Kerry's Big Five: Tackling Ireland's newest adventure travel challenge
You don't have to go on safari to find the Big Five, as David Flanagan discovers in Kerry's Reeks District…
'Fair play for taking on the challenge," says Erwin Kingston, owner of Kingston's Townhouse in Killorglin.
It's only when I arrive that the scale of my undertaking dawns on me.
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Over the next three days, I'm going to attempt to become one of the first people to complete the Reeks District's Big Five - a new collection of the biggest, best and most thrilling outdoor adventures Ireland has to offer.
Where and what is the Reeks District? Launched as a Kerry tourism brand last year, it's a compact region that hugs Castlemaine Harbour from Inch to Rossbeigh. Think long sandy beaches, placid lakes and meandering rivers, all centred around the magnificent MacGillycuddy's Reeks. Word's getting out, too. Rough Guides named the district one of its top six places to visit in 2019.
The Big Five encourages visitors to immerse themselves in this wild landscape rather than just look at it through a car window. The challenge consists of three water-based and two land adventures - complete them within a year and you'll get a certificate; complete them in five days and your name goes onto the Big Five Wall of Fame.
1. Climb Ireland's highest mountain
The first challenge is the biggest one. Literally, an ascent of Carrauntoohil, at 1,039m Ireland's highest mountain. And while visitors from loftier parts of the world may dismiss them as mere hills, the MacGillycuddy's Reeks are serious mountains. With steep, rocky slopes and unpredictable weather, Carrauntoohil isn't to be taken lightly.
In Cronin's Yard, the traditional starting point for a climb, we meet guide Piaras Kelly of Kerry Climbing. As well as a professional guide, Piaras is a member of Kerry Mountain Rescue and the MacGillycuddy's Reeks Access Forum. With over 200 ascents of Carrauntoohil a year, it's fair to say that no one knows the mountain better.
The climb starts gently following a relatively flat track up the valley. Stopping regularly for breaks, Piaras gives us a fascinating insight into the history, geology, flora and fauna of the mountain. Ahead lies the hardest part of the route, the Devil's Ladder - a wide gully packed with loose scree and large boulders that takes a direct line up the steep slope. It's considered the easiest way up the mountain, but is no pushover and I need to use my hands in plenty of spots. However, the climbing is absorbing and it isn't long before we arrive at the flat, grassy saddle.
From this point onwards the going is easier and we slog up the broad ridge to the summit. At the top, we are greeted with a staggering view, taking in a panorama of beaches, rivers, lakes and mountains.
After an obligatory summit selfie and a quick snack we start the descent. Piaras's warning that we are only at the halfway mark rings in our ears, so we take it slowly. Descending via the Zig Zag route rather than the Devil's Ladder is a longer but safer descent and offers great views across the valley to the north face. From the valley floor, it's an easy stroll back to Cronin's Yard.
I've climbed Carrauntoohil a number of times, but never in the company of a professional guide. Piaras's intimate knowledge and love of the mountain adds a whole new dimension to the experience.
How to do it:
Kerry Climbing (kerryclimbing.ie) can tailor the route to match your fitness and experience. Plan for at least six hours and a distance of 11km.
2. Surf Inch beach
After a great sleep and a healthy breakfast at Kingston's, we set off from Killorglin for a busy day tackling the Big Five's three water-based adventures.
First up is surfing on Inch, a vast beach which stretches out into Dingle Bay for almost 6km. It's an ideal venue for those new to surfing, and today's conditions are perfect, with small, clean waves and a light breeze.
Here, we meet instructor Tim from Kingdom Waves Surf School and squeeze into thick wetsuits. Down at the water's edge, Tim takes us through some basic water safety principles before showing us how to position ourselves on the board and paddle for a wave.
With the theory out of the way, it's time to hit the water. I wade out until chest-deep, flop onto the board and, after more than a few failed attempts, manage to correctly time my paddling so that I catch a wave. Lying on the board, the sensation of being picked up and carried at speed towards the shore is both exhilarating and instantly addictive.
Once we've all caught a few waves from a prone position, Tim calls us out to take us through the process of standing up. The idea is to 'pop' from a lying position onto both feet simultaneously, a manoeuvre that I find tricky enough on dry land... let alone on a breaking wave.
The next 20 minutes pass in a blur of spectacular wipeouts and one glorious micro-second in which I manage to stand on the board. Emerging from the water, I'm absolutely exhausted and I feel like I have ingested at least a pint of saltwater. But I'm buzzing and can't wait to get out again.
How to do it:
Kingdom Waves Surf School (kingdomwaves.com) offers surfing lessons, board and wetsuit hire from its base on Inch beach.
3. Paddle the length of Caragh Lake
With our hair still wet from surfing, we're on to the next of the Big Five, a kayaking trip on Caragh Lake. The 6km long lake lies a few kilometres southwest of Killorglin with the mighty Reeks as a backdrop.
At the roadside, we meet Rhys Llewellyn and Enda Prendergast from Cappanalea Outdoor Education and Training Centre to get kitted out. As our sea kayaks are stable and the water calm we don't need wetsuits - just a spraydeck to create a waterproof seal around the kayak's cockpit, a waterproof jacket and a buoyancy aid.
After a safety briefing, we get into our boats and push off into the reedy water at the southern end of the lake. The narrow sea kayak feels a little wobbly at first, but I soon relax and find my rhythm, enjoying the sensation of gliding easily across the still water.
A gentle breeze carries with it a rain shower, but we paddle on, watching the light change on the surrounding hills. The wind drops as we enter the widest part of the lake and, stopping to regroup, we sit gently bobbing as Enda encourages us to soak up the silence, remarking that it's very rare for the lake to be so still. Suddenly a braying donkey shatters the quiet and we all burst into laughter, impressed with Enda's timing.
As we paddle along, Enda tell us what Reeks District means to him: "It's adventure without the crowds. There are parts of the region where if you go for a walk it's almost as if you are the first person ever there."
How to do it:
The 6km paddle across Caragh Lake takes between one and two hours depending on the wind. Cappanalea Outdoor Education and Training Centre (cappanalea.ie), provides kayaks, equipment and a guide.
4. Night sup on Lough Cloon
After an amazing dinner at Ard Na Sidhe (ardnasidhe.com) overlooking Caragh Lake, when sensible folk retire to the bar for a drink, we're taken on the Big Five's most unusual challenge - Stand-up Paddleboarding at night.
We head deep into the heart of the Reeks to Cloon Lake on the edge of Kerry's Dark Sky Reserve. Surrounded by the Atlantic and tall mountains, it offers a unique opportunity to observe the night sky free from light pollution.
Here, we follow a network of tiny boreens to the lake shore, where the lads from Cappanalea have gear ready for us. Stand-up Paddleboarding, also known as SUP, involves a board similar to a surfboard, but wider and more stable. As the name suggests, the idea is to stand up and manoeuvre using a long, single-bladed paddle.
Back in a wetsuit for the second time that day, I wade out and step very tentatively on to the board. It's more stable than I expect and after a few minutes I've built up the confidence to paddle out into deeper water.
Unfortunately, the sky overhead is cloudy. As we paddle around the lake, however, we are treated to the spectacular sight of the full moon illuminating the surrounding peaks.
Back on dry land and in warm clothes afterwards, standing overlooking the lake with a glass of hot port in hand, I can't help but feel a little proud and very glad that I swapped the couch for a paddle board.
How to do it:
Cappanalea Outdoor Education and Training Centre will set you up with everything you need to experience the Dark Sky Reserve from a paddle board.
5. Cycle the Ring of the Reeks
The final day of our Big Five challenge dawns a little overcast and there is a light drizzle as we meet our guide and support driver for the day, Jay Scully And Leif Winchester from Trailflow Biking Adventures. Ahead lies the Ring of the Reeks, a 90km cycle route that takes in three of the most scenic mountain passes in the country.
Heading south from Killorglin, we warm up on some rolling hills before the first of the day's big climbs - Ballaghbeama. The road climbs gently towards a wall of mountains, but at the last moment swings left to reveal a narrow pass. As the steep rocky walls close in, it takes a huge effort to keep the pedals turning... I just about manage to reach the top without walking.
After a smooth descent on fresh tarmac, it isn't long before I'm heading uphill again. The second climb of the day, Moll's Gap, isn't as steep as Ballaghbeama so I'm able to sit back and enjoy the view. After a quick sandwich here, we drop down into the remote Black Valley. Descending to the valley floor, we follow the course of a mountain stream through a landscape covered with slabs of purple sandstone and scattered pockets of woodland.
Ahead lies the final challenge, the climb into the Gap of Dunloe. In spite of tiring legs, we push hard to the top of the pass where we are met with an amazing view down the glacial valley. Lifted by the spectacular surroundings, we swoop down and out of the mountains. One final pit stop and, powered by coffee and cake, we form a peloton worthy of the Tour de France and blast back to Killorglin.
How to do it: The Ring of Reeks is 90km, so allow a full day. Trailflow Biking Adventures (trailflowbikingadventures.com) offer guided tours and bike hire.
How to do it
David was a guest of the Reeks District (reeksdistrict.com/bigfive). Individual activities start from €30pp, with a package bundling all five and four nights' B&B from €529pp, based on four sharing. The Big Five can be self-guided, but participants must have suitable levels of equipment and proficiency.
You can pick up a Big Five passport from the Reeks District visitor centre in Killorglin, have adventures ticked off by participating travel companies or log them on Komoot, the Big Five's official tracking app.
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