Monday, April 14, 2008

Al-Andalus Day 5: One of Those Days - to Ronda

Wednesday April 2 2008

2 Fases:
1 - Jimena de la Frontera - Cortes de la Frontera, 31.7 km
2 - Cortes de la Frontera - Ronda, 28.79km

You get to the mid-point of the ride - and it all happens at once. Steph's phone rings at 3 AM. A car wreck. Truck containing the quads and motorcycles that lead the ride gets the keys locked inside. An SUV gives up the ghost, blows up. Horse is forgotten in stables. The wind is blowing a gale, and the trail for horses very rocky, technical, challenging, and tiring today. We lose the course at times. Nacho drives slow. Slow??

Our 8:30AM start for today's ride began just outside of castle-dominated Jimena de la Frontera, half an hour's drive from Algeciras. Only 8:30 AM slipped by, the orange sun rose in the east, 9 AM passed, 9:30 AM... and we waited. We weren't sure for what we were waiting, exactly, but it gave us time to visit with, among other people (such as a few campers, and one of the thousand British residents of Jimena de la Frontera, come to see the spectacle), José Muñoz, the director of Andalusian Sports Bureau and Tourism department, one of the main sponsors of Al-Andalus. José Muñoz's enthusiasm with his part of Spain is as passionate as Jose Soto's. He loves Andalucía and the idea of showing it off to tourists, and he loves the idea of involving sports in it all. Add horses and Al-Andalus to the equation - he's ecstatic about the possibilities.

José Soto had time to visit with a group of school children come out with their teachers from the village to watch the start of the ride. Steph and I had time for a second breakfast, and third or fourth coffees, supplied by the village campground in their cafe.

Around 10:30 the quad truck arrived (keys had to be sent from Seville, and the quads still had to get gassed up), and the officials all appeared to get a bit excited about the start of the ride. Communiques flew about on the radios and the phones and out the window by voice - excited humans, while the much more calm horses, 18 of them, started up the road behind us into Parque Natural Alcornocales. The start of the morning set the tone for the rest of the day's events.

Today, Nacho's car was at the front of the field, leading them up and up and up the logging roads - slowly! He even told me in Spanish he would be driving slowly. "Merri! Hoy conducir despacio! No tienes miedo hoy!" (Today driving slowly! You don't have fear today!) Well, I certainly had a new sensation of bafflement! I still held on for dear life out of habit. I got a tranquil look at the scenery, layers of mountain forests falling below us as we climbed ever higher. We did drive just ahead of the first horse - José Leon on Bulería - and despite the very long steady climb, they moved along at a strong trot.

We were driving on dirt roads in the Parque Natural Alcornocales - only the official cars. The crew cars were sent via highways and other logging roads to either the next assistance point, or the first vet gate in Cortes de la Frontera - I was not sure which. In fact, the day seemed so confusing, by the time we got to Cortes de la Frontera, I thought it was the finish. But I get ahead of myself...

The Parque Natural Alcornocales is a 400,000-acre nature reserve, named after the cork oak trees, the largest grove of cork oaks in the Iberian Peninsula. While it is a nature reserve, it is "devoted to exploitation of the forest's resources" - for hunting, for gathering wild mushrooms, gathering tree heath (used in making tobacco pipes), and harvesting the cork trees for their bark. We saw one fellow with his 3 pack mules laden with the rounds of bark from cork trees, and a huge pile yet to transport. There are extensive hiking trails in the park, with signs indicating not the kilometers to a destination, but the hiking times.

José Soto caught up with us on his motorcycle, asking if I'd seen Africa this morning, off the shoulder of the Rock of Gibraltar - no, I'd been looking out the opposite window. "At this next corner, I think you can see it." And he went ahead, scouted out the view, and stopped at the next bend, pulling Nacho over, to make sure I got to see Africa, over his Andalucían mountains.

