In which I learn why Ireland is so green

When you Google Image “Ireland,” this is the kind of thing you get:


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There are two things in common with these three photos:

  1. The scenery is very green, as Ireland is famous for.
  2. The weather is beautiful and sunny.

So I always imagined Ireland as a beautifully warm and sunny country with bright rolling hills and lush grass. I wasn’t totally off: it’s got those rolling hills, that lush grass. As for the warm and sunny part…

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…I was dead wrong.

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Honestly, I should have known.

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And my group was living in a particularly harsh part of Ireland. We were right on the west coast, in a place known as the Burren.

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The Burren, as you can see, has a very distinctive landscape. It’s composed of crumbling limestone, the remains of an ancient seabed. The rocky hills can get quite tall, with many of them reaching over 200 meters high. And since the Burren is by the west coast– where those Atlantic sea winds come blowing in– the weather can be… unpredictable. 

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Let me give you an example.

During our first week in Ireland, my group was scheduled to go on a hike on Blackhead Mountain. Blackhead Mountain is located right along the coast and promised impressive views of both the sea and the land. What’s more, we had a local Irish farmer to guide us on the hike. I was excited.

post 199 image 14We took a bus to the starting point. The weather looked warm and sunny when we were indoors, but as soon as we stepped out of the van…

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Windy as hell. You could open an umbrella and fly away, Mary Poppins style.

But it wasn’t raining, so we went on our way. Despite the wind, I was really enjoying the walk. The Burren has a beautiful and unique landscape. For instance, the rocks are full of huge gaps called “grikes.” If you’re not careful, you could step in a grike– and considering that these gaps can be as deep as your waist, that would not be good.

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The Burren is also home to a distinct mix of flora. Back in the Ice Age, an iceberg dumped a mix of Arctic and Mediterranean seeds in the area. Today, they still flourish due to the Burren’s year-round temperate climate. I never expected to see orchids outside of a rainforest!

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So, in spite of the chilly wind, I was enjoying the hike. Our hiking guide was incredibly informative and walked at a nice pace, stopping frequently to explain this rose bush or that ancient fossil. About 30 minutes in, we paused so he could even give us a bit of Irish history.

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He paused.

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Of course, I looked behind me.

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There was a HUGE rainstorm blowing right at us.

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It didn’t.

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The storm arrived within a matter of minutes. It came out of nowhere! And it wasn’t just rain. IT WAS HAIL.

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Horizontal hail, due to the wind.

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There was nothing we could do but continue our hike. Our guide kept going with the tour as usual. But the wind and hail were so fierce that, even when he shouted, we could barely hear what he said.

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Oh, the joy.

We continued up the mountain, battling winds that threatened to knock us over. Our guide led us to a structure known as the Caherdooneerish Fort. Here, we huddled against one of the ancient stone walls and waited out the storm.

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We love hiking

We love hiking

After about 20 minutes of soaking misery, the clouds finally cleared.

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We continued our hike in the beautiful, beautiful sunlight.

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Mind you, it was still windy as all get-out. The wind was so strong that it almost tipped me over with every step. And you don’t want to misstep in the Burren: remember, those grikes can swallow your leg whole. Alternatively, you could slip and knock your head on some lovely limestone.

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Seriously, I thought I was going to die with each step I took.

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It was insane. Incredible landscapes. Outrageous weather. Kids stumbling down the mountain, defying death with every step.

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It was one of the best hikes I’ve ever been on.

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Because nothing gets your adrenaline pumping better than thinking you’re going to fall off a mountain…for an hour straight.

In fact, I wasn’t even mad when another rain cloud rolled in.

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And when it started hailing on us.

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Luckily, our guide was prepared this time.

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Apparently, 13 people could fit under this guy’s tarp. Barely.

Three hours later, our bus picked 13 wet, freezing kids off the side of the road. I had worn two pairs of pants. Both got completely soaked.

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As you can imagine, we were all glad to get back home. We could take warm showers. Heat up some soup. Huddle under dry sheets and thick blankets, thinking about the windiest three hours of our lives.

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Maybe I am. But hey, nothing wrong with a little crazy, am I right?

Wind? Fog? Torrential rain? Time to drown our sorrows in free coffee. (Doubtful Sound, New Zealand)

Doubtful Sound, a fjord in the southwest of New Zealand, is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. At least, that’s what our German friend told us when my group was planning our New Zealand trip.

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So we booked a day tour of Doubtful Sound as part of our trip. Doubtful Sound is quite out of the way from… anything, really. To reach it, we first had to cross Lake Manapouri. We boarded the boat in high spirits…

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…but soon, we were hit by typical west coast New Zealand weather.

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By the time we reached the other side of the lake, it was pouring rain. You could sense that the tour group was becoming more and more downcast. Regardless, we had all paid for the tour, so we were going on with it. The tour guides ushered us into buses, where we rode to the Doubtful Sound bay.

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Our tour guide futilely tried to comfort his passengers.

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An hour later, everyone sprinted from the bus to the next tour boat. The rain was getting heavier and heavier.

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My friends and I took shelter inside, where we drowned our sorrows in the complementary tea and coffee.

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Everyone was a little frustrated at this point, including myself. Our one chance to visit the most beautiful place in the world, and it was raining! On a normal day, I’d be out on the deck, snapping photos like a madman.

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This kind of weather was a normal day in western New Zealand, right? What’s a little water? My friend and I ventured outside.

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As it turns out, our tour guide wasn’t lying: the rainy weather, while gloomy, created huge, cascading waterfalls.

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And as the rain continued, more and more waterfalls started to form.

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My friend and I rushed back inside…

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…and then back outside.

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Even in the fog, clouds, and rain, Doubtful Sound was stunning. 

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No wind or rain was going to keep me from enjoying this ride. I spent the rest of the trip running around the boat, snapping photos and getting pummeled by rain.

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Getting cold and soaked seems to be a common theme in New Zealand. Still, by the end, we all agreed: Doubtful Sound is a beautiful place. We left the Sound happy with our experience.

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…or maybe it was just denial. Because, as we started back across Lake Manapouri, the sun started to come out…

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And man, you have never seen any five kids so excited to see sunlight before.

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I guess we really needed our Vitamin D.