The Burren Way, Day 4: Fanore to Ballyvaughan 

So began our last hike of the trip. And it rained. And rained. (We have a history of vacations and rain). And the wind blew. But we still hiked the last 12k or so into Ballyvaughan. The weather forecast called for a 100% chance of rain until late in the afternoon, but with no other way get to our next destination we donned our rain gear and headed out. Our hosts in Fanore were kind enough to drive us up past part of our hike from the day before, which cut about 5k off the total. While we loved hiking the greenway, doing it again and in the rain wasn’t something we were keen on.

After we climbed out of the Caher Valley, we began a slow descent down towards Ballyvaughan. We were hiking along roads again, but there were a lot more trees that we had seen so far. We passed a ruined church that looked picturesque in the rain but other then that, it was heads down hiking.

We stopped for lunch at Newtown Castle which is home to the Burren Art College. While we were enjoying a cuppa, the rain really picked up. Still, we enjoyed the tea and climbing to the top of a restored circular castle. The last 2k of the hike were through fields, an open stone clearing, and a hazel wood. The hazel wood looked like the perfect setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We came across an intrepid group of hikers going on a guided walk, but left them to finish our hike by pass by some sheep, which made Ash incredibly happy. Also, the blackberries in this section seemed riper, so Ashley got distracted a bit more frequently.

We walked down to the bay after dinner and were treated to a gorgeous sunset. That’s right, the rain passed and our last day was nice and clear. We finished up with a bus and train ride back to Dublin, then hopped on a plane back home. The rest of the pictures that the rain permitted are here.

The Burren Way, Day 3: Caher Valley

Today was a non-travel day.  We had a choice of two loop hikes and picked the one that would get us back into Fanore for lunch at Vasco’s. The hike took us up the Caher Valley and then across an old greenway that would have connected Fanore  with the surrounding area.

The hike up the valley was in two stages. The first was a long a tiny road next to the only stream in the Burren that is above ground all year (the others sink into the porous limestone if there isn’t enough rain). The weather cooperated for a few hours and we got some lovely views of the river and the surrounding farms. It even allowed us to sit down and have a nice snack half way up.

The second stage had us turn away from the river and hike up Slieve Elva, a 324m (1,062 ft) peak. We climbed up to a greenway just below the summit.  By this time the weather and turned cloudy and the wind had really picked up, but thankfully it didn’t rain. Still, the broad open expanse of the greenway was lovely. On either side of the stone wall were empty cattle grazing areas that looked ready for occupants.

After a few more kilometers, we found the remains of an old ring fort and castle. The castle is currently for sale and could be yours for a mere €25000. At that point we turned back towards Fanore and had some great flat bread for lunch.

There’s almost no cellphone coverage in Fanore so when we needed to get back to the B&B, we had the locals ring the owners who came to get us. After dinner, the local pub owner offered us a lift instead of bothering the B&B owners. On the short drive back, we learned that he was the 4th generation of his family to own the bar.  We also learned that he has a big farm in the Caher and was getting ready for the “winter walk”. The cattle pens we had seen on top of the mountain were the winter feeding grounds for all the cows we saw in town. The walk is moving them all from the summer areas to the winter ones.

As always, more pictures are here.

The Burren Way, Day 1: Liscannor to Doolin

We’ve left Dublin and headed to the west coast of Ireland for a four day hiking excursion. We spent a day traveling to Liscannor which is a tiny town on the west coast, south of Galway and at the southern end of the Cliffs of Moher. We took the train from Dublin which was a lovely experience.

The bus from Galway to Liscannor was better than expected, even with a minor cattle jam. Both the rail and bus systems were easy to navigate and fairly inexpensive. If we come back to Ireland, I’d definitely consider using them again rather than renting a car.

