Start & Finish: At a small car park on the R584, 5km from Macroom, Grid Reference 329 714
How to get there: Turn off the N22 just east of Macroom onto R584, Inchigeelagh, Gougane Barra Road. The car park is 2.7km from the junction. Drive slowly as you get near as it is not signposted.
Time: 2- 3 hours. Distance: 6 km.
Ascent: None. Suitability: Easy
Think: The Everglades in Florida. Think: The Mississippi Delta. Think: The Gearagh near Macroom in Co Cork. On a smaller scale than the former, The Gearagh (from the Irish "An Gaorthadh", the wooded river) has a similar pattern of streams, waterways, thickly wooded islands, overgrown marshlands and a variety of wildlife; but, thankfully, no crocodiles. Although the local who assured me of this was wearing crocodile-skin wellington boots, so I'm not too sure about that.
A statutory nature reserve, The Gearagh, with its groves of oak, ash, hazel and hawthorn, is one of the few alluvial forests in Europe and the only one west of the River Rhine. It was formed at the end of the Ice Age when the meltwater from the great glacier which originated in Com Rua in Gougane Barra gushed out from the confines of the upper Lee Valley. The abrupt change in velocity resulted in the deposition of great quantities of rock and soil which formed islands separated by numerous streams. It was on these that the woodlands developed. Sadly, several hundred acres were clear-felled in the 1950s as a hydro-electric scheme was developed downstream. Families who had farmed in the area for generations were relocated. Some of the tracks on which you will be walking are the old roadways that led to their homes.
The layout of the walkways is quite straightforward, with the central path running from west to east. At intervals along the way a number of inviting trails draw you into the heart of the woodland.
The first part of the walk is a causeway on either side of which the stark, black stumps of the felled oaks create an eerie waterscape from which you could well imagine some exotic creature surfacing. Ahead of you stretches a tunnel formed by the arching branches of oaks heavy with summer foliage, beneath which seasonal wildflowers make an artist’s palette of the undergrowth.
The first path on the right leads to a meadow encircled by hazel and hawthorn leading to a smaller clearing which gives you a view over reed beds south towards the distinctive profile of the west Cork mountains. There is no need to explore the second path on the right as this will be your return route.
The two tracks on the left are the most interesting as they wind their way through the alluvial oak wood, with moss-covered trees often lying at angles as their roots are pulled out of the moist soil. They emerge on the lake edge, giving views of densely covered shorelines and islands which form a richly textured tapestry in autumn.
At the far end, turn right on to a quiet country road. Keep right and you will come to a gateway and stile which leads back onto the main track. By the way, do go on a breezy day as alluvial woodlands are beloved of midges.
A perfect way to end the day is to head on to Gougane Barra to inspect the bleak cliffs of Com Rua where the glacier originated.