The Gap of Dunloe, Co Kerry, Ireland
The Gap of Dunloe, Co Kerry, Ireland: in which we have an adventure, involving an early awakening, horses, mountains, rain, a boat ride, extreme rain, and great travel companions.
We had heard so much about viewing the Gap of Dunloe, one of the many beauties in Co Kerry. The Gap of Dunloe is a narrow mountain pass, meandering between Macgillycuddy's Reeks (a mountain range that spreads throughout the Ring of Kerry) and the Purple Mountain (thus named because of the purple shale that covers the top of the mountain, and a much smaller mountain range). There are five lakes within the Gap (Coosaun Lough, Black Lake, Cushnavally Lake, Auger Lake, and Black Lough) connected by the River Loe. There's a beautiful old arch bridge, called the Wishing Bridge (yes, we made our wishes!) about halfway up. The inner part of the Gap is privately owned, and the outer parts of the mountains are part of Killarney National Park. In Gaelic, this part of Co Kerry is called Bearna an Choimín agus Gleann Dubh.
We got up early and drove the twisting roads of the Ring of Kerry, from Westcove into Killarney. Even at 9am, Killarney was bustling. We headed into Deros Tours in downtown Killarney, recommended by both of the Ireland Experts we've interviewed, Pat Preston and Michele Erdvig. Although you can go through the Gap by yourself, the roads are very small and windy, and difficult in a car. So...
We boarded a small van with one other couple, Carole and Pat from Vancouver. They were the perfect people to adventure with on this day! We drove to Kate Kearney's Cottage, a small restaurant/pub/gift shop area where people can arrange for a pony trap ride (20 euros per person, if a 4-person cart is full), or arrange to ride a horse, or choose to walk (500 ft elevation, 10km). We chose to go together in the pony cart with Shane, our guide, and our horse Dawn. Dawn was a very sturdy horse but the elevation was so high that at times, Ed, Carole, and Pat all got out and hiked up the steepest inclines. Shane is one of 32 men that work in rotation on the pony hire, called Gap Poneymen. This rotation system has been in effect since the 1920s, and has been passed down within families since then. Shane was a personable guide, telling us the different locations we were passing through, and ably handling Dawn throughout the trek.
there are sheep everywhere...
that's the road we'll take, that tiny winding one
The views were spectacular - awe-inspiring, and difficult to describe. It's a quiet kind of beauty, these stately mountains that have existed for millenia. The shadows of the clouds on the mountains constantly threw different patterns of light. We were rained on - mostly light sprinkles. You could see the rain coming, in sheets across the mountains. Carole was an most avid walker, almost sprinting ahead despite the great incline, twisty route, and rain! The mountains seemed to go on and on, as did the road. A few cars passed us, but mostly we saw bikers, hikers, and lots of sheep. There are about 40 or so families that live within the Gap. There were also abandoned buildings, from when people fled during the Great Potato Famine. There is a school in the Gap, the Gap of Dunloe National School - imagine learning in such a beautiful place!
Looking back at where we'd come
Dawn, checking us out
Midway up, between Coosaun Lough and Black Lake, there is an old stone bridge, called the Wishing Bridge, for if you make a wish while standing there, it is supposed to come true. We also passed plenty of small waterfalls, sprouting from rock faces and then meandering along the single-track road.
Wishing Bridge, in the distance
After reaching the highest part of the trek, we descended to a beautiful area in the Black Valley, on a river where sheep graze. Visitors can see this from another angle, if they stop and look at Ladies' View, part of the Killarney National Park and thus named for the favorite resting spot that Queen Victoria's ladies in waiting saw in 1861, when they stopped to take in the view.
You can see the rain falling in sheets across the mountains
We crossed an old stone bridge, walked up a path, and emerged at Lord Brandon's Cottage. This is an old hunting lodge of Lord Brandon's (a literary gent, 1771-1832) that was turned into an open air cafe, with sandwiches, hot soup, desserts, hot tea (necessary!), and even espressos offered for sale.
heading down and around
Lord Brandon's cottage
We rested a while, until our boatman met us and we took off on the Gearhameen River for the ride home, which took us through three lakes - the Upper, Middle & Lower Lakes - to historic Ross Castle, in Killarney.
The first part of the boating trip was quite pleasant, with the front of the boat loaded up with bikes from the family that accompanied us. Charlie, the boatman's dog, made friends of us all. The path we took meandered among ancient rock slides that appeared as if a giant had tossed these enormous rocks around, interspersed with reeds and shallows. We even spotted an eagle, soaring high.
Now comes the good part (and alas, no photos!). Nearing the end of our journey, the rain came down. And down. Hard, sleeting rain. We had pulled tarps over our laps, and Carole and Pat had arranged an extra life jacket over our daughter Lillie, who was asleep on Pat's shoulder, to keep her dry. Could it get worse? The waves on the Lower Lake were quite high, and the boat was quite low. Pat and I were in the front seats, and took most of the spray that came over the bow. Literally soaked, it was all we could do to keep our heads down, trying to huddle under the tarp as best we could. Even the boatman, a jovial man with the usual Irish wit, was just concentrating on getting us to the castle safely.
Finally, we made it. Pat jumped from the boat and handed us all up, and we sprinted for cover. A nearby tree did well. We found our van from Deros - a warm haven - and drove back into Killarney. WHAT a trip. Stunning views, convivial fellow adventurers, the stark beauty of nature - all conspired to make this a day in Ireland we won't forget.
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All photos courtesy and copyright Jessie Voigts