The Kerry Way is the last formal trail we will follow on our walk across Ireland. It starts innocently enough in Killarney’s city centre, across the street from the Tourist Information Office. An appropriate location given the crush of largely North American visitors we encountered last night.
Today, our route starts with an urbane exit from the city following busy roads, passing a long string of row housing and hotels, shops and gas stations. Buildings give way to tall fences and elaborate gates hiding golf courses and exclusive resorts. The path finally diverts into the woods of Killarney National Park. Loud diesels are supplanted with the hushed tones of wind and leaves.
The trail weaves alongside the shore of Lough Leane, a perfectly reflective pool mirroring distant mountain peaks. We are on our own, alone in the woods, but only temporarily. As we pass behind yesterday’s port of call, Muckross Abbey, our trail merges with a parallel path of cyclists, tourists on horse drawn carriages, lost walkers studying trail maps. They are all converging on Muckross House, a fine Tudor mansion once used as a hunting lodge and now a busy tourist attraction.
We and a few stray hikers venture past the house and back into the woods before, once again, converging with heavy traffic at Torc Waterfall. It’s a reasonable display of nature’s waterworks and photogenic enough to attract a crowd of photographers armed with tripods. More importantly, this is the last comfortably-attained destination for car and bus-bound visitors. As we loop up and around the waterfall, pedestrian traffic dwindles to a trickle.
To be sure, the Kerry Way is a popular trail. Yes, we are gaining splendid isolation as we progress but, no, we are never totally alone. There are regular encounters with fellow hikers and day-walkers. Nor is it rugged in the same way the Blackwater Way can be called hard going. On the Kerry Way, rough boglands are easily traversed on old roads and boardwalks of railway ties.
It is easy to see why the trail so well developed. The scenery is spectacular, getting better as we move further away from the civilization of Killarney. Low mountains line the edges of our path through open valleys. At our feet, mountain streams trickle through stoney bog. We lunch silently, listening to creek water cascading over a small cliff to a small pool. A fine place to rest and enjoy a sandwich. Further along the trail we come across Lord Brandon’s Cottage. Here, in this secluded mountain valley, is the surprise apparition of a patio cafe. A place to stop for a latte and pastry while taking in the scenery before moving on and back into the wilderness.
We arrive at Black Valley, our destination after a comfortably brief 20 kilometres. It’s not particularly black but terribly beautiful, not wild but barely inhabited. Walls of mountains rise on all sides, emphasizing the sweet remoteness of this place. Narrow roads cross the basin, connecting rare outcrops of farmsteads. Children laugh behind the windows of a small school. A truck driver pulls alongside to ask where we come from. In between is a concert of bleating sheep.
We wind our way up and down the gently sloped valley floor until we arrive at Shamrock Farmhouse, our home for the night. After a quick clean-up in our room, our elderly host escorts us back outside, to a picnic table perched outside her front door. It’s a warm evening. So calm. So quiet. A carpet of lush green pasture unrolls down to the valley floor and back up a backdrop of hazy blue mountains. A shaggy horse lazily crosses our vista. Our host slides a tray onto the table. Tea, coffee, homemade scones, a jar of preserves, some clotted cream. Perfect companions to this far off paradise.
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