After months of hard work fundraising and long walks in training for the Donkey Sanctuary Spanish trek, the day finally arrived for myself, Laura Beer and Pam Smiley to meet at Gatwick. We quickly dropped off our small but surprisingly heavy bags to free us up to buy a few last minute essentials and some strong coffee, it having been an early start. In no time at all we were in Malaga airport to meet up with our guides for the week, Pete and Chantal.
After about 40 minutes of driving west along the coast to Estapona, we turned inland and started climbing up into increasingly steep and wooded hills. Pete and Chantal explained that there were signs of damage from the previous week’s unusually high winds, which had brought down a number of trees in the area. We chatted away, enjoying the views and their knowledge of the area.
After the bustle and general business of the coast we very quickly found ourselves winding along picturesque switchback roads, clothed in pines and looking surprisingly green for southern Spain at the end of summer. White villages dotted the hillsides almost like late pockets of snow in the sunshine.
Once in the picturesque hillside village of Jubrique we were shown to our rooms, clean and basic but very comfortable, with spectacular views across the valley. For me the major culture shock was the total lack of a key to our apartment. This felt like asking for trouble, but we were assured that everyone in the village looks out for everyone else and it quickly became evident that our arrival was well known throughout the village and I suspect probably the whole valley.
We quickly unpacked and settled into our rooms with much hilarity at Pam’s expense as she looked for an item that was in her hand all the time! The ice was broken and we settled into a comfortable supportive friendship that served us well overcoming our fears and frailties on the trek which I hope will continue for a long time after.
After breakfast of home grown tomatoes, bread and olive oil in the local café, we were off on the first day’s trek. Climbing out of Jubrique on a path that appeared to be one of many going to the little allotments, we were glad that Pete knew the way as although fairly well marked it would have been quite easy to get lost. This led us on to wider tracks, where there was sufficient shade offered by the Monterey and Spanish pines, cork oaks, nut and olive trees to relieve the heat of a warm day.
With Pete’s extensive knowledge of the area, flora, fauna and geology, the walk was both beautiful and informative. Stopping for an extensive picnic provided by Chantal, we enjoyed what we could sat in the shade by a track. Descending we made our way through abandoned hamlets, while Pete explained the history of the area.
Unfortunately where I live on the edge of the Chilterns there is a limited amount of hill walking available and although as part of my training I had spent time walking up and down the steepest slopes I could find, after about 2 hours of continuous descent my knee went ‘pop’ and thus my role as slowest, but youngest member of our little group was established as I hobbled the rest of the way into Jubrique!
After a shower we were pleasantly surprised to find that we felt quite refreshed and found the energy to have a wander around the village before dinner. Although hardly busy there were a few people about passing the time of day and this gave the village a gentle buzz. In our wanderings we came across village dogs allowed to roam, cats, some of whom had clearly got cat flu and partridges kept in tiny cadges as calling birds to attract wild birds to be shot. For me this was part of the culture difference and hence the charm but some of our party found the different treatment of animals quite distressing. For me the main thing was the total peace and tranquillity of an area that has changed little over the last 50 years or so.
After breakfast we joined Chantal to begin a hot and humid descent into the bottom of the valley, followed by a steep and demanding climb on narrow tracks through chestnut and cork oaks up the other side. We were very thankful for the chance to visit a disused mill and to look around a small holding in order to get our breath back. Further up the hill we met a villager who had been harvesting their truly enormous sweet chestnuts and had loaded them on to his mule for transportation back to his van. He was happy to pose for photos and chat to Chantal. After what seemed like an eternity, although I’m assured that it was only 1500 feet, we finally reached the top. While we took a breather Chantal pointed out a carnivorous plant, I believe a type of sundew, and made arrangements for our lunch to be a little delayed as the climb had taken us longer than expected.
Another half hour of descent saw us in Genalguacil for a quick tour of the village’s famous sculptures and a paella lunch.
By the end of lunch the humidity had turned to a heavy shower, making the steep slopes rather slippery and since my knee was not coping well with downhill sections, I went on in the car with Pete to the hotel in Benarraba, in the hope that I would then be able to complete the next day’s walk, while the others continued in what they described as rainforest conditions.
After a comfortable night we woke to a glorious morning and had little time to enjoy the magnificent views before we set off towards Algatocin.
Once more walking through chestnut and oak woods we were stunned by the deep ochre colour of the newly stripped cork oaks and were treated once again to some magnificent views. But the totally unplanned highlight was being invited into a small holding. The elderly couple were sitting in the shade having harvested their olives that morning and invited us to join them for beer or their own spring water. They were very hospitable and showed us their little cottage, simple but equipped with all they would need to stay for a few days and their magnificent crops drying in the barn for use later in the year. Besides the olives that they were preparing to preserve, they had tomatoes and grapes drying, walnuts, almonds and chestnuts.
After a refreshing stop we continued on to Benalauria, then Gambilla, pausing for a sit in the village square. However I was struggling to keep up on down hill sections due to my knee, so it was agreed that instead of walking to Jubrique, which involved quite a prolonged descent we would alter our route to end at the castle in Benadalid, which having been a Roman then Moorish stronghold, was now the town cemetery. Chantal met us and drove us back to Jubrique.
Leaving our comfortable digs for the last time was difficult as we found we could not fit all our belongings into our bags, even though there had been no real opportunities for shopping!
Driving out of the Genal the scenery quite rapidly became more arid and flatter. After about an hour we arrived at Ronda, a bustling tourist town which was quite a shock after the tranquillity of the Genal. Dropping us off at the café where we were to meet for lunch, we were provided with a written guided tour, but opted to wander down the main shopping street, stopping for coffee, before making it to the main tourist attractions where we enjoyed a saunter around the gardens and took a few tourist pictures of the famous gorge, before wandering back to the café for a fabulous lunch of assorted tapas.
Finally we were off to see the donkeys at El Refugio del Burrito. Being the end of summer there is not a lot of grazing in evidence but we soon learnt that it is actually good for the donkeys as it stops them suffering so much with laminitis and together with standing in dry sand rather than wet mud they have much happier and healthier hooves.
Rafael Benjumea kindly gave us a guided tour of the Sanctuary introducing us to most of the 30 odd resident donkeys and explaining that they also now have another farm housing around 80 donkeys in another part of Spain. Not a bad collection, considering that they have only been running for 5 years!
Some of the animals have obviously been injured but all look contented and well cared for. We then help one of the grooms, Fatima, to brush the donkeys and learn that they do not need their feet picked out as often as those at the Sanctuary in Devon, since they have a more ‘natural’ environment that is less hard on their feet.
Sadly it is then time to buy a few souvenirs and say our goodbyes. We return to the hotel for one last night before an hour’s drive to Malaga and our flight home has come around all too soon.