The Reeks District has launched its Big Five campaign, a collection of the most thrilling outdoor adventures the country has to offer.puts it to the best
Jens Bachem laughs as he tells me about the success of the tourism initiative that has rebranded mid-Kerry as the Reeks District and seen the area recognised as a top global adventure destination. He looks even more surprised the Big Five Challenge dreamed up as part of that has come to reality.
“I’m proud it happened but gobsmacked that it has,” he says. We’re sitting in Bunker’s, one of the many fine restaurants in the small town of Killorglin. Across the road is the sleekly modern Reeks District Visitor Centre, where my name has just been added to a board that will celebrate anyone who completes the Big Five in five days.
That challenge means climbing 1,039-metre-high Carrauntoohil; surfing on Inch Beach; paddling the 6km across Caragh Lake; paddle boarding on Lough Cloon and, finally, cycling the 90km around the Ring of the Reeks.
For Jens, the challenge started just over two years ago. “A group was set up on the back of the fact Killorglin wasn’t mentioned on the Wild Atlantic Way,” he says.
He is a management consultant, a graduate of UCD who also studied in Paris and at Harvard. After working abroad for clients such as Disney and Xbox, he settled back home with his wife and son on nearby Caragh Lake.
While being the right person to head the campaign, he’s keen to recognise the efforts of all the others involved.
“We had no money, so we looked at what we could do with no budget. What we had was our time,” he says. “We set up a three-year plan and worked our way back from that. A lot of it was using digital. We realised that Killorglin was under-represented on Google and getting represented was only a function of time.
“We identified some key locations on Google Maps. For example we pinned Ballykissane Pier (where the first three casualties of the Easter Rising died) and the photo we put up now has 3,000 views. We have 30,000 views of the immigration statue in the town centre.”
The small group of local tourism businesses also shared their stories with each other, learning from their own successes and failures. Settling on the “Reeks District” name was controversial with those outside that immediate area, as was the decision to appoint a UK agency to promote it.
“We wanted the outside perspective and international experience,” says Jens.
Together, we looked at what the area actually had and did well. We narrowed that down to five key types of activities — Boots, Boats, Bikes, Boards, Body & Mind — with one key signature experience attached to each. The notion of doing them within five days is a stretch from that.
If the idea is a reach, the reality is even more so for me as most involve activities I have no experience of. My first day is spent reaching the summit of Carrauntoohil by the infamous Devil’s Ladder. Led by Kerry Climbing’s (kerryclimbing.ie) Piaras Kelly, trainer of the Kerry Mountain Rescue team, it’s a straightforward but tiring slog.
“Remember the top is only halfway,” says Piaras. “Sometimes much less.” It’s a reminder to conserve energy, something he helps by calling frequent stops to share his deep knowledge of the mountain.
From the looming rust-red cross atop the peak, I can see what looks like most of Kerry. It’s a view well worth the climb.
As promised, coming down is harder than the ascent, with the day stretching past seven hours. The record for the whole is well under 90 minutes but I’m happy to preserve my knees for the challenges still to come.
The next day starts with an early morning surf lesson on Inch Beach, the gorgeous 5km-long spit of sand on Dingle Bay. Tim Allcutt, my instructor from Kingdom Waves (kingdomwaves.com), makes what I’m about to do sound really easy. The only thing cooler than his sun-blond dreadlocks is the icy Atlantic but thick wetsuits banish the chill.
The surf is regular, perfect for beginners. Tim’s intention is to teach me to stand on a board but I’m thrilled to just ride several waves in on my knees.
Next up is the kayak across rugged and beautiful Caragh Lake. The drive to the start makes me realise I might have underestimated just how long a 6km paddle is, especially when I see the wind whipping up the waters. But again, instructor Enda Prendergast from Cappanalea Outdoor Centre [www.cappanalea.ie] makes it all effortless, with several stops to regroup while hearing about the local flora, geology and history.
Enda is on hand again that evening for a stand-up paddle (SUP) board trip on Lough Cloon. The twist here that it is at night, as the lake is right in the heart of the Kerry Dark Sky Reserve — the only Gold Tier reserve in the Northern hemisphere and one of only three in the world.
Paddling in total silence under a sliver of moon, when you can’t see the tip of your paddle, is a surreal and lovely experience. Although rain has held off all week, clouds still obscure the stars and I’m again glad of a wetsuit when I go for an accidental swim in the pitch blackness.
All these four adventures have merely been the appetiser for my final day. It’s many years since I was on a bicycle, having given them up for motorbikes when I realised I could have more fun with less effort. I’m soon pining for some horsepower when I hit the first of the three big climbs of the day, Ballaghbeama Gap, but lots of useful tips from Jay Scully of Trailflow Adventures (trailflowbikingadventures.com) help me up the hill.
The pay-off is the exhilarating long descent that follows, flowing at breakneck speed through curves on roads with no traffic. Moll’s Gap is next, wild and beautiful, followed by the tourist highlight of the Gap of Dunloe, last of a total of 1,000 metres of thigh-aching climbs.
After whizzing past hikers and jaunting cars, I reach the coaches lined up outside Kate Kearney’s Cottage. After that, it’s a simple 8km ride back to Killorglin and a night ahead of eating and drinking to celebrate finishing the Big Five in three days.
Jens was equally successful in reaching his target early. “We smashed the original three year plan in two,” he says.
We have a number of key initiatives now: continued promotion of the region by, for example, building on the Big Five, and having a Big Five Festival.
“Second is funding to promote locally what’s on our doorsteps; inspiring local people to take the first step to go kayaking, biking or hiking.” His biggest smile is reserved for local estate agents when he sees them using the term “Reeks District”. Having local people recognise the potential of the rebranding is a real measure of its success.
And has Jens himself tackled the Big Five? Not yet, but why am I not surprised to discover he has a careful plan? “I’ll do it this summer,” he says. “I want to do the Kerry Way first and then the Big Five. The Ring of the Reeks will be the most challenging.”
“If I can do it, you can,” I say.
“Yes, you’re right,” he says, rather too quickly, laughing again.
More information: reeksdistrict.com/bigfive