Never Take the Same Road Twice – Travels in the Burren

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The “highway” in front of the place we stayed in Kinvarra. This one actually has a center divider line – somewhat unusual here.

We don’t travel like other people.

We learned that the hard way the last time we were in Ireland, traveling with friends who were not amused by our gleeful appreciation of tiny roads with hairpin turns. I think it might have something to do with the fact that we were both raised in “car-ride” families. We both grew up solidly middle class in the Pacific Northwest with parents who appreciated the gravel roads of the mountains outside our backdoor. We didn’t take vacations to tropical island places, we camped and fished and hiked and got packed into station wagons without seat-beats next to coolers filled with Coors Light, Ritz crackers and summer sausage. I am pretty sure we hated being stuck in a care with our brothers, but now our adults stomachs are immune to motion sickness and full of a gnawing hunger for remote scenic views. And, though I possess a tiny bladder, I developed a talent for squatting in the bushes at a young age and my frequent stops often result in surprising discoveries. (Some day I might do a travel photo book of pictures I took when I stopped to pee!)

Armed with no less than three maps that still didn’t have all the roads marked, Neil and I left town after a 12 hour sleep with our bellies full of coffee, fresh baked scones and gloriously thick, aromatic slabs of bacon served to us in a aluminum foil bag. We were off to see the Burren, one of the most geologically unique places in the world.

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A fertile view of an often desolate seeming area , photo taken just south of the Burren Naitional Park

“The Burren is one of the finest examples of a Glacio-Karst landscape in the world. At least two glacial advances are known in the Burren area. However it is probably the effects of the last glaciation (the Midlandian) that are most in evidence in the National Park. It is thought that most of the Burren was overrun by ice during this glaciation. This is evident by the presence of fresh deposits of boulderclay at altitudes of just under 300 metres. The covering of ice is not likely to have been thick however, and some of the hills to the west may well have remained clear of ice.

The ice that covered the Burren during this period eroded any remaining shales off the Park and helped to give the hills their rounded shape. The ice sheets had the effect of scraping off a lot of the loose material in the pavement areas but they were also responsible for depositing large heaps of loose material (boulder clay) in the forms of drumlins and moraines or low ridges. Examples of these can be seen on the eastern slopes of Mullaghmór. The glaciers also moved and deposited large boulders sometimes referred to as Erratics, these large limestone boulders can be seen on top of the limestone pavement in Rockforest, an area to the east of Mullaghmór.”

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Glacial erratics

This area captured us during our last trip  when we regretfully had to leave it after only a few hours lost on its maze of roads. For this trip we planned two full days to  explore this 250K square area.

We started with a short hike to St Cronan’s hermitage and holy well. Located beneath the towering behemoth of Eagles Rock, the trail led us through a variety of Burren terrain and fauna, including dense hazel forests and grykes (fissures) filled with wildflowers and ferns.

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Typical Burren stone with Eagles Rock cliffs in the background.
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Hazel thicket

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The holy well was beautiful and peaceful. Protected from the wind, it was filled with a soft, patient hush instead of being eerily silent. I swore I could see things hiding in the hazel surrounding me. While Neil scrambled up a steep dirt path to St Cronan’s cave (supposedly where the St slept), I circled the holy well several times thinking about all I had to pray for. Unknown to me, the path I walked had been created by the saint for the same purposes as the confined space in which he built his hermitage didn’t allow for the usual turas (making the rounds). The ancient skeleton of a hazel bush in the center of the circle was covered in ribbons and small trinkets that held the prayers of visitors that came there. Lacking any ribbon, I wound a distinctly grey hair from my own head around a branch. And since the guide book said the well was believed to cure back troubles, I dabbed a bit of the water on my lumbar region just in case.

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Tromping through surprisingly slippery mud, we circled around to a vast flat expanse of level stone, broken only by finger to palm wide fissures (grikes) in the stone. While we got down on our hands and knees to see what was hiding in their chasms, we could see how thin streams of water had carved out tiny riverbeds in the stones surface. Up close it was even more astonishing than the vast scenes of moonscape we circled around for hours.

As the ice-cap moved into the Burren from the north-east it carried with it some debris, such as the granite boulders (Glacial erratics) on the coast line. However, the main action of the glacier was to scour the rock clean off any superficial cover that formerly may have lain on the surface, thus exposing and smoothly polishing the underlying bedrock which we know today as the largest classic karst limestone pavements in these islands. Pavements are made up of two separate but integral parts known as clints and grykes. Clints are the blocks of limestone that constitute the paving, their area and shape is directly dependant upon the frequency and pattern of grykes. Grykes are the fissures that isolate the individual clints. The most dominant gryke system runs almost north to south and there is a secondary less-developed system at right angles to it.

Grykes can stretch for hundreds of feet until they suddenly terminate or are lost beneath superficial deposits. Grykes are usually straight but are occasionally curvilinear.

 

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The roads in the Burren are notable, even for Ireland, for the narrowness, blind curves and amount of grass growing on them. In fact, in some places in the Burren, the only place grass could grow was on the road.

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I LOVE tree tunnels!
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Where I am from, this is a driveway, but in the Burren, this road is important enough to be numbered on a map (lots aren’t).

Having paid and exorbitant for the maximum amount of car insurance – one with a $100 deductible – we intentionally chose the ones that led us deeper and deeper into tight remote corners.

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Um, yeah, we did drive up this. We didn’t make it all the way – our little Ford Fiesta rental just didn’t have the power of last year’s TINY Skoda.

It should be stated here for anyone traveling to Ireland: your car insurance won’t work here. A combination of the quantity of roads like the ones we love and (I’m guessing) some sort of dirty insurance-company-in-bed-with-the-tourism-industry deal, your $2/day car rental actually turns out to be more like $30 with insurance which you need. One look at the fact no locals have unscathed cars should tell you something. They also zip-tie their hubcaps on – another hint about road conditions.

Another note to travelers: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SIZE UP YOUR RENTAL CAR. Fold your legs in half, shave your head, but rent a tiny car!

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One reason for a small car…you and the cows need to fit in the same lane.
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A rare divided highway near Black Head. This is another reason for high insurance: the roads run along the edge of the land. There is water 20 feet from my car window!

There is a lot more than just rocks to see in the Burren. Some of the oldest Megalithic tombs in the world are found here are there are more dozens of ring forts and church ruins from early centuries to explore. But you are going to have to drive to see them. And when you do….never take the same road twice!

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Caherconnell stone fort

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Poulnabrone dolman
Poulnabrone dolman
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