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.

 

Bush Walking / Perth

Exactly 5 years after we ventured a couple of hundred Kms down the Bibbulmun track from Perth, we have returned.
The plan is to drive coast to coast in a vintage Mazda van, a journey of 5000km over two weeks, hopefully having time out of the driving seat to do some hiking along the way.
In between searching for a van and recovering from jet lag we had a trip out to the John Forrest National Park just 25km east of the city.
This 2700 hectare park, named after a famous Australian explorer is in the northern Jarrah forest on the crest of the Darling Scarp, the mountain ridge where we started our Bibbulman trek.

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Being so accessible from the city it’s a popular destination for daytrippers with a number of trails of different lengths,picnic and barbecue areas and even a pub and tea rooms. So civilised.
After registering at the Rangers office and a quick look at the Walkers Log we headed off on the longest route, the 15km Eagles View Walk.

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We passed under one of the three wooden trestle railway bridges in the park that carried the rails of the Eastern Railway, the line built at the end of the 19th century to open up the vast forests for exploitation. Built with hard labour, picks , shovels and horsepower vast amounts of rubble was moved to create embankments which are now used as a trail.

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Western Australia’s first tunnel was also blasted and bored here, through unstable granite that kept collapsing, leading to it eventually having to be lined with brick. The 350m tunnel was still not a success though, as the poor ventilation and noxious fumed meant the drivers and firemen were often overcome by the fumes and when one died of carbon monoxide poisoning, an alternative route was opened up.
Those days are long gone however and the hot and sultry air was full of a scent that transported us back 5 years to our days hiking through these gum forests.

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It seems an environment particular to Australia especially under a cobalt blue sky in the shimmering heat of summer. It was a little too hot for us folk fresh off the plane from Ireland and we remembered why we would start our Bibbulmun days in the cool of daybreak around 5am.

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The track makes a circuit through the parks more remote northern half, through a mix of heathland, open wandoo woodlands and forests of jarrah, marri and lord know what.
We recognised the big seed heads of Banksia and the familiar grass trees.

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We didn’t see any wildlife apart from a bunch of Roos hanging around the bar ( literally) and various birds with exotic song. No snakes or spiders, nothing to prevent us falling into a false sense of security. It’s all out there somewhere.
But this was just a gentle little warm up for the great outback journey starting tomorrow, and passing earth art on the granite outcrops

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we made our way around the man made pond to the safety of the pub.

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KEENAGH LOOP :Into the Wilds of Mayo

Last weekend we headed off in the camper to tackle a hike that i’ve been trying to get to for a while. Listed in the “1001 Walks you must experience before you die” book, and also  perhaps more surprisingly, ” The 50 Greatest Walks in the World”, the Keenagh Loop does a 12km circuit into the vast and empty blanket bog of Mayo.

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We’d parked up for the night at Windy Gap, atop a pass on the hills to the southeast, and indeed it was. The misty, murky morning cloud slowly rose to reveal the hills we were heading towards.

By the time we got going it was, at Met Eireann had promised, turning into a fine day.

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Nephin emerges from the cloud

The road from Castlebar to Bangor passes along the shore of Beltra Lough and alongside the beautifully wooded Boghadoon river before passing between the solitary bulk of Nephin mountain and the peaks of the southern end of the extensive Nephin Beg range. The trail starts where Bellanaderg Bridge spans the river and heads south down a tarmac boreen for a couple of km through the townland of Dereen.

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We had started out with the dogs as the notice at the trailhead had only asked for dogs to be on leads but annoyingly after awhile we came to the all too common NO DOGS sign so had to retrace our steps to leave them in the van before carrying on again, complaining to each other about the severe lack of dog walking opportunities in Ireland and the general lack of access for people too. Having just returned from the 650km Gran Senda de Malaga in Andalusia which, typically, crosses all kinds of farmed land with open access and no dog restrictions it was frustrating to be confronted with this attitude of landowners again. But it seems we must be grateful for any ability to stray off public roads or forest tracks.

Many Mayo landowners may have a much bigger problem than walkers and their dogs. The threat of foreigners. Invaders. Of the flora variety.

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We had passed dozens of these signs and their associated clumps of noxious weeds as we drove alone the highways and byeways of Mayo and this one was deep into the hinterland, past the only farmhouse on the boreen, just as the tarmac ran out. And Knotweed was not the only rampant plant taking over the land. Rhododendron ponticum is marching across the bogland of the Wild Nephin Wilderness Area, a huge tract of land where a “hands off” land management approach to “rewilding” the landscape could see it buried under the smothering blanket of the evergreen leaves of a bullyboy shrub that takes out any competition with toxic chemicals. Giant rhubarb, gunnera tinctoria, has also taken over large areas of once productive arable land with well over 1000 sites recorded on Achill alone. The speed with which it can take over is understandable when you know that one plant can produce 750,000 seeds and a square metre of ground can have 30,000 seedlings crowding out any other species.

We were accompanied for a while by a farm dog that was seemingly surplus to the requirements of the farmer and top dog herding some sheep around a derelict cottage.

