“New Zealand?” “Nah, Australia mate”. I heard the soft Cork accent of my guide, Tony Nation, chatting to the tanned tourists as I bent down behind the car, to lace up my hiking boots, following the drive down to Mitchelstown from Dublin. “Damn, I always get that wrong” commented Tony “it’s like me going to Nepal and someone calling me English instead of Irish” he added. Strolling around from the back of the car I glanced at the walkers, taking in the scene. Greetings were exchanged and I casually faced our antipodean friends. “Australia?” I asked, with a glint in my eye. “Yep, that’s right” they replied in unison. “Ah, well I couldn’t miss that fine, distinct Australian accent.” A slight pause and the couple burst out laughing. “You were listening” they accused. Tony reaches to give me a clatter, falling just short of my ear. It’s the craic and easy friendship among walkers that helps make these adventures so special.
The Australian walkers checked a few local routes with us before heading for the hills and we were left alone, a group of three. Tony my friend and guide for the day, Karen Hill a fellow walker and Facebook buddy and myself. We head for Lough Muskry and hike begins. We’re chatting and catching up, and we set out at a fast clip on fresh legs. By the time we caught sight of the lake I was already feeling the pull. The sun was splitting rocks, I’m not used to walking in our rare Irish sun and I’d set off far too fast. Fortunately today was going to be a long day rather than a short sprint, so I don’t think the others minded when I slowed the pace a little.
I wasn’t sure of the route and Tony was being a bit mysterious, he was hanging onto his map and all I knew was I’d never seen this section of the Galtees before and I really wasn’t having much luck identifying the peaks around me. Look hard he said, what’s in front of you, what’s over to the right? I felt disorientated spotting what seemed to be Galtymore, with Galtybeg in front of it and on the left. From where I was standing they were the wrong way around, being used to climbing the Galtee’s ‘highest hill’ from the common ‘tourist route’ which is up the Black Road from the M8. Suddenly I realise I’m standing on the other side of the range. Tony had turned his mountain on its head. I grab the map and stare as I realise we are standing to the North of the Galtees looking across to the South. I’m a bit nervous about the distance we’re planning, it’s clearly going to be a loop because we’ve parked all the cars in one spot – but I can see from Tony’s chuckle that he’s planning another long one. Last week he took me from Temple Hill; across Lyracappu, Carraig na Binne, Sliabh Chois na Binne to Galtymore in a massive sweep across the range from West to East. I could hardly imagine what was on the menu for today and I was tired already after the quick march in to the start.
Off we go, veering to our left and heading to Fear Bréige our first summit at 724m – it was a steep pull up, but the warm weather had left the ground dry and easy underfoot. You could clearly see from the dried mossy soup, how boggy it can be under normal conditions. As we reached the top, I was feeling the heat and sweating hard, but we had a sloping recovery before pushing up to neighbouring An Grianán at 802m. From views of the lake, I was now captivated by the conglomerate ‘castle’ I could clearly see in the distance. Descending to O’Lochlainn’s Castle, both Karen and I were hungry for explanations and folklore from Tony – just as the midges descended hungry for all of us. Eaten alive is the best expression, as we battled to steal lunch while beating away the swarms of vicious little flies that were intent on defending their fortress and forcing us on. The ‘castle’ is a natural rock formation near the summit. A conglomerate of sedimentary sand and pebbles, formed long ago, in the same waves and ice that formed the corries and cliffs, carved out of this rich, red, sandstone range. The formation looks for the entire world like a cathedral or castle from a distance, and still looks eerie and out of place when you arrive at its weather beaten ledges. The temptation for a little bouldering on the rough rocks was too hard to resist, and we played for a while like kids in the sun, before moving on our way.
I’m midge bitten, glad of my sunscreen, amazed by the heat, and well aware that I’ve come close to the end of my two litres of water – so it was a relief to skip over Galtybeg (799m) and into the saddle before facing into Cush at 640m. I slowed to a crawl as I pulled up here, lifting my face fractionally to pick up the slightest breeze as I neared the summit. I am hoping to climb Mount Elbrus in Russia with Irish adventurer Pat Falvey next month, and Tony reminded me that a slog like this is something similar to the incline I’ll be facing there. I dug in and kept moving, although I felt it, and was painfully aware of how slowly I was moving behind Tony and Karen. My fitness still leaves a lot to be desired.
Cush is a gorgeous mountain and the panorama from the summit was worth the effort of the climb. Tony was working from his map now, as he navigated a route down a spur to get us off the mountain and through a wooded valley to bring us back to our cars. This is where my navigation falls apart and where I’m so impressed by those who are handier with a map than me. Tony predicted a hill, a river, a crossing, and a woodland trail; and they all appeared like clockwork on demand. I was furiously thirsty now and turned Bear Grylls when we reached the river; wading into the faster flow to fill my water bottle and drink hungrily, if somewhat nervously, thinking of the old, but still identifiable, sheep remains we’d seen littered across the mountain. Tony remarked that the water probably wouldn’t kill me before I had time to get to a doctor for an antibiotic! Comforting words indeed, but I’ll be adding a couple of sterilising tablets to my emergency kit in future.
We spent 8hrs on the mountain and it was absolutely beautiful, but my feet were glad to see the cars emerging from the trail, precisely as Tony predicted. Lessons learned? I was glad I wore sunblock and midge-spray, glad I wore my lighter boots, wish I’d brought more water, will definitely bring sterilising tablets in future on long, hot hikes… and I really want to practice navigating so that I can lead to a point like Tony.