Above: 7.05am on the 3rd June 2006 – Setting out to walk 3 ranges across 3 counties in 3 days.
It was five past seven in the morning and there was actually eleven of us lining up for our “starting out” photo near Kilbeheny in the Galtee Mountains. We had driven up the wrong road of course but I decided that we had better plough on from where we had ended up; having myself been just a little late for our 5.30am meeting at the Hypercentre in Waterford. The excuse was that we had been collecting TC and all that that involves and we had also met the very late end of Bryan Butler’s stag party. On our way up Emily had managed to burst open a bird with the front of her car, so for me all the portents for a successful expedition were there (dead creatures, a late start and already on the wrong track). There might have actually been a bit of nervousness all round as what we were taking on as a group was going to be quite a challenge. The route had been on my mind for years. Whether you are in the Galtees, Comeraghs or Knockmealdowns you always find yourself looking across to the other two ranges and they never seem that far away. There was even rumours of other people having done this “Three Counties” walk linking all three ranges and it is just the sort of long distance mountaineering route that I like to get my teeth into every now and again. Fortunately I know a few people as daft as me and two days after Christmas on a clear day in the Nire Valley I came out with my now famous “wouldn’t it be a good idea if…”. The June weekend was agreed upon and now we were about to set out.
Cnoc an Tairbh at 692 metres was to be our lung opener for the day and after acrobatics over a few barbed wire fences we eventually managed to get onto its slopes. Below us we could see Billy (on the right road) dropping of Siobhan and her sister Ger and who were joining us for the route. Two things surprised us on the way up to our first peak. The first was the heat – how could it be so warm in Ireland at 7am in the morning? The second was the sudden appearance of Sid in a turban – it was going to be one of those kind of days. All thirteen of us chewed up Cnoc an Tairbh without any difficulty, reapplied the suncream and then pointed ourselves in the direction of Galtymore via the peaks of Ladhar an Chapaill, Carraig na Binne and Sliabh Chois na Binne. It always seems to me that once you get to the top of Ladhar an Chapaill and pick up the stone wall that runs across to Galtymore from there, that the Galtees are a very easy range to traverse. Today the visibility was crystal clear. Aidan reckoned we could see the Reeks in Kerry and we could definitely see the Wicklow Mountains and the Blackstairs. Just beneath us the Golden Vale under a clear blue sky never looked so rich and impressive. That morning there was surely people on mountain peaks all over the world but I was certain that there was none that had it better than us.
While we collected ourselves for the pull across and up onto Galtymore, Gary resurrected his juggling skills while the rest of us tried to figure out if the large brown insects that were very attracted to us were going to bite. The descent from Galtymore seemed harder than the ascent. Next up was Galtybeag which passed quickly although a quick dip in Lough Diheen below us would have been very welcome by then. It was on this leg that we also discovered a rival to TC for talking people up and down mountains in the form of Ger – didn’t slow her down one bit though. We took our first good rest at the strange rocky outcrop of O’Lochlainns Castle where the wiser travellers snuck into the shade. From there it was on to An Grianan and but for the view into Loch Mhuscrai its ascent would never seem worthwhile. Next we had a long 600 metre descent down to the youth hostel and onto the Black Road. On the way down we had time to notice that Deirdre officially had the pinkest and most perfect nail varnish ever to be seen on the Irish hills. To be fair though she had given our three ranges in three days walk an added purpose. She was headed working with the poor of Thailand for the summer so our walk sponsorship was going to help her out in her fundraising. With all of these sponsors we were under a bit of added pressure to definitely make it all the way.
Sadly there are parts of the Galtees where barbed wire fences have spread like a disease and after we negotiated a few and wandered the forest for a bit, we finally made it to the youth hostel. There, like angels, Betty and Emily were waiting with water, fruit, many many nutri grains, a ton of chocolate and our runners which we were going to change into for our first tough road walking section. We had covered about 16k across the mountains but there was another 20 or so to come so as to bring us across to the Vee and the foot of the Knockmealdowns. As we relaxed, we were only mildly concerned that Roddy had disappeared along with a few others. They had no map but as a forester he would surely lead them in the right direction. When we eventually came across them coming the wrong way up the Black Road, Kevin insisted that they had not been lost but they certainly seemed glad to see us and their runners.
