By Chris Stewart
THE rain lashed down and the streets ran like rivers. We ducked into a bar that, for one reason or another, was heaving with morose Teutons. There were so many of them that there was no room to open our map, so we went outside onto the terrace that was protected by a canvas awning.
The air itself was so full of water though, that within minutes the map was utterly sodden, and wherever Manolo so much as touched it with his pencil, the point made a grubby wet hole.
Manolo really knew the park well; he had grown up here and worked as a warden before becoming a professor of ecology at the University of Sevilla. He explained to us in minute detail the route we should take…
“Now at the first bifurcation of the path, by a big rock, you don’t take it, but keep on until the main path turns left and starts to climb. The important thing is at all times to keep the peak of Aljibe on your left – and the radar dome of Pico de las Yeguas on your right – that way you can’t possibly go wrong.” And he made a couple of big wet holes with his pencil in the remains of our map.
“I must be getting home to my family now. Any problems, just give me a ring.” And he sloshed off into the wet black night.
Uncertainly we checked into the hostal above the bar. The staff seemed half crazed, and the clientele were those same Teutons who were infesting the bar downstairs. We inspected our room; water was dripping through the ceiling and a sporadic fizzing came from the electricity that powered the dim bare bulb. The bathroom was soft and green with mould; the floor was awash, and there was an interesting design feature consisting of a window that opened directly onto a concrete wall. The door to the next room was open to reveal a crowd of men in string vests sitting around, coughing and watching television.
Dominguito’s was the place to eat in Alcalá de los Gazules, according to the barman at the hostal, so, taking advantage of a momentary slackening in the rain, we repaired thither. Dominguito was a lugubrious sort of a man with protuberant ears and thick glasses. We had a tapa at the bar, while Michael filled Dominguito in on the details of our proposed journey. Then we sat down at a table, the only customers in the bar, apart from an old man with a hat and a stick.
“The seafood’ll be g-good here,” said Michael, ” so we ought to try the p-prawns.. also you get h-hellish good h-ham; the woods are full of p-pigs, so a ración of jamón ibérico would be n-nice. Cádiz produces nice white wines too, so we’ll have a b-bottle or two of the San Diego…”
I was happy to leave the choice to Michael, who knows a lot more than I do about the regional gastronomy of Spain.
As we drained a second bottle, Michael sauntered across to the old man with the hat and stick.
“We’re walking to Sauceda through the park tomorrow,” he said… “going out to Patrite first thing and then heading on north from there.”
The old man looked up at him in bafflement.
“Apparently we have to find the canuto and keep the peak of Aljibe on our right. It’s going to be a long day’s walk.”
The old man continued looking up at him in silence.
“They say the rain’s going to lift… what d’you reckon?… think we’ll make Sauceda before nightfall?”
Michael scratched his head and looked down in an interrogatory fashion at the little old man, who still said nothing.
“He’s deaf,” said Dominguito, wringing out a filthy cloth. “He can’t hear you.”
That night in our room, the electricity kept on fizzing, even when the light was off. The water dripped irregularly through the hole in the ceiling. The men in the next room had turned the television up so they could hear it above the sound of their coughing. Also a certain guttural muttering in the corridor attested to the restlessness and dissatisfaction of the Teutons.
Michael was fast asleep within thirty seconds of hitting the bed – and he snored like a bastard.
The morning found us back at Dominguito’s, which had been recommended to us as the best bar in town for breakfast – again by the barman at the hostal, whose ears also stuck out a lot. I suspected him of being Dominguito’s brother.
“What they h-have for b-breakfast in this part of the country,” said Michael. “is manteca; it’d w-wonderful; you should try it on your toast.”Manteca is the orange pig-fat butter that you see the more Spanish type of Spaniard smearing thick on his tostada in the morning. He’ll be washing it down with a coñac or two to get himself bounced into the day. I had always viewed the stuff with suspicion – it is pretty suspicious looking stuff, coming as it does, in white, off-grey or orange – and in sixteen years or so of living in Spain. I had never even tried it. But Michael’s features were suffused with a sort of manic pleasure as he stuffed the ghastly looking mush into his face.
“G-go on, try it,” he burbled with his mouth full. “It’ll set us up nicely for the day’s walk.”
Gingerly I smeared a smidgen upon my toast and delicately savoured it. In a sort of gross and atavistic way it was absolutely delicious. At the same time as a certain biliousness, I could feel the energy of the dead pig coursing through my veins. This was exactly what you needed to set you up for a day’s trudge.
We checked out of the hostal and into the day. It had stopped raining, but the sky looked unpromising. We went to a supermarket to buy victuals – a whole cheese, half a ham, a kilo or so of olives, another of dates and some rotten oranges. Michael explained the need for all this provisioning to the salesgirls, with a detailed account of our proposed itinerary.
