Mangerton SunsetSunset over Muckross Lake and Lough Leane from the slope of Stoompa
The smell of summer flowers, damp earth and wood smoke waft in through the open window of our B&B. It’s early morning and we’re preparing our kit for a two day traverse of the Mangerton Mountains. The day doesn’t appear to hold much promise; the tops of the nearby hills are shrouded in a line of thick mist, but this is typical of Ireland and we are hopeful that it will burn off by mid-morning.
After a hearty Irish breakfast, we drive to the end of a minor road off the Glenflesk to Lough Guitane road where we seek permission from the owner of a small farmhouse to leave our car overnight. Without hesitation he invites us to park our car in his yard, promising us he'd keep an eye on it. Irish hospitality is no myth and most of the farmers we encounter out on the hills go out of their way to be friendly and helpful.
We set off up the stony boreen behind the farmhouse which soon brings us onto the open mountainside. Our kit (sleeping bags, mats, pillows, bivvy sacks, stove, gas, pans, food for 2 days, sundries and water) packed into Osprey Alpine packs feels heavy, but the temperature is being kind to us even if the mist is obscuring Cruachán, our first summit. There’s something incredibly soulful about a damp and misty Irish morn. The landscape is somewhere around 100 shades of emerald green. The nearby furze bushes are silvered with the delicate webs of myriad spiders and little drops of water hang like diamonds from the wire fence alongside the boreen and gleam on the prickly leaves and electric mauve heads of thistles, harbingers of high summer. The air is almost still, the silence broken only by the occasional lowing of cattle.
Misty mornView from boreen leading to Cruachán
As we gain height, the mirror-still tear drop-shaped Lough Guitane drifts into view below a jumble of old stone-walled potato plots now choked with bracken. Beyond its southern shoreline the ground climbs steeply and is incised by a pair of long narrow valleys obscured by churning mist. Periodically, the mist shifts enough to afford a glimpse of Bennaunmore, a sharp fin of rock rising steeply between the two valleys. It is one of the summits we will assail. We climb steadily for about two and a half kilometres along the stony boreen which zig-zags up the side of the mountain before suddenly petering out. The ground underfoot becomes boggy, with standing pools of brackish water, and the climb to the summit over tussocky grass and boulders is steep. We have no view for our efforts as we arrive at Cruachán’s rocky summit (650 metres) with its scattered batteries from a long defunct TV deflector.
The wind has picked up significantly and we decide not to tarry for too long. Taking a quick compass bearing, we begin a steep descent towards Cruachán SW top. The mist miraculously begins to lift revealing a patchwork quilt of field systems in the valleys below. These are connected to white and ochre-coloured dots of farmhouses. On the horizon are the inky-blue crests of dozens of mountains and far below is Lake Crohane, a thin ribbon of grey-blue water. Up valley from this lake lies the diminutive Lough Nabrean, then the much larger Lough Guitane. Beyond are Lough Leane and Muckross Lake dotted with islands and gleaming pale blue under the leaden sky. The town of Killarney lies sprawled on the flat farmland to the east of the lakes, one of its church steeples towering above the huddle of grey buildings.
After attaining the pretty nondescript summit of Cruachán SW top, we begin a steep descent westwards hand-railing a fence for part of the way, before dropping down into a gully to the classic V-shaped Nabroda Valley just north of the lough of the same name. The landscape here is different, the lower slopes of Bennaunmore are characterised by long scree slopes of tumbled down hexagonal-shaped boulders of rhyolite, an igneous rock of volcanic derivation. The upper reaches of the mountain are comprised of vertical cliffs of this rock which resemble a collection of enormous organ pipes. This is Kerry’s version of the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim; the mountain is a volcanic plug sat amid the remnants of a crater formed during a phase of volcanic activity in the Devonian period.
BennaunmoreRhyolite strewn slopes
Here seems an ideal place to stop for lunch and taking water from Lough Nabroda, we fire up our stove. The sun is hot on my shoulders as I take in the surroundings. There seems to be a faint pathway running through the bottom of this now desolate valley which I later learn was used in former times as a short cut from the Glenflesk and Sliabh Luachra area to Kilgarvan and Kenmare to the south. This valley lay in the territory of the O’Donoghue clan who held sway here despite the dispossessions following the Battle of the Boyne. The English were too afraid to take them on after they had meted out their brand of justice to unwelcome settlers in the area.
