walking in Andalucia

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 2.

Alboloduy to Abla- 30km

Stepping out of the albergue in Alboloduy in the morning it was obvious it had been raining during the night from the wet and puddles about but thankfully the skies showed no immediate threat as we left the town to rejoin the riverbed as directed by the markers.

We had left the river Andarax at Alhabia the day before to join the river Nacimiento which would take us all the way to Abla and beyond. The deep rich layers of sediment washed down over millennia had created fertile ground alongside the riverbed that nourished a wide variety of crops but as we delved deeper upstream and away from the town the sides of the valley closed in and we were forced up on an old mule track with views down to the abandoned fincas and their hard won terraces.

The tamarisk and cane wound through the steep sided valley bottom like a golden thread. The trail was littered with the droppings of an animal we guessed to be mountain goats, and sure enough as we reached the tarmac road at the top of the mule track we saw a herd of them bolting away across the mountainside. Turning off the road again we passed an old water cistern built 100 years ago before descending on a zigzag track back to the riverside and another series of mostly abandoned fincas.

From here to the town of Nacimiento, where we stopped for coffee, was a beautiful stretch through cane forests and along a forgotten valley of old abandoned farmsteads, once upon a time busy with working people.

The sky had been darkening and looking more threatening for awhile and we had hoping the weather would hold but soon after leaving Nacimiento, about halfway to Abla, it began to spit, then drizzle, then rain, then lash it down with a strong wind driving it mercilessly straight at us. Heads down we hurried on hoping for shelter. Eventually coming towards the little settlement on the outskirts of Dona Maria I spied a large covered patio opposite some houses. Split into three, each with a door, first two locked, the third open. We hurtled in, throwing off our packs and sopping jackets. The owners were calling from the house opposite, “yes it ok- go in.” Before long ,as we tried to dry things out on the handy washing line and watched the downpour outside, the mother and son(?) arrived with plates of bread and cheese and jamon and a bottle of wine and much kindness and chat. A hard time turned to a good time as the daughter(?) and father all came over with hot homemade cake and hearty handshakes.

Our new best friends. They insisted on sending us on our way with an umbrella each which might not have looked like hightec hiking gear but were given and received with love and joy. And they continued to keep us dry until the next joyful event a few km later.

We had reached Ocana and messaged Nely for the door code of the Association albergue when miraculously she appeared in her carshe had spotted us on her way to check the Ocana albergue. More hugs and directions and off we went again into the riverbed and rain.

Then, bizarrely, a couple of men in a car started warning us about the dangerous waters in the river and said we should not walk there. So they drove us the 5 km to Abla saving us over an hour of sodden hiking. We soon had a couple of electric heaters in the albergue bedroom drying everything and marveling at how the “Camino Provides”!

Abla to Hueneja 22km.

The snow capped peaks around us looked more inviting than threatening the next morning as we set off from the luxury of the well appointed Association albergue, all of which are run on donations and the hard work of a band of dedicated volunteers.

We were now crossing the vast high plain of the Marquesado del Zenitel, a pretty flat and fertile area of fruit and wind farming. We went on the old main Almeria- Guadix-Granada road, the ancient Camino Real, that still has a wealth of different foods and fruits growing in the well tended gardens.

The old highway used to be busy with travelers needing food and lodging, supplied by ventas now in ruins amongst the windmills.

On cue, at coffee time, we were led up into the village of Finana and a welcoming bar before carrying on across the wide plain littered with the remnants of past lives.

Past another imposing but redundant travelers hostelry at Venta Ratonera we reached the outskirts of La Huertezuela where the surreal sight of another Spanish urbanization that never happened greeted us. Abandonment through the ages.

From there it was another 6 km or so along an increasingly narrow and rocky riverbed and heathy and prosperous looking olive farms, over the motorway, and into the town of Hueneja- with its graffiti croc, nice doors and well trained vine.

Housed in a slightly bizarre 3rd floor flat next to a school our home for the night featured murals, fantastic views of the snowy mountains and some beers and wine left in the fridge by previous pelegringos.

