Some of the best experiences are the slightly spontaneous and unplanned ones…
I recall a good example… five years ago in mid-June time I got a call from a running friend (Stu Walker) – “do you fancy joining a team in the Three Peaks Yacht Race…?” He explained (simplistically) that it was a sailing race from mid-Wales to Scotland and the two runners had to run up and down the highest peaks in the land and it would be a good adventure – “Alex you best book a couple of days off work…” He had sold it to me! I got domestic clearance sorted and booked the “two” days off. In the end I needed a week off work and was having to call-up my boss from the middle of the Irish Sea having to blag some more holiday. But it was worth it and what a way to race and climb the peaks – using natures energy and human energy alone – sailing and running day and night …it was raw and pure, a baptism of fire and I loved it and what made it better still was that we were the first boat to finish. I returned to that race for four more goes I liked it so much, I formed new friendship circles with the slightly crazy end of the sailing community and the lovely people who put the race on. So the moral of that story is… sometimes its best just to wing-it and jump-in at the deep-end – it’ll be good! What could possibly go wrong…?
Three Peaks Yacht Race – 2017 ( Being grounded in Whitehaven Harbour was not a ‘race-winning tactic! – 6hrs of waiting for the tide to return and right us)
As the years go by my thirst for racing lessens, but my thirst for adventure and exploration increases. I like to plan what I call – ‘adventure rides’ and challenges (or ITTs – Independent Time Trials as they are sometimes known in the bike-packing community). Also unless its really important to me I don’t ever like to be too meticulous and over-plan an event, it builds up unnecessary worry, you waste time and often it’s more fun just too wing-it a bit – its all about preparing the ‘right things’, the things that you can control and not trying to plan every detail or eventuality ..however having a ‘Plan B’ can sometimes be useful and pay-off. Nowadays ‘we in the modern world’ have access to information on just about everything – we can fly through a GPX route using google maps, we know exactly what the re-supply points are and when they open and close, we know where all the bothies and shelters are, you can see the terrain and surface that you a riding over etc. You learn all this and start to lose the adventure, the surprises. Don’t get me wrong I spend many hours poring over maps and planning routes and finding POIs etc…
So to the GR247… What is it? And why?
The route (credit: bike-packing.com)
This 220 mile (330 KM) loop through Andalusia’s Sierras De Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas Natural Park offers a nice mix of fantastically rugged riding.
Well it was the week before Christmas and I had a few days of unused holiday to take. I had planned a mid-Wales trip like last year, I went at a similar time and enjoyed it, despite the horrifically wet weather (which was at times quite laughable and fun, but other times grim and character-building – you know its bad when you seek refuge in a PC and spend twenty minutes under the hand drier!). I do like the mid-Wales bothies and they are quiet at that time and linked by nice trails. So I checked the long range forecast (as you do!) the weekend before and it looked set to be another wet one, with a series of Atlantic lows coming in – Hmmm…! Then a slight change of good fate was going to come my way… my wife announced that her mum had £100 worth of Easyjet vouchers that needed to be used up. I quickly put my hand-up I could help you out there and thought what better place to head than Spain! – some winter sun, drier trails, tapas… There had been a few routes in the south that I had been looking at on the superbly informative www.bikepacking.com website that really appealed, also it meant I could visit a couple of friends who reside out on the Costa Brava during the winter months (what a life!) In no time at all I had it all booked, it was going to be a nice cheap trip to please the Yorkshireman in me and convince the wife I was not going to endure any luxuries! As it happens I’m not such a fan of that posh stuff, give me a wildlife or nature experience any day. I hate opulence and those that waste our resources on things that don’t matter (don’t get me started …).
The route starts from a small town of Siles 200kms west of Alicante. My first plan was to store the bike box at the airport luggage store and then get a train to Albacete, looking into that, the storage was not cheap and the train not so frequent. It was suggested I try a car rental and was pointed to www.doyouspain and found a nice little rental car for less than 50E –bargain! going out of season is ace!
Segura de la Sierra
The trail is around 330km and it said it was a mix of surfaces and terrains. The pictures I had seen were enticing and I liked the idea of seeing this place in winter. The temps were around 10-12deg, higher up in the mountains it reduced to around 5-6deg, so not warm, but the sun helped. The trailhead is about 2km from Siles, I had 2 days of food with me packed and a couple of small whiskys and one tin of interesting craft beer. Its important to have a few small ‘luxury’ items on these rides, oh… and I also had some mature edam (a great cheese to take as it lasts and does not sweat or go manky!). I took a bivvy bag only, as the route was full of Refugio’s (if the weather was warmer / drier I would have taken the tent – to enjoy the camp experience). The route headed south and snaked its way through forests and small farming communities, the first place of any size was mountain village of Segura de la Sierra – it had a nice name and it also had a very nice castle, that was perched high and could be seen for miles around.
