ST DECLANS WAY : Cahir to Ardmore 85km: 25th-27th June

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A year and a half after I first hiked some of St Declans Way in Co. Tipperary I went back to complete it last June. Previously I had walked the ancient route from Cahir north to the finish/start at the famous Rock of Cashel, and then returned to Cahir along the Tipperary Heritage Way following the River Suir. This time I started again at Cahir and continued south for 3 days to reach the Co Waterford coast at Ardmore where Declan is said to have founded Ireland’s first monastery sometime in the 5th century, and beating St Patrick to the claim of bringing Christianity to the Irish.

With the pilgrimage revival in full swing and this route being dubbed the Irish Camino, my hopes were high. There has been a lot of promotion of this and other Ways recently and now, thanks to the Camino Society of Ireland, 25km walked on Irish pilgrim paths will count towards the 100km needed to claim your certificate or compostela in Santiago.

Indeed, there is now now need to travel to northern Spain to obtain a certificate, with Irish pilgrim passports stamped on completing 125km over 5 routes in Mayo, Wicklow, Cork and Kerry entitling you to a Celtic Compostela.

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And so on a fine midsummers day I set off from Cahir Castle admidst a bustling crowd of holiday makers. A quick stroll in the riverside park to admire all the tree trunk carvings and then I followed the Tipperary Heritage Way signs through a woodland thick with “fairy” houses and along a sunlit dappled path passed the golf course and towards the rustic and ornate “Swiss cottage”.

 

It was there that the first directional confusion occurred. I was working off the maps that were produced in the mid 90’s, when the route was initially devised and laid out. These maps aren’t the most clear or detailed but were all I could find. I had also managed to download the route on to my phone Viewranger app but this disagreed with the maps and all physical signage had disappeared. Calling into the Swiss Cottage reception for help the ladies informed me that there seemed to be a lot of directionally confused people trying to locate the Pilgrim Path nowadays and were unable to shed any light on which of a multitude of choices was the right one.

2018 had been billed as the official relaunch/ revival of the route, touted as being fully signed and “de-vegetated”. I knew that the very active “KnockmealdownActive” group had organised a series of 5 hikes over the entire route on the last Saturdays of the month, starting in March, and had been attracting about 300 people a time, but these were of course guided hikes without the need for signage. Considering the fanfare that accompanied the relaunch and the €150,000 from the Rural Recreation Fund to get it together I was disappointed over the next few days to be confronted with old, fallen or hidden signage from the 90’s and often no signage at all, abandoned at the crossroad.

After following the wide and sparkling Suir for another km or so I was led up to a road where I was heartened to see a yellow arrow, a sure indicator of a pilgrimage route, even if it was pointing in the opposite direction to mine.

 

 

It was more than 10km of tarmac road before I crossed the Suir again at Ardinnan on small roads that roughly followed the ancient Rain Bo Phadraig, the Track of St Patricks Cow, through lush and productive grain growing farmland, occasionally passing the earthen cottages of a bygone era.

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Ardfinnan, now a sleepy village, had once been an important and strategic stronghold, protecting a major route into the province of Munster. The castle from around 1100 was built by King John, later to be owned by the Knights Templar and the bishop of Waterford before being sacked by Cromwells cannons. I stopped here for a fish and chip dinner by the river before pushing on toward the Knockmealdown Mountains another 10km away to the south. I had to backtrack a little when I missed the sign hidden in the hedge. I was now following the Heritage Way again until the forested slopes of the Knockmealdowns.

 

 

A few kms to the south of Ardfinnan lay the ruins of what must once have been a beautiful monastery whose history is now lost in obscurity. Lady’s Abbey has been dated variously between the 12th and 15th centuries and lying, as it does, alongside the Rain Bo Phadraig-“the most important Ecclesiastical highway in the Diocese” it must have witnessed a lot of foot traffic over its life, including the shuffling lines of the starving in the famine years as they made their way to the nearby poorhouse.

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The renowned fertility of the Tipperary landscape showed through in the golden grain as I passed fields of barley, oats and wheat awaiting the summer harvesting.

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Another few kms walk on the quiet backroads and I was led down a path to the River Tarr, a tributary of the Suir, where i crossed on a 1930’s metal bridge while a dog chased sticks in the wide and shallow waters below. The river, which rises in the Galtee mountains to the northwest, meanders across the limestone through which a couple of mighty springs bubble up, feeding the flow of clear waters. It’s rich in life; salmon, eels and sea lamprey and has a reputation as an excellent brown trout fishery, which in turn attracts herons, egrets and kingfishers.