Buen Camino.

Sierra de Aracena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7865.JPG
My connection didn’t leave till the morning and with nothing in the surrounding area and the building closing at night it was a rather cold night in my sleeping bag around the back. The day dawned very misty.

IMG_7868.JPG
The sun slowly burnt it’s way through on the journey to Cortes de la Frontera and I was joined on route by a crowd of runners who set off from the station after being cranked up by the MC.

IMG_7876.JPG

IMG_7879.JPG

IMG_7873.JPG
No taxi available early on a Sunday morning so I reluctantly set off on a steep 10km hike. Lady Luck sent me a young man who picked me up and set me down just outside Benalauria where, after a cafe with the publican who taught us how to make a whistle from an acorn cup back in Oct, I was on my way down out of the village among the almond blossom and chestnuts on a sharp descent to the valley bottom.

IMG_7885.JPG

IMG_7884.JPG

IMG_7881.JPG
On reaching the waters the vegetation got lush, with moist and fertile gardens lining the track and thick clumps of rush and canna. Yurts and other “alternative” structures were tucked away here and there alongside the traditional campo cottages.

IMG_7887.JPG

IMG_7894.JPG

IMG_7904.JPG

IMG_7890.JPG
The river Genal etches a deep line for miles through this region not reaching the sea until it leaves the province and enters Cadiz. My route coincided with local walks along the river on specially constructed walkways through the verdant growth.

IMG_7896.JPG

IMG_7904-0.JPG

IMG_7902.JPG

IMG_7907.JPG

IMG_7909.JPG

IMG_7908.JPG

IMG_7911.JPG

IMG_7913.JPG
It being a Sunday there were a good few walkers on the track and as I left the river and started up a steep and narrow path I had to stand aside for a seeming never ending stream for awhile. I begrudge them not, it was great to see the trails used as sometimes it seems like I’m the only one on them.

IMG_7921.JPG

IMG_7917.JPG

IMG_7920.JPG

IMG_7924.JPG
At long last after a 500m ascent I spied the town of Genalguacil, since 94 the home to visiting artists on residences to create and leave a piece of work. I didn’t have time wander around looking for them as I needed to push on and find a camp.

IMG_7930.JPG

IMG_7932.JPG

IMG_7929.JPG

IMG_7926.JPG
Which I luckily did a few km on. An unoccupied goat shed would protect me from the forecast rain better than my tent. The place seemed to be someone’s abandoned dream with an old foreign car and dilapidated caravan engulfed in briars.

IMG_7938.JPG

IMG_7939.JPG
No rain, no goats in the night and the morning sky was clear. I had heard a horse at some point and I met him on the trail down to the river that was forded easily.

IMG_7941.JPG

IMG_7947.JPG

IMG_7949.JPG
Up again and then along a level track giving views through the trees of Benalauria and Genalguacil.

IMG_7951.JPG

IMG_7950.JPG
The cork harvesters had been out in this neck of the woods and I was hoping to come across them to see them in action but the only workers I found were wheedling chainsaws.

IMG_7957.JPG

IMG_7956.JPG

IMG_7954.JPG
Down again for 250m on a rough track to cross another river, this time dry, although I could hear the Genal gurgling not far away.

IMG_7963.JPG

IMG_7962.JPG
And so began yet another long 600m haul up through the woods. I climbed into a fire lookout tower to lookout for fires, it must be a lonely job. This was all part of a huge (really huge) hunting estate, and at the top of the climb I came upon a great estate with liveried workers driving about in liveried jeeps. The place was impressive but the massive gates closed on my approach.

IMG_7973.JPG

IMG_7966.JPG

IMG_7969.JPG

IMG_7970.JPG
Another slight( comparatively ) rise and I was finally on the way down into Casares where I was delighted to see on a signboard that the next day’s stage had been changed to reduce it from 33km to 24km. Good news. This meant I didn’t have to carry on for another long haul in order to shorten the next day. It meant I could eat, shower and sleep in a bed. Luxury.

