Open hills and colorful sheep – Exploring Southwest Ireland on ancient trails

Maren and Sebastian spent two weeks hiking the Kerry Way in unpredictable May weather. In place of classic emerald green they discovered another side of Ireland: one of raw, empty beauty.

Ascending the pass in the Killarney National Park, we’ve already been accompanied by drizzle for two hours. The morning sun has given way to a grey, impenetrable cloud and the fine drops hang in the air, swallowing all the sound around us. We began our two week hike at the bus stop for the Torc Waterfall, and now we have the whole Kerry Way ahead of us – 220 kilometers (137 miles) of old trade routes, lonely roads and muddy hiking trails crossing the highest hills and mountains in Ireland.

We walk for some time along old slippery wooden planks, seemingly thrown carelessly onto the boggy meadow. We soon realize that they’re very useful for crossing the bog.

Shortly before we reach the highest point of the day at 280 metres (918 feet), we see a group of people coming towards us – the only other hikers out today. As they approach, we notice they’re teenagers, probably students. Dressed in shorts, soaked sweatshirts and mud-covered running shoes they slowly slide down the wooden planks – only the two teachers wear rain jackets. When they reach us, we step aside and let the caravan of children pass. The bad weather clearly hasn’t affected their moods as they greet us cheerfully as they pass. Snug in our rain gear we watch after the boys and girls – a good three-hour walk separates them from the bus stop in the next village, and in between there is nothing except the lonely, hill-strewn Irish landscape.

We continue our hike into the Black Valley to our hostel, today’s destination. As we head into the valley, so does the rain.

Dripping, we arrive at our accommodation three hours later. The anticipation of a large plate of pasta and a steaming pot of tea has kept us in a good mood. We quickly hang up our rain gear and take a hot shower. Then we sit in the small kitchen watching the pasta water bubble away. After the long, wet day, the pasta – simple noodles with tomato sauce straight from the jar – seems like a real feast, and we are happy. With full stomachs we look over the next stages of our route: Only one day’s walk separates us from Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain. The ascent of the summit should be the highlight of our Kerry Way Tour. We glance at the map one more time then go straight to bed.

The next morning there is no hint of the previous day’s rain. A bright blue sky, not a cloud in the sky, and warm sunshine bathe the Black Valley in a wonderful spring light.

Back on the trail, an old, partly overgrown road leads us further into the valley. We are now heading in the direction of the Reeks District. The trail soon gives way to an old shepherd’s path which is completely soaked from yesterday’s rain. We are very grateful for our waterproof hiking boots which have dried overnight.

We meet no shepherds on the way today, but there are innumerable sheep carrying colorful markings on their white wool. A few days later our B&B host explains the phenomenon to us, “Since the sheep can’t be confined by the erected fences and walls, the woolly animals hike over the wide hills. The farmers mark them with brightly coloured spray paint so they can keep track of their stock.”

“Since the sheep can’t be confined by the erected fences and walls, […] the farmers mark them with brightly coloured spray paint so they can keep track of their stock.”

The Black Valley is one of the loneliest places in Ireland. There are only a few abandoned farms in the rugged, barren high valley and there are fewer people living here than in any other place in Ireland.

From the end of the valley we climb through mud puddles and over slippery boulders up to the Bridia Pass. To the one side the Caher, the third highest mountain in Ireland, rises into the sky, on the other side, the summit of Broaghnabinnia. From here we have a unique view – in the east the rough and rocky Black Valley, in the west the lovely Bridia Valley with its farms, lush pastures and small woods.

When we reach the bottom of the Bridia Valley, we discover a hand-painted sign at a farm entrance: “Café”. We stroll around the farm and find a small glass-encased winter garden room, but everything is closed, not a soul to be seen. We’re ready to turn around when suddenly the door sweeps open and a gray-haired hippie steps out. “Hi guys, what can I do for you?” We are happy to order a cup of coffee and a large portion of homemade ice cream. The café owner approaches the table with the orders. “Where are you from?” “Germany,”  I answer. 
He grins “Yes, I heard that. So you are going to Lough Acoose today? Enjoy your rest, the next ascent is quite steep.” We take his advice and enjoy the view over his garden for a while before setting off again.

“Looking down from a lofty height into the picturesque Bridia Valley, the view is simply fantastic.”

And indeed, the way over the sheep meadows is steep – on a narrow path we meander amongst curious sheep, gaining over 300 meters (985 feet) in altitude. Looking down from a lofty height into the picturesque Bridia Valley, the view is simply fantastic. From up here we look out onto Caher and Carrauntoohil, the highest mountains in Ireland, and at their feet Lough Acoose spreads out, on the horizon the Atlantic Ocean glistens in Dingle Bay. 

After two passes we can already feel our shaky knees, but from up here we can see today’s destination on the lakeshore, and it looks quite far away. We take a rest, eat a packet of nuts together and then begin the descent.

