In 1997, when the Bushducks were based in England they bought a
diesel Land Rover Discovery called Drover, threw the tent in the back and headed for Spain for four weeks of off road
travel, camping and exploration. Three
months later they came back.
Start of our trip. No plans other than we have to be in Bilbao, northern Spain by June 21, to meet Annette, Donald's sister who is flying out for 10 days to join us, leaving behind her husband and four kids in Ireland. Annette is desperate to go bush with us, having heard about our wanderings in Australia and America.
We take the 7am ferry from Newhaven, Sussex to Dieppe, France. We have to show our (EEC) passports, which is the only time they see the light of day for the next few weeks. The speedy ferry takes 4 hours. Parking is tight; the officials shuffle you up until you are within an inch of the car in front. Disembarking at Dieppe there are no customs and off we drive, looking for a supermarket and trying to remember to drive on the right. We find Mamooth, a giant hypermarket and realise our first mistake. We were told that apart from wine everything is the same price in France as it is in England. No way José! Everything is significantly cheaper, from diesel for Drover to eskies and camping gaz. We stock up on cheese, wine and perishables and head off, heading generally south to Bordeaux, where an Aussie friend of ours lives. Taking the smaller roads my immediate thoughts are that it is very like England. Donald disagrees and notices architectural differences in the farmhouses and villages.
We know about bush camping in France - DON'T DO IT! The French have a strong dislike of people who go "camping sauvage" as they call it, and have been known to wave guns and set the dogs on you. So camp that night is in a municipal camp ground in a small town about half way to Bordeaux. Nearly empty, it is wonderfully clean and quiet. The camp host comes round collecting money and shames us by cutting across our appalling French to speak in perfect English. Cost for the night is $6 for the two of us and Drover. (Continental camp grounds charge a place fee, a person fee and a car fee!).
The next day we arrive in Mortagne-sur-Gironde, a small village on the largest estuary in Europe. It is the home of our Warrnambool friend Jane, who whilst working in a bar in Hobart, met a Frenchman, Alain, who was on a scientific expedition to the Antarctic. Within a week of meeting him, she was on the yacht sailing back to France with him, where they now live with their small daughter. Who says romance is dead? Alain is away at sea, but Jane is delighted to see us (and to talk Strine mate!) and we put a big hole in her cellar of Bordeaux reds.
The next day is fast driving again and our last night in France for a while. We stop in a small Pyrenean town south of Orthez in a pleasant campsite by the river. After a lovely supper of horse-steak, we stroll up to the town looking for a verre du vin. Amazing! 9.30 at night and everywhere is closed.
Into Spain over the mountains, we travel through Basque country with its small black and white houses and old women with bags of hay on their heads and working donkeys with whole haystacks on their backs. The border is non-existent - if we didn't have the GPS and a good map we might never have noticed it. A concrete post with 'F' on one side and 'E' on the other and that's it. Skirting north of Pamplona we find a camp in one of the "Coto de Caza Nacional" (National Game Reserves). The Spanish take their hunting very seriously and a lot of Spain is designated as Coto de Cazas. Mainly private, occasionally they are open to anyone. However, most of them make great camping. You can bush camp anywhere in Spain with a little discretion.
We pick up Annette at Bilbao airport the next morning and it starts to rain. Heading generally west along the top of Spain, all Annette can say is how like Ireland it is - green, misty and raining. Around 7pm, when it is still raining and Annette has fallen asleep in the back seat, we give up the hunt for a nice camp and book rooms in a local Posada (Inn). A three storey building with polished wooden floors and colourful rugs it is so clean and sparkling it hurts your eyes. We wake Annette to tell her the good news and she is delighted. Dinner is in our own little dining room, served by the friendly owner. Our 3 course meal with wine and coffee is just $5 a head and the room $7 each.
The next day is Sunday and Annette wants to go to Mass. Not very difficult in Spain, where even the tiniest village has a stone church and at least one Mass on a Sunday. The difficult part is co-ordinating the time of the Mass with the village we are in, but we manage it and attend mass in a most ornate and lavish church in a tiny stone village. I translate the sermon for Annette and what I can't understand I invent and she is happy. Coffee afterwards in a buzzing café with the whole village or so it seems walking around, drinking coffee and chatting.
Annette loves her first bush camp, by the edge of a stand of pine, overlooking one of General Franco's reservoirs. (Spain spent many, many years under the Franco military dictatorship and one of the things he did was build huge reservoirs for agricultural use all over Spain). The rain holds off and all's well.
Small villages, some deserted, others just summer camps for solitary shepherds dot the Picos. We arrive into Potes, a small touristy town. Nuns cross the street in front of brand new Range Rovers. Shops sell local cheeses, piled high in pungent mounds. A local hardware store sells the best range of camping equipment we've seen for a long time.