After lunch we commence the incredibly steep 175 metre climb up a narrow gully that leads almost to the summit of Bennaunmore (454 metres). It's just over half the height of the highest mountain in this range, but its ascent averages about 59 percent, with the steepest parts more like 185 percent, or 60 degrees, making it a tough nut to crack. Great care is needed to keep our footing especially as we are carrying heavy backpacks making it hard to maintain our balance. One slip here would be serious, and we pick our way slowly upwards stopping occasionally to enjoy views of deep blue Lough Nabroda nestled in the bottom of the valley, and Crohane Lake which makes an appearance as we gain height. I enjoy the challenge of the climb but am somewhat relieved when the gradient levels and we reach a saddle below the rocky crown that is the summit. We dump our packs and make the short steep climb up to it.
Ascending BennaunmoreGetting to the summit involves an incredibly steep 175 metre climb up a gully
We are rewarded with magnificent scenery to the north west over the brilliantly blue Lough Guitane, Muckross Lake and Lough Leane, with the smoky-grey summits of the Slieve Mish Mountains piercing a white, even bank of thick cloud in the far distance. Below, the serpentine coils of the Cappagh River wriggle through sandy spits past the intense blue ribbon of Lough Nabrean towards Lough Guitane; ahead lie the two summits of Stoompa and beyond them looms the massive brown plateau of Mangerton.
View from BennaunmoreLough Guitane and the Cappagh River
It is with some reluctance that we finally tear ourselves away from the exceptionally fine scenery to begin the steep descent from Bennaunmore to the Cappagh River. The terrain once more changes dramatically, as grassy slopes give way to a chaotic jumble of boulders and vertical cliffs. This is ankle breaking territory and using our walking poles to probe the ground, we carefully pick our way down a steep gully taking care not to fall into one of the numerous deep holes obscured by thick carpets of moss and heather that lie between the boulders. The valley bottom does not appear to be getting any closer, and it is impossible to make much speed. But why would you want to, when there is so much to see and savour?
A tributary of the Cappagh River, fed by Lough Fineen which is too high to be visible, has carved a small valley that joins the Cappagh River at right angles. This chocolate box-pretty valley is filled with a strange splendour. Lush, verdant and densely wooded in places, its broad bottom is carpeted with reeds and bracken which is criss-crossed by the tracks of deer who graze here. We finally pass out of the interminable boulder field and emerge into thigh-high whispering rushes. Across the valley a lone deer lifts its head to eye us suspiciously before taking fright and vanishing into the shimmering reeds. We are drawn towards the slow gurgle of the river we must cross. We seem to have entered another world, one where time could easily stand still. The solitude is intense. Picking our way across the tops of exposed boulders, we safely traverse the brown waters of the Cappagh and enter a grove of ancient oak trees with gnarled boughs bedecked in thick emerald moss. There is something of a Lord of the Rings aura about the place, but the spell is soon broken! Under the tree canopy it's airless and stuffy and the humidity draws clouds of midges from the boggy ground which proceed to torment us with their incessant bites.
Cappagh ValleyCrossing the Cappagh River
There follows a long climb out of the Cappagh Valley following the densely wooded north bank of the small tributary which tumbles down over a series of boulders. We eventually pass out of the oak grove to be greeted by the sight of a number of waterfalls throwing up columns of fine spray as they cascade over the jagged cliffs from Lough Fineen high on the plateau above. Their strident hiss seems to fill this little valley with sound. Near the top we stop close to a pool of cellophane-clear water fed by a small stream. The smooth grey boulders on its bank are sun-warmed and make perfect seats. The sight of the water cascading down over the rocks in a shower of crystal droplets is relaxing, and the proximity to the rushing water is very refreshing after the humidity of the woods. We decide to replenish our water supply here in case we encounter no water higher up where we intend to bivvy for the night.
Ascent out of the Cappagh ValleyLeaving the oak grove
Leaving this delightful little stream, we now turn NW across steadily rising boggy and tussocky ground which begins to sap our energy. But our spirits are lifted by the views back over the way we have come, of the summits we have surmounted glowing in the warm, rich tones of early evening. A short, steep pull brings us to the flat and featureless boggy summit of Stoompa East Top, marked by a small pile of rocks. We quickly press on towards Stoompa, where we select a bivvy spot for the night just below and to the east of the summit, where the ground is fairly dry and level and offers some shelter from the wind.