At the highest point of the trail, a cold gale was blowing over the ridge, kicking eye-grating dust about. I was particularly glad not to be on a 4-wheeler this morning. Miguel the camera man attempted to stand up with his video camera to get some shots, but it was too windy to hold still. We continued on from this high point near 700m, staying in front of the horses, and headed downhill to a sheltered flat on a ridge, where we set up an Assistencia point.

Here we met two charming ponies, one very friendly rotund paint who really wanted to help with the assistance, and got quite excited (or offended) when his offers were turned down. Once the Arabians started passing through, the paint decided he wanted to be an endurance horse (trotting and cantering around in shared excitement), or maybe a rodeo horse (leaping and bucking), or maybe a dressage horse (showing off his extended trot). There was also one FAT chestnut who observed the shenanigans from a little further away. After the last rider got their water and disappeared into the forest again, and the humans packed up to leave, the ponies looked quite forlorn that their unexpected entertainment was gone.

Instead of following the ride, today Nacho's car turned around and headed back down the mountain - slowly! - with the little Toyota pickup. We closed gates and pulled ride signs behind us. Back on the highway, we raced a couple of kilometers through the winding valley to another logging road, which we took upwards at full speed (no more despacio!). We seemed to drive for hours, and we seemed to be confused on where exactly the next assistencia point was or where the horse trail crossed the road.

The day seemed to continue like this - confusion on where we were going, where exactly the horses were crossing - we hopped out of the car at one water point where Javier was waiting, until one horse passed, and then jumped right back in the car to speed onward; got to another place where the last horse was passing through; jumped out at another trail crossing, but we left after two horses passed; then backtracked, confused over whether to close this gate or leave it open... I'd lost my light for photos, got jumbled on my sense of direction and time, and figured the ride was almost over by now.

By the time we pulled into a town where a few horses were at a vet gate, I thought it was the finish, only to remember that we'd started so late, and the terrain had been so tough, that this was indeed only the first vet gate, in Cortes de la Frontera, and the horses still had another 30 km fase yet to go.

Here I also found out about the car wreck this morning - one of the finish line people had been run off the road; he wasn't hurt but the car was totalled; Inés' radiator had blown up so she was stuck here until 6 PM (with our suitcases) waiting for another vehicle to be delivered; Fernando's mare had been left in the stables by the van that was supposed to pick her up, so he and Steph had to go back to fetch her, and then they had gotten lost... it was just one of those days!

I didn't want to follow behind horses the rest of the day and have no chance at all for pictures, so Luis offered to take Steph and me and head for the finish, driving on the course the last part. Sounded like a good photo op. As Luis raced down the highway toward in the direction Ronda, far below us in the deep valley we could see the horses following the old Roman trail just above the river. We whipped into the last Assistencia point on the Río Guardiaro, shared some drink hors d'oeuvres with people while waiting for horses to come through.

We were standing on, and the horses were travelling over, one of the old Roman roads that runs across Spain. Much of the path was still the original stones laid down 2000 years ago. You could hear the horse hooves clopping (and slipping) a long distance away. This was also part of a maintained system of hiking trails in Spain; I met a Dutch couple on their way to Cortes de la Frontera, and told them about the Al-Andalus horses coming their way.

Luis then said "Let's go!" and we jumped in his truck to follow the horse course the last 9 km. Just as we pulled away, Luis asked Antonio out the window, "Can we make it?" Antonio answered, "No se..." He didn't know. Luis said, "Well, we try." Wait - that didn't sound too good - had this been my idea?

The last 9 km to the finish was over trails made for horses, tough horses, and not for vehicles. But we wanted to see the trail? Luis got us over the trail in his vehicle. I am here to tell you, nothing stops these crazy Andalucíans from going over, under, or through, any trail or route.

From a wide path to a narrow path to single file hiking trail where we really couldn't have fit, through an impassible ditch, back onto the road, back onto a nice 2-track road, to a 1-track road, which disintegrated to a rocky trail up into the hills, to not much of a trail at all (but great scenery), to nothing but motorcycle ruts, to an eye-widening bank to make it over, to a steep, don't-know-where-or-how-it-ends (and I sure hope we don't have to back up this!!) trail descent to the Ronda valley below, we made it. Really, I've learned driving is all in your perspective, and my perspective, which was narrow, has been greatly broadened!