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Not far down the river, when a fine new stone bridge was built to span the Tar,  the first pedestrians to cross were a couple of goats and so the village that grew there became known as Goatenbridge. The evening was drawing in and although it was high summer and the light would stay with me for a few hours yet I was anxious to move on and reach the forested mountains where I stood more chance of finding a place to bivvy for the night. The forecast was for the prolonged dry spell to continue so I had left the tent at home to cut down on my pack weight and only carried a sleeping bag and mat.

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The first St Declan yellow arrow I had seen led me up on forest trails into the Knockmealdowns as the lights of the farmhouses in the rich vale below started to twinkle on. I was driven on from my first choice of encampment by clouds of midges, a problem of being tentless I hadn’t considered. Losing my way for awhile I blundered and backtracked through more and more unsuitable surroundings before finally, as the light faded, chasing some sheep from a trackside patch of grass and settling down for the night, weary after 8 hours hiking over 26km.

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The morning sky was a similar canvas in reverse, the darker reds slowly dissolving into slighter hues of pink and blue.

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Another fine day promised in this summer of official Irish heatwave and drought. I retraced my steps aways, past the waterfall heard but not seen the night before, to find the route revealed by a tiny sign amidst the bracken, up through the trees to the open moorland above, a relief to be beyond the embrace of the dark green forest and out in a space with further horizons.

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Clearly visible as I made my way up and over Bottleneck Pass at 537m were the deep trenches cut by the horns of the enraged cow belonging to St Patrick as she chased the robbers of her calf from Cashel to Lismore. Or so they say. An ancient path certainly did cut through the shallow turf southward towards the sea shining silver in the mornings light.

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Crossing from Tipperary and into Waterford it was a fine hike down the Rian Bo Phadraig, the sunken, sometimes sodden, path through the heather and bilberries eventually merging, on more level ground, with stony tracks and finally tarmac roads.

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The Rian led me all the way to beyond Lismore when I turned onto the Bothar na Naomh (Path of the Saints). We have visited Lismore castle a few times in the past and the gardens are always a delight. After a cafe breakfast I embedded myself amongst the flowers, scrubs, trees and architecture for a restful few hours, reluctant to leave in the heat.

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There were a lot of sculptures dotted around the grounds including ones by a couple of my personal favourite artists- David Nash and Antony Gormley- and the castle has its own contemporary gallery with a continuous showing of exhibitions.

Finally wrenching myself away I watched a fly fisherman below the castle and then followed the river Blackwater downstream through verdant growth on Lady Louisa’s Walk.  Lady Louisa was the daughter of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, ancestor of the current owner the 12th Duke. It wasn’t long before the sweltering sun and the cool looking water conspired to slow my hike again by tempting me into a still pool at the edge of the fast flowing river.

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Much refreshed I continued cross country for awhile before joining a road to Cappoquin. From there I had many many kms of Tarmac road, passing some grand but neglected remnants of the colonial and protestant past. Affane Church of Ireland, nearly lost beneath a mass of Ash and ancient Yews, was surrounded by overgrown gravestones and mausolea with fine cut stone and handcrafted iron railings, attesting to the wealth of the inhabitants of this productive land. It was here that the route turned away from the Bothar and onto the Casan na Naomh (Path of the Saints), long buried under the hard footsore surface of bitumen.

Eventually reaching Knocknaskagh I at last started down the charming ribbons of narrow boreens that marked my walk across Waterford and that proved to be the fond and abiding memory of the whole St Declan’s Way. In fact I was now, for the first time, on what is known as St Declans Road.

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I was getting weary after travelling 30km that day and the slender tracks with high hedges either side didn’t make for great camping so I was optimistic when a chatty local recommended that I stop in at a “new age travellers” house a couple of km further along who would be sure to put me up.

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And so it was. I was welcomed into the restored cottage on a few acres of grazing by a lovely fella whose name my declining memory refuses to return to me. Although suffering from a debilitating disease he had, with the help you tend to get if you give, built up a homestead previously destined for the bulldozer, rescuing and raising horses and foals- and sheltering weary travellers. He offered me a variety of options and I chose a caravan, sleeping soundly after a couple of pints of homemade cider. Cheers.

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With the high ground of the Knockmealdowns and Bottleneck Pass sat on the horizon 30km and a days hike behind me I set off on my final leg to Ardmore down a sequence of peaceful and still boreens, some recently cleared of vegetation in what my host had said was preparation for the creation of publicised walking routes.

At the crossing of the River Lickey I somehow missed the path to the left and crossed over the stepping stones, the unusually dry summer and low water levels helping considerably. It was only after fighting my way through the undergrowth on the far bank and blundering into a pilgrim path waymarker that I discovered the handsome wooden footbridge.

The Pilgrim Path post was the first i’d seen on this route. The design comes from a stone carving in Co Cork and depicts a medieval pilgrim complete with tonsure, or shaved head, hat, tunic and staff. Used when the Heritage Council first initiated the re-awakening of various pilgrimage routes in Ireland I had come across it in Mayo, Cork, Kerry, Wicklow and Offaly.