Our route to the Vee took us first through the village of Burncourt where local man and Spanish Civil War hero, Kit Conway, who died at the Battle of Jarama in 1937 is commemorated. The road on to Clogheen was very quiet and as we took its twists and turns, I was struck by how we were seeing a part of Ireland in a way that we rarely did. Normally you race by in the car and miss the life in the hedgerows, the peace, the slow pace of life and the atmosphere of these places that you could easily think Ireland had lost way back in the last century. Interestingly too, at each crossroads we were six kilometres from Ballyporeen and when I measured that last “1km” to Clogheen on the map it was of course well over one mile. The ice creams at Clogheen tasted superb and were well deserved. Sitting outside the shop, we attracted the somewhat ragged local comedian who got through ten of the twenty or so jokes he had made up himself before the girls could take no more. The one about our Lady of Knock certainly cracked Claire up though. After this comedic interlude had passed, news came though that Roddy was afflicted with ire, Ken could walk no more and when Gary arrived he was fine but going for pints. We left them to be rescued by Ginter and Billy.
Billy to be fair had also been out walking for the day on an alternative route to ours along the river Suir with his daughter and a few of her friends who were completing the 50k walk challenge of their President’s Award. Ginter had been up early too and had dropped us off at the Galtees in the morning but had drawn the line there. Ginter has all the characteristics required to be a good mountaineer – strong, stubborn and always up for a few bottles. I could picture him storming to the top of any high altitude peak – if only he could sort out those lungs. Clogheen to the Vee was put the head down time. We were moving fast but still had time to stop and appreciate the “Park and Ride” at Killballyboy Wood. The rhododendrons have filled in both sides of this road up to the Vee and while their flowers were almost finished for the year, their shade kept us cool for that last long slow ascent. At seven o clock I looked back across the countryside we had travelled through to our starting point in the Galtees. We had done well.
As there was such a big crowd of us including support crew we had decided to use the Scout Centre at Mount Mellary as our base of operations for the weekend. We were going to be ferried over from our finishing points both evenings and then get dropped back the next morning. The biggest advantage of this was Emily and Betty were let loose in a large kitchen. That night, I ate chicken and pasta until I could eat no more. It was the pavlova that was my undoing however. I have never stopped eating Emily’s famed and unparalleled pavlova when there was a slice still to be had but I had reached my limit. I had been afraid I would be tempted down to the Cats but there was no fear now, I hardly had room for a cup of tea. After a shower and a period of digestion we strolled up to the abbey for some air and to mentally prepare for not the long traverse across the Knockmealdowns tomorrow but for Ginter returning to the room after a number of large bottles and the violent snoring that would ensue. Interestingly it was actually Kevin who gave him his first real competition since the great Riordan – Finbarr – Collins snore off of Stradbally many years ago.
The next morning Sid seemed to have lost one of his boots and I was suspicious that his efforts to find it were less than thorough. It was relocated and everyone seemed to have eaten enough porridge and toast, made enough sandwiches, grabbed enough nutri grains and filled enough bottles with water and energy drinks (blue and red) to keep us going as far as the Blackstairs never mind the Comeraghs. Nutri Grain fatigue was starting to set in with the general feeling being that people could only face one if they were literally crawling on their hands and knees. Our early morning ascent up the Sugarloaf certainly wasn’t going to fail for the want of carbohydrates anyway. Our group was now eleven (having lost three but gained Peter Murphy) and we all arrived on the top of the Sugarloaf within minutes of each other. Knockmealdown was also easily tamed and on the top we gave our feet some air. We had the mountains to ourselves again, having only met some evil quadbikers the day before. After the knee wrecking descent from Knockmealdown we picked up the stone wall which led us easily up Cnoc na gCnamh and Cnoc na Faille.
