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Thursday, 14 November 2013

El Camino Levante - Day 4 Almorox to San Martín Valdeiglesias

The walk out of Almorox was extraordinarily steep!  We headed down among houses and alotments until we reached the bottom of the valley.  As usual, Michael accompanied me with the other dogs to give them their morning walk and Kaishi (first today) would continue on with me.  Cressa was full of delight and so enjoying this new experience of traveling, exploring and walking and every day new and different smells.  She has such delight that her hind end tries to run faster than her front end and she has the biggest most delighted smile on her face!  The photo here really captures this I think!

Cressa's joyful smile!
When we reached the bottom, Michael, Ndzilo, Cressa and Akina headed back up - with him complaining that it would be a "steep climb"... I of course reminded him that today was the first day of our steep foothills and that I had two days of mountains to follow!  Fair dos as they say!  Little did I know however that the day would be up, up and more up and then hot and more up and down and that the foothills would prove far more challenging with far steeper and more difficult sections than anything the mountains would offer.  

The going was good on tracks for the first part of the day and we made surprisingly good time although much slower than usual.  We took lots of breaks to look at the view and admire the colours and in one area we passed through there had been quite a fire - part of which had passed through the campo houses spread across the hillside.  The way was so pretty and it's always easier to walk when the surroundings are lovely and the day is cool and with partial cloud at this time of the morning it was perfect for the steep climb which seemed never ending.  We would level out for a short while and then head upwards again.

Kaishi on the pretty track that leads out of Almorox
and among the charred trees after the fire in the area
So far my new walking shoes (exactly the same as the last ones but a more funky colour - a kind of heliotrope) were going well and I had not had any blisters.  I had walked in them daily for the two weeks before leaving for the Camino and without any problems, so I was hopeful that I would avoid the blister problem so many pilgrims have.  My other shoes had done almost a 1000km without ever causing me a problem and I had brought them with me "just in case".  I thought I could use them to give my feet a break if necessary, but I wanted to wear the new ones through the mountains as they had more grip underneath and cushioned my souls more.

Kaishi giving me her "cute" out
of the corner of her eye look
during a "photographic rest stop"
Well, that's my story!
Kruger Park type scenery
The old ones were wearing a little thin and so every small stone could be felt through the bottoms.  However, what I hadn't counted on was that during my long soak in the wonderful bath of the night before, turning into a prune from the length of time spent enjoying the sensation, the skin would be so soft that as I did my stretches, I caught one of my toes on the tap and tore the skin off the top of it.  Ouch!  I had put on a plaster but over the morning I began to realise that it was rubbing inside my shoe.  Fine on the flat, but when walking down steep slopes, the toes push into the front of the shoe.  As it rubbed more, it started to give me some grief on the uphill sections and flat too - so of course, one starts to compensate and not really walk with the same flow.  This in turn puts pressure on other parts of the feet and soon I realised that two other blisters were developing on my heels, mostly where the high backs of the shoes dug into me in particular on steep downhill sections.

Another Kruger moment during our break at the top
of the steep climb out of Almarox
As we came finally to the top of the long climb we found ourselves among the most amazing rock formations that reminded me so much of views in the Kruger National Park.  I felt right at home, as though I was back in South Africa and elephants or giraffes would wander across the scene at any moment.  For those of you who know RSA or friends who are still living there - you will see what I mean when you see the photos.  

A short rest and attendance to
the feet
I sat on a rock and had some fruit, dug out more plasters and assessed the foot situation.  After doctoring them up, we set off again, now on a long decline through beautiful trees and wonderful shade as the day was starting to heat up.  The car was on the other side of the main N-403 that cuts across the Camino, parked under more beautiful trees lining wide open pathways carpeted with little wild crocus type flowers.  The dogs had been able to play here and were chilled and happy to see us.  I was delighted as there was a delicious bocadillo and wonderful coffee to revive the tired legs and feet ready for the next steep section.  I was surprised how low morale was at this point and a break in the back of the car with the dogs wagging tails and snuggling noses was exactly what I needed to boost the spirits.
The wonderfully clear way
Just before meeting the N-403 the guidebook mentions that there will be an iron gate which pilgrims need to go through and open and close to stop the cattle getting out, however, there are no iron gates and the track just leads logically all the way to the road and across it.  There are very few, if any, arrows on this section and most of the GR markers are very faint and almost impossible to see at times.  There are two cattle grids to cross rather than gates and these are what prevent livestock from getting onto the road.  Akina has practiced with cattle grids before, but the two here had a strip of earth on either side where she could walk without having to balance on the iron rails.   