After leaving the dragonflies and darting fish behind in the babbling brook I climbed up onto another earthen trackway, once known as the Bothar na Riolog, and back into a sunny summers day with the temperature rising.

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As the heat rose my desire to get to the sea climbed towards obsession. Passing a bicycle atop the hedge I stopped and internally debated the likelihood that it was abandoned and the morality of taking it on a final, speedy journey to the coast and the cool blue waters. A pilgrim couldn’t  take a chance on bad moral judgement so I reluctantly turned away and plodded on what was now hot tarmac.

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A short(ish) distance and a lot of sweat later I broke through the crowds of beachside holiday makers and followed the retreating tide to the relief. Dropping my pack and stripping off my clothes I ran into the shallows and, without a pause for the jellyfish, continued until submerged. Ahhh.

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The hottest summer on record. The hottest day of 2018 would be the next day. And only a few months since Storm Emma, The Beast from the East, had dumped tonnes of snow on this area, filling the sunken roads to the top of the hedges and shutting the county down for days.

But my journey was not over yet. I had to complete the 5km Cliff Walk, taking me passed the 12th century round tower and cathedral. At 95ft high the tower is one of Ireland’s finest and very well preserved and next to it is St Declan’s oratory where once the saints body lay before the medieval enthusiasm for relic collecting saw him scattered.

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A sandy path between potato fields drew me up to the cliffs edge with an invigorating Atlantic sea breeze whipping up the waves crashing on the rocks way below.  In the distance stood the castle and coastguard station of 1867 now surrounded by a dancing mass of wild flowers and circled by raucous seabirds.

A concrete lookout post from WW2 seemed incongruous amidst such harmonious beauty and was certainly of no use in 1987 when the Samson, a crane barge, went onto the rocks. The rope that attached it to a tug had broken in gale force conditions off the Welsh coast and a day later it washed up on Rams Head. It now slowly rusts away and a couple of years ago the entire jib collapsed into the sea, depriving countless seabirds their roosting spot.

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Walking back in time from 20th to 4th century ruins I rounded Ardmore Head and west along the cliff path overlooking Ardmore Bay to arrive at the origins of Christianity in Ireland. St Declan’s Well served as his Baptistery from 416AD, a good few years before St Patrick was to appear on the scene, when he founded the first monastery over by the round tower a little distance inland.  In later life, tiring of the hordes of pilgrims he built himself a little cell near the well and retired to a life of quiet contemplation. He died there and a church was erected that to this day is the site of pattern rituals on the saints day, July 24th, and often a midnight mass the night before.

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There was one more sacred relic to witness before I finished with St Declan’s Way. Before leaving Wales for Ireland Declan received a golden bell from heaven after giving mass. Now this bell was obviously very precious to him and he wanted to bring it with him to Ireland. Unfortunately it was forgotten when they set off leaving Declan to pray hard for its safety and low and behold his prayers were answered and the bell appeared, borne atop a rock floating on the waves ahead and leading the way to the Irish coast. Declan promised to build a monastery wherever the rock, and the bell, came ashore. And so it was.

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I don’t know if the tradition continues but it used to be that on 24th July people would crawl under the stone to receive spiritual benefits (and cure arthritis – although it’s hard to imagine a sufferer of that being able to manage ). It’s also said that the stone should not be approached by the “unworthy” so I kept my distance.

And so this pilgrimage was complete. I don’t have a “passport”, and will receive no certificate or “compostela”, but I carry with me abiding memories of walking beside the Suir and the Blackwater, climbing over the Knockmealdowns on an ancient trail, strolling the sunken sandy boreens of Waterford, from the seat of the high kings in Cashel to the origins of Celtic Christianity  at Ardmore. I think I would have been OK with the rock on the beach.

THE CAUSEWAY COAST WAY : 52km: June 2018

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It was now almost 2 months ago that we finally got round to heading north to experience the Antrim coastline over a couple of days hiking the Causeway Coast. In the middle of June we drove north through Storm Hector, listening to the government warnings on the camper radio telling us to stay at home and not to risk venturing out. A long blustery drive up the west from south Co Galway, we were surprised when we reached Donegal to discover we were only half way there.

However by midday we were parked up in the harbour at Ballycastle, the finish of the Way, where we left the camper and took a taxi over to the start of the walk in Portstewart. It was another of those slightly irritating journeys when you ponder the sense of taking 2 days to walk a winding route of 52km whilst sitting comfortably in a car that takes a bit over half an hour over a straighter road.

The Blue Flag beach where the taxi dropped us was basking in sunshine, and vast. Owned and managed by the National Trust which tries to protect the dunes and has established bird hides to admire the wading birds and waterfowl.

