THE CAUSEWAY COAST WAY : 52km: June 2018

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It was now almost 2 months ago that we finally got round to heading north to experience the Antrim coastline over a couple of days hiking the Causeway Coast. In the middle of June we drove north through Storm Hector, listening to the government warnings on the camper radio telling us to stay at home and not to risk venturing out. A long blustery drive up the west from south Co Galway, we were surprised when we reached Donegal to discover we were only half way there.

However by midday we were parked up in the harbour at Ballycastle, the finish of the Way, where we left the camper and took a taxi over to the start of the walk in Portstewart. It was another of those slightly irritating journeys when you ponder the sense of taking 2 days to walk a winding route of 52km whilst sitting comfortably in a car that takes a bit over half an hour over a straighter road.

The Blue Flag beach where the taxi dropped us was basking in sunshine, and vast. Owned and managed by the National Trust which tries to protect the dunes and has established bird hides to admire the wading birds and waterfowl.

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We took a look at Tubber Patrick, St Patricks well, originally used by prehistoric communities as a source of water and medical cures. When St Paddy past through around 450AD he blessed the well and started a pilgrimage which developed into a fair on the last monday of August with horse races on the beach. Locals would sell the holy water to tourists right up until the 1940’s.

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Setting off on the 10km section to Portrush we past a salmon fisherman’s cottage, part of a once thriving and prosperous industry all along this coast until quite recently. Maybe the occupant of the grave of an unknown sailor, a little further along the shoreline, was a salmon fisherman himself.

On the rocky sections of this coast, between the sandy beaches, we came upon numerous swimming pools over the next couple of days. A little bit of well placed concrete and some ladders and steps turned the wild waters into placid bathing places.

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There were also a lot of golf courses and beautifully positioned houses amongst the cliffs and dunes. The whole causeway coast is an AONB, an area of outstanding beauty, and within it there are a number of SAC’s (special area of conservation), SPA’s (special protection area’s), ASSI’s ( area of special scientific interest) and an NNR (national nature reserve). The Giants Causeway itself is a WHS (world heritage site) and with all these protected areas the owners of these houses are obviously living where no planning would be granted now.

 

The Rosa Rugosa plants obviously liked it here and were running wild and rampant along the Way for miles. They had colonised the edges of the many golf links and must have made the retrieval of errant golf balls a prickly business. Passing a grassy promontory where we struggled to make out the remains of Ballyreagh Castle before we crossed the wide sweeping bay of the West Strand and on to Portrush harbour with its neat display of  boats made fast with a network of ropes.

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Unfortunately the route east along the Curran Strand, a glorious 2km stretch of fine golden sand to our bed for the night at White Rocks, had been closed off for filming Artemis Fowl and rather then walk along the busy A2 we decided to try climbing over the dunes and cutting across the famous and expensive Portstewart golf course. A bit of a mistake as we hadn’t realised the size of the three 18hole courses and the number of fairways we were going to have to negotiate whilst wealthy players waited for the rucksack ramblers to get out of their way.

We eventually and somewhat miraculously made it to the back door of our airbnb where we discovered that the winding coast road we were to continue on in the morning was also due to be closed for filming. We went off to the neighbouring hotel for a drink and to mingle with the stars supposedly staying there. And to complain to Kenneth Branagh, the director, about the inconvenience his movie was causing us. Maybe. If we saw him.

We couldn’t find Kenneth so hung out on the patio soaking up the moody sea views and discovered from security that the road wouldn’t be closed till 8am, giving us time to claim it.

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Bright and early we were down on the shore admiring the limestone cliffs backing the beach that give White Rocks its name. Amongst the white were many hard black boulders of basalt, spat out of volcanos in one of the 3 great outpourings of lava over 60 million years ago that also created the Giants Causeway.

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The car parks above the beach were getting very busy with film crew and we figured it was time to get going. There are numerous locations along this coast made famous through the filming of The Game of Thrones and the roads can be full of tour buses rushing from one to another. Luckily for us the A2 we were walking down had been closed to vehicles but filming had not started, allowing us the rare opportunity of sauntering down the middle of the usually busy and noisy road, admiring the magnificent sea views in peace.

We stopped to explore Dunluce Castle a medieval masterpiece perched spectacularly on a rocky promontory high above the sea. The castle was still not open when we got there but we were able to explore around the outside and imagine the “lost town of Dunluce” recently unearthed by archaeologists.