Welcome rest break and the best moral boosters in the world - dog noses and wagging tails
The "gradual" way through the trees - don't be fooled!
As I left the car behind the way looked like a gentle climb and Akina accompanied me for the next stretch.  The guidebook talks of cattle and although we saw evidence of them, we never met any on this stretch.  The gentle climb however was all a delusion!  Soon we were heading ever upwards again and it seemed almost impossible that there could be more up!  Again I was reminded that we have not even reached the mountains yet.  It was getting hotter and hotter and I had to stop often to just catch a quick breath before moving on.  Akina was wonderful and as we reached the M-507 which crossed our path, she had to make her way over a cattle grid - this time with gates, ramshackle a bit hillbilly and tied together with string and barbed wire!  Fortunately I could get them far enough apart to get through with my pack and without having to take it off, and was glad that Akina knew how to sit and wait while I got organised.  I then led her and let her think her way over each iron rail, step by step, slowly, slowly until she reached the other side.  

Carpets of crocuses
I was also very glad that I had done so much agility training with the dogs - getting them to think their way through things, place their paws and deal with narrow spaces and narrow bridges/planks and so on.  There was the same type of set up on the other side of the road and again Akina coped perfectly.  She jumped the last part and sat patiently waiting for me to tie the gates back together.  By thinking her way through the cattle grid, even if she had missed one footing, she would have been well balanced on the other three (as in the video clip) and I would strongly advise that if you are planning to Camino with your dog(s) to get them trained for this kind of thing.  Take some agility lessons - they will pay dividends. 

View from the top - looking back over the day's walk
As we continued on the track I became aware of being watched and there ahead were the cattle!  They didn't look too scary, although they did have big horns... however, when I saw that a lot of them had calves with them, I did swallow hard and mentally prepared myself.  I took out my lightweight walking stick and extended it in case I needed to create some "spacial energy" around me and put Akina on her leash.  I put her on the side furthest away from the cattle, although sometimes we did have them on both sides, and I took a slow, calm, more submissive but confident walk through the herd.  If they were on the path I moved away, showing them I was allowing them room and in fact they were curious but did not walk towards me or look threatening as I have experienced in the past with mothers and calves.  Akina was just amazing, she walked in slow sync step by step with me - like we were quietly tip toeing through a haunted house.  She had total trust and confidence and did not take her concentration away from what we were doing once.  The herd was spread out and quite large, so this section slowed us down a bit and further on we met another herd and had to repeat the process.  However, we arrived finally at the top of the climb and looked back at the views over where we had climbed since the morning.  The car was not far away and another short break and top up with water would revive us for the last part of the day's walk.  Not far now I thought, and then we will be able to relax for the night after a nice hot shower!  Wrong!

When we reached the car there was another cattle grid so we decided to take a video clip of Akina crossing.  Her head is free so she can see where she is stepping and we take it nice and calm so she can think her way through.  

At this point the guidebook says something rather strange about arrows in both directions and ignoring them when they point in the opposite direction (it will become apparent when you are there) but if you do follow the arrows "left" rather than turning "right" over the cattle grid, you will still come to the right place, but you will have done it by tar road.  There are apparently more arrows along the tar (no doubt for bicycles - after I had experienced the tracks that came next!) as Michael saw them when he drove back down the road and to our next meeting point.  

The guidebook mentions another gate (photographed below) and an "important firebreak that divides the municipalities of Almorox and San Martin de Valdeiglesias" 800m along from the cattle grid.  It is HUGE and the guide says you can take this or continue on to a road about 1km along which is way-marked and easy to follow so you don't get lost.  However, this will take you a bit further and to be honest, with the route you are about to take - every centimetre saved, you will be grateful for!  I took the firebreak and it was easy to find the way - at the bottom (and it is very steep and uneven and if it has been raining, it could be quite slippery and maybe a little hazardous!) there is a camino sign (but do NOT believe it's optimism - there's no way this can be done by the average pilgrim in 1h 35mins!!)  

From here arrows mark you clearly all along the way as you climb up and down firebreaks and forestry tracks in some steep ascents and descents!  It is hard going and very tiring and on such a hot day, it was exhausting.
Finally (!) at the top of our loooong climb up from Almorox!  
The arrows pointing "left" but
we go "right"!
Continue along this road, past
this gate and the firebreak
will be on the left - it's
I stopped often and drank lots and being far from anywhere, anyone and anything, hidden among the trees, mostly without views, it seems to go on forever.  I learnt on this part of the route, that when visibility is impeded, our senses feel trapped and claustrophobic and we lose perspective of distance, direction and geography.  My pack seemed heavy and my feet were sore and rubbing.  The declines were as steep as the ascents and the backs of the shoes dug into me more and the toes rubbed more because of this.  Akina of course just patiently waited in each shady spot we found - fortunately due to the forest these were regular although at the height of the day, the sun shone directly down and on such wide paths there was less shade than you might expect.  She of course had no expectations or a need for seeing where she was going, she did not worry about the geography and was not bothered that she could not see the distance reducing the more she walked.  It was the human mind that was restricted and unnerved by this and wanted to "count down the kilometres"!  But in this situation there is only one thing you can do - and that is walk one step at a time.  It was as impossible to go back as to go on.  I could not have got a lift even if I had wanted one - the roads were not roads for most of the way, but these fire breaks and very rough tracks with boulders and uneven surfaces that only a 4x4 could make (or maybe a tank!) and so all I could do was just focus on the steps and keep in the moment and not worry about when or how I was going to get to the end of the day's walk.

