Dodging showers in Spain.

Dodging showers in Spain. A joint collaboration with Ros Woodham in southern Spain, reproduced by courtesy of Land Rover World.

Where Eagles Dare.

A joint venture by Ros Woodham and Toby Savage. (Ros's words are in italics, mine in plain text)

Finding room in my suitcase for a kinetic recovery rope and some clutch parts was no chore, safe in the knowledge that fellow LRW contributor, Ros Woodham, had organised a days off roading in the mountains just inland from Alicante, where I was destined to spent a family holiday. Ros lives in Spain, just up the road from where we were staying and had arranged with two other ex pats, Andy Ellis and Steve Blakemore, to head off into the abundant tracks that criss cross the mountains just inland from the coast. The four of us met up in Tárbena, a pretty mountain village where the locals were suffering a communal hangover following a bull running fiesta the previous night. Our prompt 9.00 am start soon deteriorated to a more Mediterranean 10.30, as we downed a few much needed coffees in a shady bar, served with great agility by a old chap with just one hand. The other one, presumably lost in a close encounter with a bull in a previous decade. Simmering in the heat outside were Steve and Andy’s Santana Land Rovers. Steve’s is a world weary 109. Not a straight panel on it and coaxed into life only that morning after some months resting. Andy’s is a smarter 88 inch, but still wearing a few battle scars.

The Santanas are at home in this environment. These Spanish trucks are workhorses, every panel seemingly having been knocked and dented, then beaten out again; they are crumpled but roughly retain their original form, rather like an un-ironed shirt. The cloudless blue sky represents a normal summer’s day here, and disturbed dust, which has settled onto the battered panels of the trucks, is baked into the paintwork by the potency of the sun.

Shoving two energetic puppies in the back I climbed in with Steve and we set off. For half an hour we climbed on tarmac roads through orange groves laden with succulent fruit. We turned off at Ponte de Algar onto the first of many tracks up into the Bernia mountains. These tracks once served the remote hill top farms, long since abandoned as their owners sought more reliable income down on the coast . Once perfect for a horse and cart they now made exciting driving in the Santanas.

The ’109 ahead of us surges forward, catching Toby mid-sentence and placing him firmly back into the passenger seat, camera still glued to his eye. Apparently, this is the life, he exclaims as Steve bounces the Santana down the loose rubble of the slope and, without pausing for breath, bounces it straight up the other side with equal fluency and an alarming amount of confidence. Steve leans into the hairpins, climbing out from the gorge in desperate search of some shade among the fig trees and Spanish Oak. He’s not the only one in need of respite from the burning rays and has to sporadically reach under his feet to remove a puppy seeking sanctuary in the footwell, replacing it in the open loadbed behind.

The sound of crickets filled the air and the heady scent of wild herbs aroused the nostrils as we bounced and clawed our way up various tracks. We got up to about 10,000 feet to a spot with commanding views across the mountains and certain death drops.

Andy allows me to take the wheel of the ’88 and I relax into the comfort of the recently fitted Nissan bucket seats. With the roof removed for the summer, the drive is quieter, springier and more enjoyable than I remember from driving it last winter and we set off in hot pursuit of the ’109 disappearing from our sight through its own dust cloud. Andy soaks his t-shirt with bottled water and stretches it over the grateful puppy in his lap. The grin on his face never once relaxes, not even as we scale perilously close to the edge of a sheer drop to the off-side of the truck on a track that scrapes an edge around a rocky cliff. We both lean in towards the centre of the cab to avoid being whipped by the burly herbage that we have to we push through. This overgrown track clearly hasn’t been driven by anyone else this summer and we wince as the prickly juniper flicks its devilish spikes into our laps which then creep dangerously away from our grasp as we frantically try to remove them. As we emerge, Steve and Toby have already disembark and are replenishing their liquids. Once again, ‘this is the life’ for Toby, sipping cool mountain water straight from the spring. I think he’s enjoying a day away from the concrete paradise of Alicante.

We had climbed up one side of a mountain range and now it was time to head down the other side for lunch. We were in southern Spain and the local fare had to be sampled. Kicking off with a cool beer each on a shady terrace we examined the menu whilst gazing out over the valley and mountain we had just driven. We dined on a mixture of robust local soups, salads and cold meat, before diving into the main courses of wild boar, deer, ostrich and lamb, washed down with moderate quantities of chilled local wine. After more coffee and a decent rest it was time to head off again with the plan of doing a huge figure of eight, with the cross in the middle being our lunch break. With the temperature nudging 40 degrees the two puppies were exhausted and dozed in the back oblivious to the discomfort of their master bouncing over boulders.

Steve told me that the weather can be completely different on the north side of the Bernia mountains. Our morning’s weather had been influenced by the coast. (Benidorm is just 20 kms, yet a million miles away!). The afternoon’s weather would be more unpredictable.

But soon, as we swap vehicles, the weather changes. Cool wind clears away the heat and humidity of the morning and I huddle into the covered comfort of the ’109’s cab, smugly grinning to myself as I look behind to see Toby climbing into the open top ’88 beneath a backdrop of ominous black clouds. Steve isn’t surprised by the sudden change in the weather. He grins and makes an equally smug gesture upwards towards the roof. The square of sponge foam acting as the passenger seat sinks so low I can barely see over the dash, making the next section of track a surprise of bumps and jolts as the wheels find ruts and rocks. ‘I wonder when I’ll need four-wheel-drive’ Steve boasts, clearly impressed at the performance of this vehicle even after months of rest.

By 4.00 pm there was a new wind rustling the leaves and the heat had faded. A build up of black clouds was gathering on the horizon and up there you felt you could reach out and touch them. On our second 10,000 feet mountain top we could hear thunder rolling in from the north. Naturally, none of us had a stitch of protective clothing and were faced with a soaking.

Our descent was perhaps a little quicker than would be advised, but as we pulled back onto tarmac the end was in sight and the first huge drops of rain began to fall.

The darkness closes in around us and the mountains assume an enigmatic quality. The weather chases us out of the hills and we emerge from the hidden trails, back onto tarmac, snaking downwards through tight hairpins surrounded by medlar plantations. Steve is eager to take us down to the river where he splashes straight into the water and pushes through the reeds, disturbing a monumental concentration of midges and flies. These mountain folk must be more resilient than us coastal types, as this doesn’t deter Andy who hangs back only momentarily before diving in after the ’109. The ’88 drops away on one side to an angle that partially submerges a headlight, filling it with murky water and sludge. Finally, the trucks lose to the Triffids and both are forced to reverse out of the swamp, but drag with them a few prisoners trapped in the bumpers.

We sheltered in Steve’s house, a mountain top hideaway anyone would give their right arm for, as the storm thrashed down outside. Little fires appeared where the lightning struck the parched ground and then fizzled out in the deluge of rain. 20 minutes later it was all over and the sun came out again. We left Steve there to contemplate his view and piled into Andy’s 88 inch for the run back to Tabuna and the relative luxury of my hire car. It had been a great day and what was so noticeable was that we saw no one despite being a stones throw from the busiest tourist area in Europe. While they were all down there slapping on the factor 30, we were flying with the Eagles, 10,000 feet up and had a truly great Land Rover experience.When we finally come to rest, I remove the last remaining prickle from my hair and Andy, almost daring me to attempt it, promises that the off-roading up here is even better after the rain has fallen. I think I dare.

 

Toby Savage/Ros Woodham 2007