Sunday, 13 September 2015

Through a Net, Dimly: Wilderness Trekking in Klosterdalen, Tasermiut Fjord, Greenland

Into the Wilderness

‘I can’t stand the heat,’ came the surprise answer to my question as to why on earth a Spaniard would want to spend the summer up in Greenland. José is a jovial fellow who works for the Tasermiut South Greenland Expeditions tour company through which we have arranged a rib boat transfer up the Tasermiut Fjord to spend some days wilderness trekking in a remote valley named Klosterdalen. He and numerous other Spaniards head north to work for this company during the brief Arctic summer. Each to his own I guess! Living in Ireland, where summer this year has been an even more complete wash-out than usual, hot and sunny Andalusia, where José hails from, seems infinitely more attractive than Greenland to me!

Perched awkwardly on the side of the bright orange rib boat in an immersion suit which feels something akin to a straitjacket, our boat glides out of Nanortalik harbour, the southernmost town in Greenland, which is located on an island of the same name, that rather worryingly comes from the Greenlandic, meaning ‘place where polar bears meet’. It soon picks up speed as it races into the open waters of the freezing Arctic Ocean past icebergs the size of houses, before turning into the Tasermiut Fjord. José assures us with a chuckle that the chance of spotting a polar bear round here is next to zero, but we should be more concerned about smaller life forms, in this case, insects. How prescient his words were to prove…

As we enter the fjord, our eyes are overloaded by utterly face slapping scenery. Lofty mountains streaked with snow lift their granite heads into a speedwell blue sky, shimmering waterfalls tumble headlong down vertical rocky walls sculpted by glaciers that have laid bare their geology, and turquoise rivers spill out of surprisingly verdant valleys. Salt laden wind streams though my hair as the boat smacks its way across the petrol blue water shimmering in the strong Arctic sunlight. I am suddenly overwhelmed by the exhilarating feeling of freedom. We pass numerous icebergs in shades of turquoise and electric blue, close enough to see the shady mass that lurks well below the water line and as we progress deeper into the fjord, the landscape becomes increasingly wild and epic. Rocky pinnacles thrust heavenward every way you look and I spot the iconic chimney shape of Ulamertorsuaq (The Great Cylinder), a 1,858 metre granite monolith first conquered in 1977 and beyond it, Nalumasortoq, a distinctive mountain that looks like an open book.

Some 60 km and almost 2 hours later, we arrive at the seaweed strewn shoreline of the small beach at the entrance of the Klosterdalen, so named as Norse monks founded an Augustinian monastery here in the tenth century. I can’t imagine anyone wishing to live in such a wild and remote place which experiences deep cold and short hours of daylight during the brutally long Arctic winter. We disembark to words of encouragement and a cheery wave goodbye from José. I watch with a feeling of mild euphoria as the rib boat speeds off down the fjord, its roar and foaming wake receding until we are entirely alone in this spell binding wilderness. Dreams are made of moments like this.

We struggle with our heavy backpacks up a steep gravel bank to high ground which will ensure we are safe from any unexpected tsunami caused by the calving of ice from the Sermeq glacier with its two prominent nunataks which we can see at the head of the fjord. Amazingly, this huge wall of ice is over 15 kilometres from us and over twice the height of the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, yet looks not much further than a couple of kilometres, so clear is the Arctic air.

We find a level camping spot which offers breathtaking views down over the fjord, the Sermeq glacier flowing down from the inland ice sheet and a near 360 degree panorama of mountains which includes Ketil, a 2,003 metre granite monolith with a sheer western rock face to challenge that of El Capitan in Yosemite or the Torres del Paine in Patagonia, which have attracted some of the world’s top climbers. Ketil has yet to achieve that level of international fame, as big wall climbing and adventure tourism is still very much in its nascence here. We scour the area for wood which is surprisingly abundant and comprised mainly of the bleached branches of dwarf willow, birch and juniper, and, after erecting our tent, we settle in for the evening round a roaring camp fire. As volleys of sparks ascend into a deepening blue sky, we scoff a packet of dried expedition food and enjoy a wee dram of Tullamore Dew, purchased in Reykjavik’s duty free, to toast our arrival in this awesome wilderness. By degrees, the sun descends lower in the sky casting a deep rose pink glow over the mountains at the head of the Klosterdalen and catches the wispy cloud racing up over the face of Ketil marshmallow pink. Although it is hot and balmy by day, anywhere from 15-20 degrees Celsius, as soon as the sun sets the mercury plummets to near freezing and we beat a hasty retreat to our tent.

The Blair Witch Forest and Battle of the Bog

Deep mauve harebells nod in the cool breeze blowing off the fjord as I slowly sip my coffee. It’s midmorning, the sun is warm on my back and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. I feel mildly lethargic even though I have slept like a log in the pure Arctic air, rocked into the arms of Morpheus by the sound of the Uiluiit Kuua River which drains the valley we are about to traverse. It’s almost midday when we break camp, faithfully following the route marked on the 1:100,000 scale Tasermiut Fjorden-Nanortalik map by Harvey’s Map Services, Scotland.

