By Andrew Forbes
AUTUMN is a great time to dust off those hiking boots and enjoy the cooler mountain air; but don’t be too earnest. Make sure there’s a slap up meal and a comfy room waiting for you at day’s end.
Steep craggy rocks stood at each side of the dramatic gorge, typical of the limestone landscape of this eastern edge of the Grazalema protected Natural Park. Echoing through the wide, sunlit pass was the call of raptors in the sky above. Looking up, Griffon Vultures soared and circled overhead, exploiting thermals to swiftly cover the kind of distances, with barely a flap of their wings that had taken us some hours to walk since breakfast. It’s an extraordinary experience to be in such a dramatic landscape surrounded by nature; the feeling of freedom that these stunning spaces evoke is liberating. Despite being in such unfamiliar territory, we were in safe hands, as we’d opted to use a qualified and insured walking guide, Eva Monika Bratek, to take us through these staggering mountains north west of Ronda.
Eva knows the sierra better than most, and as a qualified ornithologist, her knowledge of the flora and fauna really brings the landscape alive.
We were some four hours into our hike when Eva identified the vultures’ nesting site and the source of the unusual sounds filling the canyon. The high specification scope that she’d been carrying over her shoulder was swiftly set up on its tripod and within moments we were viewing in startling clarity these enormous birds on their stony, inaccessible ledge some 30 metres above.
Immense adult birds were regularly touching down and taking off from their craggy cliff face home, whilst some juveniles looked out across the horizon.
The park has a surprising array of raptors, including four types of eagle. In just a few hours we had spotted the short-toed eagle, booted and also a Bonelli eagle, distinctive by its command of the sky with swift and agile movements. To be honest though I don’t think, without the guide’s insightful knowledge, we would have been able to distinguish so effectively between the different birds of prey. At a time when so many large birds are rare or endangered it is a real privilege to see them in such stunning habitat.
Close by on an equally precipitous ledge with commanding views, was a female Ibex, with her calf. Relaxing in the autumn sunlight they were sheltered by huge boulders. Although the mother appeared docile in this safe location, this species of mountain goat, still relatively common in the Grazalema natural park, is highly alert and super agile. They are able to swiftly escape predators along steep, stony and precipitous routes.
Our morning had started early. We met in the modest market square of Montejaque, already busy with market traders and villagers at eight thirty in the morning. A strong coffee gave me the kick start I needed and we were soon heading off to the ‘Cueva de la Pileta’.
This protected cave is still privately owned, and worth exploring. There are Palaeolithic drawings and paintings to discover; prehistoric art in charcoal, as well as red and yellow ochre. This is no theme park experience – it is practically untouched, so decent footwear is essential to negotiate the slippery cave floor as you walk through low narrow arches equipped with a vintage gas lamp provided by the owners.
The first autumn rains reignite colour in the landscape, with a mass of seeds and bulbs bursting into life that have lain dormant for months. In Spring time the colours are even more vibrant, punctuated with some thirty species of orchid that can be found in the Grazalema park.
Off season hikes are a wonderful way to welcome the cooler, more comfortable temperatures. All that exercise needs to be rewarded and few things feel as good as a satisfying meal after a day’s walking. Often hiking in Spain’s natural parks means nothing more than a straight forward meal in a simple B&B; but not when you hiking in the Ronda Mountains. Hidden in a river valley in the sleepy village of Benaojan is the Molino del Santo Hotel.
Molino del Santo has been one of Andalucía’s best kept secrets for years. British couple Andy Chapell and Pauline Elkin converted this ancient mill on the banks of a mountain stream 25 years ago and have been offering friendly hospitality ever since. The rooms have very comfortable beds, an important consideration for any walker, and feature thoughtful touches such as tea and coffee making facilities that go down well with guests. The period salon with its original millwheel is a great place to put your feet up and enjoy some of the hotel’s walking and nature books; whilst front desk has details of a number of self-guided and guided walks available for guests.
The country hotel offers the opportunity to enjoy the nature on its doorstep and then return to indulge in local and regional dishes made from seasonal ingredients.
Over dinner we share good humoured banter with Victor our waiter, who is also an expert on local Ronda wines. Before long, much of the health benefits of our hike are being somewhat eroded by another bottle of desert wine that goes so well with the triple-chocolate desert!
Breakfast, taken on the river terrace in dappled sunshine certainly is a great way to ease into the day with tired limbs from the walk and a thick head from the night before! Whilst tucking into some buttery croissants a graceful eagle glides overhead, making me want to head out into the park all over again.
- First published in Sur In English on October 19, 2012