I campervanned across Ireland alone – and climbed as many mountains as I could

Voices outside the van woke me in the night. I lay still, my mind racing. There had been no one around when I parked at the end of a single track next to a wild beach. Campervanning alone as a woman was going to bring challenges, I knew, and sleeping in remote spots was high on the list of them.

Eventually an engine started, they drove off and there was silence. The next morning’s reward was a sunrise of shifting colours over a deserted beach in County Donegal – another new day all to myself to explore.

As far as adventures go, this trip – 10 days travelling alone around the island of Ireland, climbing as many mountains as I could – was one of my least far-flung. I’d travelled on the Trans Siberian Railway, hiked 500 miles across Spain, walked the Great Wall of China and the Inca Trail. But I’ve learned that you can cram a lot of adventure into a short amount of time, without travelling to far-flung places.

I had booked the trip following a painful break-up just two weeks before, deciding it was best not to remain at home nursing heartache.

After picking up the van in Belfast, I hit the road with the outline of a plan – a few ideas on mountains I liked the sound of, but not much else. In the end I completed more than 800 miles, climbed 12 mountains with a total ascent of 5,900 metres – that’s higher than Everest base camp.

Nicola Bennett found sleeping in the campervan in remote spots challenging.
Nicola Bennett found sleeping in the campervan in remote spots challenging. Photograph: Nicola Bennett

My first stop was Glenveagh national park in Donegal, where I climbed the 751m-high Errigal. It’s a well-trodden path, but I had not hiked on my own in Ireland before. The views were amazing and the sense of adventure tangible. Mountain routes in Ireland, I discovered, tend to be either very well known or completely off the beaten track. Drumnalifferny (595m) was a particular challenge – remote, with just herds of red deer for company. I hiked through boggy land and boulder fields, worried about the daylight and the lack of GPS. But when I made it back to the van after an adrenaline-fuelled day in that little-trodden land, the sense of achievement was exhilarating.

The days rolled on, punctuated by wild swims and wild camps (the Park4Night app helped with parking spots – I was very conscious of not parking where I wasn’t wanted). I grew more confident sleeping alone at night, the van like a cocoon, the sound of waves often lulling me to sleep. I hired a bike, joined a parkrun on Achill island and enjoyed a gig by a folk band at a bar in Westport – my desire for a pint trumped my fear that I wouldn’t feel comfortable on my own there.

Errigal mountain.
Errigal mountain. Photograph: Gerry McNally/Alamy

There was an ever-changing cast of band members, I was made welcome by the chat and laughter of locals and it was a joyful, fun and very welcome evening out after nights alone.

I loved travelling the Wild Atlantic Way, climbing 764m-high Croagh Patrick (known as the Reek) in County Mayo, a pilgrimage site with a chapel on top and a view over the 100 or so islands of Clew Bay. It was satisfying to look out and see the road I’d travelled.

In the Mourne Mountains, County Down, the weather closed in: I tackled the 850m-tall Slieve Donard in strong winds and challenging weather. I struggled to get the lie of the land in the low cloud, but I was pushing my limits and it felt good.

I’d had a very different trip planned with my ex, and a long list of reasons why I shouldn’t go. I was afraid of getting lost, of too much time on my own, of breaking a leg in a remote place … But adventure doesn’t come without risk, and there’s no risk-taking without a little fear. It’s true that you need to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Interviewed by Jane Dunford

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