Author Archives: lrohrbaughwildlifebiologist
08 September 2017
Today was the day of days. It was sunny this morning – a rarity – and then pouring rain and back to sun. On our way to retrieve the horses, a rainbow was in the sky. Did not try to find any leprechauns or a pot of gold. But I probably should, since I want to move here! The two Florida women left early for fear of Irma.
A brief spout of rain when we headed out for our ride, but otherwise, the roads were clear for us to trot, retracing some steps from yesterday. But then farmlands of sheep, goats, and cattle with such green grass all around we got to ride through. Just thinking of the history of all the stonewalls and old stone barn ruins was exciting. We had to dismount and hike our horses up a hill to the top of the brim where we could almost see the ocean if not for one more hill. But after we scaled down the hill, we met the red minibus and had lunch and coffee to refuel. Toibin was of course ready for lunch.
Once refueled, we began our arduous trip up the hill but it was well worth it. Once mounting and getting a few drinks in for the horses, and ourselves we were met with scenery that like many of us, the Irish take for granted. With one last sprinkle of rain, blue skies fought the clouds that retreated rapidly. What it revealed was endless – the Connemara Mountains, the Aran Islands, and the Cliffs of Mohr. So much to see and so little words. It was all I could do to keep taking deep breaths and taking in the fresh air and moments as long as I could.
We took our last breaths of the apple-cinnamon round bales, the views of heather and heaps of the most diverse wildflowers, the endless stinging nettles trying to sting us as we took a wee, but most of all, taking the last view and breath of our horses we have become so close to this week. And now, we must say good-bye to each other from all walks of the globe – USA, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden.
07 September 2017
A gray morning it was. We got out to the horses just a few miles out of town, and got saddled and mounted before the rain started, which was almost instantly. It was more misting, but as we get closer to the Atlantic, the wind was quiet heavy.
Just after we left the main road, we passed by a our first glimpse of rocky limestone cliffs that are characteristic of the Burren, as well as a stone memorial with a cross. Back in 1997, a man was on his way home from the pub, and though is friends asked to drive him, he said he would walk. He was walking along the stonewalls, when he lost his balance and fell in one of of the disappearing lakes that are formed from heavy rains, and then rapidly disappear in about a days time. An uplifting story for the day.
The rain began to get heavier as we made our way along the road passed many farms lined with stone walls for fencing. Back in the day, they used to have to move stones to get livestock in and out of pastures and then restack the stones. We passed the ruins of an old law school as well.
Then the rain got even heavier. We had to dismount and walk a busy road before continuing on the Burren Trail. We had only a short distance to ride before we reached a picnic area for lunch and we could change and add some layers for warmth. The rain stopped for a while as we fueled ourselves with coffee and tea before mounting into our wet saddles.
After lunch, it was a few hour ride through Burren National Park. It was truly otherworldly. There are no words to describe the rock formations, cliffs, boulders that line the fields throughout, exposing geological layers that tell the story of glaciers and ice ages. It stopped raining just enough to have some photo time, but with the wind, we carried on soon enough.
Winding our way down the hills, the wind settled and we found ourselves back on the road, passing sheep and barking dogs. But were just outside of Lisdoovarna, and we now have our first glimpse of the Atlantic, preparing us for the Cliffs of Mohr tomorrow and with any luck, a view of the Aran Islands and the Connemara Mountains.
For now though, we are checked into the hotel for the night and getting warm by whatever means –shower, coffee, tea, whiskey…
06 September 2017
How could I not say another glorious day! No rain at all, well unless you count early in the morning and it of course only because I sat my suitcases outside. But it was sunny when I did. Oh, Ireland!
Our horses were led down by our guides, with one horse being led, and the others bounding down the hill. Toibin was super muddy today. It’s always nice to have a warm up. We got on our way, straight up the steep, grassy fields, and to the top of the hill, where were still managed to find bogs. The water was so deep in one area, it rivaled the lake yesterday as far as depth was concerned.
We started out with more galloping, and finally getting my legs stronger and getting Toibin to stop cross-canter and move into a canter I can somewhat sit to. But again, the fairy-tale setting! Moss so green and plump, you wish you could just nap on it. Especially after lunch. And the heather seems to be getting more and more purple. We are now entering the burrens and seeing the landscape changing. Grassier fields, rockier and more boulders throughout the landscape, but there are still horses, cows, and sheep everywhere. And mega sheep! Whatever they may be.
The green landscape full of hills, farms, and pines is breathtaking still, but we overnight in Corofin, and finding ourselves back in civilization. There was a highway were it would be to dangerous if not prohibited to ride the horses on, so outside of town, we had to untack, and load them on a lorry and wish them well until tomorrow, for their field is on the other side of the highway. It was sad not be able to remove their halters and watch them trot off or roll happily. But memories are most important, as I keep telling myself as I go to pull out my camera. Nothing can ever do the sites, thoughts, smells, and memories as the photos in your mind.
