SPAIN

CAMINITO DEL REY: The Walkway of Death

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The somewhat dramatic title of this post, on a hike we did recently ,has been earned over the years by numerous people being killed whilst attempting to complete the original and badly crumbling walkway clinging to the side of a sheer cliff face 100m up above the waters tumbling through the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes gorge northwest of Malaga.

We had visited the area a couple of times over the years and seen climbers clambering about and watched videos posted on youtube by daredevils of themselves teetering on narrow and rusting steel beams supporting patches of crumbling concrete over the sheer drop but were never brave or foolhardy enough to attempt it ourselves.

Officially closed to the public in the 1980’s it continued to be a popular illicit attraction reached by crossing the iron girder railway bridge at the southern end while keeping a close eye out for trains emerging from the tunnels on either side.

img_1630Following a string of fatalities around the millennium , 30m of the walkway were demolished  next to the bridge making access much harder. But still they came, and so plans were made to provide a safer, money making, route to satisfy the obvious demand and it was reopened last year after a €3million refit and we were keen to experience this magnificently engineered path under less nerve racking conditions.

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Following the course of the Guadalhorce upstream from Spain’s southcoast the river has cut deeply through the limestone sierras as they rise up from the plains to the north, creating a ravine at some points only 10m wide and 300m deep.The last few km before the huge embalse or reservoir system forms the Garganta del Chorro, a staggeringly dramatic, jaw dropping sliver of a passage between the towering slabs of contorted rock.

The walkway was originally constructed over 7 years to 1912 to facilitate construction of a hydro electric scheme with much of the work being carried out by sailors hanging on to ropes suspended from the top of the gorge. The story is that the most dangerous tasks were saved for prisoners on life sentences with nothing to lose.

The area had already been witness to formidable engineering feats when 40 years earlier the railway from the interior of Spain had blasted tunnels through the sierras on route to the coast at Malaga. The line still serves passengers to Ronda, Seville and Granada and must be a very scenic ride.

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It was during the construction of the railway that the idea of harnessing the 100m drop in altitude from one end of the gorge to the other for hydro power was first mooted and by 1921 when King Alfonso x111 used the walkway to inaugurate the completed dams (and so giving it the name ” The Kings Little Pathway”) the controlled waters of the Guadalhorce were producing the power for a burgeoning  Malaga.

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The old path, what’s left of it, has been retained and is just below the new walkway of wooden boarding on a galvanised steel framework anchored securely to the cliff face and with reassuringly sturdy cable and steel post railings.At the southern end a new steel suspension bridge with a metal mesh floor and another section with a thick glass floor allow an uninterupted view to the river below.

Initially the route could be tackled from either end but now can only be done in a southerly direction, presumably to ease the congestion of criss crossing groups on narrow or convoluted sections. Parking at El Kiosko bar and restaurant at the beginning of the 3km trail to the northern access gate we had a pleasant walk through the pine woods with the blue waters of the Embalse de Gaitanejo to our side.

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As we approached the access point control we could see the gorge opening in the mountain ahead, and a large group of people milling about.The Caminito is popular and even on a September weekday, a year and a half after reopening, with groups leaving every 30 minutes,I was glad we had booked on line as our time slot, in fact the whole day, was sold out.

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It was with surprise and relief that very soon after our group had been given our safety talk and helmets and been released into the wilds the majority raced ahead and out of sight and we were left to slowly stroll and marvel at our surroundings, with no time limit on our ramble. We were quickly immersed in the sandwich of rock faces.

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Looking down over the wire railings to the river below revealed the sculptural power of the rushing waters with countless rock bowls turned over eons by their spiralling flow.

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There were many bits and pieces of hardware left over from the original structure and many pegs, rings, cables and hand or footholds hammered like giant staples into the rock.

After a slow kilometre or so the narrow gorge began to open out ahead of us and the Hoyo valley came into view.

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We passed by a couple of the maintenance guys working away on the end of a rope. The project must have created some good job opportunities for local climbers.

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On the other side of the river the railway tunnel disappearing into the mountain came into view. Nowadays the new high speed Malaga-Madrid track has dug a route under Huma mountain, about 1km further east but the original line is still well used.

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The valley widened before us and we stepped down off the boardwalk onto a trail through the wooded slope studded with Aleppo and Stone pines, Holm oak and Eucalyptuses. Juniper and Mediterranean Fan Palms also thrived in the parched and stony soil and the scent of brooms and rock roses wafted on the warm air. Down along the riverbank the moisture supported rushes, canes, oleanders and tamarisks.

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Above us many vultures circled in a thermal of rising heat and there are often golden eagles and buzzards accompanying them. Below us an abandoned farmhouse commanded a fine situation looking over the land it once worked, isolated by it’s encircling sierra.

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We continued for about a km on the level shady path, sometimes alongside the little canal that used to carry water to a turbine at Chorro, and sometimes in it, before scaling steps at the sluice gates.

