Maryangela opened my eyes

Travelling has many rewards — visiting cities and towns else-where in the world, observing other cultures, learning new languages and exploring the history of other lands. But for me the biggest reward is meeting people and making new friends. Not the rich and famous — I prefer the company of ordinary folk, those who do inter-esting things and have fascinating stories to tell.

One of my recent memorable moments was spending a day with Maryangela Keane tramping over a limestone hill in Ireland. Maryangela opened my eyes to a wonderful world of beauty hidden in the rugged limestone shale terraces of “the Burren.”

At first glance, the Burren is a stark contrast to the picturesque beauty common throughout the Emerald Isle — it looks just like a moon-scape. The Burren, which means “rocky place,” is a 450-square-mile area of limestone hills and rocks on the west coast of Ireland, bordered by the pounding waves of the Atlantic.

In the 1640’s, Oliver Cromwell sent his surveyor to the region. He reported back to his master in London: “The Burren is a savage land, yielding not enough water to drown a man, nor tree to hang a man or soil enough to bury him.” Little has changed sce.

Maryangela has been studying the flora and fauna of the Burren for more than 35 years and has written many articles and books about the area. She also teaches environmental studies and literature at the nearby University of Limerick.

However, the “60-something” Maryangela is not a cloistered academic. Dressed in rugged tweeds, homespun knee socks and ancient hiking boots, her favourite times are taking novices such as myself over the limestone hills and pointing out the delicate flowers and plants tucked away in the smallest of nooks and crannies, exist-ing on nothing more than a few ounces of earth. In all there are more than 1,000 species of flora living on the Burren, many of them extremely rare. In fact, this is the only place in Europe where Mediterranean and Arctic plants grow side-by-side. During the long-ago Ice Age, glaciers moving from the north deposited plant life and northern debris — when the ice retreated 15,000 years ago, seeds and plants from the Mediterra-nean were deposited, mingling with Arctic species.

Driving around the area, all one can see are stark limestone hills — bare and forbidding shale rock. Most visitors keep right on driving to reach friendlier destinations, but Maryangela ordered us to stop. And I’m glad we did.

She led us up a desolate hill, and pointed to a carpet of flowers and ferns hidden in the limestone terraces. There were Mountains of Avens, rich blue Spring Gentian, yellow hoary Rockrose, early Purple Orchid, Wild Thyme, Eyebrights and the magenta-coloured Bloody Cranesbill, to name just a few. We could only stare in awe at this profusion of beauty.

“We never have frost or snow in The Burren because of the Gulf Stream,” explained Maryangela in her lilting Irish accent. “What we do have is plenty of rain, lots of sun, a high light density and, best of all, no pollution.”

It’s a dreamscape for trekkers. There’s a 42-km (26-mile) well-posted walk along the cliffs of Moher and through the Burren, winding through small villages and crumbling, ancient forts and castles. Wildlife abounds, including badgers, foxes, wild goats plus a variety of birds and butterflies.

A word of advice to those travelling through the Burren by car –ignore the surface desolation: Stop and explore this miracle of nature.