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The black road became a green road, the old route to Newport, and we passed more forlorn and abandoned homesteads, still containing remnants of their previous occupation including an old bed heaped with sheep wool.

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As we climbed to a rise on the shoulder of Letterkeeghaun an amazing view lay before us southwards down the wide valley of Glen Hest, beside Beltra Lough, all the way to Croagh Patrick whose pyramidical summit was still hidden by clouds on the far side of Clew Bay.

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The old road was slowly disappearing under a layer of grass and moss, the mountains reclaiming the hard won mark of mans toil through the ages. In places it was now wet enough ground to warrant the placing of wooden bridges and boardwalks, although they didn’t stop me getting a wet foot at the bottom of an unnoticed bog hole.

We followed the ghost of the old way for about 3km under a big open sky until we reached the somewhat surreal edifice of a concrete waterworks where we stopped for a time to soak up the peace and have a sandwich, the only sound that of an unseen waterfall.

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We left the track here, as we approached a large block of forestry, and followed a line of fencing towards the sounds of running water. The erosion of delicate vegetation by overgrazing had caused big areas of waterlogged turf to be exposed, that plentiful rain and the padding of hooves were, bit by bit, sending sliding into the river and off into the lower lakes and sea. Since the end to headage payments, which saw the marginal hillsides covered by overstocked flocks of sheep, the numbers of animals has certainly reduced, but once uncovered the turf takes an age to repair itself and the presence of even a few trampling hooves can slow or stop the regeneration of a covering blanket of grasses.

It was still glorious out there, despite the signs of environmental degredation, and it got better as we reached the river and followed it upstream into the remote Glendorragha valley with the summit of Birreencorragh as a magnificent backdrop.

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Ahead of us a lone tree stood out, a surviver in its youth of the grazing sheep that have kept any of it’s prodigy from surviving. It’s not the climate, or even the waterlogged conditions that stop the expanses of western Ireland returning to forest, it’s the nibbling teeth of a livestock that makes little economic sense. Maybe we should pay the landowners more to grow hardwoods rather than undervalued wool and meat.

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Under the deep blue sky the mountains looked inviting and the thought crossed my mind that from here you could wander for days towards the west and north without seeing a soul. You could head out across the entire Nephin Beg range and work your way along the old Bangor trail or across the bogs of Ballycroy National Park to the sea. Tempting enough under these conditions but I knew what it could be like in the wild west and thought better of it. (See other posts on the Bangor Trail)

Instead we turned away from the river to follow the line of a disused fence passed the patches of scree on the flanks of Knockaffertagh towards a pass on it’s shoulder at about 250m.

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It was a fairly long but gradual climb across the tussocky grass and heather and a pleasure in the sunshine, to be savoured with repeated stopping to turn and admire the landscape we were leaving which seemed to glint in the crystallised light. Food for the soul. Another stop for edible nourishment at the pass and a different view to the north, of Nephin and passed our starting point towards the forests of Tristia and the sea at Killala bay.

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It seemed like we were rejoining the civilised and tamed world as we climbed down on the sheep paths to join a farm track and eventually a tarmaced boreen. A couple of red jacketed hikers passed us on their way into the wild and we hoped they had time to finish before the light went. The days were getting shorter and the clocks went back in a few hours time. Summertime was over for the year and with it the likelihood of any long hikes into the hills. The Letterkeen Loop was a nice one to finish with and the autumnal colours in the trees along the boreen made the new season welcome.

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As summer ends in the northern hemisphere however, it starts in the southern, so my next posts- while visiting family in Australia- will continue in the sun.

 

LA GRAN SENDA DE MALAGA: GR 249. 21st OCT. JIMERA de LIBAR to BENALAURIA ( 17km)

Our last days journey along the trail for this trip was going to take us through the Rio Guadiaro valley on fairly flat ground for about 8km and then on a long steep climb up and over Penon de Benadalid at over1000m before a steep descent a couple of km into the Rio Genal valley.
We set off under a clear blue sky luckily on the shady side of the valley, stopping to admire the Fuente and washing house on the outskirts of the village.

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We were again passing through the Natural Parque de Sierra de Grazelema and after following a little cobbled path through patches or parcelas of vegetable gardens we crossed a cattle grid and entered a vast area of cork and acorn covered Holm oaks, perfect for raising pigs, but here sheltering herds of impressively horned cattle, flocks of sheep and a lot of goats all seemingly free to mix and mingle.

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The freshly peeled cork oaks were a beautiful bloody shade of red in the early morning light.

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As we climbed higher we crossed grazing lands, leaving the oaks and coming to walnut plantations.

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Further on the landscape changed again to a mix of low shrub and more open grassland where the path was lined by stone markers.

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Sally let out a shriek when a little adder on the path struck out at her.

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As the sun climbed higher so did we and we reached the little gaggle of buildings at Siete Pilas, named after the natural spring Fuente that made this an important intersection of ancient paths.