And then finally we could put the awful moment off no longer; we shouldered our packs and trudged off along the road, heavily laden with food. Or, if the truth be told, I was laden with food because I had, instead of the more appropriate plastic sports-bag. a huge backpack, whereas Michael had a horrible old thing he had borrowed for the occasion. The straps were just bits of string, which of course were cutting mercilessly into his shoulders less than ten minutes into the walk.
The sun burst through a gap in the rolling black clouds and in an instant the air was thick with huge flying ants, millions of them, and so big, that when you breathed them in – which was inevitable, given the numbers of them – they didn’t fit up your nose, and thus were able to make good their escape. The vegetation and the very earth started to steam. Soon we reached a Venta.
“W-we could stop for a c-coffee here perhaps, no?,” suggested Michael. “And we could ask the way…”
“Heavens man, we’ve only been walking for fifteen minutes… but yes, why not?”
So we stopped and dropped our packs. There was nobody about except for a fat lout who was propelling a mop about the place with a pronounced lack of enthusiasm.
“We’ll have two c-coffees please; we’re walking up over to Sauceda…”
The lout looked at us without interest. While he was getting a head of steam up in the coffee machine, Michael got the map out, and the notepad upon which Manolo had sketched the route. In the cold light of day and at the head of the trail it looked more baffling than ever. There was what looked like a schematic plan of some railway sidings, then a pine tree, beside which Manolo had written ‘pino’. then there was a rock that said ‘tajo’, and finally a long, wiggly dotted line that passed neatly through the spiral binding to our destination on the next page.
Michael got the compass out and placed it on the table in a knowledgeable way; then came the remains of the sodden map. We looked at the notebook, turned it this way and that… “Hmm,” we said.
Within an hour we had lost all trace of a path, and were blundering about up to our chests in the exuberant vegetation of the cork-oak forest. It was not a matter of keeping peaks on our right or left; we couldn’t see out of the woods. Our boots were caked with heavy mud; we were scratched and bleeding, confused and a little irritated by the turn events were taking. We came to the top of a rise where we could see above the trees.
“B-bloody hell.” said Michael, ” looks like the middle of the Tasmanian rainforest…”
It was an odd parallel to draw, as neither of us had ever been anywhere near Tasmania, and what we were looking at was cork-oaks. But on all sides of us there stretched an unbroken forest of trees, seemingly trackless, without clearings or breaks. A small flock of vultures circled aimlessly above a distant rise. A little disenchanted we plunged back into the trees, heading, insofar as possible, northeast, where we figured our best hope lay. We clambered carefully through barbed wire fences, scrambled in and out of overgrown ravines, sloged up steep slopes, and all deep beneath the canopy of trees. Suddenly the telephone rang. Michael scrabbled about in his bag…
“O G-god, it’s B-bob,” he spluttered. “Trouble with B-bob is he never stops t-talking..
B-Bob!… Hallo… yes, yes, yes. No… no. We’re stuck in the m-middle of the Parque de los Alcornocales… yes, y-yes… hopelessly l-lost… Hallo Bob… can you hear me? Damn! L-lost coverage. G-good thing really; h-he’d have talked all day.”
We bashed on through the woods, Michael filling me in the while on the extraordinary fecklessness of Bob. I burst through a clump of oleander to find Michael rooted to the spot, petrified.
“What’s the matter?”
Without speaking he indicated a sign nailed to a tree: “Toros Bravos”, it said – fighting bulls.
“Oh my G-God!,” he said. “We c-can’t p-possibly go on through here… I’m terrified of toros bravos.”
“Don’t you worry about it Michael,” I said putting my arm on his shoulder. “That sign is just there to frighten us…”
“N-no it’s not; it’s there so that if we’re killed by bulls we can’t hold them responsible.” Michael was speaking in a sort of strangled croak now.
“Look,” I said, reassuringly. “There’s no bulls here, and besides, there are lots of trees… if anything should happen, all we have to do is find a tree and skin up it. That’s what you do with bulls.”
But Michael was rooted to the spot. The phone rang again…
“O hello B-Bob. This may be the last time you hear from me; we’re about to be g-gored to d-death by b-bulls.”
I looked at him, quivering now as he said his farewell to the distant and feckless Bob. His rucksack was a livid red. I thought it best not to mention that.
“Come on Michael. If there’s bulls we’ll see them before they see us. The sooner we get out of this horrible wood the better.”
Read the next instalment of Chris and Michael’s adventures in our next issue. Extract taken from the Almond Blossom Appreciation Society.
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