SPAIN

CAMINO ESTRECHO: Between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic 1

On a quick escape from the frozen north we decided to tackle a few days level(ish) trekking as far south as we could get in Spain. I had discovered a Camino route from Algeciras westwards towards Cadiz that also mainly coincided with a couple of coastal GR routes, the GR 92- Sendero Europeo Arco Mediterraneo to Tarifa and the GR 145 Arco Atlantico from there onwards to Zahara de Los Atunes where we intended to finish.

After a beautiful train journey from Antequera to Algeciras along many of the routes previously walked on the Gran Senda de Malaga we hopped in a cab and alighted on the trail at Las Pantallas leaving another 10 km or so to do. The strange construction was a wall built in 1942 to hide a military road up to the gun emplacements from prying eyes on Gibraltar.

The surreal oddly artistic military defence continued off and on as we continued uphill into the Natural Parque de Estrecho, named after the Straights (of Gibraltar). After 5 bouts of Chemo (with added Immuno) therapy I wasn’t able for too much too steep or too long and Sallys knees etc have been in better shape so it was a relief to gain the plateau summit at about 250m and stop for the view and snacks.

We turned off the tarmac and continued on a potholed track across glorious country with free grazing cattle and views across the straits to Africa before a final cruel ascent off trail to our cabin for the night at the Eco Huerta Grande park in El Pelayo.

Rain in the night and more promised meant we didn’t take time to explore the extensive gardens of La Huerta in the morning but carried on down the trail through verdant country with cork oaks and herbage running wild. We turned off the main track to head down to the sea past long abandoned fincas.

From here we followed the GR 92 along the shore line up and down on slippy muddy tracks between beaches littered with the tragic remains of immigrant inflatables.

And unfortunate cattle.

We reached the Torre de Guadalmesi where the car tracks continued to Tarifa but we stayed with the GR/ Camino route which followed an interesting geological line of uplifted rock and scattered WW2 concrete bunkers.

It had been raining for long enough to have us soaked and cold by the time we reached the outskirts of Tarifa and,weary of the ups and downs, we were glad to finally, after about 19 km altogether, reach our posada for the night and hang up all our clothes to dry.

In the morning we hit the market for breakfast before heading off from the signboard on the prom westwards on the GR 145/ Camino de Estrecho with blue sky ahead and dark, threatening clouds behind us. We were led onto a long section of wooden boardwalk before a protected area of dunes meant the trail was diverted alongside the busy main road.

We were grateful when we were led away from the road through pines towards the shore again. This stretch of coast attracts a huge amount of campervans and there were many parked up where we took advantage of shelter when the rain came again.

We abandoned the GR when it returned to the roadside and continued along the beach, facilitated by the low tide, past more crumbling bunkers, interesting rock formations and art, to reach our A frame tent on a campsite at Valdevaqueros after about 13 km.

After an afternoon/ evening of eating, drinking, washing and watching camper antics we hoped for dry conditions over the next two days of trail and retired to our surprisingly delux boudoir for the night.

LAST LEGS: Sierra de Gredos

The Sierra de Gredos mountain range and Regional Park, about 150km west of Madrid, is a beautiful area of towering peaks, glacial lakes, oak woods and river valleys that we had explored once before- in the snow- and had always wanted to return to. So when Jill, Sally’s sister, asked for a suggestion for a walking holiday destination in the region of Madrid and Salamanca it was an obvious choice, especially as we were invited to join them.

Problem was an ever increasing series of tests, scans and consultations had resulted in an ever decreasing picture of good health and the closing of windows of opportunity. We managed to get there though, about a month ago, unsure of my hiking ability but sure of the restorative power of being out there in the wilds.

We stayed in an eco airbnb in the little hamlet of Navacepeda de Tormes on the northern side of the range where I thought the trails alongside the clear rushing waters of the Tormes river would make for leisurely strolling. The ancient buildings in the village of 160 inhabitants were sadly in decline as depopulation continued although the area is popular for summer holidays with Madrilenos seeking cool mountain air.

We discovered the bear paw nailed to the church door- carbon dated at 400 yr old, making it possibly the last bear in the Gredos. Hemingway, who came to the area, had written of it and a street in the village is named after him.

On our first evening we walked down to the river and up the Garganta del Barbellido to a lovely natural swimming pool overlooked by a picture perfect medieval bridge. Although the water looked and was very cold I couldn’t resist immersion into the picture myself

I knew from our last visit that there was a road that reached way up towards the peaks on this northern side – to a car park “La Plataforma” which saved 11 km and 500 m of ascent- to gain access to the high altitude trails. I was happy to hear that Jill and Ralph were keen to take the hire car up there in the morning from where we would attempt the well worn route up to the Laguna Grande.

So, starting out from 1750m in the crisp mountain air, still in the shadows of the surrounding ridges but under an immaculate blue sky, we joined the stone laid path and started our ascent into the sunshine – slowly but surely.

The autumnal browns and greys of the grasses and rocks were dotted with the shocking crimson pink and purple flowers of crocus which surprisingly seemed to fair best on the well trodden path.

We were on one of the traditional paths that cross the mountain range used for many centuries. There is a long history of transhumance here, the seasonal moving of cattle to and from the high pastures, and availing of the climatic differences of the north and south facing sides of the range. These old paths were also used to exchange goods, as the economies of the different sides were based on different products, and reached their peak in the 15th and 16 th century. I wonder how our current road systems will be used 600 years from now. We crossed paths with a man with pack horses coming back from supplying the Refuge high above us, continuing the centuries old ways.

We came upon a large group, herd, cluster,??, of male Ibex. A semi-protected species they seemed to be doing well, with an estimated 5000-8000 in these mountains. The Gredos are one of 4 species of Iberian Ibex , 2 of which, the Portuguese and Pyreanean are now extinct. Along with the other surviver, the Southeastern, their greatest threat now apart from loss of habitat and illegal hunting is sarcoptic mange, a deadly disease.

