Official length: 65km
What we walked: 70km
Start/end point: Ardara, Co. Donegal - looped walk.
Trail difficulty: 3.5/5
Trail quality: 4/5
Camping/accommodation: At the end of our first day we stayed at Derrylahan campsite (which also has a hostel). Day two ended in Gelncholmcille where we stayed in Keltic Lodge, some affordable self catering accommodation, and then it was back to Ardara, and a not so great budget accommodation.
Maps: We’ve made our own Tough Soles maps! These maps are free to use, remix, and redistribute under CC-BY 4.0. All you need to do is attribute us! Here are the maps for the Sli Cholmcille, and here are all the maps we’ve made.
8th June, 2018
The evening before we start the trail, we were talking to the lady in the tourist office having just finish the Bluestack Way that day. She tells us that a pub in the village is doing a pint and pizza deal that night. Not wanting to pass up either option, we head down to the pub. It's packed, and everyone clearly knows everyone very well. Has the whole village come for pizza? But a lot of people are well dressed, and quite a few of the guys ... look the same.
Turns out we were almost gate crashing a wedding afters - I say almost, as technically the wedding was the day before, but the atmosphere of the place gave the impression that the party just hadn't really stopped, and what day it was wasn't all that important to anyone there. They were extremely welcoming, with half the wedding party having travelled over from New Zealand (... or was it Australia? apologies nice people I'll never meet again!). I don't think I've ever been so encouraged to join someone else's party as much as I was that evening. We stayed for a while, ate an undisclosable number of pizzas, and then quietly left. We did have to try and walk tomorrow.
Day 1: Ardara - Killcarr - Derrylahan Campsite (25km)
The first few kilometres aren't the most exciting as they lead out along a busy road, and so we try and power walk as cars stream past us.
Once we turn off the main road, we're heading down the valley on a smaller road towards Glengesh pass. One or two cars pass us, and we watch them make their way through a couple of switch-backs before turning our eyes back to the task at hand of first getting to the bottom of this climb. There is however one vehicle that passes us that grabs the attention. It's a red van, pulling a red and yellow trailer. And painted on the back of the trailer is that one magic word: coffee.
I watch it intently as it gets to the start of the climb and slowly winds it's way back and forth, now a red blob inching its way up the mountain. My heart gets ahead of itself and starts to get excited, but my brain tries to reason: there is no way it's going to stop at the top. We're not getting coffee heart, please calm down. And yet ... The red dot slows. Perched at the top of this long, winding, climb is coffee. Suddenly, my legs are much more willing to start moving again. We wheeze and wobble our way, but we have a good pace and are making fast work of the hill. As we're rounding one of the last bends there are two guys standing beside another van (this time white), looking back down the valley. We croak out a "hello", afraid of trying to say more as our lungs struggle to secure enough oxygen.
"What's the rush?" I wonder did my body stumble as much as my mind did at the unexpected question. I don't remember what answer we gave, but we got talking to the guys none the less. By now we have our story well rehearsed, and give them a rundown of our adventure. Then they start to tell us theirs.
Adrian, the guy with a mountain man's beard, tells us about a race he set up - the Transatlantic Way Endurance Cycle Race. It was the kind of race where guys cycle for 16hrs a day, sleep in a ditch with their bike for a pillow, then get back on it again. Turns out we were the least adventurous people standing in that circle. Currently, they'd just launched the first cycle race of the Wild Atlantic Way. It is truly an epic and insane event, you should look it up if you're into type 7 kind of fun.
After swapping our adventure stories, we finally made it to the top fo the hill, and got to meet the Pirates of the Coffee Bean. A small red van with an amazing view, this coffee was probably the best coffee we'd tasted on this whole walking project. We basked in the sun and the warmth of that magic liquid warming our hearts. Just to be sure, Carl went over and ordered second helpings. And yes, after that we are able to say it was the best coffee we'd had on the trail so far. In fact, I almost got a little emotional at the top of that pass. We had just gone through such a battle finishing the Bluestack Way in some extreme heat the days before this, that I was feeling a bit rejected from the world, and forced into walking just because I didn't think I could stop. But everyone we'd met that day were so nice, and the view was so beautiful - and there was coffee. I welled up with happy tears.
Maybe I was more tired than I'd realised.
The trail from there entered a high plato, and after some road walking we split off down a farm track, then up over one more moorish hillside. Nearing the top, I stopped to take a photo and film Carl crossing the hillside. Taking a deep breath, I looked down at my feet to see where to walk next and right between my feet was a phone. Lying face down on the ground, I picked it up. It looked surprisingly ok! We assumed it had only been there for a few weeks, as otherwise the bog would probably have swallowed it by now. I put it into the side of Carl's bag, and we carry on with the plan of dropping it off somewhere on the far side.