A couple of days later, we finally make the Picos de Europa, an isolated mountain range, an offshoot of the Cordillera Cantabrica, which runs across the northern edge of Spain. The Picos are a world apart, hay meadows, donkeys, tiny stone villages and cattle roaming the high pastures guarded only by the Mastins - huge ferocious St. Bernard like dogs who live with the cattle during the summer to guard them. They wear collars with metal spikes to protect themselves from the wolves. As long as you don't appear to threaten their cattle they leave you alone. One morning the cattle wander close to our camp in the night, and when we crawl out in the morning the dogs don't seem to be too friendly! We jump into Drover VERY quickly and sit and let the dogs sniff around our tents. Annette (from the back seat) asks please would I get her jacket out of her tent. Well OK, Annette, but in just a few minutes…
We take a small track out of the back of one of the stone villages. Let me explain.
Finding the track out of the back of the villages involves much tooing and froing on foot initially. The village streets are donkey width, not Discovery width and some roads we only just squeeze through by pushing the mirrors in and watching closely. We exit the village, across the stream and up the rough mountain track up into the high pastures. The track is used mainly by donkeys and motorbikes, with only the occasional vehicle, and it is narrow and rough enough to stretch Drover's coils. We stop for lunch at about 4,000 feet and the mountain cows, sensing a soft touch close in for the food. Worse than the Aussie bushflies, one in particular won't leave us alone, and one full-time person is needed to fend her off. We push her away from one side of the car and she circles around like a 747 in holding pattern at LA Airport and approaches from the other direction.
The track skirts around the side of the mountain but views are limited in the mist. Temperatures are cool - Annette is baffled - it is looking like she packed salt tablets and sunscreen for nothing. Around 4pm we round a corner to find a spring pouring out of the hillside. Perfect place for a wash. Donald strips off and I walk to and fro carting water from the spring for him to wash. As soon as he is stark naked and covered in soap, we hear the swish of hard rubber tyres and twenty mountain bikers come swooping around the mountain. Donald smiles at them and carries on regardless, to many amused stares. Camp that night is in a small rugged valley, the rocks and pines towering around us. The mist rolls in giving a very eerie effect.
We listen for wolves, who still exist in the hills around here but no such luck, the hills remain quiet. Annette's tent has crept a bit closer to ours tonight.
Another winding goat track, 3 m.p.h. through large boulders with a sheer drop on one side takes us out into a little village. People stare openly as we drive past. We have to wait twenty minutes for a hay wagon to finish loading - it is totally blocking the narrow track with nowhere to go. This village is red, drystone wall housing, the animal housing is in better condition than the people housing. Wooden hand tools are propped up against the walls. Like most small Spanish villages, the population is black-clad and ageing. The industry is cattle and right now they are busy harvesting the haymeadows to provide the winter feed for when the cattle come down from the mountains. The only bar shows Spanish television game shows, light years away from the pace of life here. Children peer shyly from between their mother's legs as she stares fixedly at the TV. Women compulsively sweep the dirt road outside of their houses. Annette wonders how such poverty exists. Donald thinks it is not much different from the west of Ireland. Sotres - smalltime tourism. Most visitors would think it unspolit and off the beaten track - true, but after the villages we have been in it feels touristy. Coffee outside a café in the weak sunshine, talking to a loquacious Welsh woman and her husband in a wheelchair. Fifty years old and a stroke has all but paralysed him. She talks enough for two.
South to Vega la Sotres, which sits to the side of the dirt track, a summer collection of huts at the foot of the mountain. Jump naked into a cool stream, finally some sunshine. The track runs over a spectacular ridgetop for the next two hours and then drops down to a refugio, literal translation, a refuge, set two hours walk from the top of the cable car from Posada de Valdeon. We take a "rutas para todos terranos" - the literal translation is 'routes for all terrain' - or a four wheel drive route. We descend quickly on a small trail, well travelled by vehicles. We see some of them, old Santanas - the old European Land Rovers, old, white and battered. These are everywhere, the working vehicle in Spain. We camp on a grassy ledge, granite cliffs rear up behind us, spikes of granite tower over the valley in front of us. Annette thinks she hears howling. You can hardly fit a molecule between her tent and ours that night.
Next morning we follow the track on and out into another small village. The houses are close packed together. Through an open door we glimpse cool blue ceramics and terracotta tiles leading to an ornate staircase, at total odds with the exterior of the building. Drover squeezes into the village with his wingmirrors turned flat along his body.
We have to food shop. We follow a black-clad lady with a basket on her arm up the hills and around the streets hoping she will lead us to market. It becomes obvious she is doing the social round and is starting to give us strange glances as we lurk a few paces behind. We stumble across a small shop tucked in amongst the stone houses - success, a small produce market. We buy fresh vegetables, local olives, chicken, and morcilla - the local black pudding sausage, sold for mere cents. Then tempted by the farmers cheese we buy more cheese and jamón serrano - air dried ham, in a chunk. Utterly delicious. The whole market stops and holds its collective breath when it is our turn to be served. 'Can they speak Spanish?' you can hear them thinking. Well, we can after a fashion. Our bad grammar is invariably greeted by smiles, encouragement and warm hearted laughter. This is a far cry from France where our abysmal French is met with derision.
