Sunday, April 13, 2008

Al-Andalus Day 4: Sea to Mountains to Sea - to Algeciras

Tuesday April 1 2008

2 Fases:
1 - Dehesa Montenmedio to Facinas, 27.6 km
2 - Facinas to Algeciras , 32 km

"I mean - I saw the Rock of Freakin' Gibraltar today!" was how Steph described the end of another great day of riding in Al-Andalus. What more need be said to sum it up?

The day started off with a wild ride with Nacho to the start of the ride at Montenmedio. We had to fill up with gasoline on the way, and it might have been that third cup of coffee that put us behind. We made it 2 minutes before the twenty-three horses in today's ride left. It was too dark for decent photos at the start, and I shoved the camera out the window for on-the-fly shots of riders heading down the road as we sped past them in the first few kilometers.

But then, in those quirks of timing, we began climbing into hills of yellow flowers, dusty roads, and cattle on a private ranch just as the sun was coming up, and I had my best photo ops of the entire ride. Nacho passed a good number of riders, and we stopped partway up the hill, and the morning light hit the riders just perfectly as they worked their way up the hill. Smoke puffed out of horse noses in the chilly morning, and dust rose from their feet and the cows they disturbed, and from the vehicles gone ahead.

We steadily climbed up out of the cow pastures - these cows for eating, not for bullfighting - on paved and caliche roads, into hills and orchards of alcornoque, or cork oak trees. They are used for just that - cork. The soft bark is harvested by hand from the ground up the trunk every 10 to 12 years; this doesn't hurt the tree, and the bark regrows and can be harvested in another 10 years. The trees live for 150 to 250 years... apparently it's a very profitable business - and 15% of the bark use goes into making wine corks, and it produces over 2/3 of the profits. The route passed through a military zone, where the horses had to pass out of the property over a cattle guard. Soldiers were out helping - two thick sheets of metal were placed over the cattle guard, and the course officials waved the riders off to hand-walk the horses over the slippery steel. I cringed as the horse hooves slipped around anyway, but they all made it over without mishap.

We raced down the highway after the last of the horses had passed - and the metal sheets removed so the cars could now pass over - and came to what looked like a vet check. But it was only a gathering of all the horses for an escort 60 meters across the highway. The highway wasn't that busy, and it was possible to keep your horse well off the shoulder - and in the US at least, riders would have been told, "You have a highway crossing here, dismount, cross safely, lead your horses on foot till you cross onto the other road." Maybe it was the language barrier here that made the officials cautious, or perhaps it was the decision of the police, who were out to help with the crossing. In any case, times of the horses coming in were recorded, and when they all arrived - Steph and Paco in last place - traffic was stopped on the highway and held till the whole herd crossed to the road on the other side.

The horses were then let go in the order and times they'd arrived - giving them all a rest and opportunity to eat some of the rich grass lining the sides of the road. Windmills dominated the trail ahead for the riders; we humans and cars skipped this part of the course and made a highway beeline for the vet check at a little park near the little white village of Facinas.

Nobody was quite sure exactly which direction the horses would be coming from... I ran back and forth to two different spots 5 times, before finally grabbing a sandwich and drink, and deciding to plant myself on the road and just wait - it wouldn't be the first or last time I was at the wrong place - I was in Spain - no worries! I did catch riders as they came in, with some of those gigantic windmills as backdrops.

After lunch Nacho sped like a happy demon on up the dirt road into the mountains, with bright yellow scotch broom-like flowers whirling past us on the fence lines. We did skid to a quick stop by a couple of real Spanish cowboys on some beautiful, quiet Andalusions. "Cowboys, no!" laughed Nacho, "Aqui vaqueros!"

We continued our car race up the mountain, suddenly pulling off the road where a signpost said, "Assistencia," where we set up a water stop. The trails all appeared to be marked well with long Al-Andalus labeled white ribbons, or chalked arrows or barriers on the roads, and some arrows on signposts. Assistance points were labeled with arrows on signs - but at some places in the villages, or on highway exits, they'd been removed or not quite put up.

José Soto, out on his motorcycle every day, joined the officials at the assistance point here, visiting with people and handing out water to riders. Steph, at the back of the pack again with Paco, of course had a great smile on her face, amazed at the beauty of the country she was riding through. And she was quite pleased with her mare Arenal, who, while not being very seasoned, was very game and very intelligent.

