Saturday, 12 April 2014

Coomataggart : a wild mountain walk on the Cork / Kerry border near Gougane Barra

Photo: John Desmond
This cairn on Coomataggart's summit looks out over a panoramic view of  the Muscrai gaeltacht's mountains and valleys

  • Start-point approx. 2.5 kms from hotel at Gougane Barra on minor road
  • 74 kms / 46 miles west of Cork City, just over 1 hour's drive
  • Minimal parking available at start-point, need to park further away if in group
  • Very clear track leads up initial part of climb, with archaeological interest
  • It's necessary to cross a bog higher up, waterproof boots essential plus maybe a stick
  • Quite steep final climb, so good fitness levels / hillwalking experience needed
  • Stunning views into Kerry mountains and all over Muscrai gaeltacht from top

At the moment, the Gugan Barra Forest Park is closed to visitors, due to tree-felling, but this is a walk that can be undertaken if staying at Gougane Barra or nearby (on foot), or you can drive or cycle to the start-point (parking available for just one car at start-point, so if in group park further away).

As you arrive at Gugan Barra from the Cork / Ballingeary direction, you arrive at the lake, and immediately there is a right turn up a small road to the east of the lake. Take this turn, and it's approx 2.5 kms to the start-point, whether you walk or drive or cycle (bear in mind it's a narrow road with quite poor surfaces).

After less than 1km, you reach a turn to the right up a steep hill. Take this turn, and the road climbs steadily with beautiful views back to Gugan Barra and its mountains. In 1.5 kms, after a second steady climb with stone walled fields to the right, you come to a high point with buildings of a farm appearing to your right. Just here you'll see a track on the right, with three-bar gate to be crossed. Park at the beginning of this track, keeping off the road and leaving room for farm vehicles.

Cross the gate, and begin to climb the track It winds up around long steep curves, and sheep will keep you company! Look out higher up for what I believe to be the remains of a possible stone circle to your right, higher up the track. As the track swings in to the left on a long curve, then starts to turn right again, look to your left and see two upright stones at the far side of an area of bracken and a rough circular embankment. I'm going to contact the county archaeological service about this site : stone circles are often found on platform-like natural features like the one this structure sits on. The possible circle has a fine view of Gugan Barra lake, which may have been a sacred landmark in itself.

The views open up as you climb higher, both west to Gugan Barra lake and the high cirque of mountains that surrounds it, and south to the Pass of Keimeneigh / Ceim an Fhia (The Deer's Leap) and Doughill (featured on earlier post) and Djouce mountains, across the deep Lee valley.

Eventually you'll pass between a pair of old gate-posts, and look to your left here for a small standing-stone, about 1 metre high, which may be of prehistoric age (again, I'm contacting the archaeological service!). The track ahead becomes a little less distinct, but at the fork you must turn right. The path, which can be wet at times here, continues on, and try to pick out a three-bar gate in the wire fence over to your right. You must follow the track to this gate, and, preferably, cross the wire fence near the gate rather than climbing over the extremely rusty and unsafe gate itself.

This is where the fun begins, because you must now cross the gradually rising boggy ground that rises to the north until you reach the clearly visible rocky summit ridge of Coomataggart. I've tried various routes from this gate to the summit, in various weathers, and I'd say that this walk is one to undertake when it's been dry for at least a week, and the bog has had a chance to dry out (in the conditions earlier this year, it would have needed two weeks to dry out). However, the excellent access up to this point, up a clear track, is not something to be sniffed at on the West Cork hills, so it's worth making the effort to continue on up to the summit, for its wonderful far-ranging views, and the dry rocky walking up the final ridge.

Continue on the now less distinct track, following it for as far as you can make it out, keeping in mind that you are heading for the high ridge to the north, which runs at right angles to the wire fence running along to your left. I wouldn't recommend just following the wire fence, as it's boggy beside it and leads you to a very steep and eroded final climb route.

When the track peters out, make your way towards the beginning of the dry ridge to the north, keeping when you can to heathery ground (heather loves dry areas) and the patches and swathes of ordinary grass (possibly remnants of pilgrim paths that came over the hills towards the burial ground / shrine of Gugan Barra). Waterproof boots will save you in the boggy ground you might step into here, and a stick will help you test any dodgy ground ahead and keep you steady.

Keeping an eye on the line of wire fence to your left, make a route that comes at the ridge close enough to it (about 200 metres), but not right by it. Try to memorise your route up, looking for dry ground (i.e always looking well ahead), as you can follow it on the way down. Use noticeable landmarks or features to memorise the route (or note it down).

The summit ridge of Coomataggart is boggy in places to start with, but keep climbing up, using bare rock (with care) to speed up your ascent. It's drier towards the top, with the distinct flora and windswept rocky beauty of a true mountain. The summit cairn will come into view, and soon you'll be standing beside it. The extensive views all over the Muscrai gaeltacht are beautiful, and turning around, the west and north rise the mountains of Kerry, all the way to the high wall of the Reeks. You may even see a White-Tailed Sea-Eagle riding the currents of air high above.

Return by the same route.


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