After an hour or so of gradual climbing we stopped at Los Cavadores spring for a drink and snack break before continuing a little further to the high point ridge at 2200m.

Crossing the broad flattish area of Los Barrerones we started to descend and the awesome views of the Circo de Gredos made the effort of the climb a very reasonable price to pay.

From here we could see the highest peaks of the range, La Galana and Almanzor, at nearly 2600m. We could also see, in the distance beneath the peaks, the Laguna and the refuge beside it, a truly spectacular setting in which to stay. Making our way down the rocky path others joined us- it was obviously a popular destination, with beds for 65 and meals and drinks available.

Hard though it was to tear ourselves away from the hospitality and the view of the cirque towering above we had to make the return trip, with a slower, more gentle, ascent this time. We passed a lot more hikers heading for the Elola refuge for the weekend and the pack horses returning again with more supplies for them. When we stopped at a fuente we were surrounded by ibex, this time females and juveniles, seemingly well used to people on their patch and unperturbed.

Back at La Plataforma, and pleased with our efforts, we decided to return the following day- Jill and Ralph to ascend to El Morezon and us to descend via the Garganta de las Pozas and Garganta de Gredos to the river Tormes.

It looked like it was going to be a busy weekend at the Refuge when we arrived at a nearly full car park in the morning and a stream of fit looking folk snaked their way up the rocky road before us. They included a team helping to transport a young fella in an off road wheelchair contraption – determined and vocally animated they left us in their wake as they forged ahead on route to some peak. Fair play.

At the top of the rise above the car park Jill and Ralph set off south on an old path that led to a pass at Puerto de Candeleda while we turned north across the grazing area of Prado de las Pozas to find the river we were to follow down stream for 15 km.

Another glorious day of sunshine and blue skies was now enhanced by the sounds of gurgling and gushing as the crystal waters gravitated down through the glacial moraine, accompanied by the occasional clank and clonk of cow bells.

When we stopped for a pool side break I couldn’t resist stripping off and becoming one with the mountain stream- but not for long. Bracing could describe it. We crossed over to the eastern bank and carried on down through concentrations of crocus, passed an old farmhouse turned refuge, to merge with the Garganta de Gredos and its rushing waters coming down from the Laguna Grande.

After a restful lunch on the Puente de Roncesvalles we rambled on, stopping for a peek into another farmhouse Refugio where a family had taken up residence for the weekend. We were now below the 1500m tree line and oak woodland lined the valley walls.

The well made stone path took us down into lush farmland of grazing cows and pine plantations before merging with another river and PR walking trail to the Cirque. Now back in ” civilisation”, a road of giant stones led us to the best of it – a friendly bar beside the river Tormes.

As a herd of free range horses joined us on the river bank we luxuriated in the lushness of it all, accompanied by flowing water all day, at the end of summer, so different to the parched south of Spain with its dry rivers and empty reservoirs.

It had been wonderful to be out in the wilds of Spain again. So many trails- so many beautiful spaces. It would certainly take more than a lifetime to know but a fraction. But I would urge anyone to explore, experience and ramble as many as time allows. Not just Spain of course but anywhere in as natural a world as you can reach.

Contact with and connection to nature can create the love, respect and empathy needed to restore our dangerously unbalanced relationship with the rest of the threatened co-habitants and eco systems of our abused world. It can heal ourselves and our surroundings.

Last Legs? Hopefully not quite yet but time is obviously running out. Enjoy it and protect it while you can. I’ll leave you with some images of Salamanca and Madrid. From the man made sacred spaces that were built to inspire the same sense of Awe that nature had supplied for millennia.

Sacred nature.

BASQUE COUNTRY: Parque Natural de Gorbeia

Our last exploration in Spain before braving the Bay of Biscay homeward bound for Ireland was this 200km2 park, the largest in the Euskadi region of Basque Country. Established in 1994 it forms a bridge between the Pyrénées and the mountains of Cantabria in a series of dramatic limestone sierras.

In a stunning contrast to the parched dry south we started by walking in lush green fields and forests beside rushing streams and gushing waterfalls.

In the little traditional hamlet of Usabel we followed the road past the mill pond of a former forge and , later, hydroelectric turbine and the adjoining 16th c farmhouse. The traditional 3 storey farmhouses of this area were built to house livestock and workshops on the ground floor, hay and corn on the top and domestic living was sandwiched, insulated, between the two.

Climbing up a narrow lane way and along a field side path we entered some coppice woodland and herds of stocky horses similar to a breed we’d seen raised for meat.

We shortly passed through Urigoiti, another hamlet of ancient vernacular buildings, one with an inbuilt bread oven and another with tree trunk beehives adorning its wooden siding.

Climbing out of the village slowly the conifer forest gave way to more open mountain side affording wide views back towards the coast with the imposing hulk of the Itxina massif rearing up above us as we ascended through beech woods and rough tracks to the Aldabide waterfall.

The water came from 2 springs that emerged from fissures in the limestone and had been planned to travel 9km across the mountainside in the concrete canal (we walked alongside) and join another stream and power a hydroelectic plant. Unfortunately the structure which took 12 years to complete (1945-1957) never worked and a landslide finished it off.

After traversing the flank of Itxina alongside the failed canal we began our return down through the pine and beech forests of the Sintxieta river valley past a remote hunting lodge at the end of a long and rutted track.

Some of the beech were ancient pollards cut by generations of charcoal makers and woodsman, the track through them worn down into a holloway deep in rustling leaves.

The steep valley sides flattened onto a narrow floor where a mill race canal was diverted from the river to feed another old hydro scheme. Soon back at the camper after our 12km/ 4hr ramble we drove around to the Pagomakurre picnic area on the eastern side of the Itxina massif ready to go deep into it in the morning.

