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It is the crack of dawn on Palm Sunday. An aunt of mine had gone to mass the night before and informed us that the priest had given a mass that lasted over an hour the night before and he'd be likely to repeat the same fiasco in the morning so we decided to make (better) use of our Sunday and climb Sliabh Donard.
Sliabh Donard stands at 852 metres and is the highest mountiain in Ulster and the fourth highest mountain in Ireland. In comparison to other places our mountains aren't really all that big, Mount Everest stands at 8,848 metres so a good 8,000 metres higher than all we have to show here. It's a big mountain though, at home with my ma and da for Easter you can see it from our house 25 miles away outside Banbridge.
And whilst the Nepalese can boast that they have this big mountain in their land I very much doubt they can boast to have such a fantastic place as Newcastle town at its foot (nor can anyone in Ireland boast that Newcastle is fantastic with a straight face). Newcastle is about a 15 minute windy ould drive from Banbridge and about 20 minutes away from Belfast. It's a seaside town that's likely to be bunged with people at even the slightest hint of sun. It's got a fantastic big hotel where Charlie Chaplin once stayed amongst others (also called Slieve Donard); lots of crappy little arcades for you to waste your money in; and a great place called the Shimna for you to great a fry in if you're just after a horrible camping trip. It's also got an apparently very good golf course that Tiger Woods patronises (so I expect there may be a few of Tiger Woods' bastard children in the area as well). Camping, Climbing and Swimming is really all the place is good for despite it's more grotesque attractions. Tullymore forest is a fantastic camping spot, Bloody Bridge is a great place for a summer swim and then there's loads of wee mountains. The less wee of which is Sliabh Donard.
Donard park is at the far end of the main street in Newcastle and very easy to find and accessible. There are an abundance of parking places. So it's now 8.30 a.m. (7.30 a.m. really if the clocks hadn't have gone back) for the 20 minutes we've listened to two women with horrible Dublin accents talking about Coronation Street on the radio. I was too tired to turn it over or to bother asking my da to do so and my brother had sanctuary in his ipod speakers whilst I think it's quite possible my da was enjoying it. Anyway, we three had escaped that torture to embark on another and it was freezing!
Well, dairy milk bar each and we're ready to go. The first part of the climb is through the forest. It's quite steep but it's a nice walk. You're walking along side the cascading stream along the way and there are plenty of little waterfalls and rapids and little pools. I'd avoided the urge to jump in, a tradition of mine is that I can't leave Newcastle without having jumped into the water somewhere but it was too cold at the minute and being wet all the way up didn't appeal to me. Walk, walk, walk. My brother (13) has already started to ask for a break (we'd only been going for about 15 minutes) but we're starting to wake up and it's not all that hard. From quiet zombie-like climbers I become a lot more lively after walking past out first sight of other climbers. An Australian couple greet us as they pass and for the next two hours I talk nonsense in an Australian accent. I pretend to be an Australian tourist interested Irish sheep and generally piss the other two off for a while.
Out of the trees there's then a mountain path you follow. The river is now on our left as is a big mountain. The path seems to go around this mountain and to us, that doesn't seem right. Why don't we just go straight on up it? So seeing a fancy old 'ice-house' on the other side of the river we decide to cross over it and check the ice-house out and just head straight on up the mountain and abandon this cowardly path as we're real men. The path we reckon must go around the mountain we're it's easier to climb up from behind (how wrong we were)
So the ice-house is not interesting but from here we see a sort of chasm between the two mountains which has a waterfall in it. We decide to head towards it and then straight to the top. Two men can be seen on the path done below, we sneer at the bunch of wimps. But after having a little look at the waterfall our manliness was put into effect. From here the climb was steep and I mean steep. Being in no way equipped to do anything as we were all just wearing normal clothes and trainers it wasn't easy. It was not far off vertical at parts and very, very wet ground. We would hold on to the little bushes to get a grip and more than once our hands went into the neverending amount of sheep shite on this mountain. My da's builder's arse in front of me was in no way an incentive to keep going but keep going we did and after a bit of that torture you get to a bit of ground that's relatively level but very marshy. Trying to keep to the bushes and not in to sinking bog or sheep shite is nigh on impossible but that's not the worse thing. The worse thing is that as we come to the top of this mountain we realise where the earlier path was actually going and why no-one went this way. THIS WASN'T SLIABH DONARD!! This was just the mountain in front of it and the big bitch of a thing was still in front of us and looked like the same distance of a climb all over again.
We mosied on.
This part of the climb is much marshier than before and we finally get a glance at those incontinent sheep and my Australian impersonation returns and keeps me up beat even if it drives them crazy. After finding a sheep's jawbone I start to pretend to be an Australian detective throwing accusations at the other two.
The final climb of Sliabh Donard if you come at it from this unlikely angle is awkward. The wind was incredibly strong and pushed even my 17 stone self about but steep as this last climb is it's more fun and less marsy thanks to all the boulders and rocks. But be careful because some of them are loose and if you're behind me I am going to push some down to try and start and avalanche.
