|Sunday March 30 2008|
1 - El Rocío to Matalascañas, 33 km
2 - Matalascañas to Sanlucar de Barrameda, 34 km
The morning is chilly and damp, with El Rocío being only 12 km from the Atlantic Ocean. After a quick breakfast snack and coffee in the cafe, we all head over to the dusty square in town, where the riders are warming up in the quiet streets beneath the white church surrounded by hundreds of flying pigeons. It is just getting light, and while the start is to be at 8:30, it's really 7:30 if you want to dwell on it - we've had the misfortune of hitting daylight savings time (a second time this spring!) and we all lost an hour of sleep (just what we need!).
Today's ride is all about sand - ankle deep sand, knee-deep sand, and hard-packed sand for the horses, and axle-deep sand for the vehicles; the trail will go through Parque Nacional de Doñana, along the beach - 50 km of frolicking along the Atlantic Ocean!
Leaving El Rocío, thirty riders, including Steph on her mount Arenal, followed the motorcycle and vehicles and quads out of town, making a 10 km jog northwest on soft roads through pine forests and past greenhouses full of strawberries, before turning to the southwest and heading toward the beach. After another 5 km, they entered Parque Nacional de Doñana, one of Europe's most important wetland reserves. Doñana is formed by the delta of the great Guadalquivir river. Unlike most deltas, this one has only one outlet at Sanlucar de Barrameda (today's destination), and a great windbreak sandbar on one side of it, allowing the natural creation of dunes and marshlands - which kept centuries of invading people uninterested in it, and allowed wildlife to thrive here. It is still a major reserve for migrating birds. Access is very limited - our vehicles would be unable to follow the entire trail to the beach, and only official ride cars were allowed on the beach, with buses shuttling crew to the final vet gate.
The first part of the ride led through forests of stone pine trees, which became more stunted the closer we got to the coast and the coastal winds that blow inland. As the sand got deeper, the pines gave way to hardier brush - narrow leaved cistus heather, mastic trees, rosemary, cistus scrub, glasswort, red lavender, rosemary and thyme. At one spot - where we turned around, about the limit of the car trails in the deep sand - Nacho picked a stem of wonderful-smelling purple flowers for the car.
As we retreated and rocketed through the sand, back the way we came (well, we couldn't drive slow or we'd get stuck!), we stopped as we met horses, jumping out of the car to hand off cold drinks to the riders. Some were off walking on foot in the ankle deep sand, that seemed to never end. Later, Steph said all that sand was hard work - but it got even tougher later - it got deeper past where our car had turned around, and became rolling little dunes. You had to trot over much of the trail, because there was a minimum speed of 11 km/hr calculated for the entire ride - you couldn't dally the whole day, deep sand or no.
My luck at getting good shots with my camera was just that every day - luck. I never knew if I would be in a car that was in front of the pack, in the middle, or behind. Today, I was lucky. If I'd ridden with Javier, I'd have gotten a great view of sand - he got stuck when he first turned off the packed road onto the sand tracks. Our own SUV briefly got stuck trying to get back on the road, and had to have bush laid under our tires.
Everybody finally un-stuck, and back on the main hard-packed park road, one of the rangers escorted us across the park to a locked gate onto the highway. From there we raced via pavement to the first vet gate at Matalascañas on the beach.
What a sight! Horses trotting and cantering along the sand, the backdrop blue sky and the blue-green Atlantic ocean with waves breaking at their feet. Below the white high-rise hotels and the beach promenade, a few horses were already taking their 30-minute rest, while others trotted out for the vets, and a steady trickle - starting out as tiny dots on the sand-sea horizon - arrived at the vet gate. There was a nice cool breeze blowing off the ocean - not too cold for the horses during their hold, and just enough to keep them comfortable while working. Several dozen tourists or locals sat on the beach wall and steps watching, while a number of police and park rangers kept an eye on things, and readied the bus to haul crew (and national park visitors) 30 km along the beach to Sanlucar de Barrameda. Madonna and Fernando were among the last of the crew to arrive at this vet gate, as Paco and Steph were near the very back of the field. Steph's mare Arenal had never seen the ocean before, or strange things like high-rise condominiums with crowds... she worked herself up into a lather fretting about all the commotion, and didn't start to fully relax until they left this vet gate. Then she really started to enjoy herself, cantering through the shallow surf and kicking up water everywhere, understanding that the ocean was not a bad thing after all.
In addition to the sandwiches and cold drinks available at the vet check for humans, today there were big fresh divine strawberries and oranges - they went quickly!
Suddenly jumping back in the car, we took off with Nacho down the beach, pulling alongside riders and handing off water bottles to them, racing to the next rider to take his or her empty bottle through the window at a canter. Everybody seemed very conscientious about not littering along the trail anywhere - easy with cars continually passing and handing off things through the windows.