I did not stop long as I was conscious of a long way yet to go and not really enough days. I had got what I had got and had to make the best of it and in the back of my mind I had a feeling a would be back again… My itinerary was further compressed by the weather, a storm was forecast to come through central Spain on Friday, it was Tuesday, so best I press on! As it happened the town was pretty deserted, mid-afternoon, maybe they’re all asleep..? For the night I had my mind on a refugio some 60km away. The next part caught me out… Forest fires had torn through the nearby mountains some months earlier and part of the trail was decimated, sad to see, but worse for me as I had to make progress through it dragging a bike over, under, around – about two hours of really hard toil, all to do about 2km, I was black and filthy and had the look of a miner! Sometimes that the way it goes! Once out I did a map-check and made for a longer detour, off-path / route and on a forest road, to save any further unwanted obstacles. Then it started to rain a little, a bit patchy, no longer bright and in my head it all started to feel a bit ‘hard’. But it was better than being behind a desk at work, so stop feeling sorry for yourself!
I passed another village and in this one I actually saw a real person, it was 4pm and I had been riding 6hrs and seen not a sole. He was the last person I saw that day (apart from a couple of cars that went by on a short road section). I was getting in tune with things and enjoying the twisty, narrow, limestone tracks with olive groves all over the hills, trees thick with black olives, I tasted one, it was soft and looked ideal, but it was so, so bitter and unpleasant. Night time soon came even with the extra daylight of being that bit further south. The lights of choice for these winter rides are an Exposure Toro (good for around 24hrs) and a Petzl Nao, also very efficient. Just upping the light when needed on a down section, or to see the route ahead, no need for ‘big light’ all the time! My high point that day (altitude wise!) had been 1600m, starting at 850m and I had just dropped deep into a gorge, down at 500m. A big climb was therefore due and somewhere up it was my refugio… No moon and a very dark night sky, it felt very wild and only a few odd lights could be seen far away, it was deep forest, and steep mountains, with the sound of running water often around. It was not what I had expected of southern Spain, it was really exciting and a relished the night and the sound of the owls and other night creatures, I wondered if there was wolves in these deep, remote mountains…? I hit a small road and my refugio should not be so far away… I rode past the spot where it was marked, but nothing there apart from a nice Fuente (lots of these on the route). Earlier on I was also puzzled as it was not signed, all the others had been, in fact the route was very well way marked. I looked at the map and the next refugio was another 20km, tough terrain and I was thinking that I’m ready for a break – ‘I had programmed myself to reach this point’ and not counted for a problem occurring. In the end something came up not far away; a small road side shelter, the road was small and no cars had been down it as it was well into the evening. ‘It’ll do’ its not pretty, but its flat and dry and not that smelly. I did not take a picture as it was pretty mingy, but I now wish I had so that it could visualised and be better appreciated! It was a good sleep anyway and I stayed warm and set the alarm for 6am. Already looking forward to the next day…
I awoke to the cool morning air, tickling my face and a star studded sky above me. I wasn’t going to have a coffee and just gets off’, but I decided to have one and anyway I needed something to dunk my oat biscuits in! – that’s breakfast, it’s no Rock n Roll lifestyle here! Little did I know when I awoke that I was going to be for some of the most picturesque and exciting, rock-spitting mountain biking that I have ever done. Highlights were deep gorges, forged by refreshing looking blue rivers and soaring limestone cliffs, the pictures tell the story… A stunning refugio came up and with it the first of days sun rays, this called for another coffee stop, which turned into a noodle stop as well. The trail continued and led higher, slowly the trees diminished giving way to green fertile terrain that led into the distance. The presence of the sun had warmed me up, being in the cold gorge for most of the morning had chilled me down. Cresting a col I saw an eagle then another, then several..! I was buzzing. We were now riding on ancient pilgrim routes, narrow and contouring for many kms around the edge of the high Cazorla Plateau, in the distance olive groves stretch as far as the eye could see – Spain’s nicest produce, after the grape maybe… I had been riding for hours, detached from much sign of human life, just seeing the odd shepherds hut now and then. I was looking forward to getting to the town and getting some fresh produce, I had started the shopping in my head and I could see the little hill town way-off in the distance, around two more escarpments. It was two more hours before I reached it and then followed the maze of tiny streets into its picturesque square – the first time that I had seen human life buzzing!
