The Gap of Dunloe

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Do I need to explain why you might like to cross the Gap of Dunloe – a high pass in the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks in County Kerry? It is simply beautiful – with mighty mountains looming down at you, streams burbling beside you, the occasional tea-brown lake, and the smell of sweet Irish air.

Until recently there was only a rough track across the pass. But it is now a tarmacked road, accessible for cars. As most people cross it by almost any other means (walking, cycling, on horseback or in a pony cart) driving is hazardous. However, it does mean that the high pass is now accessible to the disabled who are unable to travel by other means, and I certainly don’t think anyone should be denied access.

As some of you know, I’m not one for organised tours, but it is the most sensible way to cross the Gap in a day. You can buy tickets in Killarney – from O’Connor’s pub, from the Tourist Information, and from your hotel. It will feel a bit haphazard but if you trust the process it is fine.

My last trip (I’ve done it three times, that’s how much I love it) began at O’Connor’s pub, in a “vintage bus.” I think it might have been an old van done up to look like a bus, but that wasn’t a problem. It certainly rattled as it went along, which convinced some of the Americans.

You can start at each end of the Gap. On this trip I began with the boat trip through the Lakes of Killarney. Thirteen miles through shallow water, with the guide naming mountains and telling tales but I forgot them instantly as I was too intent at gazing at the view. But there are stories of the little people in these mountains, elves and fairies, tales of derring-do and treachery. For this is Ireland and the country is full of such stories.

The water, when I visited, was unusually shallow; small beaches have appeared at the sides of the Lakes, and the water shushed in tiny waves as we passed. There are wide stretches – the mountains distant and blue. And then the waters narrow and race through small channels, such as the Meeting of the Waters – where the water was so shallow we had to get out and walk a little way.

I clambered out at Lord Brandon’s Cottage, where a reasonable café set me up for the next stretch. (It’s not luxury, but sandwiches are freshly made and not wrapped in cling film.).

And so to the Gap itself. My cycling days are long gone, but I’m a great walker. However, I needed to walk seven miles in three hours, which should be no problem except I know how steep this is. It would take me that long to get to the top.

Which leaves horse riding, or a pony cart. On previous occasions, both with my children, I’ve ridden across with them. The ponies, of course, trot this path every day and know exactly where they want to stop for water, or to generally dawdle ready for the next steep bit. The riders, of course, have no idea; and with our limited riding experience it felt like an adventure. Nobody fell off, which we considered made the trip a success.

This time I was on my own, and I wasn’t convinced I could manage a pony without my girls alongside me. And so I opted for the pony cart. The only real difference between that and riding is not being able to fall out of a pony cart. They are both equally uncomfortable. But this time I could gawp at the view, and take photographs. The weather was kind; raptors hovered on the high thermals; the pony trotted and the cart clattered up the tarmac and it was – as ever – wonderful.

I made it back in good time to meet the bus to take me back to Killarney. (Two young people who walked it were only just in time.) There was less chatter in the bus now. Not only because most people were tired. But also because there is something magical about the Gap of Dunloe. It is commercialised in places, and maybe I should ask questions about the welfare of ponies that cross it every day. But step away, just a few feet, from the café and the roadway, and still the beauty and the magic of Ireland hangs in the air.

You might even find yourself believing in Leprechauns.

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