Back to join another, open road, we passed through the small town of Portballintrae, down to Runkerry Beach and crossed the river Bush (of Bushmills whiskey fame) to join a wooden boardwalk alongside the bank for a bit before turning onto a gravel path through the sand dunes and crisscrossing the old Bushmills to Giants Causeway railway line.

At the far end of the long beach we past under the impressive victorian edifice of Runkerry House, around the Point and climbed up on to the grassy clifftop we were to follow for the next 10km. Next up was the tourist honeypot of the Giants Causeway, and it was heaving. Declining the offer of £11.50 tickets to visit the Visitor Centre we instead joined the human snake down the access road to the (free2view) causeway.

The legendary basalt rock formations and columns were impressive enough to overcome the distraction of hundreds of other sightseers although the cliffs and coastline beyond were equally impressive and devoid of people.

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From the sea level we climbed the steep “Shepherds Steps” to rejoin the cliff path and walked along the highest part of the Way rising slowly up to Benbane Head from where we looked back down to the final resting place of the Girona, a Spanish Armada ship wrecked with the loss of 1300 lives. In 1967 the wreck gave up many treasures to a team of divers which are now displayed in Belfast’s Ulster Museum.

From this highpoint of 100m we steadily descended south east, passing above the beautiful Port Moon bay, an historical fishery now home to a bothy for kayakers and down to sea level again at the ruins of Dunseverick Castle, an ancient promontory fort once important enough to lie at the end of one of the 5 roads emanating from Tara. After being sacked by vikings it fell into ruin and little remains of it now.

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A little way passed the ruins we made a mistake. We believed our guidebook, published by WalkN.I., when it told us that the way forward along the coast had been blocked by landslides and it was necessary to divert along the busy A2. We did think about risking it and trying to find a way through but with the evening approaching and a fair way to go we didn’t want to get stuck on some cliff face and have to retraced our steps so we reluctantly turned on to the pavement less road and put our heads down for the couple of kms to Portbraddan squeezing ourselves into the hedge as cars and buses roared passed.

From there we were able, just, to negotiate the slippy boulders at the foot of the cliffs as the tide was sufficiently out, and to clamber around to White Park Bay, one of the first places in Ireland to be settled by Neolithic communities.

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Nearing the end of the beach we turned off route, away from the rock arches, stacks and islets that lead towards Ballintoy harbour, (another Game of Thrones location) and up a farm track to find our accommodation for the night. A long day of nearly 30km with the diversion was celebrated with a good dinner and some samples of local ale.

In the morning we backtracked slightly to visit the scenic harbour before continuing on a path between the potato fields and along the cliff tops with fine views down towards Rathlin Island and Fair Head.

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From Larry Bane Head it was a short distance to the car and coach park, tearoom, giftshop, toilets and ticket office of another National Trust money spinner, the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. For over 350 years fisherman raised a rope between the mainland and a small island on the migratory route of the salmon to access their nets. The rope bridge has been remade into a sturdy permanent structure with enough wobble to thrill a stream of tourists as they cross 30m above the waves for a brief visit before returning to claim their certificate.

Avoiding the groups queuing to leave the reception at timed intervals, and the £8 fee for crossing the bridge, we walked the 1km to the island to see what all the fuss was about.

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The salmon are gone and the fishermen with them but what was once a scene of hardship has been modified to satisfy the booming industry of today, tourism.

After the previous days experience of avoiding the tourist buses hurtling down the road we decided to avoid the remaining 8km of tarmac to Ballycastle and take the bus. In the towns tourist office they told us that they recommended to all walkers on the Way to do likewise as the traffic was so bad and there were no footpaths or pavements. They also told us that the diversion we had followed was no longer in use and we could have followed a lovely coastal path.

They still had the misleading WalkNI guide on their shelves.

Overall it was a beautiful hike with some of the most impressive coastal scenery we’ve ever seen. You certainly can’t blame the masses of tourists for wanting to visit the sights, but its a pity more of them didn’t get out to explore the equally spectacular sights a little further down the trail.

 

 

 

 

GRAN SENDA de MALAGA: 26/27th Feb. Benalmedena to Alhaurin de la Torre ( 16km) to Malaga ( 20.5km)

It was my birthday so I allowed myself the luxury of the buffet breakfast, putting down energy stores for the day. I had to retrace my steps for the first 4 km or so, something that had prompted me to stash all my camping gear at the beginning of the overlap on the way in.
My fingers were crossed that it was still there and hadn’t got wet.
I passed, again, what I thought was an ancient quarry and continued up the sandy trail above a deep and steep ravine.

