31/10/22 – 06/11/22 242 km
As I left Antequera on the first morning of November, temperatures still roasting, I only had one thought. After nine consecutive weeks of walking, surely I was due one without incident?
The walk out of town was dull however things started to improve after I had reached a series of dramatic peaks that marked the descent into El Chorro. This small cluster of buildings marked the starting point of ‘El Camino del Rey’ and I was shocked to find so many tourists in such an isolated location. On a personal level it marked the start of a journey of discovery into a part of Andalucía I will definitely return to. Spain is one of the most diverse countries I’ve ever visited and this was further evidence that it really does have it all!
After filling up my water bottles I left the little tourist trap and forced myself up a steep ascent towards a reservoir. The sun was beginning to set and as I started to search for a place to pitch I stumbled upon a little ticket booth situated next to the ruins of a long since abandoned church. Perfect for a night in the bivvy!
I slept all the way through to 5.30 and I was on the road again by 6am. Still dark and with nothing more than the spotlight of my headtorch I felt like I was the only person around. I was beginning to enjoy walking before daybreak and when I turned back to see where I’d come from I was rewarded with yet another stunning sunrise.
I made it to Ardales for breakfast and then continued to climb up to Serrato where I would stop for lunch. More brie and chorizo. After looking at the map it became apparent that Ronda was within sight so I engaged ‘beast mode’ and marched on towards yet another 50km day.
Leaving Ronda the next day was special. Although the GR7 headed towards the northwest, I decided to leave via the ‘Casco Antiguo’ to the south. Wow! The whole town is built on the top of a hill with a deep chasm or gorge separating the new and old quarters. It is impossible to appreciate unless you are below. So, as I wound my way down to the valley floor I was really struck by the stunning views looking back. It’s one of those places that must be seen to be believed!
Eventually I rejoined the GR7 and after crossing the valley floor climbed into the hills running parallel to Ronda itself. It was another extremely hot day but I was feeling calm, as I would soon arrive in Montejaque to refill the bottles. When I arrived, everything was closed and the public fountains were dry. No problem, I still had a litre and the next town was around 20km away. Four hours. It would be tough, but I could do it!
I climbed out of the village and along an access path cut into the grey limestone hills. After an hour the path dropped into what I can only describe as a forgotten world. I was in a perfectly flat bottomed bowl surrounded by peaks on all four sides. It was glorious. Here I continued for at least 10km until I reached a fork in the road. As I was running low on water I made a snap call and decided to change the route and head directly south to Cortes de la Frontera. I would be leaving the GR7 but I would join it again in a couple of days before arriving in Tarifa.
The path was brutal. What would normally have taken two hours, took three. When I arrived in the village, there were only a few hours of sunlight remaining. After chatting to some locals about the path that lay ahead, whose Spanish was almost indecipherable, ‘we’ decided that although it would be difficult, I should press on to El Colmenar where I could get accommodation for the night. Or at least that’s what I thought they said…
So on I went, first to La Cañada del Real Tesoro and then finally to a track running up into the mountains. Although it was nearly dark, I had prepared my head torch, and was feeling sufficiently confident about what lay ahead. At this stage the track was wide enough for a car, relatively hazard free and navigation was easy. The last of the sun’s rays had turned the sky a glorious pink, all was good in the world. I was happy.
As the path climbed into the hills I could sense that there was a precipice to my right but it was pitch black now so any danger was hidden. The occasional passing train lit up the steep valley but not enough to cause concern. After about an hour I stumbled across the first obstacle. The path was littered with hundreds of pigs walking aimlessly through the night. Armed with my walking poles I waded through the herds. After my encounters with dogs the previous week, they were harmless.
So on I went, until I reached a dilapidated farm building and then suddenly the path disappeared. I checked the map on my phone and I had reached the start of the descent into the chasm below where I would eventually have to cross a bridge before exiting on the other side. At least that’s what I had hoped. Navigation was difficult now and the terrain was even harder but I managed to reach the crossing. There was just one small detail, I would have to descend the last ten metres using cables. I was scared but there was no way I would turn back now. I tentatively lowered myself onto the bridge.
I could sense that I was still really high but it was impossible to tell in the dark. Once on the bridge I then noticed my next challenge. To exit I had to pass through a tunnel carved into the mountain. I was forced to crawl into the right space as my pack was too tall to allow me to stand. Halfway through the tunnel turned ninety degrees and I was seriously disorientated when I came out of the other side. It was impossible to tell where I needed to go next.