Crossing the top of the hills we go through some forest and cross back down the other side, and spend the next couple of hours winding our way down some small roads into the village of Kilcar. We found a nice pub, ate a 99 cone, and settled into some serious relaxing. Our end point for that day was a campsite just a little further along the coast, and there was no real rush. It was here that we first got to meet Leah Fairman; adventure queen and fantastic person behind Wild Days Out. We sat and chatted for a while, and then she drove our bags over to the campsite while we jogged along behind. Once there, we had a picnic and swapped adventure stories. It was a pretty perfect evening. The icing on the cake as we climbed into our sleeping bags that night? Through some unknown magic, that campsite had no midges.
Day 2: Derrylahan - Glencholmcille (15km)
Who is going to be surprised if I say we left late? To be honest, I can't actually remember one hundred percent, but something in my gut is telling me we did, so I'm just going to go for it.
We left a little late that next morning, and struggled to wake ourselves as we hit the tiny country roads once more. We eat ice creams at the first shop we hit (maybe only an hour into the trail) and then get to struggle up and over a small boggy hillside. After a lot of gasping and chugging water, we got beautiful views back over the inlet. There are few things better than being able to look back over where you've come - even when you haven't gone all that far, some height makes it all look a lot more impressive and beautiful.
The rest of the day is a zig-zagging of bogs and low hills. At the time of walking the country was parched, the ground cracking under the unexpected drought conditions the tiny island was going through. And while I know a drought is bad thing, we probably had some of the easiest of bog crossings any person has ever had in an Irish bog. We walked through craters and along river beds, racing through usually very slow going land. It's amazing to think that usually there was about 4 feet of putrid, thick bog water wallowing where I was walking.
I will add that, if you meet this section of trail during less favourable weather conditions than we did, there is a national road that weaves back and forth across the trail, that can take you straight into Glencholmcille (and if I'm honest, we went back and forth across it so many times that towards the end I just wanted to plough along it's hard, stable surface and stop with all the to-ing and fro-ing).
Glenchlomcille as a village was very much your standard Irish village, and we lucked into finding some self catering accommodation where it was €30 for the two of us - in our own room and everything! We ate some very, very, good burgers and chips from a food van and sat on a picnic bench looking out over the bay.
Day 3: Rest day Glencholmcille (still walked 10km)
Waking up that morning we both knew that we weren't going to leave. However, we still went through the motions and rolled over a bit, got up, looked at our packs. Made some coffee, looked at our packs again. Brushed our teeth, looked at our packs. Sighed, now unable to look at our packs.
We took a rest day.
It was a nice place, Glencholmcille, and we spent the day slowly walking around it. It was one of those spread out, and therefore deceptively large villages - so much so that accidentally walked 10km over the course of our circuit. Up on a near-by, but also far away hill we came across a fantastic holy well to St. Finbarr, and also just some fantastic views of the area.
(This could be translated as Carl went and found the holy well, while I got tired and sat on a comfortable rock and so I could watch an ocean bash against some jagged cliffs)
Day 4: Glencholmcille - Ardara (30km?)
We did go through a little bit of humming and hawing on our second morning as to whether we would leave (such decently priced accommodation!), but after a while we did manage to pull our boots on. The trail out of Clencholmcille immediately starts with a climb, and brings you up a different section of the hill we'd walked the day before to the holy well. Once to the top, you meander a bit as you make your way to Port. Now, someone had said to us that you can wild camp at Port, and something about an abandoned village, which just generally sounded creepy, so we'd kind of forgotten about it.
Oh my goodness, it was incredible. It felt like we were walking down through a painting as we followed a white stony trail through green sheep-mown fields. There were very few people there, and very little abandoned village to be creeped out by. We sat there for quite a while, and just enjoyed it.
Leaving Port you follow the only road back inland along the valley floor, passing a lake, until the road turns away and the trail keeps going upwards. There isn't really a trail as such as you clamber along the side of a stream for a while, but it's fun, and the trail does return often enough for you to know you're still going the right way. We didn't expect it, but we actually climbed quite a bit that afternoon, and make it up to a surprisingly high pass. It was breath-taking, looking down and out to the sea on the other side. If memory serves me right, we weren't much more than 400metres, but the view from that spot reminded me of our view from 750metres up Mount Brandon on the Dingle Way.
The first half of the way down is much faster than the climb up, and we shuffle our way back down and out through a farm yard. Reaching roads again, we pass some quarrying and step out at the top of another valley. The road is long and straight, steeply descending along the left valley wall. We briskly walk, breaking into steps of jogging and laugh a lot. We feel completely alone, and have a shouting competition.
At some point around here we book a cheap airbnb for that night in Ardara, and have to push the pace for the rest of the evening as we're still 10km from the end. It's a bit of a shame we had to walk so quickly along that long coastal stretch back into the town - but we got to view it all in the warm tones of sun set, with the happiness that we would have another bed for the night helping the kilometres disappear.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the accommodation was worth the rush, but the next morning we left early and quickly, drinking some delicious coffee before boarding a bus to Finntown, for the Slí na Finne.