Hiking in Andalucia

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.

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 MÁGINA

About 550km south of the Canon del Rio Lobos is the Parque Natural de Sierra Mágina. Established in 1989 the 20,000 hectare protected area is in the province of Jaen. Named by the Moors as the Mountains of the Spirits its rugged limestone peaks reach over 2000 m and are surrounded by the largest olive growing area in Spain. The Jaen province produces 50% of Spain’s production and 20% of the world total. That’s a lot of picking. Over half a million hectares of olive trees.

The Sierra rises up out of the sea of olives in distinct layers of altitude levels. Forests of pines and oaks give way to juniper, yew and a rich mix of flora species, 45 of which are endemic to the region such as the hedgehog broom. The Sierra’s particular ecosystems and climatic niches make it one of the most important environments in Spain and also support endemic fauna such as the rare black cork oak spider, a snail that lives in fissures in the rocks and a high altitude grasshopper. We were disappointed not to sight the rare Betica midwife toad.

For hundreds of years the Sierra was the natural border between the Muslim kingdom of Granada and Christian Castilla and the fortifications and castles from that period still loom over the land.

We parked up above one of the best preserved and oldest in Andalucia in Jódar hoping to visit it and the parks information centre inside but it remained stubbornly closed throughout all advertised opening hours. But the view was good.

Moving on into the park in the morning we drove up to the Area Recreativa Cuadros and walked through the river side oleander forest that housed many shady picnic tables and benches and up on paths of needles and stone into the pines.

We were on the Las Vinas trail, named after the vineyards that predominated here until the late 19th c when the phylloxera epidemic wiped out that livelihood. A 10 km loop it circled up above the River Cuadros valley through the pines and back down through the olives. The woods were thick with the mastic shrub, Pistacia Lentiscus, from which the sap would be harvested by cutting the bark and turned into a substance for everything from chewing gum to varnish.

The aromatic incense juniper was another common species while the colourful leaves of maples reminded us of the season.

Emerging from the trees the views of mountain and plain opened up and the noise of the petrol engined olive rakes buzzed from below.

We stopped at a fuente and were joined by the GR 7 /E4 walking route, on its way across Europe to Greece. Then we continued on a track through the groves on a spur to visit the 11th century Torreón de Cuadros, the Chequered Tower – so called because of its two tone appearance due to its construction of stone from two different quarries.

Jaen province has the highest concentration of castles and defensive buildings in Spain and this 12m high watchtower with its arrow slits stood high over the gorge- guarding the Muslim/ Christian frontier.

Returning to the loop we managed to find our way on an unmarked route back to the oleander forest,( Europe’s biggest!), along an acequia which involved a 50m tunnel.

Back in the camper we drove around to the southern side of the park and high up on rough dirt roads, past the Area Recreativa Gibralerca, and on to a fine high park up amidst the Holm oak, with sunset views over the highest peaks of the Sierra.

With the help of walking app Wikiloc I had sorted another 10km loop for the morning but this one involved a bigger elevation gain to reach a summit called Pico de la Laguna at 1525m. Setting off down the track in the morning it was still frosty in the shady ravines but we certainly warmed up when scrambling up the steep firebreak for 400m to follow the ibex we saw running across the rocky shoulder towards the mountain top.

The view more than rewarded our efforts with a magnificent 360 covering a vast area of Andalucia. But the cold wind moved us on over the mountain towards a forest fire lookout station on a lower peak to the northeast. Even on this inhospitable high ground there were signs of land management with traces of stone wall and flat areas of cleared high pasture and coppice Holm oaks.

Down past the herbage manicured by animal teeth and up to the lonely lookout, empty now, perhaps out of season, perhaps the lookout is busy picking olives from the multitude below.

A longer decent on the firebreak and we were on track to the camper again giving us time to visit the park info centre at nearby Mata Bejid where the reconstruction model of our walks did not seem quite so epic as they had appeared to us.