This popular iconic route would take us up through a spectacular natural stone arch at about 1000m and into the bizarre karst formations, 500 sinkholes , mysterious caves, hidden upland meadows and sacred beech groves of the magical world of the Itxina protected biotope.

Leaving the area recreativa in the early morning sun we started to climb a well worn path up through the forest and out onto more open pasture where, as wide ranging views opened towards the Pyrenees, the Ojo de Atxular ( Eye of Atxular) peered down at us from the rocky crest.

Used since time immemorial by shepherds and woodcutters to gain entry into the rocky plateau , encircled by a crescent shaped ridge of protective limestone, we clambered up and through it- and the wind immediately quieted and we were becalmed.

We followed a spur trail through the labyrinth of sinkholes surrounded by cracked and fissured limestone like the scattered artworks of a prodigious sculptor. A faint path, sporadic splashes of paint and numerous cairns of stacked stones led us up and down through the mossy maze to the gaping mouth of Supelegor Cave.

Many miles of passageways and caverns connect these caves and sinkholes, home to some of the characters of Basque mythology. Supelegor is particularly associated with the Goddess Mari, a beautiful feminine personification of the Earth. She lives deep within the world, connecting to our realm via mountaintop caves, and adopting diverse forms such as a TreeWoman. Shepherds would leave offerings for her here.

There was a mysterious and timeless aura to the place. The bones of Neanderthals have been found in the caves and the area is rich in dolmens and menhirs. The ancient beech trees looked as though they had been coppiced for millennia for the ironworks and lime kilns and were coated with a variety of rare mosses that would excite any bryologist, as were the rocks and sinkholes. We passed one yawning hole reputed to be 100m deep.

After clambering back towards the Eye of Atxular we headed onwards eventually reaching more open ground with views of the plateau and then beautiful Alpine like meadows with the crumbling remains of one shepherds hut and the more welcoming refuge of another. The weather can quickly get bad here and I can imagine this shelter amidst the labyrinth has saved lives in the snow.

Continuing to the southern end of the massif we got views of the swollen dome of Gorbeia itself, the highest in the region at 1480m, before dropping down through the pass at the sheer cliffs of Arrabako Ate and out onto the vast grassy plateau of Arraba.

From here the going was easy, across the empty grazing pasture dotted with early flowers, past a building used by those scaling Gorbeia and other peaks and down past some impressive sinkholes to a drivable track with a glorious vista across the Basque mountains to the east. From there we had a long downward stroll to complete the 10km/ 5hr loop and return to the camper.

A good hike to finish a great trip on a country wide loop from Bilbao. Homeward bound.

BADLANDS 2: Yesares de Sorbas

About 25km east of Tabernas is another “protected” Natural Area, the Karst en Yesos de Sorbas. Founded in 1989 this 2,500ha reserve is one of the best examples in the world of a karst landscape comprised of gypsum ( Yeso). The same harsh climatic conditions as Tabernas ensure a limited variety of flora can manage here.


Its gypsophyte flora- plants that are gypsum tolerant- are rare or endangered and many are endemic.

These species are under threat, however, mainly from mining activity, which, although prohibited within the protected area, is the economic mainstay of Sorbas. There are three big quarries, extracting 5million cubic tonnes a year for cement and plaster across the world, including Los Yesares, Europe’s largest gypsum quarry. The multi faceted crystal in the rock constantly flashes in the sun as you walk through the landscape while underneath your feet over 1000 caves and a multitude of interconnecting passages create a labyrinth through the limestone.

After a short exploration of the Cuevas de Sorbas, which has tentacles stretching out over 50 km, we left the town clinging precariously to a cliff and headed off to a place dear to our hearts, Los Molinos de Rio Aguas.

Another prolonged stop on our road trip nearly 30 years ago Los Molinos has stayed constant in our diminishing memories. A derelict village, hollowed out by abandonment, in the process of rebirth. An English environmental charity, Sunseeds, had established itself here to work on desertification and alternative, sustainable technologies. In its wake volunteers were settling, rebuilding off grid ruins in the village above the oasis created by the spring of the Rio Aguas. A beautiful place with lovely people doing good work.

3 decades on we saw how much had grown and been restored as we followed the signs of a PR walking route down through the houses and gardens to the fecund waterway below.

The emerging waters of the Rio Aguas once powered the derelict water mills, producing flour and oil from the crops irrigated by the system of acequitas , water channels, still working now to feed the gardens. Thick stands of bamboo like cana thrive in the damp surrounds, used for a multitude of tasks. Cool pools among the sparkling boulders give blessed relief from the summer sun and are home to endangered turtles. We followed the path passed a little house blended to the rock to the birthplace of the river, and then on up to the top of the Rio Aguas gorge.

The huge areas of dry fields and terraces, dying trees and abandoned fincas around us told a sorry tale of climate change and hardship but a man we coincidentally ran into walking his 8 dogs through the hills told us a sadder one.

David Dene is a fellow we helped 30 years ago to clear paths and build walls as he started a life in Los Molinos and it was good to know he was still there. Over the years he has become more of a prominent environmental activist, fighting at local, European and United Nations levels on a number of issues. He told us of the irreparable damage being done to the Rio Aguas spring and its downstream ecosystem by the massive amount of water extraction from the aquifer that feeds it. The fossil waters laid down 1000’s of years ago are being sucked out of the ground at a rate of 200 times what is available to irrigate rapidly expanding ” super intensive” olive plantations between Tabernas and Sorbas.

First established in 2007, over the next 10 years the area planted multiplied 20 fold and its estimated that now 5000 ha are under super intensive production. The olives are grown in continuous dwarf hedges that are mechanically planted, pruned and harvested at a density of 1,500 to 2,000 trees per ha as opposed to the traditional rain fed terraces density of 60-100 trees per ha.

