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Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?
Gap of Dunloe (Co. Kerry, Ireland)
Member Name: greenierexyboy
Gap of Dunloe (Co. Kerry, Ireland)
Advantages: Tremendous scenery, tremendous pub
Disadvantages: The world and his wife all know about it
(Previously on Ciao)
For those seeking solitude, there are few finer places to indulge the search than in Ireland's south west. At the risk of writing the script to 'Far And Away' all over again (not that I was the guilty party the first time, you understand) it's a peerlessly atmospheric land of wind and rain, of ancient history and unique tradition, and possesses an apparently narcotic ambience that can cause men to go on strike in protest against forced nappy-wearing in the equine population.
There are countless magnificent places to escape the crowds. Places like the cliff-girt gash of the Anascaul Glen, with its loughs, waterfalls, mad legends of Cuchulainn and man-eating midges...the sombre Black Valley, hiding its tragic history behind the huge half-umbrella of Macgillycuddy's Reeks and a general veil of man-eating midges...and the gushing spout of the Hungry Hill Waterfall, concealed in plain sight on the south flank of the Beara peninsular but guarded by Size Zero access roads and man-eating midges.
So, if there are lots of locations where one isn't going to be lost in the throng or accidentally battered to death by the manoeuvring elbows of photographers...where the hell are those crowds? There's a huge amount of tourism here (in summer at least), and all this 'humanity' must be going somewhere...
Into The Gap
Well, amongst other places they've probably converged en masse at a huge glacial rent in the mountains to the west of Killarney, a deep valley whose sides are rubble-strewn where they are not cliff-girt, and whose floor is dappled by a pearly string of lovely little lakes. That's partly why they're there, although doubtless the ease of access, the coffee shop, the gift shop and the pub all help. This is the Gap of Dunloe, a place of congregation, a place where the sons and heirs of Albert Steptoe ply a time-honoured trade (of which more later), and definitely a place where solitude is unlikely (bordering on impossible) unless you're there in the middle of winter or in the middle of the night. Or when everyone's at Mass.
'Marathon becomes Snickers...Ice Age ends...'
Running almost exactly south to north and rising to 300m at its summit, the Gap's savage glacier-gouged schism forms a mountain pass brushing past the eastern end of Macgillycuddy's Reeks. The south side is a steep, rarely visited bare slope forming the north wall of the Black Valley; it's the northerly aspect that forms the Gap of visitors' memories, with its beetling cliffs and ever-present alternately restful and rushing water. The landscape was formed between 120000 to 15000 years ago during the last Ice Age, when the ice sheet overlying Kenmare River decided to head north, pursuing a largely trouble-free passage until it bumped up against the high curtain of the Reeks. The ice piled up like a flood surge against a dam, seeking a weakness that would allow it to continue onward, and finally creating it when the skyline gave way. It surged and scoured down the far side, carving the deep U-shaped valley that can be seen today. And there are several ways to see it...
The Magic Road
The Gap makes a great drive, best done as an escape from the Black Valley in the south (named after the 100% success rate the Great Famine enjoyed in evicting/eliminating its inhabitants: that, and it being the focal point of the Middle of Nowhere make it a good place to escape from), so you're a) driving towards the best scenery and b) heading for the pub. A narrow surfaced road beavers back and forth across the Valley's bare north face, with some fine views over Killarney's Upper Lake (depending on whether the road is zigging or zagging) to reach the Head of the Gap. It's worth pulling up here: the Black Valley is suitably wild and bleak, while in front of you lies the Gap, wide and (very) vaguely verdant in its upper reaches, constricted and contorted below.
The road (which is sometimes twisty but never truly steep; well worth bearing in mind for the more timorous driver) slaloms down to and across this milder upper section before passing the slender Black Lough where the slopes crowd in like the Clashing Rocks in Jason and the Argonauts. Below this small stretch of water the road kinks across a rather photogenic little stone bridge before reaching the more substantial Auger Lake. The stretch through the narrows is the best section of the journey: limpid lakes, wild crags and a road that's the only smooth (smoothish: it has the usual Irish patina of potholes) surface amidst billions of boulders. The scenery softens as the gradient flattens and the road continues down, passing more lakes (one to three of them, depending who's counting), cottages both inhabited and sadly derelict, and fewer rocks than you saw higher up. Gradually the mountains on either side open out then fall back completely: in front will be the Kerry plains, to your left the coffee shop, toilets and car park, and to the right the pub.