Between riders, we'd rocket off down the beach with glee ... and I mean Rocket Off. Our tires may have left the earth at times. I think the speedometer arrow shot off its rotator. Nacho truly took devilish delight in skillfully swerving, sliding, bogging, and skimming along, aiming for the birds in hub-deep ocean, inundating the car once with water that poured through an open window. I learned some new Spanish words today in attempted conversation with Nacho and Luís and Carmen, although I think "AHHHH!" is pronounced the same in Spanish as in English. Later, at the finish vet gate, someone found Nacho a leather helmet with devil horns - perfectly suited to his driving and his impish grin!
We stopped twice where large 4-wheel drive park trucks had been allowed onto the beach to set up water assistance points. We'd stop to help pass out water and visit with other officials, then race on down the beach. There were two very eye-catching horses today. One was the appaloosa Puso, ridden by 15-year-old Ivet Pi Masnou, who last year finished 3rd in Equipos (teams) on this same horse, with her mother. The other was Croat-Cost, a strong, strapping bay Spanish warmblood gelding ridden by Josep Costa Aguilar.
It was a beautiful quiet 30-km stretch of beach to Sanlucar de Barrameda. Some riders stayed out of the water, where the sand tended to become a little soft; some riders stayed just in the shallow water, where the sand was harder packed and the going a little easier. The beach was littered with beautiful shells of all colors under the sun - good thing I don't collect shells because I would have gone mad. And my suitcase is already too heavy. I did take pick up little shell, however, for the Raven.
The final vet gate was here, on this beach at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River across from Sanlucar. Winner was Francisco Calle on Espia by ten minutes over Pablo Silva on Placentera. These were also the first two finishers in the equipos; first in binomios was Miguel Arias on Iman De Galeon (who was 13th across the line), second was David Santos and Mejorana; third was Jose Anto Calderon Baquerizo on Campanera - keep an eye on this pair as we go along. Twenty-three riders completed both fases without any time penalties.
Once the horses vetted through, completing the day's ride, they had to board a small ferry, with cars and people, to get across the quarter-mile stretch of water to Sanlucar. Any horse that would have normally been worried about such an event was now tired enough to not really care. There were no mishaps as the horses followed the cars up the ramp onto the boat, and they stood quietly with their handlers for the 5-minute shuttle.
While the ride had officially concluded, there was an official 'show' end of the ride for spectators and press - a last canter with the whole field along the beach of Sanlucar proper, a 1500m stretch of sand that is Spain's oldest racecourse, dating back to 1845, where every summer horses still gather on weekends for races along the beach just before sunset. I hopped on a 4-wheeler with Inés, driven by Gabriel, and tried to hold on and take pictures at the same time.
At the Meta arch, a gypsy-dressed woman was passing out manzanilla wine - a special variety of fine sherry made here in Sanlucar. Steph took her first glass when crossing the finish line on Arenal... and she took her second glass before getting off Arenal! It was quite smooth, tasty sherry, and quick to go to your head.
The beach of Sanlucar - an old Roman town - was decorated with beached fishing boats, giving a hint of its important port location throughout the ages. Christopher Columbus left from here on his third voyage in 1498; Ferdinand Magellan left on his voyage in 1519. Magellan himself did not return, but his last surviving ship did, making it the first ship to go round the world.
Legend has it that the ancient capital city of Tartessos, with its fabled long-lived King Arganthonios, is somewhere in this area, though it has never been discovered. It was a large wealthy city, existing before the 5th century BC, but had disappeared completely in the 6th century BC. It was likely located at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river - which, with its dunes and wetlands, has changed location over the centuries. The fabled lost city of Atlantis may also lie somewhere in this area.
Stabling for the horses was conveniently just across the road in some old stables. Arenal and Paco's stallion Ibor were tired from their beach day and spent an hour grazing on grass along the beach. Steph enjoyed a few moments laying in the grass, soaking up the sun, enjoying the after-effects of the manzanilla wine. There was a festive mood from everybody under the food and drink tents set up beside the stables, where delicious paella was the menu el dia.
Steph and I still had to find rides for us and our suitcases to the hotel... we cornered Inés who arranged transport for us in her car and our huge bags in Luis López's car - Luis being one of the can-do-anything members of the Al-Andalus committee, and one of the Account Directors of Ding Done Advertising for Al-Andalus. Like Inés, a young, amazingly level-headed, enjoyable, pleasant cog in the Al-Andalus wheel who got done whatever needed to be done. From today on, these were the two poor souls usually stuck transporting (and lifting) our stupidly heavy bags, which we continuously apologized for.
Tonight's stay at the Hotel Colon Costa Ballena, was a nice 4-star 30 minutes away in the countryside. They took mine and Steph's passports here (something should have told us to say "no, you can look, but you can't keep them"), and we went up to our room to collapse. Steph was tired from her ride, and I was tired from my adventurous car rides and the sun and wind and the little sleep catching up with me. The evening rider briefing - back in Sanlucar - was at 8:30 and would take place at a Bodega - a winery. The choice was - and became every night - stay and catch up on yesterday's work and get started on today's work, or, go party. The work won out tonight, though I'm not sure I made it to bed before any of the partiers!
See the full day's results at: