DAWN in a river valley. Ink-blue shadows beneath tall mountains. A chill in air that is perfectly still. Smell of piny trees and the sound of rushing water. Pin-pricks of red lights as a truck crosses the Seven-Eye Bridge. Day is coming. Time to zip up the jacket and move off . . .
I follow the river on the tail of a vague plan that will deliver me into the mountains and provide a scattering of mini adventures. I have learned that walking in Andalucia is always an adventure, and that within the adventure there are – like garnets in a hoary boulder – unexpected discoveries to delight the mind and quicken the pulse.
So it is my intention to follow the Rio Guadalfeo upstream into its gorge in the Sierra Nevada mountains, join the GR 142 long-distance footpath, take my lunch at the place where the river splits into a number of narrow tributaries, and return by the same route. The total distance should be in the region of 17.6 kilometres or eleven miles. Let me tell you about the Seven-Eye Bridge because this is interesting though tragic stuff.
The Seven-Eye Bridge carries the main road from the coast into the town of Orgiva and derives its name from the seven arches that span the Rio Guadalfeo. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, republican forces blew up one of the arches to prevent General Franco’s fascist rebels crossing the river. The frontline in this area became more or less entrenched for most of the conflict – unlike in the remainder of Spain – with the republicans perched upon the slopes of Sierra de Lújar, which rises to the south of the bridge, and the fascists occupying Orgiva after evacuating its residents. There are people alive today who remember these events. It remains a touchy subject.
I leave the van in the shadow of the bridge, pass through the arch that was partially destroyed (you can see the repairs underneath), and follow an indistinct path through the scrub and shingle of the riverbed into the blinding light of the rising sun. The coolness of dawn dissipates with the warmth of the new day. Soon it’s time for breakfast. I have brought a jam sandwich and an apple. That’s proper planning for you.
The white-walled houses of the village of Los Tablones and the spoilheaps of its former mining industry command the opposite bank. Los Tablones translates as The Planks – possibly relating to the sheds and stacks of mine timber that once occupied the site. Lead ore was ferried down from high workings on Sierra de Lújar by overhead cableway to the processing mill on the edge of the village. The mill ceased to function many decades ago but the mine – after about twenty years of inactivity – now produces fluorite for the steel industry. The ore is transported by lorries instead of overhead cableway. Less romantic but probably a great deal more practicable.
A short distance upriver I discover my first gem, the initial garnet in my hoary lump of rhyolitic pyroclastic bedrock. A very British-looking double-decker bus reclines dejectedly beneath a makeshift tin canopy and surrounded by a screen of wild bamboo. This is worthy of further examination, but it’s on the wrong side of the river. At some point in the future I shall explore the opposite bank to see if the destination panel is still visible. And I’ll dig out my old school bus pass just in case.
Wandering east across these great flat banks of baked shingle, the riverbed suddenly veers north into the mountains and the mouth of a winding gorge. Blocking my way is a shallow dam, but while poking about its environs I stumble upon another garnet – a tunnel disappearing into the mountainside.
Oh, wow. I just love mysterious tunnels and cannot resist exploring them. Personally, I blame Enid Blyton for corrupting my childhood with the antics of the Famous Five. Like all proper walkers who carry the appropriate safety equipment, I have a torch with me. So in I go, only to emerge a hundred metres further up the river at the foot of a second dam. This one proves to mark the end of the trail, so I double back through the tunnel, cross the river, and search for a breach in thick vegetation that will deliver me onto the GR 142 footpath.
I surprise myself by emerging from a bamboo thicket into the walled garden of a watermill that has been converted into holiday accommodation. In this delightful garden is a gaily-coloured yurt (Mongolian tent, very popular in this part of Spain) and a woman sitting in the grass enjoying a quiet moment in the early-morning sunshine. I tip my hat and scurry towards an alley that leads to the road, making my apologies as I go. Hope I didn’t spoil her breakfast. At least I’ve found the road.
This road is also the route of the GR 142. It has whizzed, straightish and entirely flat, along the valley from Orgiva, but at this point its tarmac peters out and it twists, as a rough track, high into the mountains. I ascend a series of tight bends with the sun burning my neck and legs. The coolness of early morning has succumbed to the harsh heat of late morning. Oh, to sit on the green banks of the Rio Guadalfeo, many hundreds of feet below, and dangle my toes in its waters.
The track eases its ascent to encircle a topographical feature known as La Herradura. This translates as The Horseshoe – a perfect description for this bowl, or corrie, carved from the mountains. On the far side of the river is the home of author and former Genesis drummer Chris Stewart, whose debut book Driving Over Lemons – which describes life in this corner of the Alpujarras – is a bestseller. Incidentally, La Herradura also shares its name with a holiday resort on the coast. Just thought I’d mention that in case you fancied a quiet walking holiday and booked a flat above an ice-cream parlour by mistake.
La Herradura is another garnet in the rock; and around a final corner – after passing through a goat farm bouncing with barking dogs – I discover the last garnet of the day: a second mysterious tunnel plunging into the mountainside.
I must admit, I was aware of this tunnel’s existence because I’d spotted it on Google Earth. It is part of the hydro-electric system and delivers workers and vehicles to a remote installation in the gorge of the Rio Poqueira, which branches off the Rio Trevelez at this point. The latter flows into the Rio Guadalfeo a short distance down the valley. If this was Scotland, this place would be known at The Meeting of the Waters or something as equally poetic.
Although there are warning signs barring the public from the tunnel, I can’t resist a peek and wander inside a hundred metres to take pictures. Then I hear an engine starting up deep inside the mountain, so I scuttle out smartly. Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog would have slipped behind a rock, concealed by the darkness. Me, being socially inferior and therefore lacking backbone, I stand outside whistling and admiring the view.
I head for home, following my outward route although avoiding the very private walled garden and the lady in the grass. Back at the Seven-Eye Bridge the campervan splutters into life, still suffering from the incurable malady mentioned in my previous post. No reliable transportation at the moment. Might have to think outside the box and spend some money. Now where did I see a double-decker bus?