It has been a while since I have found myself in the hills but I did make it into my favourite valley for a day, a night and a day. I headed into the mountains via the ‘tourist route’ to the col of Slieve Donard. I was mostly on my own for the start of the trek through the forest and by the river, until I caught up with the walkers just past the trees.
I looked out of place with my full pack among the day trippers in jeans and trainers. Breaking away from the crowds and over the Mourne wall found me on the brandy pad where I was thankfully on my own for a while. The familiar Annalong valley looked a little different than normal. The east side of it was lush green, as it should be this time of year but the west side was a dark burnt. The meandering river marked the point where the recent gorse fires burnt to and did not cross.
I made my way to a high point half way along the brandy pad where I stopped and put on all my layers in preparation for a long wait. From this position I watched the rain fronts come in from the west. They moved quickly and brought cold air and hail. When the fronts moved in I stood up and sealed myself in waterproofs with only a thin window to view out. Between fronts the sun shone and I lay back and dug out a book to relax with. After over and hour I spied the two small groups appear at the gap at the other side of the next valley. They were moving slowly after a long walk up valleys and over a couple of mountains. I stood for a long time (another hour and a half) on top of a small cairn and was reminded of the inuksuk; piles of stones shaped as the outline of man that are placed on the edges of ridges and mountains by the inuit. They are said to be used to aid hunting but I remember reading that Farley Mowat asked what their true purpose was; that they do the job of man. Mowat thought this was vague and all encompassing, but when he was alone and hundreds of miles from another human he discovered what was meant by this definition. The inuksuk are a comfort when they are spied on the horizon. They are a symbol that man has been here and you are not truly alone. Part of me hoped that I was a sort of inuksuk for the groups to spur them on towards me and closer to their camp, rest and food. In reality they probably wondered why the idiot on the horizon was just standing there.
After what seemed like another period of forever, they eventually arrived as we spied a lonely figure also on the path. Moving much faster that the groups was their instructor. I wondered if he was also enthused by my presence. Not by me as such, but by the meal of (very heavy) fresh chilli con carne I had brought with me and a tent.
When we eventually set up camp it was on burnt ground where the grass had begun to recover through. I have heard that the fires have damaged wildlife here including the lizards that live in this valley. I have only ever seen a lizard three times in Ireland and every time has been in this valley. The hundreds of empty, exposed and burnt rabbit holes are a sad sign of the devastation here.
Over a pot of hot chilli we closed ourselves in the tent as rain, hail and thunder briefly rolled over. The weather did settle down to gentle breeze and a cloudy sky. No stars came out and Meg the dog curled up at the open entrance of the tent and made sure no hungry foxes visited to steal left over chilli.