Bananas, Grapes, an Orange some Serrano ham and a small stick of bread, oh and some tomatoes and a couple of cans of Coke! I gave the café a miss and decided to go for a picnic further along the route. I passed some more castles and took some photos, the eagles were back too, not just one or two but a dozen or more, soaring on the thermals – a good time to stop and soak it up and have my butty! I was pondering the remaining part of the day as it was late afternoon, it was great because it was still light enough to ride until 6pm down at this latitude. I had no idea what was on offer for the night, it was the usual problem I always seem to have; of passing a nice stop at not quite the right stopping time. I ideally wanted to turn the corner of the ride and start the north bound leg, it would be a ‘feel good’ factor, particularly as I was wanting to do most of the northbound route in one push. The forecast now showed showers for tomorrow and heavy showers for early the day after. It would be a wet finish to the ride… Back on the saddle I pressed on and rode into the sunset. I chose a longer road option, as it was now night time and I did not fancy doing the next 20km off-road section over the high mountains. The route was not an ITT for me and I was not purist about doing the exact GR 247 route, as I knew I would be back again to the place. The road was a welcome respite after 12hrs of hard graft on a mix of challenging terrains. Spainish roads are superlative, even the ones that lead to nowhere and don’t get used – like the one I was on!
Through the ‘portal and then back north-bound…
I hit the southern most point at 7pm and decided I’d ride north-bound for a couple of more hours, it was a nice night and I was happy to bivvy-out. After 30kms and passing through a small town the road gradually narrowed and became dirt again, it was wash-boards this time, a friend had mentioned the torture that these can inflight on a cyclist (he was doing the Tour Divide in the Rockies), I’d not endured them really before, it was indeed pretty unpleasant and I was glad of only a couple of kms of them – getting shaken to death – I thought there’d have one use – when your super-tired they’d stop you falling asleep! The trail followed a lake, then a river, the sound of the water being amplified by the cliffs and exaggerated yet more by the darkness, we were entering another gorge, I couldn’t see it but I sensed it around me. A lovely boulder soon presented itself with a nice little leafy sleep spot underneath it. I stopped, inspected it and claimed it! I had filled up my water bottles earlier in anticipation of the camp and started the un-pack routine and got some water warmed, I was using hex-blocks, which work okay inside, but outside even the slightest breeze can affect them, some I was sipping a warmish hot-choc, then started cooking a cous-cous supper. Everything was dry and nice, a damp bivvy (aka UK style) can be a bit miserable, at least it can be in winter. I was tired and happy, it had been a cracking day, one of best.
I woke early and sensed I had to get going, but after a coffee! The trail was narrow and bumpy, it climbed, then it rained, it was only 8am, I was expecting the rain at midday, it was heavy rain too, so I sheeted up. The scenery and surrounds took on a look of the Scottish highlands – like I had just been teleported! The rain lasted for an hour and then eased off. The next Refugio of a close packed bunch came up, I detoured to it and stuck my head in, this one had two guest (still asleep), so I continued on. The pines were now like the American giants, it was a lovely natural forest and yetanother different landscape presented itself ahead of me, the variety was an everlasting surprise to me on this journey. Then another vista appeared as the trees yielded to the harsh karst, it was like changing planet this time!
Scottish Highland feel…
I stopped for a coffee and noodles and met a couple of telecom engineers out in their pick-up doing the same and having a smoke, I laughed as they told me that they were working – looked like the best job to me, driving around the mountain dirt roads in a big truck! They looked intrigued at my bike and luggage set-up. They then left in the other direction and I left in mine – still northbound and almost halfway up the leg, another little mental success. The trail was flat and the landscape was far reaching, black clouds surrounded, it would be wet soon for sure! Another 20km and the trail and landscape still looked the same, it really was a weird place, the rain was now heavy and the surface had changed from gravel to dust, only the dust was now a sloppy dirty gravy like substance covering the bike and me. I had done 40kms since the noodles and decided to make a stop at the next hut, just visible in the distance, also I had just summited the platue at 1800m – the highest point of the ride, a long stretch of down lay ahead. I was pleased to get to the hut, the rain was battering it and I had not expected this weather, but it added to the wild feeling of it all and I was happy just to be out of it and getting a brew on. Inside was pretty basic – a bunk and a sink and a hand-cranked water pump to pull water out of what would normally be a dry landscape. I checked the map and it was 20km to the next town, here I hoped to get more food for later on and maybe a meal or some real food. The ‘dirt’ road continued and riding the fat tyres was really sketchy and it meant I could not make the most of the pull of gravity – almost as depressing as having to carry your bike down a hill!