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I was glad to find my stuff still there, disappointed to have to add all those kilos, but turning onto the new path it flattened out and led me through replanted pines above more quarries.

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I skirted around the peak that a cable car serves and carried on eastwards through low shrub across a limestone plateau. I was joined on the track by a group of kids and a few adults in camo gear that were obviously staying at the albuergue way up here. A little further there was a simpler refugio.

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All of this limestone had provided the materials for long thick walls running all over the place. This now abandoned land had been stock proofed at some stage.

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And then below me, over a cliff edge I could see Alhaurin and it was time to descend from the hills for the final time. I felt a little sad to be rejoining the urban environment but had a nice route down on a narrow trail between the cliffs and into pine woods thick with creepers.

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After being in the relative wilds for awhile I was sensitive to the sights of the border between natural and man made worlds.

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Setting off on the last leg of the Senda de Malaga in the morning I was still musing on our disassociation from the natural world and could see symbols everywhere for our hurried lives blinkered from the reality of our damaged connection to it.

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And all of this before I got to the start of the final stage. My last signboard left me struggling to find the right way, through the crop area that left me very grateful I’m able to consume mainly organically grown food. The toxic smell from the milky waters was intense.

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Leaving the men to harvest the artichokes I passed under the motorway and around the perimeter of the airport.

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I thought maybe I should leave this out but it’s all part of the GR249 and the strong contrast of surroundings shows the importance of keeping the good stuff good.

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The waters had changed from milky to green as it struggled to reach the sea.

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And finally back to the seafront I started at a year ago. I was received by the environment department of the council and awarded my diploma. They were very nice and are doing good and difficult work.

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That was it. Relief I’d managed to complete the route coupled with a slight sense of deflation that it was over. It’s a marvellous route around a truly beautiful province.
There is so much more to Malaga than the Costa.

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GRAN SENDA de MALAGA: GR249. 23/24th Feb. Beyond Entrerrios to Mijas (10km?) to Benalmadena (19km)

I must have come further than I thought before camping as it didn’t take me to long it the morning to climb up through a damp drizzle into Mijas. The batteries in my GPS had been exhausted and I cast around for markers.

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Approaching the village there was a mix of housing again, simple cabins and the enclaves of villas.

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I was surprised to see a troupe of wild boar descending to the road, and they were equally startled to see me and shot off into the scrub.

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I emerged into the town under a leaden sky which did not detract from the attractiveness of the place. After settling in to my room adjoining a beautiful floral patio I set off to explore this remarkably popular tourist honeypot.

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I discovered a quaint little ( fittingly) museum of miniatures and spent some time gazing in wonder at the exhibits, including a painting of a bull fight on a lentil, portrait of Abe Lincoln on the head of a pin and a genuine shrunken head. Bizarre.

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The town has marketed itself extremely well and even on this fairly bleak February day there were coach loads coming in to peruse the multitude of upmarket shops and maybe take a donkey or horse and carriage ride.

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The forecast rain again failed to appear overnight although there was plenty of low cloud about as I set off next morning on the path above Mijas.

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I passed the Ermita del Calvaro chapel and continued up into the mountains studded with Maritime, Aleppo and stone pines.

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I spotted a group of Ibex above me as I climbed the well made path up to a ridge at about 800 m and joined a broad and fairly level forest track.

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The light was soft, filtered through the cloud that swirled around me, making the colours of the vegetation muted and giving the sunnier Costa a shine.

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This Sierra is mostly made up of Dolomite, which breaks down very easily to sand and has been quarried on an epic scale to facilitate the building of the coastal resorts. They were remarkably sculptural. Land art on a monumental scale. Or looked at another way, hideous scars in the land that now have been thankfully replanted.

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It was a Sunday and there were groups of people out enjoying the mountains in spite of the cloud. Flocks of cyclists whipped past me on the tracks, runners moved remarkably fast over the rougher trails and groups of walkers crisscrossed on the variety of tracks.

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I was up to and over 900m a couple of times and hoping for some spectacular views over towards the north, to the Central Limestone Arch mountain range that had been such a feature of my first week or two on the Gran Senda. No luck however as the cloud enveloped the slopes. It made for atmospheric views of the sharp ridge as I made my way cautiously along.

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At home in Ireland we’d call it a “fine soft day”, which it was, but I was happy to come to the antennas which marked the beginning of my descent on the sandy paths.

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The dolomite allowed all water to pass through very rapidly so the almost soilless conditions made for hardy plants made to defend themselves.

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There were also junipers, Rosemary, brooms and more familiar blackthorn and bramble in the lusher areas.