At the bottom of this amazing (by vehicle or by horse) route, Luis' boss Alexis was relaxing on a 4-wheeler, shoes off, feet up on the dash, waiting for horses to pass. We left him in a cloud of dust and drove to the finish line, where a stunning view awaited finishers: across the valley the old city of Ronda, hanging off a cliff above the El Tajo gorge, with the dramatic 18th century Puente Nuevo ("new bridge") accentuating the vista. Wow.

Ronda is Andalucía's fastest growing town, but still retains its old charm. In the historic center of the town, you can see ruins of an old Moorish palace from the 1200's, a 16th century convent, cobbled streets. Bullfighting on foot originated here; Ernest Hemingway's ashes are scattered here.

While the finishers came in, the crews and spectators sipped cool drinks provided by the ride sponsors, soaked up the view, and watched the horses vet in. We missed seeing the winners come in (again). Gerard Rabal on Faisa de Masferrer finished first today followed by Marie-Christine Chalandre on Melquiades D'Olbia; 7th across the finish line, Paco Maeso on Ibor, was first in the Binomios. This was his kind of trail - technical, where you have to pay attention. Paco was followed by Carmen Illanes on Capri CP (10th overall) and José Baquerizo on Campanera (11th overall).

José Soto visited with people, admiring the views, extolling Ronda, insisting that we must take time this evening to stroll around the old city - again the passionate admiration for Andalucia effusing from his voice and his eyes. Steph told him he needs to write a ballad for Al-Andalus; and here in the "heart of Andalucía," the picturesque Ronda in the background, it sounded like a very good idea to José. Next year, perhaps, we will hear this ballad. José Muñoz was at the finish also, and was no less enthusaistic about the area, his eyes brightening as if it were his first time to visit, and he only lives 100 km away from here.

Dinner was served again under the tent - cheese and meat tapas, garbanzos and sausage. I sat with the vet Elke Pepperkorn; her day had been tough too. It was her first meal of the day she was sitting down to.

Our usual rides to the hotel, Inés and Luis were gone; Steph and I bummed a ride off Alexis and Maria into Ronda. They were pulling a trailer with his quad, and, not knowing exactly where our hotel was, we got a bit lost in the narrow streets of Ronda, asking pedestrians for the Hotel San Francisco in the old town, and using policemen to stop traffic to help us turn around a couple of times. No worries. Steph and I offered to just get dropped off and we'd find the hotel, but that's not the Spanish way. They take you right where you're going, or get lost trying.

We did finally find the street that the hotel was on; Steph and I were quite willing to get out carry our hand bags up the street, but even then, Maria stayed with the double-parked car and trailer, while Alexis walked us right to the hotel desk (carrying Steph's heaviest bag) and made sure we got checked in okay.

We still didn't have our passports yet - they'd not made it to last night's hotel, though they might arrive with our Inés and our suitcases later - and the hotel man finally shook his head and gave up on us and handed us our room key. I wouldn't have handed over my passport anyway - lesson learned!

To get to our room, we took the elevator, which dumped us out into a dark hall and closed on us, leaving us in the pitch black for a while, falling over our bags onto the floor, desperately clawing the walls for a light switch or the elevator button, laughing hysterically, and finally using our phones, and then camera flashes, to find a light to turn on. A fitting end to One of Those Days.

It was One of Those Days for Inés too - she arrived (staying in a different hotel) just before 8 PM with our suitcases and passports, after a trying day, with still the rider briefing to attend (back at the other hotel), 30 phone calls to make, and still a pleasant smile (if a tired one) on her face.

As it turned out, Steph and I were just too exhausted to take in any sights of Ronda, other than the inside of a restaurant 2 blocks away. No internet in the hotel, which was perfect, because we were too tired to work anyway. We both passed out at 11 PM, setting the alarms for 6 AM.

Full day's results at:

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