A planned camping trip with my mother to Parson’s Green in Clogheen had me checking my OSI maps to see if there was any good walking in the area. Who was I kidding, the place is surely a mecca for walkers of every experience/fitness level! The campsite itself sits under the Knockmealdown mountains, with Sugarloaf Hill standing proud above the caravans, tents and campervans.
Towards the north-west the Galtee mountains are clearly visible, the choice of walks in the area are endless.
Once settled on our camping pitch, with the obligatory glasses of wine poured we spread the map out and started formulating a plan for the next day. Sadly, the clouds came down whilst we were doing this, obscuring all the lovely mountaintop views, which meant that, route options decided, we would have to wait and see what the weather actually did the next day, before finalising our plans.
The evening ended with heavy cloud and light drizzle, and after a short spin around the farm with our dogs (the campsite also has a pet farm and activity centre) we retired to our beds early, to endure a night of heavy rain and strung gusty winds, strong enough to make the vans rock…it didn’t bode well for heading out walking the next day 😦
Sunshine greeted us in the morning, with the local peaks featuring a thin cap of cloud. A quick check of a mountain weather forecast website, and we decided to have a go at tackling Sugarloaf Hill, after packing some wet weather gear and extra layers into our rucksacks.
We parked at a small car park below Bay Lough, as suggested by my walking guide-book (Tipperary & Waterford – A Walking Guide, by John G O’Dwyer). I wanted to visit Bay Lough but I didn’t really want to retrace my steps down and up from the car park at The Gap, so this car park afforded us a visit to Bay Lough incorporated into a planned walking loop. Looking around there was no obvious path up out of the car park, so we tentatively followed a faint path uphill out of the car park without a single notion on where that particular trail went, and immediately started ascending through thick rhododendrons. Fortunately my GPS tracker showed that the stony path was taking us in the right direction, as we puffed up the slope, under the hot, stuffy canopy. It wasn’t a particularly steep slope, but ascending straight out of the car park, with no chance of warming up properly, made it harder work than it should have been. However, we were shortly rewarded with the deep and dark Bay Lough opening out on our righthand side. The dogs had a bit of a paddle, and quenched their thirst at the lake shore, whilst we drank from our water bottles. Mum tried hard not to look up at the summit of Sugarloaf. I think I knew then that she didn’t want to do it, but neither of us mentioned the elephant in the room at the time. Instead, I advised her to keep a close eye on her dog, who has a passion for swimming at every opportunity, in case Petticoat Loose grabbed his little legs to drag him down under the water.
The proliferation of rhododendrons in the area is becoming infamous, and the invasive plant really does seem to be taking over around here. Whilst the area looks amazing, a riot of pink, when in bloom during the months of May and June, the leaf canopy can be so thick, that no plant life can survive underneath it and it is simply out competing the area’s native plants. Back in June South East Mountain Rescue had to come the assistance of a couple who had got themselves thoroughly stuck in the midst of the rhododendrons. [Bay Lough, Knockmealdown Mountains, Callout 15th June 2014]
A lovely flat path took us up a gentle incline towards The Gap, and the view back down towards Bay Lough and out over the Golden Vale in the sunshine was fabulous. We took shelter from the sun inside Bianconi’s Hut, and enjoyed wine gums, dog biscuits and water. The huts were originally built to provide shelter and rest for the horses pulling the Bianconi Coaches; they would change horses at the top of the climb either way.
Mum decided she didn’t fancy going up the Sugarloaf. She’s the first to admit that walking mostly on the New Forest in the UK she just isn’t used to hills, and instead she and Alfie would walk back down the road, via The Vee, to where we’d left our vehicle. She told me to carry on, and that she would be just grand waiting for me in the campervan, with the comfy sofa, kettle, books and a fridge full of food and drink, haha! And so we parted ways, and whilst mum and Alfie set off down the road, Dolly and I set off up Sugarloaf Hill, on our own. <gulp>
We made it to the top of the first rise, and were surprised to see the car park at The Gap and Bianconi’s Huts look so small below us already. It was steeper than I expected, and I was relieved to see a flat section stretch out before us. A chance to give my poor legs and lungs a bit of a breather, while I talked my head into getting us up the rest of the way. My improving fitness gets me further and further each time I challenge myself, but it is absolutely my head that gets me to the end of each challenge. If my head isn’t in the right place, then I know I’ve had it! Sometimes I have to play games with my head, so whilst Dolly and I sat on a flat rock by the county boundary wall, supping water, I mentally broke down the rest of the ascent into 10 manageable chunks, and then the steepness didn’t seem so daunting.
