Lenny Antonelli takes a ten hour hike through "the very loneliest place in Ireland"
Outsider magazine, Spring 2013
Unlike most things, it started in a pub on Achill in January. "How's Galway this weather?" one of the locals asked me.
"Ah fairly quiet," I said. He burst into laughter. If Galway was quiet in the dead of winter, what was Achill?
But the island is still a bustling metropolis compared to some parts of Mayo, he insisted. "Ever been to Carrowteige in north Mayo?" he asked. "It's sort of like an Alaskan outpost."
"Or have you heard of that aul' Bangor Trail? I was camping out there for a few days and had to climb a mountain just to get phone coverage to call my daughter and tell her I was still alive."
His friend piped up: "Sure what you be doing going out into all that aul' wilderness?"
We don't really do wilderness in Ireland. Stand at the top of Carrauntoohil and you're still only a couple miles from the nearest road.
But Mayo's a bit different. The road network seems sparser, and doesn't stretch to every last corner. The county boasts some of Ireland's wildest and remotest spots — like the towering cliffs of Achill's western tip, or the epic crags and isolated beaches hidden by the mountains of Mweelrea.
And then there's the Bangor Trail. An ancient route through the Nephin Beg hills of north west Mayo, the trail was once used to bring livestock across this desolate landscape.
Scour a map of Ireland for a wild, roadless tract of land and you'll be drawn to the Nephin Begs — the only big range of hills we didn't drive a road through.
"Indeed the Nephinbeg range of mountains is I think the very loneliest place in this country, for the hills themselves are encircled by this vast area of trackless bog," Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote in his 1937 book The Way That I Went — his epic account of five years spent exploring the country.
"Where else even in Ireland will you find 200 square miles which is houseless and roadless?" he wrote. "I confess I find such a place not lonely or depressing but inspiriting. You are thrown at the same time back upon yourself and forward against the mystery and majesty of nature and you may feel dimly something of your own littleness and your own greatness."
The trail — not an official national waymarked way — starts in Newport, but the first half is mostly on road. The real Bangor Trail starts from the Brogan Carroll bothy at Letterkeen, a fairly remote mountain shelter. From here, it's 24km of wild terrain before you reach the village of Bangor Erris.
I hit the trail with local mountain guide Barry Murphy of Tourism Pure Walking.
Leaving the bothy, we cross a stream and skirt the edge of a vast conifer plantation. Barry squats down to study something beside the stream. "Otter scat," he says. "Smells like white wine."
After a few miles the plantation recedes into the background, and with it goes the last sign of modern civilisation we'll see for hours.
Ravens circle over Nephin Beg mountain up ahead as we hop streams along the trail. Though the word trail itself is a bit a euphemism: the way varies from rock to dirt to bog, most of it sopping wet.
We hike up to the Scardaun Loughs, two lakes plucked out by the ice in the U-shaped valley between 627m Nephin Beg and 721m Slieve Carr.
Slieve Carr is the highest mountain in the range. Hikers regard it as Ireland's remotest summit —it demands a serious trek just to get to its base.
The mountain was said to be the home of Daithí Bán, an 18th century highwayman who would stalk and attack travellers from the mountain. Another tale tells of a traveler who hid in the rotting corpse of a horse to avoid thieves out here.
Back on the trail, we cross a gully that shelters a lone, wind-twisted oak tree — the only native tree we see all day. Ruins of old farmsteads on the way echo a time when this was a busy trade route.
Skirting the western flank of Slieve Carr, you realise just how isolated you are: to the north there's 15km of tough terrain to Bangor Erris, to the east the mountains loom overhead with vast forestry beyond, and to the west stretches the endless Owenduff bog. Once you start the trail, there's no easy way out.
Scots pine once blanketed this landscape, but Ireland's climate got wetter about 4,000 years ago. Rain washed minerals down through the soil, forming an impermeable layer and water-logging the land. Mosses took over, the forest died and the vast bog formed. Out here, it's still forming.
Barry points to an old trail that stretches west across the bog. He was advised never to take that route "for fear of disappearing into the bog."
