Coast To Coast in Ireland: A Hard Day on the Blackwater

My photographs do not do justice to this day’s walk. Perhaps because I am too preoccupied with the task of survival to worry about taking puctures.

You will recall that, six days ago when we started on the Blackwater Way, I registered some concern that this trail system was reportedly less developed and more rugged than the rest of the Irish coast to coast walk. The first part, the Avondhu Way, was challenging but not overly so and we successfully completed it. The second part, the Duhallow Way, started with yesterday’s overly long walk to Millstream. But other than the distance factor, it was an enjoyable walk. Six days on the Blackwater seemed to negate any earlier concerns.

So we were expecting today’s walk, a mere 25 kilometres, to be a pleasant end to the Duhallow Way as well as its mother trail, the Blackwater Way. And the day does start gently with an easy climb out of Millstream and through a sheep pasture offering fine panoramas of the town. We pass  the ruins of Mountleader House, once a fine manor house still showing some of its architectural finery. This leads to pleasant forest tracks, more ruins and more panoramas over the green countryside. By now, it’s lunch time and we find a few flat rocks to enjoy our sandwiches and yet another spectacular view. The day is going well.

It’s not long after lunch that we encounter our first electrical fence, inconveniently strung across our path. I touch a walking pole to the wire and dull sting pulses through my arm.  Yes, it is a live wire. There’s a rudimentary stile to help us cross the fence but it’s so flimsy that the only reasonable way of crossing is to sneak between a line of barbed wire below and the charged wire above. I make it through but there is no escape for Gail. I hear the crackle of electricity arcing to her back as she winces and lurches. We are wide awake now!

The trail gets progressively worse, disappearing entirely as it crosses a series of rugged bogs. The expansive view from these high moors is amazing, but it never changes as we trudge from guidepost to guidepost at glacial pace.

My downfall – literally – comes at a steep descent down a boggy slope. We stand at the top beside a trail marker and look down, searching for another one. It’s way down at the bottom and between lies a messy no-man’s land of muck.

I take the lead, slowly working my way down, searching for stable footholds. The occasional rock. Scraps of grass. In between is a near-vertical slope of slimy mud. Water trickles down into pools of dark slop. A foot slips out from under me. The other leg folds. There is an uncomfortable twist of the knee. My rear slaps against the ground and I feel the dark, wet goo seeping through my pants. My hands are still looped to the grips of my walking sticks. One wedges itself behind a rock and snaps in two. What a mess!

I manage to pull myself up awkwardly.  The knee is feeling okay. My light khaki pants aren’t. My rear end is smeared dark brown. I fold the ruined pole to discard later on. And we continue down. But the bog is not through with me. My remaining pole sinks deep into the mud, sending me down once more. And once more a pole snaps into two useless bits.

Twenty metres. That’s the meagre height of this disastrous wall of mud. Gail makes it down intact. I’m not so lucky.

The route levels out from here but it is still slow going as we follow trail markers scattered across the rough landscape of peat. It’s a surreal moment when, in the middle of this remote land – we have not seen another person all day – my cellphone rings. It’s our host for tonight, wondering where we are. And all I can say is that we will be late, late, late. On the maps, our destination seems tangibly near, but I cannot predict what tests of our endurance the land still has in store.

Civilization of sorts does eventually make an appearance. We arrive at “The City”, but it’s something quite different. City is a rough translation of Cathair, in Irish a stone fort or castle. This is Cathair Craobh Dearg, or Fort of the Red Claw, a pagan site but referencing an early Christian saint. Pagan and early Christian rituals still take place here, among the stone ruins. Near the centre of The City is a holy well, important in pagan times and now a source for Christian Holy Water.

From here, it’s a modest tramp along dirt roads to Shrone, our destination. Shrone consists of a school, a good-sized church and a few houses scattered about. But no lodging or restaurant or pub. As pre-arranged, we phone our host who drives the 5 kilometres to take us back to her bed and breakfast, just outside Rathmore, settles us in and then drives us into town for dinner. Rathmore is certainly a bigger community than Shrone but its only restaurant and pub are already closed. For the second night running, it’s off to the local take-out for pizza.

It took us nine hours to get to Shrone. Nine hard, frustrating hours. Not that my photographs in anyway portray our difficulties. They skip over my brief, ungainly decline down a slippery slope. Our slow progress over endless stretches of uneven bog looks benign. All I see is a beautiful, moody landscape. To be fair, the Blackwater Way has been that and more, save for a few insignificant kilometres best forgotten. It took that long for the Blackwater to finally live up to its reputation as a challenging route. But we did it. We survived it. And we loved it. The rest of our walk can only be easier. Or so we hope.

By the time we return to our bed and breakfast for the night, my knee is slightly swollen, a little stiff and definitely painful. A good night’s rest should help. Or so I hope.

 

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