Monday, October 31, 2005

Safari to Cabañeros

Cabañeros is the newest National Park in Spain. A hunting private property, it was acquired by the Defence department to be used as a shooting range for the Air Force. Environmentalists (in Spain called “ecologists”) went ballistic and the public uproar forced the government to declare the area protected land first and later, as the natural riches became more evident, was declared National Park some ten years ago.

Cabañeros took its name from the “cabanas”, the thatched dwellings its inhabitants back a couple of hundred years ago used. Part of the Montes de Toledo mountain range, is in the Ciudad Real province, in Central Spain and is highly representative of the central Spanish high plain, the “Meseta”.

To get there I drove all the way from Catalonia through the expressway to Valencia and Madrid but, on reaching Alarcón, some 100 miles before the nation’s capital, I took a country road, actually an excellent two lane “Redia” road practically deserted, on through Los Yebenes, a very beautiful wide valley of “dehesa” land, as the large tracts of land in the Southern half of Spain are called: grazing expanses interspersed with Spanish oaks “encinas”. In some fenced areas you could see cattle and also “toros bravos”, the Spanish semi-wild bulls used in the “corridas”, the bullfights, quietly grazing away.

It was sundown when I reached Retuerto del Bullaque, a small village North of Cabañeros and one of the gates to the park. I settled down in a “hostal”, had a light supper (soup and fried eggs) and went to bed early, being a Saturday, just to catch a few blinks at the Barça football game on the TV.

Up at six, I hit the road at 6.30 luckily to stumble with one of the park rangers 4 wheel drive passing through. I followed it for a few miles to what I was thinking was going to be the park’s gate. Suddenly it turned left without signalling and entered a short dirt track to stop at a chain fence. I followed suit and as the guy was unlocking the chain I asked him if that was the park’s entry.

Well it was and it wasn’t. As I was about to find out, the visits to the park are limited to 96 persons a day, and the visits are only allowed with a guide and by previous reservation. This peculiar number was actually 100: 96 visitors and 4 guides, half in the morning and half in the afternoon, in four 4WD vehicles each through one of the park entries.

Fortunately they had room for me, so I left my car and hopped in the 4WD. This was a large semi-truck contraption, a German made Mercedes Unimog, with large windows, that held ten passengers and a driver. It took off immediately and drove haltingly through a narrow and bumpy dirt track. Still pitch dark, the vehicle lights showed ghostly threads of fog between the trees.

The ranger guide, a rather talkative fellow, went on explaining the trees and bushes, and the aromas of the bushes and bush flowers: rosemary, “jara” (“rockrose”), honeysuckle, lavender, and so on.

Some half hour later the vehicle stopped and turned the lights off in the middle of what look like a rather ample expanse. We were in “La Raña” and we were going to participate in one special event: the “berrea” of the deer. The annual bellowing contest between male deer in the range.

As the first lights began to clear the night’s shadows and one could hardly distinguish dark dots that were not bushes or rocks but living things, then and there began the concert of “berridos”, bellowing away the deer’s love song. Fantastic!

Roe deer, fallow deer by the dozens. And then as the daylight allowed, you could see families of wild boar, a couple of foxes and a whole bunch of different birds, the black vulture with its 10 ft. wingspan the most spectacular.

Later on we went to a cliff to get to see imperial eagles, one of the few remaining families in Southern Europe.

Well, that was some safari!.

In the afternoon I took a walk through the “El boquerón del Estena”, a narrow canyon along the Estena river on the promise I could see some otters swimming but by midday wild animals tend to keep themselves out of sight. A nice walk though.

The next day I went to the Cuenca mountains to visit “La ciudad encantada”, that very popular and peculiar wind eroded landscape and crossed the “Montes Universales” to visit the Cuervo river source, also a spectacular neck of the woods, on to Albarracín and, some 400 km later, back home. But that’ll be some other day story.

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