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We took a look at Tubber Patrick, St Patricks well, originally used by prehistoric communities as a source of water and medical cures. When St Paddy past through around 450AD he blessed the well and started a pilgrimage which developed into a fair on the last monday of August with horse races on the beach. Locals would sell the holy water to tourists right up until the 1940’s.

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Setting off on the 10km section to Portrush we past a salmon fisherman’s cottage, part of a once thriving and prosperous industry all along this coast until quite recently. Maybe the occupant of the grave of an unknown sailor, a little further along the shoreline, was a salmon fisherman himself.

On the rocky sections of this coast, between the sandy beaches, we came upon numerous swimming pools over the next couple of days. A little bit of well placed concrete and some ladders and steps turned the wild waters into placid bathing places.

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There were also a lot of golf courses and beautifully positioned houses amongst the cliffs and dunes. The whole causeway coast is an AONB, an area of outstanding beauty, and within it there are a number of SAC’s (special area of conservation), SPA’s (special protection area’s), ASSI’s ( area of special scientific interest) and an NNR (national nature reserve). The Giants Causeway itself is a WHS (world heritage site) and with all these protected areas the owners of these houses are obviously living where no planning would be granted now.

 

The Rosa Rugosa plants obviously liked it here and were running wild and rampant along the Way for miles. They had colonised the edges of the many golf links and must have made the retrieval of errant golf balls a prickly business. Passing a grassy promontory where we struggled to make out the remains of Ballyreagh Castle before we crossed the wide sweeping bay of the West Strand and on to Portrush harbour with its neat display of  boats made fast with a network of ropes.

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Unfortunately the route east along the Curran Strand, a glorious 2km stretch of fine golden sand to our bed for the night at White Rocks, had been closed off for filming Artemis Fowl and rather then walk along the busy A2 we decided to try climbing over the dunes and cutting across the famous and expensive Portstewart golf course. A bit of a mistake as we hadn’t realised the size of the three 18hole courses and the number of fairways we were going to have to negotiate whilst wealthy players waited for the rucksack ramblers to get out of their way.

We eventually and somewhat miraculously made it to the back door of our airbnb where we discovered that the winding coast road we were to continue on in the morning was also due to be closed for filming. We went off to the neighbouring hotel for a drink and to mingle with the stars supposedly staying there. And to complain to Kenneth Branagh, the director, about the inconvenience his movie was causing us. Maybe. If we saw him.

We couldn’t find Kenneth so hung out on the patio soaking up the moody sea views and discovered from security that the road wouldn’t be closed till 8am, giving us time to claim it.

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Bright and early we were down on the shore admiring the limestone cliffs backing the beach that give White Rocks its name. Amongst the white were many hard black boulders of basalt, spat out of volcanos in one of the 3 great outpourings of lava over 60 million years ago that also created the Giants Causeway.

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The car parks above the beach were getting very busy with film crew and we figured it was time to get going. There are numerous locations along this coast made famous through the filming of The Game of Thrones and the roads can be full of tour buses rushing from one to another. Luckily for us the A2 we were walking down had been closed to vehicles but filming had not started, allowing us the rare opportunity of sauntering down the middle of the usually busy and noisy road, admiring the magnificent sea views in peace.

We stopped to explore Dunluce Castle a medieval masterpiece perched spectacularly on a rocky promontory high above the sea. The castle was still not open when we got there but we were able to explore around the outside and imagine the “lost town of Dunluce” recently unearthed by archaeologists.

Back to join another, open road, we passed through the small town of Portballintrae, down to Runkerry Beach and crossed the river Bush (of Bushmills whiskey fame) to join a wooden boardwalk alongside the bank for a bit before turning onto a gravel path through the sand dunes and crisscrossing the old Bushmills to Giants Causeway railway line.

At the far end of the long beach we past under the impressive victorian edifice of Runkerry House, around the Point and climbed up on to the grassy clifftop we were to follow for the next 10km. Next up was the tourist honeypot of the Giants Causeway, and it was heaving. Declining the offer of £11.50 tickets to visit the Visitor Centre we instead joined the human snake down the access road to the (free2view) causeway.

The legendary basalt rock formations and columns were impressive enough to overcome the distraction of hundreds of other sightseers although the cliffs and coastline beyond were equally impressive and devoid of people.

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From the sea level we climbed the steep “Shepherds Steps” to rejoin the cliff path and walked along the highest part of the Way rising slowly up to Benbane Head from where we looked back down to the final resting place of the Girona, a Spanish Armada ship wrecked with the loss of 1300 lives. In 1967 the wreck gave up many treasures to a team of divers which are now displayed in Belfast’s Ulster Museum.