The top gives an incredible view of the surrounding land. Newcastle is tiny and you can see both Dundrum castle and Castlewellan castle from up here. On a clear day you can see Belfast and Dublin wikipedia says but I didn't. Apparently there's a tradition were you bring a rock from the bottom of the mountain to the top and there's a massive pile of rocks at the top here that we had nothing to add to. Someone's left a hat under a rock at the very top of the pile as well for anyone who needs it. From this pile of rocks we can see another just ahead and the Mourne wall. Seeing as we've made it this far we sprint to the final bit along the level top of the mountain being pushed more and more towards the sea by the wind but make it and there are those two men we saw earlier on when we were at the ice-house. The bastards! How'd they get up here so quick? "We took yon path there" says the old white haired eejit. The path goes all the way up! I climbed up the wall that goes all along the mourne mountains and looked to see it and surely there was a bloody path that looked smooth and took you easily all the way here. Yes, we were right that the path was going around the moutain back there but that's because that mountain wasn't sliabh donard! I condescendingly pointed out that they'd taken the 'easy way up' which they didn't like and thankfully cleared off (leaving their rubbish sitting at the top it should be noted).
We sat and ate our sandwiches with sheep crap covered hands and took in the view of the Irish sea and the surrounding country side behind the shelter of the Mourne wall. The stone Mourne wall goes along the top of all the mountains in the Mourne mountain range and seems to have absolutely no point. But it's stood over 100 years now and keeps the wind of people relaxing at the top. There's also a litte building at the corner of the wall here that's equally purposeless (except for throwing rubbish in some people seem to think). You do feel like you've accomplished something here at the top and it did make us feel better that we'd done it the hard way. The path was too pedestrian for a couple of hard asses like ourselves. "Shall we take the path down?" asks my da. "Damn Straight".
So we get to our feet to make the descent but I freeze and grab my brother back. "Shhhhhh". They look at me puzzled and I feel puzzled. "Serioulsy stop. I'm not joking and I don't have my glasses but I swear there's a wolf over there." I had a glimpse of it just down below. It was too close and too big to be confused with a sheep but I couldn't see it now for all the rocks. My da thought I was a lunatic and laughed at me and walked on, my brother told me I was just probably seeing some snow as there was a fair bit still lingering at the top of the mountain. Snow doesn't move, I thought, or for that matter snow doesn't look like a wolf. But maybe I was wrong...But NO a big bloody wolf then jumped over the dip! Thankfully, it was followed by short talkative man who owned it. Half-husky and half-grey wolf I wasn't wrong about it; well I was expecting to have it eat my brother as I ran away but instead it was friendly and playful. Beautiful dog as it was I wouldn't pay the 5,000 Canadian dollars that guy apparently paid for it.
The way down is soooo easy. We start to see lots of people now as we're on the civilised route and it's a more civilised time but this path is nothing compared to the way we took. My dad has a couple of friends in the Irish army based in Dundalk who apparenly run up Sliabh Donard and I was highly doubting this story on my way and wondering if it were true whether the Irish Government should start putting these super-fit soldiers to work and conquering the Isle of Man with them but when I was on this path it seems a lot more believeable that Sliabh Donard can be ran up. We passed many people on this path on the way up. Many of whom had some serious hiker's gear on them. They had their fancing climbing sticks and boots and clothes and rucksacks and we just laughed at them inside as we passed. But don't get too cocky as you descend the mountain because it was only here that we all had a fall. My da slipped in a puddle and pulled my brother down with him as he fell and whilst walking backwards and talking nonsense with an Australian accent I fell backwards down the steep riverbank.
That was it done though. It was 10.45 when we reached the top and it took us an hour and 10 minutes to get down. Not to skimp on tradition I jumped in to the freezing river at the bottom and we had conquered Sliabh Donard and got home just in time for Sunday dinner.
It was fun to climb and tough considering the route we went and you get fantastic views and plenty of exercise and a feeling of accomplishment so it's well worth a visit.
It's free. Parking at the bottom or almost anywhere in Newcastle is free.
Buses between Belfast and Newcastle are usually of the older type for some reason and take a long way round so it's quite a long journey though I remember them being fairly priced. There aren't a great many buses though. In the summer expect lots of traffic going into Newcastle. There are no trains.
You could take children up this mountain if you went by the path. Not so sure they'd be interested though.
***Who I'd Punch***
The cocky get at the top of the mountain who thought he was great for getting to the top before this even though he took the disabled access route. He also littered at the top.
At the top there are plaques in memory of a man who died at the top of the mountain after being struck by lightning in 2006.
You can see a video I took at the top here:
Written by Phelim McC. Don't steal what's already been stolen
Slieve Donard Hike
Slieve Donard is located in the Moune Mountains. It's the highest mountain in Northern Ireland with its summit at 850m. There are a few different approaches than can be taken to climb the summit. We choose the route from Bloody Bridge car park to Hares Gap and then followed the Mourne Wall to the summit. The path is well worn and was easy enough to follow with a basic map.
I decided to do this hike on a Friday in September. The day was pretty overcast but the visibility was still good with some light showers. What I liked about it was that it seemed liked we had the whole mountain to ourselves. We didn't meet anyone until we were at the summit and they had climbed a different route.
We choose the route from the car park at Bloody Bridge which is about 3 miles past Newcastle Co Down. There are also toilet facilities at the car park. The hike itself took about 7 hours in total but probably could have been done at a quicker pace. A round trip from Bloody Bridge to the summit of Donard is about 10k. The climb from the car park to Hares Gap wasn't too bad but the climb from Hares Gap to the summit was very steep. Not so bad going up but slightly dangerous on the way back so not to be attempted for anyone with any ankle injuries or the like.
The scenery on this walk is stunning. I have done this hike a few times and on good days it can be very popular with fellow hikers. The path overall is very rocky and good boots/shoes are a must. Overall I would recommend this hike for someone who wants a more challenging hike.