Epic mistake! This map turns out to be worse than useless, the route, clearly marked to the south of the Uiluiit Kuua River, leading us almost immediately straight into dense, almost impenetrable stands of dwarf birch and willow, most taller than a man. I struggle to remain upright as I clamber over the gnarled and twisted branches of these trees which spread out along the ground like malevolent tentacles. It's like something straight out of the Blair Witch Project! The heat and humidity is stifling in this verdant prison, exacerbated by the fact that I have been forced to don a fleece and a head net to protect myself against being bitten alive by millions of midges and mosquitoes, attracted no doubt by the clouds of carbon dioxide we are exhaling profusely as we strenuously bushwhack our way up through the valley. In the midst of these trees it’s impossible to see exactly where we’re going and the GPS does not give accurate readings. Broken branches suggest that we are not the first to travel this way and this provides some comfort. The trees don’t yield easily as we push our way forward, their spindly upper branches clawing and snatching at us like demonic fingers. We are barely making any headway at all, our passage impeded not just by the trees, but natural obstacles such as small streams that cut deeply into the landscape and huge boulders which we must find a way around. Two hours of this insufferable battle with nature and I feel utterly demoralised and crushed. My wilderness dream begins to evaporate and expletives replace my earlier euphoric utterances.

After what seems like an eternity, we emerge from this hellish jungle bruised and filthy, our clothes holed and frayed, only to encounter a new obstacle. Boot sucking bog. Living in Ireland, we know all about bog, but Klosterdalen bog is like Irish bog on amphetamines! We make painfully slow progress, sinking sometimes shin deep into its deceptively soft mossy surface and before long my boots are soaked through despite my gaiters. Laborious this might be, but the sight of acres upon acres of dense Arctic bog cotton, ragged heads bobbing in the slightest of breezes is a sight to leaven the spirits of even the weariest trekker.

Bog now gives way to ever more squelchy marshland and then a couple of lakes. The map instructs us to take a course round the southern edge of the first lake, the reedy shoreline of which we attempt to follow in order to avoid another dense area of trees. I almost fall into the water with fright as we startle a duck which takes off noisily in a flurry of feathers! However, we soon encounter numerous small streams too wide to jump, which forces us back into the evil arms of the Blair Witch Forest. Desperate for a drink, I carefully loosen and lift the edge of my head net to permit the entry of my bladder nozzle only to find that scores of midges have somehow managed to worm their way in and are now settling on my face and are trapped behind my sunglasses trying to bite round my eyes. In my efforts to stop them feasting on me, I loose my balance and the weight of my pack causes me to topple over and become tangled in some branches. At this point, I would happily have been anywhere than in Klosterdalen!

Martin frees me and we struggle on up the shoreline of the other lake, finally emerging into yet more bog. Tired by now from all the bushwhacking, my pack feeling much heavier than 18 kilos, I trudge along in the mossy morass only to find myself keeling over as I suddenly sink knee deep. Unable to free myself, I flap and flounder like a snared waterfowl until Martin once more comes to my rescue, giving me an almighty tug. The bog releases me with a disgusting sucking sound. I’m now completely soaked to the skin down my left side and we immediately look for a passage out of this boggy terrain, making our way towards the river where we are relieved to find some areas of compacted gravel.

Although faithfully following the route marked on the map, we have made painfully slow progress through the wretched terrain of this valley, moving barely 1 km an hour, and as our intended route takes us across the Uiluiit Kuua River, which we simply don’t fancy in our present state of mind, we’re both ready to call it a day. We traipse a bit further upriver where we find a suitable flattish spot near a large fin-shaped granite boulder above the river bank and set up camp. I retreat into the tent almost immediately to get away from the midges and mosquitoes and to remove my wet clothing and boots. To my horror I discover that I have been bitten right along the line of my knickers on both buttocks, an area to which I had not applied any repellent and that is now itchy, throbbing and inflamed. I take an anti-histamine to prevent the allergic reaction I know will surely worsen if untreated. Mosquitoes can bite right through certain material making it essential to either wear more than one layer or to lather your skin in repellent. I deeply regret that we did not treat our trekking clothes with Permethrin before we came to Greenland and, not realising just how bad the insects would be, the realisation sinks in that we are unlikely to be carrying enough repellent for several days at a stretch in the wilderness…

Martin brings me a cup of hot ginger tea which lifts my spirits a little. A packet of freeze dried macaroni cheese tastes divine and I greedily scoff the lot. Feeling warm and much more comfortable, I now gaze through the netting of the tent and soak in the majesty of our surroundings. We have this lonely, chocolate box pretty valley far from civilisation entirely to ourselves. We are hemmed in by impressive 1,000 metre plus snow streaked mountains which seem to be bearing down on our tiny tent, lost in the enormity of it all. A thrill runs through me. Martin lights a small camp fire, we enjoy another tipple of our whiskey and watch the mesmerising spectacle of the surrounding mountains turning ruby red as the sun goes down. 

