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"Uh, what's wrong with the car?"
"I dunno, I seem to be losing a bit of control."
"What?! What are we driving over?"
"It might just be a flat tire..."
"Well, slow down then, something is wrong."
It is around 7:30pm, it's pitch dark, bucketing down with rain and we are still twenty minutes away from our Airbnb.
We slow down and we're on a narrow little road without a hard shoulder between the sea and the mountains, in between two little villages. Imposing stone gateways loom up ahead in the glow of the headlights and we limp and wobble and pull into the private lane, which turns out to be the very long -mile or so long - driveway of a golf course. We pull in a bit, put on coats and get out to inspect the car. Verdict: not one, but two completely flat tires.
We're in Northern Ireland to spend a weekend hiking and climbing Ulster's highest peak, Slieve Donard. At least, that's the plan, but you know what they say about best laid plans... Little do we know, but the tone for the entire weekend is set.
50 minutes, one very long but unproductive call with AA, numerous other calls and one helpful mechanic with a loader later, we are snuggled up in the cab of the loader, on the way to drop off our car at the mechanic's yard - he doesn't have the right size tires, they will have to be gotten tomorrow. We drop off the car and the friendly mechanic then drives us the remaining 14 mins to our airbnb. He rings us later to let us know he doesn't have the right size tires in stock so will need to order them in the morning - we'll be without a car until tomorrow afternoon. He's also going to be swinging by first thing in the morning to pick up our car keys, as of course we didn't think to leave them with the car...
At least the airbnb is lovely. clean, spacious and comfortable. We settle in, unpack, get a bite to eat and fall into our beds.
The following morning the weather has dried up a bit. We're here to hike, and we're not going to get to Slieve Donard today as we had planned. But that's not going to stop us! Our little apartment lies between the foot of the Mournes and the sea and Slieve Binnian, the Mournes' third highest peak, lies within sight. We decide to climb that instead.
It is a lovely morning and we set off straight after breakfast. Slieve Binnian looms ahead of us, inviting us on. The approach is on a dirt track initially, from which we veer off after a while to start the climb up. Annalong Forest stretches out to the right and the views of the valley all around are lovely, with Blue Lough peeping out around the corner of a slope further down the valley and the sea stretching out in the distance behind us. By the time we get to the summit, we should have some lovely views of the Silent Valley reservoir, beautiful hills and valleys all around and the peak of Slieve Donnard in the distance.
Then some more clouds start to appear, bringing an occasional spluttering of rain...
The going is pretty easy, if rather sodden. There is work being done on improving the track with rocks, and we are more or less hand-railing the Mourne Wall. This wall was constructed over 18 years starting in 1904 to keep sheep and cattle from the water catchment area in the Mournes. The Silent Valley reservoir holds the water, and supplies water to the entire county and most of Belfast.
We meet a couple of other hikers, but mostly it is just us and despite the rain and increasing cloud cover, it feels so good to be out in the hills. Even when the mist descents and the views disappear. Even when, close to the summit now and after a quick stop for a snack, the mist thickens, the wind picks up and the rain turns into biting hail. We can barely see in front of us, never mind the beautiful views all around.
At least it dries up a bit by the time we reach the lower slopes again, and although the sun stays away, we are hiking, and happy and its a small thing but life feels good at these moments. We are back at the Airbnb and in the door for literally ten seconds when the phone rings. The car is ready.
By the time we actually get the car back it is late afternoon and we've been invited to dinner. One of us has family in the area and we spend a lovely and cozy evening being fed, catching up and trading stories. Tomorrow we climb Slieve Donnard!
"The keys are locked in the car..."
The silence lingers a little too long after this statement is uttered. We are about to head to Newcastle to climb 'the Donard', we're all set to go and the bags are being loaded into the car. The car, which is now locked, with its only set of keys inside.
There may have been some swear words. There may have been some incredulity floating around and a bit or arguing. Then there was a long and fruitless attempt to open one of the doors but ultimately it is decided that, rather than causing more damage, we call a locksmith. It is Sunday, and he can come, but he is a bit away and it will be a couple of hours. There is nothing we can do but wait.
By the time we get the car open, there isn't really enough daylight left to climb Slieve Donard, not if we still want to get home before midnight too. We head to Newcastle anyway, for coffee and snacks and a stroll along the seashore. There is a little shop too, that we particularly want to visit. The weather has improved over yesterday and the mountain looms over the town, as we gaze out at it through the window from the comfy seats of the cafe. When we get to the little shop, a handwritten note on the door informs us that unfortunately it is closed for just one day, that day, the one day we are here.
We decide to head to the Silent Valley reservoir and do a small bit of walking there before heading back home. Sleeve Donard will have to wait until next time.
The sun comes out for our walk, and the Silent Valley is stunning. We get clear views of Slieve Binnian and are impressed with ourselves for yesterdays feat. Pity the teashop isn't open, but then, it's funny how tea never tastes better than when you're out in the open and it comes out of a flask!
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