The firebreak!
The sign at the bottom of the firebreak - on the right.
Markers are good and regular all the way to San Martin
At one point we came to the most enormous boulder with wonderful shade and lots of way markers.  I sat here and finished my bocadillo, had some fruit and a long drink.  Feeling much revived we headed on again - but the pain and tiredness returned within minutes.  The afternoon dragged on.  The route was never ending.  There was little or no signal for most of the way, so even trying to check on the GPS for a little morale boosting (to see how far we had left to go and to check how close we were getting) did not work.  Finally, we came to an area where there were some forestry workers.  They pointed us in the right direction as there is a slightly confusing track through a gate (it is an estate and it says in the guide it is a right of way and you must take this route even if the gate is shut) and wished us a Buen Camino.  The gentleman who seemed to be the foreman asked me if I was tired - I laughed with what energy I had left and told him I was "very" tired!

One of the regular markers on the route
The "big boulder"

More climbing, more up and down, more steep and uneven tracks and firebreaks and we finally made it out onto a wider, open area among the trees and there, much to my joy and surprise (more than usual because of course I had had no way of knowing that I was almost at the meeting point) was Michael and the other dogs - full of joy and energy and happy to see me.  At the car I shed the pack - I was going to leave it with the car and give myself a break. After all, I had planned to build up the distance I carried it but had in fact taken it with me the whole day every day.  I changed into my "dear old friends" the beige walking shoes and after a drink and some more fruit set off downhill with both Kaishi and Akina to San Martin de Valdeiglesias.

View from the top - and yet we still have "more up" to go
in the next days, these are only the foothills
The walk was much easier and my feet we glad of "my old friends" but even so, going down and down and yet more down after so much up, is very tiring on the legs!  The muscles scream and it is in so many ways more tiring than going up.  Of all the hill and mountain walking I did over this day and the next three, down was always the part I dreaded most!

Part way down the hill, the dogs were running and playing and boosted my spirits, we met a huge herd of goats.  Big ones too.  I have not been used to these locally where we have small little goats.  I put the dogs on leashes and listened to the goats as they jangled with their bells off through the trees.  A short while later a man in a truck pulled up with his small dog barking and growling at us.  He was pleasant and smiled but was concerned that the dogs would bite his goats.  I assured him that they were very good with all animals and that we lived on a farm.  I kind of wanted to point out that they were on leashes too - but refrained!  After all, he was not being unpleasant, just concerned for his herd and he let us on our way.

Kaishi and Akina enjoying their time together
as we head down to Valdeiglesias
The last part into town is all tar and this really made my feet sing - I didn't want to put them down on the ground too hard.  Finally we emerged next to the hermitage where the car was parked and we were done for the day.  Michael had tracked down the hostal and we were able to pull up outside and order an ice cold beer.  The best of the trip so far - and all because it was the best deserved of course!  It was hot and with the beer hitting me I was ready for a sleep.  The guy at the bar, a young man and so they are usually more friendly, was "Mr Cheerful" (not) but stamped my credential and showed me the room.  As usual, very, very clean but at this time of the year - without heating.  It's chilly enough to need it sometimes but often it is not on.  In some of the hostals I added my sleeping bag to the bed covers, but most provided thick extra blankets.  The water, fortunately on this trip (unlike the last) was always piping hot and very welcome on the tired muscles.

I followed my usual routine - hot shower followed by my physio stretches in warm comfortable clothes, then into bed to sleep until supper time.  I was out for the count!  The next day we were due to drive to a start point out of town as both the proposed routes are all on tar for quite a distance.  The "alternative" route (as I said also on tar) takes you to the Toros of Guisando - well worth a visit (more about them on Day 5) and is more of an official detour.

San Martin de Valdeiglesias below us with the castle
on the right - there are arrows and scallop markers
along the wall
At supper time we wandered the town desperately trying to find a restaurant.  Everything was shut or closed down.  There seemed to be only one and although not really offering a menu del día, the kind gentleman made on for us anyway.  We were so hungry after the day's events, yet when the dishes arrived they were so enormous I struggled to get through it.  The first course was the most gigantic pasta dish and this was followed by several huge chicken breasts (very tasty and tender) with "real" chips!  I passed on dessert but had not turned down the rather delicious glass of red served in a rather elegant glass.  The whole bar was rather classy, yet the enormous meal was still only 10 Euros each.  I only wish I could remember what it was called in recommendation!  Despite the huge meal, I slept like  a log and was grateful for the alarm at 06.30.  Michael had struggled for most of the afternoon to find a quiet place to park up with the dogs so had missed out on his rest and did not sleep well through the night in the worry that his eventual parking place (back next to the hermitage) might be found out.  However, the Spanish are so relaxed about where people park up to sleep and often we see campers in all sorts of places, totally unbothered by the authorities.      

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