And then we were back to the boardwalk and approaching the massive bulk of limestone and dolomite whose sedimentary layers have been uplifted over millennia to now stand as vertical slices where fossils reveal their ancient origins.

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We were getting to the most dramatic section of the Caminito, the last 500m, where the narrow walkway snakes around a series of acute bends,

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crossing the suspension bridge,( where the sufferers of vertigo may have a hard time),

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and following the curve of the sheer rock wall around to it’s southern face towering above the blue water where after a series of steps, we climbed over the steel girder railway bridge to the exit gate.

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Our return bus was another few km walk alongside the reservoir from which water is pumped by windmills atop the mountain to a high altitude at times of excess energy, to be released back through turbines as the need arrises. The hydro scheme is clever engineering and the Caminto del Rey, both original and modern, was a thrilling walk built to enable its construction and appreciation. Long may it last.

If your looking for any information on how to visit the Caminito a useful english language website can be found by clicking  here.

A WALK IN THE PARQUE

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Treking in the Parque Nacional De Sierra Nevada, Spain’s highest mountain range, has many rewards and in the heat of summer one of the best is a swim in the Med an hour after hiking down from the 3500 mt peaks.
Floating in the cooling waters off a busy beach packed with holiday makers it seemed a parallel universe to the empty and wild landscape in which we had spent the last 3 days.
If you want to clamber around the top of Spain without crampons or skis you need to wait till June/ July for the snow to recede- in the Spring or Autumn a snowboarding trip followed by a swim in the sea is an even more surreal experience.
The highest peaks can be accessed either from the northern Granada side in Prado Llano, Euope’s most southerly ski resort or from the southern, Alpujarran side, walking up the old mule tracks that weave their way into the mountains from the white cubist style villages of Capileira and Trevelez. Such is the number of these tracks linking the cortijos, or farmsteads, which reach over 2000mts that there are a wealth of routes short or long to explore. In the higher ranges there are many guided hikes and horse treks or you can avail of a service where you can walk unencumbered while somebody brings up all your gear by horse, sets up camp, cooks your dinner and opens the champagne.

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We had a less decadent itinerary when we set off from the hydropower station at La Cebadilla (1500mts) in the gorge of the Poqueira River a few kms north of Capileira. We had devised a roughly circular route from the Refugio Poqueira (2500mts) to take in the peaks of Mulhacen, ( 3479mts) the Iberian peninsula’s highest, and it’s near neighbor La Alcazaba (3364mts) the fortress, named for it’s formidable cliffs on three sides.
Due to the National Park status of 83000 hectares of the Sierra Nevada range, the area is highly protected and although camping is allowed with certain provisions you are required to notify the park authorities of your intentions. In practice however, if you behave sensibly and sensitively and camp or bivvy no more than one night in the same place, a blind eye is likely to be turned. These are serious mountains and as the D.O.E. leaflets on safety states-” Passing through the Sierra Nevada involves a high risk of accidents” and all the usual precautions should be followed.
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Everything was benign as we climbed the rugged track up the sides of the snow melt river gorge. We were grateful for the shade offered by the steep hillsides and groves of holm oak, chestnut, walnut and willow. At this relatively low altitude there was an abundance of wild roses, foxgloves and even bracken to remind us of home but here the warm air was full of a multitude of butterflies and the heady scent of thyme as we crushed it underfoot. The refugio came into view far above as we crisscrossed the river on simple bridges of wooden poles and flat stones, and above that the lower peak of Mulhacen looking deceptively close.
Although signed at only 5.7 kms from La Cebadilla the 1000mt ascent took us over 4 hours with time spent cooling our feet in the pools DSC_0027

and imagining life in the abandoned farmhouses scattered around us with their simple flat roofed construction and perfectly circular threshing floors projecting from the steeply sloping hillsides.A tough gradient took us up to the still used Cortijo de Las Tomas at 2150mts and over two of the areas acequias, the awe inspiring irrigation canals originally built by the Moors that contour the mountains delivering life giving water to hundreds of farmsteads .

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Cresting a ridge, the sturdy stone built Refugio Poqueira was a welcome sight and the cold beers on arrival a welcome taste. The refugio is open all year and can cater for over eighty people although after a busy weekend there were only three others sharing the facilities with us that night. The hardworking young couple who run the place offer four course dinner, breakfast, and supplied us with packed lunches for the following two days. You can also stock up on an assortment of requisites from compeed to chocolate and get advice on routes and conditions.
The next morning we headed off up the Rio Mulhacen valley following the tall orange posts that guide climbers and skiers during the snowy seasons. Leaving the last of the running water behind, at 3000mts we came to the trans sierra road that until closed to public use in 1994 was the highest in Europe.Crossing the sierra at 3229mts just below Mt Veleta it’s an impressive piece of engineering but looking at it’s rough and narrow surface and precipitous drops we found it hard to imagine day trippers out for a Sunday drive.
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The altitude was making itself felt as we trudged up the steep and shaley western flank of Mulhacen. To the northwest was the peak of the Puntal de la Caldera and the squat stone dome of the basic mountain refuge near a lake at its feet with tiny figures resting outside. As we climbed, views to the north beyond Granada opened up above the Caldera and we often stopped not only to take them in but also a little more oxygen.DSC_0070The once tiny figures below us at the Refugio Caldera passed us by, cheerily greeting us as they hiked on up. We saw them again as we reached the top- running off down a trail to bag another summit. We were happy to bask in the sun at the highest point on mainland Spain, to inspect the offerings at the little summit shrineDSC_0079

