On the weekend of June 16th to 18th on what transformed into one of the glorious and warmest weekends of 2017, a large gathering of blind/vision impaired walking enthusiasts travelled to Dundalk from across the country on that Friday afternoon to link up with the Belfast Enterprise.
Initially, to embark on the first and easiest leg of the Dundalk Challenge, a weekend encompassing socialising, walking and just coming together for this annual gathering.
On arrival at Dundalk Station, we were welcomed by Pat Kelly, (The Promoter) and Maureen Madden (the Organiser) and we then boarded a local bus to whisk us off to our base for the weekend at the luxurious Carrick Dale Hotel. As we made our way to the hotel, we were all presented with a goody bag before Pat outlined the programme for the weekend.
After check in and settling into our rooms, it was time to sample some of the hotel’s extensive menu and an opportunity to link up again with fellow walkers as many other aficionado’s had travelled to the hotel independently. The Friday evening was quintessentially, a get to know your neighbour over a tasty bar meal peppered with some lively banter to engender a hospitable atmosphere.
After an early night followed by a hearty breakfast, those adventurous enough to undertake what in essence was 16.8K or just over 10 miles, gathered together in the hotel lobby, before heading off with their pack lunches and amply supplied with H2O.
Once again to board the bus for the short transfer to the meeting point at Slieve Gullion Adventure Park where members of the Dundalk Walking and Tandemning Club for Health joined us (WATCH). The WATCH volunteers had willingly given up their Saturday to act as sighted guides where necessary or just buddy up with partially sighted walkers so that everyone had a partner to steer them safely along the winding route. More importantly, to encourage and motivate each other as temperatures increased while the sun beat down and the hills grew even more challenging.
Between the VIP Walkers and the WATCH Volunteers, around seventy adventurers were now striding out through the Ring of Gullion forest trail park.
It was clear from the outset that this was going to be a day to remember, for apart from the beautiful weather, the patch work of forests around the Ring of Gullion, with its myths and legends is one of the Northeast’s most visited scenic attractions. As we moved along the trail, the VIP’s were constantly updated by their companions on the spectacular surroundings.
This was all happening under the shadow of Slieve Gullion or the mountain of the steep slopes and what is generally regarded as an area of outstanding natural beauty. Slieve Gullion is the focal point of the Ring of Gullion and sits at the highest point in Armagh, with an elevation of 573 metres or 1,880 ft. At the summit is a small lake and two ancient burial cairns, one of which is the highest surviving passage in Ireland. This ancient site is similar to New Grange and many examples of these ancient burial chambers can be found scattered across Ireland and Scotland. Apart from the mythology coupled with the history, the mountain dominates the surrounding countryside and on a clear day, County Antrim, Dublin Bay and parts of Wicklow can be observed.
Although Pat and Maureen had surveyed the terrain before deciding on the bonafides of the 2017 Dundalk challenge, the superlative summer’s day that greeted us wasn’t in the plan. So, as a consequence, it was far from a leisurely stroll in the park as the pitch on several of the steeper slopes were truly testing, when joined with the intense heat on the day. However, everyone dug into their reserves and marched forward unchallenged to our designated lunch stop and thankfully, all made it in high spirits to this timely oasis.
On arrival at this pit stop, we were warmly welcomed by the other members of our party, some might say, the smarter ones who opted for the shorter walk. Following this short interval to recharge the batteries and with extra fuel now on board, both groups set out together on the final stretch or the last five kilometres. This took us back to the Visitor Centre and the Giants Lair where our chariot was waiting to swoop us back to the comfort and tranquillity of the Carrick Dale Hotel.
Now on board the bus, the focus of conversation for the wilting walkers had switched towards rest and recovery and for many it was a visit to the Hotel’s leisure complex for a dip in the pool while others opted to relax in the warmth of the outdoor Serenity spa. For the less adventurous, it was the comfort of the hotel lounge while others sought sanctuary in their rooms.
However, before too long, it was time to come together again in the plush surroundings of the hotel’s Pine Suite for the Walkers Banquet. During the meal the walkers were individually presented with certificates, designed and produced by Frances Kelly. Laminated Certificates to remind us of our weekend of adventure and a nice memento of a beautiful day spent around the Ring of Gullion and its renowned Adventure Centre.
Then it was time for some Craic as a Barber Shop Group called Vintage, entertained us for almost an hour with a vast Repertoire of many old favourites, including The Dubliners: Old Triangle and the Pine Room reverberated as we all joined in the chorus. Just Like good wine, Vintage went down a treat but were then harmonised by several soloists from the Visionaries Quire who treated us to a wide array of Irish and Modern ballads. All this activity directed by the one-time bard of Limerick now a Dundalk refugee, namely Pat Kelly.
Unfortunately Sunday morning arrived and it was time to pack our bags again but not before a short walk to the infamous Jonesburg Market or another trip to the hotel’s leisure centre. For the less adventurous, it was a convivial chat in the surroundings of the breath-taking landscaped gardens to top up the maturing tan or simply soak up the ample supply of vitamin D to re-balance the weary bones. However, all good things must come to an end and the shuttle bus arrived on time, to take us back to Dundalk Station to link up again with the Belfast train on route to Dublin. On arrival at Connolly Station, it was hugs and handshakes all round before taking off in different directions but everyone eagerly looking forward to June 2018 and the 8th annual Dundalk Walking Challenge.
From a grateful Kildare VIP