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Then as the sun began to appear again the noise of the motorway grew louder until I was right above it, under it, and past it on the pretty street of my accommodation.

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GRAN SENDA de MALAGA: GR249.22/23nd Feb. Marbella to Ojen (and beyond) 28km to Entrerrios (and beyond) 25km

Huge contrasts in the last two days on the trail. Starting off in the swank environs of Marbella with ultra luxury all around I passed through scorched desolation which primitive off grid fincas scattered about to end in a mixed zone with a bit of both cheek by jowl.
Big contrasts in the ease of hike as well with the first day full of hard scrambling over an up and down narrow path through a jumble of rocks and the second entirely consisting of wide graded tracks and Tarmac road.
But first I had to escape the villas. Maybe the local council didn’t want to encourage walkers or found the route marking red and white stripes distasteful but I couldn’t find any and so got lost for awhile adding a couple of Kms. No matter, I thought, as my info gave a time of 4 hours to Ojen. It took me a lot more.
Starting up the road past villas grand and abandoned I pondered on the effect of the famous Marbella planning corruption.

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There were derelict sites and half finished builds and smashed up mansions beside the most desirable homes you could buy. If you had the necessary millions.

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The flags were no longer flying over this planned piece of heaven and the rust had already set in on another.

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But at last, having got back on track, I was off into the woods again and very pleasant they were.

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It soon became remarkably wild considering the proximity to the porche and range rover filled roads below. I came upon a large set of hives and getting a bit to close, was chased and stung. There was also a lot of boar rooted up ground and I wonder if they penetrated the villa security to dig up the lawns.

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This time last year I came across the prosessionary caterpillar and here they were again.

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It was lovely but the ups and downs were steep and uneven. Slow going, especially when you have to avail of ropes.

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At one stage I got a strong smell of what I thought was marijuana and when I reached a ruined chapel there was some graffiti that made me wonder.
The local walking association was very good at erecting signs for a lot of different routes into the hills but one sign disturbed me when I got down onto a lovely level tableland with deserted finca.

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The sea and associated costaization came into view but there were many beautiful flowers to admire.

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I had crested a range of hills and came down into an area with scattered new houses and a backdrop of the vast area burnt in 2012. 8000 hectares went up and denuded the landscape for miles.

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I was suddenly startled by a huge Alsatian. You never know. But he was friendly enough. More scrambling up and down and finally, as I reached the brow of yet another rise, I saw Ojen.

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Looking so near- but proving so far, as the trail made a huge loop around the rocky hills. A moment of relief at a fine drinking trough and then more clambering until finally…

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I stopped briefly at the road side caves and longer at a bar to eat before heading on to find somewhere to camp. I wasn’t too hopeful after the terrain I been through.

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I wanted to shorten the following days stage if I could so carried on up into the hills again with the light beginning to fade. The surroundings became more desolate from the fire damage and when a friendly old hippy stopped and offered a ride a couple of Km to a place I could camp I jumped right in.
A tiny bit of flat ground beside a river amongst an empty landscape.

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The eucalyptus trees, designed for fire, were the only trees to survive but people stayed, in the small groups of houses deep in the middle of it all.

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I was on fine wide tracks that had been made to service the mines that were digging for talc and mica I think. The tracks slowly gradually rose and fell and turned this way and that to allow for different views. At one point I spotted in the distance the white buildings of a drug rehabilitation centre. They had to evacuate during the fire.

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The first surviving pines were at the beginning of the Tarmac road I would follow down into the flat farm land around Entrerrios where young olives were protected from the cold and an odd mix of buildings appeared.

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The GR route has been altered recently but I was on the original or I was until getting lost again. I found some PR 170 signs which is supposed to follow the same route so off I went. Into another unfinished, or unstarted, industrial site.

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I was heading the right way- up!
And so up and up again until I found myself a little bit of grass for my tent.

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Which I must get into now- it’s could and dark and I have (another) hill to climb in the morning.

LA GRAN SENDA DE MALAGA: GR249. 21st Feb.Estepona to Marbella(27km)

After 3 days deep in the valleys and high on the mountains on a constant roller coaster of ascents and descents it was a great relief to have a day on the flat. The altitude profile map had a maximum altitude of 12m although bizarrely there were sections marked as 2 or 3m below sea level. They must have known the tide would be out!

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With the dawn promising a fine day I headed off down the prom, remembering it was a year ago I was doing a similar promenade walk out of Malaga at the first stage of this epic circumnavigation.

