Cabo de Gata
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So Phil, how do you fancy paddling around a desert? Paco’s question immediately prompted mental pictures of rolling sand dunes, Lawrence of Arabia and camels. Reality however, turns out to be somewhat different.
Currently it’s about 4.00am, it’s dark and I’m lying in my sleeping bag, bivvying under the balcony of a deserted villa in the southeast corner of Spain. I’m being kept awake by the noise of the rain pouring down and the huge waves pounding onto the adjacent beach. This is not what I had in mind! Fortunately as dawn breaks the weather improves somewhat, it’s no longer raining and although it’s fairly grey and overcast we can catch a glimpse on the horizon of our first landmark - Punta de los Muertos, marking the start proper of the Cabo de Gata-Níjar natural park. It’s the average rainfall of less than 200mm per year that gives the Cabo de Gata its ‘desert’ status. Clearly so far I’ve been unlucky.
The plan is to spend the next six days paddling from Carboneras in the north of the park to San Miguel, just east of Almería and back. Day one continues to bring surprises. Leaving the small fishing harbour of Carboneras it’s difficult to keep a straight face. Where I work, at Calshot Activity Centre in Hampshire, the landscape is dominated by the huge chimney marking Fawley power station. Apart from the temperature I could be back home: I’ve flown hundreds of miles and now I’m paddling past the Central Térmica with a nigh on identical chimney.
It has to be said too that the cement works that follow are no more attractive but, once we’re past these, things start to look up. Playa de los Muertos is a classic sandy beach and then the cliffs start. And what cliffs! Grey limestone gives you the rock type but does nothing to describe the fantastic range of shapes and colours that mark the next 5km. There are no easy landings but the waves have calmed down from last night and it’s a fairly easy paddle round to Agua Amarga for lunch.
I’m paddling with a group of Spanish and Catalan friends. Four have their own sea kayaks, while Lorena, Mar and I have hired boats from the local kayaking school. The Nova Artic (sic) is a new one on me. I like to pride myself on a lack of “kayak snobbery”, that I’ll paddle anything. Unfortunately, this is anything! The best that Lorena can bring herself to say is "flota", which translates into ‘it floats.’ It’s not a great load carrier either, which is partly why we’re planning to stop for lunch each day, to minimise the amount of food that we’ve got to carry. Though, it has to be said, the other, not insignificant motivation for a daily lunch-stop is to satisfy my love of good seafood.
So it’s with full stomachs that we continue southwards. The sun is well and truly out now. It’s hot, this is more like it! The cliffs have changed too and are now a gorgeous, creamy-pink coloured sandstone pretty much all the way, past the Islote off the Punta Javanna and on to our planned camp at Cala de San Pedro.
The next morning we wake to cleaners giving the beach an end-of-season blitz. With dawn around 8.00am I get the rip taken out of me for again being ready to go before anyone else. When we eventually get going Mar asks if I can cope with the Spanish late starts.
Yesterday’s sandstone is replaced by more limestone, in an array of shades from dark grey to white. The sea is very calm and there’s no wind, which is fortunate as again this section provides no easy landings. It’s hard not to use the aquamarine cliché to describe the water but it really is that colour and superbly clear too. The bird life is also pretty sensational with a host of different gulls, loads of egrets and more than a few heron. Not a bird but also impressive are the flying fish. I’ve seen flying fish before, paddling off Singapore, but these are bigger and go much further, 30 or 40 metres with no exaggeration. So what do you do when one is heading straight for you? I’m put to the test and fail miserably – I’m sure that the fish deserves the credit for collision avoidance as it dives back into the water just to the side of my cockpit.
On to La Isleta de Moro for lunch. For me, this is what sea paddling is really all about: great weather, beautiful, clear, blue water and good food. Sod the usual image of sea kayaking with its discomfort, cold, midges and eating out of tins. Sitting on the restaurant terrace, in front of me now are my second ice-cold beer, a great looking Paella de Mariscos, an idyllic view across the bay and we’ve just had to rearrange the parasols to keep ourselves out of the hot sun. Paradise!
Later on that afternoon we make a further stop in San Jose to stock up on more water. The town is largely deserted, at the end of September the tourist season is well and truly over. It’s crazy really when the weather is this good. When we arrive at our next bivvy at the Playa de los Genoveses it’s getting dark and with some surf rolling in it takes a weaving route close to the rocks to make the landing. The beach and cliffs are covered with what look like trees but turn out to be a weird kind of cactus that throws a huge six to eight metre flower spike.
It’s day three, we should make it round the Cabo de Gata today. The scenery is the wildest yet, with cliffs, deserted beaches and larger mountains in the background. The rock now is mostly volcanic, but mixed up with limestone and sandstone. There are also stark white patches that look like (but aren’t) pumice and flutes of basalt. Altogether it’s an arid, desolate terrain, not classically beautiful but hugely impressive nevertheless. If the landscape seems vaguely familiar, remember that most of the spaghetti westerns of the 70’s were made not far from her in the Almería Desert. Setting off, with the sun still fairly low in the sky I can see my shadow projected through the gin-clear water onto the sea bottom below. We’ve now the wind and waves behind us and César’s GPS indicates that we’re going 50% faster. We slow again for a spot of rock-hopping that brings us down to the Cabo de Gata itself with a somewhat phallic ‘dedo’ or finger to negotiate first.
Past the lighthouse starts a huge beach that leads onto Almería and beyond. In the far distance we can see the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Closer to hand, just the other side of the beach are mounds of salt from ‘Las Salinas’. There’s also a bird observatory here and a large population of flamingoes. We carry on to San Miguel for a celebratory lunch of ‘chipperones’, ‘moros’ and another, great paella. Afterwards we need a well-deserved siesta under the shade of a couple of fishing boats.
If I’m honest I was initially worried about the return journey. How would I feel about literally going over old ground? I’ve been known to get bored sea paddling and I wasn’t sure that I was going to enjoy paddling back. I needn’t have worried. To my surprise, if anything I enjoyed the return more. Over the next few days the cliffs were every bit as dramatic, perhaps even more so from this, southerly direction. We camped in different locations and ate at different restaurants (you may by now realize how important this is to me). Other highlights include a night-paddle (yes, in search of food) with the most amazing bio-luminescence off the paddles and a huge number of suicidal fireflies dive-bombing the water. Birds included Spoonbills, Kingfishers, Black Wheatears and a number of different types of Falcon. One memorable night, bivvying up on the cliffs was like living in an old film. The moonlight was so intense, the shadows so unbelievably strong that the dry, arid terrain in this black and white light seemed just like those images of the early moon landings.
On the paddle back into the harbour in Carboneras I try to organize my thoughts, my overall impression of the Cabo de Gata. In all honesty it doesn’t have the classic ‘golden sand and palm tree’ beauty that you can find in other parts of the Spanish coastline. It’s a rugged, barren, arid desert but hugely impressive nevertheless. Worth it? You bet.