SO A BIT OF A CONFESSION FIRST
One of the main reasons for starting this site was to showcase the best of what Northern Ireland has to offer, hopefully providing enough info on destinations, events and activities to make your own adventure planning that little bit easier (whether that be getting to the top of a mountain or the bottom of a cocktail glass).
By no means do I claim to be an expert in orienteering, a connoisseur of culture or a boffin in the best hotels and eateries. I simply like to try new things, see new places and take a few (hundred) pics & vids along the way.
And this day-trip up Slieve Donard in the Mournes is a great case in point. Despite studying the weather days before, packing a bag with gear to cover all seasons and enough water and food to nourish a small family... it all went wrong the night before when we decided to have just one more drink. Which meant the 'early night' didn't happen. Which meant the snooze button took a battering the next morning.
Today would turn out to be a story of light.
HIT THE ROAD
One of the great things about Northern Ireland is how quickly some of the most beautiful destinations can be reached (no wonder the HBO guys are here shooting for Game of Thrones). Less than an hour since our adventure-fueling-big breakfast, we arrived into sunny Newcastle, County Down. And good news - no unexpected rain or thick fog covering the top of the mountains.
Standing at 852m above sea level, Slieve Donard is Northern Ireland's highest point. While there are numerous ways of tackling the mountain, two of the most popular routes are either starting from Donard Car Park just on the edge of Newcastle town centre...
...or from Bloody Bridge, which is my preferred option and where we set off from. It's only an extra 10 minutes drive out the southern side of the town, on the Kilkeel Road. Blink and you'll miss it though.
The car park has space for about 30 vehicles, with decent toilet/changing facilities (free of charge). The start of the Donard climb begins just the other side of the road. Needless to say, take caution when crossing.
As the sign below says, please DO remember to close the gate behind you. In no time you'll see sheep, goats/rams (and this one time a few horses) wandering freely around the open mountainside.
Technically, dogs should also be on leads. In a lot of the photos below I have Max off the lead - this was only in parts where we could see clearly around us. While he's great at sticking close by and will come back when called, I'm convinced he thinks that sheep are other golden retrievers - or that he's a sheep himself - and gets a bit boisterous when they're near. The last thing he needed was a farmer's shotgun pointing his direction, so a lead was regularly on.
Less than five minutes into the walk, the landscape is spectacular. As you walk alongside Bloody Bridge River you'll come across large areas of exposed rock, rushing mini waterfalls and rock pools. If the weather's great, expect to see local kids bombing into some of the deeper ones. Or if the weather's been poor, expect to see the same kids in wetsuits as the water gets deeper and faster. Crazy.
Notice the darkness of the photos already? Yep, despite it being a crisp, clear day, the sun was already casting long shadows around us. No time to stop anywhere too long...
CROSSING THE RIVER
Eventually you'll see a sign directing you to the other side of the river - luckily the days before hadn't seen any rain, so the water levels were low for an easy crossing.
I wonder how easy this would be after a week of rain?
Over on the other side was a quick reminder of why the lead was important. A sudden concentration-faced-Max spotted some sheep hanging out down the bank.
The lead was back in seconds, again, giving a chance to see how quickly the sun was disappearing. Big shadows.
But great views.
And before you say it. It's not what it looks like. Honestly. The weirdo just doesn't want to miss out on anything. Doubt he's appreciating the view. Probably checking out some golden sheeptrievers in the distance.
Around halfway up the mountainside, the landscape quickly turns into a boulder metropolis as you get closer to a disused quarry area. This makes for a great place to stop for lunch and explore.
QUESTION: Does anyone know anything about the quarry? I've tried to find out info online without success. Use the comments section at the very bottom of this page!
The waterfall in the main quarry 'cliff' was at a trickle this day - zoom in on the pic below. On other days after some rain the place is even more incredible - as well as giving a more substantial waterfall, the rainwater floods a lot of the immediate area around and makes for some 'interesting' puddle jumping. If you don't fancy getting wet though, there are alternative routes around it to the right.