The biggest mistake you could make out here would be to take a shortcut across the bog — the trail has been etched out by thousands of feet over the centuries into a perfect route: low enough to avoid unnecessary climbing, but high enough to avoid deep bog.
Even on the trail we frequently plunge shin-deep into bog, but Barry insists he's never seen it this dry before.
We follow the winding course of a nameless river that emerges into the desolate Tarsaghaunmore valley.
The salmon-rich Tarsaghaunmore and Owenduff rivers that drain the vast bog are some of western Europe's last untouched waterways, rising in remote corners of the Nephin Begs and flowing straight across the bog and into the Atlantic, bypassing civilisation.
The light fades as we eat dinner on the water's edge. A farmhouse in the distance is the first sign of modern civilisation we've seen since morning.
The trail meanders over a range of low hills towards Bangor Erris for the last five miles. We put our headlamps on as night falls, but lose the trail and have to fight our way through thick scrub towards the lights in the distance. The last few miles take an eternity.
My right ankle seizes up, and I limp on through the dark. We find the trail again and — finally — stumble onto a boreen just outside the village. We've been hiking for ten hours. Looking back towards the trail, and towards the lonely Nephin Beg hills, all I can see is darkness.
Bangor Trail: Tips
Set aside a good 12 hours to hike the entire trial, and prepare to finish in the dark — bring headlamps or torches.
Tackle it after a spell of dry weather — it's extremely wet at the best of times. Not all streams on the way have bridges, so some could be very dangerous to cross after heavy rainfall.
Prepare for midges in summer — bring insect repellant.
There are shorter looped hikes in the area: the Letterkeen loop, Bothy loop and Lough Avoher loop all start at the Brogan Carroll bothy and range from 6km to 12km (www.irishtrails.ie).
Only experienced hikers who know how to use a map and compass should tackle the trail. If you don't feel experienced enough, hire a guide.
Navigation skills are crucial as the trail can be hard to follow, and marking is scarce. At grid reference F889131, make sure to turn left to follow the stream as directed by the marker, rather than following the track off to the right.
Bring good waterproof boots, rain gear, gaiters, warm clothing, lots of food and water, map and compass.
The section of the trail described, from the Brogan Carroll bothy to Bangor Erris, is covered by Ordnance Survey Ireland Discovery Series map 23. The section from Newport to the bothy is covered by map 31 of the same series.
To get to Brogan Carroll bothy, leave Newport on the N59 towards Achill but turn right after 1km towards L Feeagh/Letterkeen. After about 12km, turn left just after a bridge onto a forestry road. Follow this road for 1km to the bothy.
Ballycroy National Pak
Much of the trail runs through Ballycroy National Park, established in 1998. The park comprises 11,000 acres of blanket bog and mountain terrain.The vast Owenduff bog is one of the last intact active blanket bog systems in western Europe.
Other habitats in the park include alpine heath, upland grassland, wet and dry heath, lakes and river catchments. Animals here include mountain hare, otter, fox, badger, pygmy shrew, and bats as well as birds of prey such as kestrels, sparrowhawks and peregrine falcon. Other important bird species in the park include Greenland and white-fronted geese, and golden plover. Some of the most common bog plants include sphagnum mosses, black bog rush, purple moor grass and bog cotton.
A visitor's centre with tearooms is open during the summer in the village of Ballycroy on the N59 between Mulranny and Bangor Erris. For more information, see www.ballycroynationalpark.ie.
Stay on the Bangor Trail
This summer Mountain Meitheal volunteers constructed an Adirondack-style shelter for campers along the trail, on Coillte lands near Letterkeen wood at grid reference F938 073. The hut contains sleeping room for up to 6 people and is designed to allow people to camp without a tent (though you'll still need to bring a sleeping bag plus all your other camping supplies). It's the first in a planned series of designated camping areas as part of the Wild Nephin project — a joint initiative project between Coillte and the Natonal Parks and Wildlife Service to set aside the area as Ireland's first designated national wilderness. The construction of the hut also celebrates ten years of Mountain Meitheal.