We haven't long left our car by the bridge over the Owenroe River to tackle the Cloon Horseshoe, a tough circuit in the Dunkerron Mountains of County Kerry, when a Land Rover pulls up alongside us, window wound down. ‘You’ll be well advised to avoid that field up there’, says the farmer in a thick Kerry accent as he touches the brim of his check cloth cap by way of a greeting. ‘It has a bull in it you see.’ We glance uphill in the direction he is pointing and sure enough, the buff coloured beast in question makes an appearance as if on cue. ‘Bulls are stupid animals and can be very dangerous,’ the farmer continues shaking his head, his swarthy face creasing into a thousand laughter lines. ‘Better continue along this road by the lake, cross a small stream beyond the farmhouse and then strike upwards towards the ridge.’
Keen to avoid an encounter with a bull ‘with attitude’, we thank him for his kind advice as he roars off in his Land Rover with a cheery wave, leaving us on the dirt track alongside the reed fringed shore of Cloon Lough, tiny waves glinting in the late-morning sunshine as they lap ashore with a gentle sigh.
Soft white thistle down drifts by on the languid breeze and becomes stuck in the nearby reeds. These are emanating from numerous clumps of the prickly plants sporting electric mauve heads, a splash of colour enlivening what has turned out to be a bit of a gloomy morning. But there are signs on the western horizon that the cloud is beginning to dissipate as we make our way through dense mats of reeds and across small streams, gaining ground towards the Beann ridge. Concealed in the boggy grass there lurks a killer, a sundew with its sticky secretions glistening in the feeble morning sunlight. The grisly remains of its hapless victims are clearly visible. There is a strange beauty in death, for this carnivorous plant with its salmon pink tentacles is highly attractive!
After just 100 metres or so of height gain, the view over Cloon Lough with a small island at its far end which might be a crannóg, is spread below us like an artist’s painting. Mottled sunlight dots the emerald green slopes of Knocknacusha that rises behind it, and the faint lines of an old boreen that disappears onto the hillside and a dirt track leading to a remote farm house, are picked out in the glassy sunlight.
The pull up from Cloon Lough to the Beann ridge is long and unrelenting over some steep sections reminiscent of the infamous ascent of Maamturkmore from the ‘Col of Despondency’ in the Maamturk Mountains in Galway. It takes far longer than we had anticipated. Lough Eskabehy, a deep blue spoonful of water, eventually drifts into view and on our left, the distinctive 3D pyramid-shaped Mullaghanattin, with its compressed and contorted layers of rock bursting through its emerald coat, is a constant companion. Beyond this mountain, dubbed ‘the Matterhorn of Kerry’, the smoky blue peaks of the Reeks crown the horizon. We eventually gain the summit of Beann NE Top, feasting our eyes on the patchwork quilt of field systems in myriad shades of green which give way to bog, sweeping up to the feet of the ridge on both sides. We debate whether to climb Mullaghanattin, the steep slope of which rises invitingly opposite Beann NE Top. This will add over an hour to the route we plan to take, but we decide that it would be foolish to miss the opportunity of bagging one of Ireland’s highest and most iconic mountains while this close.
The descent to the col between the two mountains is steep and I slip, landing heavily on my bottom, as I lose my footing on a patch of blackish vegetation which I discover is dead moss. Narrow sheep tracks thread their way among large shelves of rock and boulders, past little bog pools, and a fence at the top of a precipitous gully must be carefully negotiated before the ground begins to rise steeply. We decide to stop for lunch behind a couple of huge boulders which offer some shelter from the wind to fire up our stove. The view down to Lough Eskabehy is magnificent.
The day has now brightened up and hot sunshine is streaming down on us as we begin the lung bursting climb up the steep slope of Toblerone-shaped Mullaghanattin. The ground, although steep, is relatively benign comprised in the main of low wiry grass, although I take care not to step on the black patches of dead moss which I have already discovered are lethal if trodden on! As the summit trig point eventually looms into view, a stupendous panorama unfolds before our eyes. The Reeks, bathed in hues of pink and green, look simply mesmerising as white fluffy clouds gambolling across an iris-blue sky trace fantastical indigo shadows over their peaks and steep flanks. Lough Brin, an impossibly deep shade of cobalt-blue, lies nestled in a tiny valley hemmed in by mountains.
It’s hard to tear ourselves away from such incredible views, but we still have a long way to go. We rapidly descend Mullaghanattin helped by the use of walking poles which I am discovering prove indispensible in the more untrodden mountains of Kerry. Keeping close to a fence, we traverse round the slopes of Beann NE Top towards the summit of Beann which is not that much lower than Mullaghanattin. The unmarked summit point, close to the wire fence that runs the length of the grassy ridge, is distinctly underwhelming, but the 360 degree views more than compensate. Below is a deep valley known to locals as The Pocket, a lonely place untarnished by time and untouched by the outside world with only a handful of old shepherds' cottages to betray the presence of people.