SIERRA DE LAS NIEVES

A short journey of 15 km inland from the busy beaches and constant consumerism of Marbella on the Costa del Sol takes you to another world and the southern edges of the Parque Natural Sierra de las Nieves, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve of nearly 100,000 hectares.

We made 2 hiking trips to explore the park between lockdowns after finding a long distance route, the GR 243, traverses the area from Istan in the south to Ronda in the north, over 6 sections and 122 km with a couple of variants.

We discovered we could do a 3 day triangle at the southern end and avoid transport complications.

Leaving our car near the Cerezal recreation area outside of Ojen we headed off on the GR variant and PR-A 167 route to Istan.

Ojen is one of the half dozen or so tranquil whitewashed villages and towns surrounding the park that were Moorish strongholds and still retain the crumbling fortresses of the reconquest era. With a wealth of minerals to exploit in the Sierra’s rocky interior the area was at the forefront of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Hard to imagine nowadays when the decreasing population is drawn to employment down on the coast. Ojen’s main export now is a anise like spirit that bizarrely is particularly popular in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

First few Kms were a rocky scramble up a dry stream bed and on a lovely path through a forest of pine with distinctive peaks rising above us. As the sun climbed and the heat rose so did the strong scents of pine needles and oil and I recalled the studies of the positive effects on the mental and physical health of “forest bathing” and the phytoncides, the chemicals emitted by the trees.

Emerging onto a forestry track on a high level plain planted with a variety of conifers and eucalyptus we passed a number of weekend walkers and a few parties of mushroom gatherers- all of whom had dogs that made us wonder if they used them to sniff out the fungi. They seemed to have been successful anyway and had baskets brimming with a mushroom similar to chanterelles that we were told bled red juice when cut with a knife.

Climbing a narrow rocky path up and over the ridge we found ourselves in wild untamed country with a vista of peaks disappearing into the cloud. The extent of the park became apparent. When originally designated in 1989 the Natural Park was 78sq miles and this was increased to cover 362 sq miles on achieving World Biosphere Reserve status in 1995.

We had passed signs warning us that our route demanded physical fitness, good mountain orienteering skills and experience and we began to see why when we started to clamber down the descent towards Istan on a, luckily dry, stream bed, the Canada de Juan Ingles gorge. Tricky going but rewarded by the magnificent views and flora, particularly the dwarf or fan palms and the masses of aromatic rosemary, thyme and lavender.

Istan is a place of water boasting numerous springs, fountains, pools, the rivers Verde and Molinos and a network of ancient irrigation channels built by the Moors. Once a place of great wealth with a thriving silk industry and forests of white mulberry, walnuts and oak, hillsides of vineyards producing wine and raisins that bought ships from France and England, all changed when after the rebellion and defeat of the Moricos ( Muslim converts to Christianity) in the mid 16th century the area was practically uninhabited until Christian settlers from other areas in Spain took over the old Moorish properties.

The next leg was a longer but easier 20km trek on mostly good tracks to Monda, over the Canada del Infierno and the high point of Puerto de Moratan at 600m.

Leaving town on a road passed the Nacimiento ( the birth or spring) of the Rio Molinos we headed into the wild hinterland with remote houses dotted here and there in the folds of the hills.

A tiny tree had been dressed for Christmas on the track that took us eventually up to the pass and a helipad- maybe for forest fires or mountain rescue. The landscape seemed to hold more moisture with lush grasses accompanying the palms.

From the Puerto it was a long descent alongside a massive fenced and gated estate of forest, orchard and arable strips between rosemary covered scrubland.

Crossing a river bed on the outskirts of Monda we climbed an ancient cobbled track before arriving into town to find our bed by the loofah plants.

The final leg of the triangle back to Ojen was a 16 km combination of GR243 and GR249, my old trekking companion the Gran Senda de Malaga. Starting off on the trail we had arrived into town on, we soon diverted under the road and into a forested area, eventually turning off onto a steep overgrown track that climbed up and over the mountains separating the two towns.

