When I was a little lad, growing up in London, my first great love was geology. After high school I went to work for an American oil exploration company based in the UK. Although I was privileged and lucky to have such employment, before I even had a college degree, I quickly learned that research work in the lab was not really for me. I wanted to be out there in the savage places: deserts, rift valleys, and volcanoes, cracking up slabs with my rock hammer, not studying seismic charts in an office.
So, at a fairly early age I devised a list of what I considered to be the geological wonders of the world and I intended on seeing every one of them. I have done quite well so far: the famous Vesuvius volcano in Italy, Oregon’s Crater Lake, The Grand Canyon, Chile’s Atacama Desert, the fjords and glaciers of Norway, Meteor Crater in Arizona, the Burren in County Clare in the Republic of Ireland, and the steaming geysers of Iceland. But one vitally important name on that list eluded my every effort: the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s my eccentric but adventurous family typically added a couple of stops at noteworthy scientific sites to any holiday itinerary, in order to placate me. Before he retired, my father was an important figure in international trade and development and he did a lot of work in Ireland. My mother, younger brother Andrew, and I, often tagged along on his business trips, but we always went to the south—The Republic of Ireland. The civil war in Ireland, or “The Troubles” as the Irish called it, was in full swing in the 1970s, with explosives going off on trains and homemade petrol bombs being thrown, almost daily it seemed, at British armored cars in Belfast. Despite my most serious protestations along the lines of “It can’t be that dangerous,” we never did venture into the north.
My father now lives in Dublin, and a couple of years ago I made the long trip from Tucson to see him. After several days of pubs, dinners, conversation, and family obligations, I grew restless. Following a little gentle coercion, Dad agreed we should rent a car, just the two of us, and set off to see Belfast and the wild northern coast.
We stayed at a gorgeous old hotel in the small town of Bushmills in County Antrim which, very handily, is the home of the Bushmill’s whisky distillery, a fact that would later add a little spice to the trip. We arrived late in the day after a long drive, and Dad announced that he would enjoy a short nap. We were only a few miles from the Giant’s Causeway, but the shuttle bus that took visitors down to see it would have ceased operations by that hour. Dad encouraged me to motor over there anyway, and see if I could find my own way down the site.
The visitors’ car park was nearly empty, the gift shop closed, but Ireland’s northerly latitude means long, long summer days. So, I locked the car and started out on foot. It was a pretty good haul and somewhat damp and chilly for a resident of the Sonoran Desert. I saw a couple of windblown sightseeing stragglers, walking slowly and forlornly back to their cars. Eventually, I came up over a rise and there was the Causeway ahead of me—blissfully deserted.
The Causeway, contradictory to colorful local lore, was not fabricated by giants or legendary warriors during some distant mythical period. It is the result of ancient volcanic activity that created tens of thousands of vertical, mostly hexagonal, basalt columns. This astonishing assemblage of geometric pedestals, of varying heights and sizes, arcs into a restless grey and green sea and looks at times like a monstrous pipe organ.
I clambered over every inch of that geological wonderland and filled two digital cameras with photographs. I was breaking in an expensive new Nikon and many times I had to shield it from spray as cold waves broke around me. And I imagined I could make out the distant voice of my late mother calling: “Geoffrey, don’t get close to the edge, it’s dangerous!” Something I heard a million times as a kid.
As the sun retreated sullenly into the Atlantic, I tore myself away and proceeded back to the hotel. Bubbling over with amazement and excitement I expounded, at considerable length, about the Causeway to my amused father who had visited it some years earlier. Accomplished and open minded though my father is, they were still pretty much a pile of black rocks to him.
In the morning I was all fired up to go back and see them again in daylight. After breakfast we returned to the site, which had taken on an entirely different, and very disturbing, aspect. The car par was choked with tour buses, and dazed tourists shambled everywhere, sucking down mushy ice cream cones and squawking about the weather. It was appalling. I rapidly purchased a couple of postcards and said to my father: “I can’t deal with this nightmare, let’s get out of here.” He smiled and said: “Yes I thought it would be like this during the day. Aren’t you glad you made the trip last night?”
Being resourceful and adaptable chaps, we cut our losses and headed over to the Bushmill’s distillery for some good cheer. I sipped a glass of vintage Irish whisky and happily added one long sought-after check mark to my childhood list.
Photographs by the author. All rights reserved. Copyright strictly enforced. © Geoffrey Notkin