Day 5: Castillo de Castellar (new town) to Castillo de Castellar (old town and castle) 14k

After his adventure yesterday, Merlin was up early this morning bounding around shouting ” Me! Me! Me!” Chica opened one eye (she’s not good in the morning) and made it clear that she was happy for him to deputise for her today. She had a lie-in while Tom and Merlin headed back up to Castillar and as you can see, later she helped me deal with her social media fans!

Day 6 started as day 5 ended, by the road. This proved less hazardous than the next section which was on a track by the main road along which groups of lycra-clad cyclists flew in both directions. It was with relief that T & C were able to turn onto a lovely quiet road that wound through the oak forest towards the castillo (castle) high on a rocky outcrop ahead.

After a few kilometres, a very inviting track appeared to the right of the road and despite the marker not being for the GR7, Tom couldn’t resist, wanting to be off tarmac for a while. A bit further on, a post bearing the red and white stripes of the GR routes was a welcome sight and the path through the wood was cool and easy on the feet (all six).

The path eventually came back out onto the road and the castle could now be seen high above. As it started to climb, the road also started to wind so Tom thought he’d try and cut off the corners. But we all know that cutting corners rarely works and sure enough, he soon had to retrace his steps. Eventually, a cobbled path did appear but it proved a steep slog. Plucky little Merlin who’d been trotting along happily up until now started to flag. His tail had been vertical all the way but now began to droop a little. Both were very pleased to see the bar at the top.

It is beautiful spot with wonderful views and the history of the village goes back to the Bronze Age. The prehistoric presence is still evident in the many caves around the area, where enthusiasts can see the wonderful cave drawings. It played an important role in the wars between the Spanish and the Muslims. In such an advantageous strategic position, many cultures wanted to control this strong vantage point.

In the 1960s the new town, where we started today, was built 7 km away in a more convenient location next to the road and the train station. This new model Andalucian town was inaugurated in 1971.

Two years later the Rumasa Group acquired the old village and in 1983 the Spanish government expropriated Castellar and declared it an ‘Historical and Artistic Monument’. By this time, the place was in a state of neglect and the Town Hall invested the equivalent of around £100,000 to restore the old castle and village.

If you ever find yourself in this part of Spain, we strongly recommend a visit.

Day 4: Los Barrios to Castillo de Castellar 15k

In complete contrast to yesterday, this morning there was a clear blue sky – a truly glorious day. We all set off together for the first mile or two but when I turned to go, Merlin dug his paws in and and absolutely refused to come with me. So he carried on with Tom and Chica while Arthur and I returned to the car.

Mules

Mules are still used in Spain both as personal transport and as pack animals. Here in the forest, they haul wood and cork. These two look in good condition and don’t have any of the white patches or scarring that indicates poor loading or ill-fitting harness that is often seen. Happily, it is now illegal to hobble equines (ie chain the front feet together to severely restrict movement). This is a very recent change and six years ago when we first came to this area it was a common sight. To restrict the movement of a prey animal that naturally depends on flight for survival is very cruel, in my view, so it’s good to see it dying out.

View across Algeciras to Gibraltar

Today’s route wound gently uphill past an army camp until, at the high point, there was a fantastic view across the top of Algeciras, the main port, to the rock of Gibraltar. After that it continued to through pasture and cork oaks until the enormous rubbish dump made its presence felt well before it was visible in what appeared to be a disused quarry.

Eventually, the path came out on the road, which though not very busy was less pleasant to walk on and all three members of the party were quite happy to be picked up after 15k in very warm weather.

Day 3: Embalse de Almodovar to Los Barrios 20k

Silent sentinals

This was the first cold and cloudy morning we’ve had since we arrived in Tarifa – a bit of a shock! The lack of wind, which is a rarity here, meant that all the wind turbines were motionless – like silent sentinels guarding the the hills.

We reached the start point (What Three Words location: dashes.outlived. plums) at around 10.15. Frustratingly, the route is barred by an electronic gate and notices warn that vehicles are prohibited, although google maps shows it as a through route. This wasn’t a problem this morning but made for a long drive for the pick up later.

After yesterday’s day off both dog and man keen to get going and set a brisk pace to keep warm. The lizards referred to in the sign weren’t in evidence – it was definitely too cold. The same very stony track caused less problems for Tom today with medium rather than light weight boots. The route climbed steadily to a high open valley to Puerto de Ojen giving views of the Sierra del Nino to the north. There used to be a bar here offering refreshment to walkers but sadly only a rather angry little dog and a donkey there now but a brief lunch break was taken anyway.

This sign on the right was a little further down the road. A brief translation tells us that, as a result of the Spanish civil war, prisons were overflowing so Franco decided to create disciplinary battalions, an organized group of political prisoners to perform forced labour. After the outbreak of WWII, he launched the Fortification Plan on the northern shore of the Strait of Gibraltar, with the aim of fortifying and defending the area from possible attacks from the coast. To do this, he built a network of roads in this coastal area of ​​southern Spain from Conil to the Guadiaro River and the path of the prisoners is part of this network of roads built by disciplinary battalion number 22 that was located between Venta de Ojén and Cerro del Rayo from 1940 to 1943.

