I’d dreamed about the Ring of Kerry since I first saw it. I was 19. I’d never been out of the country before, and my first trip was to Ireland.
On that trip, I took a bus ride through the Ring of Kerry. It was the most beautiful place I’d seen thus far in my short life. I promised I’d be back soon.
Hiking the Kerry Way Ireland
Four years later, at 23, I finally kept that promise. But this time, I didn’t take a bus. I walked— 130 miles, for 11 days, with a 30-pound backpack on my back. Alone.
This is the story of how I took my first long-distance solo hike.
Hiking Kerry Way (Ring of Kerry), Ireland
I started out in the city of Killarney. I walked around an entire peninsula before ending back where I started—a full loop, a revolution, a cycle.
The hike started great. I felt empowered, ready to experience nature’s peace, and excited to visit charming towns along the way. I had a lot of thinking to do and I was ready to buckle down and do it.
But there were more challenges than I’d anticipated. I prepared extensively—purchased the right shoes, the perfect pack, researched and plotted everything I would need.
But the fact is that no amount of planning—and I had planned this for years—can prepare you for what you might face along the way. Especially when the toughest obstacle tends to be your own mind.
Killarney National Park
Day 1-3: My Body and Mind Adjust
Let’s go back to the start.
I stepped out of my hostel in Killarney apprehensively. It felt strange, walking through the city like a normal person, albeit with 30 pounds of extra weight on my back.
People were already out and about at 9 am, families laughing, people sipping coffees in cafes. For a moment, I felt like just another tourist visiting Killarney.
Between the Mountains and the Sea
Killarney National Park
I reached Killarney National Park after about an hour of walking along the road. Here, I passed waterfalls and streams and walked amidst massive mountains.
I adjusted to being alone, not having anyone to tell me where to go—only my GPS and the trail markers at every kilometer.
At one point, I nearly got lost in a field of boulders, with no trail marker in sight. But I kept myself calm and continued straight, eventually reaching the next part of the trail.
By the time I got to my first hostel, in an area called Black Valley, I’d lost track of time. My feet hurt bad I’d been limping for a mile, my thighs ached, and my shoulders felt like I’d done a million push-ups. I dropped the bag to the floor and slept like a baby.
According to the map, the next day’s hike was “difficult”. The day before had been labeled “easy,” and I could barely walk by the end. Still, I kept my mood high.
Yesterday’s intense foot pain had mostly subsided, though I felt bruises on my hips from where the pack was strapped tightly to my waist.
Landscape, Kerry Way
I enjoyed the dramatic scenery of the valley covered in towering clouds. Eventually, those clouds released a flurry of rain. I stuffed my hair in my raincoat and hummed to myself and the sheep over the sound of the raindrops.
I stepped through muddy gates in strangers’ farmland and a forest darkened by a lack of sun. When the rain finally stopped, hours later, I was in the most dramatic valley I’d ever seen.
The valley was rolling with green, sheep-dotted farmland. Massive mountains framed me on all sides.
I could see why the trail was marked difficult—it led me up and over one of the distant mountains. As I neared the base, I tightened my straps and steeled my nerves.
The climb was tough. The air thinned with each step up to the next rock, and the weight of my pack tugged me backward. I focused on where my feet would go next and controlled my breath until I got to the top and, panting, was rewarded with a breathtaking view of the valley I’d just walked through.
I felt immense pride when I reached my guest room, in a house on a beautiful lake called Lough Acoose. It was a relaxing place to spend the night and I slept peacefully.
The next day, though, I felt anxiety as I set out. I think the excitement was wearing off and exhaustion was finally hitting me. The terrain was full of small hills that would’ve been much easier if I didn’t have 30 pounds on my back and sore feet.
I counted the hours until I finally limped into Glenbeigh, found the hostel where I’d stay, and threw my pack down. This was the first real town I’d stayed in so far, and I delighted in buying actual shampoo from a general store.
After a hot shower, I rewarded myself with a Guinness at a nearby pub and befriended several of the regulars as I recounted my journey so far.
I felt exhausted but proud I’d completed the first few days of my hike.
Day 4-7: The Real Challenges Begin
On the hike scenery
As I walked out of Glenbeigh on day four, the mountains evened out and I realized I was nearing the coast.
Eventually, I found myself walking along a cliff overlooking the entire bay. It was stunning, and I stopped many times to absorb the view—and to allow my aching feet to rest.
Soon I reached the B&B I’d rented for the night, a farmhouse on the water called Taobh Coille. The owner greeted me energetically and immediately sat me down for homemade soup, tea, and biscuits.
I was starving, as I was subsiding on granola bars and fruit during my hikes (it was lighter). I ate gratefully in a sunroom overlooking the water as she told me about her family, who were grown now and having kids of their own. Her kindness made me feel awake and rejuvenated.
That evening, I took a slow walk down to the shore and watched the sunset over the water, ending a nearly perfect day.
I started the next day in a great mood, and walked along the coast for a while, enjoying the views of the turquoise bay and distant faded mountains. But soon the trail veered inland, cutting across the peninsula to reach the other side.
