Hiking Solo in Ireland: Blackwater | Avondhu Way from Clogheen to Mallow
Ireland was such an excellent choice for my big summer trip. I was happy to escape the heat waves plaguing continental Europe. The rugged landscapes of far west coastal walks filled my heart with bliss and the memory card with hundreds of photos (OK, fine, five thousand to be exact). I enjoyed hiking solo on mostly deserted trails, wild camping in a few places, and talking to the very positive locals. As I mostly walk during my trips, I can't see much at once. From the big Irish island, I only saw West Cork and some bits of southern Kerry. I hope to see more another time.
It's time I told you about my travels.
Let's start at the beginning, shall we?
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On my way to Blackwater Way: My plans
I flew to Cork and started hiking from Clogheen on the Avandhu Way, which is part of the longer Blackwater Way. Clogheen is easily reachable from Cork by bus, and that was one of the reasons why I chose it.
The plan was to walk the Blackwater Way to Millstreet then switch to Sli Gaeltacht Mhuscrai near Millstreet and walk to Kealkill. From there, I could join the trail to Glengariff to hike on the Beara Peninsula.
I'm always open to changes in my plans (that's why I rarely book my accommodation ahead of time) that's why the above description didn't work out ultimately. I walked from Clogheen through Fermoy to Mallow. There, I jumped on a train and started again in Millstreet on the Sli Gaeltacht Mhuscrai and completed it by arriving in Kealkill. As I had no wish to walk 5 km on the road, I caught a ride to the campsite in Eagle Peak (beautiful!), had two days of rest and then got by bus to Glengariff to walk the Beara Way. To complete my Irish journeys, I traveled to Bantry to hike the Sheep's Head Way.
That's about a month of my hiking in a great summary!
Now down to the details: the Avondhu/Blackwater Way.
The whole trail takes one from Clogheen to Bweeng (awesome name, kept saying "bling" in my head) in 94 km. From Bweeng one can naturally continue on the Duhallow Way (Avondhu together with Duhallow make the Blackwater Way) through Millstreet to Shrone. The combined trails are 168 km and are also part of the European E8 long-distance trail.
Hiking Solo In Ireland on the Blackwater Way: Day One. Clogheen
I arrived in the town at noon, after 1,5h of a bus ride. Clogheen proved to be a tiny town (probably a village) with a few pubs that didn't seem to be open. I stopped at a local grocery store that also served coffee to have a second breakfast and to fill my bottles with water.
Funny thing is, as it was the start of my travels, my backpack was filled to the brim with food (and other things. I managed to fit into my smaller bag (45L), but there was no room whatsoever for my hydration reservoir. So for a while, I had to carry it empty and use my collapsible water bottles. I really need a 50L backpack that is also lightweight (I love you, Deuter AirContact, but you are just too heavy!).
I always feel very anxious before I finally start moving, and then it gets easier. That's why I procrastinate by stopping at cafes or do other stuff I think I have to do just to push the start a bit. I learned to live with it, although probably should work on earlier starts.
The beginning of the trail leads me on roads, which were not very busy. Pretty soon I was walking along walls of herns and rhododendrons, with pines and trees adding to the beautiful setting. After a while, I could see window ahead of me, promising open views of a mountain. A few steps more and I could enjoy a picture of a Bay Lough and the Sugarloaf Hill. There was a parking site not far from this place, so there were some visitors in the area. I really can't blame them - the place was beautiful with fantastic views from the rest spot and benches. What a great destination for a picnic!
Up the slopes of the Knockalougha
After taking a short break, I moved on, away from the road, and steeply up the slope. I was happy to do the walk on a dry day as I assumed the path must be filled with mud after rain.
I absolutely loved the open landscapes. The hills were covered mostly with low grasses, heather, and other brush. I welcomed the always happy view of sheep.
I planned on wild camping that night, and I worried about my water supply. I had an only 1L bottle, which was almost empty. I checked maps a few times looking for streams. I left my backpack on the path and walked away, looking for water. Great that ViewRanger can help in that - I found small stream some 100m off the trail. I had enough water for supper and morning.
