The Connemara Safari - A Walking Tour of Four Isolated and Rugged Islands off the Western Coast of Ireland Is an Exhilarating Journey into History

Article excerpt

The ancient Irish knew a thing or two about beauty spots. Standing beside the remains of a Bronze Age site close to the sea cliffs of Inishturk on an early September day, it was hard to imagine a more spectacular place to live. It seemed the very edge of the world, an elemental place poised in an immensity of sea and sky. Mountain sheep grazed perilously close to the overhanging precipices that plunged hundreds of feet into the Atlantic. Inishturk's dramatic seaboard was just one of many thrilling encounters on a five-day walking and island- hopping tour of Ireland's Atlantic coast.

It was Henry David Thoreau who maintained that a walk was nothing if not the adventure of a free man. He would certainly have approved of this tour, called the Connemara Safari, which operates weekly from May to the end of September. The fifty-mile drive from Galway "out west" to the town of Clifden, capital of Connemara, was my introduction to this rugged, mountainous landscape pierced by glistening lakes and rivers. Connemara was once the largest estate in either Ireland or Britain. Its desolate beauty and dramatic coastal scenery make it one of the most celebrated regions in the country for fishing, riding, or walking, indeed, any kind of outdoor pursuit.

We were a mixed group of over a dozen strangers who gathered in the bar of the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel in Clifden for the start of what was to be an unusual Irish odyssey. The trip would take us through breathtaking scenery and four remarkable islands off the western coast, while opening up the past in a very special way. The assembly included visitors from the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Germany, and Ireland ranging in age from sixteen to sixty, all united by a common enjoyment of traveling on foot. One lively, bedraggled creature with matted, curly hair turned out to be the most enthusiastic member of the party. Pandy, the hotel's thirteen-year-old griffin terrier, was to become a familiar presence during the week. "He just loves walking," smiled our host, Brian Hughes.

Our guide for the five days was a former chef from Derry turned archaeologist. Gerry McCloskey closed down a very successful restaurant business in County Clare, which he ran with his wife until her untimely death, and returned to Dublin to pursue a university degree in archaeology. His informed and lively commentary was the highlight of the tour. All were impressed with his wide knowledge and love of the countryside, held spellbound by his captivating accounts of Irish history and the way he could interpret the ancient landscapes laid out before us. The founder of the trip, Connemara-born Brian Hughes, was witty and charming, with a politician's skill for remembering names and engaging musical talents on the piano and guitar. His family bought Abbeyglen in l969 and turned the former orphanage into a four-star hotel. A keen hiker himself, he has a fund of local knowledge and history.

The first walk

After breakfast on Tuesday morning, we were taken by bus through the wild countryside of Connemara to Killary Harbor, Ireland's only fjord, to begin our first walk. More than fifty mountains in four close ranges give this area great muscular beauty: the Maumturks, the Twelve Bens, the Partries, and the Sheeffries. Banks of heather carpeted the bogs in their foothills, hedges of holly and hazel lined the narrow roads, and fields were flecked with montbretia, a wild iris that flourishes in August. Local children call it the "back to school flower." At Rosroe, at the mouth of the Killary, we set off on a six-mile walk, past the largest salmon cages in the world and mussel rafts where hundreds of tons of shellfish are harvested every year for export to France. The old "famine track," built as part of a relief program after the great potato famine, is often rocky and uneven, but the views are enchanting.

On the lower flanks of the mountains are the remains of the "lazy beds," grass-covered ridges whose verdant contours offer poignant reminders of the extensive cultivation of the potato. …