The path started off well enough, and really it was no hardship to stop to catch your breath, when all around you are incredible views. The rocks had a lovely pinkish hue to them, which in turn made Dolly look almost blue against them. I did try to photograph this strange phenomenon, but the shots just don’t show up what I was seeing, so that memory must stay in my head instead. Some of the rocks had what looked like a quartz element running straight through the middle of them, I only wish I’d paid more attention during A-Level Geography! I nearly stepped on a hairy caterpillar, and when I (very) gently prodded him with a small stick to see if he was still alive, he wrapped himself tightly around the stick. I carefully placed him out of harms way, and safely away from clumsy hiking boots. Google informs me that it might be an Eggar moth caterpillar, but I’d be happy to be corrected.
After a while the path all but disappeared completely, and had turned into a bit of a rock scramble. At this point I was starting to flag, my legs were getting heavy, and I’d started to wonder if I was mad. It was sunny, with a high cloud base. The views were amazing, but I was hot and bothered, and worried if I’d overstretched myself. I was on my own, and totally responsible for both my own and my dog’s welfare. Was this a clever thing to be doing, on my own, on a hot day?
Whilst pausing to
rest my legs catch my breath admire the views, and share out some water rations with Dolly, we met some fellow walkers, descending from the top. They assured me that it wasn’t much further, however when I asked them if they knew of a path down off the other side towards The Vee they replied that they didn’t know of one. Uh oh! I had banked on coming down the other side, and then returning to the car park down the road from The Vee. and after all the scrambling and slate sliding I’d just done I really didn’t fancy going down the way I’d come up. They assured me that with my map, compass etc I’d be grand and would be sure to find my way down somehow… if only I had their confidence!
Sure enough, just as my fellow walkers had promised, the county boundary wall I was following soon met with another stone wall, running perpendicular to it, and the ground levelled out to reveal a stone cairn, phew, we’d made it to the top!
Dolly and I shared a hug…well I hugged, and Dolly mostly wriggled and flailed her tail in a circular motion, and then we stood up to take stock of our surroundings. 360° views can be such a cliché to use, but truly the views in all directions were magnificent!
We tiptoed to the south-east edge to try to see Lough Moylan below, but we couldn’t see it, and I wasn’t brave enough, on my tired, wobbly legs, to get too close to the steep drop off.
We looked out towards the summit of Knockmealdown and spotted the path to the summit along the stone wall marking the county boundary between co. Tipperary and Co. Waterford. All of my ascent had been on the Waterford side of the wall, but now I was back in Tipperary. I did consider following the path, to make an attempt at Knockmealdown. The weather could not have been more perfect up there on the top. The cloud base was high giving full views all around, the sun was shining and the breeze was light…but not knowing how I was going to get back down yet, coupled with the fact that my mother was waiting patiently in the campervan down below, I decided to leave Knockmealdown summit for another day, and I just hope the weather is as good next time!
Dolly and I settled ourselves on a lovely flat rock near the base of the summit cairn, and sorted ourselves out with water, and my map, so that I could identify everything we could see. I scoffed the chocolate Wispa bar, my reward for reaching the summit, and we just sat for a while and soaked up our surroundings.