I continued walking up a steep hill and found an excellent place for my tent. Far from perfect as it was rough and rocky, but with a gorgeous view to the valley. My first camping night of the summer! I love the time when the tent is up, the gear is in, and I can prepare my supper. Such precious, relaxing moments!
The first day's numbers: 12,4 km, 767 m gained, 225 m lost.
Hiking Solo In Ireland on the Blackwater Way: Day two. On the way to Mountain Barrack
Being on top of a hill means fantastic views, but also no shade in the morning. I woke up feeling hot and had to quickly escape the sleeping bag and take off the fleece I slept in. There was a big difference in temperatures between night and day, which resulted in heavy condensation. Adding to the moisture inside, was beautiful morning dew on the outside... The eastern side of the tent was drying nicely, but the fabric in the shade needed some help.
I gathered everything and started walking. I didn't eat proper breakfast, just some pretzels, hoping to find a sweet spot for coffee later on. I didn’t have enough water so was on a lookout for a water source. I finally found some water, and was happy I always carry a water filter! I collected water from cow hydration reservoirs, which was standing there for a while.
The day was gorgeous and views fantastic. I walked through rural areas with hills and pastures everywhere. Curious cows were always checking me out as I walked by them. The path changed into narrow backroads, and I found a spot to boil water for my coffee and eat breakfast.
Bad decisions and their consequences
At one point, later on, I had a conflict in my directions. The markers showed one way, the GPS I downloaded (I can't remember where from, unfortunately), another. As I was tired of the constant road walking and the GPS showed more wild walking, I decided to go with it. Wrong. I've learned the hard way that the trails are updated pretty often and can change, especially where it crosses private lands and pastures. If you ever have such a dilemma - go with the markers, as they show the most updated trail, while on the Internets there might be an old version.
The beginning of the wrong/old trail was lovely. Narrow paths between pastures and gardens. At one point, it took me through a green tunnel with fuchsia flowers hanging over me. Absolutely beautiful!
And then the path ended. It led me to an old pasture, and I was supposed to turn left. Except that there was no path left and no way to turn thanks to thorny hedges. I walked there and back a few times trying to find the missing path and could see where it was - but had to cross a small fence and thorny bushes. If this problem occurred soon after I turned into this old trail, I would have coursed a bit and walked back. But this was a few kilometers in, I just didn't want to think about going back and doing extra 8 km or so! So I decided to cross somehow and reach the proper trail on the other side of this pasture in front of me.
Trespassing and escaping
After some gymnastics, I crossed the hedge and walked down the field. I found an old path and hoped all would be good. I reached something that looked like a small quarry with a river flowing at the lowest point. I refilled my bottle and happily walked up a proper hardened road. At the end of which I faced a massive metal gate. Not a flimsy one you can easily open, but a huge one like by a factory entry. There was no way to go by its sides - there were tall thorny bushes and barb wires.
On the other side of the road, there was a house, and I could see people in there, which only added to the anxiety I felt. If there were no one around, I would feel more comfortable about climbing gates, but if someone could see me? I wave in the direction of the house, as I assumed they were probably the owners. I couldn't see anyone coming, so decided on getting on the other side by the most accessible way - forcing my way between gate and raspberry bushes and over the barbed wire (I lowered using my trekking pole). When I was half way through, a man came asking what's going on. I tried to explain, and he obviously wasn't happy but was polite and concerned. I showed him the GPS trail on my phone and explained the mistake. He showed me how to get to the road to Fermoy, and I finally was on my way.
I felt terrible about it all. I know how important it is to keep farmers on our side, as it's thanks to their good will we can walk across their lands. I made a big mistake diverging from the trail, I could have spent more time googling the path, checking others who did it, etc.
And believe it or not, I made the same mistake later on Beara Way. Geez...
No chance for a wild camp tonight!
