The Gap of Dunloe (part 1)

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by greenierexyboy on October 6, 2012

For those seeking solitude, there are few finer places to indulge the search than in Ireland's south west. At the risk of writing the script to 'Far And Away' all over again (not that I was the guilty party the first time, you understand) it's a peerlessly atmospheric land of wind and rain, of ancient history and unique tradition, and possesses an apparently narcotic ambience that can cause men to go on strike in protest against forced nappy-wearing in the equine population.

There are countless magnificent places to escape the crowds. Places like the cliff-girt gash of the Anascaul Glen, with its loughs, waterfalls, mad legends of Cuchulainn and man-eating midges...the sombre Black Valley, hiding its tragic history behind the huge half-umbrella of Macgillycuddy's Reeks and a general veil of man-eating midges...and the gushing spout of the Hungry Hill Waterfall, concealed in plain sight on the south flank of the Beara peninsular but guarded by Size Zero access roads and man-eating midges.
So, if there are lots of locations where one isn't going to be lost in the throng or accidentally battered to death by the manoeuvring elbows of photographers...where the hell are those crowds? There's a huge amount of tourism here (in summer at least), and all this ‘humanity’ must be going somewhere...

Into The Gap
Well, amongst other places they've probably converged en masse at a huge glacial rent in the mountains to the west of Killarney, a deep valley whose sides are rubble-strewn where they are not cliff-girt, and whose floor is dappled by a pearly string of lovely little lakes. That's partly why they're there, although doubtless the ease of access, the coffee shop, the gift shop and the pub all help. This is the Gap of Dunloe, a place of congregation, a place where the sons and heirs of Albert Steptoe ply a time-honoured trade (of which more later), and definitely a place where solitude is unlikely (bordering on impossible) unless you're there in the middle of winter or in the middle of the night. Or when everyone's at Mass.

‘Marathon becomes Snickers…Ice Age ends…’
Running almost exactly south to north and rising to 300m at its summit, the Gap's savage glacier-gouged schism forms a mountain pass brushing past the eastern end of Macgillycuddy's Reeks. The south side is a steep, rarely visited bare slope forming the north wall of the Black Valley; it's the northerly aspect that forms the Gap of visitors' memories, with its beetling cliffs and ever-present alternately restful and rushing water. The landscape was formed between 120000 to 15000 years ago during the last Ice Age, when the ice sheet overlying Kenmare River decided to head north, pursuing a largely trouble-free passage until it bumped up against the high curtain of the Reeks. The ice piled up like a flood surge against a dam, seeking a weakness that would allow it to continue onward, and finally creating it when the skyline gave way. It surged and scoured down the far side, carving the deep U-shaped valley that can be seen today. And there are several ways to see it…

The Magic Road
The Gap makes a great drive, best done as an escape from the Black Valley in the south (named after the 100% success rate the Great Famine enjoyed in evicting/eliminating its inhabitants: that, and it being the focal point of the Middle of Nowhere make it a good place to escape from), so you're a) driving towards the best scenery and b) heading for the pub. A narrow surfaced road beavers back and forth across the Valley's bare north face, with some fine views over Killarney's Upper Lake (depending on whether the road is zigging or zagging) to reach the Head of the Gap. It's worth pulling up here: the Black Valley is suitably wild and bleak, while in front of you lies the Gap, wide and (very) vaguely verdant in its upper reaches, constricted and contorted below.

The road (which is sometimes twisty but never truly steep; well worth bearing in mind for the more timorous driver) slaloms down to and across this milder upper section before passing the slender Black Lough where the slopes crowd in like the Clashing Rocks in Jason and the Argonauts. Below this small stretch of water the road kinks across a rather photogenic little stone bridge before reaching the more substantial Auger Lake. The stretch through the narrows is the best section of the journey: limpid lakes, wild crags and a road that's the only smooth (smoothish: it has the usual Irish patina of potholes) surface amidst billions of boulders. The scenery softens as the gradient flattens and the road continues down, passing more lakes (one to three of them, depending who's counting), cottages both inhabited and sadly derelict, and fewer rocks than you saw higher up. Gradually the mountains on either side open out then fall back completely: in front will be the Kerry plains, to your left the coffee shop, toilets and car park, and to the right the pub.

Despite all this, driving through the Gap can only be recommended with some timing-related caveats. It's usually (conditions notwithstanding) crisply dramatic in winter, it's certainly gorgeous just before sunset at any time of year...but outwith of these circumstances it's only really enjoyable for motoring sociopaths. The road is SO clogged with pedestrians and pony-and-traps the rest of the time as to render progress nigh-on-impossible for anyone not prepared to run a lot of folk down or create a lot of glue, and with that in mind it's better to bow to the inevitable. Time to get on your boots or get out your wallet...your choice.

The Gap is unsurprisingly lovely on foot, or at least as lovely as an unyielding ribbon of tarmac can be: most outdoor folk aren't that keen on walking on roads. There are however plenty of places where one can step off onto something more meadowy (in the lower, more open stretches grassy fields run down to the River Loe) or bumpy/jagged (in the upper reaches the boulders come down to the road: a great area for indulging any Spiderman fixations). Those determined to see the whole of the Gap will notice that it is six miles from Kate's at the north end to the Head of the Gap, and even the outdoor folk who don't mind walking on a road may reconsider when confronted with a twelve mile round trip. Such is the psychological weakness that may sweep you into the waiting arms/carriages of the jarveys...
Gap of Dunloe

County Kerry, Ireland

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