It’s still a long road to reach our accommodation. When we eventually arrive, Mary, our hostess, welcomes us at the door. We take off our shoes and sit in our socks in the sun room, which she has converted into a small dining room for the Bed & Breakfast. After serving up black tea and homemade shortbread, she wants to know everything about our upcoming plans. While Maren explains to her that we want to climb up Carrauntoohil the next day, I look at the family photos and postcards of former guests hanging on the walls. The photos, especially of Mary and her son, give me a feeling of homeliness. She is impressed by our plans and makes an exception for us: breakfast at six instead of eight so we can complete the Tour. Later we have a delicious vegetarian dinner, then we go straight to bed.

“We sweat and pant towards the summit under the gaze of a few lackadaisical sheep, who chew the grass on the roadside, unperturbed by our presence.”

The next morning we’re up at dusk. A look at the weather forecast promises good things, even though it’s still grey and the mountains above the Bed & Breakfast are covered in thick clouds. We follow the empty country road (nobody is out this early) and soon come to a small parking lot. A wide concrete path branches off from here and leads up to the mountains at an eye-watering gradient. We sweat and pant towards the summit under the gaze of a few lackadaisical sheep, who chew the grass on the roadside, unperturbed by our presence.

We trudge on, soon reaching the foot of MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, a horseshoe-shaped mountain range formed of the highest mountains in Ireland. With the help of our Garmin GPS, we wind our way through deep, muddy ground to the ascent route. Without a path, we climb steeply over muddy meadows and then coarse gravel. The Carrauntoohil is only 1038 meters (3405-feet) high, but due to the flat surroundings and its secondary peaks, over 1000 meters (3281-feet) of climbing await us on the summit tour. A barely identifiable trail leads uphill, to the right of us wide meadows, to the left a steep rock face drops away from the path. When we arrive at the summit of Caher, a secondary summit, the weather has worsened and we find ourselves inside a dense cloud.

There’s no question of going any further. We can’t see the way ahead and the danger of going in the wrong direction and crashing off a cliff edge is too great. We decide to take a break. While we sit on big stones with yet another packet of nuts, a flash of colour emerges from the fog: a ewe with its lamb has chosen the highest mountains of Ireland for its pasture today. When she notices us she stops, astonished, before disappearing into the cloud as silently as she emerged. After half an hour the fog is still clinging firmly to the summits and slowly the cold penetrates through all our layers of clothing.

With heavy hearts we decide to turn back. The summit should be the highlight of our tour on the Kerry Way and now we’re forced to give up so close to our goal. It’s a big disappointment but we don’t want to take any risks. After a few minutes and a short descent, we actually step out of the cloud to enjoy a breathtaking view. The cloud is clinging stubbornly only to the summit of MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.

Back at our Bed & Breakfast, Mary is glad to see us. She tells us that many tourists underestimate the mountain because of its low height. Its proximity to the sea makes for extremely changeable weather and the barely existent paths lead to several spectacular mountain rescue missions a year – no other 1000-meter high mountain in Europe leads to as many accidents as the Carrauntoohil. With this new information we are happier with our decision to abort our summit attempt, but the thought of the accident victims leaves us with a queasy feeling. In retrospect, we realize that even without the summit ascent, the Kerry Way is an incredible experience, and in fact this aborted attempt is an integral part of our adventure.

The next six days of our hike on the Kerry Way are less dramatic, but just as beautiful. In May there aren’t that many tourists yet in the Reeks District and even the picturesque coastal towns of the Iveragh Peninsula are still quiet and sleepy.

The sections between villages lead away from civilization over wide hills and through numerous wind gaps – narrow passes which form a funnel for the wind that blows off the Atlantic.

Apart from us, it’s only the colorfully marked sheep and satisfied cows up here. While our woolly companions are ripping up grass around us, their large, horned friends have a preference for the middle of the path. We sneak around them with due respect.

The only other people we encounter on the path are Irish, and each welcomes us warmly to their green island. One rainy day a man driving past asks us if we want a lift to the next village. On another occasion we meet the same farmer twice – once at his sheep pasture and the next day in the supermarket, where he greets us exuberantly like we’re old friends. One day we spot an opportunity to return the favor by offering to help a farmer herd an escapee and her lamb back into the field.

After eleven days, when we finally arrive back in Killarney, the starting point of our round trip, it feels like coming home. We take the same room in the same Bed & Breakfast as on the first day, but this time we treat ourselves to a generous dinner at the local Fish & Chip shop just around the corner. Without question, on foot is the only way we were able to get to know the Kerry Peninsula and its inhabitants so closely. Back home in Berlin, we’re completely overwhelmed by the number of people and the enclosed nature of the city. After our time in Ireland’s wild open spaces, we long for the quiet harbor towns, the relaxed people and the open landscape of Kerry.

Words: Sebastian Kowalke
Photos: Sebastian & Maren Kowalke

Sebastian and Maren used the Multiday-Planner to plan their trip. Back home, they summarized their adventure in a Personal Collection and shared it with friends.

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