Despite all this, driving through the Gap can only be recommended with some timing-related caveats. It's usually (conditions notwithstanding) crisply dramatic in winter, it's certainly gorgeous just before sunset at any time of year...but outwith of these circumstances it's only really enjoyable for motoring sociopaths. The road is SO clogged with pedestrians and pony-and-traps the rest of the time as to render progress nigh-on-impossible for anyone not prepared to run a lot of folk down or create a lot of glue, and with that in mind it's better to bow to the inevitable. Time to get on your boots or get out your wallet...your choice.
The Gap is unsurprisingly lovely on foot, or at least as lovely as an unyielding ribbon of tarmac can be: most outdoor folk aren't that keen on walking on roads. There are however plenty of places where one can step off onto something more meadowy (in the lower, more open stretches grassy fields run down to the River Loe) or bumpy/jagged (in the upper reaches the boulders come down to the road: a great area for indulging any Spiderman fixations). Those determined to see the whole of the Gap will notice that it is six miles from Kate's at the north end to the Head of the Gap, and even the outdoor folk who don't mind walking on a road may reconsider when confronted with a twelve mile round trip. Such is the psychological weakness that may sweep you into the waiting arms/carriages of the jarveys...
'Like a train in the night, yeah...'
Getting around by pony and trap is about as stereotypically Irish as Dana or dancing without moving your arms, and even in this modern mechanised age it's not that unusual in many areas. I've seen a fair amount of it in Wicklow, but it's most prevalent in the south west: here, many folk have long since realised the commercial potential of languid open-air passage through nice scenery with someone/thing else doing all the work. So in season the north end of the Gap is awash with jarveys: local carriage drivers earning/supplementing their livelihoods by providing rides for tourists.
A short amble up the road from the parking leads to the pickup point and a plethora of Dobbins and discount Prince Phillips. A system known as 'The Turn' decides which jarvey gets the next fare, so I suspect (I've never actually hired one, what with my preference for being on foot in the mountains) that the customer doesn't get to choose their driver. The basic ride is to the third lake and costs 30 Euro per carriage; other itineraries are doubtless negotiable. Combination tours (offering permutations of jarveys, bikes and boat trips on the Lakes of Killarney) can also be made, but will probably need to be arranged elsewhere; check online (e.g. www.gapofdunloetours.com) for details.
As I've said, it's not really my cup of tea but disengaging my 'hmm...tacky' head it does indeed look a rather pleasant and diverting way to while away the time. And I bet the jarveys are a bit...'characterful'. For instance...
Nappygate...or how the smell of dung and the perpetual wearing of a cloth cap will do odd things to your brain
Last December my friend Dave and I were driving down the N71 from Killarney, destined for a few hours on the hill. As we drew level with the entrance to Muckross House it was suggested that I might wish to glance to the right, and as I did I noticed the driveway was blocked with placard-toting gentlemen.
'That's the jarveys. They've gone on strike'.
Once we'd behaved according to convention when sighting anyone on a protest in Ireland ('Down with this sort of thing!' 'Careful now') Dave explained the nature of their grievance. Authorities in the Killarney National Park had decided that the environment would be improved by slightly less excrement on the trails plied by the jarveys and their horses and had therefore insisted upon the use of 'dung catchers'; the furious horsemen had argued the devices were 'unsafe' (yeah, that confused me too) and that they had the right to operate without them. Eighteen months of wrangling had led to their banning from the park and an assortment of legal action, a standoff finally resolved at the end of May when the judiciary concluded that the National Parks and Wildlife Service had every right to manage the park for the benefit of the public: roughly translated, 'Stop being so daft lads: there's American tourists who need fleecing'. So the majority of the jarveys fitted their equine Pampers and went back to work.
Being outwith of the National Park the Gap of Dunloe was not affected: the horses are as free to fertilise the tarmac as they always were.
The Irish Rover
It's obvious to anyone with eyes that an abrupt mountain defile such as the Gap will have hills on both sides. So if you're stood in the car park feeling a burning need to get away from the coach loads of tourists and the loitering jarveys, and that sort of thing floats your boat (hello xBorg!)... then there are several splendid excursions to be made...