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I could see the Rock of Gibraltar rising from the placid waters and a line of jagged Atlas Mountains away in North Africa.

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Some of the old houses in the town came right down to the seafront and at high tide they could go swimming from the back doors.

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There was quite a bit of walking on sand and pebbles at the start of the stage which forced an effort I’d hoped to avoid.

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The big villas and exclusive enclaves started, with their high fences and security cameras. You could edit a strange film from the footage of an unlikely bearded man with rucksack hiking the Costa.

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But it wasn’t all premium properties. Tucked away here and there there were still little pockets of scrubland, simple houses and fincas, camper vans and caravans.

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Some stretches were very quiet. I know it’s not the summer season but many resorts and condominiums seemed deserted. Some were rusting and crumbling away with empty or green pools and broken windows. But eerily a couple of apartments were lived in in the midst of once upmarket desolation. It was like something out of a J G Ballard story.

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But most stretches were pleasant enough with nice plantings and paving.

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Every so often id pass an ancient watchtower or medieval beacon in a range of different settings.

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Of course Puerto Banus’s had to be the most premium exclusive property.

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What an astonishing ostentatious display of wealth and desire is open to the rubberneckers in a couple of Kms.

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Ironically the whole place was having its streets dug up and replaced so it was chaos with a lot of unwanted dust landing on cars,boats,restaurant tables, clothes and hairdos.

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But the Puerto is a small world apart and soon I was back to the beaches on the way to Marbella.

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There are a lot of rivers and streams that make their way from the huge wall of mountain inland trying to get to the sea. Most form kind of lagoons on hitting the beaches and slowly filter through but others contain enough flow to make it and these are bridged by the extensive boardwalks.

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On the outskirts of Marbella more mansions appeared, or rather the walls and gardens surrounding them did.

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And suddenly a signboard for the next stage which led me up a landscaped path beside a stream with a deep bank displaying the trees roots.
It had been a big change from the last few days but variety is the spice of life they say. I can’t say I won’t be glad to head for the hills again tomorrow though.
The grass is greener up there.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Australia-5500km westcoast to eastcoast

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After protracted difficulties with my blog site it seems I am now able to report on our road trip Down Under.

With so much distance to cover in a relatively short space of time we weren’t able to undertake very long hikes but we did a number of walks from the camps we parked up in at night and stopped for a few here and there along the way.

Heading due east out of Perth  we passed the Rabbit Proof fence, a massive undertaking erected across Western Australia in an attempt to stop the migration of the voracious grass and crop eaters introduced for a bit of hunting sport.

 

No 1 fence, which we crossed was not far off 2000km long and involved teams of men camping in the bush for years with their horses and pack camels which were left to go feral and multiply to the extent that there are now more there than in any other country.

450km from Perth we pulled off the highway and drove a few km down a dirt track to our first camp at Karralee Rocks, the site of more old work camps for the crews working on the cross country rail line and also a scene of a gold rush in the 1890’s.

The huge granite outcrop had been used for millennia by Aboriginals for gathering and holding water and the industrious settlers had built a vast wall around them to act as a dam and sent the water down a system of sluices to a dug reservoir that served the goldmines and later the steam trains.

It was strange to walk among these remnants of past fevered industry, now so empty and silent, something we were to experience many times on our journey across the country.

Our first night in the camper was spent among the ghosts of the prospectors, with the distant sound of the massive lorries or road trains out on the highway.

Poking around the area in the morning we discovered a landscape dug up and out and moulded by man in his quest for riches. There was always a large contingent of Chinese among the gold seekers, and here they had been mining kaolin for making porcelain and establishing vegitable gardens to feed the multitudes.

There were also wells, dug by hand, and water could be bought and sold. Water was a commodity more sought after than gold itself at times. “You could borrow food and sometimes money, but never water”. Here 100 gallons cost you 2s 6d, 4d for a camel to drink but foot travellers were free.

Our next walk was at another gold mine, this one still in operation and on an altogether different scale. The Super Pit at Kalgoorlie is named appropriately. The scale of the undertaking- and the consequent hole in the ground- defies the imagination and ramps up the extraordinary statistics.

You can hardly see the 40 giant Caterpillar earthmovers that crawl up and down 24hrs a day with their 225 tonne payload. About 20,000kg of gold is extracted annually, which sounds a hell of a lot, but they had to dig out 85 MILLION tonnes of rock to get it. That works out at 7 of the monster trucks carrying up a golf ball of gold between them. You wouldn’t want that return using a pick and shovel.

