And it is, I guess. Much of the time. But look again, and you may notice an absence of trees - that means no shade. Look again, and you may also notice rather a lot of sun. (Don´t look too close though, or you´ll see my knickers drying on the back of the pack - nothing like a mobile clothesline, hey?)
In a marked contrast to my rather enthusiastic last post, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the past week or so has been - without competition - the hardest of the walk so far. Tough. really tough.
I am writing this in Algeciras at about eight pm. We got into town two hours ago, after walking fairly much directly from Seville - we´ve done over 200 kilometres in seven days´walking. The distance in itself is not a major deal - although I would be totally lying if I said we keep up that kind of pace very often - but when I say that the conditions this week have left us both utterly shattered, I am talking about more than the distance.
We left the heavenly, wine soaked haven of Sevilla feeling pretty pleased with ourselves: Hey - only 200km to go, and we´re out of Spain! That wasn´t so hard now, was it? - you know the kind of thing. Funny how it tends to happen after a few days off and long lazy afternoons by the river.
And the first day really wasn´t so bad. A bit warm; but we´d been expecting the weather to become more intense, so that was no big deal. The second day we did over thirty kilometres, and once again, we felt okay. Sure, we´d noticed a few more hills than usual; but the landscape was so beautiful, with it´s huge golden fields and utterly enormous sky, that the undulation only added to it´s character. The villages were a little like in Navarra, perched high up on quite rugged hilltops.
But then day three dawned.
Those little hills got bigger. And suddenly, there were a whole lot more of them. And it was HOT. Man, was it hot. Up we plodded. And up, and up, and up. We checked the map in disbelief - surely these shouldn´t be here? But there they were, marked in very faintly with no vertical metre measurements until right down the bottom near Algeciras itself - where they rose to a somewhat daunting 900 metres.
Oh, we thought. Shit.
But then our natural (idiotic) optimism reasserted itself. No worries, we thought; a hill or two isn´t so bad. We´ll be fine.
And you know what? A hill or two would have been just dandy. Only it wasn´t a hill or two - it was more like a mountain range, that got bigger, and bigger, and more rugged, and went up and down endlessly for the next five days.
We re-adjusted our routine to hot weather conditions, rising at four thirty, walking by six and up until eleven, then cooking lunch and sleeping for the heat of the day. We walked on in the evening cool. That helped a bit. But then we checked the map for the final run into Algeciras, and came face to face with the rather unpleasant realisation that we were headed into a National Park - for the entire last sixty kilometres.
Now, we have had some nasty encounters with national parks, and we treat them with great trepidation. Essentially they spell trouble for the independant walker - nowhere to buy water or supplies, no houses to call on in case of water shortage, and dodgy (particularly in Spain) waterholes. At the moment most of these are dried up.
We sat and did some pretty hard thinking. Our carrying capabilities are only four litres each - any more and it is just too heavy. In the end Gary rescued an old trolley from a rubbish skip, restored it to it´s former glory with some gaffa tape and TLC, and we set about loading it up with our water allowance - fifteen litres for both of us for two days, and possibly two nights.
So we headed off, a little chastened by the past few days, and prepared for a tough haul.
But how tough, we really couldn´t have imagined.
Gary got crook about half way through the first day, unexpectedly. Suddenly he was dehydrating faster than normal, and was also unable to pull the trolley the whole way. We started taking it in turns, me trying to do most of the hills. There were an awful lot of hills. We stopped and rested for the heat of the day, which definitely helped, and then carried on. The wind started to pick up and by eight o´clock it was blowing a gale. Despite it being a national park, there was no way into the bloody thing to camp - it had an enormous fence around it - so we plodded on down the road hoping to find shelter of some sort.
Finally a local forestry worker pointed us toward a recreation zone about two kilometres away. We trudged off down the road into the twilight, wind so strong it nearly pushed us off our feet, until we found it. It, of course, was locked.
We finally managed to scale the fence and set up our little tarp. But the night was a pretty miserable one, what with the wind absolutely howling, and Gary not too well. We both felt very glad indeed that we had the trolley with the extra water, as there was absolutely none to be had along the whole stretch.
We rose early this morning and packed up in worsening weather - the clouds had rolled in and the wind was even stronger. We trudged off, and the terrain just got tougher - in the entire time we have walked, including Navarra, the Pyrenees, and the Astorgan mountains, we have never encountered such unrelenting, steep country. The wind blew so strong that we had trouble keeping our balance. By the time we got to the outskirts of Algeciras we were absolutely exhausted, and we hit the first cafe we saw for respite from the wind and a good meal.
But of course that wasn´t the end of it. Despite two marked on our map, there is no camping here. Although the noble thing to do would be to camp on the outskirts and walk back up the coast to Tarifa tomorrow, where there is a campsite, we are just too tired, and have forked out for a pension.
In many ways this week has been a really good reminder to us not to become complacent. Obviously there is a lot harder country and conditions to come, and we need to remember that this part of the walk really has been a bit of a doddle in comparison with what lies ahead. I´m glad we have learned enough to make sure we have the right water supplies to last us in such situations - we can pretty much judge it to the litre now - and that we have the fitness and mental endurance to hang in there. But I would be lying if I said I feel confident about what is to come. I will, however, be checking the map with a much keener eye in future.
Anyway. That´s all a bit of a sombre old departure from our usual tales of wine and relaxation, and definitely not the exhilarated "farewell from europe!" post I had planned. But you know what?
And we still love it.
Now I am going to have my "goodbye to Spain and booze" booze up. I am hoping that I will lose the feeling in my feet for a while. Or maybe just lose my feet. Either way it´s got to be good. Cheers.