River Deep and Mountain High

It’s around 7.30 am when I awake to what sounds like light rain on the tent. My heart sinks. What a misery it will be to trek uphill today clad in bloody GoreTex! However, we unzip the exterior tent flaps to see the mountains draped in veils of mist, no rain. We soon discover that the sound is caused by thousands of insects hitting the canvas and I can see the depressing shadow of scores of mosquitoes that have settled on the inner tent below the flysheet where they are lined up like MiG fighters ready for another day of warfare!  On goes the repellent.

Martin lights our Honey stove to boil water for coffee and a freeze dried meal which we have to consume inside the tent, as the swarms of midges make it impossible to eat or drink outside. I can’t say I’m looking forward to today all that much, as we have to cross the Uiluiit Kuua River before we commence a 600 metre climb to a col above this valley through terrain that looks every bit as brutal as that we covered yesterday.

Weak sunlight is beginning to filter through the churning mist as we break camp. It’s going to be another hot, sunny day. We set off up a rocky scrub covered bank of moraine to avoid the worst of the bog and head towards a spot just over half a kilometre away above the confluence of the Uiluiit Kuua River and a stream coming down from the col. We aren’t accustomed to river crossings in Ireland and I approach this one with a degree of trepidation. Being quite early in the day, the river level is at its lowest and we scan the banks looking for a safe place to cross where the water is not too deep or fast flowing and has not undercut the bank. We settle on a 20 metre section with a gravel bank midway across which Martin tests before I sally forth. Removing my boots and socks and putting on a pair of crocs, I roll up my trouser legs, unbuckle my rucksack and, with my boots hanging round my neck, step tentatively into the chalky turquoise water. The cold instantly hits me like a sledgehammer! We move as quickly as possible diagonally downstream through the water which is knee deep in places. The cold is so intense it seems to be biting into the very marrow of my bones and I am relieved when we safely splosh out onto a sandy bank on the other side.

Re-booted, we now begin the climb uphill towards the col. We soon run into yet more dense patches of dwarf trees that obscure numerous boulders comprising terminal morraine that are very tedious to traverse. As we ascend, we gradually pass out of the trees and keep away from the stream bed where the vegetation is thickest, opting for higher scrubby ground comprised of shin high dwarf willow and birch, bilberry, crowberry, juniper and Labrador tea, which sends out a pleasant aromatic smell when brushed against. We see numerous large brown mushrooms and deep purple berries on the juniper, crowberry and bilberry bushes. The crowberries are watery and relatively tasteless, but the bilberries are incredibly sweet.

Higher up, the scrub becomes ankle high interspersed with grass and we spot many angelica plants with large globular flower heads. Angelica has a strong perfumed scent, reminiscent of anise, musk and orange and all parts of the plant are edible. As we approach the snow line, we notice patches of Arctic thyme, the pale pink flowers enlivening the landscape as well as the odd blue gentian. Small green shoots are beginning to sprout amid black and decaying swathes of last summer’s vegetation only just emerging from beneath patches of dirty snow which is slowly melting. Spring has come late here.

The pestilential swarms of midges have now subsided in the cooler air and we stop by a small stream running beneath a boulder the size of a house to fire up our MSR stove for lunch. Removing my head net is bliss; the breeze instantly cools my sweaty face and I can see the immense beauty of the landscape clearly and not through a net, dimly!

Bellies full, we now head upwards through a boulder field which requires care and attention so as not to fall or to succumb to a lower leg injury. The rocks are angular and sharp to the touch, sporting rough desiccated brown lichen which scuffs our hands and many of the smaller ones wobble dangerously as I put my weight on them. Eventually, the ground begins to level out and we arrive at the col. A small stream of the purest water runs through it and nearby is a grassy level area that serves as a crude bivvy spot with low rocky walls offering shelter from the wind and grandstand views down into Klosterdalen and of the Ketil massif opposite. A more perfect camping spot cannot be imagined!

We lie in our tent resting and gazing at the iconic granite monoliths opposite. This part of Greenland has been dubbed the new Patagonia for good reason. The massive 2003 metre high northwest face of Ketil which boasts a vertical granite wall over 1400 metres (the highest big wall on the globe) has probably only been climbed by a few hundred people since its discovery in the 1970s. 

The shadows begin to lengthen as we make our way the few hundred metres down from the col to a deep blue lake nestled in a barren, rocky amphitheatre surrounded by huge spines of mountains that resemble the armoured plates on the back of a prehistoric beast. The winter this year was particularly hard, betrayed by the fact that the lake is still partially frozen and snow lies feet deep on its western shoreline. A lack of boot prints makes it clear that no one has been through this col yet this summer. We sit on a granite boulder, sipping whiskey and watching the soft white cloud boiling about the mountain tops and sailing across a periwinkle blue sky. A feeling of utter serenity washes over me and it’s only when the intense cold emanating from our makeshift seat begins to make me feel decidedly chilly, that we retreat to our tent to eat dinner and to watch the sunset over Ketil.