The 4000 horse power Komastsu face shovels, as they are called, have buckets that claw out 68 tonnes at a time, and cost $18.5 million.

As awe-inspiring as seeing mans ability to transform the planet was it was a relief to move out to the beginning of the Nullarbor Plain, a true no mans land, where the more or less straight road would take us 1300km across a landscape totally unchanged and without any sign of “civilisation”.

Norseman, the last town to pass through was a fairly downtrodden looking place but had a free community pool, as a lot of the WA towns did, so with the heat really building , we stopped for a dip before leaving for the “empty quarter”.

We spent the night on the side of a little salt lake on the Frazer Range with a couple of other “rubber tramps” or “grey nomads”. The camping tradition is uniquely strong in Australia, as the vast nation was settled and built by campers over a couple of centuries in a country already lived in for tens of thousands of years by people moving and camping lightly upon its surface. Our retired neighbour in the camp told us that him and his wife headed out for about 4 months every year in their off road caravan, saying that” the only time you should be driving on tarmac is when your crossing it”! With all the campgrounds in National Parks, Regional and State Reserves, Conservation Parks and State Forests as well as hundreds of roadside rest areas official and unofficial, and a huge choice of private sites of varying levels of amenity and luxury- there are, at any one time, countless Australians “going bush”. The outdoor suppliers are vast warehouses of treasure troves to those seeking an engagement with their natural environment, even if it is through a screen of ever more plentiful and sophisticated camping gear and an array of huntin’, shooting’ and fishin’ tools and water activity toys.

It’s a mighty big playground out there and the little speck of woodland on the map that we slept beside that night was the size of England!

The next day took us nearly 700km and into SouthAustralia and our third time zone. At that stage we were half way across the Nullarbor Plain (Null Arbor- no trees) and been pleasantly surprised by its slight but constant variations. Well, when I say constant, the changes are on an unusual time frame, literally and figuratively. You drive in a more or less straight line for a few hours and the landscape and flora slowly morph from one thing to another.At the same time it no longer is the same time, because as you near the end of Western Australia, around the Eucla roadhouse, you enter the tiny area of Central Western Standard time and move forward in time 45 mins. Not long afterwards, travelling at 110km an hour, you cross into South Australia and move forward another 45mins. It’s all slightly disorientating.

Over the 90 Mile Straight and beyond we had gained 10m of altitude, avoided a collision with emus, camels and kangaroos, past a few trees decorated with various surreal accessories and driven on a few stretches of road that doubled as landing strips for aircraft.

The only human life, apart from the (very) odd passing vehicle, was clustered around the roadhouses every 100km or so, where you could get fuel, food, water, conversation and a bed or parkup. Only the massive road trains with their sturdy roo-bars can drive at night for fear of a collision with the wildlife which venture across the road in the dark. The long spread out string of roadhouses also host the 18 holes of “The Worlds Longest Golf Course”. With one hole per roadhouse it would take a while to cover the 1300kms in a golf caddy and the greens aren’t in great shape.

After unwittingly smuggling a small amount of veg into South Australia and the “fruit fly exclusion zone” we found a wonderful and wild park up off the road atop the Bunda Cliffs, with views of the untouched coastline of the Great Australian Bight, where I took a long hike down and across the dunes but was wary of going for a swim alone from the deserted beach into an unknown sea.

Another long drive the following day and we had crossed the Nullarbor Plain and attached the bumper sticker to prove it. We did swim at our next nights camp, our last on the coast for awhile, following the advice of a couple of locals to stay in the shallows as the “sharks come in after the salmon”.      I took a walk down the long jetty in the early morning and could easily imagine dark fins slicing through the water below.

Heading inland across the Eyre Peninsula and north of Adelaide we entered a completely different environment. Mile upon mile of rolling grain fields, an unbroken landscape of yellowing grasses to the horizon with small agricultural towns and massive grain silos, some of which had been getting an artistic makeover. And with the silos full, mountains of grain were created dwarfing the lorries and tractors busy around them.

A country pub with a barb wire museum(!) in the little town of Spalding let us park up in the back garden surrounded by a sea of wheat fields.

The temperature had been up to 42 degrees and we’d covered about 2800km in 5 days. It was time to slow down a bit and hang out somewhere cool and shady. We continued southeast through a more varied landscape to the Murray river at Berri where a lovely camp on the riverside allowed us to swim and walk in the wetlands and woodlands, do our washing and barbie on the bank.

For many years the Murray had been a vital transportation route from the coast to the vast interior. It’s Australia’s longest river at 2500km, rising in the Alps and creating a border between New South Wales and Victoria before crossing South Australia. Its waters were the lifeblood of a massive agricultural area and it was refreshing to be amongst such fertile surroundings.

