Gazing out over an impressive range of peaks while leaning against a large, all–encompassing information panel (translated into English), which described in detail the extraordinary geology and history of El Chorro and the Ardales Park, one of our group proclaimed devotedly, “I… am going to Google search this place as soon as I get home.”
And there, ladies and gentlemen, is perhaps the very downfall of modern society and exactly the reason why we had decided upon an experiment to push the boundaries of what is humanly possible, to put ourselves through great suffering in the name of science. Our mission was to go without technology for a grand total of three days. No social media, no digital cameras, no idea of the time. Nobody could have predicted the results.
DEAL OR NO ORDEAL?
Having spent a cold, sleepless night positioned next to a large air conditioning unit in Bristol airport, the three of us – Paul Aston, Pedro Ballin and me – finally arrived to the most luxurious sleeping arrangement of our trip: a row of bargain airline seats. Sleep we most certainly did, for we were making the most of our final taste of minor luxury before heading out into the wilderness.
Or at least that is how we had foreseen the week ahead. We were expecting, and prepared for, several nights sleeping under the stars in one of Spain’s many areas of natural beauty – Parajes Naturales – most probably in a cave, if not less. But with an ever–worsening weather forecast, our mentor for the week, photographer and Irish ex–pat Victor Lucas, had been busy making other arrangements. He greeted us as we landed into Malaga airport, helped us to order a train ticket and began his hell–bent assault on technology. We were going Unplugged, ‘anti–technology’ was the order of the trip.
DAY 1: LA CASA
For about ten euros one of Spain’s Renfe (the rail network) trains will take you from Malaga airport into the city’s central station and then connect you with another that will whisk you away from the conveniences of the modern world and toward the country’s interior. Travelling at 160 kilometres per hour, a brief journey of less than one hour through the plains delivers passengers to a desolate feeling platform set at the foot of a vertiginous gorge. Hardy, weathered–looking climbers spend days here at the platform’s small café.
One such group were sitting out a storm when we alighted, perhaps their weekly contact with the world beyond, and enjoying a chat with the little old lady who happily opens her establishment to outdoors folk (many foreign) every day. Here, we sat and fuelled ourselves on cortados (short, strong coffee with milk) and generally avoided the inevitable…a thousand–odd metre tarmac climb.
We had arrived at El Chorro, a tiny village near Alora in Andalusia. Village is an overstatement as the reality is more of a community split between those who live in houses, probably because they run one of the very few local businesses, and those who live either in camper vans, tents or caves. Most of the population stay hidden, only appearing for infrequent parties, which mostly involve litre bottles of beer and music until the early hours.
There was no such evidence of life–beyond–café upon our arrival and we eventually began to make our way up the steep, grinding road without sight of another soul. Climbing on a mountain bike with a backpack loaded full of food and supplies for a multi–day trip is a struggle at best, and by the time we made the top we were already half beaten. However, we were warmly welcomed into our new landlord’s house for a cup of tea and biscuits.
And so it was that our intentions of liberty, simplicity and raw survival began to waver somewhat. Replenished, warm and dry, we were shown to our shelter – a small refuge, house, called Casa Bolero.
We managed a spin on the bikes late that afternoon and took in one of the beautifully flowing and semi–natural snakes of singletrack that will no doubt one day make El Chorro a very famous mountain bike destination. Never too hard on the pedals, rarely on the brakes, always wide–eyed looking down the trail at the next fast approaching crest or fall. Trail riding doesn’t get much better. We had to scrabble across a fallen tree at the foot of the trail, a burst river between us and the only exit route.
To re–stock our energy after such a heroic river crossing we pedalled uphill to a great little café that Victor and I had previously visited. Boar heads hanging from the walls peered over our shoulders as we sipped coffee.
Hours later, many cortados consumed, we rode back to the refuge via another memorable trail.
IS THAT A PHONE IN YOUR LAPTOP CASE?
If anyone had wanted to order worse weather for our trip, they probably would have struggled to come up with anything more monumental than the storm that swept up the valley and leapt onto the refuge that first night. Thank god we weren’t in a cave. Rain and wind pounded the walls, stories learned from internet reports were bandied about and our chocolate supplies were hit hard.
We lit the fire, dried our sweaty clothes from the uphill, drank countless cups of tea and were grateful not to be in the kind of accommodation we had imagined prior to the trip. At this point I cracked out my phone and reported home, which really did create quite some commotion amongst those who had left their posh iPhones at home. My text read, “Rain never going to stop. Aston doing handstands and press ups and Pedro is explaining the universe. Victor had enough, grunting something about technology.”
DAY 2: SNOOZE AND CRUISE
We slept well and long, and eventually rose somewhere near noon. Or at least that is all we could guess at. With no idea of the time it was hard to know, but our well–rested body clocks told us that we quite possibly hadn’t been as motivated as may have been expected. In our defence, the 35mm of rain that had been predicted to fall during the night and right through the morning had well and truly landed, so we had only done as any sensible adventurer would have – stayed in bed all morning and drank many cups of tea.
By the time both the rain had cleared and group motivation had been rediscovered it had become quite some afternoon, with the clear skies and fresh air that typically follow a big storm. We rode the sublime trail from the previous day and took in a few ‘extreme’ lines down some of the bizarre rock formations that make the Natural Park such an intriguing place. Down at the foot of the trail we avoided rivers in flood and headed straight to the station café for round number three–hundred–and–forty–six of coffee and toastadas (Spanish toast typically served with fresh tomato puree, olive oil and salt).