With each tree being fed 10l of water and chemicals to maximise cropping the aquifer is being drained of approx 40 million litres a day. If it takes 50 years for a drop of rain falling in Tabernas to make its way underground to the Rio Aguas spring in Los Molinos you can imaging the effect of this ” absolute unsustainability”. Water has run from the ground there at a average rate of 40 l per second for generations, now it’s down to 7 l per second.

” An agricultural bubble with virtual water has been created”

The economics are shortsighted in the extreme. It costs about €6000 a hectare to set up a super intensive plantation. Cropping begins after only 3 years and they reckon it pays for itself in 6. They are even grubbing up irrigated groves to plant super intensive, super water hungry industrial estates of olives. It’s calculated that the aquifer will be dry in 10 years. They are now drilling 400m looking for water in a headlong rush to desertification.

The farmers/ multinationals often refer to the water saving technological advances of the drip feed systems they employ. Unfortunately the Jevon Paradox states ” As technological improvement increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, an increase in consumption of that resource is more likely than a decrease”.

The result, for David Dene and the rest of the people of Los Molinos and surrounding villages, is that in 5 or 6 years the spring will stop flowing, Europe’s only true Oasis will dry up and ecocide will occur.

Still, David and other campaigners fight on and one can only hope that sense, and law, will prevail and the madness , driven by our wanton consumption, will cease.

Bidding farewell we carried on across the esparto covered landscape, crossing the Barranco del Tesoro on the Puente La Mora. On the old track to Sorbas the origins of the bridge are unknown but it was written about in 1573. There were plenty of deep karstic sink holes about and we needed to watch our step.

After following the cliff tops for awhile we started to descend into the barranco through an abandoned hamlet that quietly crumbles whilst life hurtles past on the motorway constructed above.

We were back at the Rio Aguas and now we looked apprehensively at the tranquil turtle pools before following the waters upstream to Los Molinos and the camper.

We moved a little north east to park up at another deserted village where we started our last hike of the trip in the morning.

Marchalico- Vinicas was left alone in 1969 when its last inhabitants finally followed those that had been leaving for a decade. The gypsum mines no longer needed the manual labour, the water was too chalky to drink and it was generally too tough to make it on your own up there. Nowadays the motorway roars at the foot of the hill but then there were no roads. The nearest doctor was a 4 hr donkey ride away over unmade tracks.

Our path wound through the couple of dozen buildings, the ghosts of hard lives embedded in the twinkling gypsum they were constructed with and from.

At the top of town was a fine bread oven and above that an era, or threshing circle, used to process the grains they could grow here in the days of rain. Wheat, barley, carob, almond and olive on the terraces, more fruit and veg in the gardens below. And sheep and goats shepherded from place to place.

As we continued up and across the high plateau of esparto grass, stopping to look at the results of events on a geological timescale- the gypsum blisters or tumuli and sink holes colonised by fig- I mused on lives becoming unsustainable in a far shorter period. Marchalico- Vinicas was only 100 years old when it could no longer support it’s inhabitants.

After weeks of walking through vast areas of irrigated crops across a very dry Spain , and learning the fate of the Rio Aguas , it is no surprise to read that climate change / human activity has led desertification to seriously effect a third of Spain. I fear the symbolism of the abandoned movie sets could be profound.

BADLANDS: Desierto de Tabernas

I think the Tabernas desert was where I first fell in love with Spain. 30 ish years ago, on tour with young lads in our old Dodge van, we parked up way down a sandy track amid the remains of an adobe film set. Surrounded by the surreal landscape of fluted slopes of grey and ribbed crests of pale yellow, gorges, gulches and clefts, we spent days exploring this otherworld. Looking for scorpions and tarantulas – with an eye out for bandits, or Indians, on the skyline. Most afternoons, if the wind was right, we would hear gunshots and shouts in the distance. We built a bread oven against the wall of the chapel bell tower and soaked in sunshine.

A setting for fantasy, under a big blue sky, the wide open spaces offered a possibility of some kind of freedom. Harsh and wild, ancient and epic. Awesome.

We returned this week for a few days rambling in the ramblas, the dry river beds that coil and snake their way through the eroded terrain.

A seabed 8 million years ago, as the Sierra Alhamilla to the south and the Sierra Filabres to the north rose up the area became a giant lake or inland sea. As the waters slowly evaporated the bottom layers of mud and sandstone ,marl and gravel were exposed and slowly, over a geological timescale, became eroded by wind and water into the extraordinary landscape we set off to explore.

After parking at Mini Hollywood, one of the 3 or 4 Western movie sets open as tourist attractions in the area with daily shoot outs and can can girls in the saloons, it was fitting to soon come across a lone cowboy in the creek below.

Generally accepted as being Europe’s only desert, with under 250mm rainfall a year and temperatures from -5 to 48 degrees averaging 17c, it’s an inhospitable environment whilst at the same time being strangely attractive.

The arid climate, infertile soils and constant erosion ensured that this was always marginal agricultural land and the declining rainfall and economic realities drove most settlers out decades ago, leaving only scattered and crumbling walls of cortijo and terrace and enigmatic canals carved through the rock.

The 280sq km of the desert was made a Natural Site in 1989 and have been since been declared an SAC (special area of conservation), an SPA (special protection area- for the bird life) and an SCI (site of community interest) although the hostile and unstable nature of the place maybe its best defence. When we ventured above the riverbed to the cliff tops we discovered a labyrinth of eroded holes and flushed out gullys where water had created a Swiss cheese landscape.

A collection of beehives surprised us, wondering where the nectar was to be found. Amazingly there were still traces of water in some of the deep ravines and they supported tamarisk, oleander, some broom and other endemic plant life. We climbed down into a reed bed that also had strange coral fungi like life forms emerging through the salty crust of sand.

