May Day walks

Unexpected chance to go walking with some lovely people on May day and the day after. It was a treat and we had lovely weather for it.

The first day was on the silk route, so called because it is one of two routes to the Puerto de Cómpeta – the pass between Sierra Almijara and Sierra Tejada into Granada province. The silk industry flourished in Al-Andalus from the 9th century and the Axarquía has a climate ideal for mulberry trees, so silkworm coccoons (and many other things) were traded using this route and  Granada silk was brought back for export from Torrox, the closest harbour.

Spanish broom

This walk, open with views all the way down to the coast (where you can glimpse Torrox Costa), also gives you stunning views of the dramatic Sierra Almijara. In May the scene is splashed with the bright yellow of Spanish Broom, spilling down the hillside. And beside the path, everywhere you looked there were flowers.

Linaria amoi, Axarquia Toadflax
Grey-leaved Rock Rose
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I was interested to see the difference, between two types of Jerusalem Sage . I rarely see the yellow ‘Wooly’ Jerusalem Sage, while the purple variety is everywhere. Nice to see the latter’s furry visitor, too.

Phlomis purpurae, Purple Jerusalem Sage, with visiting bee
Phlomis lanata, Wooly Jerusalem Sage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pinecone Thistle, Leuzea conifera

 

One of the other walkers spotted this young pinecone thistle too, a curious looking item but very distinctive.

 

 

We walked to the Venta Pradillos, which was once a fair sized Inn, with it’s own terraces, spring, stabling and threshing circle. Sadly, in the 40s the Civil Guard, in an effort to quash the last resistance to Franco, closed it and took the roof off to make it unusable, but it is in the most beautiful spot imaginable.  You can just see it here among the pines. It makes a wonderful spot for a picnic.

That, in fact, seemed to be something everyone agreed on. As we headed back we were met by a couple of Spaniards, then a small party of British walkers, then a large party of very friendly Irish walkers and finally a Danish family (the girl was afraid of our gentle but friendly dog) – all coming the other way and heading for the venta. I felt rather smug that we had got there first!

 

I generally prefer circular walks but there are advantages to a linear walk in a landscape this dramatic. The reverse view can be surprisingly different. Coming back the rocky outcrop of the Atalaya rose above us.

The turtle

I pointed out that Atalaya looks like a planetary land turtle, that has swum up from the molten core all the way through the outer layers of rock and soil to take a quick gulp of air at the surface. You can even see the lower jaw. Imagine my surprise when other walkers thought it looked more like a camel, or even an owl. It’s quite obvious to me that it is a turtle (I am typing this after a couple of glasses of wine, though).

The most exciting wildlife on the walk was only seen by a few of our us. Neil spotted Ibex running up a slope – probably to get away from Sybil, the lovely dog we had with us. They blend in so well that we wouldn’t have seen them unless they were running, so Sybil did us a favour.

That said we did see a wolf. Well… I saw a hole beside the footpath with a little network of needles and stones around the entrance. Easy to overlook, but I had seen this before. I teased a pine-needle into the doorway a little and was rewarded, by the home-maker’s brief appearance: a wolf spider. Is a wolf spider more exciting than ibex?

Wolf Spider, Lycosa tarantula

These are impressive spiders and can be quite big, so I was all the more surprised to say hello to another, smaller specimen, the following day near Sedella. Perhaps a male (they’re smaller) looking for a mate.

 

That was another fabulous walk. We took a turn around the town (Sedella is very attractive) before heading up to the old Mill, where you can see system for milling with water from the open water tank at the back to the channelling system for bringing it in and the old grind stones within the building itself. We strolled up from here to where the track splits beside a building for water purification, with the sensible party heading off to the picnic site and the rest of us heading over to the old hide where we looked out on what had been the vulture sanctuary and, as usual, saw no birds.

Spotted Rock-Rose, Tuberaria guttata
Umbrella Milkwort, Tolpis barbata

Wonderful flowers though. I was pleased to see both Spotted Rock Rose and Umbrella Milkwort, which someone had once i.d. for me the wrong way round causing me great confusion.

walkers at Sedella’s picnic ground

Then we went to the picnic site and re-joined the others. There’s one vulture there who is reliably available and readily posed for photographs.

Sadly the site has been paved, which is probably good for access but for my taste diminishes it: I liked the wooden tables and benches under the pines, with pine-needles underfoot. These are on the way out – the benches are mostly rotten – which seems a pity. Still, perched on a wobbly bench, eating our sandwiches, we watched a pair of eagles floating across the valley with great delight. A couple of us saw Sardinian Warblers and we all saw Serins and Goldfinches, but the eagles were the stars of the day.

Shorted-toed (Snake) Eagle & Booted Eagle. Photo from Never mind the finnsticks.