From this highpoint of 100m we steadily descended south east, passing above the beautiful Port Moon bay, an historical fishery now home to a bothy for kayakers and down to sea level again at the ruins of Dunseverick Castle, an ancient promontory fort once important enough to lie at the end of one of the 5 roads emanating from Tara. After being sacked by vikings it fell into ruin and little remains of it now.

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A little way passed the ruins we made a mistake. We believed our guidebook, published by WalkN.I., when it told us that the way forward along the coast had been blocked by landslides and it was necessary to divert along the busy A2. We did think about risking it and trying to find a way through but with the evening approaching and a fair way to go we didn’t want to get stuck on some cliff face and have to retraced our steps so we reluctantly turned on to the pavement less road and put our heads down for the couple of kms to Portbraddan squeezing ourselves into the hedge as cars and buses roared passed.

From there we were able, just, to negotiate the slippy boulders at the foot of the cliffs as the tide was sufficiently out, and to clamber around to White Park Bay, one of the first places in Ireland to be settled by Neolithic communities.

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Nearing the end of the beach we turned off route, away from the rock arches, stacks and islets that lead towards Ballintoy harbour, (another Game of Thrones location) and up a farm track to find our accommodation for the night. A long day of nearly 30km with the diversion was celebrated with a good dinner and some samples of local ale.

In the morning we backtracked slightly to visit the scenic harbour before continuing on a path between the potato fields and along the cliff tops with fine views down towards Rathlin Island and Fair Head.

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From Larry Bane Head it was a short distance to the car and coach park, tearoom, giftshop, toilets and ticket office of another National Trust money spinner, the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. For over 350 years fisherman raised a rope between the mainland and a small island on the migratory route of the salmon to access their nets. The rope bridge has been remade into a sturdy permanent structure with enough wobble to thrill a stream of tourists as they cross 30m above the waves for a brief visit before returning to claim their certificate.

Avoiding the groups queuing to leave the reception at timed intervals, and the £8 fee for crossing the bridge, we walked the 1km to the island to see what all the fuss was about.

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The salmon are gone and the fishermen with them but what was once a scene of hardship has been modified to satisfy the booming industry of today, tourism.

After the previous days experience of avoiding the tourist buses hurtling down the road we decided to avoid the remaining 8km of tarmac to Ballycastle and take the bus. In the towns tourist office they told us that they recommended to all walkers on the Way to do likewise as the traffic was so bad and there were no footpaths or pavements. They also told us that the diversion we had followed was no longer in use and we could have followed a lovely coastal path.

They still had the misleading WalkNI guide on their shelves.

Overall it was a beautiful hike with some of the most impressive coastal scenery we’ve ever seen. You certainly can’t blame the masses of tourists for wanting to visit the sights, but its a pity more of them didn’t get out to explore the equally spectacular sights a little further down the trail.

 

 

 

 

GRAN SENDA de MALAGA: 26/27th Feb. Benalmedena to Alhaurin de la Torre ( 16km) to Malaga ( 20.5km)

It was my birthday so I allowed myself the luxury of the buffet breakfast, putting down energy stores for the day. I had to retrace my steps for the first 4 km or so, something that had prompted me to stash all my camping gear at the beginning of the overlap on the way in.
My fingers were crossed that it was still there and hadn’t got wet.
I passed, again, what I thought was an ancient quarry and continued up the sandy trail above a deep and steep ravine.

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I was glad to find my stuff still there, disappointed to have to add all those kilos, but turning onto the new path it flattened out and led me through replanted pines above more quarries.

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I skirted around the peak that a cable car serves and carried on eastwards through low shrub across a limestone plateau. I was joined on the track by a group of kids and a few adults in camo gear that were obviously staying at the albuergue way up here. A little further there was a simpler refugio.

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All of this limestone had provided the materials for long thick walls running all over the place. This now abandoned land had been stock proofed at some stage.

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And then below me, over a cliff edge I could see Alhaurin and it was time to descend from the hills for the final time. I felt a little sad to be rejoining the urban environment but had a nice route down on a narrow trail between the cliffs and into pine woods thick with creepers.

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After being in the relative wilds for awhile I was sensitive to the sights of the border between natural and man made worlds.

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Setting off on the last leg of the Senda de Malaga in the morning I was still musing on our disassociation from the natural world and could see symbols everywhere for our hurried lives blinkered from the reality of our damaged connection to it.

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And all of this before I got to the start of the final stage. My last signboard left me struggling to find the right way, through the crop area that left me very grateful I’m able to consume mainly organically grown food. The toxic smell from the milky waters was intense.

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Leaving the men to harvest the artichokes I passed under the motorway and around the perimeter of the airport.

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I thought maybe I should leave this out but it’s all part of the GR249 and the strong contrast of surroundings shows the importance of keeping the good stuff good.

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The waters had changed from milky to green as it struggled to reach the sea.