The views all the way down to the coast awaiting at the top made up for the scratching and effort involved in getting there and the difficulty in scrambling down the steep path back down to the Cerezal recreation area and eventually , with relief, the hire car, still safely where we left it.

The Sierra is very shortly to become designated a National Park, the 1st in Malaga province- 3rd in Andalucia and 16th in Spain, an upgrading to the premier league of protected environments that will mean an increase in investment in infrastructure to develop responsible tourism such as visitor and nature education centres, lookout points and outdoor leisure facilities. The dozen or so towns in the area are hoping this will help stem the flow of outward emigration and bring increased employment possibilities.

The logistics of returning from a multi day linear walk put us off returning to the GR 243 so our next trip to the area was centered in a couple of spots from which we rambled on a number of routes deep into the Parks interior.

Staying at a mountain hotel high above the town of Tolox for a night enabled us to tackle a couple of great trails, the first of which, the PR-A 282 route to Las Cascades, took us in a 11km loop around the steep slopes, deep valleys, gullies, ravines and precipices typical of the landscape with the added attraction of some mighty waterfalls in full flow after some days of rain and snow.

Starting off from the Puerto del Monte we climbed a zig zag track way marked with yellow and white dashes up through the red peridotite rocks this area is renown for. The lower altitudes of the Sierra are made up of the worlds largest massif of this rare rockform. The impervious nature of the rock holds the water that nurtures the lush vegetation and creates the dramatic cascades.

Somewhat alarmed at the signs warning of “fording rivers, landslides and falling into voids” we carried on around the deep creases and folds to a series of cascades where the more adventurous enjoy canyoning and we were satisfied with sitting and picnicking.

Beautiful, and if it had been a bit hotter I might have managed a cold power shower. Instead we descended to the valley floor and tried to stay dry footed while crossing backward and forward over the river before climbing again to our starting point.

In the morning, stepping out of the Hotel Cerro de Hijar, we were off on the SL-A 229 Rio de los Horcajos, supposedly only 9 or 10 km but , as usual, working out a fair bit more. Another loop, this one took us up and over a pass to a steep sided valley that we descended into to follow the river down into Tolox and up again to the hotel.

Climbing over the pass we could see the snowy peaks of some of the parks higher mountains including La Torrecilla at 1920 m ( 6300ft) Malaga’s highest. On its limestone slope, at 1670m, is the entrance to the 3rd deepest cave shaft in the world, dropping vertically over 1000m. Known as GESM it is one of a great many caves and shafts in the limestone mountains and a great draw for potholers and cavers.

The steep valley slopes were covered with ancient, much pollarded chestnuts which along with holm, cork, gall and Portuguese oaks and pine carpeted the Sierra up to the snow line.

We followed a beautiful old stone track down through the shrub to the Rio Horcajos. The whole area is covered with a network of trails, as is much of rural Spain. These paths between villages have been used for hundreds of years by shepherds, goatherds, muleteers, charcoal makers, herders and travellers of all kinds forming a web of communication and information.

It wasn’t long before we came to a recreation area at the hermitage of the Virgin of the Snows where natural springs emerged from the ground to join the river that we followed into Tolox on a verdant path between rampant crops.

The river had once supplied the power for many mills in Tolox , for grain and olive oil, but nowadays the local sulfur rich waters of the Balneario o Fuente Amargosa emerge at a constant 21* and supply Spain’s only medicinal spa. Famous for the treatment of kidney and urinary problems by drinking and respiratory disease by inhaling the mildly radioactive vapours you need a doctors prescription for a 2 week treatment. The building was our last stop before a final leg aching climb back up to the hotel and car. Time to move on.

We were moving on to Finca las Morenas, an off grid farmhouse with accommodation run by a couple of Mediterranean garden designers who moved here after decades of working in London. In an isolated setting adjoining the Natural Park outside of Yunquera the converted sheds next to the 300 yr old farmhouse had been tastefully and thoughtfully renovated and featured many environmentally friendly features designed to save water and power. Situated at above 700 m it was a perfect spot from which to explore the upper reaches of the Sierra.