The views and peaceful sea disappeared as I walked through the dullest terrain yet—plain grass fields. No grand vistas or even uphill climbs to distract me now.
This was when the days started to blur. The terrain was mild, but the pain wouldn’t let me relax. It should’ve been the easiest section, and every step was a challenge.
I focused on anything but the pain to distract myself, finding solace in the sun, sheep, distant mountains, the big blinking eyes of cows. Mostly I thought of reaching my hostel, taking off my shoes, and getting a hot meal.
Day 6: Midpoint of my journey
The 6th day started the same. But while I was expecting that same boring terrain, I had another thing coming.
Soon the trail started ascending uphill. I thought it would only be one hill, and made the walk slowly, taking baby steps. My back and thighs ached.
When I stood at the top feeling victorious, the feeling was short-lived as I saw an entire range of mountaintops ahead of me. One after another, I walked over them, feeling as though they’d never end.
I focused only on the step right in front of me. The weather turned harsh. Freezing rain pelted my face, and the wind blew sideways into my ears. I could barely hear or see, and felt like screaming, crying, stopping.
But I kept going and going and suddenly, there were no more mountains. Only a silent winding valley that took me to my hostel, where I collapsed after the hardest day yet.
The next day, the valley looked new. The sun broke through as I walked and I felt as though nothing could faze me anymore. The day’s hike seemed to go fast. By late afternoon, I’d reached the coast again, and the charming seaside town of Waterville.
Once I checked into my B&B, I forced my feet to make the walk into town for a hot meal and a Guinness. I ate at a cozy pub on the water, staring out the window.
My view—the sea, the dark clouds, the crashing waves—looked like peace in its purest form.
Day 8-11: Learning Who I Am Now
On the hike scenery
It was a treat to start my walk along the coast again. My feet still hurt, but I was better at blocking the pain out now.
I was also becoming adept at entertaining myself with my own mind. Spending 8 hours a day completely alone with nothing to do but walk will do that to you.
After a relaxed and short walk, I ended in Caherdaniel. I had expected a town but found nothing but a small pub and a general store that doubled as a gas station that tripled as somebody’s home.
They didn’t even have an ATM—and I didn’t have cash. I ate dinner in the hostel, making due with what I had left and what I could find in the shared kitchen.
As I set out the next day, it quickly occurred to me I’d finished off the rest of my food the night before. I had nothing to tide me over during the 8-hour hike ahead of me.
My GPS said that there was a general store along the road where I’d be walking. But I was walking through rolling hills and farmland, dirt roads that looked like nobody had used them for months.
I could hear the hum of distant cars but never saw this road, never saw the general store. I ate my last apple as slowly as I could manage. I wondered if I’d ever felt so hungry. My body resisted every movement—my energy was spent.
When I hobbled into the busy, charming town of Sneem I felt plunged into bliss. The main street was nothing but restaurants—I smelled roasted chicken and barbecue, grilling burgers, and fresh bread. I nearly cried tears of joy when I quickly checked into my hostel and finally sat down at a restaurant.
I ordered several things off the menu and a big Guinness to wash it down, and felt more satisfied than I could remember ever feeling.
I was sad to leave Sneem the next day, but I bid farewell to its colorful shops and lovely restaurants and set about the second-to-last day of my hike.
I felt calm and relaxed, resolved like I was every day to ignore whatever pain I felt. No stopping now. There were no surprises in the trail description, just a bit of rain and clouds today which made me feel even more alone than I had before.
Ring of Kerry, Kenmare
I ended up in a town called Kenmare, and went about my usual routine of stopping in a pub for a beer. But I felt too tired to socialize. I slept like a baby, prepared for the final day of my journey.
Today’s final leg of the hike was to be long, but easy. I set about feeling strange—I had gotten so used to the routine of waking up early, eating breakfast, having a coffee and packing my bag for the day’s walk. The idea that it all ended today felt surreal.
After a few hours walking through those same massive mountains, I’d seen the first few days, I reached the part of the trail that led to Killarney.
It was the same as the first day—the booming valley full of waterfalls and streams. I didn’t panic when I reached the boulders. It was the same place I started, but I felt like a different person.
The feeling stayed with me, heady and surreal, as I walked into Killarney that afternoon. The tourists were still there, trotting about, completely oblivious to the limping girl with the giant backpack.
I wondered if I looked as different as I felt. I thought I did—windburn-reddened cheeks, hair bleached from the sun. I could even see the muscles that had grown slightly in my legs.
But, I was still me. The same me who started the hike, the same me who first laid eyes on the Ring of Kerry and vowed to return. Except I had proven to myself that I can keep a promise to myself, that I can follow through.
I hoped that this well-earned knowledge would stay with me for the rest of my life.
Pandora Domeyko is a Barcelona-based travel writer and blogger, and the creator of the travel blog Pandora Explores. On her blog, she covers solo travel and expat living in Barcelona and beyond. You can find her on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.
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October 31, 2020 5:47 pm 2 Comments