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Putting mountain and map reading skills to the test in the Burren 

Manchán Magan signed up for a mountain skills course and explored the Burren with his new appreciation of map reading.

I COULD never fully grasp the Burren — driving through it didn’t provide a proper sense of it, but I felt uneasy about straying too far from the way-marked trails to explore its remoter regions.

People like me are prisoners of the wooden-posted tracks and the irritating yellow walking figure carved into each post. Yet, the alternative, of having to sit through classes to study orientation, compass-bearing and map skills always seemed too humiliating to contemplate.

Last month I signed myself up for the Mountain Skills 1 course run by Outdoors Ireland.

I booked in to the gorgeous Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvarna as I wanted a bit of pampering before the mountain onslaught.

Wild Honey is a regular B&B and bar, but the owner was head chef of Marco Pierre White’s L’Escargot restaurant and within months of opening he earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand award. It proved a great choice.

There was an amiable bunch of wannabe mountaineers gathered around our course director, Nathan Kingerlee, next morning in Kinvara. He led us straight up into the high Burren, believing that the best way to learn is through hands-on experience.

After a brief introduction to map-skills, he pointed at a particular contour line and told us to make our way there. I stared harder at my map than I had ever done before and set out on the task.

The next two days were like this: Nathan teaching us just enough to grasp a new technique and then getting us to put it into practise right away. The adrenaline rush of always being on the edge of one’s knowledge, made for an invigorating experience.

The day sped on with a series of new nuggets of information and a task to hammer each piece home: setting the map in the landscape, gauging contours, planning a route, hand-railing a spur, combining the compass with the map.

Each lesson was a further step towards independence, towards feeling safe in the worst extremes that Ireland might throw at one. When I messed up and ended up 200 metres off course, I shivered knowing that had it been a cliff in heavy mist I’d be at the bottom of it now, with, at best, a sprained ankle.

That evening the group’s unity was threatened by an argument over where to eat: some wanted Linnane’s Lobster Bar, right on the docks in New Quay and renowned for its seafood, while others the new, more international Vasco’s in Fanore, which is also on the seafront.

A coin toss lead us to Vasco’s where I gorged on Caribbean goat curry and Lebanese flatbreads. To be fair most Burren restaurants are now pretty great — they tend to focus on serving the best local produce: St Tola cheese, Burren Smokehouse fish, mountain-reared beef, goat meat from Harry Jeuken’s organic farm, Fahys salads and Linnalla ice cream.

Next day, back on the mountain, I was seeing the map in a whole new way. The symbols and contours summoned entire three-dimensional landscapes just as a musical score can invoke an orchestra.

I was beginning to speak the subtle language of contour lines or, at least, interpret the clues they were trying to communicate to me. A map is like great literature, the more you read it the richer and more multidimensional it becomes.

There was a real adrenaline rush to realising that I was able to figure out exactly where I was at any point. Some primal knowledge is still encoded into our DNA from eons ago when our ancestors depended on this knowledge for survival. Our bloodline survived this long only because our predecessors had known instinctively how to read the land, how to follow a spur up and over a mountain, how to avoid steep-sided gullies and recognise re-entrants.

I got to spend a weekend in the upland Burren, roaming with the wild goats over the clints and grykes in this archeologically-saturated landscape of thick-bedded limestone slabs.

The courses are only run occasionally, but there is so much more to do in the Burren. This rugged, rocky land is reinventing itself as the ultimate learning landscape, which is fitting in an area associated with learning since the old Brehon and Bardic schools of the 6th century and the monastic settlement of Corcomroe.

Local farmers have formed Farm Heritage Tours, a rare opportunity to explore the landscape and prehistoric farming system with the people who know it best.

Afternoon tea in The Fr Ted house is compulsory if only for the philosophical musings of the farmer/owner, Patrick McCormack. For archaeological tours or stone-wall building courses contact Burrenbeo, and for kayaking, caving, rock climbing and cycling talk to Burren Eco Tourism or Outdoors Ireland.

This landscape has been nurturing, nourishing and teaching people for millennia, we must continue to engage with it so that it remains viable for generations to come.