The Gap of Dunloe
by guest columnist Jeffrey Fair
We were self-catering at Blackberry Cottage in Kilcummin, 4 miles N of Killarney, for the first week of our trip (June 1-8). We chose the Killarney area because of the National Park and because it's central location makes for easy daytrips to the 3 peninsulas. One fine day (65 deg., intermittent sun, an occasional light shower), we decided that conditions were right for a visit to the Gap of Dunloe. My wife and I had taken a jaunting car ride there on our previous trip in 2000, but since there were now 4 of us (our 2 boys were with us), we passed on the expense and decided to walk in. We parked at Kate Kearney's cottage, slung our backpacks, camera bags, etc., and started up the road, politely declining the multiple offers of the jaunting car drivers just inside the gates. Picking our way around the various road apples, we strode down the blacktop as it meandered around several bends, following the stream that flows from the lakes inside the Gap. The first 100 yds. or so is lined with small trees on one side and the foothills on the other. After several minutes, we rounded a corner and the Gap opened up before us.
For those of you who've been there, you know what I felt as I gazed ahead. If you haven't been there, it'd be hard for me to describe it adequately. You say "Wow", out loud, but quietly, almost to yourself. It's not an excited wow; it's a reverent wow, a statement of awe. The combination of the towering mountains on either side, the dark waters of the lakes, and the stream tumbling under the arched bridge make an impression that will remain with you for a long time to come. It simply must be experienced to be appreciated.
Rather than simply following the road ahead, we decided that we wanted to see more of the terrain of the area, so we struck out on a dirt track off to the left, where the stream flows from the lower lake. Through the trees, we could hear the sound of the stream rushing, and made our way toward it. There were ample routes through the undergrowth, well-worn sheep trails angling in every direction. Within a few minutes, we came to the streambed, and were rewarded with the sight of several waterfalls cascading over the large dark rocks. There was a place where the stream divided and formed two smaller courses, surrounding an island capped with small, gnarled trees, and thick layers of mosses. We were able to climb across at a narrow point, and wandered there awhile. I was glad that we had gone "off-road", and commented that 99% of the people who visited the Gap of Dunloe never saw what we were seeing now. We worked our way upstream, and came to the upper end of our "island", where the stream was about 5 feet wide. Not wanting to backtrack, we made a leap of faith, trusting that the far side was solid enough to support us (I let the lighter ones go first). It wasn't quite as solid as we'd hoped, but waterproof boots proved their worth and our dogs stayed dry.
We made our way back to the road, coming out just below the Wishing Bridge, where we came to a large outcrop of rock projecting from the hillside. There was a van parked below it, a sort of minibus, and there were about a dozen people in climbing gear at various points on the rock face, which was about 18-20 feet tall. After watching them for a minute or two, I realized that this was some sort of "Outward Bound" type of outing, and that many of the people climbing the rock were blind. I found myself wondering if people who are blind have the same fear of heights that many sighted people have. I marveled at their courage, trying to imagine the level of trust they must have with their instructors.
We walked on along the road, bordered on the right by large boulders and rock walls and on the left by the stream descending from the lake ahead. Here we came to the Wishing Bridge, so called because wishes made while upon it are destined to come true. I can only speak for myself, but I believe it; on our previous trip, my wife and I had both wished (I later discovered) the same wish...that we would return to this place. And now we were back. We crossed the bridge and moved down the bank to the left, to take pictures of the bridge with the stream rolling beneath it. Our jaunting car driver on the prior trip had told us the first lake was known the Black Lake, the dark water resulting from either the peat bogs surrounding it, or from the local population's fondness for Guinness, depending on whom you ask. It is long and narrow, comparable in size to the third lake further in. The road was now to the left of the Black Lake, and we followed it some distance, occasionally stepping off into the grass as a pony trap, bicycle or car came along (locals and guests at the several B&B's in the Gap do drive in). We drifted off-road again, to examine a waterfall high on the hillside and to get a close-up view of the lakeshore.
On we went, passing a few modest homes, a teashop, the odd sheep here and there, eventually coming to a deserted famine-era village just above the small second lake. We had stopped here before, and our driver that day had described how the little community of 10 or so families had fled the area when the potato blight had made it impossible to eke out an existence there any longer. This day, we ventured into the knot of shuttered houses, peering in vain into the darkness between the door planks. There were stone-walled stock pens, outbuildings, and walls standing silently, just as they had for more than 150 years. I paused to explain to my boys what had happened here, and how the same thing had happened throughout the country. "The people who lived here had a hard life before the famine, and simply couldn't survive after the crops failed, year after year." You tend to go quiet in places such as this, out of respect for the battle nobly fought, and finally lost.
