I don’t know much about geology, but the rock I’m sitting on is worn, deeply striated and covered in mosses and lichens, and I deduce from this that it must be soft and permeable. That will have helped when the caves here were carved out back in the Bronze Age for use as tombs.
That’s all I know about this place, gleaned from the engraved stone slabs that have been put outside the closed information point. I’m alone up here, having had to climb the fence to get in. The ayuntamiento, or somebody, is enclosing the rocky, cave-riddled outcrop with a fence, laying paths and installing benches for visitors.
I’ve little chance of being disturbed here on this wild, windy Tarifa day. Anybody with any sense is indoors. Over on the other mountain I can see the zig-zag sendero that leads to the wind turbines that fan out along its ridge. It looks tiny from here of course, and tempting, but I imagine it would be a two hour trial to walk it.
What strikes me most about these tomb caves (since I’m alone, I get to sit inside one), isn’t so much that they date back to around 2500 BCE, but that they were still being used for their original purpose as recently as the tenth century. Three and a half millennia. What, I wonder, might explain this peculiar local consistency over so long a time, when the peninsula at large and its culture were going through such seismic and often revolutionary changes?
I don’t know, is the short answer, but it brings home how much more mottled, and infinitesimally richer human history must be than when we discuss it in macro terms like Phoenician, Roman, Visigothic, Islamic or Christian and look for it in the archives of capital cities and royal seats.
After the necropolis, the path climbs steeply up, cut through its middle by one of those temporary streams this terrain produces after heavy rains. It’s still spitting a bit but there are patches of blue sky overhead. The gradient eases after a while and finally levels out where the path runs between head-high scrub on either side. The arch of the sky and of history recedes for a time as the water has had a chance to collect here and I have to keep my head down and concentrate on not falling over in the mud. For a while that’s all there is – one boot in front of the other, carefully.
At the end of the path it all opens up again; highland meadows, prickly pear cacti, tinkling cowbells and a striking rock ridge, San Bartolomé, that reminds me of Asturias even here at the opposite end of the country. I rinse my boots in a stream and get to walk head-up again, toying around with the telephoto for a few minutes in pursuit of a lone vulture that eludes me.
In Tarifa, at altitude, you learn what a gust of wind is. You can hear them coming, across the slopes and through the undergrowth. You brace yourself, and when they hit they hit hard.
The almost alpine little village of Betijuelo clings to the mountainside below the rock cliffs on one side, and above it on the other the pine forests begin, bringing their shading canopy, their soft, needle-covered floor and their relative silence broken only by the levante, blowing above and all around.
As I reach the highest point the day is grey again and I’m battered by the ferocious gusts. On top of the uppermost rock a structure has been placed –a simple block with a pole, festooned with what look like signalling flags, ripped and torn. A plaque informs me it’s intended for signalling across the Strait but there’s no chance of that today, no line where sea meets sky out there in the murky distance.
Even in the sun-splashed gloom the view is incredible; I can look imperiously down to my right and see the giant dune at Bolonia, the well-preserved city of Baelo Claudia where the Romans processed tuna, fruit of the great almadraba, a time-honoured fishing technique that still goes on in the Strait today. To my left, Tarifa on its pinpoint peninsula and all along the shore a broad strip of white where the wild sea fizzes more furiously than usual against the coast.
On my way down, dense expanses of pine forest below me on the Punta Paloma headland, torn in two by a deep arroyo, sandy and raw-looking. The light is nothing if not dramatic as it plays its serenade – sunlight, shadow, sunlight, shade. If I needed reminding that I am in el campo I get it in the form of fencing, and notices to the effect that I share the wilderness today with hunters – wild boar, or jabali, are common here.
While I descend I hear at least a dozen shots, so somewhere out there some unfortunate animal is having a day quite unlike mine. I stray from the path – in error and briefly because it isn’t a sensible thing to do in hunting country – and wander into a bee farm, then quickly and quietly back out of it. When I find the sendero again I discover the most wonderful, wispy, white-blossomed tree, and others around it, spindly and delicate and waving gracefully like illustrations on a china teapot.
Further down the ground becomes softer and sandier and somehow more beachy and reminiscent of childhood holidays, and I walk alongside that arroyo I’d seen from a distance and it is far, far deeper than I’d thought, and the sendero drops me gently back on the road where I call K to come and get me in the car, caked to my knees in mud and happy that I’ve managed to get outside – outside the house and outside my routine, and outside myself for a little while, and happy to go back in, and carry on.
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