atriona Doherty visits Wild Alpaca Way, where alpacas roam and Donegal comes to a dramatic finishing point
Published in The Belfast Telegraph – April 30 2022
Remote, unique and striking — Malin Head’s sweeping vistas caught the attention of Hollywood movie producers who came to shoot Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2016.
Donegal man John McGonagle (54) saw the area’s potential well before that and purchased land — not entirely used how he would utilise it.
While the iconic Millennium Falcon is long gone from its anchor point along Malin’s rocky coastline, visitors have been flocking to north Inishowen to see another tourist attraction instead — the impossibly cute residents of Wild Alpaca Way.
“I bought this 50-acre hill in 2015 and I knew it had potential,” John says.
“We wanted to put pods for glamping across here, but this is SAC (special area of conservation), so there’s no building here. The views are outstanding and I had been thinking to myself over five years, ‘What could I do?’
“I was just chatting to a cousin one day and he said the bank manager at work had left the job to do alpaca trekking. I said, ‘What does an alpaca look like? Will you Google that?’
“So, things went from there. I just thought I’m a more outdoors person than a bank manager, so if he can do it, so can I.
“The next week we went to Dublin and to Co Wicklow to look at alpaca farms.“We came back and got on the phone for a week ringing all the alpaca farms in the UK, in Northern Ireland and Ireland, and we came up with our first two alpacas in Tyrone.
“Two weeks after, we got two more from Kildare. In 2019, we were going with the four alpacas and advertising on Wild Atlantic Way, Failte Ireland and Go Visit Inishowen.
“In 2020, we had Covid, so in one way it was a blessing because we opened that June — we had 10 alpacas then — and we couldn’t keep up with custom.”
As the popularity of staycationing increased, so too did the number of visitors to Wild Alpaca Way, much to the delight of this family-run business, founded by John, supported by his wife Patricia, sons Danny (16), Sean (13) and Aidan (10), and cousins who help out during busy periods.
Although the number of alpacas in the pack has risen from four to 23 in a few years, with plans to bring that number up to 30 in 2022, John has a soft spot for the original four.
“We still have the first alpacas we bought — Bounce, Mojo, Chestnut and Badger.
“Every alpaca has their own personality; you get the chilled-out ones, and you get the boys who are a bit more jumpy. The thing I like about alpacas compared to sheep is, they are high maintenance, but they are very easy to work with.
“I can come up here and take 25 alpacas down the hill in front of me and they will walk into the pen.
“They have to get vitamin D injections three times a year, and they get their feet done three or four times a year.
“They get their teeth filed — a girl from Belfast comes up here to do it, a veterinary nurse. We have the vets come out here as well, before the season, to get our animals checked.
“But they are easily handled, if you are used to animals then you know how to handle them. It’s really about common sense, taking them nice and handy.”
The alpaca’s easy-going nature make them the perfect companions for customers who come to join them for a gentle stroll or more vigorous trek.
“We cater for all ages, we had a baby of 21 days with its mother, and we had a lady of 90. Everybody is welcome,” John says.
“A lot of our customers would be groups, team-building, hen parties, that type of thing.
“Photos of the animals and of the scenery is a big selling point.
“We would judge the walking ability of the people, so anybody who is fairly fit, we would go right up to the top and go down the rugged bits. For those who wouldn’t be as fast, we take them on a slower walk on flatter ground.
“We had a lady here one day from Belfast who wanted to take her godchildren to do alpaca walking.
“She saw three or four places in Ireland, but she couldn’t get over our views, and we would hear that every day.
“Around 70-80% of our customers would be from Northern Ireland, from Belfast, Lisburn — right around Northern Ireland and from all walks of life.
“With the good roads from Belfast and Derry to Inishowen, they can be down here in no time.”
The walking trail is located on Knockamanny Bens which is a part of the scenic drive known as the Inishowen 100.
“The trek takes anything from 45 minutes to an hour,” John says.
“For the children under five or six, they meet, they greet, and they feed the animals. There might be a couple of lambs there as well.
“We keep the quietest alpacas for the younger children because safety is our number one priority.
“For anyone older, it’s a normal walk. The alpacas would be in around them because they are very tame.
“We tell our guests you are coming to Malin Head so you could get a shower in the summertime — you’ll get four seasons in one day.
“Overall, weather is not an issue, just bring a bit of wet gear with you.”
Review: A peaceful stroll surrounded by nature and my furry companions
I have seen the sights of Malin Head many times, but never with an alpaca by my side, or from the vantage point privy to Wild Alpaca Way customers.
Accompanied by my four-legged friends Shay (inset), Charlie, Casper and Ted, I made my way along the rugged hillside, John leading the way.
I wouldn’t describe myself as an animal person by any means, however one look at Shay’s little face and I was besotted. I think he liked me too, and it certainly looked as if he was smiling at me.
Easy-going and friendly, he was happy to stroll along beside me and waited patiently when I stopped to snap a photo of the many scenic spots that caught my eye.
John pointed out points of interest along the way — Fanad lighthouse, Ballyliffin Golf Club, home to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, the Five Fingers Strand with its impressive sand dunes, Inishtrahull, and a lot more.
It struck me how peaceful it was up there, standing at the very tiptop of Ireland surrounded by nature, panoramic views, with the cutest companions for company. I savoured the views, lived in the moment… and then snapped lots of selfies with Shay for Insta.
A single admission ticket costs €20, a family ticket cost €45 for a family of two adults and up to three children. For more information see wildalpacaway.com/booking or @wildalpacaway on Instagram or Facebook