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And finally back to the seafront I started at a year ago. I was received by the environment department of the council and awarded my diploma. They were very nice and are doing good and difficult work.

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That was it. Relief I’d managed to complete the route coupled with a slight sense of deflation that it was over. It’s a marvellous route around a truly beautiful province.
There is so much more to Malaga than the Costa.

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GRAN SENDA de MALAGA: GR249. 23/24th Feb. Beyond Entrerrios to Mijas (10km?) to Benalmadena (19km)

I must have come further than I thought before camping as it didn’t take me to long it the morning to climb up through a damp drizzle into Mijas. The batteries in my GPS had been exhausted and I cast around for markers.

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Approaching the village there was a mix of housing again, simple cabins and the enclaves of villas.

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I was surprised to see a troupe of wild boar descending to the road, and they were equally startled to see me and shot off into the scrub.

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I emerged into the town under a leaden sky which did not detract from the attractiveness of the place. After settling in to my room adjoining a beautiful floral patio I set off to explore this remarkably popular tourist honeypot.

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I discovered a quaint little ( fittingly) museum of miniatures and spent some time gazing in wonder at the exhibits, including a painting of a bull fight on a lentil, portrait of Abe Lincoln on the head of a pin and a genuine shrunken head. Bizarre.

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The town has marketed itself extremely well and even on this fairly bleak February day there were coach loads coming in to peruse the multitude of upmarket shops and maybe take a donkey or horse and carriage ride.

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The forecast rain again failed to appear overnight although there was plenty of low cloud about as I set off next morning on the path above Mijas.

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I passed the Ermita del Calvaro chapel and continued up into the mountains studded with Maritime, Aleppo and stone pines.

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I spotted a group of Ibex above me as I climbed the well made path up to a ridge at about 800 m and joined a broad and fairly level forest track.

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The light was soft, filtered through the cloud that swirled around me, making the colours of the vegetation muted and giving the sunnier Costa a shine.

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This Sierra is mostly made up of Dolomite, which breaks down very easily to sand and has been quarried on an epic scale to facilitate the building of the coastal resorts. They were remarkably sculptural. Land art on a monumental scale. Or looked at another way, hideous scars in the land that now have been thankfully replanted.

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It was a Sunday and there were groups of people out enjoying the mountains in spite of the cloud. Flocks of cyclists whipped past me on the tracks, runners moved remarkably fast over the rougher trails and groups of walkers crisscrossed on the variety of tracks.

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I was up to and over 900m a couple of times and hoping for some spectacular views over towards the north, to the Central Limestone Arch mountain range that had been such a feature of my first week or two on the Gran Senda. No luck however as the cloud enveloped the slopes. It made for atmospheric views of the sharp ridge as I made my way cautiously along.

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At home in Ireland we’d call it a “fine soft day”, which it was, but I was happy to come to the antennas which marked the beginning of my descent on the sandy paths.

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The dolomite allowed all water to pass through very rapidly so the almost soilless conditions made for hardy plants made to defend themselves.

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There were also junipers, Rosemary, brooms and more familiar blackthorn and bramble in the lusher areas.

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Then as the sun began to appear again the noise of the motorway grew louder until I was right above it, under it, and past it on the pretty street of my accommodation.

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GRAN SENDA de MALAGA: GR249.22/23nd Feb. Marbella to Ojen (and beyond) 28km to Entrerrios (and beyond) 25km

Huge contrasts in the last two days on the trail. Starting off in the swank environs of Marbella with ultra luxury all around I passed through scorched desolation which primitive off grid fincas scattered about to end in a mixed zone with a bit of both cheek by jowl.
Big contrasts in the ease of hike as well with the first day full of hard scrambling over an up and down narrow path through a jumble of rocks and the second entirely consisting of wide graded tracks and Tarmac road.
But first I had to escape the villas. Maybe the local council didn’t want to encourage walkers or found the route marking red and white stripes distasteful but I couldn’t find any and so got lost for awhile adding a couple of Kms. No matter, I thought, as my info gave a time of 4 hours to Ojen. It took me a lot more.
Starting up the road past villas grand and abandoned I pondered on the effect of the famous Marbella planning corruption.

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There were derelict sites and half finished builds and smashed up mansions beside the most desirable homes you could buy. If you had the necessary millions.

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The flags were no longer flying over this planned piece of heaven and the rust had already set in on another.

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But at last, having got back on track, I was off into the woods again and very pleasant they were.

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It soon became remarkably wild considering the proximity to the porche and range rover filled roads below. I came upon a large set of hives and getting a bit to close, was chased and stung. There was also a lot of boar rooted up ground and I wonder if they penetrated the villa security to dig up the lawns.

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This time last year I came across the prosessionary caterpillar and here they were again.

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It was lovely but the ups and downs were steep and uneven. Slow going, especially when you have to avail of ropes.

