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July 2, 2012 / Stephanie Vermillion

Gap of Dunloe bike ride — a painfully beautiful adventure

I’ve heard the saying “pain is beauty” used to describe many things in my life, but never have I imagined it could be accurately applied to mountain biking 17 miles in the rain. Until yesterday, that is, when I decided the best way to spend my last day in Killarney was on bike, navigating the Gap of Dunloe and  (accidentally) portions of the Ring of Kerry in the pouring rain, by myself.

After booking my stay in Killarney, I started researching the must-do activities in the area. Naturally my tendency was to opt for the more strenuous, challenging adventures (mountain climbing, mountain biking) over the easier ones (bus tour, horse-drawn carriage).

Beginning of Gap of Dunloe, and my last photography for the day, Kerry, Ireland

Beginning of the Gap of Dunloe, and my last photography for the day, Kerry, Ireland

I read on cyclist blogs about a breathtaking, 11-mile bike route through an area called the Gap of Dunloe, followed by some biking on the Ring of Kerry before arriving at Lord Brandon’s Cottage, where you can catch a boat with your bike back through Killarney National Park’s lakes to Ross Castle, a short 2 miles from town. In total, from start to finish at the bike shop, this equals out to a 17+ mile ride (the + included for those who tend to get lost — yours truly).

On paper the Gap of Dunloe sounds like scenic, relaxing exercise, riding through a beautiful gap road in between the mountain ranges of Macgillycuddy Reeks (where Carrauntoohil is located) and the Purple Mountains. For some reason, though, actually being out there off paper, in real life, this cycle was much more difficult than anticipated. Maybe the combination of pouring rain, strong wind, hilly inclines, sore legs from climbing and the fact I found this route on a cyclists blog had something to do with it.

Gap of Dunloe: Couldn't take my own photos because I didn't want to ruin my camera! (www.ronmertens.com)

Looking back on Gap of Dunloe. Couldn’t take my own photo because I didn’t want to ruin my camera! (www.ronmertens.com)

In the beginning, riding alone between two enormous, green mountains, going for miles without seeing a living soul besides sheep (I guess most people don’t hike/bike the gap in the pouring rain?), I was completely awestruck, invigorated and fascinated by Ireland’s indescribable beauty passing by. But after about six miles, with soaked clothes (so much for “rain” jacket), and a shivering, sore body, I was more invigorated by my survival instincts than anything else. And I still had 8+ unknown miles ahead of me.

The more the gap’s incline increased, the more I instinctively coached myself: “just go, just finish, just push” up the winding, steep, slippery hills. And all the while, Carrauntoohil was in my peripheral, laughing at me (I’m sure sending extra gusts my way) for even thinking biking 17 miles after climbing to its peak, the top of Ireland, was logical.

But once you’re 9 miles out, there’s really no turning back. Even when you (me) misread the soggy map and turn right instead of left onto the Kerry way, biking further away from the boat to Killarney, my only escape to home. After about a mile or two biking the wrong way, convincing myself signs for Lord Brandon’s Cottage boats would appear soon, I ran into the ever-foreboding fork in the road.

Fork in the Road (doubt this is the one I ran into, but you get the idea)

Fork in the Road- Doubt this is the one I ran into, but you get the idea. (commons.wikimedia.org)

One route led me on jagged rocks into an isolated farm house (cue the horror movie music here). I biked back as quickly as possible. The second fork route (yes, I chose to try the second one instead of finally giving up and backtracking), took me on another, longer, jagged rock route uphill to a barn. Population: one — a ravenous, (thankfully) chained dog busting out of a dog house trying to let me know who was boss. He was boss, obviously, because I turned around immediately and finally gave in to the idea I might have turned the wrong way off the Gap of Dunloe — one hour later, with a few more miles of soaked clothes and shivers under my belt.

Back on the main road I thanked my lucky stars when I ran into a group of hikers who pointed me in the direction of Lord Brandon’s Cottage (go figure, the opposite way I had picked). It was another three miles until I arrived and was able to buy a boat ticket back to Killarney. Unfortunately, I had to wait a rainy hour in the cottage’s picnic area for the 2 p.m. boat to arrive. I treated myself to a chocolate bar, so for at least a few minutes all was right in the world.

And just as I had hoped for (not), the boat was a 12-person, open-air vessel where you cozy up next to your fellow passengers under a rubber blanket to keep the rain off (too little, and four hours too late to stay dry). We had 11 Dutch passengers, all from the same bus tour, all giggling together about the terrible weather while sharing crackers and desserts. I was the 12th passenger on this open-air, pouring rain boat, too tired to think about giggling, too frozen to imagine chewing cookies.

Boat ride Lord Brandon's Cottage to Ross Castle: Risked my camera to have proof for myself this actually happened

Boat ride to Ross Castle: Risked my camera to have proof for myself this actually happened

I kept telling myself to stay positive, “hey, that’s life”, but with an hour and fifteen minutes on that boat (when I heard it was over an hour I thought I might cry), I realized this encouraging phrase I often live by might not be applicable after getting lost on the Ring of Kerry in the pouring rain, by myself. So instead I used my dad’s famous phrase for us when getting through finals weeks: “gut it out“.

And gut it out I did. Once we docked at Ross Castle, I grabbed my bike off the boat, convinced myself I wasn’t soaked and frozen to the core, and rode the remaining 2 miles into town. I excitedly returned my bike, pretended I didn’t hear the bike shop owner tell me she “couldn’t understand why I was wet, it barely rained in Killarney”, and booked it home for a hot, long shower — the perfect time to let my brain thaw and attempt to figure out what in the world just happened.

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3 Comments

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  1. Donnacha Clifford / Jul 2 2012 4:18 pm

    Well Done Stephanie. I’m afraid getting lost in the Gap of Dunloe even happens the locals 🙂

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