IMG_7985.JPG

IMG_7977.JPG

IMG_7986.JPG

IMG_7984.JPG
The sky was clear again. The forecast rain had yet to appear. The sun sparkled on the dew and I got my first real view of the costa lying below.
Setting out on the road in the gloom I was mindful to take notice of the warnings before I headed off down tracks that would take me past some very “civilised ” gardens and mansions that would not have looked out of place in the Home Counties. Perhaps the owners were trying to recreate the old country in the sun. The flowers were nice.

IMG_7992.JPG

IMG_7999.JPG

IMG_8001.JPG

IMG_8003.JPG

IMG_8007.JPG

IMG_8004.JPG

IMG_8009.JPG

IMG_8008.JPG
Ironically, as I crested the ridge above the ideal homes I came upon the bizarre sight and worse smell of a huge landfill site. The poor GR runs down on a neglected path ( I guess it’s not a popular section) right to it and alongside it before thankfully turning its back and beginning a torturous climb into the Sierra Bermeja.

IMG_8012.JPG

IMG_8021.JPG

IMG_8019.JPG

IMG_8020.JPG
Up and relentlessly up into the admittedly beautiful mountains on a mixture of incredibly rough footpaths and tracks made to service the pylons that stride across these slopes.

IMG_8022.JPG

IMG_8027.JPG

IMG_8029.JPG

IMG_8025.JPG
Lovely spring flowers poked their delicate heads through the hard stone surface of the track and there were many rockfalls and landslides.

IMG_8023.JPG

IMG_8030.JPG

IMG_8024.JPG
It seemed absurd to suddenly come across a road works sign on a track that even a digger would have problems navigating but they had replaced a bridge over a steam I soaked my feet in.

IMG_8031.JPG

IMG_8032.JPG
At some point ( I think I know where) I missed a turn off. It was around the point where the route had changed and I blithely followed the main track for too far before realising my mistake. It meant carrying on to the Tarmac road from the mountains down into Estepona which was a long hot slog I didn’t need at the end of the day. I passed some very comfy looking chairs I thought I could probably sleep in and some inviting benches placed for the setting sun but carried on and now I am happily set in a air b+b with a view of the sea contemplating my 27km beach walk tomorrow.

IMG_8034.JPG

IMG_8035.JPG

LA GRAN SENDA DE MALAGA: GR249. 17/18th October :El Chorro to Ardales (16.7km) to El Burgo (25km)

We thought we might not make it.
Booked to fly from Shannon to Malaga the day that Hurricane Ophelia swept across Ireland and all media were constantly telling everyone to stay at home, we didn’t think we’d be taking off at all.
Miraculously though,our plane was still not cancelled as we chain sawed our way through fallen trees on route to the airport through the maelstrom.
As we approached we saw the first post cancellations jet wobble its way down onto safe ground, and we knew we’d be off soon.
And so it was. After a remarkably smooth flight we landed into a barmy still night on the Costa del Sol, seemingly on a different planet to the storm tossed coast we had escaped.
Here for another week on the GR 249 trail, continuing the circumnavigation of Malaga Province for just over 100km over 5 days hiking and finishing with a bit of R+R.

IMG_5950.JPG
Studying the map board at El Chorro station, where I’d finished up last time, we were disturbed to see the route had been changed from all the info we had and now went 6 km longer past Carratraca before turning towards our objective, Ardales. However the GR7 still went along the original route so as it was already nearly midday we decided to stick to that.
It was a bit daunting to look up at the tower atop the hill we had to climb.

IMG_5951.JPG
The tower was connected to a reservoir 350m higher than those below, and water is pumped up at times of surplus energy and allowed to run back down, through turbines, at times of need.
We climbed relentlessly for over 4 km, passed some interesting looking rock formations with life clinging to it precariously.

IMG_5958.JPG

IMG_5957.JPG
The higher we climbed the better the view, and after an hour or so we arrived at the wall of the reservoir and the tower with it’s resident vultures/ eagles and many more riding the updrafts around and above.