Cazorla Plateau – 1600m
Tapas – pt3…
Eventually I came to the road-head and decided to get in the overflowing stream and try my best to wash me and the bike off – I had to look presentable for lunch! The town was basic but quaint, ancient and still really wet, a small store was open and a similar set of produce was selected (plus a couple of Cuzcampo beers for later!) My cleaning wasn’t to great as I left a trail of brown wetness across the shop floor …oops! The ‘senior’ was okay and was very helpful in directing me to the bar – take make more mess there! I was not expecting anything great, however it looked perfect, big fire, a table a radiator and many pots of food and a floor full of tissues – then I remembered its standard practice in tapas bars to chuck them on the floor. A beer was tempting, but I stuck to coffee and a coke and some tapas. The garlic was however overwhelming, but I ate it all, little did I know that it would repeat on me for 12hrs from both ends! The rain eventually stopped and the sun appeared, as did a rainbow, it was nice to be on a paved road again. I made a route change and decided to miss the section advertised as ‘a big hike-a-bike’, the next bit was a bit of guess work as the line on the map meant nothing on the ground, I hoped for the best.
What came next, again set the hairs on the back of my neck tingling – I rounded a corner on the tiny road and two massive Vultures took to the air immediately in front of me, they even dwarfed the eagles that I had been seeing with their huge 3-4m wing-span! The little road lead down, the terrain was bare and rocky and some more gorges could be seen in the distance slashing the landscape. Where would my route go I wondered? It was exciting to be entering the unknown,. There was a way-marked trail and I checked the map, it was a twisty downhill single track, disappearing over the steep terrain, I was expecting that down hill hike-a-bike that I was so hoping to avoid. But it continued and was rideable, albeit technical, with just a couple of ‘bad-steps’ to negotiate, I descended deep into the gorge and the thin blue of the river could be seen below, the path, edged along the cliff, with a small hand rail to provide moderate protection from a slip, but it was all good and o more dangerous than usual… I stopped at a bench / viewpoint and enjoyed a pastry and watch some deer on the other side traversing a narrow trod above the cliffs, very exciting last hour and again unexpected. The gorge eventually widened and gave in to some flat ground, which had been cultivated, yet more olive trees and some orange trees. A village appeared, but again not a soul in sight, it all looked ‘shut-down’ for winter, I made use of the Fuente and refilled my bottles, probably a couple more hours before the camp and a couple of refugio’s were on offer, one in 20km and one in 34km.
I heard a village bell in the distance, six rings, it was going dark and I was at a junction the nearer hut, was signed and was 4km off-route, I decided to carry on to the second and hoped it would be okay, it was at the roadside and I was not expecting anything special. I should of mentioned that the whole route was broken down into 20 etapes and I was just starting on number 18, each start point had a info board and route profile – 14km 600m down, 300m up, that was fine – about another hour if it stays double-track, pleasingly at this late stage of the day it did and I soon reach the hut at a wide junction of small mountain back-roads, festooned with sign-posts in all directions to all sorts of places. The hut was opposite and looked different to the others, it looked new, or re-furbished and I entered through a lovely door, inside it was clean and spotless (apart from the plaster dust) – a perfect overnighter and time for a beer! Another superb, but hard day, almost as good as the previous day ad rounded off by a nice lash-up of couscous, cheese and Serrano ham and another beer. It felt kind of sad that the next morning would see me finish this wonderful journey, I slept well on that thought – apart from the tapas garlic farts all night waking me up – someone told me that you can’t smell in your sleep…?
The morning came and I afforded myself a little lie-in until 8am, didn’t fancy a dark headtorch start. While in the hut, I did not realise that it was raining so hard until I pocked my head out ,the concrete roof suppressed the sound very well. I had a lovely double coffee and a porridge – it needed using, since I had carried it from the start – just 18km up the trail from here! The pack-up routine takes from about 20 mins to an hour, depending on motivation, it was an hour today! I donned full body cover and edged out, it was almost warm, but really, really wet. A road option existed and was tempting, but I stuck with the trail, as for once I was in no particular rush. It was fun cycling the river-like path, which contoured and descended the final mountain, more great single track riding to me back to the point were it had all started, almost exactly 3 days ago to the minute. Siles eventually came into view far below, and then started a barrage of switch-backs, 20-30 of them, really tight, really good fun, it was a nice finish to this journey and the route was well suited to an a/c direction. The last 2km along the road and back to my little hire car, was like cycling a river – it cleaned the bike!
Final wrap, I’m always thankful to be a able to do these things, either solo or with friends. This ride offered a lot and I would be keen to return and enjoy the journey with friends taking longer, having the social and soaking it all up. Europe has so much on offer, in terms of landscapes, cultures and wildlife, we are lucky to be a part of it…! You rely on your kit for these trips, again the Fatster was well suited and didn’t miss a beat, it does not like the mud though! Next time I would like to take a tent, so that I don’t feel so compelled to use the refugio’s.