Author: stevesally55

THE FISHERMANS TRAIL: Vila Nova de Milfontes to Porto Covo (20km)

Our last day on the trail was the toughest with long stretches of deep soft sand traversing the most extensive consolidated sand dunes in the whole of Portugal. It was another reason we had started in the south with a short and easy acclimatization to track life.

Our day had started early to claim as much cool as we could. With all the advice against hiking here in August we had been careful, and lucky, with unseasonable temperatures in the high 20’s rather than 30’s.

Passing through the unfinished developments at the edge of town, strange plants emerged from the gloom.

The overnight sea mist had left its deposit of moisture and the snails were out in force, covering the bushes and making abstract art of their trails in the sand.

After a couple of km we heard boat engines and watched a fishing boat make its way out of the harbor at Porto das Barca’s through the mist.

As the sun started to rise the warming temperature burned off the mist and the coastline appeared again.

After the last few days of luxuriating in the macrocosm of the wide open spaces and dramatic headlands of this beautiful and undeveloped Alentejo Coast I started to appreciate the microcosm of the plant and rock formations.

I think I’d would be fabulous to be here in April or May when there is a carpet of flowers although with so many evergreen species there is always color when a lot of Southern Europe is a uniform burnt brown.

The scent of the various herbs has also been a delight as well as the familiar heady aroma of hot pine needles and the invigorating briny sea smell carried of the spray.

Our aural senses had been satisfied with the constant rhythmic thud and crash of the breakers, the calls of the seabirds and the only vehicle noise was the low hum of boat engines carrying far across the waves.

The rocks told tales of rising and lowering seas and coastline with massive contortions of strata witness to upheavals over millions of years. At times the beaches were 60 miles out into the current waters and yet sometimes we were walking on a bed of coral and shells on the cliff tops high above the sea.

Everywhere were little paths threading down to the fishing rocks on impossibly steep routes. We saw ladders and ropes to aid the fishermans descent and large encampments on very remote beaches. How they got all their kit down and back up was beyond us.

There is a guy fishing from the very end of that far spit of needle like rock in the last photo.

The white stocks also had precarious perches although with very good defenses building their stick nests atop towering sea stacks.

At Angra da Barrela the birds and fishermen came together on a rocky limestone headland lined with men and rods in a landscape very similar to Blackhead, at home in the Burren, another- different – fishing spot.

But it was the cliff top paths across the rugged headlands though the endemic plant life sculpted by the sun, salt and wind that was truly a joy, although the sections of deep sinking sand were slow and hard.

And of course the fabulous beaches with the promise of cold water immersion in the heat of the afternoon were a treat keenly anticipated as the sweat dripped.

We stopped for lunch in the bar restaurant next to the fort above the island protected beach of Ilha do Pessegueiro- hanging on to our last couple of hours on the trail.

The fresh fish available on this route is another plus. In fact the eating alone could justify a visit to the area. There appeared to be a culture that recognized the value of good, fresh, local healthy food- and the wine was also very quaffable! The variety of cheap fruit, veg, fish and shellfish in the markets of small towns and villages was remarkable.

A last swim and we continued the final couple of km to Porto Covo passed a tiny beach where a couple of lads were working on a piece of land art. Probably the creators of the pebble spiral maze from the day before.

And so for us the Rota Vicentina , ” The last coastal wilderness of Southern Europe”, was a great discovery, and after buying the official map of all its varied routes, one I’m sure we will be returning to.

Our host that night said the hostel had one rule.

Leave your stress at the door.

We had left ours a long way back down The Fishermans Trail.

THE FISHERMANS TRAIL : Zambujeira do Mar to Almograve (23km) to Vila Nova de Milfontes (18km)

As this blog site can testify I’ve hiked a good few trails in the last few years, but I’ve gotta say this one is special.

If you like wild coastal scenery, walking through a gently undulating landscape of exotic flora and geology under blue skies and glorious sunshine before splashing in the crashing breakers of the Atlantic to cool off on secluded sandy beaches- then like me you’d love this Fisherman’s Trail.

Normally walked from north to south, and the route descriptions are all orientated that way, we were going the other way. Partly because of the transport links and logistics but also we thought it a good idea to have the sun behind us as much as possible.

So even though it’s not recommended to be out here on the trail in the heat of August there has been a good few folk coming against us these last couple of days. Well maybe 10 or 20 people, so probably not much relative to many popular routes !

We set off pre dawn from Zambujeira following a long straight road past a huge area of tunnels and greenhouses. Even through the sandy ground would seem infertile they seem to coax a lot of crops out of it. Water and chemicals I guess.

Hoping to see some the many nocturnal carnivores of the area, mongoose,weasel,marten,badger,genet,otter- we only came across a couple of dogs. We had seen a group of wild boar the morning before and a few rabbits, which were supposed to be the ” original stock of all rabbits worldwide.

We reached the little fishing settlement of Entrada da Barca with its charming little houses and huts.

Down to the harbor where the boats were winched up the steep slip and up a zig zag of wooden steps to the cliff top paths above.

The first half of the walk to the little village of Cavaleiro was on a maze of vehicle tracks that ran along the cliff tops above rocky coves, many with precipitous paths or lines of rope to allow access for the hardy fisherfolk. The tracks also allowed access to many and varied campervans.

