Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Al-Andalus Day 5: One of Those Days - to Ronda

Wednesday April 2 2008

You get to the mid-point of the ride - and it all happens at once. Steph's phone rings at 3 AM. A car wreck. Truck containing the quads and motorcycles that lead the ride gets the keys locked inside. An SUV gives up the ghost, blows up. Horse is forgotten in stables. The wind is blowing a gale, and the trail for horses very rocky, technical, challenging, and tiring today. We lose the course at times. Nacho drives slow. Slow??

The ride starts at 10:30 once the quad truck arrives. 18 horses and riders started up the road into Parque Natural Alcornocales. Today, Nacho's car was at the front of the field, leading them up and up and up the logging roads - slowly! He even told me in Spanish he would be driving slowly. "Merri! Hoy conducir despacio! No tienes miedo hoy!" (Today driving slowly! You don't have fear today!) Well, I certainly had a new sensation of bafflement! I still held on for dear life out of habit. I got a tranquil look at the scenery, layers of mountain forests falling below us as we climbed ever higher.

The Parque Natural Alcornocales is a 400,000-acre nature reserve, named after the cork oak trees, the largest grove of cork oaks in the Iberian Peninsula. While it is a nature reserve, it is "devoted to exploitation of the forest's resources" - for hunting, for gathering wild mushrooms, gathering tree heath (used in making tobacco pipes), and harvesting the cork trees for their bark. We saw one fellow with his 3 pack mules laden with the rounds of bark from cork trees, and a huge pile yet to transport. There are extensive hiking trails in the park, with signs indicating not the kilometers to a destination, but the hiking times.

At the highest point of the trail, a cold gale was blowing over the ridge, kicking eye-grating dust about. I was particularly glad not to be on a 4-wheeler this morning. Miguel the camera man attempted to stand up with his video camera to get some shots, but it was too windy to hold still. We continued on from this high point near 700m, staying in front of the horses, and headed downhill to a sheltered flat on a ridge, where we set up an Assistencia point.

Here we met two charming ponies, one very friendly rotund paint who really wanted to help with the assistance, and got quite excited (or offended) when his offers were turned down. Once the Arabians started passing through, the paint decided he wanted to be an endurance horse (trotting and cantering around in shared excitement), or maybe a rodeo horse (leaping and bucking), or maybe a dressage horse (showing off his extended trot). There was also one FAT chestnut who observed the shenanigans from a little further away. After the last rider got their water and disappeared into the forest again, and the humans packed up to leave, the ponies looked quite forlorn that their unexpected entertainment was gone.

Most of the rest of the day consisted of an awful lot of driving on high mountain roads, confusion on when and where the horses would cross, and lots of wind. At the lunch vet check, Steph and I climbed in the car with Luis, who promised to take us over the horse trail for the last 9 km.

Just as we pulled away from the last Assistance point (where the horses travelled over an original Roman road, the same stony path from 2000 years ago), Luis asked Antonio out the window, "Can we make it?" Antonio answered, "No se..." He didn't know. Luis said, "Well, we try." Wait - that didn't sound too good - had this been my idea?

The last 9 km to the finish was over trails made for horses, tough horses, and not for vehicles. But we wanted to see the trail? Luis got us over the trail in his vehicle. I am here to tell you, nothing stops these crazy Andalucíans from going over, under, or through, any trail or route.

From a wide path to a narrow path to single file hiking trail where we really couldn't have fit, through an impassible ditch, back onto the road, back onto a nice 2-track road, to a 1-track road, which disintegrated to a rocky trail up into the hills, to not much of a trail at all (but great scenery), to nothing but motorcycle ruts, to an eye-widening bank to make it over, to a steep, don't-know-where-or-how-it-ends (and I sure hope we don't have to back up this!!) trail descent to the Ronda valley below, we made it. Really, I've learned driving is all in your perspective, and my perspective, which was narrow, has been greatly broadened!

At the bottom of this amazing (by vehicle or by horse) route, Luis' boss Alexis was relaxing on a 4-wheeler, shoes off, feet up on the dash, waiting for horses to pass. We left him in a cloud of dust and drove to the finish line, where a stunning view awaited finishers: across the valley the old city of Ronda, hanging off a cliff above the El Tajo gorge, with the dramatic 18th century Puente Nuevo ("new bridge") accentuating the vista. Wow.

Ronda is Andalucía's fastest growing town, but still retains its old charm. In the historic center of the town, you can see ruins of an old Moorish palace from the 1200's, a 16th century convent, cobbled streets. Bullfighting on foot originated here; Ernest Hemingway's ashes are scattered here. Alas, we did not have time (or energy) to tour the old town, other than the two blocks we walked to a restaurant at 9 PM. Ronda is just one more place on a growing list to re-visit as a tourist in Andalucia.

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