Whilst I’d have loved to sit there for the rest of the day, there was the small matter of whether there was an available path down to where I’d hoped to descend to. So, after packing everything up again, we headed off in a northerly direction to see what we could see. A second cairn, slightly lower, was a few hundred yards away, so we made our way towards that. We went around to the left of the lower cairn, and spotted what looked like it might be a path below…but an expanse of rocks stood in our way. There was nothing for it but to gingerly pick our way across the rocks to see if we could get to the path. I think if you went to the right, around the lower cairn, you might pick up the path easier, as when we met the path it seemed to be coming from that side of the cairn. So, there’s a lesson learned for me!
I say path, I’m being generous. There was a hint of path, strewn with loose boulders, big rocks and drop offs that had my hips and knees waving white flags at me after a very little time. Occasionally the rocks and boulders would thin out, and for a [very] short stretch you’d have a reasonably good path to follow, but soon enough the drop offs started again and the jumbled boulders reappeared. I found I had to concentrate on exactly where I was putting my next foot down on each and every step I took, and whilst I didn’t need to stop to catch my breath I did make myself stop, purely to enjoy the views on the way down, because it simply wasn’t safe to descend on this ‘path’ and take in the breathtaking views at the same time. We passed a couple of little cairns on the way down. One was off the trail to the left of us, so we diverted for a look-see, and another was directly in the path ahead of us. I have no idea what they represented, or why they were there, and would love to know more about them. There was no sign of The Vee below me at all, so I kept checking my GPS tracker, along with the map, compass etc to make sure that I WAS going in the right direction, and not just heading randomly downhill to DoG knows where, but soon enough we came over a rise, and there was the familiar Vee bend below us…a long way below us!
My mother had sent me a text to inform me that it had taken her approximately 20 minutes to walk to the car park from the apex of the bend at The Vee. Given that this descent was taking more out of me than I had anticipated, and not fancying a 20 minute road slog with complaining hips and knees, after balancing on these rocks and boulders all the way down off the summit, I sent a text back suggesting that I was just coming down the slope above The Vee, in case mum fancied driving up to watch me come down…and 10 minutes later I was delighted (and relieved) to see a familiar campervan pull into the lay-by below.
At one point I felt my ankle go over on a rock that moved underfoot. I lost my balance, and instinctively grabbed on to a thick clump of heather beside me as I fell. Lying there, I couldn’t move as Dolly’s lead had wrapped itself around me, so I wriggled my ankle to determine that it wasn’t broken, and then unclipped Dolly’s lead so that I could get myself upright again. Thankfully the heather clump (and Dolly’s lead) had stopped me from falling off a drop-off…and THAT is one of the main reasons why I’m always hesitant to go hill walking on my own. I stood up, relieved that my ankle wasn’t hurting at all, but feeling a strange and disconcerting ring of pain all around the top of my thigh. The thought flashed across my mind that I might have broken my femur, but logic took over and I figured I wouldn’t be standing up on a broken femur! My thigh hurt for a while afterwards, like a tight band of metal clamped around the top, but after a bit the pain dissipated. I do have a smashing bruise there now, so I guess I just twanged it hard when I fell.
Seeing the Vee coming closer, and Grubb’s Monument coming into view, made the relentless loose rocks and unstable footing more bearable, and soon enough I was at the top of the steps beside Grubb’s Monument, with only a short bit of descent left before I arrived at the road. Hallelujah!
On reaching the road I must have looked an odd sight. For the first dozen steps or so on the tarmac my legs were so wobbly I must have looked drunk! Mum was parked in the lower lay-by, and there was a cut-through down to the lower section, but I just couldn’t face another rocky slope, so I stayed on the road and walked around the hairpin bend, my legs soon started to cooperate on the flat, smooth surface again.
Mum greeted us with a big hug, a mug of water and a bowl of water, and to the bemusement of picnicking tourists parked nearby I dropped my trousers to check my legs for bruising. We sat and I pointed out landmarks to mum, and told her my tales of the Sugarloaf, and then in a totally clichéd ending, we retired to Halley’s Bar in Clogheen for well-earned pint of Guinness!
Sugarloaf Hill, it was (mostly) a pleasure! I’ll be back! And next time Knockmealdown, I’m coming for you too!