The dune vegetation got spectacular around the lighthouse of Cape Sardao where we learnt that many species only existed here. Famed for its bird life and unique stork nests the area also claimed to be the home of Rock Doves that are ” the original species from which all the feral pigeons in the world descend”!

There were a number of viewing platforms built here and there presumably to help wheelchair access but seemed a bit of a eurofund folly.

Diverted inland to Cavaleiro to avoid a specially sensitive area we had coffee and chocolate, admired the farm buildings on the outskirts and then continued on a fantastic route of rock and dunes and forest of pine and acacia ( which we had learnt was very invasive and is spreading wildly)

A sea mist had come in lending the scenery a mysterious aura.

The craggy rocks and red sandstone cliffs were laid down over twisted and convoluted layers of an older base making a truly dramatic shoreline.

We’d had a fair bit of soft sand walking by the time we got to the small natural harbor of Lapa das Pombas

and were glad to reach the beaches of Almograve where we took a couple of hours out to enjoy the breakers before heading on again past the final coves of the day to our room in the youth hostel.

In the village there was an exhibition of photos and graphics of a huge oil spill that took place in 1989 and turned the entire coastline we have been walking into a black environmental nightmare. The massive clean up operation seemed successful though as we had been remarking how pristine it appeared to be.

A leisurely start this morning as we expected to be able to avail of a ferry service across the river Mira at the end of the hike, thereby shaving off 4km of mostly road walking. So with what we thought to be an easy 14km ahead of us we laid abed till 7! looking at the misty world beyond our balcony.

A slap up breakfast fueled a brisk walk out out town, past the grotto, fountain and wash area, onto a sandy path beside farmland and off to more coves passing fishermen returning from their spots.

Later we were amazed to see a fisherman casting from a rocky reef way out in the sea. Not sure if you can see him.

There was a lot of soft sand dunes to navigate past another set of beautiful coves for a few km before suddenly emerging next to irrigated glassland for grazing cows and cropped turves.

There was a series of wooden bridges over streams and tunnels through rampant vegetation of canna and acacia, and a lot more sand.

And then we were at the beach bar at Furnas looking for the ferry.

Alas it was not running. Don’t know why. Plenty of signs for it. It meant hiking down river to the bridge and a lot of fast moving cars as we trod the tarmac.

It wasn’t all bad though. The route went passed an interesting landscape of farmland and cork oak and river views before landing us in the maelstrom of a holiday Sunday resort town in full flood.

And a couple of goats on a table.

THE FISHERMANS TRAIL: Rogil to Odeceixe (15km) to Zambujeira do Mar ( 20km)

Somehow or other the Rota Vicentina, a collection of hiking routes through the SW Alentejo and Vicentina Coast Natural Park of Portugal entired our consciousness.

The more we read about it the more we knew we had to go.

Running down the Atlantic coast of southern Portugal the trail consisted of the Historical Way, a 230 km mostly inland path, and the Fisherman’s Trail, a coastal trek of about 125km divided into 5 sections of 18 to 22 km between towns or villages to sleep and eat in. Perfect if you don’t want to carry all that camping and cooking gear, which we didn’t given that it was going to be hot and we would be struggling through a fair bit of loose, energy sapping sand.

There’s a very good website for anyone contemplating the Rota Vicentina with a wealth of info and aids and they warned that July and August were too hot to enjoy the route. Well a “summer” at home in western Ireland made us yearn for blue skies and sun so against the advise we headed south.

A flight, Shannon to Faro, train to Lagos and bus to Rogil all went like clockwork although we couldn’t see anything out of our train window.

We had an Airbnb at a young organic smallholding and the kindly host lent us bikes to cycle the few km past the sandy veg plots to a wild beach where we saw the first fisherman whose trails to the best spots our journey was named after.

To avoid the heat we started at 7 the next morning after checking out the livestock and garden and walked out of the village past the canal which supplied a lot of the water to make horticulture viable in this dry and sandy region.

To start we were on paths at the edge of the cultivated area, through woods and rural paths and then emerging out onto the top of the cliffs and continuing across a delightful landscape of herbs, scrubs and flowers, many unknown to us.

The pine trees had been cut/ tapped for something. Turpentine ?

With the heat building to a level where the cold Atlantic waters seem to be irresistible it was with relief that we arrived at the broad sweep of sandy beach before Odeceixe where we found a steep path down to the relatively quiet southern end and quickly cooled off in the breakers among the surfers and holiday makers.

This was prime time for Portuguese beach holiday as the website had warned us but the beautiful beaches were big enough to accommodate all and the busier areas were a work of art from the cliff tops with the colorful dots of sun shades and decorative bodies placed just so.

After a couple of hours R&R we continued to the town walking alongside the sweeping river wishing for a rod to try our luck on the masses of jumping fish. On the other side of the river was a motley collection of campervans that enjoyed one of the free park ups we had seen all along this coastline.

On arriving in Odeceixe we discovered it was fiesta time and the place was decorated accordingly. We didn’t stay up to see the magician or puppet show but retired to bed early enough after a meal in a hippyish veggie cafe. What with the surf scene, the laidback sunny vibe and the legality of all drugs it’s not surprising that we’d noticed a lot of ” types” about and a new age culture thriving.

More signs of which we passed in the morning as we hiked down the north side of the river back to the sea.

Climbing up to the cliff top we were off on another beautiful trek in the rising sun along a sandy trail through a garden like world of plant life.