After our relaxing sojourn on the river bank it was back in the van to the Ngarkat Conservation park. The tamed farmland had disappeared again and we were back in the wild. We took a hike on a luckily well marked route through the scrubland, you really wouldn’t want to get lost out there or you could find yourself wandering into the adjoining Big Desert Wilderness Park, whose name is a big clue to its nature.

Safely back in the van and on the road we stopped in the boiling heat for a look at a bizarre looking pink salt lake.

Later we dropped down past the Grampian Mountains through truly gorgeous country and pulled off into the Glenisla Forest Park to camp by the reservoir hoping for a swim. Unfortunately years of drought had left the boat slipway and floating jetty high and dry as the waters receded.

It was a strange and forlorn camp, with many old permanent caravans parked from when higher water levels had allowed for fishing and boating on the waters of the flooded forest. But the peaceful spot was a haven for wild life and we were serenaded by a host of exotic birds and visited by families of kangaroos.

Dropping down to the coast again we were grateful for the cooling swims at our camp on the Fitzroy River outlet.

We were now aiming for the 250km Great Ocean Road, the highway created by returning soldiers from the 1st World War in honour of their fallen comrades and the worlds largest war memorial. The coastal highway, weaving around the rugged rocky headlands with the crashing rollers of the Bass Straight gnawing away at the cliffs, is one of the worlds most iconic seascapes, and attracts a multitude of  sightseers.

Although beautiful it seemed to be a victim of its own success, with multiple car and coach parks having to be made at the many spectacular lime and sandstone rock formations to accommodate the hordes, and a line of snaking traffic clogging the roads. It was certainly a dramatic shift from the empty miles on the Nullarbor. In the end i’d had enough of the busloads of teeming tourists taking selfies and, with Sally feeling unwell, we passed by the remaining attractions and headed on to Apollo Bay where i’d booked our only room of the trip for Sally to recover in relative luxury. During the night I was disturbed by a persistent scratching noise and discovered a koala bear trying to gain entrance through the wraparound glass windows.

As dawn broke I joined him/her on the verandah and we had a long commune together before it slowly wobbled away back into the gum trees.

With Sally better the following day we tackled a couple of hikes in the area, the first down through the forest and along the fantastic rocks of the shoreline in a big loop. As we had travelled east the climate had been getting wetter, and here the vegetation was temperate rain forest complete with hundreds of lusty tree ferns.

Our second hike was again through the verdant forest down and down into a valley at the base of the Erskine Falls. On the way we crossed the Barham river leaving me to wonder if I had relatives or a credible land claim around there.

The night was spent in a camp deep into the forest in the Otway mountains after driving on dirt roads from the falls. This part of Australia, Victoria State, was proving to be a favourite of ours and amongst the rolling hills covered with towering trees and the steep sided fertile valleys we spotted the charming homesteads and funky houses of those who felt the same. The area was rich in artisan food producers, wineries and artist and craft folk.

Driving north into another area of historical gold fever around Heathcote we had a walk around the mini gorges and cliffs of fine pink clay that were created by the gold mining activities of the 1880’s when power hoses were used to sluice the earth away. The geological reserve here holds some unusual formations of smooth ironstone with a weird volcanic look about it.

Exploring the remnants of the gold rush days further we set off on a 30km length of dirt track to the scene of once frenzied activity in the ghost town of Whroo. In 1854 a couple of guys kicked a big nugget of gold out of the grass here and began a rush that saw a town of 13o buildings and a tent town grow up in the highly profitable decades that followed. Nothing now remains except mounds of disturbed soil, some cyanide vats which were used to separate the gold from quartz and the sad and isolated graveyard containing the graves of some 400 men, women and children who died at the mines.

The ghosts of Whroo now lie in the midst of the 33,000 ha Rushworth State Forest which took on an ominous character when a threatened thunderstorm built up around us as we walked through the shattered earth of the diggings. When the rain came down and the trees shook and swayed in the gale we upped camp and drove to a more open area, worried we may be trapped or crushed by fallen trees. The next day we hiked to the site of the main, pick and shovel dug, Balaclava mine-discovered on the day of the famous battle. It was remarkable to see the extent of the endeavours of the folk seeking their fortune but also sad to see the destruction of the environment. Whroo had been central to the lands of the Ngurai-illam-wurrung Aboriginal people for millennia but within 10 years of the arrival of white settlers the traditional lifestyle and food resources of the indigenous people had been destroyed. There weren’t many winners here.