I turn around abruptly and nearly fall over a small nun. Clad from head to foot in a black habit, veil over her head she stands under five foot tall. I stand five feet eleven in bare feet. She is gazing up at me with that mixture of awe and horror tourists have on their faces when they look up and up at the Rialto building.
We head for Burgos, where there is a corrida de toros (bullfight) happening. It is raining again, solidly in sheets. The bullfight is washed out. Annette is disappointed, but is cheered when we all agree to stay in a pensione that night. We leave Burgos and find a small town, with a labourers pensione. The rooms are simple, with narrow single beds and crucifixes on the wall. Annette rests and we walk around town until it is time for dinner. The dining room opens at 10pm. At 9.59pm we are panting outside the door. The menu is immense and varied. Seafood, lamb, goat, various soups and cheeses. We feed our faces on three courses, local wine, dessert and coffee for $6 each. The owner's son wants to practice his English on us. He is the last person to talk to us in English for the next two months.
We have to head back towards Bilbao to leave Annette at the airport. It's Sunday and she wants to go to Mass again. Religion is an everyday part of life to her, but not to us, so this time we leave her at the church door and go and have coffee and tortilla (a thick potato omelette) in the café overlooking the square. The locals are drinking coffee with brandy at 8am. Annette comes back in raptures about Mass. Seems it was sung in Latin, something that hardly ever happens in Ireland these days, but to hear it in a small Spanish village with a population of a few hundred was nothing short of wonderful.
We leave her at the airport. She is looking forward to seeing her family, but sad to leave us. By ourselves again, we turn Drover to the south and head back towards Burgos. We want to see the bullfight. Burgos is a cathedral city, stone walled, ornate granite and bluestone everywhere. A grey day and the grey rain-washed stone looks sombre. We find a camp a few miles outside the city, pitch the tent and drive back for the corrida de toros. The tickets are priced for Sol (sun) - the cheapest, Sol y Sombre (partly shaded) the mid priced and Sombre (shade), the most expensive. On a grey overcast day, we buy Sol for about $15.
People have strong feelings about bullfights. To the Spanish, it's like watching Carlton play St. Kilda. People yelling, about four brass bands all playing totally different tunes at once, and the fight an incredible mixture of ballet, showmanship, bravery, danger and humour. The insults thrown from the crowd are worthy of any self respecting footie fan, and the acclaim for the matador at the end of a showy pass worthy of Tony Lockett's greatest mark. At half time, (three bulls down, three to go) the people next to us break out the chorizo, pink wine, bread and cheese and keep on passing it down to us. We are soon shouting "Rosé - I mean Olé", with the best of them!
The continuous rain drives us south and west for a while into Portugal, which is a bit disappointing after Spain. Very crowded and incredibly dirty. Rubbish everywhere, it doesn't make for pleasant picnic or camp spots. However the rain stops, the clouds disappear and the days are hot and brilliantly sunny. We keep going to the beach, where amazingly enough, we find a track to a deserted beach and a really nice campspot amongst the sand dunes and small pine trees. Clean and nobody around. Wandering down the 4wd track in the sandunes the next day, we unexpectedly find a great little shack bar, right on the beach, where we have an enormous feed of pickled octopus and another plate of some unidentified mollusc in chilli and tomato. The Portuguese people are very friendly, even though we find we can't speak or understand a word of Portuguese. In our ignorance we had assumed that as it was very similar to written Spanish, we would be able to get by okay. Nobody understands Spanish either, possibly as Spanish/Portuguese relations haven't been too cordial over time. We come into one little stone village down the sheep track, and a little lady all dressed in black follows us around talking non-stop. Obviously very friendly, but we are unable to understand a single word.
The weather stays hot and bone dry, blue skies, temperatures in the 30's. We stop in a town near the Spanish border called Estremoz. We wander the narrow streets, gazing at tall stately buildings decked out in colourful ceramic tiles and weird abstract architecture. We duck into a dark little bar for a cooling beer and meet Lobo ("Wolf") the owner. A short, balding, cheerful man, who has lived in Germany, Africa and eastern Europe, he tries several languages until we hit on a common one - Spanish! We chat about Australia, Spanish-Portuguese relations and the trials of running a bar in Portugal. He shows us his collection of photos of friends he has made in his bar and takes one of him and I behind the bar, laughing at each other, beer in hand.
One of our most memorable camps is almost right on the border. Dehesa is the Spanish word for the landscape where the cork trees grow. Strange terracotta-red twisted trees, their pulpy bark is systematically stripped in layers for corks. It regrows again and again to be harvested. Piles of the cork bark are piled up twenty feet high in rows fifty yards long to be processed. The weird African like dehesa landscape with its sparse understorey makes for a magical camp. We were looking for a reservoir detailed on our map, and were following the rough cork-cutters trails for hours, winding to and fro amongst the trees. Finally we decide the reservoir was a Franco Phantom. On occasion Franco's mapmakers got over enthusiastic and mapped a reservoir yet to be built. Some were never built, yet remain on maps today.
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