After so many years of traveling, I know how to spot a problem in the itinerary.
“Let’s talk about the Gap of Dunloe hike,” I said to Victor. “We have three hours to hike 11 kilometers through a mountain pass? Exactly three hours or we miss the boat that takes us to Ross Castle?”
“We can take a horse-drawn wagon…” Victor said unconvincingly. It really sounded like he didn’t want to take the wagon.
Here’s the thing. Just because I can spot a problem in the itinerary, doesn’t mean I have the foresight or the intuition to fix it.
“Three hours for 11 kilometers sounds reasonable,” I said. “It won't be a problem.”
If you knew, as you read this, that the next sentence would be, “Spoiler Alert: There was definitely a problem!”, then you must have read some of my other stories. There is usually some kind of a problem. At this point, I honestly don’t know where I get the optimism to think overwise.
Anyway, back to the Gap of Dunloe and the many mistakes that were made.
Mistake #1. Trusting fellow travelers.
The multitude of blogs that we read all made it sound easy and very doable. “No matter what shape you are in”, “all physical levels accessible”, and “easy walking distance” were all thrown around. Once we were picked up by our bus to be taken to Kate Kearney’s Cottage, where the narrow mountain pass begins, the driver described our upcoming adventure. The mountain pass was forged between the MacGillycuddy Reeks and Purple Mountain by glacial flows. The road winds through the pass and descends into The Black Valley passing five lakes. There is a picturesque 'Wishing Bridge' where we must stop to take photos! The last boat will leave from Lord Brandon’s Cottage at exactly 2 pm. Anyone who doesn’t make it to that last boat on time will need to find alternative transportation or possibly overnight accommodations until the next batch of boats leaves tomorrow. By the way, who wants to hire a wagon and who wants to hike?
More than half of the bus passengers raised their hands for the “hike” option. One older woman from the back even excitedly yelped “HIKE!”. Most of these people were women over 50 on the “Ireland Girl’s Trip!” as they kept telling everyone, and the rest were families with young children. At his point, I felt very reassured in our decision to hike. After all, if all these people can make it through the hike in three hours, then so can I!
Not a single one of them hiked the gap. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if the horse carriage drivers talked some sense into them, or if the children demanded to ride the whimsical-looking wagons and the “Ireland Girl’s Trip” women took too long buying snacks and queuing up in the bathroom to make the hike, but we were the only hikers on the road that day.
Mistake #2. Calculating the midway point.
The driver explained that once you pass two lakes and the road starts winding down, you are halfway there. We passed two lakes and an hour later, the road was still winding up into the mountains. I don’t know if I misunderstood his thick Irish accent or if he was just terrible at giving instructions, but at no point did I understand when we were at half point. And that made it very hard to calculate how much time we had left and how much time we could allow ourselves to stare at lakes, mountain tops, rolling valleys, and gorgeous greenery. How many pictures we could take, how many times we could pause to breathe the crisp mountain air, and how often we could get off the road to get a closer look at a sheep or climb a rock for a better view.
The answer to all of these questions, in case you are wondering, is “None.” If you just walk 11 kilometers with possibly a few brief pauses for pictures, you will arrive at Lord Brandon’s Cottage in plenty of time to even grab a quick lunch before boarding the boat. But, if you want to google “Irish poetry” while standing on a rock in the middle of the Dunloe pass because beauty like this requires immediate recitation of praises and blessings that only a poet can deliver, then you made a mistake.
Mistake #3. Rejecting the horse-drawn wagon.
Wait a minute, didn’t we already make this mistake, at the very beginning of the hike? Why bring it up now? Well, we managed to make it twice. We have been hiking for over two and a half hours and the road has been descending for a while now. We could see the village underneath and the end of the hike couldn’t possibly be too far away. An empty horse wagon, returning from dropping off our fellow bus passengers, trotted towards us.
“Would you like a ride to Lord Brandon’s Cottage?” The driver asked.
A smarter person would have wondered why they would be offering a ride at what is seemingly the end of the hike. We, on the other hand, just politely refused. We are not smarter people.
Mistake #4. Finding the boat.
Ten minutes later, Victor turned to me, and struggling to sound casual, said, “I think I’ll just run ahead. Just in case, you know. I’ll hold the boat, so they don’t leave without us.”
I decided to play along and pretend that I wasn’t panicking as well. “See you at the boat!”
The road kept winding. I sped up my step, no longer admiring the views around me, just concentrating on covering as much distance as I could. I speed-walked through the village and saw the long-awaited sign “Killarney National Park. Lord Brandon’s Cottage.” I finally arrived! But where was the boat?
The road kept winding. For the next ten minutes, I ran through the forest, across the bridge, and through a gate of a stone wall. This must be the actual cottage! But where was the boat?
I came across a group of people enjoying a leisurely lunch on the deck of the cottage.
“Wrong way!” they yelled at me, as I attempted to run past the deck, “The boat is that way!”
I couldn’t see a boat, all I saw was a small canal, surrounded by tall grass on both sides. I ran through the field. The path kept winding. Where was the boat? How much further could it possibly be?
Mistake #5. Not researching the boat.
This is one of those rare mistakes that has two parts.
One. I was panicking that I couldn’t see the boat because I was imagining a large cabin boat or a ferry-type boat, which would certainly be visible on the horizon, as I ran alongside the canal. What I did finally stumble over was a small rowboat with a motor attached. It sat so low in the water, that I wouldn’t see it at all if it wasn’t for Victor waving to me from the shore.
Two. The boat I was imagining had a bathroom on board. This boat had life jackets, two benches, and one long wooden paddle. I needed to pee for the last half an hour, an urge I ignored because I was too busy trying not to panic about missing this boat while running through the endless Killarney National Park. Now, standing just a few feet away from the boat, the full weight of this mistake settled right on top of my bladder.
“I am sorry!!!” I yelled to Victor and ran into the tall grass of the field. As soon as I was clear, I crouched in the field and finally relieved myself. I fixed my clothes and tried to look casual as I strolled towards the boat, blades of grass sticking out of my waist belt.
Victor, to his credit, immediately realized what was happening and tried his best to divert all attention to himself and away from a woman who was clearly peeing in the field. He started loudly talking to the other tourists onboard, asking the helmsman random questions about the boat, and putting on a whole show of clumsily putting on the life jacket incorrectly.
Finally, we settled into the boat (the last boat of the day!) and took off. The boat ride was gorgeous, and most importantly, relaxing after the hectic end of the hike.
Mistake #6. The Worst Mistake One Can Make: Not going to the Gap of Dunloe.
Thankfully, that was the one mistake we managed to avoid. But Rick Steves, in his Ireland guidebook, doesn’t even mention Gap of Dunloe and he is overall somewhat dismissive of the Killarney National Park. Do not make the mistake of skipping this hike! It was easily the most impressive part of our trip. Just be aware of mistakes #1 through #5.