Further along they came cross this old bread oven that is currently being restored. Tom is a builder specialising in stone work so was able to determine that it was a good example of modern stonework. He was unable to fully translate the sign but it said that bread was a very important part of the diet and this was oven was a vital resource used by many people.

All in all, an interesting and reasonably easy route. The weather had improved as the day went on and it reached 18 deg but after 20k both Tom and Chica were quite happy to see the car, I think.

Pooped!

Day 2: La Pena to Embalse de Almodovar 16k

Human breakfast

All walking days will start with the full monty for Tom. He is a very practiced breakfast chef so I leave him to it. It did seems to take a while this morning so I think we may have to start getting up a bit earlier. For this week, at least, I will be dropping him off and picking him up so he doesn’t have to carry the full pack with the tent etc, giving him time to get some fitness back first after the flu virus.

So it was 10am before we got to the start at La Pena (What Three Words location: crafted.indecisive.barbecued.) and already a really glorious day; full sun and a gentle breeze. The route wound up into the hills giving wonderful views back down to the sea and across to the Moroccan coast. The path continued on a variety of surfaces, some tarmac, some sand and some stony tracks. The latter proved a bit uncomfortable and Tom now thinks that his more sturdy boots might be better, despite being a bit heavier. He has metal rods in both his feet, the result of a climbing accident about twenty years ago. So it’s extra important that his feet are well supported.

The landscape was quite rocky with olive and other hardy shrubs and trees, and lots of cacti too. Not much wildlife spotted but plenty of goats with their melodic bells. The route ended at a large lake on a inaccessible track so they walked back to the road where we met, conveniently close to a bar for a much appreciated cold beer (for Tom)and long drink of water (for Chica).

Meanwhile, back at the campsite, there was a minor crisis as a neighbour discovered a number of processionary caterpillars. These are nasty critters with highly irritant hairs that can cause a painful rash in humans but are even more dangerous for dogs. As the name suggests, the caterpillars form a chain when they move and, of course, most dogs want to investigate but if they ingest the hairs it can cause real problems. The nests can easily be spotted as dense webs on the tips of pine branches. The site maintenance staff were very prompt in coming along to remove the nests but we will remain vigilant. It was probably a bit daft to choose a plot under the pines and it’s a lesson learned for the future. One of many to come, no doubt.

Day 1: Chica’s Challenge begins!!

Chica’s Challenge started today at Playa Chica.

At last, after a fair few hitches and glitches, Tom and Chica took their first steps on a journey that will take them right across Spain to Andorra on the GR7 route. The start is at the aptly (and purely coincidentally) named Playa Chica, which is the most southerly point of mainland Europe. From here, you have the Med to the east, the Atlantic to the west and Africa on the horizon. It’s an epic trip and one that only around five people complete every year. It should cover a variety of landscapes, starting today with the beautiful beaches of Tarifa and the surrounding area. As it’s a Saturday, with a good strong breeze, the kite surfers were out in force. It’s quite a sight!

Kite surfers at Valdavaqueros

Today was a short toddle, by comparison with what will follow – just 11k in about 2.5 hours. The route was almost entirely on the beach and Tom shed his shoes and walked barefoot. It might be the only time that will be possible.

Given that he is recovering from flu an easy start seemed a good plan – definitely so as it’s now raining! Chica, however, needs to understand that stopping to investigate every interesting smell would mean the walk would take several years.

We will be posting a blog every day of the walk, with information on the route, the scenery and the flora and fauna. Tom isn’t able to carry field guides – too much extra weight – so identification from any of our followers would be appreciated, starting with these shells found on the beach today. These pics will be posted on our instagram page too.

Shells found on the beach at Valdevaqueros

As well as posting our position, hopefully using Viewranger (we’re working on this) we will also give our position using What Three Words. Tonight’s are: tigress, asked, varies. This is fun and will be another way of ensuring that the back up team (me) can hook up with them.

Stay with us!

Just this far to go….

Spanish flies, saving Hector and serendipity.

Hector – the (failed) dope-sniffing hound

We’re very glad to have reached southern Spain after a quite arduous journey. As well as not feeling at our best, Murphy’s Law was in evidence with lots of minor but irritating malfunctions, including the total failure of the mobile router, though 3 mobile assure me that it will be fixed. We are on an official site at the moment where the wifi really works. So I’m making the best of it while Tom tries to work out why the electrics have blown on the caravan. Such fun!!

Yesterday, we paid a vital visit to the vet in Ronda, where we were welcomed like long lost pals. When I was last here three years ago, they saw me every day for five weeks as they treated Hector for leishmaniasis. Hector was a large mastin cross (a bit like a great dane) who we had taken on from a Spanish policeman. Hector was a failed drug sniffer dog and was destined for the pound but this policeman knew that he would most likely be put down and so was desperately trying to rehome him. We agreed to meet him not realising how big he was, but he was so friendly despite being pathetically thin that we couldn’t just leave him.  