Besides the views of the Reeks and the Slieve Mish mountains at our backs, the summits of the Dunkerrons towards Coomcallee above Waterville are gloriously spread out to the south west, and, perched high above Cloon Lough, we spy the diminutive reed ringed Coom Lough nestled below Beann’s sweeping green slopes. In the distance, Lough Reagh, gleaming mercury grey in the glassy sunlight, a small river spilling from it like a thin silver serpent, is nestled below the forbidding dark cliffs of Coolyvack. In the valley, an olive green bog spreads out like an immense blanket broken only by several vividly surreal green rectangles of enclosed fields close to the lough shore. Huge shafts of light stream down from amid breaks in the cloud to illuminate the rocky slopes leading towards Finnararagh.
Mindful of the time, we eschew the climb down to bag Beann South Top and instead continue along the ridge. This involves some steep descents alongside the wire fence to a couple of cols over stony, eroded ground where it is occasionally hard to keep your footing. Eventually, after passing across undulating grassy and peaty terrain over Beann SW Top and Beann Far SW Top, the ground rises steeply amid numerous rocky outcrops towards Sallagh. Kenmare Bay shimmers blue to my left, beyond which lie the hazy outlines of the Caha Mountains. Staring into the sun, I am almost blinded by the light reflecting off Lough Reagh and can just make out a sinuous ridge of bare rock stretching towards Finnararagh. Hogging the horizon are a veritable army of smoky blue peaks receding in tumultuous waves until the very Atlantic Ocean, where the spear shaped Skelligs rise.
From the nondescript grassy summit of Sallagh, the ground drops and rises steeply towards Finnararagh. In the glare of the sun, now low in the sky, I can just about discern the deep blue shapes of lakes barely visible amid contorted ledges of rock above the precipitous headwalls at Coolyvack. The landscape is rough, wild, almost elemental around here and we must pass through a veritable maze of huge boulders perched at seemingly impossible angles, left stranded by the retreat of glaciers eons ago. I am distracted by the mysterious Lough Coomeen lying in the rocky crook of Finnararagh’s eastern arm, the diminutive Lough Sallagh it’s baby brother just below, and my foot plunges down suddenly and dramatically through the wiry heather between two boulders. This is a timely reminder of the need to pay attention to avoid a sure lower leg injury as we weave our way towards the base of a huge shelf of bare rock. Martin’s figure seems diminutive as he begins his ascent over the grey rock tinged pink by the warm sunshine of early evening.
We then climb a smallish scree slope, the loose rock making strange percussive noises beneath our boots, before one last brief pull up to the summit of Finnararagh, where we are rewarded with views to die for. Spread below is a face slapping landscape of deep blue lakes, dusky valleys and olive green bogs, hemmed in by clusters of purple mountains all around. The sinuous ridge from Beann over Sallagh to the point where we are standing is picked out in the warm tones of the sinking sun, deep shadows running away down the ridge to the east. No wonder County Kerry is called The Kingdom, for it is truly majestic.
We descend Finnararagh to find the terrain easier going as we emerge onto a high plateau covered with large tracts of bog grass. There are some eroded hags and patches of bog to negotiate in the col before the ground starts to climb steadily towards the summit of Coomnacronia. Looking back, the rock comprising Finnararagh glows rosy pink in the setting sun and Kenmare Bay and the CahaMountains are bathed in soft violet light. The wind has dropped and the fading light has snatched away any views of Coomloughla Lough and surrounding lakes, while Loughs Coomnacronia and Eagles are tucked away out of view in their rocky cirques far below. Straight ahead we can see the sun, a saffron yellow sphere, beginning to sink just to the left of the steep line of Knockmoyle’s NE slope. Beyond, in various shades of sepia, are the tops of the Glenbeigh Mountains.
Clambering over a high wire fence, we arrive at the small summit cairn on Coomnacronia to witness the final rays of the sun fan out like the tail feathers of a giant bird over the top of Knockmoyle, turning the surrounding sky a deep apricot. The clouds above Kenmare Bay blush marshmallow pink fringed with smoky grey and the Caha Mountains and crooked finger of the Beara Peninsulafade to a deep purple. Above this scene of immense grandeur, a creamy coloured half moon hangs majestically.