Anyway, my scratched self and I were on the way to Mountain Barrack. I had no idea what the area around the place looked like and if I was to do wild camping anywhere there. Checking out the map is just the beginning - what looks like a possible camping spot can be fenced off, have horrible terrain for pitching the tent, be open to all to see, etc.
And as I walked, I realize that wild camping would be close to impossible. Wherever I looked, I could see pastures in use, fenced off with electric fences or barb wires. What looked like a beautiful clearing in a small forest, proved to be private land with no access. I could hardly walk with my feet screaming in pain, and when I reached Mountain Barrack, I started to look for accommodation in the area. I found one with great reviews about the host. I called and asked for a ride. 30 min later, Eric came to pick me up. Blessed be such wonderfully helpful people!
I felt so much better after taking a shower, in a comfortable bed. For a lovely end of a day, I could admire an absolutely smashing sunset from my window.
Day two's numbers: 20,2 km; 354 m gained, 730 m lost.
Hiking Solo In Ireland on the Blackwater Way: Day Three. Through Fermoy to a wild camp near Ballyhooly
After a very relaxing and lazy morning, I finally left my accommodation around 11 am. The official markers took me away from the highway leading on backroads. Excellent idea, but that added extra mileage on asphalt. I could have just walked along the highway to cut on the road walking. There was nothing special on the way to Fermoy except for a cemetery (I like them). I arrived in the town already tired, after 5,5 km on a hard surface.
I stopped at a corner cafe, right by the trail's namesake - the Blackwater River. The banks are very inviting, with picnic tables and a lovely gravel path. I had to stop to apply plasters to my feet as I got blisters in weird places - I can't remember ever getting a blister in the middle of my foot sole.
Lovely path along the Blackwater River
The gravel path soon became a narrow path through pastures and then woods. A delightful walking experience after all the unpleasant road walking in the morning. I had to navigate a few kissing gates not made for people with big backpacks. At one, I had to give up and take it off to make it through!
After crossing another green tunnel - this time less romantic and more over-grown scary fairy tale style - I reached roads again. Miles upon miles on backroads next to farm land, often with high wall-like vegetation on both sides of me. I started to worry again about finding a camping spot and a source of water. Finally, I crossed a stream and could fill my water bottle. Now I only had to find a suitable place for my tent.
Even though I walked through some woods, there was no place to pitch the shelter, unless I did it straight on the path - the only flat area anywhere around. So I walked on and on.
Finding a good spot for the night
Finally, close to another road walking section, I noticed an open gate to a pasture. It was hidden behind a wall of trees, and there were no animals there. After a few meters, I could turn and be not visible from the path. Yes!
I pitched my tent, prepared my supper, and started to consider doing changes to my hiking plans. I was tired of the constant road walking through farm land - as much as it was often pretty and picturesque, I longed for wilder, open landscapes. With, hopefully, simpler to find camping spots.
My feet showed me clearly they didn't enjoy walking much. In addition to the surprising blisters thing (which was menagable), I experienced sharp pain in my heels after only 5 km of walking. I've struggled with that for years, but typically the pain appeared around the 10th km, not so early on. I worried about the mileage I would be able to do.
My hopes for the summer were to do 20 km days, building up my stamina and strength. I was diagnosed with severe anemia a couple months prior and was on iron supplementation. I could already sense how much more energy I had and was optimistic about the distances I could when in Ireland. The pain (which was later "diagnosed" by my Twitter friends and plantar fascitis) hit my plans and hopes right in the heart.
Anxiety strikes again. And again, and again…
When was I in the tent reading, I suddenly heard a male voice somewhere near. Looking through the vents, I saw a guy carrying a fishing rod and talking on a phone, not looking in my direction. I was sure he noticed my tent and my anxiety sky-rocketed that he would call the owner and police and what not. I tried to relax, but it was hard. One of the reasons why I prefer to hike and camp where there are not many people and where camping is entirely legal - less stress.
Obviously, no one came to arrest me, and I finally went to sleep.
Day Three's numbers: 20,3 km; 356 m gained, 382 m lost.