Sipping mugs of hot, spicy ginger tea, we watch long shafts of hazy sunlight radiate sideways into the valley from behind the Nuussuup Qaqqaa mountains across the other side of the fjord, its water shining like liquid mercury. All the small streams, the river, wetland and lakes are luridly lit in the glassy light, clearly illuminating how wet and marshy the valley bottom is. By degrees the cloud above Ketil turns smoky grey and apricot and the western sky beyond Nuussuup Qaqqaa screams vermillion, chrome red and saffron yellow where the sun has set. Ketil responds by blushing deep orange and blood red, before fading through chalky mauve to steel grey. The light show over, I fall asleep to the melodic gurgle of the small mountain stream nearby.   

Retreat to Klosterdalen

A near full moon is sinking in a clear blue sky behind Ketil. It’s going to be another scorcher. Today is decision time. We have sufficient food for several more days in the wilderness, but our insect repellent is dangerously low. Moreover, the time we have taken to reach the col means we have fallen behind our estimated schedule. If we decide to pass over the col we are committed to pushing on towards Qinnguadalen, another valley which is still some days away, and my knees don’t feel too good. The weather forecast, obtained daily from Martin’s DeLorme Inreach two way satellite device, which indicates a föhn wind is highly likely within the next 48 hours, clinches it. We decide to descend to Klosterdalen rather than be caught out on the high mountain passes where we would be forced to sit out this strong wind which blows off the ice cap sometimes for around two days, which would mean missing our helicopter flight back to Narsarsuaq. We send a message to José to tell him to collect us at the beach at low tide the day after tomorrow.

I can’t say I regret our decision, because although the landscape is magnificent, we are no longer beguiled by its beauty. The sheer volume of insects coupled with the roughness of the terrain have made life at times unbearable. Martin, who is not allergic to mosquito bites, has a back peppered with literally thousands of livid purple marks! I am at a loss to know what the millions of female insects, who require a blood meal to gestate their eggs, prey upon, for apart from a handful of snow buntings, lapland longspurs, ravens and a solitary duck, we have seen no fauna at all. As we begin our descent from the col mid morning, mercifully in the shade of the mountains, we spot an Arctic hare sitting upright amid some boulders, it’s white fur providing surprisingly good camouflage. Suddenly aware of our presence, it hops off before we can commit it to camera. I guess the hare has not been spared by the midges and mosquitoes either!

Just below the snowline where we pass into brilliant hot sunshine, the midges begin to swarm around our heads and we are forced to don the dreaded head nets. Descending from the col is no easier than the ascent, although we have a better idea of the terrain and what obstacles to avoid. Higher up, we stick to the stream, but as we encounter the boulders and dwarf trees lower down, we keep to the scrub as much as possible which is mostly shin to thigh high. In the clearings, I am surprised at how dry the ground is, with large patches of desiccated lichen that has dried in characteristic hexagonal shapes, and we later learn that this summer in Greenland has been particularly dry. With plenty of time, we decide to cease our battle with the trees and rocks and stop at the hottest time of day in the shade of an enormous boulder where it's pleasantly cool, for a well earned nap.

It’s mid afternoon when we approach the river which to me sounds louder. We discover that the snowmelt from the nearby glaciers has swollen it’s waters which are at least a foot higher in places. The gravel bank is submerged and the freezing water is now well over my knees soaking my trousers. I’m relieved when we scramble up the opposite bank. We decide to use the same camping spot again and, with the tent erected, begin the task of foraging for firewood. Once lit, I sit by it to dry my trousers. Insects are usually repelled by the presence of smoke, but the midges and mosquitoes here don’t seem to be deterred much at all, or maybe it’s just the sheer volume of them? Once the midges subside as the temperature falls, we eat a freeze dried meal of chicken korma with rice. Our roaring camp fire eventually burns down to a few glowing embers just as the sun finally fades from the valley, making it decidedly chilly. We retire to the warmth of our sleeping bags as the first stars appear in a cloudless night sky.

Down by the Riverside

The penetrating musty odour of the bog wafts in through the tent flaps along with scores of mosquitoes as Martin hands me a mug of coffee. I rise to a view of swathes of white mist hovering above the valley which merges with the acres of white bog cotton, so it’s almost impossible to see where the two meet. It’s an uplifting sight. Mid morning we break camp and begin the trek down through the valley towards the beach. The thought of having to bushwhack our way through the horrible trees yet again is playing on my mind. Avoiding the bog as much as possible, we follow the river downstream, walking on the flat gravely banks and channels surrounding it where clumps of brilliant pink flowers grow profusely. Dwarf fireweed (Chamerion latifolium), in Greenlandic niviarsiaq, which means ‘little girl’, is Greenland’s national flower, and provides valuable nutrition for the Inuit, who eat the leaves raw, boiled with fat, or steeped in water for tea. The flowers and fruits are consumed raw as a salad with meals of seal and walrus blubber.