The trail went up and down, but not too much, and was sometimes hard underfoot and sometimes deep and soft sand. At times we traversed patches of giant rushes and bamboo like cania where springs leaked water through the undergrowth.

And then there were the beaches. Amalia, Machados, Carvalhal, Alteirinhos and finally Zambujeira. Beautiful golden sand and invigoratingly cold and refreshing water. The ones away from road access involved a long walk in and were pretty empty and these were the ones we dropped down to on the ” fisherman’s trails” to chill out on in the heat of midday.

One had a rushing river tumbling over the cliff in a torrential beachside shower. Perfect for washing off the sand and salt!

On our last leg towards Zambujeira do Mar we past a strange place with a massive bull bison, llama and ostrich and later, after enjoying the cool shade of a long acacia tunnel, some fossilized sand tubes and other interesting geological formations.

One more stop at a funky beach bar I could have been happy in for hours and off again for another shady pine and acacia forest and another cliff top walk through sandy trails above busy beaches.

Up the wooden steps and into a busy resort town bustling with bars and restaurants. I’ll be glad to be on the empty cliff tops again come 6.30 in the morning.

A Trip to Tipperary

Time to report on a modest Irish ramble after recent foreign escapades.

I’d been reading for a couple of years about a small village in deepest Tipp that has gone to great efforts to sell itself as a walking destination, setting up 3 Failte Ireland looped walks, guided walks and an annual walking festival. So when looking for a bank holiday hike location on line and seeing on the Irishtrails website that one of the loops was dog friendly ( a hard to find rarity) we loaded the camper and headed southeast… to Upperchurch.

West of the Nenagh to Thurles road the village is at the eastern end of the Slieve Felim mountain range and set amidst a beguiling landscape of rounded rolling hills of fine green grassland and forest in the full forty shades with a fair smattering of golden gorse.

Unusually for rural Ireland these days the village still has 3 functioning pubs, a shop, community Centre complete with crèche and climbing wall and an information center. We stopped there to try and get maps of the walks and discovering it to be shut tried one of the bars. The welcoming owner spent some time rummaging around but couldn’t find what we wanted so kindly got his coworker to open the info centre and furnish us with leaflets and maps.

We discovered that the Beara- Breifne Way, a (very) long distance hiking trail that commemorates the 14 day/ 250 mile forced march of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork to Leitrim, passes through here. Too late in the day to explore we headed up to the Ballyboy lookout to park up for the night.

In the very early morning we were surprised to be woken by increasing car activity outside. Still dark we couldn’t see what was occurring. We thought perhaps late night revelers or predawn hunters. But then I remembered some briefly scanned mention of an Easter Sunday Sunrise Mass happening somewhere in the area. I quickly got some clothes on and emerged from the van like a risen prophet to discover rows of seats had been placed in front of the camper and many folk in high viz looking expectantly towards me. Whoops- we’d parked in the alter-place. After a bit of banter I explained we were going to Upperchurch for a walk but as there were by then about 100 walkers heading up the road towards us was advised to go the opposite way, passing many more folk on their way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

With the full moon still hanging above the misty valley in the dawn light we headed off into the mountains named in Irish after an ancient goddess, Sliabh Eibhlinne- the mountains of Ebliu.

After stopping for breakfast and waiting for the sun to burn off the mist we started off from the village on the Eamonn an Chnoic loop. Eamonn, or Ned of the Hill, was one of the 17th century Robin Hood type outlaws championing the cause of the dispossessed natives and harassing the English planters. Born locally he roamed these hills after shooting a tax collector dead for confiscating a poor women’s cow before coming to a sticky end , murdered for blood money, and his exploits inspired a famous ballad.

Passing another local walk initiative , a bog walk and garden, we continued up the quiet country road accompanied by our first cuckoo song of the year.

At our first stile we were disappointed to see a no dogs sign. We’d chosen this walk because it was listed as dogs permitted so with our mutts on leads and best behavior we carried on across a series of fields and stiles slowly climbing through Glenbeg.

Passing a picnic spot overlooking the still misty river valley to the south we continued up on farm tracks beside a mass of sweet smelling gorse towards a band of forestry.

Turning east at the forest we followed an ancient sunken greenway through the gorse and bilberries and down towards a cottage near a ring fort.

We passed the site of a pre-famine hedge school where a schoolmaster named Burke held the only available classes of that period. Hard as those times were, the wildflowers in the “classroom” might have made things more pleasant than in the Industrial schools some of the children have have ended up in.

After only 500m of tarred road we were off cross country again for the rest of the walk. Climbing again to another block of forestry on the high ground we walked the fields beside what had been the official trail, now swallowed by gorse.

The forces of nature had overwhelmed other remnants from the past too. We failed to see the old potato ridges and foundations of a famine village supposed to be visible. 29 families from here emigrated to Monroe county in Iowa on one day in 1879. But we did see what’s left of a Bronze Age ring barrow and a little further along a rare bowl barrow.

Downhill all the way back to the village we had one slight route finding problem where signage was missing and fencing down but it was all very pleasant in the spring sunshine.

We took a quick detour to Holy Cross Abbey on our way to another looped hike at the Devils Bit. The restored Cistercian monastery has impressive stonework and a marvelous sloping floor beneath the pegged oak roof timbers.

But the real draw for pilgrims over the last 800 years is a silver crucifix containing a relic of the true cross on which Jesus is said to have died. This, along with another artifact were stolen in October 2011 and recovered by the Garda 3 months later in what the parish priest Fr Tom Breen said ” once again demonstrates the power of praying”.

