We’ve been walking. Unusually, K has been pushing for it; she’s keen to see the Cares gorge when we visit the Cantabrian mountains this month and she wants to limber up. Out to Jimena de la Frontera with us, and an easy sendero that curls around the base of the promontory on which the pueblo hangs, overlooked by the obligatory castle. We walk along a sandy track past a few of the kind of little country house that, had we any money, we would buy. Just knock on the door and buy it. That cute.
The path winds its way along a defunct old canal that used to feed a munitions factory under Carlos III, the ironic remnant of a most unwarlike king. Then it follows the river Hozgarganta more closely, dipping down here and there to a rocky pool of clear water, little fish in the shallows. We’ve passed a couple of people along the way and K is too shy to undress and get in but as we walk her eyes rarely leave the inviting water, flanked on either side by some mammoth rock formations beyond which the country is hilly and irregularly beautiful.
At one point someone has gone to the trouble of carving steps in the rock to ease our passage and a very steep set of them departs to our right, taking the walker who doesn’t want to continue sharply uphill to the town. We go on, meandering through a cluster of old abandoned mills and, since we haven’t encountered anyone for a while, K’s craving for the water overcomes her modesty. Before I know it I’m sitting on the bank with her bra in my hand and she’s getting her mermaid on out there amongst the smooth-worn stones. I enjoy the moment as well and not just because she’s topless – it’s good to see her throwing caution to the wind and doing what she wants. It might have something to do with being from Central Europe but she lights up in the water, be it the sea or the cool, clean waters of an Andalusian stream.
Having refreshed herself she joins me again for the climb uphill – anything but refreshing – to Jimena and the glare of a mid-afternoon pueblo blanco. Once up there we douse ourselves in Fanta while I try to recall the words to the song: Mad dogs and Englishmen…
The following week we take the road to Algeciras and from there to Los Barrios and the A-381. At exit 73 we leave the road and drive a dirt track for a couple of kilometres before parking the car. It’s a lovely Sunday morning and we’re going for a walk in the Valley of Hell. Seriously, that’s what it’s called. I’m just going to come straight out and say it: hell looks quite nice to me – a bit like the Parque Natural Los Alcornocales in fact: a big country of panoramas studded with rocky heights, their lower reaches draped in cork oak groves that slope to boulder-strewn river beds, shaded by forests of fern.
Along one such shadowy arroyo we make our way, stopping now and then for me take a picture or for K to emit a yelp and brush an unseen insect from her legs, hair or face. Eventually she makes me walk ahead, although how I’m meant to clear her path of bugs is never made clear. It isn’t difficult to see why Andalusians, by and large, suspend their hiking activities for the Summer months. Although we’ve started early the heat is already picking up and even down here in the leafy gloom we’ll wilt if we’re out much longer.
Apart from the temperature, the place is crawling with life, the air around us buzzing and whirring with Summer’s noisy traffic. From near and far, and in every direction, the cicadas chirp insistently. K is becoming a little impatient with the abundance of life, repeatedly smacking herself in the head , jumping aside and waving her arms to ward off invisible assailants, but she’s still observant enough to be the first to spot the morning’s rarest encounter. I had noticed the rustle of flapping wings at the side of the path up ahead but hadn’t paid any attention.
“That was a bird-of-prey,” says K.
“Was it?” I ask, instinctively going for my telephoto. “Can you still see it?”
She can and points it out to me a few metres farther on. I creep forward as silently as I can till I’m close enough to get a good look through the lens. It’s a bird-of-prey alright – I will later find out that it’s a sparrow hawk when I canvas some more learned friends for help in identifying it. For now all I know is it’s a real beauty – variegated grey and brown plumage on its back with a striped breast. The reason it has chosen to fly along the ground for just a few metres to avoid us, as opposed to up and away, is given away by its fluffy little head and the tufts of down that still protrude from its feathers. It’s a baby.
Interesting, when I associate birds-of-prey with such deadly grace and the killing efficiency of airborne predation, to see one so vulnerable. In what might well be its first foray from the nest it has displayed the ability to fly but not the confidence to really go for it. The one thing I might never have expected of one of these beautiful, regal creatures is that, on seeing me, it would run into a bush and hide, but that’s exactly what it’s done. The skies around here are packed with the adult version – one almost becomes a little blasé about them – but this has been my closest encounter. We feel protective, though we can’t do a thing to help it, and still have our fingers crossed some days later that it has given up walking and found the wherewithal to launch itself skyward and into life.