Tuesday 22 October 2019

Connemara: Hiking in a landscape with views to drop the jaw

Hilary A White joins the Connemara Mountain Walking Festival for some breathtaking early summer hiking

Walking in Connemara. Failte Ireland
Walking in Connemara. Failte Ireland
Hilary on the summit of Ben Gorm
Connemara, Wild Atlantic Way. Photo: Big Smoke/Fáilte Ireland
Delphi Resort
Delphi resort
Pine Island, Connemara National Park
Dog's Bay, Connemara: Just a couple of kilometres from the village of Roundstone on the Ballyconneely Peninsula you'll find two of the sweetest beaches on the Wild Atlantic way lying back to back. Both Dog's Bay and Gurteen Bay are good for walking and swimming, but it's the snow-white sands of the former that do it for us.

Hilary A White

Can’t be right. Can it?

Carrauntoohil, sticking up through the haze like a gunmetal shark’s tooth, right off in the distance in what could be another nation for all you know.

“That’s it,” Clem confirms, frowning down at some gadget or other.

The problem is that we’re on another mountain top and this one is 185km away. As problems go, it’s not the worst to have, to be hiking in conditions so gin-clear that we can see two thirds of the way down the Atlantic seaboard.

But enough about Kerry.

From here on the proud summit of Ben Gorm, above the shores of Killary Harbour on the Galway-Mayo border, Ireland’s highest peak is an inconsequential nipple. Look down and around and it is Connemara that is dropping the jaw.

Hilary on the summit of Ben Gorm
Hilary on the summit of Ben Gorm

Mighty Mweelrea, the province’s attic, hunched to our immediate west. The Twelve Bens, a crystalline rockery to the South, creating a protective wall for Ballyconneely’s lake-littered blanket bogs. That turquoise horseshoe beach glistening down there near the mouth of the fjord?

I'm not telling.

Such things didn’t really seem possible yesterday evening amid the roaring fire and buttery sirloins of the Leenane Hotel.

Rewind to Friday night. The Connemara Mountain Walking Festival (formerly the Leenane Mountain Walking Festival) has opened its doors for the eleventh year and it’s another sell-out. Filing through the lobby are outdoorsy types from across the nation and even further than that, many of whom have never missed an instalment of this marvellous feather in the region’s cap.

After a short welcome from festival chairperson Martin Gavin, appetites are whetted for the weekend ahead with talks from a National Parks & Wildlife Service ranger and a representative of the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council, both of whom provide much for food thought about the finite habitats we will be stepping into.

A flat sheet of watery grey divides the Leenane Hotel with the mountain ridge on the far side that is tomorrow’s challenge. Oystercatchers pipe up as they zoom down the shoreline, and – yes – that's a cuckoo we just heard somewhere behind us.

Delphi resort
Delphi resort

I know we’re not supposed to like rhododendron, but it does go well mottled together with clumps of golden gorse, their splodges of colour breaking up the greens and blacks around here. They even capture some of the very light of day and radiate it back to us as we sip an evening pint on the terrace at Delphi Resort, extending our view of Mweelrea. The effect continues at our grand room as boots, clothing and supplies are got in order.

The next morning, there is time for a carb-up at the breakfast buffet before a shuttle bus collects us from Delphi and brings us down to the village for registration. Chairman Martin is there outside the Community Centre HQ, making great use of years of sheep farming as he herds brightly attired mountaineers towards information desks or departing buses.

Depending on your fitness level – low, medium, Tenzing – there are different groups heading to different locations, each fitted with expert guides at a ratio of one for every ten festival attendees. We head back up towards Delphi in order to access the Sheeffry Pass and the start of our climb.

We pass the sumptuous Aasleagh Falls, pretty as a picture in a pinewood frame. The bright morning sun also catches the slate-and-white of another cuckoo perched horizontally (as they prefer) on a telegraph wire.

If I never get to set foot on Ben Gorm this day, the drive up through the Delphi Valley and the Sheeffry Pass would be enough to fill postcard after postcard. Pristine lakes, scots pine canopies, rocky mountain ridges that could be plucked straight off the winelands of the Cape, all singing the songs of a storied landscape.

The rules are simple, Clem explains as we gather by the banks of the Owenduff River: Stick together, give the lambing sheep a wide berth, and nothing – not a banana skin or an apple core or a tissue – is to be left behind you on the mountain. Proper order. Guides will be sprinkled front, back and middle of the group, making it impossible for anyone to be left behind.

Most importantly, Clem hoots at the 40 or so of us, there will be regular breaks to refresh and to take in where we are and what we’re doing.

Connemara, Wild Atlantic Way. Photo: Big Smoke/Fáilte Ireland
Connemara, Wild Atlantic Way. Photo: Big Smoke/Fáilte Ireland

“We’re not here to kill ye! We want ye to have a good day,” and he means it.

Left foot, right foot. Turn and look back down at the sun hitting Tawnyard Lough from where we set off. A raven croaks its annoyance at us we continue to file up the granite and quartzite steps, the group finding an amicable rhythm somewhere between the impatient sprinter who’s marched ahead (“there’s always one,” Clem laughs) and those huffing at the rear.

All the while, Clem is stopping to point out the whos and what-fors of local flora and fauna, from the olden-times uses for milkwort and butterwort to the carnivorous sundew that traps flies in its sticky fingers. There are meadow pipits trilling high above and the sunshine is turning the whole 360-degrees of splendour around us into a Tolkien dreamscape.

It gets very heady by the time we reach Ben Gorm’s rooftop and plonk down onto the warm skree to chomp and slurp the very best lunch of the year so far. Rosy smiles all around and the hushed murmurs of awed contentedness. They’re not that hard to find in north Connemara. Just need to head to Leenane, look upwards, and join the ascension.

Get there

Unless travelling by car, Leenane is quite out of the way and can be hard to get to. There is a daily Citylink bus service to Letterfrack (about 25mins from Leenane) from Galway city centre. If you require collection, the festival organisers will try to source one for you. Delphi Mountain Resort also runs a shuttle bus each day to and from the registration point.

Where to stay

There is plenty of accommodation in the area to suit all budgets, from camping and hostels, to hotels, the Delphi Resort (delphiadventureresort.com) and self-catering.

Walks

Each day of the festival offers at least four walks (the next festival takes place in May 2020). These are graded so that there is a walk to suit all levels of ability.

The walks are guided by qualified mountain leaders and the maximum number of walkers per group is about 60. Each year offers a new array of routes so that return visitors can try something new. However, Mweelrea is a perennial as it is the highest summit in Connaught.

Tickets can be bought for the whole weekend or just one day. Early booking is advised as the festival usually sells out its limited number of tickets. Bookings open about Nov/Dec the year before the festival. 

For further information, visit connemaramountainwalkingfestival.com, contact info@connemaramountainwalkingfestival.com or call 087 2819825.

Hilary was a guest of the festival and Delphi Resort.

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