Steep tarmac is never the most enticing of prospects, however after so much eating and such relatively little bicycle riding it’s hard not to jump at the opportunity to punish oneself by way of a 45º slope. We headed upward and toward ‘the Swiss house’ – a landmark we had been told to head for if we fancied our chances at finding trail bike bullion.
We did find the Swiss house, and we found the trail. It had rained, a lot. Streams gushed out across the trail, then onto it, and we were covered head–to–toe in white mud, our teeth and eyes were filled with grit. I smiled the entire way down that trail.
Our ride ended near some cliffs and gave us a view over a perilous walkway that was built early in the 20th century to grant access between the two dams of the area, named after King Alfonso XIII as the ‘King’s Pathway’. After some minutes of staring at the perilous path wondering how many poor souls died during its construction, we decided to call in at El Chorro’s campsite to see what went on there. Having eaten cheap and decent pizza at the bar (the only establishment in the vicinity regularly open on an evening), we jumped right in and ordered four large cervezas. “Mamma Mia!” was the reaction of our friendly barman who then shook our hands. He thrust litre sized bottles at us and waddled off. The sign of a good evening to come.
Several hours later and we were at a party that catered for all types – from crusty climbers to… well, crustier ones. We were still covered in mud, most probably stinking (after a couple of days it’s hard to know where the smells are coming from) and delirious not through the hardships we had expected prior to the trip but thanks to sheer gluttony and excessive caffeine intake. More beers were consumed and carload–after–carload of wiry, dreadlocked and leathery mountain folk came out of the darkness, parking all down the El Chorro road and mostly in or across it. Not that it mattered, the only people likely to be within 20 miles would only have been on their way to the party too.
Eventually we wobbled up the dark mountain once again, this time with little fear of wild beasts (they were still at the party). We stopped to contemplate (argue about) the direction of Malaga (and therefore the coast) on more than one occasion. No iPhone could save the day this time.
DAY 3: FINALLY, SOME SUFFERING
Perched high–up above the valleys and peering over to lands beyond the park, Casa Bolero sits in a position of power and dominance over beautiful landscapes that could never be imagined by any being other than nature. It may sound melodramatic, but: (a) staying at that one–roomed hut was a true liberation from the computerised lives that each and every one of us lives; and (b) if I put a little romanticism in place then I can almost justify our difficulties with leaving the house in the morning. Sore heads didn’t help either.
Packed up and ready to face ‘The Wilderness’, finally we left Casa Bolero, bid farewell to the nearest neighbours and tried not to look back too longingly at the tea making facilities that we were leaving.
It’s funny, sometimes on bike trips to resorts in the Alps, you can come to find yourself almost addicted to ‘hunting’ for the next fresh track, a trail you haven’t yet ridden or pretty much anything with the word ‘secret’ associated with it. In doing so, you can often miss the point and particularly what I consider to be the most fun part of riding bikes, the emotion that all adventure sports enthusiasts are ultimately seeking…flow. Riding a trail once can be raucous, exhilarating and can contain some elements of flow. But session a trail, or ride it day after day and you come to know its ins and outs, you know the feel of each roller before your wheels have even reached it and you anticipate every turn.
We dumped our kit in a derelict cave house, one of many like it that have housed centuries of wandering shepherds and, in the last century, rebel fighters and families escaping the grasp of the country’s stern dictator, Franco. Next to the cave entrance passed the trail that we had ridden each day since our arrival. Dropping in from the tarmac that provides an easy pedal up and unfortunately the option of shuttling (some holiday firms from Malaga are bringing customers to ride these stupendous trails with the ease and drear of a van uplift – something sure to end the relaxed laws on mountain biking in the area if it continues), we flowed and floated our way down perfection realised.
DAY 4: THE FAMOUS TRAIL
Nothing about El Chorro screams fame or fortune – the place is truly bizarre in that there really should be throngs of tourists, but strangely the village remains a tranquil haven for introverts and escapees. Head over the mountain and to the other side of the park, though, and you discover where they keep all the day–trippers.
Having spent what turned out to be a warm and comfortable night in our cave, our perfect sleep perhaps aided by a beer or two that we had managed to forage, we woke late once again and made our way to granny’s train station café for another cortado y tostada before leaving our bags in the trustworthy hands of her good self. We climbed up and out, right out of our bubble in fact and toward the aforementioned tourists. This is where you find El Chorro’s most famous trail, called El Moabo, which is a slickrock bonanza and quite a unique ride for this part of the world. We flowed our way along the trail’s grippy stone and sessioned the odd section, making the most of what is not a great vertical height loss.
THIS IS THE END
Later that day, riding around the perimeter of the Guadalhorce reservoir, the body of water that King Alfonso’s pathway accesses, we bumped into several local groups (Spaniards having wind–battered picnics at a maximum radius of ten metres from their cars) and ex–pat Brits out walking in the brisk air.
We trundled along and eventually made our way up what must have been the steepest and most annoying mountainside in the entire area. At the top we sheltered behind a rock from the relentless battering of the wind with a vertical drop of around a thousand metres in front of us. From here we could see out over a valley that can only be accessed via the walkway, a train that doesn’t stop or by a good day’s worth of effort, prior planning and the willingness to rough it for a night.
We watched vultures swoop and soar for a while then turned our back on the wilderness and its simplicity and made our way back down the beat–up trail. Rolling out the end of the ride we collected our bags, sipped a final hot drink and jumped on the train out of there.
Taken from Dirt Magazine Issue #132 | Photos © Victor Lucas | Words James McKnight