Friday, July 18, 2014

The Cliffs of Moher

What a busy week! And what a great month here at NUI Galway. We only took two classes, but exam week was still pretty busy between memorizing geological time periods and trying to make sense of Waiting for Godot. Yesterday morning, we sat in class for the last time, taking our exams, and by noon, it was over--we're done here. Sure, there's still some wrap up to do: bags to send home, professors to buy a pint for, sleep to catch up on, but it's pretty much over here. And we're going to miss it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. We'll post the last couple pictures of us in Galway and the things we have been up to in these last couple days next time. This time, I want to tell you about our last geology field trip: the Cliffs of Moher!


As always, we woke up on Wednesday morning bright and early so we could stuff ourselves with Irish breakfast before we left. Everyone tries to eat so much that they pass out the second they sit down on the nice warm bus and sleep with their mouth open and drool a little bit, but only a little teeny tiny bit. Everyone does that. Definitely not just me.

Funnily enough, I don't remember a whole lot of the drive to the cliffs, for whatever reason. I do remember, though, that our bus driver was a bretty c00l guy. He didn't just drive the bus--he commented on everything we passed, like a tour guide. We heard about the history of the area, the geology of the region, his ex-wife (multiple times)...

This time, we headed south from Galway, not north. Quick geography review: Galway sits in the center of a bay. The north shore of the bay is called Connemara, and that's where all the seaweed and the marble and the quarries and the mines, etc. are. To the south of the bay lies the Burren, a huge expanse of desolate rolling hills covered in ancient limestone, with just a couple pockets of vegetation here and there. Unlike Connemara, there are not many farms out here on the Burren--it is almost all livestock, especially goats, who can clamber over the rocks to find the infrequent patches of tough grass.

But it is also an important trade route and, a thousand years ago, a good place to build a castle if you wanted to defend upstream settlements from the Vikings. This castle is not that old, but is built on the same principle. We stopped at this castle on the way to the Cliffs, and even got to go inside and around the courtyard. It is just open to the public--a preserved and restored site, but a public one.

The Cliffs of Moher sit at the western edge of the Burren. In this picture, we are facing up the hill to where the hill cuts away into the cliffs, and behind us, in the picture, is the Burren. Immediately behind us is some young forest, with some fields beyond, all carefully cultivated over hundreds of years to be a viable place to live--but behind that, you can see the grey limestone covering the hills, as it does for dozens of miles in every direction.

It is just a short hike up the hill from the parking lot to the cliffs. The land ends quite abruptly, and once you hit the water there is nothing but water all the way to North America. They stretch on for hundreds of meters in both directions, but they are highest in the middle.

We walked around for a while and took some pictures. There are walls at the top of the cliffs so you can't go to the edge... as long as you're on the public park part of the cliffs. Several locals have farms that border on the cliffs, too, and a hiking trail winds along the top of the cliffs.

The cliffs are 214 meters high at their highest point (702 feet), and the water at the bottom is very cold, even at this time of year. That doesn't stop the literally thousands of seagulls and puffins from roosting all up an down the cliffs.

We had two hours here, so we meandered on down the cliffs, stopping to look out into the ocean every couple hundred feet. (Geology talk: the walls are made of slabs of limestone cut from close to Galway, not the Burren--you can tell by their darker coloration and the fossils of bivalves and corals preserved in them)

Another panorama! The little seastack down on the left there is coated with puffins and gulls making a terrible racket. Even with the wind blowing off the ocean at uncomfortable speeds, we could still hear the ruckus the birds were making.

The hiking trail runs along the top of the cliffs for as far as we cared to follow it. There are actually three trails right next to each other: one right by the edge, one on top of the hill next to the cliffs (where Sarah stood to take this picture), and one on the other side of that hill. The ground was slick and we were worried about slipping, so we mostly used the inner two paths.

Eventually, the trail leads to a huge block of stone sitting at the edge of the cliffs. It is wide and flat and dry, so we crawled out to the edge and looked over. The sea-stack from before is out there in the ocean.

It was not quite as high here, but still a long way to the bottom (closer to 200 meters).

The wind was pretty intense up here, blowing off the ocean and onto the cliffs. We had to take each picture multiple times because hair was flying EVERYWHERE. Putting it up was, obviously, not an option.

It looks like we are just a slip away from our doom here, but we aren't, really. There is a ledge three feet below us (my feet are almost touching it) that protrudes from the cliff about six feet. It was the only place Sarah would let me sit on the edge, and the only place I would let HER sit on the edge.

The wind was strongest here, and had stripped away all the soil from the edge of the cliff, leaving the rock exposed. This was great, because it meant there wasn't any slippery grass or mud. This is the furthest we ended up going from our starting point.

The wind was so intense that I came up with a fun game. You sit near the edge of the cliff and dig around behind you in the grass for a tiny pebble, no bigger than your fingernail. Then, you take the pebble between your finger and your thumb and flick it as hard as you can out into the open air. The pebble will go straight out for a second, then slowly start rising higher and higher, eventually turning completely around and getting flung at twice the speed you flicked it, fifteen feet over your head, onto the cliffs again. Bonus points if you accidentally bean a French woman in the head.


After we had spent two hours at the cliffs, we piled back onto the bus and set off for a limestone cave out in the Burren.

First, though, we stopped at a Neolithic tomb standing out in the Burren that dates to the fourth millennium BC. It is the second-oldest tomb of its kind found in Ireland, and it's just kind of sitting out there on the hills, and you can go up to it. They're not sure who is buried there, but they must have been important.

This, by the way, is what most of the Burren is like--fields of limestone weathered on the top and with shallow crevices winding around and between the rock, carved by water and time and filled with a sprinkling of dirt.

It's called a "portal tomb", after the doorway-like appearance. That rock on top is huge--probably ten feet long and six feet wide. We were wondering about how they got it there, up on top of the other two. Horses had not been brought to Ireland yet (as far as we know) and cattle were still tiny and not yet modern (not suited for pulling, really), so our professor said that they probably built a dirt ramp behind the two standing stones and rolled the rock up on wooden rollers, then destroyed the ramp. He also says that the Paleo- and Neo-lithic method for cutting stone was usually slow going: you would find a piece of rock you wanted, outlined by some crevices, and you would cut yourself a log. You would dry that log over a fire, and then wedge it in the crevice nice and tight. Then you would wet the log. As the water filled the log, the wood would expand--not a lot, but enough that something would have to give. Usually, because it is so crumbly, the limestone would give first.

After we visited the tomb, we went on a little tour of a limestone cave out in the Burren. By this point in the afternoon, it was looking like rain, but we were safe inside. This cave is a tourist attraction that operates year round, and has since it was opened in 1976, though it was discovered thirty years earlier by a man walking his dog. He proceeded to tell no one about it until he met a group of cavers thirty years later and spilled the beans. They checked out the cave, and a year later it was turned into a tourist attraction.

It's a pretty neat cave. Only half of it is open to the public, since the back half has a pretty sizeable ecosystem and they are trying to preserve it. It is pretty much just a tunnel carved by water through the rock, that goes straight back into the mountain for a couple hundred meters. At certain places, the water falls through the ceiling of the cave and makes these spectacular waterfalls down the rock, which they light from below for added effect. The tour took about thirty minutes, and then we packed up and headed home for dinner and to study for exams the next day.


And that's what we did on Wednesday, our last big day in Galway. We took exams yesterday, and had our little farewell dinner, and now people are starting to leave. We'll stick around for a few more days before we're off for Paris, so expect a blog post before we go. As always, thanks for reading. Miss everyone at home.

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