Another cross was our next destination but at ,45 ft high and a span of 25ft , was somewhat bigger.

Standing at 480m on an outcrop ( known as the Rock) it boasts a view of 8 counties. I always thought that the devil had spat ” the gap” that he bit out of the mountain to form the Rock of Cashel but then I read that the Rock of Cashel is actually (!) the tooth he spat out after breaking it biting the mountain.

Easter Sunday and the car park was jammers with families setting off up the steep track towards the Rock.

Passing Carden’s Folly where Daniel O’Connell is supposed to have addressed a monster meeting of 50,000 tithe payment resisters and a mock ” burial” of the tithes took place, we reached a stone alter and Marion shrine- the scene of another open air mass and pilgrimage in July.

A steep stony scramble had us up to the looming cross and we rewarded ourselves by soaking up the 360 degrees views of the fertile plains and half a dozen mountain ranges faint in the hazy light.

We descended by climbing down a cliff face on the eastern side, down past another Marion shrine and into the gap that broke the devils teeth.

Nice to explore another unknown patch of Ireland and reaffirm that it’s still a varied and beautiful place to ramble around.

HIKING IN THE HIGH ATLAS

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I received a text.

“Hi Steve, how’s it going? I’m going for a walk in the Atlas. Wondered if you wanted to come”

It had come at a tricky time to justify going for a ramble, not long back from an extended trip to Spain. On the other hand, Bill, my mate for 55 years, had been going to the Atlas regularly and inviting me to join him for many years and so far I hadn’t managed it. As my mortality became more obvious my belief in “seize the day” became more obvious too, so I approached my significant other with the idea.  Keen to see a husband stressed out by a building project return to a more chilled state of mind she approved the plan.            10 days trekking with Bill and hopefully one of his Berber acquaintances from the mountains would be good for my mental health and my waistline. Not speaking French (or Berber!) and not being one for organised group tours, this would be a perfect opportunity for me to explore an exciting and exotic area within reach of a Ryanair flight.

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The Atlas mountain range stretches around 2,500km through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. I was headed for the High Atlas sub range in central Morocco, to the area near Jebel Toubkal- North Africa’s highest mountain (4167m), still deep in snow and off limits for us. Just 65km from the hustle and bustle of the Marrakesh souks and Medina, the snowy peaks were clearly visible from our shared “grand taxi” as we set off for Setti Fatma, a popular day trip from the city- where escapees from the exhausting heat of the plains can rest and dine beside the clear ,cold waters of the Ourika river valley and visit the snowmelt waterfalls, complete with groups of Barbary apes.

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The tarmac road runs out here and after a meal with Mohammed, a local guide and friend of Bills to get the low down on snow conditions on the high passes, we shouldered our packs and set off upriver in the glorious spring sunshine.

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Mohammed had talked about the problems arising from the terrible murder of two Scandinavian women hiking in the area last December. Although an increased police presence and security meant that the High Atlas was probably one of the safer regions in the world presently, the numbers of tourists and particularly hikers, was down significantly. This had a big impact on the Berber guides, muleteers, tour operators and gite owners who rely heavily on the flow of visitors to the mountains. Also damaged was the reputation of the people of the Berber villages in the mountains, an unwarranted slight on some of the most welcoming, friendly, happy and hospitable people I have come  across, despite their relative material poverty.

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The dirt track followed the river bed with numerous bridges over a multitude of water courses before turning up on a zigzagging route that climbed the steep valley sides to present us with fine views back down towards Setti Fatma and deep into the mountains to the west.

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We passed a succession of earthen walled and roofed houses stacked up on the mountain slopes and immaculate layers of terracing with their iridescent green covering standing out from the buff and ochre surroundings.

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It took us nearly 4 hours to climb the 12km to reach our goal, Timichi, at around 2000m. We were very warmly greeted at their gite or hostel by Brahim Oussalm and his family whom Bill has been visiting for over 20 years.

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Over sweet mint tea and then a filling dinner a plan was put together. Brahim was now 80 and no longer a muleteer and guide but Abdelhadi, one of his sons, (he has 13 children), agreed to join us. A clockwise circular route was devised keeping us mostly between 2000m and 3000m with some lower valleys and higher passes. We would find places to stay in the Berber villages over the following 9 days and hike between 10km and 20km a day through  varied  country, some of which is truly off the tourist trail.Atlas map

(I managed to get hold of a map after a couple of days on the trail, but unfortunately it didn’t include the northern end that we tackled on the last couple of days.)

We needed to make an early start in the morning with the next day involving a climb of 1200m into snow, so with the altitude already making itself felt a little- I retired to the simple sleeping quarters.

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Setting off into the chilly dawn after a substantial breakfast we climbed a steep mule trail between rocks and scrub before emerging onto a gravel track. Big changes have occurred over the last few years for the Berber villages dotted around these mountains. The dots have been joined by a string of pistes or vehicle tracks, although we would only see a handful of jeeps and trucks over our 10 day journey. Electricity has also arrived and with it the surreal combination of centuries old earthen and stone houses adorned with satellite dishes and street lights to brighten the narrow warren of rough footpaths.

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The track ran out after passing the strangely painted building in Labassene and a narrow trail wound its way on up towards the pass of Tizi n’ Tacheddirt entering the Toubkal National Park as the landscape became harsher, devoid of vegetation but for some ground hugging cushion plants and ancient juniper trees.