We were grateful of GPS and app assisted navigation in this warren of possible pathways. As the sun gave up and darkness encroached we climbed out of the maze under the baleful gaze of the wolf moon to sleep beside the ghosts of the good, the bad and the ugly.

A full days hike of 18km started in the cold light of dawn as the full moon sank into the eucalyptus.

From the back of Fort Apache a set of partially collapsed wooden steps wound down the Barranco del Grillo and into occasional trickling waters in the Rambla de Genaro where salt encrusted flora tenaciously survive.

The Mesa like landforms reminded us of the American southwest but also the Sinai desert, no wonder the location has been used in over 300 movies to portray both as well as Australia, North Africa and fictional landscapes past and future. After diverting down the Rambla de Tabernas we reached the Oasis de El Cautivo, created for movies, as was the Oasis of Lawrence of Arabia a little further on.

The illusion of being deep in the Wild West or the land of Exodus was somewhat diluted by having to go under the Puente del Cautivo and the A92 motorway whose background hum was more of a presence than we liked when we clambered up from the deep ravine of Rambla de Otero.

The geological wonders of our surroundings were astounding. The forms, patterns and shapes created by time, wind, water, pressure and gravity were seemingly infinite and beautiful. The softer marls and sandstones weathered away to leave harder conglomerate rock sitting high and (very) dry. The movement of strata under irresistible force over irrepressible time made a gracefully slow dance through waves and curves.

Climbing up to the top of the rambla we reached the higher tableland of Llanos de las Salinas with salt pans and waterfall of salt travertine and the towering Torre de Hades with a yin/ yang of rocks at its base.

Back down to a tunnel under the motorway where a gallon water container, (not the first stash we had spotted and wondered if they were placed to aid those arriving illegally to the shores of Almeria), and some delicate flowers prompted thoughts of life’s fragility in this harsh place.

A long meander up the narrowing cleft of the Arroyo Verdelecho led us up again to a eucalyptus grove and the abandoned movie set of Rancho Leone and further, the lower ranking attraction of Western Leone with its bizarrely shaped tipis.

The final quarter of the hike took us high around the shoulder of scrubby hills and back down again to the Rambla Tabernas before emerging once again at the strange combination of zoo and cowboy.

Discovering a track beside the “fun park” we headed for the hills- to a park up with a view.

A short walk further up into the Sierra Alhamilla in the morning took us through more eroded earthforms and rock formations with subtle changes in colouration and far reaching desert vista to a small roadside shrine encapsulated within a hollow boulder.

Time to move off, further east, away from the motorway to the lands north of Tabernas and a 13km route around the Valle del Buho,( Valley of the Owl).

Leaving town on a dusty track past crumbling remains of abandoned cortijos through small scrubby groves of drying olives we climbed slowly and surely above the vast flat plain of the Valley Buho.

The farms below looked in a parlous state but seemed to be still trying whilst those at the top of the escarpment seemed to have given up the ghost entirely. Traditionally the higher ground was for growing esparto grass. The high cellulose content made superior paper and was a major industry along with more fibercraft work production of baskets, sacks, rope, fishing nets, beehives, harnesses, sandals and clothing. The introduction of plastic killed off the livelihoods of many and the lowering of annual rainfall and unproductive extensive systems have seen the end of grain as a crop. It was sad to walk across the abandoned terraces and grain threshing eras and reflect on the efforts of previous generations to wrest a productive living from those soils.

Back down at the valley bottom we followed the Rambla del Buho in the footsteps of Indiana Jones on his Last Crusade to the bizarre saline outcrops of Llano de Benavidas. Seeing the wide washed out area and flattened scrubs reminded me that when it does rain here the force of floodwater is horrendous. You don’t wanna be in a rambla in a thunderstorm.

It’s something like the geographical equivalent of culture shock to emerge from those landforms into a man made world of flat surfaces, rectangular buildings and unnatural colour but I guess we are an adept species and so we left the giant rocks on the slope of La Tortuga (The Turtle) and before long we were back in the camper heading to our next destination, the Karst en Yesos de Sorbas Natural Area, where more wonders, and sadness, awaited.

CAMINO MOZARABE: Granada to Baena 3

Our last leg, at 26km the longest of the trip, started pre dawn in Alcaudete and ended back at the camper in Baena. From the back alleys we wound our way to the plaza below the castle wall entrance and the blue lit ayuntimento where we got a stamp in our pilgrims ” credencial”.

As the light grew and the streaks of red tattered cloudlings turned pink we left the towering fortress and descended once again into the sea of green. A never ending carpet of olives blanketing the swelling hills and washing up on the uncultivated high tops.

The freezing night left a legacy of frost that highlighted the agricultural art of the groomed groves.

Under the main road we headed off on a frosted track adorned with seed heads and frozen stalks and the first fragile iris’s.

We walked a line sandwiched between olive plantation and solar farm, an interesting intersection of past and present, tradition and innovation and endangered and sustainable.

For days we had been walking through a very dry Andalucia and yet the growth of new irrigated plantations continues. The region produces 80% of Spain’s and 30% of global olive oil. 900,000 tonnes a year. Plus 380,000 tonnes of table olives. They take up 85% of the land. 70 million trees- 1.5 million ha- the biggest tree plantation in Europe. The defining historical, cultural, agricultural and economic feature of this huge area of Spain. But there are many danger signs.

Water is running out. Teresa Ribera, Spain’s Ecological Transition Minister says that southern Spain will see a drop of 40% in water resources by 2050 with increases in drought and desertification. Over exploitation of natural aquifers and illegal digging of 500,000 boreholes are leading to disaster. Every effort to control wanton water use is met with fierce and powerful resistance. 50 years ago 5% of olive production was irrigated. In 2015 it was 20.6%. Now it’s 35%. At a time when there is less and less water available.