and enjoy our packed lunch under the watchful gaze of a cabra montes or mountain goat. The vista all around was sublime, rendered softer by a heat haze produced by a windless 20c -hard to imagine at 3500mts.
We studied the approach to the jagged heights of Alcazaba then set off down the ridge towards Canada de Siete Lagunas where we were going to bivvy. Siete Lagunas,at 3000mts, is a hanging glacial valley of seven beautiful lakes fed by many springs and rivulets that drops off to the southeast where the lowest lagoon, Hondera, shaped like a dog, empties it’s waters into Rio Culo de Perro (Dog’s Arse River!)
The area contains a number of low circular or horseshoe shaped stone wall enclosures built by campers to protect them from the worse of the wind that can rip around the valley floor, one of which was to be our home for the night. As with much of the high sierras, from a distance the valley had looked pretty austere but up close a wonderfully varied microcosm revealed itself. Alpine flowers in exquisite colors emerged from pin cushion mounds of 40 shades of greenDSC_0138and a small group of cows munched contentedly on the lush grasses before being called by the matriarch of the herd up the steep zig zag path out of the valley and into the vastness beyond, leaving us alone- with the foxes.
I had read about the increase in foxes scavenging food from campers at Siete Lagunas and posters at the refugio had warned of them. The advice was not to leave food in a zipped up tent as they would tear their way into it and the only real deterrent was a dog. So after we had finished our dinner, before settling into our sleeping bags for the night, I carefully stove all our remaining food into the bottom of my pack which I covered with rocks. Then we lay back and, as the sky darkened, watched the milky way appear above the sierras. Just as we fell Isleep we were startled by a sudden noise. Opening my eyes I looked straight into those of a fox at our feet, it’s snout in our other pack. My involuntary yelp drove it back over the wall and investigations revealed a forgotten chorizo sausage,which we promptly eat, sticking out of a side pocket. Falling back into a wary slumber we listened to a duet of the fox and a dog of some other campers barking at each other across the lake.
As the moon rose the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. A loud whooshing noise up the head of the valley was followed after a few tense seconds by a short but sharp buffeting. It was wild and elemental but the sky remained clear and we were cosy enough in our bags.
In the morning we stowed our packs against the bivvy wall and made our way up the shoulder of Alcazaba in a strong and gusty wind, climbing across a sea of shattered rock and shale to the final ridge to the summit.

DSC_0124 The cliffs fell away vertigiously to the north and the buffeting wind kept us well away from the precipice on the last couple of hundred metres. Our efforts were well rewarded by the views of the dramatic north face of Mulhacen and the spine of 3000mt peaks snaking away eastwards below us.
Although the sun shone brightly the wind chill got us off the top fairly fast and back down to the top of the shoulder. From there we returned to Siete Laguna by a more direct but much steeper route- scrambling down the north end wall of the valley allowing us to explore the higher lakes as we followed the streams back to Laguna Hondera.
Rested after a leisurely lunch we headed off, up out of the valley, looking back down to see a line of horse trekkers crossing the Culo de Perro.DSC_0149

Going south we worked our way across the long shoulder of Mulhacen past the last compacted snowfields following cairns that led us down to the trans sierra road at 3000mts. From here we could see the Mirador de Trevelez (2680mt) a couple of kms to the south, to where hikers and daytrippers can get minibuses from Capileira, saving them the long climb from the village. We quickly lost height to cross paths with a couple of fresh looking bus passengers at Hoya de la Iglesia. From here a pole marked trail led us down to the refugio

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Much busier than on our previous nights stay we mixed with about 40 cyclists, climbers and hikers on the sunny terrace, relaxing weary muscles over a beer whilst gazing down across the ranges to the sea.

Setting off under another clear blue sky in the morning, we retraced our original route alongside the tumbling river through clouds of butterflies stopping only to gorge ourselves on plump juicy cherries picked from the orchard of a long deserted cortijo.
Our descent to the car was much quicker than the ascent, so before long we were having lunch at a chiringuitos, a beachside seafood restaurant followed by a refreshing swim that restored us to a state where we were once again looking forward to our next hiking trip.