The initial stretch up on to the Brandon range may seem a tad underwhelming, but don’t be fooled, for these are peaks that reveal their secrets slowly, writes John G O’Dwyer
IT’S A JOURNEY that fills me with pulse-raising anticipation. Once the unsightly sprawl of Tralee is left behind I can’t avoid an excited feeling of entering a truly different place where time matters less. Despite some inroads from mass tourism, the Dingle Peninsula thankfully remains mostly unkempt, unpackaged and untamed.
And with startlingly sheer cliffs, improbably huge boulders and indelible views, the hills atop this peninsula are indeed some of Ireland’s finest. The prince among these uplands is undoubtedly the elongated necklace linking the Conor Pass to the coast.
From the head of this pass, countless visitors marvel each summer at the relentlessly mournful landscape of wet fields, lonesome lakes and timeless mountains. And indeed the Brandon range once overlooked a region filled with sad stories of poverty and emigration.
But these mountains also gaze on many wonderfully austere places in an intricate landscape that is difficult to render productive but captivating to explore. Here we have a Pandora’s Box for walkers who enjoy strenuous legwork among superb hills adorned with many antiquities and a rich folklore.
One such outing begins at Faha (see panel), where a trail leads from a farmyard to open mountainside. This waymarked route passes a grotto and then climbs steadily up a rather dull hill before contouring around a shoulder. Don’t be disheartened by the innocuous start, for Brandon is a mountain that reveals its secrets slowly. Soon you will have your first views of superb, ice-gouged Coumaknock, with its morosely bare rock and string of paternoster lakes.
Now leave the trail as it enters the coum and descend to the left, passing near some tiny lakes and waterfalls until you reach a much larger body of water, Lough Cruttia. Cross a stream where it enters Cruttia, then continue to contour along the western shore.
When a grassy incline leading steeply upwards to an impressive rockfall appears on your right, follow it and soon you will be boulder-hopping across the unbelievably immense stomes of Granceol.
This Gaelic name reputedly comes from the ugly musical sounds created by these rocks as they crashed from the mountainside in high winds.
Beyond Granceol you seem locked within the confines of a steep hanging valley. Only one route offers escape. On your left, and close against the sheer north face of elegant Brandon Peak, a ramp dog-legs easily upwards to Brandon Ridge. Follow this, being careful not to dislodge the many loose rocks. Once on the ridge the full glory of the Brandon range becomes apparent. The vista is immense, but your eyes will be instantly drawn to one feature: the outrageously photogenic Blasket Islands silhouetted like a darkened fleet anchored in the western ocean.
Adrenalin addicts can now follow the crest of the ridge north while enjoying the memorable views, monstrous buttresses, scarifying gullies and enormous cliffs. Others will be content to take easier ground just left of the crest and follow first a wall and then fence posts for almost three kilometres to the 952m summit of Mount Brandon.
Here you are standing on one of Ireland’s most revered mountaintops, one that has long been – indeed still is – a place of pilgrimage. The ruined building is referred to as St Brendan’s oratory; the saint is reputed to have meditated here before setting out on a voyage that many believe took him to North America.
From the summit, descend a well-trodden path northwards until a sign points the descent route to your right. The downward path seems intimidating, but it isn’t really, and soon you are back on the floor of Coumaknock. From here a rough trail indicated by occasional arrows on the rock contours left, then follows the east side of the coum to reach the point from which you earlier began your descent to Lough Cruttia. Now just retrace your step to the farmyard at Faha.
Today’s newspaper contains the first part of The Irish Times Book of Irish Walks. The map for its Slieve Donard route is incorrect. You can download the correct version from www.irish times.com/travel
Brandon range, Co Kerry
Getting thereTake the N86 from Tralee and continue for the Conor Pass. Then follow the signs right for Cloghane. Keep going through the village, then take the second left, which leads to a farmyard with limited parking.
Time Five or six hours.
SuitabilityThis is essentially a walking route and is relatively straightforward to navigate, but be aware that it reaches high altitude and crosses challenging, isolated terrain. So come well-equipped with warm clothing and rain gear. Carry a map and compass and get out early, to avoid descending in fading light.
Map Ordnance Survey Ireland Discovery Series 70.
AccommodationO’Connor’s Pub in Cloghane (066-7138113) is a traditional hang-out for walkers, offering good food and comfortable accommodation. Benagh (066-7138142) is a spacious BB, 10 minutes’ walk from Cloghane, that remains open throughout the year.