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A cobbled path took us up away from the village and we were joined by a tabby kitten who followed us for 3 km to the peak.

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There is an abundance of powerful springs in the area which makes farming possible to a great height as the rain filters down through the limestone until it hits the underlying clay and emerges from the ground. The fuente near the top which we were very grateful for was dated from the 1700’s.

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Finally, hot and sweaty, we clambered the final few steps to the top where we discovered a car full of a young family that had come up the easy way, a steep concrete track on the eastern side. The towering slab of Penon de Benadalid was impressive and offered a couple of via ferrata routes. We preferred to rest and soak up the views.

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I’m pretty sure that view included the Rock of Gibraltar and the Morrocan Atlas Mountains.
We left kitty to walk with the other family and hopefully avoid the soaring vultures and started down the track. Crossing a main road at the bottom we were suddenly into chestnut country, an important crop over a huge area here.

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Briefly getting lost when our usually reliable markers abandoned us on the last leg we made in down into the attractive village of Benalauria with spectacular views of the surrounding hills.

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Our friends were waiting in the plaza for us, so we settled down for some cold beers and tapas, with the publican teaching us how to use an acorn cup as a whistle.
A great weeks walk, very varied,was over and the GR249 will have to wait till next year for me to complete it.

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LA GRAN SENDA DE MALAGA: GR249. 19/20th OCT. EL BURGO TO RONDA(27km) to JIMERA DE LIBAR(26km)

The loud pitter patter of raindrops on clay tiles lasted most of the night but by dawn had gone silent. Not because it was dry but because, as we discovered on leaving our shelter, the fine misty drizzle made no sound. Draping the surrounding hills in a gauze of grey it seem to impose a quiet over the river valley we started up out of town.

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Everything was coated in sparkling shiny water droplets and the air had been washed of all haze creating particles leaving what could be seen below the drifting, swirling cloud to stand out in sharp relief.

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It was all about the water. The river was below us, winding through the walls of layered and undulating seams of sandstone and bursting from dams.

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It also burst from the ground next to us in “Fuentes” nicely planted and with seats that would have tempted in sunnier conditions.

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And it also covered our heads in a ceiling that rose and fell and drifted around us on unfelt currents.

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Although we were wet and a bit chilly and had concerns that it should improve before we got too high, it was very calming and a silent beauty pervaded the vast forests of the Sierra de las Nieves Natural Parque.

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We left the forest track to descend on a trail to cross the river and clamber up a steep and rocky slope past the ruins of old cortijos that once clawed a living in these wild spaces. The landscape opened around us as we climbed out of the forest and up into the high plateau guarded by the remnants of a cliff top fortress.

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The flat ground, at over 1000m high, was occupied by a working farm of grain and sheep. A lonely spot to be sure, we followed its track up to the pass at 1160m and then down towards their nearest neighbours 5km away.

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As we got lower the flat plain around our objective, Ronda, revealed itself.

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The rain / drizzle/ damp was long gone by now and after reaching the cortijos lower gate and starting across the agricultural land ,that now did not seem so flat after all,we began to feel the Kms covered and anticipated our arrival

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in Ronda.

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Glad to have arrived we had to negotiate swarms of meandering tourists to get to our bed for the night and climb into the shower before taking to the streets again in search of a back street local frequented eatery before collapsing wearily into bed.
Up and out before the sightseers clogged the streets we crossed over the famous bridge and down the beautifully cobbled path into the gorge, only making way for a mass of runners with an axe to grind.

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The path was magnificent. The cobbling superb. The light a delight.
What’s not to like.

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A couple of Kms out out town we turned off onto an old dirt track that serviced a small group of houses and a gaggle of rough and ready farm buildings. After the swish 5* buildings of Ronda this was a forgotten outland or edge town.

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At the edge of edgetown we joined the railway track that was to accompany us all the way the to JIMERA de LIBAR.

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It became the day of the insects with the air full of flying ants, the vegetation full of snails and busy dung beetles crossing our path.

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We left the railway to climb a beautiful ancient cobbled path up over the mountain, passing a flock of sheep on the way.

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From the top of the pass and down into the town of Benoajan we unfortunately passed some animals not best looked after. A horse tangled on a few inches of rope, sheep grazing on layers/ stratas of rubbish and one of so many dogs we heard chained and wimpering.

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Perhaps ironically, the town is famous for its pork products. Supposedly made from free ranging pigs happily gorging on acorns in the holm oak forests. We have our doubts.
Moving on through town on an old track past the station we continued on a beautiful riverside trail.

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The valley was spectacular, and just the railway and our track ran through it.

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Our views alternated between far reaching vistas of the railway, river and mountains and intimate ones of trees and trail.

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Eventually we crossed the railway on an elaborate bridge and walked alongside the river before starting the final climb towards our days end.

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Stopping briefly at a Fuente beneath some towering and randomly decorated palms

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we climbed our last hill of the day, a 2km, 150m ascent to JIMERA de LIBAR.

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Tomorrow is our last leg of this trip. A hopefully relaxed 17 km walk to Benalauria.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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.