Beyond the quarry the path becomes a bit sporadic. If you didn't appreciate your sturdy footwear earlier, you will now.
After around an hour and a half's walking, we reached the famous wall of the Mournes. Stretching on for 35km over 15 mountains, the wall took around 18 years to build and keeps grazing animals out of the water catchment area for Silent Valley Reservoir (which supplies Belfast it's water).
Hare's Gap was once the popular route between the High Mourne mountains for smuggled goods coming from the coast for offloading in Hilltown and beyond. These days, the area makes a superb junction at which to explore other peaks.
For us, it marked another water break before making the final ascent to the top of Slieve Donard. Until this point, the journey from the car park was a steady moderate walk - but from this point onwards it's important to note the necessity for sturdy footwear and the need for a basic level of fitness. It may not look like much in the pic below, but you'll feel the burn quickly enough as you make your way up alongside the wall.
Don't try to use the top of the wall as your path up. The boulders are all loose - don't be the person that causes something like the below to happen...
Though the thighs do start feeling a tingle with the steepness, the quick increase in height does have its advantages. Check out the view already. Though again, that bright sun is getting a little close to disappearing behind those mountains - and we've another two hours walk back down. Hmmmm :/
Onwards and upwards, looking to the left...
...and to the right. Max became best mates with this lady. Likely there was a sandwich involved...
...and again, looking back down to where we came from. You can see that the wall disappears in the centre of the below photo. This is the deceiving 'dip' in the hill, where on the way up it convinces you you're just about to reach the top, but in reality you're just climbing the first giant 'step'.
It was at this point we had to make a decision. The sun was just starting to disappear and we only had a small torch and our iPhone lights to rely on. The temperature was already starting to change too. Crap.
And so we sat. One reason being to take in the amazing sun setting over the Mournes, the other to think 'what's the worst that could happen?' I mean, if we dash down the hill to the quarry, from there the path is quite visible. Even if it's dark, the path is okay, no major boulders or sudden drops to worry about.
Oh wait. There were some of those at the bottom. And the quarry has some very deep cuts into the land all around it.
Max, you make the decision.
Okay, wise move.
But what a feeling of failure.
After lots of rain, freezing temperatures and poor visibility the last time I was on the mountain , I had all hopes on just sitting at the peak and looking out over Newcastle and the rest of Northern Ireland. Urgghhh.
AND SO WE GO
And in no time, the feeling of failure is quickly replaced with that feeling of slight danger again. Thinking gravity would have us down in no time, the slippy hill, big rocks and plenty of muddy patches made for a slow journey back down to Hare's Gap.
With batteries dying on our phones, only a few more photos were taken on the way down. This is the visibility after another 30 minutes walking...
And looking back up behind us.
Then 20 mins and 30 minutes later, looking behind us...
...and all too quickly, things got a bit tricky.
This is where the photos stopped and all feeling of adventure went out the window. We could hear the river beside us and knew that following that for around another 30 minutes would bring us to another footbridge and eventually bloody bridge.
In theory, easy. In reality, not so much. At one point we were stranded for a good 10 minutes on a high ledge where our river was suddenly met by another on our left. That definitely wasn't there on the way up. Or was it? No idea.
I had a sudden flashback of the same thing happening the last time I was up Donard in the Fog. After slowly checking out the ledge (nearly on hands and knees), we found a gap in the bushes on the side of the verge and slid down it onto the bank below. Thankfully this is where we rejoined the path we had taken up the mountain and 20 minutes later we were arriving back into the car park, muddy, cold but relieved.
So today's lesson? If you're climbing a mountain, get up there early.
Despite the dodgy end to the day, looking back those were some amazing views. Plus, as we sat taking in the last of the sun, a few descending hikers informed us we were the last ones on the mountain.
So at around 5pm on this bright winter's day, we were technically standing taller than any other person in Northern Ireland.
I'll take that. :)
(Don't forget to comment below if you've any info on the quarry or handy Mournes advice in general. We'll be back up soon to take in the other peaks, so all advice appreciated!)