This final (relatively) diminutive upthrust of Macgillycuddy's Reeks squats like an overfed heathery watchdog over the west side of the entrance to the Gap, and is one of the best introductions to Irish hillwalking I can imagine: alas/fortunately they aren't all this easy. Highly recommended on a fine day.
Starting from the car park one walks up the road into the Gap, keeping an eye out for pony & traps and the occasional car (and ignoring all offers of lifts from either). After about half a mile of gentle uphill there is an obvious 'here be monsters / don't be a pillock' sign from the Kerry Mountain Rescue team bolted to a rock on the right hand side of the road: these are in place at all major points of pedestrian access to the Reeks and behind it a wide green path begins winding more purposefully skywards. Passages up mountainsides don't get much more straightforward than this, broad zig-zags mitigating the steepness and the path itself grassy or gravelly. And the views inevitably broaden as you climb, with the harsh glimpses into the fastnesses of the Gap softened by the Kerry farmland to the north with its collage of every shade of emerald.
With a thousand feet comfortably attained the path ends on a wide plateau. To your left, across an unusually sinister-looking swathe of fissured grass lie the stark outlines of the Reeks, while Struicín itself lies adjacent to the right, like a vaguely pointed pudding. An obvious track leads to and up the final short sharp climb ('the consistency of chocolate brownies' says my man on the spot, which should be considered if you're wearing shoes you can't bear to ruin) to the top with its broader panorama now including Tralee Bay and Dingle. Very nice. There are also three large cairns on the summit; most Irish tops don't even have one, so these grandiose rockeries make you wonder if the ascent carries some kind of deep significance in the history of mountaineering...well, rest assured it doesn't. I'm pretty sure even Julia Bradbury has never been here.
On the retreat to the top of the path used on the outward journey the more ambitious will have their eyes trained on the pleasingly pointy (and much higher) summits of the Reeks as they croon their siren call across the 'sinister grass' noted on the ascent. The inexperienced/genteel should consider that (and the fact that the wide green path below is actually a bog road) a warning: that big swathe of grass is actually a vast dominion of ooze notorious even by Irish standards, and only possible dry-shod after the hardest of frosts or the toastiest of droughts. It certainly can't be recommended to the casual tourist, but the reward for the serious walker who survives all that slutch is one of Ireland's finest ridges: the huge grotto to the Virgin atop Cruach Mor (built single-handedly by a man who ended up in St Brendan's lunatic asylum in Killarney, allegedly) and the exciting blocky knife-edge of The Big Gun.
Or they could follow the path and road back down to the start where there's a pub. Just saying.
Tomies / Purple Mountain
The buttressing outliers of Macgillycuddy's Reeks loom spikily over the west side of the Gap, but to the east lies a range of lower tops ('lower' being purely relative, as Purple Mountain would look reasonably ginormous in most other areas of Ireland) whose traverse is a middlingly strenuous (not epic, but still requiring experience and navigational know-how in the party) hillwalk. Retreating back down the road towards Killarney should locate a lane sidling off eastwards, the end of which allows the lower slopes of Tomies Mountain to be gained.
The ensuing steep heathery flog up to the summit may require the gritting of teeth and the grinding of dentures, but the views over the Gap to the Reeks are spectacular enough to make the standard 'I'm just looking at the view...I'm in no way shape or form knackered, no sirree, whatever made you think that' excuses seem marginally more plausible than usual. Stay on the Gap side of the new deer fence (unless you really enjoy repeatedly climbing over deer fences, which are quite high as a rule) and the agony lessens on the approach to Tomies' summit when you suddenly have a path to follow. The path persists on the walk south to Purple Mountain itself, over a subsidiary summit and a rather aesthetically proportioned climactic ridge. The view is magnificent, with the Lakes of Killarney and the wild Iveragh interior lavishly displayed.
The next major objective is the Head of the Gap and what with travelling in expectation being slightly preferable to travelling in hope it helps to be able to navigate a bit (even in clear weather): the intermediate landmark lake of the Glas Lough lies amidst steep and potentially confusing ground down to the right of the continuing ridge, and what path there is seems elusive when sought from above. (Rough translation: 'We didn't find it. But none of us died so it's not that bad'). The Lough located, a fence leads on down to the road at the Head of the Gap six miles from the start.
Those who have left a second car here or those who have hired a jarvey to ferry them down will either a) have missed out on the lovely walk down through the Gap, or b) be in an ideal position to laugh at the footsore purists who eschewed such artificial aids as 'horses' or 'petrol'. And in April 2008 they could have added c) be able to snigger at two six-foot plus blokes being comprehensively outpaced over six miles by two girls. (The moral of the tale is that your ego will always be battered by Irish women who've been given the 'there's a pub at the end of it' incentive.)
One could do the walk in the reverse, ending with Tomies Mountain, maybe having ridden up the Gap first. I would strongly advise against it: the final descent is bad enough (steep pathless bumpy knee-wrecking heather...lovely) but the lane mentioned above is where a large proportion of the jarveys stable their horses. As a result we found it to be a Stygian river of mud and equine effluent where hillwalking boots and woolly hats were much less suitable apparel than wellies and a gas mask. Doing it first is getting the worst out of the way early, and it gives you the rest of the walk to (hopefully) remove anything malodorous from your footwear and thus avoid the possibility of stinking up the bar of one of my favourite pubs in the world...
Streams of Whiskey
All Gap-related excursions need to end in the bar of Kate Kearney's Cottage: it's the law. Maybe I'm enamoured of this place because my visits always follow mountain walks and I'll look favourably upon any establishment slaking my hunger and assuaging my thirst. But I don't think so. The location seems somehow to seep through the walls; I'd wager that even if you'd been brought in blindfolded and then positioned out of sight of any windows (a rare occurrence in this particular corner of Ireland, but you can't be too careful) you'd still somehow know that you weren't going to emerge in Cleethorpes if you stepped outside. The bar meals are decent (well, the lasagne's good anyway) if pricey (but not outlandishly so): a restaurant (as yet unpatronised by yours truly, but quite highly rated) is available for anyone wishing to make dining the main objective of a visit. There is also a gift shop that manages to deftly straddle the twin worlds of 'genuinely interesting local crafts' and stereotypical 'Bejesus! There's a leprechaun!' tourist tat.
Personally, I recommend a drink in front of the fire. Even in summer.
For those interested in alternative/additional ways of spending money, there's a coffee shop ('The Coffee Pot') across the way from Kate's, and a crafts/outdoors shop called Moriarty's down the road towards Killarney. A little further on is the Gap of Dunloe nine hole golf course, where you can shank and snap hook to your heart's content while claiming that the fabulous scenery is putting you off your game.
Like most places in Ireland, the Gap is most easily reached by car. The more sensible northerly approach leaves Killarney on the N72 road: after a few miles (and a lot of expensive real estate) it's signposted on the left. A few more miles of country lanes will see you there.
The route from the south is a bit more 'Sir Ranulph Fiennes', seeing as it takes you past Muckross House, Torc Mountain and waterfall, the Lakes of Killarney and the haunted church at Derrycunihy (accompanied by the constant threat of being squished by an oncoming coach). And that's just the easy bit on the 'main' N71 out of Killarney: once you leave that at the lonely junction of Moll's Gap (the location of a very classy Avoca shop, ladies might be interested to learn) it's an awful lot of single track road with what might very optimistically be considered 'passing places'. Survivors of this trial by potholes and grass strip should arrive in the Black Valley: refer to the section about driving through the Gap higher up.
There are no scheduled bus services to the Gap but there are so many coach tours leaving from Killarney that something could almost certainly be arranged.
Accommodation is a large part of the local economy so there are lodgings available to suit all budgets (http://www.gulliver.ie covers most of Ireland and is a good place to start). Inhabitants of other land masses can perhaps get here by ferry (Cork being the nearest terminus) but will more likely use Kerry Airport; served by Aer Arann from Manchester and by Darth O'Leary and his evil galactic empire from Stansted, Luton and Dublin. And Frankfurt, confusingly.
That's the Gap of Dunloe then: a forced marriage of mankind and physical geography. It's easy to decry this sort of place (and indeed, I usually would) but the reality is that it successfully caters to a large cross-section of the population, be they fit or infirm. Or just plain lazy. The 'glass half-empty' interpretation of its contribution to the fabulous Kerry scene is that it's worth sacrificing the odd honey pot to the altar of mindless tourism just to save everywhere else. But let's go with the glass being half-full: maybe even those mindless tourists have a bit of hive intelligence sometimes.
Summary: Easily accessible mountain grandeur, usually busy