The wind begins to drop as the sun, now low in the western sky, casts huge shafts of golden light onto Lough Leane from a brilliant orange gap amid a churning mass of grey and white cloud. Silhouetted against this burnished sky, Shehy and Tomies Mountains look enormous and unnaturally close. To the east, the summit of Cruachán blushes rose-pink in the last rays of sunlight. Beyond, the grey-green twin peaks of the Paps crown the distant horizon, their tops almost touching a pillow of pale apricot cloud. Even further away to the SE, the TV mast atop Mullaghanish pierces a thin strip of blue sky.
Sunset over the MangertonsCruachán catching the dying rays of the sun
Then the view is abruptly snatched from us as a stealthy mist creeps in from the sea, enveloping the landscape in a white, silent shroud. As dusk begins to fall we gather the stems of dead heather to light a small fire. The fragrant smoke instantly banishes the midges and in silence we crouch next to it, eyes fixed on the flickering flames, each lost in our own thoughts. Knowing we have this mountain to ourselves for the night fills me with unbridled feelings of freedom and elation. Belly full after a hearty dinner, fatigue washes over me in waves and I am grateful to climb into my sleeping bag. I fall asleep inside my bivvy bag to the gentle sound of the wind playing across the open heath.
I am awakened by the soft and intermittent patter of light rain on my bivvy bag. By the time I poke my head out, the rain has stopped and the sun has risen behind a bank of grey cloud, casting a glassy glare across the landscape. The peat-covered summit of Stoompa East Top is clear, but masses of luminescent white cloud is boiling up through the Cappagh Valley, obscuring Cruachán and the hills beyond. Martin brings me a welcome mug of coffee but we decide to forego breakfast until we source more water. Breaking camp, we head upslope to Stoompa. As if on cue, the cloud begins to lift, revealing Lough Fineen nestled in a boggy bowl. As we climb higher, the gaping chasm of the Horses Glen looms into view as well as a vast panorama of towering pink-grey sandstone walls below Glenacappul Top and Mangerton North Top, which are mottled with sunlight and lightly brushed by wisps of cloud. Opposite, Mangerton lies in wait, its broad brown expanse cracked like pie crust.
BivvyOur overnight bivvy spot on the slopes of Stoompa
Stoompa (705 metres) boasts magnificent scenery over Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. The castle at Ross Island, gleaming in the glassy glare of the morning sunshine, pokes out above the dense woodland surrounding it, and the pebbly limestone beach on the nearby shore of Lough Leane is a dazzling white line. Below us, the inky-blue glacial corrie of Lough Erhogh has revealed itself. As we descend Stoompa to begin a spectacular traverse around the eastern and southern rim of the Horses Glen, we see that it is in fact a hanging lake from which the Owengarriff River spills into Lough Managh sited below it. This in turn feeds the much larger Loch Garagarry. Care is needed as the informal pathway worn bare by the passage of previous walkers, is badly eroded in places and threads its way very close to precipitous drops into the gaping glen.
Lough ErhoghA hanging lake below Mangerton
Horse's GlenLough Managh and Loch Garagarry
The route then meanders away from the corrie rim for a short distance which takes us past a rushing mountain stream. It's the perfect place to boil water for breakfast and to top up our water bladders. After this we continue upwards across a boggy slope and arrive once more at the path along the rim of the Horses Glen. There are fine views back towards Stoompa and down into Lough Erhogh which now lies at right angles to Lough Managh. Before long, the stony path brings us onto a flatter area and the magnificent Devil’s Punch Bowl, shining like an enormous spoonful of liquid mercury, floats into view. Heaped on the horizon, and forming a dramatic backdrop, are the towering smoky-grey peaks of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks. Nearer still, Lough Leane is spread like a giant mirror.
Devil's PunchbowlA large glacial lake below Mangerton
We pass a small cairn of stones marking a descent towards the Punch Bowl as tiny drops of rain begin to fall from a leaden sky. A mass of mist begins churning, sending forth a series of writhing tendrils that appear to be trying to escape the Horses Glen, and in no time at all we are enveloped in a silent white fog. As we approach a larger stone cairn, figures loom out of the gloom ahead of us: two German women, panting and elated to have reached what they believe to be the summit of Mangerton. We leave the pathway and strike out across the eroded bog past peat hags that look like mini mountains in the billowing mist, heading towards the concrete trig point which marks the true and very nondescript summit of Mangerton (838 metres).
Summit of MangertonThe summit in the middle of a bleak boggy plateau is marked with a concrete trig point
The mist completely lifts as we pass by the summit and begin our descent down a long grassy slope. The going is now much easier. The views of the mountains we have already climbed have vanished, blocked from view by the enormous mass of Mangerton. But by way of compensation, the north western horizon is literally crammed with dozens of smoky-blue peaks including Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and the Dunkerrons. Closer still, Purple Mountain is separated from the Reeks by a deep gash which is the Gap of Dunloe, while Kenmare Bay appears as a sliver of silver to the south.