Sure enough, as we left the area, there where many trees that had bring brought down by the winds, but we made it back onto a tarmac road and headed first to relatives at Yackandandah whose towering gums, brought down by the storm,had narrowly missed their neighbours house, and on up into the beautiful Snowy Mountains.The mountains had suffered a devastating fire some years ago and the bleached skeletons of the old forest stuck up above the new growth over a vast area as we rose ever higher. The rivers had been dammed in 16 places, creating vast lakes that fed 7 power stations, in the hydroelectric and irrigation scheme that was constructed over 25 years from 1939. The Snowy scheme is the largest engineering project in Australia and was another example of where workers lived for years in tents, including during the Alpine winters.There were more than 100 temporary bush camps in remote alpine country across the vast project.  In 1948 Major Clews, the chief surveyor for the massive scheme, insisted on tents even in the snow. He suggested that if any of his men did not like living under canvas they shouldn’t be in the bush at all.

In 1954 one of the highest towns in Australia ,at about 1500m, was constructed at Cabramurra from prefabricated buildings to accommodate the up to 2000 workers and their families on the scheme there and 20 years later a new development of houses, shop, primary school, petrol station, pub and sports facilities replaced it. Now changing work practices, shift patterns and workforce numbers has meant that the town is being abandoned and workers will go drive in/drive out,with only the school to remain open. Many people are unhappy and feel a way of life will be lost forever.

There is a feasibility study going on into a huge expansion of the Snowy scheme which would involve 1000’s more workers so it seems odd to give up on so much purpose built housing in an area that is under snow for 3 or 4 months a year.

Moving on across the mountains of the Kosciuszko National Park we bathed in the fresh clear air and feasted on the vibrant and lush wild flowers, so different an environment to the harsh dry plains below. Our camp was at Three Mile Dam near a ski resort, which seems an unlikely attraction in Australia. We hiked on another old gold prospectors route, coming across the remains of an old motor car that had powered the stamper machine, crushing the gold bearing rock.

The camp was low key, quiet and spacious with the fellow campers sitting around, fishing and fiddling about and watching the world go slowly by.

More hiking the following morning after crossing the high tablelands with herds of wild feral horses and descending to Yarrangobilly. Densely wooded hills surrounded a blue pool heated by an emerging thermal spring and paths led us along the river to extraordinary caves and rock arches and caverns where nesting birds swooped through the hole in the roof. The entire Karst limestone area is a network of over 250 caves- six of which are open to the public and were the most popular resort in New South Wales at the beginning of the 20th century.

By the end of the day we were on the main highway into Sydney and our remaining hikes of our trip down under happened on a couple of camping trips to National Parks north and south of the city. First to the Cattai N.P. on the Hawkesbury river where i wandered for miles around the old abandoned farmland and historic homestead of the early settlers, some of the first victims of climate change as the land dried and flooded.

Later we explored the northern tip of the vast Morton N.P., south of the city, hiking on paths along the top of the Illawarra escarpment which rises dramatically from the coastal plane as a wall of greenery to form the Southern Highlands, another area of great beauty.

And before returning to our frozen Irish gardens we visited the largest (1000 acre) botanical garden in Australia to feast our eyes and fill our souls with the sights and scents of the exotic blooms. There was also a futuristic building housing their very impressive seed bank and research facility.

There was also some artworks dotted around the grounds and a heartbreaking memorial to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families from 1905 until the 70’s, affecting between 1 in 10 and 1 in 3 indigenous children. A series of carved stone plaques with quotes from the victims about their damaged lives led us to the memorial of the “resocialisation” programme. Another art work we had seen in a Perth gallery had spoken about the success of that “programme”.

We’d had a wonderful trip across a beautiful landscape, but one with a troubled history of occupation that is still unresolved and problematic. Conflicting and contradictory attitudes towards the natural world where much of the land is fiercely protected and preserved whilst vast areas are destroyed and exploited, and towards the indigenous people who are held up as the “traditional custodians of the land” and yet marginalised and unequal in almost every way. As the early settlers and those that came after them camped in the same spots used by the “locals” for millennia so they set about undermining the continuation of what had been a truly sustainable lifestyle, with the defence that the land wasn’t being “used”.

Flying back across the empty red deserts of central Australia from Sydney to the north coast of W.A. I watched the desert landscape roll by underneath us for 4 hours, and reflected that it took a highly intelligent, skilled, practical and sensitive peoples to survive out there for 50,000 years.