We soon come to the two lakes, and after walking down the shoreline of the upper one, discover a bridge of land between the two. We immediately see that it’s possible to avoid bushwhacking our way through the dense trees above the shoreline of the next lake, the route marked on the Harvey map, by crossing this bridge to walk down the other side which is vegetation free. It is becoming increasingly obvious to us that the map has not been 'ground-truthed' and is woefully inaccurate. The new way we follow is flat and boggy, with rust red patches denoting the presence of bog iron, but it’s pretty firm and we make good speed on this section. If only we knew this on the way up, but the landscape looked as if it was just wetland and thus impassable. The sight of acres of bog cotton quivering and dancing in the breeze, so dense it looks like snow against the clear blue sky, is stunning. I’ve never seen such a display. Arctic bog cotton is thicker than the common cotton grass we see in Ireland and as we move through it, tiny clumps and filaments rise upwards, catching the sunlight like incandescent candle flame, before being carried away in the breeze.

We follow the course of the turquoise river flowing languidly through the flat valley bottom past colourful patches of Arctic thyme, enjoying the ripples etched in its golden sandy banks, until our progress is abruptly impeded by a water channel leading into it which is too deep and wide to cross. As we are trying to find a way to surmount this obstacle, Martin receives a message from José saying that the föhn wind is expected later today and he is leaving Nanortalik now to collect us. We have just a couple of hours to reach the beach! Unable to cross the channel, and now running short of time, we decide the best way forward will be to completely ignore the useless Harvey map and to follow the river down rather than re-enter the Blair Witch Forest! We don’t bother to don our crocs, and in our boots and gaiters, plunge into the water. It doesn't feel all that cold and we meander our way round huge boulders, scramble over rocks and wade through narrow channels where the water comes over our knees. I am really enjoying this challenge, but it might not be advisable when the river is in spate in early summer.

Just under a kilometre later, the terrain begins to drop slightly, the speed of the water increases, the river channel narrows and we are forced to climb to higher ground. With hindsight, it might have been better to have crossed the river to the opposite bank where the vegetation seemed to be less dense and then recrossed it where it flows across the beach into the fjord as it was low tide. Instead, we scale a granite outcrop and then descend and bushwhack our way through a couple of hundred metres of dense dwarf trees in clouds of midges and mosquitoes, before we finally emerge into the scrub land behind the beach.

Arriving above the beach, we see there’s no sign yet of José, but a large yacht is anchored offshore which we ascertain belongs to a Norwegian climbing group who are probably tackling Ketil. Knowing that we will soon leave this place, I remove my head net, glad for the cool breeze blowing up the fjord which banishes the insects and sit quietly for some time just soaking in the atmosphere. A nearby clump of harebells nod joyously in the breeze and tiny waves lap at the seaweed laden shore. I feel slightly remorseful that we do not have another night here as we had expected.

Before long we hear the tell tale hum of a rib boat. The tiny figure of José waves and we make our way down to the beach. On the boat, finally away from the pestilential clouds of insects that have so plagued our trek, my thoughts drift to a real meal, a hot shower and cold beer, not necessarily in that order! The journey back up the fjord facing into the wind however is brutal. Although I’m in an immersion suit, the fact that my feet and legs are still wet from being in the river means I’m chilled to the bone. The wind and salt spray burns my face and my misery only increases when we enter a bank of clammy fog near the top of the fjord. Nanortalik can’t emerge through the gloom quickly enough!

A couple of hours later, belly full, showered, clad in clean, dry clothes and clutching a cold beer, I muse over the previous days’ events. Am I glad we did this trek? Yes. Definitely. For long after the insect bites subside; long after the bruises, sustained by bushwhacking through the vilest vegetation imaginable and which make my body look like a Dalmatian dog, have faded, the views of endless expanses of shimmering white bog cotton, ice encrusted lakes, rushing turquoise rivers and spiky snow streaked mountains turning red in the settling sun, will remain indelibly etched in my memory.

Watch the video of our trek at:

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The World's Scariest Hike? El Caminito del Rey, Andalucía, Spain

Bliss is an evening in the limestone hills of Andalucía, when the heat of the day has ebbed and the landscape is bathed in the rich tones of the sinking sun. It’s mid May and I’m at a quiet finca in El Chorro northwest of Málaga, sitting under a carob tree sipping a bottle of chilled Giatenejo, a divine, locally brewed craft ale, fortuitously discovered at a nearby restaurant. I let my thoughts drift back to the fabulous walk we did earlier as I listen to the incessant chit chat of swifts and sparrows and watch a large group of Griffin vultures slowly circling on thermals above some nearby cliffs.  

This afternoon, we tackled what has been described as the scariest walk in the world: El Caminito del Rey: The King’s Pathway. This runs for around three kilometres some 100 metres above the Guadalhorce River in the Desfiladero del los Gaitanes Gorge near the village of El Chorro. Finished in 1906, the Caminito was constructed to service a channel and numerous sluice gates connected to the Salto de Chorro hydroelectric plant. Its royal association came when El Chorro Dam was inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII who walked it in 1921. Over the years, the Caminito fell into a state of disrepair, sections of the concrete walkway had fallen away leaving just the iron girders hanging in mid air high above the deep, steep sided gorge. This didn’t deter those looking for adventure, in fact the walkway attracted thrill seekers, adrenalin junkies and via ferratists, many of whom, ill equipped and inexperienced, risked life and limb to cross from one end of the gorge to the other. Inevitably, there were fatalities and the walkway acquired a reputation as the world’s scariest hike. In 2000, the local authority closed it to the public and imposed a maximum fine of 6,000 euro on anyone caught tackling it. Not that this acted as much of a deterrent; people still undertook the route clandestinely and a German climber fell to his death as recently as 2010.