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The patches of snow around us grew into a smooth blanket we traversed before reaching the pass at 3230m and the vista towards the west drew us down to eventually join a piste that led to Tacheddirt village, at the far end of which we were able to rest and warm ourselves on the balcony of our gite.

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We sat and watched the passing life, friendly kids shouting hello as they played risky football on the tiny patches of flat land and young girls and women returned with their small herds of sheep and goats, the occasional cow led from behind by holding fast to their tail and huge bundles of fodder and firewood on the womens’ backs. Every family seemed to have a few hens and cocks that all mixed together in the streets/paths and chased each other from rooftop to rooftop.

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The well tended terraces obviously produced a lot of vegetables judging by our dinners. Onions, beans, cauliflower, carrot, marrow, greens and particularly potatoes. Barley was also grown for the grain and also cut repeatedly for fodder. There was also large variety of fruits and nuts with walnut the main, most important crop.

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We were fed very well in all the houses we stayed in- the very simple kitchens preparing fresh bread and olive oil dip with mint tea on arrival- a tagine of veg and chicken or couscous for dinner and breakfast of pancakes and jam, yogurt, omelette and fruit.           Including our accommodation the bill was normally around  120dirhams or €12. Abdelhadi had friends and relatives in many of the villages and we were often offered mint tea, pored from a height into tiny glasses, along our way.

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Brahim’s cousin owned our next nights gite, in Mzik, a couple of km above Imlil, the main base for climbers and trekkers heading off for Toubkal. We reached it after crossing the valley and climbing to another pass, Tizi N’Tamatert at 2280m where there was a roadside cafe/shop/gite and muleteers transported the luggage of climbers setting off to scale the peak of Adrar Tamalroute.

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We descended from the pass through a sparse but shady pine forest, the trees bedecked with the white fluffy cocoons of the processionary moth. The valley widened out before Imlil and the relative prosperity of the town was revealed in some new and grand houses, the presence of cars and the amount of productive land. There are jobs here too, for guides, expedition and tour companies and shops selling outdoor equipment and the gear left behind the gear left by trekkers after returning from Toubkal.

Prince Harry and Meghan had been in the area the week before, visiting a secondary boarding school for girls in Asni set up to enable them to continue an education where only a quarter of them would normally get beyond primary level.

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Our gite was in a less developed area surrounded by unfinished buildings and roadworks but the view from the rooftop was lovely with the minaret of the mosque positioned between the peaks that echoed to the muezzin’s call to prayer 5 times a day.

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The washed clothes I hung on our open window grill that night were as wet in the morning and we got out the waterproof jackets before heading off into the drizzle up into the cloud on a rocky track through clumps of broom, pine, holm oak and juniper to Tizi n’Mzik at 2500m. Damp and cold, with the juniper dusted with snow, we replenished our energy with dates and nuts before starting down the slippery scree slopes towards the Azzadene valley, still lost in the mist.

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Eventually the cubist forms of the mud houses of Tizi Oussem emerged from the gloom and we were very grateful to have some hot sweet mint tea after finding the gite clinging to the slopes. I watched a women repairing her mud roof after the rain and  later our host invited us up to the kitchen for dinner- a thick barley soup and tagine- while we dried our clothes near the fireplace, and he made a huge bowl shaped loaf for breakfast.

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The clouds had lifted by the morning and we left the village to follow the Azzadene valley on a red earth piste past a string of hamlets built of the same vivid mud. The landscape was made up of different mineral rich rock types with hues ranging from black to purple, pink, red, grey, and green.

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Climbing through Tizi n’Techt we left the piste and turned to descend on a twisty scree trail towards the Ait Mizane valley, stopping for lunch among the sheep and goatherds whose flocks had nibbled the juniper into artful topiary.

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Clambering down through the buildings and tree blossom we crossed the river and climbed around the side of the mountain to another pass at Tizi el Bour to reach Imska after a 4 1/2hr hike. We were greeted by a smiling old women at the gite who was now running the place on her own after the loss of her husband. The Berber women seemed to be more independent and socially outgoing than I had imagined and although we were only witness to a snapshot of their obviously hard lives, I was often impressed by the great amount of shared laughter and joyful chat amongst groups of animated and smiling women and girls dressed in flamboyant and colourful clothes. ( They weren’t keen on being photographed so I didn’t).

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The next 2 days saw us climb up the Valle de Imenane from Imska on mostly gravel tracks through a scattering of villages to a gite at Ouaneskra and from there a steep trail up to the pass of Tizi n’ou Addi at 2954m and down through a beautiful high broad valley where clusters of shepherds houses awaited their seasonal occupation.

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We started to see the ski lifts on the outskirts of Oukaimeden, Morocco’s only real ski resort and although there was very little skiable snow on the Sunday we were there the place was very busy with a big car park full of flashy motors, and  a mass of Marrakech day trippers walking or donkey riding up the slopes and eating and drinking in the wealth of restaurants and cafes. It was all a bit of a shock to the system after the empty trails and although we had planned on staying there the night we were relived to discover it was way too expensive and meet a fellow who had a simple room available in the village of Ait el Kack another 6 or so km down the valley to the east.

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The geology of the landscape had changed again and the deep canyon like red sandstone gorge we hiked through had little quarries where the paving and building slabs were teased from the rock and transported by mules to the roadside for sale. (About 70c a flagstone!)