Just up the road was another abandoned building. Many of the jaunting cars turned around at this point, but we continued, not being pressed for time and thoroughly enjoying our self-guided excursion. The road began to climb along the eastern valley wall as we neared the third and final lake in the Gap. On either side of the head of the lake, the walls of the valley were near sheer faces, stretching upward for more than 800 feet. The clouds were hanging low now, and as they swept over the peaks, their lower halves were sheared away and their moisture deposited on the mountaintops, the source of numerous small waterfalls. There were cliffs on the eastern side that had been saturated, and as the sun began to heat them, we watched steam form and rise to join the clouds above. It was almost as if they were smoldering, ready to ignite. Above the third lake, the Gap begins to narrow considerably, and the road cuts through an area of huge boulders before dropping over the horizon into the Black Valley on the other side. A large grassy meadow sits below the lake, and there we passed a smartly dressed couple posing for their portrait, with the Gap of Dunloe as a glorious backdrop. On the eastern side of the lake, between the shore and the road, was an abandoned 2-story stone building, surrounded by enormous rhododendrons. I don't know the origins of the building, but if it had been a home in the past, it would have to have been the largest in the Gap, and the most beautifully situated. Beyond it, the road snaked along the base of the cliffs, becoming a ribbon of gold as the sun broke through the clouds and reflected off of the wet surface. As the clouds shifted overhead, the surface of the lake changed color, becoming alternately blue, black, then gold.
We were getting a little tired now, having hiked for 2.5 hrs, and this was as far as we would go today, but decided that we would have one more adventure before we turned back. We moved off the road to the right, through a boggy meadow, and came to the stream that connected the third lake to the second. The water was too deep for our boots to allow wading, so we gingerly stepped across some of the drier rocks in the streambed. It was slow going, and my wife opted to wait on the "dry" side as the boys and I moved toward the western wall to find the base of a slender waterfall that was flowing from high above. The meadow gave way to rocky outcroppings, and we had to follow sheep trails up through the gorse and mosses as we climbed over a rise to our destination. We came to a deep, boggy basin, filled with tall reeds growing in the shallow water. We were still a few hundred yards from the base of the waterfall, but we could see it clearly. Before us, the ground dropped off 30 or 40 feet to the bog, and we could see where peat had been cut long ago, the grass now growing on terraces above the water, some furrows cutting 6 ft into the soil.
Up the mountainside ahead, we could make out tiny white forms moving in the rocks, so distant that I had to use binoculars to confirm that they were sheep. We sat and watched them for several minutes, as we absorbed the incredible scenery of this part of the valley. The mountainside was peppered with rocks of every size and description. The waterfall cut down through the slope in a nearly straight line, tumbling through knots of large boulders as it descended. Our view of the rest of the valley was cut off by the rise we had crossed to our right, and the narrowing of the rock walls to our left. It was very peaceful, with only the sound of the falling water drifting to our ears from across the bog.
We began to make our way back to where my wife was waiting, but not before I slipped on a wet rock and sat down hard...on another rock. The impact shook my teeth, and left me with a sore _ _ _ for a couple of days, accompanied by a rather oddly placed bruise. After picking myself up, checking for damage (to myself and my camera), and regaining my composure, I went on ahead as the boys dawdled among the rocks. I found my wife sitting quietly on a large rock, having enjoyed the moments alone, watching as the clouds and sun altered the view of the lake, the rhododendrons and the pass through the upper half of the valley. I sat down (slowly) next to her and described the bog we had seen as we waited for the boys to return. A few minutes later, they appereared over the rise, crossed the stream without incident, and we began the long walk back to Kate Kearney's Cottage. We soon had to don our raingear, as showers began to fall. This made photography difficult, but encouraged us to pick up our pace, and we made good time back down the valley, covering the 2 miles in about 45 minutes. We paused only at the Wishing Bridge, where my wife and I reaffirmed our wish to return to this beautiful place yet again.
Many thanks to Jeffrey for his detailed trek article and photo.
Until next time.
Copyright © 1997-2012 Suzanne Barrett and licensors. All rights reserved.