In Liscannor, we had a lovely seafood dinner at a local pub (Vaughans) and then began getting set up to to hike the next day along the cliffs and into Doolin. The Cliffs of Moher are a popular tourist destination on the west coast. They rise 724 feet from the North Atlantic and you’re probably more familiar with them as The Cliffs of Insanity. They supposedly offer great views of the Irish coast and Aran Isles. Why supposedly? Because we couldn’t see a thing. The forecast called for rain early with it clearing out by the afternoon. It was a heavy drizzle as we left the B&B and it never really let up during the 3 hours we were hiking. Visibility was almost nil. We could see the edge of the cliff and not much else. In some ways, it probably made the hike quicker, as we didn’t stop to take many pictures.

Aside from the weather, the hike was interesting. It was definitely the scenic route, with a long detour along the coast, before heading uphill and onto the trail proper. The official trail is very narrow and bordered by slate slabs on one side and pasture fences on the other. There is an unofficial trail a few feet closer to the cliff edge that is sometimes easier to pass, but definitely more dangerous. The design of the main trail makes it easy for water to pool in places and it can be incredibly muddy. The stiles were made out of the same slate as the trail border which made them tricky to climb over.

At the Visitors Centre, we decided that another 2-3 hours of hiking in the rain and mud wasn’t really how we wanted to spend our vacation. Thankfully, there was a shuttle from the Cliffs to Doolin which we could grab. We took the bus in and spent the afternoon walking around Doolin, writings postcards, and getting dry. The town is a bit spread out but home to a number of B&Bs and a couple of pubs and is best known for it’s traditional Irish music. Dinner (O’Connor’s) as always was very good and the music being played was an interesting mix. Some lively songs mixed in with some slower, sadder fare.

We’re hiking from Doolin to Fanore tomorrow. The forecast calls for more rain but we’ll persevere! More pictures from today’s hike here.

NZ Day 12 & 13: Rotorua and Taupo

Whoops, we missed a day. We got caught up hiking and enjoying the area. Rotorua has some pretty good restaurants and street food, not to mention plenty of the great outdoors.

We spent our second day on the North Island traveling down to Taupo. The road connecting the two towns is known as the Thermal Explorer Highway. There are several geothermal hot spots all over the area and a major power plant. We stopped in to a place called “The Craters of the Moon”. The fumaroles were steaming across the mossy land scape. No major geysers or mud pots but a very strange environment nonetheless.

Taupo seems like a nice place. It felt a bit like Queenstown, in that there were tons of extreme sports and adventure tours that start from the visitor center. Unfortunately we got bad news about one of our hikes. The trailhead was further away than expected and the weather was expected to be foul. Disheartened we decided to find another walk. We found a walk along the major river through town and walked to the falls at the end.
We finished up the day at the Rotorua night market and with a variety show. The market was really just some food trucks and produce, but the food was delicious.

The next day we went hiking amongst the redwood trees. The Redwoods Forest was started as an experimental logging forest to deteremine what trees might grow well in NZ. California redwoods were amongst the specemines they selected. Instead of felling them after they were found to be commercially useless, they turned the area into a park. We had a great hike with sweeping views of the town. Hiking in a mature forest like this one is something we had definitely been missing. It was peaceful and quiet and wonderful for the most part. The other part involved runners, horses, and mountain bikers – the area is very much mixed use. Fortunately, everyone seemed to coexist very well, and many of the trails are designated specifically for one activity or another. On one section of the hiking trail, we were only a few feet away from the parallel biking track.

We wrapped the day at the Whakarewarewa Maori village. February 6th is Waitangi day, celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the British and the Maori. The village is a tourist attraction and cultural center, as well as the permanent residence of about 25 Maori families. In addition to opening up their town to visitors, they also still follow traditional practices such as cooking and bathing in the hot springs. The village (and really, the whole area) also sits on an incredibly thin section of the earths crust, which is why the geothermal activity is so high.

Tomorrow we’re finally going to see the Hobbits, but first, more pictures of our Rotorua adventures are here.