Of all three ranges, I always find that the Knockmealdowns have you grabbing for your camera the least often with the view from them being far better than the view of them. Geological time needs to add a few more cliffs and coums. However from the Seisceann na Maoile side of the range the river Blackwater and the coasts of County Waterford and County Cork stretching out to our left and right made an impressive vista even though our eyes were quickly dragged back to the long sweep of the Comeragh Mountains. We had to be at their foot by this evening. To keep us psyched up Ger and Siobhan decided it was their turn to do a bit of disappearing. They had spied an alternative route to the road from the col beneath Cnoc na Faille and would meet us there I was told. The next hour had an interesting mix of ingredients going for it: vague mountain tracks, two people with no maps and a fuzzy idea of our intended direction, no mobile phone coverage and of course a baking sun. They were gone.
They had to hit the road eventually but would it be left or right of our intended crossing point? Aidan dispatched himself to find them by a run down the road to our left. TC went right and the rest of us relaxed (ok I simmered). Aidan eventually caught them heading for Newcastle and Ginter by chance was passing in the car and picked them up and dropped them back to us. From now on we were sticking together. I had never been up Cnoc na Scolog at 432 metres before and I hope that I never will be again. It being a decidedly uninteresting spot and on to which that day a van load of locals had driven in search of a horse. For a soundtrack Sid had carried his old transistor to listen to Waterford struggle against Eoin Kelly in the Munster Semi Final. It seemed unlikely that the result would lift our mood. The next descent down to the road took us through the roughest ground and highest heather of the whole weekend and it was tiring. But at the end would be Betty and Emily with cool ices and kind words.
We had covered 15 kilometres across the Knockmealdowns and as a crow might fly another 10 would actually bring us to the foot of the Comeraghs. I was surprised that such a short distance actually separates the two ranges but there is no straight infrastructure in this part of the world and to get to the base of Seefin we faced the windiest network of country roads I have ever walked. Assuming we took no wrong turns 17k would get us there. After quickly crossing one of the busier roads, we wound our way through Ballynamult and eventually stopped for a rest in Touraneena. We had a religious interlude when we paid our respects to the great many men and women of the area who became part of religious orders and agreed with the locals sitting skulling large cold bottles of Bulmers outside the pub when they said “hot day for it lads”. We passed on hastily. My feet didn’t feel quite as good as they had done yesterday and as usual the toe I had been worried about was fine but another seemed to be considering blistering. I was also a little frustrated with that constant feeling of not quite heading in a straight line to where we were going and struggled to keep my cross country instincts at bay.
We had crossed the spookily deserted Scart bridge and were coming to the left fork in the road that would bring us down our last kilometre of the day. Aidan and I had been watching our course closely on the map and we hadn’t put a foot wrong all day. We both looked at the track we needed, ignored it and headed off up the other fork in the direction of Scartnadriny. To be honest I have had a long career of getting lost with most of the episodes occurring on badly drawn and badly read forest tracks and other adjoining and confusing mountain roads. In dense fog on featureless mountain plateaus I do fine but the amount of times I have ended fighting my way through a dense patch of pine trees trying to convince myself I am still on the right track is actually quite embarrassing.
We had gone the far side of a kilometre in the wrong direction before we figured out that the mountain wasn’t looking the way it was supposed to. Aidan’s GPS confirmed the error and now all we had to do was catch Kevin who was still striding it out in front with an MP3 player in his ears. TC eventually caught him and we trudged back down the road, took the fork that we had ignored forty minutes earlier and made our last ascent of the day into a farmers yard from where we would set out the next morning. Meanwhile Betty had been waiting for us and was all praise for the road navigation of Billy whom she had been following. We didn’t stretch but quickly piled in. The question on our minds now was how was Emily going to top last night’s dinner?