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Our host for the night must have been doing ok from the overspill trade from Oukaimeden as he had a cow tethered on a little patch of ground joining the house and a great big  flat screen TV that the family gathered round all evening, although it was only showing the channel listing anytime we passed by. In the morning we disappeared off the top of my map on a new track being made that will eventually be tarmac and link all the way around to the Timichi valley and on around to Oukaimeden again creating a high level circular route through the currently remote and peaceful mountains.

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We reached a beautiful, broad and verdant plain high in the folds of the mountains with emerald fields of grain separated by rocky paths and walls in a landscape somewhat reminiscent of my local Burren stonescape complete with carpets of a delicate alpine flower. We were hoping to stop for the night here but the gite was shut forcing us to carry on another couple of hours on the empty and surreal highway cut through the red rock.

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We found a bed in the small village of Uouiri where the gravel track ran out, in a house run by the young daughters of a couple gone off to the souk in Marrakesh.The children here as in all the villages had simple pleasures- a game of marbles or stone tossing- riding recycled bikes- passing chase and football on levelled village pitches and other DIY pastimes. No screen hours here. We managed to capture a small bird and undo the string attached to its leg, only to discover later it was the small boy’s pet !

IMG_E2291IMG_2249Although a charming place and hosts I was unfortunately ravaged in the night by not only bedbugs but fleas as well leaving me with big itchy lumps for days. Having done a long day we were left with a short walk in the morning so we went off piste and took a scenic route round to Boulzgarn, where we were invited in for tea by a relative of Brahim, and admired his hamman or sauna. These structures are popular washing and social places in the villages, segregated by sex- where the women bath naked together but the men remain costumed, another surprising feature of supposedly modest muslim women.

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On our way out of the village on the maze of narrow paths we passed a fine example of the Berber village “downpipe”, a smoothly rendered line that takes the water from the earthen roof.

IMG_2316IMG_2317IMG_2319IMG_E2323Back to the trail we continued on to Chiker, our last stop before our return to Timichi and the first place we had encountered any other hikers – a group of students from Holland. On route we passed a flattened threshing area, similar to the many “eras” I have passed on my Spanish rambles. The views we encountered up and down the Ourika valley were the same as 9 days previously but from an even higher level.

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The next morning we set off past the diggers and trucks constructing the new road snaking through the steep sided slopes of rock, scree and  terraced fields, and Abdelhadi pointed out the spot where one villager had lost their lives falling into the gorge whilst collecting fodder. I wondered if and how a tarmac connection to the outside world would ease their harsh labour intensive lifestyles. Winding relentlessly down to the lush water meadows of the valley bottom, we rejoined our original route to Timichi where we were again received with a warm welcome from Brahim and that night were presented with a feast of couscous and chicken worthy of heros.

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Brahim declared that he was going to market the following day and would accompany us on our final leg back to Setti Fatma from where we could get a bus to Marrakech. Abdelhadi was happy to be reunited with his young family whom he proudly took us to meet in the small and smokey building he called home. Adjoining it was a pile of concrete blocks and a small patch of levelled ground from an obviously long stalled extension project that Bill and I were happy to help fund in an (unasked for) gesture of thanks for all his time, effort, knowledge and company.

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After saying our goodbyes in the morning we shouldered our packs for the last time and followed Brahim out. Rather than go back on the track the incredibly nimble 80 year old led us down through the green and shady woods and fields of the river valley stepping lightly over the numerous irrigation streams and channels. As we worked our way down stream the valley walls closed in and the watercourses merged to form a fast flowing turbulent body of water that we were frequently forced to cross on wobbly boulders.            While Brahim stepped lightly and quickly across we quivered and quaked somewhat before stumbling towards the octogenarians outstretched hands. An exercise in humility.

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It was a beautiful way to finish our journey around the mountains, in the company of a man whose deep connection to the place and its people had existed for over 80 years and alongside, (and finally and inevitably IN), the waters that give it and them life.

An awe-inspiring landscape, a welcoming population. Good food and great trails. An exciting history and culture and a lesson in the possessions/happiness equilibrium . And all on the doorstep of Europe. Go before its bound with tarmac ribbons.

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Sierra de Aracena

The largest Natural Park in Andalucia, the Aracena y Los Picos de Aroche is 184,000 hectares of prime walking country.

100km northwest of Seville, in the province of Huelva, this is where the cross Spain ridges of the Sierra Morena finally run out and the Atlantic weather systems drop their water bombs after crossing Portugal unchecked. Lush, green and 90% forested, the softly rounded hills, covered in their blanket of oaks and pines and chestnut are less rugged and wild than many higher, steeper and rockier Sierras but the Aracena is a hikers paradise with long or short walks on moderate gradients winding along the wealth of old drovers that string the pueblos and villages together.

We did 5 long looped rambles over 5 days, and felt we could have lost ourselves in the shady valleys and over the high ridges for months tramping the cobbled mulo trails.

Our first couple of days were spent around Aracena town itself, a charming centre famous for its fantastic cave system right in the middle of town. Supposedly discovered by a shepherd and first opened to the public in 1914, the km or so of passageways and caverns visited on the tour feature a truly awesome ( not a word I use lightly) display of all forms of stalactite and stalagmite, the likes of which I have never seen before. Unfortunately no photography was allowed so I can only illustrate by showing a poster of just one interesting element.