Our first trek from the finca took us into the pines on a foresters track that took us slowly up another 500 m to the Cueva del Aqua, the cave of water, and into the snow. Obviously the Sierra de las Nieves, the “Mountains of the Snows” have a reputation for getting a fair bit of the white stuff and there had been some heavy falls before we came.

This walk would also bring us for the first time into stands of the tree the park is famous for, the Abies Pinsapo, the Spanish Fir endemic to this region. “Discovered “in 1837 it is a botanical relic of the pre glacial period that by the 60’s was in danger of extinction due to felling but under protection they now cover an area of 5000 hectares. Some are National Monuments and hundreds of years old and are the emblem or symbol of the Natural Park but unfortunately a more subtle and pernicious effect of mankind’s damage to the environment could still be their downfall. An invisible fungus has been attacking and killing the trees whose natural resistance is thought to have been weakened by climate change and ecologists are calling for a seed bank to be created to ensure survival of the species.

We reached the cave after about 6 km and carried on up to a picnic spot with a view before returning to explore it on our way back down to the finca. Deep enough to provide plenty of shelter for goatherds and their flocks the walls bore the smoke stains of countless fires.

Next day we set off to drive up to the Mirador Puerto Saucillo above Yunquera to do a hike up to Penon Enamorados ( Lovers Crag/Rock) the second highest peak in the Sierra at 1760m. Unfortunately the road up had been blocked half way up by local police adding another 6 km and 300 m ascent to our days walk.

After a chocolate break on reaching the mirador at 1240m we set off on a yellow and white marked route the PR-A 351 and were immediately immersed into the snowy landscape that had long been a source of industry with the building of snow pits and the subsequent transportation ,by mule ,of snow and ice all over the province.

Chilly enough in the shade but climbing up out of the forest and onto more open rocky ground we were able to bask in the sun and take in the far ranging vistas.

The crisp clear air, bright sun and dazzling white snow made the views over the surrounding Sierras to the distant coast even more dramatic and awe inspiring as we climbed across an icy slope studded with occasional lonely Pinsapos and recently planted galloaks towards the “wedding cake” pile of Enamorados.

We were truly blessed with the conditions as we reached our goal at 1745m, happy to picnic at the bottom of the pile of rocks below the summit and take in the view of Torrecilla, another 200 m higher. Another time.

Our return leg to the mirador was on a smaller track across a coll, and along a ridge and then down to the bottom of the valley, at times a slippery slide down snowy slopes. The trail, invisible beneath its white blanket was thankfully marked by many stone cairns, leading us back into the Pinsapo forest past tracks in the snow, the nearest we got to seeing any of the deer, boar, goat or muflon that are among the rich variety of fauna living in this wilderness.

We had discovered yet another area of Spain worthy of more exploration and will have to return. So many wonders. So little time.

CAMINO MOZARABE: Almeria to Granada 5

Tocon to Granada.

Both of the last two stages of our journey on the Mozarabe from Almeria were spectacular and we were glad we had given ourselves the extra time that the stop in Tocon had allowed. It would have been a long haul from Peza to Quentar in one go, as it was we only had 16 km from one albergue to the next. As we walked past the big walnut trees below the bar, whose nuts the family had been cracking as we’d had dinner the night before, a woodpecker was hammering away in the branches above us.

We walked out of the village on the road for a km or so then turned up through boar churned woodland to a sparsely vegetated hillside and rejoined the original Quéntar route along a gravel track that climbed higher and higher.

Juniper appeared amid the white crazed rock that covered the landscape and we followed the track in a massive zig zag down to an area recreativa among riverside poplar trees.

Climbing again we passed through a pine wood that had been tapped for its resin. This thick sap like substance produces both rosin and turpentine. Apparently demand is on the increase because the natural material substitutes pollutant petroleum derivatives.