IMG_5963.JPG

IMG_5960.JPG
From this vantage point we could look down on a line of people crossing the new bridge at the end of the Caminito del Rey gorge, and continuing along the cliff side walkway.

IMG_5966.JPG

IMG_5965.JPG
We were now on a high plateau with extensive views over the surrounding Sierra , a landscape of pine trees and herbs which supplied a glorious scented background to our walk.

IMG_5968.JPG
After a couple of km along a forest track along the ridge we joined the Tarmac road that serviced the high reservoir briefly and passed by the entrance steps up to the 9 / 10th century fort of Bobastro.

IMG_5971.JPG
This was where the Mozarab rebels led by Omar Ibn Hafsun hung out and built an impressive citadel complete with this church and subterranean cemetery.

IMG_5972.JPG
Off on tracks again the next couple of hours took us across an empty quarter of sparsely populated farmland of sheep and grain ,now mostly within a Natural Paraje or park. There were a few tasteful finca to holiday home conversions but mostly simple farm worker ” navvyies” or houses surrounded by stock sheds.

IMG_5977.JPG

IMG_5976.JPG
The subsistence grain growers had left the old cobbled threshing grounds, or “eras” behind, for the few passers by to admire the view from.

IMG_5974.JPG
The ringing of bells heralded a large flock of sheep minded by dog and man.

IMG_5979.JPG

IMG_5982.JPG
A little earlier we had passed a long water trough with an elaborate welded cage around it and been puzzled.

IMG_5978.JPG
Looking back as the flock surrounded it we could see it was to allow the sheep to drink without climbing in and fouling the water.
Another flock was being minded by a large but mild mannered dog who seemed to let them wander at will.

IMG_5990.JPG

IMG_5996.JPG
The last 4 km were downhill through open country until Ardales came into view on the other side of a busy road.

IMG_5986.JPG

IMG_5998.JPG
We found the stage end and sign board for the next leg and bought the makings of a huge tuna salad to fortify ourselves for the following day.

IMG_6001.JPG
The night was full of thunder and rain and , as forecast, the next day dawned drizzly under leaden skies. We dressed for rain and headed out under the ancient hill top castle and down to the Roman bridge over the Rio Turon.

IMG_6005.JPG

IMG_6008.JPG
Fair play to the Roman builders, that bridge has been carrying traffic for 2000 years.

IMG_6009.JPG
We now had 10 km of ascent ahead, taking us from 350 m to 820m. As we climbed, the view back over the mountains we had climbed from El Chorro was of darkness and light, with white clouds rising from the gorge.

IMG_6012.JPG
Atop of the first ridge was a medieval fortress from the war between Granada and Seville kingdoms.

IMG_6014.JPG
We climbed up into the vast public forest, 1000’s of hectares planted to help with erosion and as an amenity, although this is a little known and remote area- we saw no one all day.

IMG_6018.JPG

IMG_6019.JPG
The rain started to come down relentlessly although the trees gave us some respite for a few hours until we reached more open ground of deep soiled mixed crop farmland. Luckily, at more or less the same time the rain became drizzle, then stopped, and then the sun came out for awhile and we stopped to dry out.

IMG_6027.JPG

IMG_6020.JPG
A long line of bee hives were laid out next to the track and a copse of fine eucalyptus soaked up the rain from the arroyo.

IMG_6029-1.JPG

IMG_6037-0.JPG
We were now back down to Rio Turon level. While the river had meandered its way through the mountains we had gone over them. As we neared the town we passed the fertile riverside gardens and a little shrine to the saints

IMG_6039.JPG

IMG_6038.JPG
And finally, still pretty wet, a couple of km further than expected was El Burgo with its welcoming streets and hot shower.

IMG_6043.JPG
The cloud is well down again and tomorrow we have to climb, over 25 km, up to 1160m and back. So I really hope the forecast is right and we can stay dry.
But now some internal liquid is required.