After a few days, we realised he was unwell. He was very itchy and he had bleeding sores on his ear tips. When he shook his head, he sprayed the walls with blood. So a trip to see Maria at Clinique Veterinaria Velzquez revealed he had leishmaniasis. This is a very unpleasant disease carried by sand flies. The clinical signs include fever, lack of appetite, weakness, exercise intolerance, severe weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, bleeding from the nose and ears, and blood in the stool.  About one-third of dogs will develop swollen lymph nodes and an enlarged spleen. Muscle pain, joint inflammation, and swelling of the testicles may also be seen. If untreated, most dogs die of kidney failure.

Fortunately, Hector was still at a stage where his kidneys were ok but the treatment is aggressive and painful. He required daily injections and because the amount required was relative to his size, these were big phials and it was difficult to administer. Impossible, in fact, for me to do on my own so we drove the 50k round trip to see Maria every day for five weeks. For the first three, I could see no improvement – he was still very uncomfortable. But even though the injections were painful, he still greeted Maria warmly every day! A huge testament to the care she gave him. Finally, well into the third week, he showed signs of recovery and from then on he improved rapidly and, at last, was pronounced fit to travel to the UK. He and I drove back together in March 2017. He proved a wonderful travel companion!

Although we loved him dearly, he found our other three too much and eventually he got a wonderful new home – in a way that I still find spooky. I am not a practical nor very domesticated person but while walking around Wells, our nearest city in the UK, I was seized with a desire to try knitting and popped into the wool shop to buy needles and wool. Just as I was leaving, I mentioned that I might try knitting scarves to raise money for rescue dogs. The end result of this conversation was that the owner of the shop fell in love with Hector on sight and he has had a very happy home with her ever since. He goes into the shop and around Wells with her and has a bit of a fan club! What of the knitting? I managed about five holey rows and gave up. Both Shirley, his owner, and I concluded that this was serendipity. Dogs find us, one way or another.

Sadly, many dogs don’t recover and if you are travelling to Spain with your dogs you must protect them from sand flies, ticks and other parasites, including heart worm – a self-explanatory lethal disease. Your vet in the UK may suggest that you have your dog vaccinated but these vaccines are expensive and not proven effective. Spot treatment is best but it must cover all the parasites. We find it better to get it done here in Spain where it is better understood (and also a bit cheaper!). And if you find yourself in Ronda, pop in and see Maria – say Hector sent you!

We promise – no nightmares here!

If you support animal rescues already, you will no doubt have had the experience of opening your facebook page and being confronted with images that are deeply upsetting. Personally, I cannot cope with images of cruelty – they stay etched in my mind and haunt me in the early hours for ever after. I know what happens to dogs like Chica, the kind of abuse they suffer. These kind of images just make me feel overwhelmed and helpless. I know I am an exceptionally sensitive little flower but even Tom finds the same. Of course, they have their place, particularly in trying to raise awareness in the places where it happens.

But I don’t want our followers to have to tentatively open new posts, nervous of what they may see. So I promise there will be no graphic images here (but there may be on the links we add – though I will add warnings, where possible). We want you to enjoy this adventure with us and celebrate the work that is done by the exceptional people who dedicate their lives to rescue, re-homing and education. They have to deal with the very worst and carry on in the face of what can seem overwhelming odds. God bless them – I couldn’t do it!

However, if you aren’t aware of what goes on and want to truly understand why we are supporting this cause, then take a look at some of the videos here. Fortunately, there are some upbeat ones too. You’ll need them!

I would be interested in your thoughts. How do you respond to graphic imagery? Does it galvanise you into taking action or do you look away?

Panic!

Don’t forget the marmite!

So here we are – just a week until we leave! Tom has flu and I have an endless to-do list. It isn’t unique for us to descend into headless chicken mode before we go away. How it goes from months away to just a week quite so quickly is terrifying! We know it’ll be fine once we walk out of the door but for the last few nights I’ve been awake at 3am running through what I haven’t done and making lists on my phone of what to pack and essential shopping (marmite, Yorkshire tea bags, brown sauce). Tom will only be able to carry the bare minimum so he has been stocking up on dehydrated meals (for emergencies), water purification, tubes of condensed milk (adds milk and sweetness to coffee) and energy bars.

We are taking a caravan and the plan is for me to catch up with Tom and Chica at points along the way, giving him a chance to have a rest, shower and replenish stocks. On some parts of the route there are lots of small villages and a chance for a meal and a beer but for others there may be stretches of several days away from civilisation.

We will be travelling in Tom’s Isuzu, which is his work vehicle. It will be perfect for towing the caravan and for venturing off-road to pick the hikers up. But he’s a builder so all his tools need to come out and then it will have a thorough clean to remove mud, cement dust, sandwich wrappers and old coffee cups – the usual detritus of any builders’ van.

And the house is a pit! Weeks of rain has meant our ponies have turned the field to mud soup and every time the dogs come in they bring a little more with them. So I’ve given up on cleaning the floor.

Remembering the marmite is more important.