The temptations are obvious but shortsighted. By irrigating it’s possible to increase yields from 2 -5000 kg/ha to up to 15,000 kg/ha. But studies have shown that it can increase compaction, erosion, loss of organic matter and leaching of nitrates and phosphates into groundwater, 28% of which is now close to or above potability levels. Over half of the olive plantations are on a slope of more than 10 degrees – making them very vulnerable to erosion given the usual clearance of all vegetation around the trees.

So much seemed at stake as we continued on up over sandy lifeless hills and down into dry river valleys, and past empty reservoirs and lagoons. The stark sight of abandoned homesteads seemed a fitting symbol for past and possible future.

The investments in the olive oil industry have been huge – in the grubbing up of old and replanting with new varieties, the machinery and mechanisation of the harvesting and building of new and bigger milling and processing plants. World consumption has skyrocketed and foodie fetishes have developed. In contrast to the industrial and intense mass production of the oil in most kitchens is the El Poaig oil from hand picked olives on the millennial trees of the El Maestrat region of Catalonia and Valencia. The registered and protected ” arboles monumentales”, from 1000 to 2500yr old produce an olive whose oil sells for €160 for a 500 ml bottle.

There are some hopeful signs of change as grant schemes are introduced to support more sustainable methods and the Andalucian regional government has presented a draft ” Law of Olive Groves” with sustainable management as one of its chief targets.

There is a burgeoning Olive Tourism sector with interested people paying for stays on farms, visits to mills, oil treatments in spas, tasting sessions, cooking courses and olive picking “experiences”. They want something authentic, traditional, organic and sustainable. Philippe Starck the designer is promoting this idea in a big way. His company LAOrganic already has a 25 ha Oleotourism attraction outside of Ronda where you can stay and taste and spend and has started building an €11 million organic oil mill there.

Nearing the end of our journey we rested awhile on the Via Verde cycling route on the old railway line overlooking the sadly dry wetland of Laguna del Conde before climbing the last long rise and finally, with the end in sight, passing the belching processing plant we had left 5 days before. Up through the scrubby wastelands of semi developed suburbia and back to our thankfully unmolested camper.

For a finish the next day we visited a remarkable site. Discovered under a hilltop olive grove not far from Baena was the Roman town of Torreparedones. Years of excavation have revealed hidden splendours from 2000 years ago when the Romans were planting olives here and exporting the oil back to Rome in huge quantity. So much that a 50 m hill near the port there was found to be almost entirely made up of 53 million amphora from Spanish oil.! It’s been going on a long time.

One of the remarkable finds was a temple devoted to Iberian/ Roman god Juno where the North/ South axis and clever construction made for mid summer and mid winter noon sunlight displays.

Who knows what lies beneath as you walk the Camino Mozarabe.

CAMINO MOZARABE: Granada to Baena 2

We left Moclin pre dawn, without going the extra metres to explore the fortress or church built on the site of the ancient mosque, and under the watchful gaze of the many Moorish lookout towers perched atop hills for miles around, we descended to the valley below. We past some spectacular via ferrata routes up imposing cliffs and a tranquil fuente and wash house.

We were heading for Alcala la Real, a hike of 22km, through a landscape of rugged rounded hills , wide valleys and high plains all carpeted with olive and fruit trees, fields of grain and grass , crops of asparagus and gardens of lettuce, beans and potato.

It was a chilly start and a cloudier sky than the previous days but walking soon had us stripping off the layers. There was often the buzzing of machinery as the mechanised olive harvest continued and on the couple of sections on the road, the roar of traffic. We had seen the diggings of boar alongside the road and then, unfortunately, a roadkill. But there were also long stretches with just birdsong as we walked through the trees, along the tracks and passed the old ruined cortijos.

At one point near Ermita Nueva we stopped at a prize winning cheese maker and bought a big chunk of his sheep/ goat semi hard. Delicious. He was proud to give me a taste of his “all natural” wine which was also delicious so of course I bought a 2l bottle and left the place with a pack 2kg heavier. Just down the road we passed his brothers herd of goats, munching contentedly on olive leaf and twig- an unwanted byproduct of the harvest. In need of a rest and food and stimulants we tried a short cut to a garage/cafe/bar on the main road. All good until the final few metres when a deep and stinking arroyo blocked our way to nirvana. Nothing for it but to force our way through a jungle of king brambles and clamber over the ditch using fallen trees. And enjoy a brandy coffee.

Later we passed a massive solar farm under construction and looking back at it we saw our last view of the snow clad Sierra Nevada. And then on weary legs we were into the outskirts of Alcala, drawn towards the imposing castle and our room. Later on we hit the streets. It was Three Kings night. The next day was Epithany, a public holiday, and there was merriment to be had.

Another early start in the gloaming next morning with 23.5 km to do to Alcaudete. A rash of roadside crosses to start and then, as the day warmed up under blue skies, more tracks and trails through the multitude of olive formation planting. Driving through the area you might conclude that it was an homogenous, monotonous monoculture but at walking speed the differences in the details make for great variety of view and terrain.

It was sad to see the erosion of the soft sandy soils and sad to see the dying prickly pear but otherwise it was a beautiful days hike. We got to Alcaudete worried that we’d have no food again with all shops and restaurants shut for the holiday but just before our room was a fine bar and fine food. Fed and watered we could retire to our room and admire the view of the castle.

CAMINO MOZARABE: Granada to Baena 1

Off we go again. Continuing the Mozarabe from where we left off 2 years ago. This time it’s a 5 day, 105km pilgrimage through the olive trees of Granada and Córdoba provinces to meet the route from Malaga I walked 6 years ago at Baena.

We parked up there overlooking a massive 24/7 olive processing plant, and in the morning left the camper and took the bus back to Granada, found our first arrow, and set off through the suburbs and industrial estates and out onto the industrial farmland beyond.