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At one stage I got a strong smell of what I thought was marijuana and when I reached a ruined chapel there was some graffiti that made me wonder.
The local walking association was very good at erecting signs for a lot of different routes into the hills but one sign disturbed me when I got down onto a lovely level tableland with deserted finca.

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The sea and associated costaization came into view but there were many beautiful flowers to admire.

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I had crested a range of hills and came down into an area with scattered new houses and a backdrop of the vast area burnt in 2012. 8000 hectares went up and denuded the landscape for miles.

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I was suddenly startled by a huge Alsatian. You never know. But he was friendly enough. More scrambling up and down and finally, as I reached the brow of yet another rise, I saw Ojen.

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Looking so near- but proving so far, as the trail made a huge loop around the rocky hills. A moment of relief at a fine drinking trough and then more clambering until finally…

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I stopped briefly at the road side caves and longer at a bar to eat before heading on to find somewhere to camp. I wasn’t too hopeful after the terrain I been through.

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I wanted to shorten the following days stage if I could so carried on up into the hills again with the light beginning to fade. The surroundings became more desolate from the fire damage and when a friendly old hippy stopped and offered a ride a couple of Km to a place I could camp I jumped right in.
A tiny bit of flat ground beside a river amongst an empty landscape.

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The eucalyptus trees, designed for fire, were the only trees to survive but people stayed, in the small groups of houses deep in the middle of it all.

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I was on fine wide tracks that had been made to service the mines that were digging for talc and mica I think. The tracks slowly gradually rose and fell and turned this way and that to allow for different views. At one point I spotted in the distance the white buildings of a drug rehabilitation centre. They had to evacuate during the fire.

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The first surviving pines were at the beginning of the Tarmac road I would follow down into the flat farm land around Entrerrios where young olives were protected from the cold and an odd mix of buildings appeared.

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The GR route has been altered recently but I was on the original or I was until getting lost again. I found some PR 170 signs which is supposed to follow the same route so off I went. Into another unfinished, or unstarted, industrial site.

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I was heading the right way- up!
And so up and up again until I found myself a little bit of grass for my tent.

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Which I must get into now- it’s could and dark and I have (another) hill to climb in the morning.

LA GRAN SENDA DE MALAGA: GR249. 21st Feb.Estepona to Marbella(27km)

After 3 days deep in the valleys and high on the mountains on a constant roller coaster of ascents and descents it was a great relief to have a day on the flat. The altitude profile map had a maximum altitude of 12m although bizarrely there were sections marked as 2 or 3m below sea level. They must have known the tide would be out!

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With the dawn promising a fine day I headed off down the prom, remembering it was a year ago I was doing a similar promenade walk out of Malaga at the first stage of this epic circumnavigation.

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I could see the Rock of Gibraltar rising from the placid waters and a line of jagged Atlas Mountains away in North Africa.

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Some of the old houses in the town came right down to the seafront and at high tide they could go swimming from the back doors.

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There was quite a bit of walking on sand and pebbles at the start of the stage which forced an effort I’d hoped to avoid.

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The big villas and exclusive enclaves started, with their high fences and security cameras. You could edit a strange film from the footage of an unlikely bearded man with rucksack hiking the Costa.

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But it wasn’t all premium properties. Tucked away here and there there were still little pockets of scrubland, simple houses and fincas, camper vans and caravans.

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Some stretches were very quiet. I know it’s not the summer season but many resorts and condominiums seemed deserted. Some were rusting and crumbling away with empty or green pools and broken windows. But eerily a couple of apartments were lived in in the midst of once upmarket desolation. It was like something out of a J G Ballard story.

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But most stretches were pleasant enough with nice plantings and paving.

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Every so often id pass an ancient watchtower or medieval beacon in a range of different settings.

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Of course Puerto Banus’s had to be the most premium exclusive property.

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What an astonishing ostentatious display of wealth and desire is open to the rubberneckers in a couple of Kms.

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Ironically the whole place was having its streets dug up and replaced so it was chaos with a lot of unwanted dust landing on cars,boats,restaurant tables, clothes and hairdos.

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But the Puerto is a small world apart and soon I was back to the beaches on the way to Marbella.

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There are a lot of rivers and streams that make their way from the huge wall of mountain inland trying to get to the sea. Most form kind of lagoons on hitting the beaches and slowly filter through but others contain enough flow to make it and these are bridged by the extensive boardwalks.

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On the outskirts of Marbella more mansions appeared, or rather the walls and gardens surrounding them did.

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And suddenly a signboard for the next stage which led me up a landscaped path beside a stream with a deep bank displaying the trees roots.
It had been a big change from the last few days but variety is the spice of life they say. I can’t say I won’t be glad to head for the hills again tomorrow though.
The grass is greener up there.