I was a bit cautious giving i.d.s because (I hate to say this) I hadn’t taken my binoculars (Ow! just kicked myself). Also on the silk route Maddy and Neil told me they’d seen 5 eagles (five!) eagles the day before – they were two pairs of Short-toed (Snake) Eagles, and then a fifth later on. Again they were told Short-toed, but were surprised: the bird seemed smaller and had a very clear white body and wings with an outer rim of black. Now, I know how very easy it is to reach for your first gut-instinct i.d. (especially something you have just seen) without thinking and then be embarrassed by a mistake – I’ve done it myself – but this sounds very much like a Booted Eagle to me. Size usually gives it – Snake Eagles head up towards a 6 foot wingspan; even Booted females aren’t much more than 4 foot. But having confirmed this on one day I didn’t want to get something wrong on the next.

Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo Dharani Prakash

The first eagle we saw while walking: a seriously big bird. I didn’t think it was as big as an adult Golden (around 7 foot wingspan!); I thought this was probably another Snake Eagle was best guess on balance of probability. But the two eagles that played out for us by the picnic ground for some 20 minutes seemed to me to be smaller – definitely bigger than the petite Booted, but not convincing me as Snake Eagles unless they were juveniles. The only bird that I have seen in the area that fits this would be a Bonneli’s Eagle – certainly a possibility. But I have to say, at that distance without binoculars, an educated guess is all you do.

 

Full of picnic we went down to the main road on the zigzag path. At one point there are hives on a sidetrack and someone had dangerously put one up on the main track (not heard of anaphylactic shock?). But mostly I enjoyed saying hello to lots of small pollinators, not to mention butterflies and crickets. The best of all were new to me – a gorgeous pair of antlion relatives with the lovely name of Owly Sulphurs. What better way to finish a wilding walk?

Owly Sulphers, Libelloides coccajus

 

 

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La Maroma

La Maroma (photo Karen Spencer)

La Maroma is my constant backdrop. The edge of the Axarquia includes the intersection of two mountain ranges The easterly range is the Sierra Almijara with its spiky peaks and steep valleys. This range is rising due to tectonic plate pressure from the south. Then there is the Sierra Tejada, a limestone range of mountains thrust up ages upon ages ago from the sea-floor – rocks formed deep below the waves now rise up to make long whale-backed ridges. This range is, milimetre by milimetre, losing height but is the higher of the two. The biggest mountain in it is  Maroma, a great ridge of stone above the high green hills, with it’s south side, our side, patterned with dramatic cliffs. It’s highest point is at the western end, 2,068m high.

I’ve climbed it before, coming from Canillas de Aceituno and enduring a steep climb and bitterly cold strong winds. Exciting but exhausting. So when a visiting friend said, emphatically, that he wanted to do Maroma and nothing else would do, I decided to come from the other side, going from Fogarate, working up to the high meadows at about 1100m, then tackling the main ridge east to west.

We set out early on a beautiful day: bright and clear and the six of us were buzzing to be off. We saw the black-and-white swirl of hoopoes’ wings in the pine woods on the forest path, which zigzags, deeply rutted, steeply uphill, and opens now and again to glorious views.

Approach from high meadows

On the high meadows there’s a small herd of feral horses – friends have seen them on Maroma itself – but they weren’t interested in us. They lifted their heads, stared, snorted and turned their backs. This big green field, the end of the long grassy ridge that rises from the pine forest, felt like Base Camp.

Looking to the south west I could see the land on the other side of Lake La Viñuela, with specks of the villages – Comares, Cútar, Benomacarra. On the other side I noticed the round humped cushions of Hedgehog Broom, looking attractively soft and comfortable.

View north east

They are quite the opposite. A friend told me they are known as Monk’s Cushion because it’s a penance to sit on them: the stiff leaves make rigid sharp spikes.

Early flowers

But Hedgehog Broom also sums it up. Its prickly hummocks swell out of the rocks all over the mountain. In full bloom they are a gorgeous lilac blue making up for the brutal spikes around the flowers. Beautiful. Provided that you don’t sit on them, of course.

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Now we were off. The rocky path to a bleaker landscape was before us. With little plant cover, extremes of weather and a trail leading through and over outcrops of weathered rock the landscape is immensely dramatic and a touch bleak. It couldn’t have been more beautiful.

I loved the swirling lines you see sweeping across the ridge, made I guess by fault lines in the rock affecting the pattern of plant growth.

lines on the landscape

 

Drought dominates the plants here: although this mountain catches every cloud much rainfall sinks through the rock or runs off. And in summer there are months without rainfall and, even up here, baking temperatures. So the norm is small plants and small-leaved plants, often protecting themselves from grazers with spines and spikes, such as the brooms, thistles and gorse. The only trees are are pines.

Rhodedendron
Stone trough

However, we passed a stone water trough, which must be filled by a local spring, the water dribbling out and down a little narrow gully. In this tiny narrow spot, and here only, there were water loving plants like rhodedendron, brambles, hellibore and the like.