She rose to the challenge, I have never seen so much Spaghetti Bolognese in one place before nor have I ever seen so much apple crumble consumed so quickly. Unlimited food is a dangerous thing. This particular lady also appeared quite dangerous when she arrived wearing her huge industrial strength rubber gloves grasping a specialist medical needle with my blister in her sights. The Guilfoyles all ran for their cameras with glee. Cleaned up a bit, we ventured to the Cats but it didn’t feel quite right. Firstly I was too full but really it seemed a bit away from our journey. Tomorrow we had the full length of the Comeraghs to take on. It was an all mountain stage of just under 25 kilometres and we suspected that the range we knew best would be no pushover.
Seven of us waved goodbye to Betty and Emily and we struck out for the path up Seefin. We first had to break the cobwebs which were spun across the narrow track through the forest at the base of the mountain. The early morning light and rising moisture gave the place a magical feel. The harsh rough track up Seefin provided a stark contrast. There is surely no more ugly track up a mountain nor is any high point in the Irish mountains crowned with a more ugly and useless structure. We put our backs to the old MMDS hut however and sat at the summit cairn instead where there was a refreshing cool breeze and a great view back to the Knockmealdowns. We didn’t linger long and after a peek into Coumtay, it was across to Coum Mahon through that infamous section of soul destroying ground that sees you continuously up and down and through dozens of bog crevasses.
Our rest stops were longer today and at the top of the Mahon Falls we bathed our feet in cool waters for the last time. From Cnocan an Phiopaire we struck out for 792, the controversial highest point of the Comeragh mountains. TC wasn’t convinced of our need to go there but he bowed to my obsession with high points. From there to the edge of the Coum Iarthar potentially brings you through the blackest part of the bog on the Comeragh plateau. The dry spell meant that the bog wasn’t going to suck us up that afternoon though. Safely across at Coum Iarthar, the slopes and cliffs with their abundant vegetation seemed to me to be super green today. As we made the steep drop to the Gap, the pull up on to Cnoc an Aifrinn looked daunting but it would finally be the last pull up.
The peregrines above Coumduala were away from their nest as we passed but the Cnoc an Aifrinn ridge was showing us its finest side. The 300 metre ascent of the ridge from the Gap is spread out over about two and a half kilometres. There are a few nice inclines along the way and on your right-hand side you have a selection of steep gullies and cliffs while Slievenamon keeps an eye on you from just across the wide valley. On your left is the colourful Nire Valley and in your glances behind you, you wait to gain enough height to see into the lakes of the Scillogues, the Coumlocha and Coumfea. When we reached the top there was no stranger to ask us where we had come from. It was enough to rest on the summit rocks for a moment ourselves though and squint across to the Galtees, follow the countryside across to the Knockmealdowns, run our eyes across their dark length before a more hasty survey of the ground between there and the foot of Seefin. The distance across the Comeragh plateau between Seefin and where we now stood didn’t seem small either and we had walked every step of the way.
On down the ridge with us and our long rest on Knocksheegowna was guilt free. We had climbed 4500 metres after all. The end of the ridge and Powers the Pot would be the end of the journey. There was no hurry to finish, the expedition was in the bag now. When we hit the road and while we waited for the cars, I think we were actually quiet for a few minutes for what must have been the first time in three days. As ever, the finish line wasn’t the high point though. The sun had shone, the craic had been good and we would savour for quite some time every step of our one hundred kilometre journey across the magnificent mountains and countryside of the Galtees, the Knockmealdowns and the Comeraghs.
Three Ranges Walkers and Supporters: Ian Sinnott, Tom Casey, Paschal Guilfoyle, Deirdre Guilfoyle, Claire Guilfoyle, Betty Guilfoyle, Aidan Ennis, Emily Dixon, Kevin Butler, Colm Ennis, Gary Sinnott, Ger Mullally, Siobhan Ryan, Peter Murphy, Kenneth Rouse, Robert Windle, David Collins, Billy Collins, Mary Winter, Owen Riordan.
A sincere thanks also to Mount Mellary Scout Centre as well as our many sponsors and supporters from all sections in the De La Salle Scout Group and from individuals, families and businesses across Waterford.
Written by Colm Ennis. Photos by Colm Ennis, Aidan Ennis and Emily Dixon.