‘WALK FROM HELL’ John Bradley crossing the Tarsaghaunmore bridge, with his saturated 25-year-old trail guide.
‘We were experienced walkers, and tough as nails. Or so we believed…’
The Bangor Trail runs through 25km of wilderness from Bangor Erris at the northern end to the Brogan Carroll Bothy in Letterkeen Forest at the southern, Newport end. Walking it seemed like a great idea at the time. It was late September, after a wet summer. Three of us set off from Bangor at 10am, leaving one car there, having left another at the bothy at the far end.
The early stages were fairly easy. It wasn’t raining, but rain threatened and soon arrived. We had the trail guidebook. It seemed well marked, and at first we could navigate the pools of water with dry feet.
As we made progress, a worrying feature of the Bangor Trail gradually became apparent. Once you start it, you either have to finish or you have to retrace your steps. Make any attempt to escape sideways and you sink without trace in mushy bog-water, never to be seen again.
We were experienced walkers, and tough as nails. Or so we believed for the first few hours, but with slowly ebbing confidence.
Gradually it began to dawn on us that we had embarked on the Walk from Hell. Soon it was not a matter of trying to keep our boots dry. Rather, it was a matter of not sinking up to our knees, or worse, in what had probably been a passable trail back in the Middle Ages, but one that now played a nasty game of hide-and-seek. Mostly hide! The Trail markers, so confidently listed in my guide, took on a spectral form in the murky real world, as if taunting us.
The first river we came to, the Tarsaghaunmore, had a bridge. The bridge itself was the only time when we were on solid dry ground.
From then on it got seriously worse. My 25-year-old Bangor Trail Guide was out of date and possibly written at a time when if three people started the walk, it was generally accepted that fewer than three would arrive at their destination, in a good year.
The high point was reached at one particularly nasty river, with no bridge. We found a place where we reckoned that we could just about leap across if we achieved personal bests in the long-jump. One of the three of us, whose sport is not the long-jump, agreed to the following mad scheme. Two would leap across. Then we would lean back across the river and catch the third in mid-stream and mid-air, hopefully before gravity kicked in and she disappeared forever in the rushing torrent. I still wake up at night in a cold sweat thinking how close we came to disaster.
On and on we stumbled through heavy rain. We were all very wet. Wet in a way never previously experienced. So wet that the rivers looked dry.
As anxiety began to kick in – and since I was responsible for the whole ghastly business – I acted as a pathfinder. I was hoping to find an impassable river so I would then be able to say: “Right! No way forward. We have to turn back and go home.” But then I realised that between us and home now lay that death-defying raging torrent. So, forward it would have to be.
No doubt if any of us had been attacked by wild animals, or by some reclusive Nephin Mountain tribesmen who had not yet heard that the English had been driven out of Ireland, we would have come to each other’s aid. But during the thankfully attack-free, long slog we each retreated deep into our inner souls, where it was magically dry, warm and safe. Did we check now and again to see that there were three still standing? Had we lost anyone? Did we care?
Our last trial arrived with the onset of night. The sun had set at about 7pm, and it was seriously dark by 9pm. Each of us thought that the other had brought torches, but no one had. We did not reach the proximity of the Brogan Carroll Bothy and the second car until after 10pm. The only way we found it in the dark was by continually pressing the auto-lock car key, praying that the battery would not run out and that the electronic signal would find the car in the pitch black, because we couldn’t.
After a final few hours of wandering on forest paths and mentally resigning ourselves to spending the rest of the night in the woods, the car lights flashed. We were saved. We small Band of Brothers (plus Sister) had survived. We were going home.
Recollecting our experience in tranquillity, we came to enjoy the realisation that we had conquered the Everest of hikes in tough conditions. What an extraordinary county is Mayo. Full of beautiful wild and remote places that both delight and test.
For all that I want us to have our fair share of the country’s economic development and prosperity, there are times when I feel that we should keep Mayo’s delights to ourselves. But try to pick a dry season and a sunny day.
John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.