Higher and higher the track led us to more and more spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada’s and the hills that enveloped us. New benches,map boards and post and rail fencing were signs that there was a fair investment in encouraging this Camino route or hiking the area in general.

And then we finally reached the highest point of the entire route at the bizarre surroundings of an old talc mine. 1418m high with views across to the highest peaks in mainland Spain, covered in a smooth shiny white blanket.

What goes up must come down, and so we started our descent towards Quentar, passed some lovely fincas set among a sea of olives.

The almonds were flowering nicely as we approached the village, busy with bees from the hives we’d seen higher up the trail. Soon enough we were in the town and installed in our little hut complete with a tiny terrace in the sun.

Our last day. Quentar to Granada 20km.

Following the yellow arrows down through the town in the morning we reached the river and turned along it, watching the ducks ride the mini rapids beside us. Turning up a narrow verdant path that led to a series of well watered gardens and orchards we soon reached Dudar, a village celebrating its saints day and the origin of all the fireworks that we’d heard in our cabin the night before.

Up again out of the village steeply for 200m altitude gain, to arrive at the remains of impressive French engineering works from the 19th century. A major water syphoning system to bring irrigation from one hilltop to another.

We reached the ridge and enjoyed a long hike along the easy track soaking up the distant vistas as explosions from Dudars celebrations echoed around the mountains. For once we were sharing the Way, with weekend runners, cyclists, walkers and motor-bikers.

It was getting busy. And getting cloudy/ smoggy- we weren’t sure. But we were above the thick blanket that covered Granada. Our route turned down off the ridge, towards the ruins of a massive Jesuit monastery surrounded by olive groves that were being harvested by a gang of men and a lot of machinery, including the tree shaking tractors with the encircling funnel screens (you’d have to see them).

We nearly lost our way crossing the olive grove-( grove seems to imply somewhere small and intimate and not the immense and poisoned industrial scale monoculture they so often are) but followed the incline down to the rushing waters of the Darro river and a lush path to the gardens of the Sacromonte abbey.

Suddenly we reentered a world of people after 10 days of near solitude. Saturday in Granada is busy of course and we had to adjust quickly as we moved through the throngs in the old city beneath the Alhambra and played spot the Camino sign in the centre.

The various arrows and apps deposited us outside the doors to a church in the corner of the huge monastery of Santiago. We were in the wrong part of the convent but saw all the St James symbols and headed in to get our credentials stamped for the final time.

The place was full of a wedding party- whoops- so Sally waited with the packs outside and, assured by someone who seemed to know that yes , this was the place, I ventured in. I was confronted by all the wedding guests posing in front of the ornate gold leaf alterpiece and was pressed upon to become the wedding photographer on their cameras. After performing my duties to their satisfaction I squeezed through the crowds and managed to get a nun to get our credentials stamped and returned to me in the crush of celebrants. Job done. Time for a selfie.

A slightly surreal ending to a great weeks hiking on what is now my favorite Camino route.

CAMINO MOZARABE : Almeria to Granada 4

Guadix to Tocon

Our first section of the two to Tocon was one of the most surprising to us, with great contrasts in scenery when we had been expecting a long slog across the plain. I guess the profile should have told us.

Of course it worked out a little further according to the GPS by which time Sally’s foot was giving her some pain which took the edge off some the pleasure of walking through such natural splendors.

After a nice night at the man made splendors of the Guadix albergue and admiring the grand edifices of its glory days we followed the signage out of town.

A last minute stop off in a cafe for a peregrine breakfast, we were pleasantly surprised that it seemed to be run by social services and our two big tostadas with tomato and olive oil, two cafe con leches and two fruit salads cost us €3.80. The Camino provides! Suddenly we were away from the buildings on a dirt track that led up into eroded hills surrounding good flat farmland- with tractors and even a combine harvester hold up in holes ( in the rock- alongside old abandoned cave houses).

A beautiful stretch followed all the way to Purullena, about 7 km, of an up and down sandy track through pine trees with the “badlands” on either side. The erosion had created gorges that got narrower around us and we found ourselves in a winding tunnel of towering sandstone with openings many meters high.

