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EXPLORE,  EXTRA,  FEATURES,  May 2024

Wandering Ireland’s wild west

Mountain hikes, lake swims and foot-stomping live music around every corner, Killarney’s Wander Wild Festival has something for every kind of adventurer, as Abigail Whyte discovered.

As a child I was lucky enough to go on some pretty incredible family holidays around the world, but there’s a place that stand out above all others in my memory. Ireland. We’d stayed in a cottage in the middle of a peat bog in Donegal for the first week, then drove down the Atlantic coast to Killarney for the second part of the trip. I remember that second week being filled with waterfalls, mountains, live music, incredibly warm and friendly locals, and my dad remarking how delicious his pint of Guinness was in every pub we went to. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to revisit, so you can my imagine my excitement when I was invited to experience Wander Wild – a new three-day festival celebrating the beauty of Killarney National Park.

Inspired by Kendal Mountain Festival in the Lake District, the founders of Wander Wild wanted to curate experiences for all types of adventurers and outdoor lovers, from gentle hikers to adrenaline junkies, utilising the lively town of Killarney as its ‘base camp’ within easy reach of the surrounding mountains, lakes and woodlands. The festival is largely run by volunteers, many of them local residents and business owners who are proactive within their community in so many other ways, even if it’s downing tools from their working week to go litter picking on a Sunday. 

My first impressions during my mooch around the festival’s HQ in the heart of Killarney – traditional Irish music playing from the outdoor stage – was that this festival is a labour of love from the townsfolk, keen to show the outside world what the National Park has to offer.

A calming start

After a grounding cup of tea, the first activity on my itinerary was a Breathwork workshop, one of many new wellness events Wander Wild hosts on its programme, alongside family yoga and herbal medicine workshops. The breathwork coach, Edele Daly from B Well Fitness Club, introduced our group to two types of Yoga breathing to incorporate into daily life for improving health and longevity.

Water Breath (4-6 breaths per minute), Edele explained, is balancing and can be used any time, day or night, and is particularly useful before high-stress situations or if you’re feeling sluggish during the day. Edele also recommended it as a good breathing exercise to practise before a swimming event, for it balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, conserving energy and calming the nerves.

Whisky Breath on the other hand (4 breaths per minute) triggers a strong parasympathetic response, reducing the heart rate and activity in the skeletal muscles. Edele recommends this breath for swimmers preparing to enter cold water, for it can ‘fool’ the nervous system into calming down, even when it is in a state of shock, making the dip a more a enjoyable experience.

This exercise was perfect for stilling me after a long day of travelling, so I was thankful this was my opener to the festival, reclining on a yoga mat, hearing the ocean-like sound of 20-or-so others’ calming Whisky Breath.

Revived, I mooched further around the town before heading to one of the Festival’s Fireside Chats – a series of intimate Q&A conversations with an adventurer in a cosy pub. No stage, no podiums; just a circle of candlelit faces listening intently. This evening’s adventurer was ‘Outsider Man of the Year’ Ian O’Brien, whose response to an Early Onset Parkinson’s diagnosis was to scale the highest point of 27 European countries in 28 days. It was a thrill to hear him talk humbly and humorously about his epic feat in such an intimate setting, many of us with a pint of Guinness in hand. 

My eyelids heavy, the evening ended with a nightcap of Irish single malt in the bar of my hotel. A man softly plucking an acoustic guitar didn’t help stave off the sleepiness.  

To the mountains

Next morning, I boarded the festival shuttle to the starting point of a guided hike up Mangerton, a 838m peak within sight of Killarney. Other guided hikes on the programme included a chance to conquer Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil, which I could just about see swathed in cloud. That hike would have been a bit above my skill level, so I was happy to just glimpse it from a distance. I was also keen to hike this smaller mountain because of a chance of a swim along the way in the Devil’s Punchbowl, a deep lake on the northwestern face of Mangerton. However, by the time we got up there the wind was shrieking like a banshee and there was no prospect of any shelter on any part of the lake and shore. So, I kept my cossie in my backpack and took out a thermos flask instead. 

The final climb to the summit brought the fiercest wind I’d ever experienced, plus some snow, so I was thankful of the neoprene swim gloves I’d packed. The wind finally died down as we descended, so it was time to drink in the view of the copper-coloured mountains around me and Lough Leane beyond; Killarney forming a crescent on its northeastern shore. 

The light starting to fade to golden hour, that distant shore was where I was heading to for the next leg of my Wander Wild adventure – a SUP Safari on the lough. This is the first time stand-up paddle boarding has been permitted on these precious waters, and I could sense Ed of Wild Sup Tours excitement at exploring the nooks and crannies of the lough’s banks. 