At one point the route was blocked by drainage works and a young jobsworth tried to stop our progress before an old hand, seeing we were peregrinos, led us through towards Santiago. The power of the pilgrim! Looking back the snow covered Sierra Nevada slowly shrank as we walked beside deep irrigation channels of pretty foul smelling water and, after Atarfe and its monumental roundabout sculptures, beside the high speed railway line to Seville. We clambered up an embankment and entered Pinos Puente after 20km and 4 1/2 hrs walking. Not too bad for first day.

The hotel Montserrat looked after the pilgrims well giving us a 3 course dinner and a bottle of red for €10 each- and a fine bed to sleep on. Unfortunately we were dismayed by the huge amount of rubbish dumped on the roads and more shocking- in the river- as we made our way out of town in the morning on route to Moclin 16 km away.

The ornate ceiling of the bridge tower sheltered loads of swallow nests.

At last in open hilly countryside, but still on the road, we passed a ruined drying shed ( but had no idea what might be dried ) and poplar plantations , freshly pruned, growing alongside a river that offered the chance to swim in old mill ponds and natural rock pools – a bit cold today though with frost on the shadowed ground.

We finally turned off the tarmac at the ruined buildings of Cortijo Bucor. New huge concrete structures were being built hard against the crumbling originals, although the fine hacienda still seemed to be functioning, perhaps not its private chapel. There was a bit of an air of dereliction and it was sad to see way the dogs were confined- a familiar Spanish tale.

From there the Way led us through olive plantations on what looked like the original road. Still with cobbling intact in places in took us along the river valley on a track that rose and fell on the shoulder of the hills towards Olivares.

Crossing the river Velillos into town we had hoped for a cold drink but the bars were shut so we continued on. This was the hard but pretty stretch, a climb of 400 m up a track for 3.5 km to our destination.

We stopped for food and rests at the sadly somewhat derelict area recreativa and again higher up where an amazingly complex structure was also rather unloved.

A mirador higher again gave us views over the entire days hike as well as down into the dramatic river gorge and up to the Moorish fortress walls of Moclin. Neolithic cave paintings were found on the cliffs below the castle and have been recreated in signage and motifs around the village.

By the time we struggled the last few metres to our room for the night we had hiked over 16 km and the final climb had been tough. Our accommodation had been nicely renovated from ancient buildings and we looked forward to using the kitchen when the shop opened post siesta.

But it didn’t, and neither did the bar. No food, no drink. Luckily, whilst standing shocked outside the shop, the lady who had let us into our room appeared in the plaza and kindly gave us a couple of oranges and bananas and toms and eggs and tins of tuna and some bread. Praise be. The Camino provides.

But not alcohol!

EL SALTILLO-Getting high in Axarquia

A dramatic walking route opened in the Parque Natural de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama in October 2020 after many months construction. An old path following irrigation canals and pipes into the mountains above Canillas de Aceituno was transformed with a steel and timber suspension footbridge and other hanging walkways fixed to sheer cliff faces.

The €600,000 investment is hoped to bring in much needed tourist revenue to the area and it seems to be paying off. The day we tackled it the town at the start was busy with people with poles, and the pandemic has led to many more people exploring the vast natural areas away from the more crowded costa. In fact some places such as the Caminito del Rey and El Torcal have become a victim of their own success with long queues, traffic jams and overcrowding but we’ve always found that away from the honey pots Andalucia has space aplenty.

The walk starts in the Pueblo Blanco of Canillas de Aceituno at about 600m. If you just go to the bridge it’s a 8 km out and back but we were going to continue on and up to a mirador to make a hike of 11km.

After a quick coffee we followed the signs steeply out the back of the town on a route that continues to the summit of Maroma, at 2065m, the high point of Malaga province.

The way led up beside orchards and olive groves with the burbling waters of the acequia rushing along at our feet bringing life giving waters from the Sierra to the crops of the Axarquia.

Away from the town the surroundings got rugged rapidly with the path following the contours of the land through scented pines and Mediterranean scrub of gorse, thyme and esparto. The ridges of the mountains above us separate the provinces of Granada and Malaga, which we looked out over to the west, as we rested and watered at El Albercon pool.

The deep folds and convoluted ravines we crossed showed signs of former lives with ruined buildings clinging to the shaley slopes. There was mining in the past and fine sand was collected from the mixture of eroded gneiss, quartzite, schist and limestone.

At about 3km in the summit of Maroma came into view and shortly after the suspension bridge below us.

Things got interesting as we negotiated our first fixed steel walkway and signs warned of the dangers of falling. In fact a women had fallen to her death shortly after the trail was opened and you need to keep your wits about you.

The trail forked, to the left more walkways and a trail led around the mountain to meet the waters of the Rio Almanchares at waterfalls and pools while ours to the right took us steeply down on giant steps through the pines, to cross the ravine 80m above the river.

An impressive feat of engineering, the 55m long bridge is Spain’s 3rd longest and involved helicopters, zip wires and mules in its construction.

The easy bit was over and as most walkers stopped for snacks before they returned to town we continued up. More giant steps, and chains to cling to started to appear. We had a 300m climb ahead and those without a good head for heights had it tough.

With pounding heart and throbbing legs we reached a more level hill top before continuing on a stony path up through the sparse trees towards Maroma with glorious views south across the peaks to the Mediterranean and the Rif mountains of Morocco. The tell tale signs of snuffling boar were all around and a couple of our party briefly spotted a darting mongoose.

A small stone building of unknown purpose drew us to the top of the rise, over which lay our goal – the mirador, at 980m. This route is now linked to one of the 35 stages of the 750 km Gran Senda de Malaga, the GR249, a wild and wonderful trek I completed a few years ago and now attracting 2 million people a year to take on sections.