The old abandoned holes became transformed into a thriving housing sector very shortly when we arrived into town. We had wanted to see the inside of a contemporary cave and the opportunity arose almost strait away with a three story museum right on our path.

The owner explained that the cave houses, with doors and windows shut were pretty constant about 16 or 17 degrees maybe 18-19 in summer. And even in the terrible rain and floods of the recent Storm Gloria the houses stayed perfectly dry owing to the iron content in the fine clay. The structure of the material is such that the ceilings ,and all inside spaces, will hold up as long as the rules governing proportions are adhered to. 40% of the people in his town live in caves and most of the good clay hills have been used. But there is a lot of renovation going on- and some expansion. Must be tricky when your extension is over someone’s bedroom. It would seem a logistical and legal quagmire but he seemed to see no problems and thought it an ideal building method. Another bedroom? Dig away! Another story? A little trickier but no material costs!

The middle floor was laid out as a home of maybe 50 years ago and the final, upper floor was stuffed full of ethnological artifacts.

We’d spent too long there and hurried on, on paths and tracks between small fields of fruit veg grapes and grain to Marchal, another troglodyte town that was making great efforts to be attractive to visitors and especially, pilgrims.

A high road past amazing rock formations and lovely wood and farmland with bueno vistas took us up in quick succession to Los Banos, with a wealth of hotels and hostals servicing people who come to “take the baths, (there are hot springs here but not accessible to us unfortunately), and Graena where we had a look at the 15th century church and shopped in our first cave supermarket.

A long riverbed track past mostly grapes and cave bodegas and then too much hard surface tarmac road- although the dramatic views made up for it- and we had made it to the 150km marker.

Finally La Peza came into view- and we left the tarmac to switchback down a steep mud track into the village where the albergue in a municipal building was cold but the local bar served a hot lentil stew.

La Peza to Tocon. 15km

We had decided to take two shortish days rather than one really long one to Quentar. This meant climbing up to 1200m again, splitting off from the usual route to Quentar to go to Tocon where the Camino Association in Almeria have procured and done a lot of work to a house and made an albergue. Then after another few Kms the original route is regained the following day. Nice and easy.

So it started with a long climb, but yet again the weather, the views and the interesting country made it a joy. So much so that I sloppily played Louis’s “Its a wonderful world” as we went.

The route was also shared for quite a way with horses, as this was the first designated riding route in Granada province, and we past one of the resting places with a newly made drinking trough.

Descending again for awhile we joined a stream bed beside a road that wound its way up through rocky woodland and jutting monoliths of talc(?) to an altitude where the snow still held on.

At the pass of Blancares the routes split and we made our way the couple of km to Tocon down a charming path with newly made wooden post and rail fencing. The tiny village is in an idyllic setting, with clear mountain water running through- supplying plenty of fuentes. The steep concrete road led us to the albergue on a sunny terrace with views to the mountains and the local bar, the only source of sustenance available, a few yards away. A great place to rest up awhile.

CAMINO MOZARABE: Almeria to Granada 3

So we did this:

from Alba steadily rising to Hueneja at 1200m. Then on the next stage we did this:

Hueneja to Alquife.

Which looks dramatic but was all between 1150m and 1275m so pretty easy going. And GPS reckoned it was 21.5km to Lacho Albergue at the top of town. They are always at the top of town! It was a -2 degree start so the steep initial climb was handy for warming us up as we left the town through acres of almonds and cherries, looking back down onto the Marquesado plain with its dozens of wind turbines. Spain’s second largest, it puts out 200 megawatt.

The iPhone camera is hopeless for capturing the wonderful vista of the snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada to our south and the Sierra de Baza to our north. The smooth soft blanket looked deep and powdery and we guessed the skiers and snowboarders were having fun.

The pretty village of Dolar after 5kms was having market day so we bought some nuts and fruit and hung out in a plaza bar for a breakfast of tostada and cafe con leche.