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LA GRAN SENDA de MALAGA: GR249. 18/20th Feb. Benalauria to Genalguacil(18.5km) to Casares(20.5km) to Estepona(27km)

It was a bit of a journey just getting to the start of my last journey on the GR249. Getting to Benalauria where we had left off last October involved a late train from Malaga to Antequera Santa Ana, which is in the middle of nowhere miles from Antequera. This big ultra modern station was thought to be a huge white elephant when it was built but since the new high speed lines have made it a major junction.

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My connection didn’t leave till the morning and with nothing in the surrounding area and the building closing at night it was a rather cold night in my sleeping bag around the back. The day dawned very misty.

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The sun slowly burnt it’s way through on the journey to Cortes de la Frontera and I was joined on route by a crowd of runners who set off from the station after being cranked up by the MC.

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No taxi available early on a Sunday morning so I reluctantly set off on a steep 10km hike. Lady Luck sent me a young man who picked me up and set me down just outside Benalauria where, after a cafe with the publican who taught us how to make a whistle from an acorn cup back in Oct, I was on my way down out of the village among the almond blossom and chestnuts on a sharp descent to the valley bottom.

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On reaching the waters the vegetation got lush, with moist and fertile gardens lining the track and thick clumps of rush and canna. Yurts and other “alternative” structures were tucked away here and there alongside the traditional campo cottages.

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The river Genal etches a deep line for miles through this region not reaching the sea until it leaves the province and enters Cadiz. My route coincided with local walks along the river on specially constructed walkways through the verdant growth.

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It being a Sunday there were a good few walkers on the track and as I left the river and started up a steep and narrow path I had to stand aside for a seeming never ending stream for awhile. I begrudge them not, it was great to see the trails used as sometimes it seems like I’m the only one on them.

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At long last after a 500m ascent I spied the town of Genalguacil, since 94 the home to visiting artists on residences to create and leave a piece of work. I didn’t have time wander around looking for them as I needed to push on and find a camp.

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Which I luckily did a few km on. An unoccupied goat shed would protect me from the forecast rain better than my tent. The place seemed to be someone’s abandoned dream with an old foreign car and dilapidated caravan engulfed in briars.

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No rain, no goats in the night and the morning sky was clear. I had heard a horse at some point and I met him on the trail down to the river that was forded easily.

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Up again and then along a level track giving views through the trees of Benalauria and Genalguacil.

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The cork harvesters had been out in this neck of the woods and I was hoping to come across them to see them in action but the only workers I found were wheedling chainsaws.

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Down again for 250m on a rough track to cross another river, this time dry, although I could hear the Genal gurgling not far away.

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And so began yet another long 600m haul up through the woods. I climbed into a fire lookout tower to lookout for fires, it must be a lonely job. This was all part of a huge (really huge) hunting estate, and at the top of the climb I came upon a great estate with liveried workers driving about in liveried jeeps. The place was impressive but the massive gates closed on my approach.

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Another slight( comparatively ) rise and I was finally on the way down into Casares where I was delighted to see on a signboard that the next day’s stage had been changed to reduce it from 33km to 24km. Good news. This meant I didn’t have to carry on for another long haul in order to shorten the next day. It meant I could eat, shower and sleep in a bed. Luxury.

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The sky was clear again. The forecast rain had yet to appear. The sun sparkled on the dew and I got my first real view of the costa lying below.
Setting out on the road in the gloom I was mindful to take notice of the warnings before I headed off down tracks that would take me past some very “civilised ” gardens and mansions that would not have looked out of place in the Home Counties. Perhaps the owners were trying to recreate the old country in the sun. The flowers were nice.

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Ironically, as I crested the ridge above the ideal homes I came upon the bizarre sight and worse smell of a huge landfill site. The poor GR runs down on a neglected path ( I guess it’s not a popular section) right to it and alongside it before thankfully turning its back and beginning a torturous climb into the Sierra Bermeja.

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Up and relentlessly up into the admittedly beautiful mountains on a mixture of incredibly rough footpaths and tracks made to service the pylons that stride across these slopes.

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Lovely spring flowers poked their delicate heads through the hard stone surface of the track and there were many rockfalls and landslides.

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It seemed absurd to suddenly come across a road works sign on a track that even a digger would have problems navigating but they had replaced a bridge over a steam I soaked my feet in.

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At some point ( I think I know where) I missed a turn off. It was around the point where the route had changed and I blithely followed the main track for too far before realising my mistake. It meant carrying on to the Tarmac road from the mountains down into Estepona which was a long hot slog I didn’t need at the end of the day. I passed some very comfy looking chairs I thought I could probably sleep in and some inviting benches placed for the setting sun but carried on and now I am happily set in a air b+b with a view of the sea contemplating my 27km beach walk tomorrow.

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