views with the others in my group – Louise and Mike (a couple from Wales who walked as if on air), David (a Londoner with legs of steel), Amber and Brad from Arizona, and Amber's father (due a knee replacement, mind-bogglingly).
Henry pointed out the landmarks: to the west was the Atlantic and Inishbofin Island, to the north the larger Clare Island, to the east the Sheeffry Hills and Delphi Valley. South was Killary, Ireland's only fjord, and the Twelve Bens, a range of sharp-peaked quartzite mountains that dominates the Connemara landscape.
What goes up must come down, and I reached the bottom of the valley only for it to dawn on me that I had another 4km hike to do. Through a bog. So when I caught sight of the path that led to our van I nearly wept with relief. That night, full of home-cooked scallop, haddock and soda bread, showered and dry in front of the fireplace at cosy Aasleagh Lodge – a hotel on the salmon- and trout-rich River Erriff in County Galway run by fly-fishing enthusiast Jim Stafford and his wife Mary – relief turned to exhilaration.
Aasleagh Lodge,setting for fresh fish dishes (Jini Reddy) Not only had I reached the top of Mweelrea, but the previous day I'd climbed two of the Bens in torrential rain and hail, and the day before that I'd walked up the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick. Challenging? Yes. But there is a power to a trip of this nature that is greater than the sum of its parts: to immerse onself in this unspoilt, colourful landscape is to summon feelings of awe, melancholy and a sweet quietness. Perhaps Oscar Wilde said it best: "Connemara is a savage beauty."
It's ready to be explored – and tour operator Wilderness Ireland, which launched last year, is enabling people to do just that. I'd flown into Knock's tiny airport and stayed for the first night at the Clew Bay Hotel, in Westport, a charming coastal town. The next day I'd met the rest of the group and we'd driven to the foot of Croagh Patrick, a 15-minute drive away. The walk up the wide "Pilgrim's Path", though hardly off-piste – there were so many hikers they practically formed a conga to the top – is iconic. Legend has it that St Patrick endured a 40-day ritual of fasting and penance here, and chose this spot from which to banish snakes from Ireland forever. Every year, on the last weekend in July, "Reek Sunday" sees hundreds of barefoot pilgrims walk up it to the tiny white church at the summit.
It takes around three hours from start to finish; it's rocky and tough on the knees. At the top, though, you have a wonderful view of the reputed 365 islands of Clew Bay. I fall into step with a barefoot pilgrim called Patrick Hogan, a journalism student from New York who is walking with his (boot-clad) younger brother and father. "I do it as a kind of cleansing, every year before college. My feet aren't faring too badly," he says, showing me soles gritty with dirt.
The following morning we fuel up on porridge, eggs and soda bread before driving west to the foot of Benbaun. I clock Kylemore Lough and the fairytale Kylemore Abbey, a Gothic castle built in 1860. Wildflowers line the winding road: orange montbretia and wild crocosmia, purple thistle, reddish fuschia, bright yellow bird's foot trefoil.
What a contrast to the wet, gloomy fug in which we hike: the going is steep, strenuous, boggy and off-trail. Early on our trail up Benbaun ("little" Benbaun that is, at 477m not to be confused with the 729m Benbaun, the highest of the Bens) we pass a lime kiln, and pause to peer into its depths. Henry points out a famine-era burial ground – unconsecrated graves close to a Neolithic tomb. It's a mournful sight.
We halt briefly at the summit to gnaw on sodden sandwiches, then follow up with another hour's hike to the 582m Benbrack, marked by a cairn. That night my spirits are buoyed by seafood chowder, pork belly and Guinness – at the convivial pub at Ballynahinch Castle, near the foot of the Bens.
The sun is shining the day we take the ferry over to Inishbofin Island (population, around 200). Popular with sailors, artists and daytrippers alike, the island has a cheery holiday vibe and boasts a smattering of pubs, hotels and guesthouses. Once we've docked, I leave the group, which heads off to the west quarter of the island for more hiking, and strike out eastward for a picnic on the deserted white sands of Dumhach Beach. So blue is the sea here, it's hard not to believe I'm in the Caribbean. Lol McClean, a local potter and B&B owner had recommended it. She invites me back later for a drop-in session on the wheel in her workshop, in her postcard-pretty cottage. (My attempts at pot-making are wobbly at best.)
Back on the mainland, on the last day, there's just time for another stomp up Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park in a fresh pair of boots. The park contains a vast expanse of mountainside including three of the Bens, grasslands and bog. But after a while, I stop dead in my tracks.
Poor Henry, he thinks I'm in a mood. But I'm not. All I want is to be still, where all is still around me. I let the group pass on and spend the next two hours contentedly perched on a rock mid-trail, gazing at the Atlantic from afar. The perfect ending to five days in wild, windswept Connemara.
Jini Reddy travelled with Wilderness Ireland (00 353 91 457 898; wildernessireland.com) which offers a guided "High Points of Connemara" wilderness walking break from £765pp, including four nights accommodation, most meals, transport, ferry to Inishbofin and guiding. This year's departures are 25 June and 27 August. Privately guided walking breaks are also available at other times.
Jini flew with Aer Lingus (0871 718 2020; aerlingus.com), which flies to Knock from Gatwick daily.
For details on Lol McClean's pottery workshops on Inishbofin see: artisaninishbofin.ie
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