The expansive flagstone floor only had one, very welcome, bench to rest our weary limbs on as we soaked in the breathtaking vista of the fine fluted cliffs on the southern flank of Maroma, still high above us. The stunning views were a just reward for the effort put in to reach them, and just as good on our way back.

A great day out on a stunning route under a blue sky accompanied by the sounds of water, the scents of pine and thyme and the taste of adventure.

SIERRA de GRAZALEMA

South of Seville, east of Cádiz lies the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema, a 500sq km UNESCO Biosphere. 10 ” white villages” of Moorish origin are tucked defensively into the rugged folds of the high limestone peaks, 20 of which surpass 1000 m. The Sierra is the western tail end of the Cordillera Betica, the range we were hiking in 300km further east in the Sierra Mágina. Like the Mágina region this was the frontier between Muslim and Christian territories in the 13th to 15th centuries which explains the formidable positioning and also the names of the many towns called ” ….de la Frontera”.

Although relatively small the park is immensely varied. Towering bald grey peaks and vertical cliffs lead down through deep clefts and gorges, through thick forests of holm, gall and cork oaks to grape and nut and olive plantations with lush grassy meadows and fields of grain.

The mountains are the first high ground encountered by the wet winds from the Atlantic and the rain that is dumped on them make this the wettest area in Spain and the greenest in Andalucia. The favourable micro climate enables 1/3 of all plant species in Spain to thrive here, many endemic, which in turn encourages a wealth of bird life. Referred to as an ornithological wonderland the sky is often full of wheeling raptors soaring on the updrafts above the cliffs.

Although the land is productive with cow and goat cheeses, honey, wine, oil, grain and regional crafts of wool, cork, leather and esparto grass are still strong the area has been through hard times. A testament to the rural exodus of the mid 20 th century are the forlorn and crumbling cortijos returning to the land from which they were built.

Tourism, particularly of the green variety, is helping to keep the region vibrant and droves descend on holidays and weekends from far and wide to explore and enjoy the natural beauty. So much so that permits are needed to hike 4 of the trails in the inner 30sq km “area de reserva”, the most spectacular and protected part of the park and even these are normally closed completely from July to October.

We managed to secure permits for 3 of the 4 walks at the Park info centre in El Bosque and with maps of other routes for later we set off on our first, the Sendero El Pinsapar.

From the parking and picnic area of Las Canteras high up on the road that twists and turns it’s way over the mountains from Grazalema to Zahara de la Sierra the 11km route climbs up through a pine forest planted to hold back the erosion the areas high rainfall can cause. The ground was coated thickly in the long needles cast off by the trees and we wondered if their acidifying effect on the limestone beneath would eventually create a neutral ph loam.

After a climb of around 300m we reached a pass at Puerto de las Cumbres, a natural gateway to the northern flank of the mountain where the route continued west on a much more level gradient half way between the valley floor below and the summits high above us. Pico San Cristobal stood out dramatically with fast moving cloud scudding across the blue around it and the mighty buttress of El Torreón, the highest peak of the Parque at 1654m loomed in the distance. A strong buffeting wind forced us on along a rocky path toward the sheltering Pinsapo trees.

The Park’s UNESCO Biosphere status was granted primarily because of the huge stand of the rare Spanish fir, the Pinsapo, here. It only grows in the Sierras Grazalema, Bermeja further south near the coast and Nieve, where we had first discovered it last year. A relic that has survived since before the last ice age it had dwindled to a total of about 700ha but successful conservation and re afforestation programmes have increased its area to over 5000ha.

“Discovered” by Swiss botanist Pierre Boisser in 1837 these prehistoric trees can live from 200 to 500 years so some of these veterans had been here a long time. Sadly climate warming has made them more susceptible to dying from a fungal attack and future planting may need to move to the colder Sierra Nevada and Cazorla.

With a couple of hours till sunset we left the shady heart of the forest and returned to the col passing an ancient snow pit used for centuries to store ice and many trees adorned with large clumps of purple berried mistletoe.

Climbing higher up the switchback road in the morning to the pass of Puerto de las Palomas at over 1300m we stopped at the mirador for breakfast before zig zagging down the northern side weary of the awesome drop close beside us.

The stamped and signed permit allowing us to hike the Sendero La Garganta Verde remained unseen as we started the trail a little later.

The Green Ravine has been slowly carved for millennia by the Bocaleones stream down through the limestone until now, although only 10m wide in places it reaches 400m deep. Sheep grazed unperturbed as we made our way through the thick Mediterranean scrub of broom, wild olive, gorse, mastic, palms and scented herbs. This inner reserve seemed particularly verdant and the plenty full bird life could feast on the heavy crops of fruits and berries.

At a warning sign the path started a steep descent into the gorge, at times on stone steps laid or carved and aided by sturdy handrails. The views below into the depths and above to craggy cliff tops were dramatic.

100 pairs of griffon vultures live above the ravine, the largest colony in Europe, and they constantly took flight from their eyries, riding the thermal updrafts and gliding to and fro on their 8ft wingspans. As we ventured deeper between the towers of rock the air became cooler, more humid, and a silence descended as the breeze was cut off. The Ermita or cave just above the canyon floor revealed itself, clothed in the curious formations of limewater sculpture and the pink and greenish colouration caused by algae action.

Finally reaching the shady still floor thick with oleander, laurel and poplar, our voices bounced back and forth on the canyon walls as we admired the natural stone carving of the Arroyo Bocaleones before starting on the laborious return to the top.

After a night in a room with a view in Zahara de la Sierra overlooking the sadly pretty empty reservoir we returned to the heart of the exclusion zone armed with our final permit- to the Sendero Llanos del Rabel. This easy trail on a wide and smooth forest track goes deep into an area of thick oak forest with views towards the Garganta Verde one way and the El Torreón massif on the other.