But what civilization does bring, are people and pubs. We visited a local pub here in town, were I had the obligatory fish and chips. Only time I plan to. And of course, Irish lager. But I am saving my Guinness and Jameson for another night. Though we only rode 11 miles over 4.5 hours, I am still sleepy. And of course, beer does not help, but, we are in Ireland and it is the ONLY thing open.
Off to get closer to Galway tomorrow!
05 September 2017
Today we met our mounts in the field we left them for the night. With a bit of whistling, calling his name, and of course, food, Toibin started to come up to me. Another great part about having a horse. The rains held off most of they day and the sun was peaking through at us.
We rode high up on the hills with views of amazing Irish farms – so green, the cattle, and of course, the sheep! Many times, we were greeted by other horses in the fields we were riding next to, whom decided to trot alongside us for a bit. Continuing up through the woods of Slieve Aughty Mountains, we kept getting higher and passed along many stone ruins. Most of the ruins are of farming villages where the people came together to live and work on a landlord’s farm, and for it, they were given the potatoes to eat. Of course, once the potato blight came along, and the Potato Famine hit, the people moved to cities to find work, left on boats to America where they often died of illness, or other means, leaving the farm villages behind.
We continued to weave through the forest of muck, the roads along farms that smelled of apple-cinnamon from the round bale hay, and passed bright stone houses lined with flowers of various colors and the obligatory yellow lab or border collie in the yard. Lunchtime lead us to a road alongside preservation land, still lending breathtaking views.
After lunch, we continued to gain ground uphill before entering the White Sand park, where endless switchbacks, each turn highlighting a view of Lough Derg, endued us up on the sandy shores of the lake. Like the story of “Red Lake” the bottom was red. We singled-filed the horses and began to ford the lake. Being shallower than I thought, the horses still heaved up their heavy hooves, making great splashes in the water, and smiles on faces. As we trotted, the splashes and smiles both grew bigger. Right out of storybook.
Although we passed the little red minivan, it wasn’t waiting there for us. No. We rode another hour and a half though around the lake, on new roads for new homes. The wind picked up, feeling like a fall evening in the States. Cool and crisp. And though our bums ached, no one complained. We kept our smiles and or views until the little red minivan once again appeared. We unsaddled, walked the horses to their field for the evening, watched them trot up, up, and away up the hill. Looking at our watches, we had ridden 20 miles in 6.25 hours. It was now a half-hour before dinner. Famished!
Tomorrow, we leave An Sibin Riding Center and heads towards the Atlantic Ocean. We will overnight in a new town, Loftin, for the night, with promises of many pubs. I am holding out on Guinness until I can have one on tap. Meanwhile, it’s ciders and lagers.
Oh, the things I have missed about horses…
04 September 2017
The luck of the Irish. Well, we were not as lucky with the weather this morning, but this is Ireland, so misty and foggy weather was to be expected.
After another farm breakfast, we boarded the red minibus and went to retrieve our horses where we pastured them last night. Luckily the rain washed Toibin off some from his roll the evening before. But man does he shed! Covered in little white hairs, but it feels goods to smell of horse. Only horse people really understand this though.
We squished our way through bogs all throughout pastures. Public land is open for people to graze animals on, but they wander without fences, so fining your animals when you want to catch them causes a bit of a search. Our view of the River Shannon and Lough Derg were limited on this side today due to the fog, but no matter – we saw them the day before. But the story of the Lough Derg, or the Red Lake goes:
Long ago, it was only possible to send stories by giving your most valuable possession. The king on the island only had one eye and wished to send a story. He asked the messenger what he wanted – money, is first child, etc. – but he wanted his last eye. The king agreed, but when the eye was removed, it was have said to have bled so much, it turned the lake red.
The mist became rain, but stopped as we got our lunch site. It was next to some ruins of former cottages and the former guardhouse that was between the roads of County Galway and County Clare many years ago. During the famine, all these were abandoned, but if families have proof of ancestral heritage to that land, the government will give it back. Unfortunately, with all that was going on, most paperwork was lost. Most of the cottages are overgrown with moss and vegetation now, but the fuchsia trees from Latin America that were planted, give away their whereabouts. And then the willow trees will most likely lead you to the wells.
After lunch we continued galloping our way down roads and through forests. You know, a typical day. Toibin finally started cantering in 3 beats instead of 4 at times, so my ass hurts slightly less. But that could all change tomorrow…
01-03 September 2017
The 8-hour layover in Toronto actually worked in my favor. Has it really been 6 years since I travelled to Peru, the beginning of my annual travel phenomenon? I can’t even describe how great it was to see Adrienne and Nadia again. Just like no time had passed.