Hiking Solo In Ireland on the Blackwater Way: Day Four. Wild hills and lovely forests
After a nervous but long sleep, I put fresh plasters on my feet and was on my way. I was astonished that I was staying very close to the castle I saw on my map. I thought it would be more removed and that it required a walk to see, but it was right there!
Walking this day was kind of weird. A lot of road walking (again), and some parts were overgrown, leading through thorny bushes, and unpleasant areas with felled trees and the mess of it left behind like an open wound.
Later on, I also walked through beautiful forest, but I was so tired (typical for the fourth day of hiking), and the heels and feet hurt severely, that it was difficult for me to enjoy it. I was looking around for a right camping spot, but it was again challenging to find one. The area seemed really deserted, so I decided to pitch my tent very close to the path, on the only flat piece of ground I found.
Day Four in numbers: 13 km;
My ViewRanger stopped working at one point, so I don't know the ascent gained/lost for that day.
Hiking Solo In Ireland on the Blackwater Way: Day Five. On to Mallow!
In the morning, I was startled by male voices - two trail runners came by my tent. As usual, my anxiety went through the roof, and I was hit by a wave of unpleasant heat-like sensation. It took me a few minutes to calm down and to explain my silly mind that no danger is near.
The night before I booked a stay in Mallow, so it was decided - I cut this trail short and want to jump ahead a bit. I hoped to reach the town earlier in the day, to have more time to do some laundry and rest.
As usual, it took me a long time to get going. I met the two trail runners on their way back the path. In the beginning, the walking was somewhat unpleasant - the track was narrow, so I was gathering all the spiderwebs, and as the grasses were high, I also collected the dew and raindrops from last night light rain.
When I reached a road I was actually happy - yes, it was hard and tough on the feet, but at least I didn't have to cut my way through overgrown vegetation. There was a gentle mist in the air, and the air was refreshing. It felt wonderful on a sweaty, hot face.
Walking on a busy road in Ireland is not easy and sometimes scary. There are rarely any shoulders left on the road’s side and pretty often you have a wall of trees, hedges or an actual wall right on the side! As long as the road was straight, it was fine, but curves were pretty common. I knew the drivers couldn’t see me so tried to walk from side to the other to heighten my chances of being visible.
Check out some of the gear and attire I had with me in Ireland.
Below are the items I used, enjoyed, and recommend to others!
When I reached a turn for Mallow, I saw a pub - finally! Coffee!
I had enough time, so I got the coffee, grabbed the Kindle, and spent about an hour reading. When I went to the bathroom, I noticed a tiny tick on my belly! I hate those bastards! I had the special thingy to remove them, and I used it. It was still small and flat, must have just attached - and yet, I struggle to pull it out, nervous about not leaving the head behind. I finally did and for a few days after was monitoring the spot, but I was lucky - no red rings.
When I was sitting in the pub, I could hear two gentlemen talking - the manager and an elderly patron. It was funny and a bit terrifying that I could hardly understand what they said! I needed to work on my Irish accent!
I reached the hotel before 3pm, so I had a lot of time to rest, do some grocery shopping (gluten-free cookies!), and then do some washing. Lounging in a big bed, I could research my options for getting out of Mallow - I knew I didn't want to walk by a road and was happy to find a train running to Millstreet. Perfect!
Day Five's numbers: 12,1 km; 233 m gained, 302 m lost.
I’ve really enjoyed the beginning of this trail - walking from Clogheen through the hills and mountains was fantastic. I was lucky with the weather which helped in admiring the views. If you don’t have much time, I can highly recommend hiking the first section, it’s just beautiful. Later on it was a mix bag. Some excellent views or rural areas with hills and pastures in every possible shade of green. But also way too much road walking with hardly any views. Great for meditation but hard on the feet and knees. The section from Femroy along Blackwater River was fabulous, too. I wish my feet didn’t act up on me so much, I feel I would enjoy the Avondhu Way more - including the backcountry roads.