NZ Day 8: The Galciers

Glaciers and rainforests don’t often mix. Here on the west coast of New Zealand two glaciers make their way from the Southern Alps down into a temperate rainforest filled with ferns and trees. The day started out inauspiciously. The rain was pounding down and visibility was poor. We watched as a number of helicopter tours were canceled due to bad weather. Still, we decided to risk it and our luck held. The hike to Fox Glacier, or as close as they’ll let you get, is crossed by several creeks. Due to rain and unexpected ice melt, the area can flood suddenly and we were on a constant lookout for rock slides. The recent rain had raised the water level in the glacial river to be quite high. The Department of Conservation, NZ’s version of the National Park Service, has signs everywhere warning travelers about the dangers of the glaciers, hiking alone, and the remoteness of many of the tracks. The gravel path is largely made of of whatever the glacier left behind. The track has a primordial feel to it. The rocky floor gave way to lush green vegetation and waterfalls before disappearing into the low cloud cover. We took advantage of a brief patch of sunshine to hit a scenic overlook that should have given us great views of most of the peaks in the Southern Alps. Alas, while the sunshine was welcome, the mountains remained hidden behind the dense clouds. In the afternoon, we drove over to Franz Josef to see that glacier. The path to this glacier took us through a river bed again carved out by the retreating glacier. We were able to walk closer to the glacier face this time. We passed a couple of huge ice mounds slowly melting into great pools below. The low cloud cover gave this glacier a much more ominous feel. A cold breeze was being funneled off the glacier into the viewing area that had some hikers reaching for their coats. There were a few orphaned pieces of ice in the rock scree up to the lookout. They were dripping water constantly, and small bits of rock and gravel were falling off at regular intervals. It was a good reminder to stay to the marked paths and away from unstable areas. We’ll head out tomorrow towards Greymouth. Our last two days on the South Island will take us through the Arthur Pass, and then we jet off to the North Island. More pictures here.

NZ Day 5: Queenstown

Queenstown is a wonderful place to use as a base station for further adventures. There are tons of restaurants, shops, and beautiful scenery. From Queenstown, you can pick any adrenaline producing sport that NZ allows. We opted for none of that. We spent the morning walking along the coast of Lake Takawapui. The lake is beautiful and town extends right to its edge. There is even a coal powered steamer that ferries tourists around for most of the year.

From there, we regrouped and headed to the local ski resort. During the summer the slopes are usually open to hikers. However, the road, which rises almost 1200 meters, was closed for off season repairs and major construction on the lodge. Not deterred, we had lunch at a vista overlooking town before heading to another trail.

We did a 10k loop that included a historic gold mining area. We found a restored shack that was used by a miner during NZ’s depression era (1930s). The man who built it continued to live in Queenstown (he stopped mining due to WW2), but would visit his shack occasionally. We didn’t find any gold but we had a great hike. The trail was stepper than expected, but we found some stunning views at the top of the trail. We made it back to Queenstown exhausted and ready for dinner. Pictures of the day are here.

Great Ocean Road Day 2 – Apollo Bay to Port Campbell

After a good night’s sleep, we got up early to continue our vacation. Ashley walked along the beach and found several interesting shells and a handful of beach glass. After packing the car, we continued to drive west, into Great Otway National Park.

Our first stop was Maits Rest – a short hike through a rainforest studded with giant trees. It was nice and peaceful, especially as the undergrowth was full of giant ferns.

We next drove towards the Otway Lighthouse. The road there is well known for koalas, and there were lots of places to pull over and look. We found several spots with half a dozen hanging around, so we had a lot of fun taking pictures. One energetic koala slid halfway down his tree before deciding he liked it after all and climbed back up.

Melba Gully is another rainforest enclave, and we enjoyed this trek as well, although it had several steep patches to it. We’re pretty sure this sign is telling us to be careful not to slip, but it could also be telling us to party!

Next, we headed deeper into the park for Otway Fly. This is a treetop walk, so you end up 100 feet off the ground. It was definitely an experience to be up so high. Even though you know you’re secured to the steel pylons, when the wind is blowing it’s hard to tell if you are swaying or the trees are.

Our last stop was at the Timboon Railway Shed Distillery. We tasted an excellent whisky and sat on the porch to enjoy some homemade ice cream to end the day. Now we’re hanging out in Port Cambpell for the night and planning our 12 Apostles visit for tomorrow. The rest of the pictures are here.