Brambles

The trough may once have been a watering point for mules brought to collect ice from the mountain – it was packed into a well or caves in winter and hacked out in summer by men who descended on ropes of woven grass called ‘maroma’ – that’s where the name came from, or so I am told. There would have been quite a market for ice in the summer! It must have been tough work and the race against the inevitable melting of the ice frustrating or dangerous but for centuries ice in Malaga’s summer would be water in the desert and worth the effort. 

 

View of Granada

The views on this day were superb. We were lucky: it was not (quite) too hot and since heat makes everything hazy we were delighted – stunning views of a glorious landscape all around. As we worked up onto the saddle (the low dip at the eastern end of the stony ridge) we could see right across the plain of Granada, with a glimpse or two of the blue surface of Los Bermejales, the reservoir,

The Sierra Nevada

and far beyond were mountains with clouds at their feet, the snow-capped Sierra Nevada among them. Looking back to the south east I could see the dramatic outline of our own Sierra Almijara, spiky marble peaks vying with each other, their colours shaded subtly from black to grey to blue.

 

Sierra Almijara

 

Neil who is an artist would stop to paint the view in his sketch book at the drop of a walking stick. He has done this in the Alps and Nepal and astonished me by the speed with which he could capture the scene before us.

Neil Pittaway, sketching

 

 

 

 

 

 

The path headed down to the north, just enough to dip towards the pine woods growing up the slope. These woods are growing far higher than they do on the exposed south side, but may exist partially due to planting: we passed fenced areas filled with what looked like tree guards, though there weren’t any seedlings. Perhaps our very dry spring has lead to a failed planting.

Pines

 

As we came up away from the pines we heard red-billed choughs calling and saw a pair. We kept hearing them now and again while we were on the ridge and above the cliffs saw a small flock dipping and floating in the void. I also saw a couple of larks, probably Thekla larks and, right on the summit, a wheatear. Otherwise birds seemed rather absent – the constant twitter of little flocks of goldfinches or siskins that you hear on the lower slopes was missing.

The most dramatic point of the ridge is not the summit itself but the point at which the path comes close to the south-side cliffs. It is not difficult – basic common sense will keep you safe – but you see instantly why the mountain top could be a dangerous place in bad weather.

       

There was still a way to go to the summit from the cliffs, though. I tried not to stop too often to hunt shots of lizards and flowers to avoid being left far behind and needing to jog to keep up. It is the burden of the wilding geek – to do the very best long walks in good company sometimes you have to put the camera away. This was especially important as we were beginning to see other walkers on the trail. In fact, due to a short rest near the cliffs (with me taking photographs, Neil painting and sensible people have a snack) we were – horror of horrors – overtaken. Some walkers are like storm troopers, but you don’t see the views or the wildlife. So, no sour grapes at all, then, when I say “I bet the walkers who beat us didn’t enjoy it as much as us!”

 

  

Finally we reached the summit. I’ve previously said it is like the surface of the moon to indicate a dramatic, broad, barren landscape. It was magnificent but felt, in the hot sunshine, less isolated than in that windswept November. There are shallow stone rings, likely where people put tents up on  midsummer’s eve (yes, really, people come up to spend the shortest night up here) and we took one over to picnic. There is a sign to indicate the presence of the snow-gatherers’ well (a hole in the ground) and a great pillar as Trig. Point, with a couple of plaques cemented to it in memory of deceased walkers and with steel rungs on the side by which it can be climbed. This inevitably means that a queue of walkers head up and down for photos and views. It was a pity that by this time the heat had drawn up more of a haze and faint skeins of cloud were gently drifting over.

Final furlong
Still a glimpse of Sierra Nevada

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t judge the people climbing the pillar (in fact I climbed it myself) or taking selfies or asking for group shots. The cameraderie you get in a gang of walkers who’ve done a tough walk to this fabulous summit – perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime event – merits celebration. We gathered for our own grinning group shot but it was on Jon’s camera so I can’t post it here.

Heat haze
Trig point

After lunch it was time to head back; we did the walk as a linear jaunt, but on the second leg we were very much relaxed and glad we had been earlier rather than the herds of walkers now heading up (probably no more than a dozen, but still). We enjoyed another brief sojourn at the cliff edges. I am not a climber and am fairly cautious but am deeply grateful I don’t suffer from vertijo, which could stop me enjoying scenes like these.

In addition to more choughs, lizards, and lots of tiny flowers on the way back I especially enjoyed finding a fellow grasshopper, (orange, with a ridged pronotum) attempting to hide in asphodel leaves. I have yet to i.d. it. But you know me, I love a challenge.

And then we were down and heading, with aching feet, weary muscles, and a touch of sunburn, for a few beers at El Curros in Árchez. It was generally agreed to have been a brilliant day: good walking, great views, good company. Special thanks to Steve Gilkes, and everyone else. Next time you want to do a mountain, Jon, just give me a shout!

 

Sketch from Maroma by Neil Pittaway
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January Gallery

Some of my favourite shots from January.

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