We started early on our first 11km walk on a misty and then drizzly day, a loop to Corteconcepción. The moisture was a good illustration of how the region is seemingly so fertile and lush. Most of the fincas had fine huertas, or garden areas, which even out of season had a wide variety of fruit and veg, irrigated by various systems of water control, including one way stream gates.

A very catholic rural people, there was an abundance of roadside shrines and gatepost tiles depicting the Virgin Mary, and the entire landscape was dotted with chapels, churches, convents, monasteries and hermitages.

Passed the gardens of brassicas, root crops and the last remains of peppers, tomato etc and the orchards of orange, lemon, chestnut, pomegranate and persimmon was rich Dehesa country. Tracks lined with Arbutus, the strawberry tree, their fruit littering the ground, their flowers decorating the branches in a fitting Christmas style, were surrounded by oaks of every kind, under which the Iberian pigs snuffled and snorted, hovering up the plump and plentiful acorns.

Unlike a lot of our Spanish treks we were often accompanied by the gurgling and burbling of running water and had to ford streams on a variety of stepping stones and bridges.

We spent the drizzly afternoon in the caves and in museums of jamon (ham) and setas (mushrooms), both of which, along with chestnuts, the region is rightly famous for. Autumn is the time to be here with a rich harvest going on and the chestnuts turning golden brown. The huge variety of mushrooms is amazing with many kinds gathered for the kitchens and tables.

And as for the jamon, as much as we relished seeing the pigs enjoying their free ranging freedom, ( indeed we came upon many living feral in the open hills) the sad truth displayed in the museum of jamon was that it all ended in butchery.

But at least the end product was treated with a reverence rarely seen bestowed upon food unfortunately. There are many outlets in the area and indeed across Spain that are akin to cathedrals of pork, with the Iberian acorn fed pigs from Jabugo and the Aracena area on the high alter, and the jamon costing many hundreds of euro.

Next day was brighter and drier and we took off on another 16km circular route from Aracena west to the village of Linares de la Sierra.

Finding or way out of town past the sports arena , swimming pool and football pitch we soon found ourselves among the freshly peeled alcornoques or cork oaks on a path shared with walkers and riders.

The amount of material gathered sustainably from the cork oaks is very impressive and must involve some hard graft with ladders and mules needed to harvest the trees across the hard to reach sierra. Although the wine industries adoption of plastic corks created worries for the indigenous industry there seems to be a big revival of other cork products and an impressive selection of goods are on sale in the area.

The trail climbed a ridge and then descended towards Linares, tucked deep into the folds of the green hills. We walked on sandy tracks, rocky trails and cobbled paths accompanied by birdsong, cowbells and snorting pigs.

The village itself was an exhibition in the art of cobbling. The houses had individual designs in black and white marble cobbles at their front doors, the streets were intact and maintained and there was new and restored cobbling going on around the church.

On our return to Aracena we passed through some more open country with big fincas, the gate posts displaying the hieroglyphic initials or signs with which their stock was branded. There was also one signed with the distance to Santiago de Compostela, presumably a returned pilgrim. And then on the approach to town some tasteful and expensive looking holiday rentals.

Finishing our circle we drove to our next days starting place outside Alájar, another attractive town in a beautiful setting with towering peak of Pena de Arias Montano rising sheer above it. We drove to the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels half way up and hiked up to the mirador for mighty views across the Sierra.

A shortish 12km loop with plenty of ups and downs circled from Alájar back to Linares by way of the once abandoned but now being resettled hamlet of Los Madroneros.

A new concrete track covers most of the distance to the isolated hamlet where solar panels and mobile phones have made living or staying out here a more viable option. There has been a fair bit of reconstruction going on and there are places to rent for anybody looking to avoid the rat race for awhile.

Our route now lead us through an area with broken down walls where the resident pigs had access to miles upon miles of open territory and even abandoned houses. Remarkably tame they joined us for a picnic.

Our approach to Linares was marked by a lot of wilder, less managed Dehesa with horse and scrub replacing the grazing grasses.

After a couple of cafe con leches in the bullring bar we climbed back up towards the camper on a steep track past the poolside Riberas recreation area where a dammed stream has become a popular picnic spot.

Alájar was busy with visiting school kids and people preparing the village for Christmas so we headed for the hills to stay in Castano del Robledo, ready for an 18 km circle from there to La Pressa, Alájar and back.

From our fine (and quiet) park up next to the cemetery we descended in the morning through a misty mixture of chestnut and pines with views out across the forested slopes.

Coming to the valley floor we crossed various streams many times and on one I came a cropper and ended up on my back in the water.

The riverside walk was obviously visited by school kids who had left pictures and poems celebrating nature along the route and even had a little library in a grove of trees.

It was here we met a bunch of escapee piglets who showed no fear as they rootled past.

Past an enclave of holiday haciendas built by Dutch settlers, on a lovely track into Alájar and then up a cobbled way past the hippy hamlet of El Calabacino.

Abandoned and then squatted the community has now been regularized and some of the houses/ fincas look very settled and established.

Above the hamlet the cobbled gave way to a concrete track that turned into a rutted sandy one that climbed up through our first large scale chestnut groves. Brought to this part of Spain by settlers from the north and Galicia after the reconquest the ancient and venerable trunks, pollarded for hundreds of years, have born witness to many changes to an area which on first impressions seems timeless.