We waited for the very last person, which was Carmen Illanes. She was on foot leading Capri CP. The horse had lost a shoe, and the farrier was called to come put a shoe back on. We hopped in the car and raced onward, and I do mean raced. I think today there was perhaps a car race going on down the one-lane narrow winding mountain road with thousand foot drops off the edge, and I do think we were winning. These southern Spanish, they take their fast driving very seriously.

We stopped at another assistance point to help, and at another spot to see the view of the great plains and the sea below, and to hand off water to a few riders.

It was a long winding way down the mountain on the hard-packed road - a strenuous total of 1500 meters of climbing and descent today for the horses - from shining sea of the Atlantic to the shining sea of the Mediterranean, and the Rock of Gibraltar in Algeciras, with the mountains of north Africa just on the horizon.

Algeciras was founded in 713 AD by the Moors, probably over an earlier Roman town. The Rock of Gibraltar, 426 meters in height, is actually part of the United Kingdom. Most of the top of it is a nature reserve, home to Europe's only wild monkeys, Barbary Macaques. In Greek mythology, the rock was known as one of the Pillars of Hercules. And more fuel to fire the Atlantis myth: Plato said Atlantis was somewhere beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Perhaps we were looking down on Atlantis from our viewpoint.

Myths and amazing scenery and locations aside, with all that car racing, we still, amazingly, did not get to the finish till most of the horses had arrived.

I was there for the trot out of Steph's mare Arenal; she was a bit off behind, due to an inflamed ankle that she'd rubbed through her boots, then hit the first day. She was told to come back in 20 minutes for a recheck. Fernando took her to her stall - temporary stalls set up at these stables today - and soaked her hind foot in ice. Back to the vet and she trotted out soundly, and got a completion.

Today, the second day for some horses, and the 3rd or 4th for others, is, like any multi-day ride anywhere, when all the little things start to show up a lot more, and when management of the horse really becomes important - girth rubs, knocked ankles, saddle rubs. It's of course best to try to prevent them in the first place, but sometimes you can't. Arenal would get tomorrow off and her ankle soaked in ice water several times, and hopefully she would be able to take Steph on another ride on Day 6. I didn't see a great number of horse legs with support bandages after the days' end. I think it is starting to become a little more prevalent as more people see more people do it, and I expect with more multi-day rides, this will be recognized as a good priority, to provide support to horse legs as they stand in stalls overnight after a day's endurance ride. I did see a few people using mud, and one or two using bandages over mud.

While waiting for Steph and Paco to come in, my camera got whammied and I got whammied by a camera: my good camera got knocked off a bench 2 feet to the concrete, and the video camera crew insisted on interviewing me. Help! I don't know which was worse! I'm supposed to be BEHIND a camera, not in front of one. They treated me kindly and provided an interpreter for me, though I would have been MUCH more entertaining as the visiting gringo trying to speak in Spanish!

Today's winner, in just over 4 hours, was Equipos rider Joaquim Estelle on Indienne des Colline, followed by Lise Chambost on Nabile and Francisco Calle on Espia. In 6th place, and first in Binomios, was Otto Castrillo on Pal Partenon, followed by (in overall 9th) Jose Baquerizo on the steady Campanera. Twenty-two riders completed both stages of today's ride.

While horses were completing their final vet check, and getting settled into their stables, another big filling lunch was served inside one of the buildings at the stables. I must confess I ate twice. Garbanzo beans and sausage, salad, and dessert, and I am not ashamed (though maybe I should be) that Steph and I split 3 flans with whipped cream, begging one of them off the nice people at the next table! Waiters and waitresses kept the tables full of chilled water and wine, and whipped the empty plates away.

After the meal, Inés found Steph and me and gave us a ride (Luis got our dreaded suitcases) to the nice 4-star Hotel Guadacorte Park, another 30 minute drive away (including getting a bit lost in our convoy). Steph and I settled into our room, and then the lobby for cappuchinos and hours of work on photos. She decided to catch a ride back to the stables for the rider briefing and nightcap, but I stayed put and plugged away with the cappuchinos and photos - another late night it was, without any partying.

Full day's results at:

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