However, the regional government of Andalusia and the local government of Málaga, saw the tourism potential of the route and agreed to share the costs of a €9 million restoration project (including car parking and a museum). Work on the installation of a new boardwalk, mostly constructed right above the crumbling old concrete walkway, at a cost of  €2.7 million, commenced in March 2014. A year later, the first tourists traversed the new route. Free tickets for the first six months have been advertised online as the local authorities seek to test their new tourist attraction and, although the Caminito is now booked solid until late September, we are among those lucky enough to obtain a couple of those free tickets.

So, after an el cheapo flight with Ryanair from Dublin to Málaga, we find ourselves entering a small office, the El Chorro information point, at the southern end of the route which is only a short drive from our finca. We have left our hire car parked by the Garganta hotel and restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious lunch. From this restaurant, sited just opposite the train station on the Málaga to Córdoba line, it's a mere ten minute stroll downhill to the information point. Here we produce our online ticket confirmations for our 1.30 pm slot (the only tickets we could get) and receive a hard hat and a hair net which must be worn at all times. Along with over three dozen other people, all Spaniards of various ages bar a group of middle aged Dutchmen and a small number of other English speaking people, we are given an introductory and safety talk by one of the rangers in Spanish, which describes the route that totals approximately 7.7 km, divided into 4.8 km long access ways and 2.9 km long boardwalks.

Some of the Dutch and English look bewildered, trying to understand the Spanish that pours typewriter-like at enormous speed from the ranger’s mouth. I admit to finding her hard to follow! When the route opens properly in the future, and, as it will be aimed at day trippers from Málaga and the Costa del Sol, beloved of sun worshippers and expats from Britain and Ireland, this pep talk should perhaps be delivered also in English. We managed to get the gist that a reasonable level of fitness is required and we should allow around 4.5-5 hours to complete the walk. A maximum of 50 people per half hour are admitted at either end of the gorge, no children under eight years of age or pet dogs are allowed on the route, no tripods are permitted and only small packs may be carried. As this is a linear route, an hourly bus service costing a few euro, has been laid on at either end to take you back to where you started.

Spain's mini 'Grand Canyon'

On an unseasonably hot spring day, we set off along a track past the milky green water of the Tajo de la Encantada Reservoir fringed with candy pink oleander flowers and shaded by pine trees whose resin scents the air. The dusty path soon becomes more exposed and an enormous arched railway bridge towers above us. We soon realise that we have chosen to walk the route the hardest way, because from the southern, El Chorro, entrance, a gradual incline is encountered all the way to Ardales at the northern end. As we ascend, the sheer cliffs at the end of the reservoir and the barely visible cleft marking the entrance to the gorge, reminiscent of the Siq that permits entry into the ancient Nabataean stronghold of Petra, loom into view and I can only wonder at what might lie hidden upstream. My eye is suddenly caught by the ant like figures of people moving steadily along a section of the new pathway clinging to the sheer cliff-face towards the entrance to the gorge. Just inside its narrow entrance, I spy what appears to be a bridge arching high above the river. It’s a pretty thrilling sight.

The path is lined with vivid patches of spring flowers that thrive in calcareous soil, including blood red poppies and oxeye daises. After a steepish climb up some steps we arrive at a checkpoint sited on a small terrace close to a commemorative plaque marking the reopening of the route, where a cheery ranger examines our tickets and crosses our names off a computer print out. We now descend down a flight of steps passing above a green metal bridge carrying the railway line to Córdoba that will accompany us up the gorge. As we cross over the railway line, the boardwalk is encased in a chain-link cage to protect the track beneath which feels slightly surreal. If this place looks somewhat familiar, it should, as the heart-stopping escape scenes at the end of the 1965 World War Two film, Von Ryan’s Express, starring Frank Sinatra, were filmed on this stretch of the Caminito and in the railway tunnel right below.

We head down a series of narrow, knee jerking steps onto the flat section of boardwalk clinging to the sheer cliff face that we had admired from afar earlier. Gripping the metal handrail, I peer over the edge where, some 100 metres below us, the turquoise water of the reservoir slaps up against the base of the cliffs. I can feel the heat of the afternoon being radiated off the limestone walls and beads of sweat stand proud of my brow. It’s suffocatingly hot as the heat is being trapped by the presence of Saharan dust in the atmosphere; I would not recommend the slots at midday/early afternoon if you cannot tolerate the heat of a Spanish summer. Indeed, we tried to obtain morning tickets when the temperature would have been pleasant, but these had unsurprisingly already been snapped up.