Landing in Dublin seemed easy enough. I even managed to find the bus I was supposed to catch to Portumna. Turns out, it was merely by accident. From what I could make out from Jerry, the bus driver, in his thick Irish accent, was that he doesn’t normally park there and the bus departs from the bus station at 1:00pm. Assuring me all was well, we drove off to the actual bus station. I have to say, maybe it was the jet lag and being unable to put together any sort of thought, I never would have found it. Yes, I feel fortunate.
There is not much to say about Dublin or the ride out to Portumna and Shannon since I was in and out of consciousness due to lack of sleep. Nicola, the owner of An Sibin Riding center, was there to pick myself up, as well as one of the guides and 2 Swedish women on the tour. Pulling up at the cottage and farm was like a fairy-tale. I mean iconic Ireland – a fucking fairy-tale! Stone buildings, sheep, border collies, geese in the pond, green, green grass, and so much moss! Unfortunately after arriving, it began to rain, so I took to my cottage I share with a twenty-some year old from France. Super quiet, but nice girl. A taste of my former self I suppose. We are sharing a private cottage, each with our own room, and a downstairs, which is far too cold to sit in. Besides, the main house is much nicer.
Talking with Nicola, they have owned the business for over 25 years, but only in the last few years bought this farm, which was a set of ruins. She and her husband, Bertie, are both handy, and although folks thought they were crazy, the rebuilt all the little buildings and connected them. Then they moved the horses over. They have loads of fields all over Clare Burren, adjacent to the park, which is convenient for riding. Total, they have 47 horses of all breeds – Cobs, Connemaras, Sport horses, and crosses. They breed their own herd, and have 2-3 foals every 2 years. Horses retire in their late teens to early 20’s and are given to good homes, where they can still be ridden for another 10 years. Something to be said for herd-life. The horses work, at most, 2 weeks, and then have a week off. But less if there are fewer tour groups.
Sunday morning, we had breakfast and coffee at 8:30am. As I walked into the main building, the yellow lab was looking into the kitchen as the smell of bacon wafted the air. Different dog, same look. By 10:00am, we had driven to meet our horses outside their field, groomed, and tacked them up, My horse, Toibin, is a colored Irish Cob. Quiet a brick house, but stoic nonetheless. We rode for 3 hours down tiny, winding roads squished between farms. Skirting barbed wire fences, we made our way into the park, and had a nice view of the Holy Island. The story goes:
As the tower was being built on “Holy Island”, each time someone passed the tower, they were to say “Bless the Tower.” One day, however, a woman passing did not want to say “Bless the Tower.” Legend goes, the water and island began throwing stones at her, and she, then, turned to stone. That stone sits near the tower. The legend is, the woman cursed the tower saying it would never be finished since she was stone. The roof has never been completed. Many times it was tried, but through one failure or another, it has not been successful.
Just after, we come across a huge stone, and have another folklore story about the dolmen we pass and young woman from an island in the sea where you never age. She wants to marry an islander. Her father says no, as if she leaves the island she will grow old and die. Her father finally agrees but allows the man to come to the island in the sea. They live for 1,000’s years until the man gets so homesick he wants to return to the island. The father says the only way they can do so is by riding horses, for if they touch the ground, they will immediately die. When they make it to the island, they come across a farmer trying to move these stones in his field. The offer to help but the man falls off his horse and immediately dies. The wife, grief stricken, dies beside him, and the dolmen represent their grave.
The heather is in full bloom, so purple, purple, everywhere! And of course, because it is Ireland, it is muddy, muddy, muddy. But it is perfect again for all that fair-tale moss and red-topped mushrooms.
Lunch, we headed back to the farm, and ate at the picnic tables situated outside the tackroom and the wood stove, fueled by sod. The horses, too, got their lunch and a quick nap before heading off for another 2-hour ride.
By now, the sun was out full force. Never thought that would happen here! We stop and come across a Fairy tree – made of a twisted plum and holly tree. The legend goes:
You will have a life of bad luck if you break or take down a fairy tree. Offerings or wishes are usually left to them. The Irish are so superstitious that a road was actually build around a Fairy tree because no one wanted to chance removing it.
Continuing on through the fields of cattle, our guide is continually unmounting to open the gates for us. Being true to self, I am gazing at every puddle and pool growing greenery in it to look for turtles. I forget where I am. But then we come into a Fairy tree forest. A fairy-tale I tell you. Oh yeah, and we are on horseback! Complete. Fucking. Fairy-tale. I am in love and look forward to tomorrow.
My first published piece! Thank you Misadventures magazine! This story is about my journey to East Africa and visiting Dian Fossey’s grave in Rwanda back in 2012.