© Valerie O’Sullivan

“We’re usually based on the Dingle Peninsula where it’s very exposed to the Atlantic, so to be able to paddle these calmer waters is wonderful,” Ed told me, as I swapped my walking boots for neoprene booties.

This was my first time using a rigid board (I have an inflatable SUP at home) and I was surprised at how stable yet responsive it felt on the water.  Ed offered me some pointers on my paddle stroke then I enjoyed a tranquil hour meandering under writhing oaks along the shore, watching the orange sky deepen to a rich pink. By the end of the paddle, what with a 10km mountain hike already under my belt that day, I felt truly exhausted, but buoyed by the idea of dinner back in town.

I’d heard lots about Bricín – a Killarney institution with brothers John and Paddy McGuire at the helm. After a 3-course dinner of comforting Irish fare, John gave me a little tour of the buzzing restaurant and its artworks on the walls, drawing my attention to the hazy Romantic landscapes painted by artists on their Grand Tour. Feeling hazy myself, I decided to give the nearby pub a miss – despite the enticing sound of a fiddle from inside – and headed for bed.

Crossing the Gap

Fuelled with a full Irish breakfast (including a thick wedge of soda bread and butter) the following morning, I packed my kit bag for a full day’s itinerary – a 10km walk along the Gap of Dunloe to board a traditional boat tour across the lough to Ross Castle. Due to the windy weather predictions for that afternoon, it was decided the trip should be reversed, with the boat tour first, followed by the walk. 

Though soggy and choppy, it was a beautiful boat ride from the castle through three interconnected lakes, taking in gnarled oaks and the unusual arbutus tree along the shores and islands. Also known as the ‘Strawberry Tree, the arbutus is unique to southwest Ireland and the Mediterranean, believed to have been introduced to Ireland from Spain. It was heartening to see so much life and greenery on the lough banks and crags, evidently recovering from wildfires that scorched the area three years ago. 

After a much-needed hot chocolate back on soggy land, I began my ascent of the Gap of Dunloe. This mountain pass is one of the most beautiful walks I’ve ever done, winding up between the MacGillycuddy Reeks and the Purple Mountain Range, descending along the white waters of the River Loe. Again, the weather felt just too changeable for a swim in the enticing loughs and eddies I passed along the way, but I knew I was saving myself for the last festival activity of the day, and indeed the entire weekend – a swim in Lough Leane followed by a sauna on the shore.

The water was a very bracing 4°C, so it was the very quickest of dips. Thrilled that I’d finally managed a swim, I whispered shivery thank yous to the water then retreated to the warmth of the wood-fired Samhradh’s Sauna, chatting to fellow dippers as we gazed out onto the darkening lough.

My final night in Killarney brought seafood chowder and soda bread in another buzzing family-run hub of the town, called Cronin’s. Then, very unexpectedly, I got roped into rounds of ‘Baby Guinnesses’ in a cracking pub filled with revellers dancing to yet another live band. As people around us swayed and sang along to TravellinSoldier, I got chatting to a pair of sisters from a nearby town. I remarked to them that Kerry was one of the friendliest places I’d ever been to. Smiling, one of the sisters said to me, “We Irish are a very proud nation, but we’re a welcoming one, too.” I think that about says it all. I politely turned down their offer of another Baby Guinness and joined them for a dance.

Wander Wild Festival will take place in Killarney in March 2025 (date TBC). Find out more at wanderwildfestival.com. Thank you to Wander Wild and Failte Ireland. 

How to get to Killarney, Co Kerry

Trains regularly to Killarney from Cork and Dublin, and there is a good bus service to the town from Dublin and Limerick. A regular shuttle operates between Killarney and Kerry airport, which is a 15-minute drive away. Stena Line and Irish Ferries run ferries between Holyhead and Dublin.

Where to stay in Killarney

There’s plenty of choices for accommodation in Killarney, from cosy B&Bs to high-end hotels. I stayed at The Arbutus, a historic hotel at the heart of the town. Expect log fires, traditional decor and a delicious full Irish breakfast. arbutuskillarney.com

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Abi writes swimming news stories and features for the Outdoor Swimmer website and manages the social media channels. She loves to swim, run, hike and SUP close to her home in Herefordshire. While she’s a keen wild swimmer, Abi is new to the world of open water events and recently completed her first open water mile. She has previously written for The Guardian, BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC History Magazine and Ernest Journal.