Martin is relieved as we climb another set of steps into a cooling breeze as we begin to round the cliff face towards the narrow entrance to the gorge. Passing below the atmospheric remnants of rusting electricity poles with their ceramic insulators that formerly carried power up the gorge to the various hydroelectric facilities, we now catch our first close up glimpse of the dilapidated pins and rusty brackets that held the old pathway into place and the remains of the via ferrata equipment formerly used by climbers to access the route. The gentle breeze soon becomes something of a gale as the wind tears down through the gorge that acts as a kind of wind funnel. We pause to peer over the chain link safety fence at the vertiginous view of the narrow cleft marking the entrance to the gorge, where the turquoise water, agitated by the wind, swirls and snarls way below us. Ahead, we can see the old bridge, the Balconcillo de los Gaitanes, taking the original walkway above the concrete aqueduct spanning the gorge and a 30 metre long newly installed galvanised steel suspension bridge now used to cross it.

Officially named the Puente Ignacio Mena, after a local councillor, the new bridge holds ten people at a time and sways and oscillates as I begin to walk onto it. Flashes of the turquoise Guadalhorce River far below appear through the grid decking beneath my feet and, as I approach the centre of the bridge, it really begins to wobble, causing me to grip the metal handrails tightly. Anyone who suffers from vertigo mightn’t be too happy crossing this! Just past the suspension bridge are fine views of the new Caminito built neatly about a metre above the old walkway on the left. But equally impressive is the railway line constructed between 1860 and 1866, disappearing from one tunnel into another on the right, supported on a large arched stone viaduct. The tenacity and ingenuity of Victorian engineers who seemed unwilling to be deterred or intimidated by even the most extreme topography, such as that encountered by constructing this railway through this gorge, never ceases to amaze me.

A more sobering sight is the memorial plaque to three young climbers who fell to their deaths here in August 2000 when the via ferrata cable they had been using broke. The cable, hanging loosely from the rock, has been left in place as a permanent reminder of this tragedy. Indeed, as we progress along the new pathway, we get views of the old Caminito down through the wooden slats and also ahead of us, as the route weaves its way around the rock face, hugging the contours of the gorge. It seems something of a miracle that there weren’t more deaths, as huge chunks of the concrete have fallen away from the old path leaving gaping holes in it; in places it has been reduced to mere iron girders hanging precariously over 100 metres above the river. Some of these look rotten as pears and many pieces have all but rusted away.

Mercifully, we have now entered the shade of the gorge and the relief from the burning sun is welcome. We marvel at the variety of ferns and clumps of pretty spring flowers growing out of the many crevices in the limestone. The route now doubles back on itself as it enters a side gorge carved by the Falla Finca, a tributary of the Guadalhorce River. Here the old pathway can be clearly seen, including a four metre long concrete bridge ‘short cut’ across this small gorge that has long lost its safety rail and toe boards and seems to be suspended in mid air. We both agree that leaving the old pathway in situ to be quietly reclaimed by the elements only adds to the incredible atmosphere of the place.

As we leave Falla Chica, we stop to admire the commanding view of the Balconcillo de los Gaitanes and the aqueduct from which a cascade of water is being blown away in the wind, its myriad tiny droplets catching the sunlight like a shower of diamonds. Soon after we encounter a small, glass-floored cantilevered viewing platform which is strategically placed to provide perhaps the best and most memorable views back down the gorge, showcasing the sheer sided spectacular cliffs and ahead, the verdant Valle del Hoyo we have yet to traverse. Hemmed in by the high limestone crags of the Sierra de Huma, the serene turquoise coils of the Guadalhorce River flow through it. In the far distance we can see the continuation of the Gaitanes Gorge through which we must pass to reach Ardales. We cannot resist the urge to gingerly step out onto the glass platform for the obligatory photo book snap, braving the stomach churning feeling experienced by seeming to hang, frozen in mid air!

The 'Lost World'

The boardwalk now ends and we traverse a series of wooden stairs that delivers us into one of the concrete channels that brought the water down the Valle del Hoyo from the higher Gaitanejo reservoir. The water ran through a series of such channels and tunnels towards the Balconcillo de los Gaitanes bridge before descending in a vertical tunnel where it gained sufficient speed and energy to drive turbines at the bottom that generated the electricity to power Málaga. Indeed, we pass by one of the cast iron wheels that operated a sluice gate used to regulate the water flow and peer up one of the dark tunnels before following an old water channel up the valley. This is shaded by pine trees fringed by clumps of spiny leaves sporting pale mauve flower spikes of Acanthus and scrubby bushes of Anthyllis cytisoide bearing lemon yellow flowers.

We pass by several other couples coming the other way who greet us warmly and a large group of Spaniards who set off with us earlier but who are now availing of a long bench amid some pine trees to enjoy a picnic. Permitting just 50 people to enter the gorge at each end every half an hour ensures that the Caminito never feels cluttered, allowing each visitor a leisurely, pleasant experience.

