Country Matters: Desperately seeking Sally in the dark

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TO NAVIGATE 25 miles across country may not sound any great problem - but wait: we are speaking of travel not on English byroads but on Irish, which meander through the landscape with bewildering changes of direction, frequently turning at right angles as they skirt the corners of fields, and coming back on themselves in gloriously mad loops, so that a driver can easily become disoriented.

Fearing this fate, I made elaborate plans for an early morning passage to Luggala, an estate in the Wicklow Mountains, where I had a date to stalk sika deer. My rendezvous was set for 7am, which meant that my whole journey would take place in the dark.

I was not reassured by my experience the day before, when my wife and I, trying to find our way out to the main road from our temporary base in Kildare, had become comprehensively lost in broad daylight. All we had to do to gain the highway was to drive five miles to the town of Kill - but could we manage it?

Our difficulties stemmed mainly from the habit, prevalent among Irish rustics, of tearing the arms off signposts or at least swivelling the posts round so that the arms point the wrong way. The trick for dealing with anonymous intersections, we had been told, was to follow the mainest-looking road, usually indicated by a black-on-yellow sign showing one line thicker than the others. This policy led slowly to disaster: after three- quarters of an hour, we realised we were travelling north-east, in a general direction opposite the one we wanted.

So it was that I took copious advice about my route for the morning. I had been once before to Luggala, but that was 14 years ago, and all I remembered for sure was that I first had to reach a crossroads high in the mountains known as the Sally Gap.

When I told some farmers my destination, they exclaimed to a man, 'Fierce wild country, that]' But this was the end of their unanimity. 'Tis Blessington you're wanting,' said one. 'When you hit the main road at Kill, go straight over, and you'll be at Blessington, the finest.'

Another vetoed this idea absolutely. In the dark, he said, I would never find my way along the lanes. Better head north, for Dublin, to Rathcoole, and there turn right. Rubbish, said a third. Head south, for Naas, and go thence on a good road to Blessington, where I would find the Sally Gap signposted.

Having failed to procure a good map, I set off at 5.50am, leaving myself 70 minutes to cover the 25 miles - oceans of time, I thought. At first, all went well. The morning was damp, but no rain was falling. I recognised the fork that had done for us the day before, with its twisted arms, and took the correct road for Kill.

Purring along, I felt relaxed enough to enjoy the signs that alert one to hazards ahead. One, like a cross-section of the Alps, gives (entirely superfluous) warning of bumps in the surface. My favourite, indicating a succession of bends, is like a representation of the Devil's tail, writhing in coils of fury, with a sharp, triangular point at the end. Several of these had been peppered with buckshot.

In 10 minutes I reached the main road at Kill and turned south for Naas. There I took the prescribed left, found the sign for Blessington and fancied myself in good shape.

Yet now the road grew narrower and rougher, and began to climb. I hit a patch of mist. Somewhere, I knew, I must go hard right beside a church, but the night was still pitch-dark, and soon I suspected that I had overshot the turn. I went on for a mile before the sixth sense forced me round. Creeping back, I found the church and the road I had missed. So, at about 6.30, I sighted the lights of Blessington, strung out along the side of the hill.

'Go up into the village,' Sean, my last adviser, had said, 'and you'll see the Sally Gap signposted.'

I saw no such thing. Turning left, I cruised along looking in vain for the magic words. Soon I was clear of the town. Back, then, for another look.

With the window open, I picked up the wonderfully evocative scent of peat smoke. Spotting two men beside a car with its lights on, I supposed they were on their way to work, but my question - 'Can you put me right for the Sally Gap, please?' - produced no immediate answer. Too late, I realised that the youths had just reeled out of some bar, and were as nearly speechless as men standing upright can be.

One of them, large and red- headed, appeared not to be functioning at all. His companion, thin and dark, cried: 'Sally Gap - what the fook's that?'

I was just about to drive off, when he clutched at the wing mirror for support and said, with great emphasis, 'Begod] It's up there you're wanting.'

He pointed to a side road opposite. 'Go . . . up . . . there,' he enunciated with difficulty, tackling each syllable as he came to it. 'Cross the lake. Bridge. Left. See the sign.'

I repeated every word, thanked him and prepared to drive off.

'Now]' he said sharply. 'Will I come witcha? Show you the way.' God forbid] 'It's all right,' I said hastily. 'I can make it. Over the bridge. Left.'

'No, no]' he cried loudly. 'Left, man, left.'

Time was passing. I could not see how to disengage his grip of the mirror. But fate came to my rescue. Losing his balance, he fell against his companion, who went down like a ninepin, and I pulled away leaving them both horizontal.

The dashboard clock had leapt to 6.40. I found the bridge and crossed it. On the far shore a barrage of signs loomed up: none of them said what I wanted. Left or right? Instinct told me to trust the drunk.

Two miles on the level, and my sixth sense again began to agitate. This could not be right . . . then a miracle: a sign with the magic name upon it.

Hairpin bends, uphill. Slap into fog, low cloud. The higher, the worse. Slow to a crawl: 6.50, and several miles to go. One unsigned junction would do for me.

Here was that very thing: two equal roads, unmarked. Must be uphill. Up, then down. Hairpin bends with narrow stone bridges on them. An apparition loomed out of the fog, huge, white and coming at me: a sheep, roused from slumber on the road. Eyes glowed green in the lights: one pair, two, three. Brake, accelerate, brake. Five to seven, and still climbing.

Like Yeats, 'haunted by numberless islands', I became haunted by numberless corners, and the constant possibility of error. Then suddenly the road surface was covered with white hieroglyphics - the legacy of bicycle races - which Sean had told me began a few hundred yards from the Sally Gap.

In a moment I was there, over the main road on the ridge, and descending, on the alert for landmarks - spruce plantations on both sides of the road, a wall on my right. More eyes - this time of a sika hind.

So at last I came to the gateway in the wall, and went curving into a stupendous valley. Halfway down, I came out of the fog, and there below me twinkled the lights of my destination. With the nightmare over and eyeballs on stalks, I stumbled into a warm kitchen, 10 seconds to spare, and gratefully clutched the mug of tea that my host shoved across to me.

'Further Country Matters', by Duff Hart-Davis, is published by Swan Hill Press, pounds 16.95.