We now set out briskly for our final summit, Coomura Mountain, with its distinctive ice scoured northern flank. The light is fading fast and the terrain is peppered with rocks and bog, making progress slower than we would have wished. I am now resigned to the fact that that the descent from Coomura will be in total darkness. After a long slog, we enter a boggy bowl enclosed by the desolate dark shapes of rocky ridges, to begin our ascent of the mountain. Dozens of small bog pools reflect the chilled mercury of moonlight which gives just enough light to see by. The bog soon eases, the ground is grassier and we now climb quite rapidly. The cold becomes intense and a chill wind wraps wrath-like fingers round my neck as we find our way to the summit on the domed top of Coomura. Far below we can see tiny pinpoints of light that mark solitary farmhouses.
The moon is low in the sky as we leave the summit donning our head torches. Knowing that Coomura is surrounded by dramatic cliffs and steep ground, Martin is careful to take an accurate compass bearing to pace out a safe route down a grassy north-eastern spur. Yet more peat hags are soon encountered, which cause us to weave our way round these obstacles making accurate pacing testing. His navigation is spot on and having safely avoided the cliffs, we begin climbing down to the col between Coomura and Knocknacusha. Anyone who thinks that a quick descent can be made to Cloon Lough from Coomura is seriously mistaken. You must traverse huge shelves of rocks with vertical drops; small streams clogged with boot-sucking bog lie between these and the flatter areas further down are dense with thigh high grass and rushes. It’s agonisingly slow even in daylight, and we are about to attempt this in the dark!
The crimson tinged moon is setting and the dew brings out the intense fragrance of the bog. Darkness is now complete and the magnificent Milky Way shimmering over our heads and occasional shooting star, part of the annual Perseid meteor shower, provide welcome distractions from the monotony of endless rocky shelves and umpteen obstacles, which cause us to repeatedly retrace our steps. We try and keep to the rocky ridges as much as possible to avoid becoming entrapped in shin deep patches of bog, thankful that the rock provides a good grip. The solitude is intense, the only sounds, my laboured breathing and the vegetation tearing under our boots. I can scarcely believe we are doing this, what a pair of ‘mad, swivel-eyed Cloons’!!!!
After what seems like an eternity, we meet the Glasheenoerreen Stream and follow this down to pick up the old boreen we had seen from the Beann ridge at the start of our walk. We trudge wearily across wretched areas of waterlogged ground with Okavango-like waist high wet grass, more than once tripping over alder saplings tangled amid it. To compound matters, deep drainage ditches partially concealed by this lush vegetation lie in wait to trap an unwary leg or ankle. This energy sapping terrain finally gives way to patches of chest high bracken and prickly gorse and we know we must be close to the boreen as we encounter old stone hedges that once enclosed fields.
I can’t begin to describe the relief as we eventually hit this old track, almost grown in with gorse and bracken and covered with patches of slimy bog. Energised, we instantly pick up speed, crossing an old bridge formed of huge stone slabs over a rushing river and through a ruined enclosure, where we suddenly run into an electric fence. I stop abruptly. Beneath my feet, the muddy ground bears all the hallmarks of having been recently churned up by a very large animal. I hope that we have not unwittingly stumbled upon the enclosure of a ‘stupid and dangerous’ bull! One quick sweep of my head torch reveals no sign of such a beast but nonetheless, I move with lightning speed across the field to scramble under the electric fence the other side.
Thankfully, the track improves after we pass through a metal gate leading to a sheep enclosure and an old farm yard. Very soon we are moving quickly along an undulating gravel track above the dark waters of Cloon Lough. Every so often, the beam from my head torch picks out the florescent-green eyes of sheep lying amid the rushes, who run off in panic. To say that I am relieved to see the number plate of our car gleaming in the darkness ahead of me is an understatement. It is around 2.00 am when I finally remove my boots to free my weary feet steaming with perspiration, after around 15 hours on the hills. Famished, we fire up the stove for a hot meal. Never before has a packet of beef stew and dumplings, washed down with an Irish red ale fortuitously found tucked away in the boot of the car, tasted so good!
Anyone contemplating this route is well advised to allow plenty of time (even though the hours we took is reflected in the fact that we spent ages shooting film which considerably lengthened the time it took). The nature of the terrain - trackless, rough, wild and very varied – can quickly sap your energy and distances that on a map seem quite manageable are much further than they appear out on these hills, due to the unrelentingly tough ground. This is probably as near to wilderness as you will encounter in Ireland and unsurprisingly, apart from the friendly farmer at the start of our walk, we did not meet or see a soul the entire day. Nonetheless, do not let that put you off what is quite possibly one of the finest horseshoe walks in Ireland with scenery that you will surely take to the Ghats. It is a superb challenge that you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.