The Valle del Hoyo with its towering limestone crags has something of the ‘lost world’ about it; all that is missing is the pterodactyls! I sit awhile to savour the smell of this hot land: the odour of parched earth, the heady fragrance of the pine trees and the sweet, resinous scent emitted by the mastic trees that grow everywhere. This 'smellscape', an olfactory memory, is permanently hard wired into the brain of anyone who, like me, has ever lived in the Mediterranean and yearns to return. Paper dry grasses interspersed with poppies nod and whisper in the breeze and I watch, fascinated, as a number of ants busy themselves collecting fragments of vegetation for their colony, one heroically struggling with a grass seed over three times its size. Below my rocky vantage point, stands of Aleppo pine sweep down to the river which has formed large, milky turquoise pools and on a hot day such as this, I dream of plunging into one of these. Away in the hazy distance, a crease in the cliffs marks the spot where the gorge we have just traversed ends, with part of the Caminito just visible. I wonder what it would be like to live in this valley, my imagination fired by the sight of some abandoned orange groves and allotments surrounding the derelict farmstead, Cortijo la Hoya.

After some 3 km, a flight of steps leads to another boardwalk that takes us round a huge rock buttress to the sheer-sided and narrow continuation of the Gaitenejo Gorge. I am exhilarated by the thought of re-entering the gorge and we both regret that we had not discovered this place 15 years or so ago, when it was untamed and less well known. The boardwalk twists and undulates its way through the narrow gorge high above the river which has carved and fashioned fantastical shapes in the limestone over eons of rushing through this narrow chasm. We are delighted by the sight of Griffon vultures circling on thermals high above the cliffs, eyeing no doubt, the many collared doves that inhabit the rocky crevices of the gorge. With their huge wings silhouetted against the blue sky, it's not hard to imagine that this really is a 'lost world' and that these vultures are in fact pterodactyls from the Cretaceous period! The vegetation is lush, comprised of oleander, tamarisk and European marram grass.

We soon spot a small bridge, the Puenta del Rey, spanning the river just before a rock overhang where the canal widened to form a mini reservoir to control the water flow, and an old overflow drain discharged into the river. The crumbling stone steps leading down to the river have survived, but the Casa de Guardia de Canal, built below the overhang where the workers who controlled the various sluice gates lived, was inexplicably demolished in 2014, its site now marked by a wooden bench surrounded by blood red poppies and electric mauve thistles.

Further along, just before the boardwalk climbs steeply, clinging seemingly precariously to the towering, sheer cliff face, the route splits into two: the boardwalk follows an old canal and descends into a short tunnel, the other bypasses this by means of a flight of original concrete steps that descend towards the river, only to ascend again to join the boardwalk. The final stretch of the gorge is very narrow and we greatly enjoy passing along the shady boardwalk staring down at the whirling pools and rushing turquoise water far below fig and tamarisk trees sprouting from the craggy cliffs.

Tunnel Vision

As we pass out of the gorge, we spot a series of small waterfalls and the remains of what looks like the Caminito continuing along the cliffs across the other side of the river. With one final, wistful look back towards the exit of the gorge, we pass through the control point and soon spot the Gaitanejo Dam with its towers at each end. After a few minutes we reach a portable cabin which serves as the Ardales Information point where we return our safety helmets. The dusty pathway now undulates through a pine forest above the Gaitanejo Dam before entering a large tunnel where the gusting wind lifts huge columns of dust from the road which follow us through to the other side. 

After walking for several minutes in the sapping heat of late afternoon, we find the route confusing as there is a choice of two pathways: one signposting another smaller tunnel and the other marking a route that climbs steeply though the pine forest. Neither clearly signs the way to Ardales where we must catch a bus back to El Chorro. We decide to take the tunnel. With eyes used to bright sunshine, it's pitch black and its floor frightfully uneven; we fumble and stagger our way through a couple of hundred metres of darkness and I'm relieved to see the pinpoint of light growing ever larger at its end. A head torch would have been useful! But the tunnel turns out to be a good choice as it brings us to a main road leading downhill to the bus stop opposite a restaurant named El Kiosko near the village of Ardales. However, that we have eventually arrived at the bus stop is more luck than judgement, for there is no signpost at the tunnel exit either to direct walkers to the village and there certainly need to be improvements made to the signage to avoid people getting lost after leaving the gorge. The bus, which leaves every hour and costing two euro each is almost ready to depart, so we eschew a cold beer at El Kiosko, preferring to wait until we can savour a bottle of the aptly named Giatenejo craft beer once we return to our finca.

Billed as one of the top new travel experiences by Lonely Planet for 2015 will do much to ensure the popularity of El Caminito del Rey, but rock climbers and via ferratists continue to lament the loss of one of their most risqué adventure playgrounds. Some locals we spoke to are appalled at its new ‘Disneyesque’ features and recoil at the thought of busloads of tourists from cruise ships docked at Málaga pouring through there every hour. They doubt that there will be much of a positive knock on effect for their businesses from such day trippers. Although it would have been great to have discovered this place long before it became a tourist honey pot, overall, we formed a favourable impression of the Caminito and marvelled at the engineering excellence of yesteryear that has been respected by the installation of the new boardwalk that blends almost seamlessly with the old pathway. Although it is no longer the world's scariest hike, the Caminito isn't a walk in the park by any means, especially in the unforgiving Spanish sun. We agree that those looking for a novel hike offering magnificent scenery and a bit of excitement in this part of southern Spain will doubtless find this 8 km route just the ticket. That is, if they are able to get hold of one!

Watch the video of our trek along the Caminito de Rey at: