Ireland part 3 – Connemara (Killary Harbour and the Twelve Bens)

by backpackingbongos

The previous days thunderstorms cleaned the air and we awoke to sunshine for the first time since reaching the west coast.  After a lazy morning we set off to Leenaun the setting for the film ‘The field‘ for lunch and to do a bit of tourist stuff.  The village lies at the head of Killary Harbour which is Irelands only fjord at 16km long.  Just outside of the village the Erriff river enters the fjord at a really scenic spot and just upstream is the low but powerful Aasleagh waterfall.

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Killary harbour and the famine relief road

A minor road leaves the main N59 and passes the dramatic Lough Fee and Lough Muck, it then branches off and twists and turns before reaching Killary bay little.  We squeezed the van into a small spot and set off to climb Salrock pass which gave stunning views back down to the bay.  Movement to our left turned out to be a herd of wild goats on the crags, amongst them a huge billy complete with beard and horns.

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Behind us was the small peak of Benchoona which later in the week would prove difficult getting down from, more about that in another post!

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The top of the pass was soon reached with views that extended right down to Leenaun at the head of the fjord.  The route was now simple, just follow the well constructed famine road to Killary harbour.

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Once at the harbour it was a short walk back to the car.  It was great to get out in the sunshine which has been lacking up to this point, but I did find myself staring longingly at the mountains.  Today would have been the perfect day to have climbed up high.  Tomorrow I would set off solo to attempt to climb some of the Twelve bens from the national park centre.  I kept my fingers crossed that the weather would hold!

The Polladirk river horseshoe – Benbrack 582m – Muckanaght 654m – Bencullagh 632m – Maumonght 602m

I should have crossed my fingers harder because when I woke up the following morning the mountains were once again hidden behind veils of mist.  I was comfy in the van so I went back to sleep again with the hope that the rain might go away!  A couple of hours later and I could see the cloud base lifting off the mountains from the campsite, so I packed my rucksack and went for it.

The rain had stopped by the time I reached the national park entrance and took the track signed ‘bog road’.  This gave good easy walking for the first kilometre or so before it veered to the left to climb Diamond hill.  My route was to continue in a straight line following the Owengarve river to its watershed and then join the Polladirk river.  A distance of only a couple of miles but across the toughest terrain I have ever encountered.  Thigh high purple moor grass hiding monster tussocks and deep puddles, deep heather and blanket bog that gave the impression of walking over a giant wobbly jelly.  It was hell.  Stupidly I did not put on my gaiters and within minutes my legs were soaked and my boots filled with water from the saturated deep vegetation.  I ploughed on for a good half hour and then it started to rain.  I then made another mistake by not putting on my waterproofs as it was so warm and humid.  I thought that my paramo windproof would suffice but I soon had water trickling down my back.  My world turned into an internal misery of bog and a monochrome landscape filled with mist and curtains of rain.  I very nearly turned back at that point but decided to a least trudge on to the source of the Owengarve river to see if the terrain got any better from that point.

Well it did not!  But at least the rain stopped and the warmth meant that I dried out pretty quickly.  My map showed a large area of bog between me and the bridge marked on the map and it didn’t disappoint.  A bit alarming when the ground wobbles around you but at least less vegetation made the going a bit easier.  I reached the bridge and found a bit of a problem, a high deer fence had been built across it on my side of the river.  I tried to cross but would have fell in.  So I gingerly climbed up and over the fence, crossed the bridge then climbed back over the fence on the other side.  I reached the Polladirk river which was larger than expected, seeing as my feet were already wet I just ploughed straight across with water to my knees.  There was a large boulder a couple of hundred metres away where I stripped off to dry out and get some food in me and take in the wild surroundings.  The photos really don’t do justice to how high and tough that grass is!

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I could have procrastinated for ever on that rock but a decision had to be made about my onward route.  I had thought about following the river to the head of the valley but I would have rather gnawed off my own arm than walk across more bogs.  I decided to climb Benbrack, which would still include a bit of a slog to get there.

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I eventually got to the col between it and Knockbrack and I have to admit that I was totally knackered, maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew?  I still had 4 mountains to climb and then return by the hell bog tussock route I had come in on.  I sat down and pondered again!  I soon snapped out of it and continued climbing what was now an easy rocky ridge to get to the summit plateau.  It was much more complex that it looks on the map and I was pleased to be standing at the summit cairn with great views over the rest of the range.

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The descent to the next col was through easy broken rocky terrain.  As usual the descent was fairly complex and I could imagine that in mist you would have to be careful not to descend into Glencorbet.  Even with clear visibility I kept finding myself going too far to the left.

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The col gave a view down the whole length of the Polladirk river with Diamond hill in the distance.

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My next objective was Muckanaght the highest point of the walk, towering above the col.

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The short cropped grass was greasy so I decided to contour to a higher col and climb it by its easier east ridge where I got views into Glenowengin.

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A final steep pull to the summit with a view across the vast bogs of Connemara towards the coast.  A few more of the Twelve bens also put in an appearance.

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There was one more large drop to a col to go before climbing Bencullagh, again there is a change with the terrain becoming rockier.

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Thankfully the drop and climb to the last peak of the day Maumonght was fairly small and I had a long rest at the summit.  A quick call to my partner to let her know that I would be much longer than planned, I may not be back for dinner was the message.  It was then a long steady descent down the north ridge with the boggy grassy valley looking like velvet from a distance.

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The lower down I got the tougher the vegetation got, but I was soon back at the bridge and climbing over the watershed where I gave a final look over my shoulder to the peaks I had climbed.

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I had a fair bit of slogging to get back to the van so I plugged myself into my ipod and sang my way across the bogs taking it much slower this time.  In the early evening sunshine I enjoyed it and experience of the route meant that I could pick out an easier line.  Within an hour I was close to the track and a slightly different route led me to this picturesque spot.

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Almost exactly ten hours after leaving it I arrived back at the van absolutely shattered.  I had just done one of the hardest walks of my life over some of the most demanding terrain.  The mountains had just topped 2000ft but they could give any Scottish Munro a run for their money.  The amount of ticks I had brushed off during the day was as bad as you get in the highlands and the horseflies were evil enough to get in a flap over.  But boy was I pleased with myself!

Cregg hill – 297m

Maybe it is cheating to drive to the top of a hill?  Clegg hill has a very rough minor road leading to its summit for access to the TV mast.  A worthwhile excursion for when you are feeling lazy and fancy a view without any physical effort.  It looks like a good access point to the Twelve bens across Lough Nahillion if you don’t mind a bit of bog walking!

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4 Comments to “Ireland part 3 – Connemara (Killary Harbour and the Twelve Bens)”

  1. They look good. But sound rather hard to do. So when you going back to backpack them and get some nice wildcamps in?

  2. Would love to go back and wildcamp. Regretted not taking my backpacking gear but that would have only made me unpopular with my partner!

  3. Thank you very much for this full, clear, entertaining and well-photographed account. Glad you enjoyed your day out! As for me, hearing about the bogs, lack of paths, and numerous horseflies and ticks, well, what can I say? I feel really tempted … to go hiking somewhere else.

  4. Cheers for the comment! It was a bit of a nightmare but the scenery more than made up for it, as wild a place as anywhere I have ever been. I could see why there was no one else on the hills!

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