How much farther?
Better not ask. Not when it’s a full day’s walk and we’ve barely started. Besides, I already know. I’d asked the question numerous times on our first serious “walking” holiday (in Nepal) and the guide always gave the same answer – “a little bit up, a little bit down and just around the corner.”
It’s Day 1 of the two walking tours we’re taking in Southwest Ireland. Both the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, the larger peninsula to the south, are popular loop drives for bus tours and rental cars, but we’re taking the “high road” (literally) and going by foot - eight days around the Dingle Peninsula (think *Ryan’s Daughter*), followed by five days of walking along the Kerry Way.
Walking? Hill-walking’s more like it - or climbing and clambering - for our walks ultimately take us along farmers’ tracks, sheep trails and old stage-coach routes, through peaty bogs and marshes of yellow flag iris, over boulders, along country roads bordered by wild fuchsia hedges, and even to the summit of Mt. Brandon (952 m), Ireland’s second highest mountain. And they’re not simply “walks.” Thanks to the knowledge, experience and enthusiasm of our native guides, the tours are mini-seminars on Irish history, folklore, customs and humour, geography and ecology, the Gaelic language, food, Guinness, whiskey, sports, music, the economy, and back to Guinness.
Our group is going up Slieve Mish (Slieve being Gaelic for mountain), following an old railway line. The views are spectacular, but the wind is ferocious. Keeping your balance while stone-stepping across a bog is tricky - especially when the stones are too far apart for short legs. Sure enough, in I plunge.
According to Kerryman John Ahern, the head of SouthWest Walks Ireland, a bog isn’t wet, it’s soft. A lovely Irish way to put it, but wet is still wet. Fortunately, the sun and wind dry my shorts and boots quickly.
We share a few good-natured grumbles on our first walk, notably as we’re nearing the end. “We have to walk through that?” we gasp. “That” being a very muddy cattle track, hemmed in by dense thickets and ripe with fresh manure. “No way!”
Our flexible guide, John McKiernan, agrees. On to Plan B! Over an electric fence (nervously), across a farmer’s field (guiltily), along a busy country road and at a brisk pace too, energized by the knowledge that the Railway Tavern in Camp is close at hand.
Ten years ago, my husband and I would never have taken a walking tour. Our reaction would have been a horrified, “Are you kidding?” Travelling in a group, being herded by a guide - shudder! But we gave it a try (never say never) and now we’re hooked. We still like to travel independently, but there are times (and places) where a walking tour is a perfect option. We’re able to explore remote areas without having to organize everything ourselves and, since we make our own flight arrangements in order to spend extra time abroad, a tour serves as a good introduction to a country. Another plus? Walking groups are small in number, so there is never the feeling of being “herded.” And since the tours are specifically geared to walking (or some variation thereof), they attract like-minded people who, in spite of differences in age, nationality and experience, already have something in common.
We’re a congenial group of 13 on the Dingle Walk, including our guide - four couples and four women (from Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany and the U.S.), ranging in age from the mid-20s to the mid-60s. Over pints of cold Guinness or Bulmers Apple Cider, we compare notes on the misadventures and highlights of the day. John let us walk at our own pace (until Plan B) so what some might have seen or heard, others might have missed. “Did you see the roan horse on the hillside? Nice change from sheep. Those tiny purple flowers that we thought were orchids? They’re Greater Butterworth, they eat insects. This pub’s like a railway museum. Blister alert, can anyone spare a moleskin? What time is dinner?”
The days are packed over the next two weeks and follow a pattern - a substantial breakfast, an invigorating walk of roughly six hours (14 to 20 km), and well-deserved refreshments at the end. Sometimes, the walk takes us to our next night’s accommodation, other times a bus meets us at the pub and transfers us there. A couple of hours to unwind, and we’re more than ready for dinner - and guilt-free indulgence.
Each day offers something different: a newborn lamb; a visit to Great Blasket Island, once inhabited, now home to sea lions, sheep and donkeys; the best-ever scones at Slea Head Café; Famine villages; a scramble around Staigue Fort, the largest and best-preserved prehistoric ring fort in Ireland; smoked salmon for breakfast.
We have our share of “soft” mornings (misty and drizzly), but the light rain never dampens spirits. Besides, a visit to Ireland wouldn’t be complete without a few days of mist, fog or some of the rain that makes it so impossibly green. “If the sky’s clear, it’s going to rain,” a bartender tells us. “If it isn’t, it’s already raining.”
On our last day’s walk on the Dingle, we set out in a state of shock. It’s sunny. The sky is blue and cloudless. Plus, a rare phenomenon, we can see our destination - the summit of Mt. Brandon. We get the usual high winds, but the sky remains clear. As we climb, we’re treated to the awe-inspiring view of the entire Dingle Peninsula and the Blasket Islands with the Macgillycuddy Reeks rising across the sea to the south.
The good weather continues during our Kerry Way walk, apart from a brief, but heavy downpour that forces us up a steep track in record time, and drives away the midges. There are only five of us this time and two guides - John Ahern and a new guide, Maeve, who’s learning the ropes from a master.
As well as accommodation - a variety of inns, family run guesthouses and the occasional hotel - all meals are included in the tour price. It’s well worth it, given the cost of eating out in Ireland, and we enjoy excellent three-course dinners (with up to five choices per course!), either at the inn where we’re staying or at a restaurant or pub in the nearest village. Dinners are mouthwatering: a round of Brie with salad greens to start, fresh Dingle Bay mussels, grilled salmon or traditional Irish stew, fresh vegetables served on the side and, yes, potatoes. Breakfasts are immense: full Irish (eggs, rashers, sausage, tomato and black pudding), Irish porridge or both. As for lunches, we make our own with the sandwich fixings, fruit and treats set out by our guide each morning.
Walks are graded according to the difficulty of the terrain, the length of the walk and the elevation. The five-day Kerry Walk, ideal for a moderately fit person, is graded “1 Boot,” whereas the eight-day walk around the Dingle Peninsula is “2 Boots.”
A little bit up, a little bit down? More than a little! But the company is so engaging, the landscape so Ireland, we scarcely notice. Besides, after all the exercise, we can treat ourselves to some Sticky Toffee Pudding (with ice cream) at our evening meal. But first, there’s a cold Guinness or a warm Irish Coffee waiting around the corner.
DECEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND
A few essentials for a walking trip:
Hiking boots - well broken-in, with good ankle support
Waterproof jacket and lightweight rain pants, for keeping out the wind as well as the rain
A warm hat and gloves for “soft” days, sunscreen and lighter hat for the sun
A re-usable water bottle
Layered clothing - zip-off pants, a T-shirt and fleece jacket
Moleskins, in case of blisters
A daypack, big enough to carry the essentials, but not so big that you’re tempted to fill it.
SouthWest Walks Ireland offers guided and self-guided walking holidays all-year-round in various regions of Ireland. A guided eight-day holiday in 2009 cost 868 Euros per person (roughly $1336 CAD). For more information: www.southwestwalksireland.com
Julie Lawson divides her time between travelling and writing books for young people. Her recent book Where the River Takes Me was recently nominated for the Bolen Books Children's Book Prize.
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