I soon found out it wasn’t straight on after nearly falling into the abyss below. After calming my nerves I took stock of the situation and found the trail. I had to double back on myself and climb up a narrow track which was next to the tunnel itself. It was practically vertical with a series of zigzags that were almost impossible to distinguish from the surrounding landscape but I could just about make out the red and white stripes of the trail markers reflecting my headtorch in the distance.
After what felt like an age I reached the top of the climb only to descend once more on the otherside. This time on an even steeper path. This part was supposed to be easier! After what felt like an age, I finally made it down this track and crossed one final suspension bridge. The path was narrow now and overgrown. Somehow I managed to follow it to the village without getting lost. After five long kilometres I could see the twinkling lights of civilization and the relief I felt was incomparable. This had been the hardest walking of the trip so far, but I’d done it!
It was only when I arrived at the hotel that I reflected that perhaps this was what the men in the bar were trying to tell me. My Spanish is good now, but it’s still not old man in a rural Andalucía mountain village good. After speaking to Cristina the next day – neither is hers!
On arrival, I met a lovely English couple who had walked the same path during the day. I don’t think they could believe that I had done it in the dark but after listening to their story, part of me is glad that I hadn’t seen just how perilous it had been!
I woke up late the next day, I was clearly shattered after the previous night’s exertions. Needless to say the walk out of El Colmenar was much easier. As I caught up with the couple from the previous night we were treated to a spectacular rainbow that perfectly framed the village we had just left. As they continued north I began yet another climb along a lesser known Camino in order to reach Jimena de la Frontera where I would rejoin the GR7 temporarily. When I reached the peak of the hill I saw the infamous Rock of Gibraltar for the first time. I was close.
From there I followed the railway through arable land until heading west to Castellar Viejo de la Frontera where I had planned to sleep on the Mirador (viewpoint) platform. Again it was getting dark, I was really struggling to adjust to the limited daylight after the clocks changed. I must start leaving earlier!
I arrived as the only bar was closing but managed to get the proprietor to fill up my bottles and hurried my way to the Mirador to set up my bivvy. I fell asleep in the open air watching the lights of Gibraltar glistening below.
I woke at 2.30am and everything was soaked. As the winds had eased the condensation set in. I knew I needed the tent but there was no soft ground for the pegs. So, I decided to pack up and head out in the dark. It was then that I realised I had made a fatal error. I had left my walking poles in the bar when I had stopped to get water. They were on their last legs and I was sure I could get more so I left them. A decision I may live to regret as I will not come across a Decathlón until Sevilla.
Although pitch black, the walk was easy. First through a forest where I could see hundreds of pairs of motionless eyes staring at me! Then onto a cycle path that followed the main road to Algeciras. Unfortunately, the only way to enter the city was by motorway so I had to take a ten kilometre detour through Los Barrios. It was light by the time I got there. I arrived in Algeciras at 11am and checked myself into a pensíon where I hoped to dry out my gear.
Algeciras is a strange town. Although on mainland Spain it felt more like North Africa. I liked it, seven years on the Iberian Peninsula and I’m still learning about this country. I made the most of the opportunity to eat Moroccan cuisine and listen to the sounds emanating from the local mosques. Although, after being isolated for so long I felt a sense of unease being surrounded by so many people in what is essentially a frontier town.
The next morning I left the city to the south. I was off the GR7 and once more back on the GR92. The irony was not lost on me as it was the same path I had started the walk on 67 days ago in Portbou. Serendipity perhaps? I climbed out of the city, looking back occasionally to get fleeting views of Gibraltar before arriving at the collado (mountain pass) where I finally saw Africa. I was emotional. The moment was amazing, with the cloud inverted above the Strait of Gibraltar it was impossible to distinguish between where Spain ended and where Africa started.
In this moment, I understood the deep rooted links between them. The insatiable desire of the Muslims to cross and conquer the land that was only a stone’s throw away. It’s less than 15km wide!
After taking a thousand photos, none of which conveying the feeling of being there in person, I carried on. The final few hours were a joy and I couldn’t stop looking at the land that lay beyond. My arrival at Tarifa was met with no fanfare but for me personally it was one of the most amazing feelings of my life.
In 67 days I had walked the length of Spain. I had walked 2,064 km, raising over £2,000 for Young Minds in the process and it’s not over yet. In a way it is only just starting, as I turn north to face the challenge of a Spanish winter.
I hope next week will be without incident. I suspect however, as I’m sure you do, it will not! Thank you to every single person who has supported me in getting this far!