Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way is a painfully beautiful 2,500km stretch of coastline along the country’s western face. Majestic cliffs with multi-colored rock stratas resembling the finest layered cake stand nonchalantly along the route with names like Downpatrick Head and the Cliffs of Moher. There are all sorts of things to do and see along the Wild Atlantic Way, from wildlife hikes, walking through (or getting stuck) in the Derrigmlagh bog, to water adventure sports along the many beaches. While you’ll see all sorts of advertisements for these landmarks along the route, you might have to do a little digging to uncover one of my favorite activities– caving in Ireland. It’s time to don your Indiana Jones fedora and travel differently by exploring the Emerald Isle underground.
What is caving?
Caving is also known as spelunking (in the USA) or potholing (in the UK and Ireland). When you go caving, you may be doing a combination of walking, wading through rivers, swimming, crawling through passageways, and adapting to all of the different ways your body can get from one point to another. Caving is about the journey through. You’ll see ancient formations that have never been exposed to the light of day and will likely be in total darkness, except for the headlamp you entered with. It’s a real treat for your senses, especially for the tactile components. Your hands are great navigation tools to maintain your balance, propel yourself forward, and something you’ll need to get a sense of how the cave system is changing around you.
**Please note that Epic Ireland sponsored my caving expedition. I had a truly exceptional time exploring with this company and came to appreciate the limestone expanse that the Burren Caves had to offer. If you want to see Ireland in a different way, this is the outdoor adventure company I recommend. All opinions come with honesty from yours truly.
What should I know before I go caving?
Caving differs from traditional outdoor adventure sports because it combines elements of cave science, the spirit of exploration, knowledge of mapping, and the opportunity for unique photography. There are cave systems all over the world to explore, which makes it an interesting activity that I enjoy seeking out whenever traveling! One of my favorite parts about caving is spotting the stalactites (they hang from the ceilings) and stalagmites (they rise from the floor). Seeing these formations remind me of this 1980’s show I used to watch called Fraggle Rock, where these little puppets live a happy life in a cave town. They go about their days’ mining, exploring, and rocking sweet hard hats as they mine for doozer sticks. Within every caving experience that I’ve been in, there’s always a brief moment where I feel like a bonafide Fraggle-ite and smile to myself.
Another important point to remember is that you should be prepared to pack in and out all of your waste. You can bet your buttons there won’t be a cleaning crew coming in there after you, so please do not leave any trash behind. That said, there won’t be any restrooms either. Before any caving experience, be sure you use the bathroom beforehand and even consider limiting your water intake so you can avoid doing business inside of the cave. Just like any many other natural settings, these caves were formed in prehistoric times and can’t just be repaired if they’re damaged. It’s our duty to treat these places with respect
What kind of animals might I encounter inside of a cave?
Every cave is a mini ecosystem of its own and has different inhabitants living in it. Some caves have only a few animals that call it home, while others may have a lot more activity. In the caves that I have explored, I’ve encountered the occasional spider, some bats, harmless insects, and glow worms. Other caves may have salamanders, snails, shrimp, and crickets. Of course, some cave entrances might also be occupied by other shelter-seeking creatures such as raccoons, bears, and foxes. If you’re going with a caving adventure company, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be in a dangerous situation with any of these mammals. If you have any concerns though, just check with your guide.
What should I wear when I go caving?
I’ve gone caving in three different countries– Ireland, Vietnam, and New Zealand. All three have had different features inside, from powerful water hazards to wide open expanses on dirt. I’ve swum through underground rivers, slid through gushing waterways, tubed across passages, and walked freely in caverns the size of a classroom. Although they’ve all had varying components, they’ve also shared similar attributes such as narrow squeezes and traversing on uneven surfaces. No matter where the cave has been located, I’ve always worn a hard hat with a light attached to it.
For my Burren Caves expedition with Epic Ireland in County Clare, I wore my own athletic leggings and long sleeve top underneath. I was suited up from head to toe with a waterproof jumper, poncho, neoprene socks, rubber boots, and a hard hat with a headlamp. I was warm, safe, and stayed predominantly dry except for my legs. Most caving experiences have some water component in them, so it’s not uncommon to get your feet and legs wet. The water inside of the Burren Caves was brisk, so I was exceptionally thankful to be wearing the neoprene socks. I was also given the option of wearing kneepads, but I politely declined them (petite people have an easy time crawling through tight spaces). During other caving expeditions, I’ve worn a range of full-body wetsuits to simply wearing my own athletic shorts and top.
Let’s just say attire is taken on a cave by cave basis…
Ireland is undeniably beautiful inside and out. There’s nothing quite like exploring these cave systems that have been carefully hidden beneath the ground for hundreds of years. The sound of a single drop of water inside of a cave is magnified as the noise of the outside world melts away. The rocks feel cool to the touch and you can’t help but wonder what these sage minerals would say if they could speak. In these moments, it’s just you and the earth. If you’ve gone caving before or plan on going soon, I want to hear all about it in the comments below.
To get a better sense of what exploring the Burren Caves in County Clare might be like, check out my pal Dave on Arrival’s video of our adventure.
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