The final leg back to Robledo was down through deciduous oaks where the wildlife was dangerous, and into the town square woolbombed for Xmas.

More knitted decorations at the start of our last days loop, from Almonaster La Real, up the Cerro de San Cristobal mountain and around through Arroyo and Acebuche, a distance of around 14 km.

Looking back towards town on our steep onward bound trail the 10th century hilltop mosque was impressive with its adjoining bullring.

More glorious tracks, chestnut groves, clear streams, happy pigs, settlers idylls and forested slopes marked our last day in the Aracena.

Before setting off southwards to Seville at van speed we soaked up the view of the Sierra from its highest point on San Christobal. From a tad over 900m the whole landscape looked glorious.

We had discovered it looked just as appealing when deep down within it and vowed to return.

Parque Minero de Riotinto

A few days work done on the finca and time to head off in the camper on another hiking/ exploring trip. This time we were off Northwest, to Huelva province and only about 60 km from the Portuguese border.

The hiking around the Sierra de Aracena is renowned for its beauty so we were going there for a few days – but en route we wanted to stop at Riotinto the birthplace of the river and the global megacompany.

In a way the landscape was the exact opposite of Aracena’s carefully nurtured or natural and wild countryside. Riotinto’s has been torn asunder for millennia for quick material gain, literally clawing the earth apart to get to the wealth of minerals hidden in the Iberian Pyrite Belt.

A massive area of open cast mines both current and exploited and abandoned coupled with vast spoilheaps of vivid and florid colors make for a man made,surreal, and toxic, environment. A (un)healthy balance to all the gloriously bucolic green and pleasant lands we’ve been wandering through.

The largest open cast mine in Europe is here, recently flooded and left. But it’s been going on for 5000 years with the Iberian miners leaving many Neolithic reminders of their presence around the area. Then Phoenicians mined copper and mixed it with tin from Cornwall to make bronze. The Romans followed after but preferred the gold and silver in the rocks, as well as copper, lead, iron and sulfur.

After admiring (?) the view from the mirador on the edge of town we headed to the abandoned wastelands of Pena de Hierro.

The setting sunlight emphasized the already red hills and heaps but there was a host of other colour too.

It was soon dark so we postponed our exploration till the morning after checking out our route on a suitably bizarre map.

The rising sun made for an equally effective lighting of the land as we wound our way up the hill above the derelict buildings.

Within the hill lay the crater whose multicolored walls spoke of a riches of minerals.

The entire mountain side around had suffered a devastating fire fairly recently, increasing the apocalyptical look and feel to the place, although we were glad so see signs of recovery in the eucalyptus if not the pine.

The Brits had planted these sierras originally, to use in the mines. They had arrived in 1873 in the shape of the Riotinto Company, taking over the unproductive state owned mines and transforming ( and soon enveloping) a town of 4000 into a behemoth of industry with 200,000 workers.

All very weird, and it got weirder when we drove down to Riotinto town and stopped at the source of its namesake. The river waters are full of copper and iron oxide and sulfuric acid and other lovely things, something I didn’t know when I tasted it!

I suppose the danger/ stop shade of vivid red should have warned me. The strongest taste I’ve ever had the displeasure to rapidly spit from my mouth. I found out later the stuff can dissolve iron and has a ph of around 2.

In fact it’s so inhospitable to life that NASA have been studying it, and the surrounding toxic landscape as a Mars substitute. And actually, even though no plant, amphibian, fish, insect or mammal can survive in it, micro organisms that can have been discovered there. So Mars could be full of similar. Maybe.

We visited the museum in town for an exhaustive exhibition of the history of the mines and the exploitation of the earth and local people wasn’t something to celebrate but there were some pretty rocks.

The British Bosses had built themselves a little separate enclave modeled after an Edwardian village and named Bella Vista. There, at the English Club, they could enjoy the lifestyle of the Home Counties and play croquet, cricket, polo and tennis. And Riotinto was not only home to Spain’s first golf course but also it’s first football pitch and is where the game was first introduced to the Spanish.

So the legacy of the mining activities is not just a hugely polluted landscape and watercourse all the way the the coast and beyond but also the “beautiful game” of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Anyone wanting to make an ” end of the earth” sci fi/ horror movie could do worse than come here and our next location was perfect. A few Km north of town on the way to Aracena lay the Embalse Gossan and here the out of this world cranked up a notch.

Water levels were low, revealing strange mineral encrusted life forms. Trunks and branches of long dead trees and stalks of amazingly surviving reeds were coated thickly in ? And the orange mud surrounding them was worryingly quicksand like. Not a way I’d wanna go.

And another strange thing was that footprints left in the muck we’re not indented – but raised!

One other disquieting thing before I finish this post. While looking at Google maps satellite view of the area I spotted a funny landscape/ crop formation next to Pena de Hierro, so I went for a look when we were camped there. It’s miles and miles of orange grove on terraces around the mines.

We’d heard trucks up and down to it half the night. I found a car park full of pickers cars. It’s harvest time and there’s a big area to pick. Huge operation.

Turns out it’s all RioTinto fruit. Europe’s largest citrus farm at 3000 hectares. They are big into the use of Boron in agriculture. Boron is one of the common minerals in the spoilheap landscape. There’s also lots of unpleasant ones.

A lot of RioTinto Fruit is classified as organic. Tesco buy their organic oranges from there. Just saying.