My first glimpse of Slieve Donard, the tallest hill in the mountains of Mourne, is distant but transfixing. I spy the famous peak through the huge glass windows of the resort I am staying at. The hotel is a grand, old and stately property in Newcastle, Northern Ireland. But once I see the mountain, I am eager to be out in the woods as soon as possible.
Later that evening, my guide Loretta Coyle unfurls a map on my table over dinner, revealing that the path to Slieve Donard goes through a fabled literary landmark—Narnia country—the mysterious forestland from author C.S. Lewis’s children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia. The Mournes, where Lewis spent time growing up, could well have been the muse for his imaginary universe.
The next morning, we set off to hike through Lewis’s favourite woods, driving to Kilbroney Forest Park, the starting point for our Narnia Trail. As in the books, the trail passes through a ‘Wardrobe Door,’ which is a stand-in for the portal through which young Lucy first stumbles into Narnia in the books. The passage leads onto wooded lanes, dotted with wonderful real-life recreations of characters and scenes from the series such as the White Witch, the Beaver’s Hut and the Lamp-post.
After soaking in the pleasures of Narnia, we make our way towards Cloughmore. A steep climb later, we enter the Rostrevor Oakwood, a nearly 40-acre stretch of 250-year-old oak trees. Here, the woods are still dark and deep, and the wind whispers of mysteries. We stop at a 50-tonne granite boulder that looks out of place in its surroundings—the Cloughmore Stone. This giant rock has remained a scientific curiosity and is extremely out of place in its surrounding terrain. Per local legend, Fin McCool, a mythical giant, flung it at an enemy. But some geological reports trace it to the Ice Age. Clearly the giant story is more appealing to the young ones as I watch children screaming, squealing and clambering onto the stone.
Walking past, we enter stretch of woods that keep going higher and finally reach a windy grassland. Mountain bikers stand across the landscape silhouetted, against skies that threaten rain. We cross grassy slopes to reach the top of the Slieve Martin at 485 metres. The wind has picked up, a few drops splatter, and I am catching my breath, when a man comes running along, red-faced and panting. He has run all the way up, and plans to sprint across to the second mountain alongside, before retracing his footsteps back down. The Mourne Mountains inspire all kinds of outdoor sports, but I am content with walking.
As we head back to the hotel after a quick snack of chocolate, Loretta chooses a more poetic route that leads along a gently gurgling stream. The 8 kilometre-walk has whetted my appetite for more. I look longingly at the summit of Slieve Donard, the highest of the Mourne mountain peaks and a tougher climb.
Before I reach the Republic of Ireland, where I am to take a trip to the bogland, I spend a night dreaming of the bog, of feet sinking irretrievably into squelchy quicksand, and wild winds tearing at my hair. When I eventually make it to Roundstone blanket bog, it is an expanse that stretches on all sides, a trap for the unsuspecting, the stuff of stories that haunt the imagination. Deserts have their own terror, but the bog surpasses those, with its quiet menace.
I step out of the bus with excitement. It has been raining so we are to stay on the stone-lined path and not step down, as that could mean anything from just mud stained clothes to being swallowed by the quagmire. The wind pushes us along, and turning nasty, sends hail, then rain, to make our route difficult.
The bog has enchanting tales. And as our guide recounts them, we forget the cold and listen, entranced. The wind snatches at our guide’s words, but the story comes through. And I can almost hear the whir and cough of the single engine aircraft carrying two brave pilots, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who aimed to cross the Atlantic on their fragile aircraft in 1919. When the plane developed trouble and they saw the wide expanse of flatland, not realising it was a treacherous bog, the young men crash landed. I could well imagine their surprise when they found themselves sinking into the slushy waste!
Their landing site was close enough to a wireless station, set up by none other than Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor of the wireless. One of the stations he built was at Clifden, at the edge of the bog that we are now walking along. The station was eventually destroyed and Marconi was forced to move elsewhere. Today, only a few remnants stand to commemorate a man’s genius and a stone cairn salutes the courage of the two pilots by marking the spot of their landing.
Chilled to the bone, our windcheaters drawn close around us, we run towards the bus when it comes into view. I, for one, am supremely glad I am not a pilot landing here on a dark, windy night.
One more adventure awaits me. A walk on the Burren, a stark rocky landscape shaped of limestone. Believed to have been formed in the Ice Age, the undulating, pitted surface of the Burren hides underground water streams and rich mineral deposits. It stretches along the sea for 250 square kilometres and hides caves, caverns and graveyard pits, such as the Poulnabrone Dolmen portal tomb that is 6000 years old, in its vast bosom.
We visit Doolin Cave, a limestone cave discovered by accident by two Englishmen, and gawk at a 5000000-year-old Great Stalactite that looks like some imperial chandelier. Even as wind chases the water, sunlight drips from the leaves. The first sign of spring belies the squall that blows around us, an off-season message from the North Atlantic front. Tiny violet orchids bloom in the grassy knolls, and hold a promise of spreading more colour onto the barren surface. Soon, the falcon and the buzzard, and the Golden Eagle will cover the sky with their flight. And bees will hover as the dandelions take flight and scatter.
Indeed, I muse, as we board the bus and head to Dublin, the wild ways of Ireland are full of a mystery that may never be fully unravelled.
Sathya Saran collects travel stories to nudge others to get out of their comfort zone and try something new. Forts, mountains and rivers inspire her to burst into song. In her next life she hopes to scale the Mount Everest.