The benign terrain is short lived and we are soon passing across rocky, sodden ground as we head towards Dromeralough NE Top. From its summit we can see Dromeralough which is just over a kilometre away. But getting across a bleak expanse of olive green bog and rocky knolls is time consuming. The hollows between these two summits are home to a multitude of small lakes and pools with ragged shorelines that must be laboriously traversed. We pause for lunch by one of these lakes choked with bog bean, before making the ascent to Dromeralough (650 metres) which is marked by a small cairn of rocks.
Landscape near DromeraloughTraversing the bleak expanse of olive green bog and rocky knolls is tedious
Similar ground is encountered on the traverse to Knockbrack. En route we pass glacial erratics stranded high on huge shelves of rock like marbles abandoned by giants, and pretty lakes choked with weed and fringed with brilliant white heads of bog cotton which gleam with a candle-like incandescence. The summit of Knockbrack (610 metres) provides stunning views to the southwest over the Shehy and Caha Mountains and down towards the Beara Peninsula in neighbouring County Cork. The blade-shaped Kenmare Bay appears to slice right through the landscape almost to the very feet of the mountains.
From here we can see Knockrower (554 metres), the final summit, but decide not to take the direct route past Lough Nambrackdarrig in order to avoid what looks like tussocky grass and boot sucking bog. Keeping to the high ground instead, we almost double back the way we had come. The summit is marked by a large boulder, another erratic, which makes a perfect seat to view the magnificent landscape and to contemplate the traverse we had now almost completed. Muckross Lake appears as a triangle of blue between Torc and Purple Mountains with the island-dappled Upper Lake below them. Beyond are the incredible peaks of the Reeks and Dunkerrons, stretching away almost for as far as the eye can see. Particularly prevalent is the pyramid-shaped Mullaghanattin, which Richard Mersey in his Hills of Cork and Kerry, refers to as ‘the Matterhorn of Kerry’. To the southwest, I spot the characteristic top of Cnoc Bólais on Dursey Island and farther out to sea, the jagged canine-shaped Bull Rock.
View down the Kerry and Cork coastlineCnoc Bólais on Dursey Island Bull Rock are visible from Knockrower
Thoughts inevitably shift to the descent from the summit and we are hopeful that we will not experience the same terrain as yesterday's descent from Bennaunmore. As it happens, the route turns out to be quite easy. The higher slopes are a mixture of very low heather and bilberry interspersed with boulders that are easily navigated, and this gives way to lush long grass and patches of bracken as we approach an old boreen which runs through the Cummeenboy Valley. We follow this southward for about two kilometres, losing it occasionally in places where it has been swallowed by the bog. The route is delightful, passing close to Cummmeenslaun Lake, and grand views of the rocky slopes of Knockanaguish and Peakeen Mountain fill our line of vision. A number of crumbling stone cottages built into the bank of the boreen and abandoned in the famine, are a reminder of how much more populated this corner of the island once was.
Eventually the boreen joins an unsealed track lined with deep purple thistles and ragged reeds which passes through the lower half of the Cummeenboy Valley. Startled sheep flee in all directions. After passing through a farm yard we join a narrow sealed road with high hedgerows literally bursting with fragrant smelling blooms of meadow sweet, dog rose and honeysuckle. Passing fields where handsome brown and white cows are grazing, we eventually arrive at a quiet cross roads where this road meets the old Kenmare road and the Kerry Way. Here we call for a taxi from Kenmare to take us back to Glenflesk to collect our car.
Journey's end!The road meets the Kerry Way, a long distance hiking route
I sink into the comfortable back seat of the taxi with a mixture of relief and regret. This has been one of the most challenging, but also most enjoyable, multi-day treks we have undertaken across one of Ireland’s most impressive and scenic mountain ranges. Apart from the pathway above the Devil’s Punch Bowl, we didn’t see a soul for two days and the 30 km route with 1,680 metres of ascent is wild, largely unspoiled, and offers a real test of endurance over very varied and at times tricky terrain.
Everyone has heard of County Kerry. Its lakes, towns and villages, mountains, beaches and coastline are chocolate box-pretty. But while people may argue over their favourite part of the island of Ireland, everyone genuflects to the picture-perfect landscape that is the Kingdom of Kerry. If you don’t believe me, go and walk the Mangertons and witness the magic and the majesty for yourself.