JB Malone Memorial
JB Malone Memorial
The Emerald Isle has always been uncommonly kind to walkers and ramblers. Ireland’s spectacular landscape is less craggy than, say, Scotland, but no less dramatic, and the climate is much milder, even in winter. As another rainy weekend in London beckoned, it was the prospect of hearty pub lunches and big skies a very short Ryanair flight away that got the hiking gear out and packed and us into Dublin Airport – all in far less time than it takes to get ready for dinner party across town with vegetarian friends (because, as true Saffas, we have so far cooked and eaten emergency steaks before every evening at Sam and Ian’s*).
Our route would be the Wicklow Way, (www.wicklowway.com) the Irish leg of the very European-sounding E8 ramblers’ route that runs from Clonegal in County Carlow to Marlay Park in south Dublin – and thence to, well, Turkey. We started at the end, going from south to north, so that we’d have a little time to stretch our legs on flat ground before the route begins to climb. In the event, we stretched our legs at Johnnie Fox’s Pub (www.jfp.ie) within a few kilometres of setting out. Johnnie Fox’s is large, warm and crammed with memorabilia, and when we left rather a few pints later, we were a bit maudlin, a bit musical, and a bit in love with the island – Johnnie Fox’s had turned us Irish within a matter of hours.
Quite soon, it was time for us to bed down for the night, sore of foot and embittered of ear because of our walking companion’s geographically-challenged but spirited a capella renditions of Mull of Kintyre from an adjacent dormitory. Being from the Free State, Johan’s hold on the differences between these Northwest European islands was no better than his grasp of what whiskey does to a tired person on an empty stomach, but he was carrying most of the food and we needed his ox-like platteland frame to sherpa the Provitas and tinned sardines at least as far as Lough Dan.
Day by day, we curled around hills to find vast, still lakes guarded by one, small ruined chapel, or gentle uplands patrolled by anonymous birds (I am not the sort of hardworking travel writer who can talk to you about the black-browed albatross Thalassarche melanophris). The landscape is bewitching to South African eyes because, for all that the Irish find it rugged, it looks more like a long-abandoned golf course for giants than anything you could call ‘wild’ by African standards. Stray just a little from a suburban walking trail in Mbombela/Nelspruit, for instance, and you could easily stumble on a species unknown to science.
Table Mountain National Park, for instance, has 885 recorded bird species; there are just half that many in all of Ireland. However, none of us – not even Johan – missed the mosquitoes and, thanks to St Patrick, the puffadders. We were intensely charmed by the official guidance for ramblers: Anyone setting out to walk a long-distance trail such as the Wicklow Way is embarking on a serious test of physical endurance. Each stage involves a period of several hours spent outdoors, frequently in isolated and remote locations and from time to time at altitudes above 400 metres. As the days wore on (the entire route should take you about one highly memorable week), we broke a sweat sometimes, but the presence of human habitation everywhere somehow made it impossible to feel really distant from anything.
This is another kind of beauty that old Europe gives: the story isn’t about travelling away from other humans; it’s about travelling back with them, to a time when Ireland’s countryside was full of people. Seeing abandoned churches and crofts everywhere was a moving reminder that this island’s greatest export was, for centuries, its own people: as Eavan Boland’s great poem The Emigrant Irish has it, they left here with
Their hardships parceled in them.
Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering
in the bruise-colored dusk of the New World.
And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.
For a diasporic country like ours, these words are close to home, and sometimes, the landscape now bereft of farmers looks not entirely unlike corners of the emptying Eastern Cape.
The Wicklow Way winds on, through the extensive ruins of the 6th-century monastic community founded by St Kevin near Glendalough, through hamlets, through Two Hundred Ways To Serve A Potato, and through a haze of Guinness. Ireland will be seeing us again as soon as possible.
*Names have not been changed. Put out some biltong next time, Sam and Ian. We’re not asking you to kill it yourself.
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