Given the hundreds of thousands of sight-seers who throng into Killarney National Park every year, it’s really remarkable how those wonderful lakes and mountains of County Kerry have retained their tranquil beauty, the air of peace and quiet that so attracted Victorian adventurers.
On a brisk afternoon between winter and spring I set out through the grounds of Muckross House. The path ran west along a narrowing isthmus between lakes, winding among gnarly old yew trees. Their flaking trunks and dark feathery canopies stood rooted in banks of rock cloaked in damp green moss and sprouting ferns.
A gleam of water on my left hand, and suddenly Muckross Lake lay spread in all its glory, sparkling as if a million diamonds had been strewn there. Lough Leane opened on the right, as big as a sea inlet by comparison, with a ridge of mountains far away on the northern skyline – Slieve Mish, the backbone of the Dingle Peninsula some 15 miles off.
Where the two lakes flowed together I crossed the narrows by a humpy bridge, then rounded the west end of Muckross Lake beside reedbeds glowing pale gold in the mid-afternoon sun. Cheerful voices came from the tea-garden at Dinis Cottage where a group of young doctors had just arrived on foot, desperate for tea and flapjacks. Luckily for them, and for me, the little café had just returned to life after its winter closure. I got a pot of tea and a piece of damp, glutinous brack, and took them to a table by the window. The view over the lake was curiously blurred. I rubbed my glasses, then the window, trying in vain to get rid of the misty effect. Dozens of signatures, cartoons and bons mots had been scratched by visitors into the panes with diamond rings over the course of two centuries.
JD Hogg’s signature, dated 1816, was the oldest I could find. I wondered if a rather abrupt ‘Wellesley’ had been the Duke of Wellington’s handiwork. One couldn’t help speculating on the vanished signatories. What of ‘Lizzie’ and ‘The Doctor’, who enclosed their names in 1856 within the outline of a love-apple? Spooners, honeymooners, or just good friends?
Walking on east along the south shore of the lake and picturing Lizzie (freckled, pert, inclined to tease) and The Doctor (twinkly, bespectacled, rather older than her), the miles sped by. I was at the foot of the steep zigzag path to Torc Waterfall before I knew it. I climbed quickly against the fading light, looping up and then sharply down with the whispery echo of the fall growing nearer. The water sluiced down a dark mossy channel, in creamy skeins as delicate and lacy as a Shetland shawl, turning once before crashing down into a pool in a rainbow mist. A damp breath stole from the fall, a rich scent of wet leaves and moss.
A young couple sat motionless and silent on the brink of the pool. His arm was round her waist, her hand was on his knee. They were entirely bound up in each other, in the falling water and in the moment. A happy man and woman. I hope Lizzie and The Doctor found such happiness among the Killarney mountains.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 78; Muckross Estate map from Killarney National Park visitor centre, Muckross House.
Downloadable map/instructions (recommended) at www.discoverireland.ie/walking.
Rail (www.irishrail.ie) to Killarney; jaunting car (haggle your price) or bus (www.buseireann.ie) to Muckross.
Road: N71 from Killarney towards Kenmare; Muckross House signed on right in 3 miles. Free car park.
WALK DIRECTIONS: Leaving Muckross House, ahead along avenue; left in 250 yards (‘Dinis Cottage’). Follow track for 2½ miles around Muckross Lake to Dinis Cottage tearooms. (Meeting of the Waters: down steps beyond lavatory block.) Continue along surfaced track for ¾ mile to N71 Killarney-Kenmare road. Bear right to cross (take care!); follow gravel track (yellow, blue, red trail arrows; ‘Muckross House’ fingerpost). In ½ mile descend to road.
(a) Return to Muckross House: cross road, follow path (‘Muckross House’)
(b) For Torc Waterfall (steep up and down, many steps!): Don’t cross road, but bear uphill (ignore ‘Torc Waterfall’ arrow pointing other way!) on good path, steep in parts. Path zigzags, then levels out; take left fork (coloured arrows here point back the way you’ve come!) to cross Owengarriff River. In 25 yards, left (ignore arrows and ‘Kerry Way’ sign), following path directly above right (east) bank of river. Path soon slopes and steepens down steps to Torc Waterfall.
Continue down path to cross N71. Through gap in fence; left along path; in 50 yards, right (‘Muckross House 1.8 km’) to return to car park.
LENGTH: 5½ miles around Muckross Lake (easy; allow 2 hours); 7 miles including Torc Waterfall (moderate; allow 3-4 hours)
CONDITIONS: Well surfaced paths. Torc Waterfall extension: steep ascent, steep descent with many steps. Dog-friendly (on leads, please)
DON’T MISS … !
• lake views from north side
• window graffiti in Dinas Cottage
• Torc waterfall
REFRESHMENTS: Dinis Cottage tea room, Muckross House restaurant/café (064-31440).
ACCOMMODATION: Arbutus Hotel, College Street, Killarney (064-31037; www.arbutuskillarney.com) – friendly, quiet, old-style in a good way.
Walking: tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking
Muckross House: 064-31440; www.muckross-house.ie
National Parks: www.npws.ie
Tourist Information Office, Beech Road, Killarney (064-31633; www.discoverireland.ie)
Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
9 May 2009