Dian Fossey initiated the longest-running Mountain Gorilla research in 1967, which lasted almost two decades and changed the world of zoology.
As the 30th anniversary of her untimely death approached, I visited my role model’s grave in Rwanda. I now carry a reminder – a totem – in my pocket: a carved wooden keychain from her Karisoke Research Center, high in the Virunga Mountains. But I don’t need to. Fossey’s legacy illuminates every step I take as a female wildlife biologist.
With ongoing unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda remains one of only two countries where the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas can be safely viewed, along with Uganda. Each year, approximately 17,000 people travel to Volcano National Park to see these striking quadrupeds. Upon visiting the area, fewer people extend the trip and make the half-day journey to the relics of the Karisoke grounds, visiting the final resting place of the iconic woman who studied these extraordinary animals.
Ten-plus years as a student and wildlife biologist have thickened my skin, as the field parallels that of Fossey’s day. The profession remains largely male-oriented; often times it feels like an uphill battle trying to win opportunities and be taken seriously. Because of this, Dian Fossey has been an exceptional role model for me: a woman whose struggles and triumphs I turn to whenever hardships surface on the job. With no formal training, she persuaded Louis Leakey to allow her to study the gorillas. He believed women stood decidedly more patient – a skill vital for such ongoing research projects, and a proficiency so brilliantly demonstrated by her chimpanzee-research colleague, Jane Goodall.
The big 3-0 arrived for me in 2012 and East Africa was my ultimate destination that year. The entire trip centered around visiting Fossey’s grave. I had a full month of holiday devoted to all the classics. But my final two days in Africa brought it all home: hikes to view the Mountain Gorillas and visit Fossey’s grave.
A rotund Ugandan man picked me up from my lodging at a Catholic monastery, delivering stories though a dense accent I could hardly understand, though I couldn’t help but smile at his animation and excitement. After 20 minutes, he dropped me off in Volcano National Park, where I filed in with the hundreds who came to view Mountain Gorillas. Groups divided based on physical demands. I felt fighting-fit after summiting Kilimanjaro and opted for a more strenuous walk: two hours weaving up endless switchbacks, until we made it to the stone-wall entrance of the park. Our shirts heavy with sweat, we scrambled over the fence, trading hilly potato fields for a wall of greenery. The gorillas lingered nearby. My pace quickened with the exhilaration Fossey must have felt decades ago.
Suddenly, the renowned primates appeared almost out of nowhere. A mother and infant Mountain Gorilla materialized before my eyes. One by one, the complete Bwenge family appeared, including the male silverback. The time had come to stop being a tourist, put the camera away and enjoy my fleeting time with these amazing creatures.
That evening, my Ugandan driver joined me for dinner. Indulging in well-deserved Primus beers, we chatted as I nursed my nettle wounds and recovered from the vigorous four-hour hike up to 3,000 meters. Barely able to lift my beverage, I thanked him for the day’s workout and conveyed my anticipation for Fossey’s grave the following morning. Intriguingly, he shared thoughts similar to those I had read in National Geographic: the Rwandan government was probably not blameless in Fossey’s murder. He further educated me about the numerous former poachers who converted to gorilla trackers and guides for the tourism industry.
The following morning, he came to collect only me. Hundreds of anxious gorilla viewers loitered at the visitor center, but today, how many of us would go pay homage to the woman who made it all possible? In about an hour’s time, my leader emerged. As I scanned behind me, the multitudes had disappeared and only a French lady remained, clutching a basket of hideous funeral-styled flowers. This was it: “the group.”
The path resembled yesterday’s, but today my locomotive huffing and puffing stayed far from my mind. Recalling the film Gorillas in the Mist, I envisioned Fossey’s initial walk to this camp. The jungle loomed as equally colossal now as then. How long did it take her to get back to civilization? Might these be her same tracks? Maybe these deliberations mimicked ones my French companion entertained, though we could not express them to each other.
Remnants of structures comprised camp boundaries: the kitchen, the volleyball court, Fossey’s original cabin. Spiraling through, we reached a dwarfed wooden fence filled with tiny grave markers and a large one. “Nyiramachabelli.” Translated: “the lone woman of the forest.” The Rwandan name she acknowledged and the name she took with her to the grave, inscribed on the headstone above her English one.
The plot beside Fossey belonged to none other than the infamous male gorilla, Digit. For the first time during the entire hike, the French lady and I connected. We stood side-by-side: two lone women who hiked to pay tribute to this remarkable woman. Tears filled our eyes and we each sank down on one knee in respect.
Silence dominated the return to the visitor center, but my thoughts churned boundlessly. I became more inspired than ever. Fossey’s energy surged through me. Perhaps one day my work with wildlife would be recalled as fondly as hers. Regardless, I felt recharged and prepared to work hard because in her own immortal words: “when you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”