Off roading in the Pyrenees in May 2012
Kit Constable Maxwell and
Dr Raymond Bird in the Pyrenees
The great Pyrenees land barrier, thrust up by earthly upheavals around 100m years ago, predates the Alps and the dinosaurs. The tallest peaks rise to some 11,000 ft. Through the centuries smuggling and banditry were widespread. The last War created a demand for mountain guides helping, often at great personal risk, downed pilots and Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi occupied France.
Mountain trail in the Pyrenees
Pyrenean rock strata
We travelled far into the peaks of this wild mountain range, mainly on the Spanish side. We toured above the tree line at 6,500ft, where winter snow still lies in north facing drifts.
Time worn tracks and smugglers trails lead us through dense forestry to high pastures where trees are rare. Some tracks cling to inaccessible cliffs, clawing their way around precipitous gorges with the valley floor lying far below.
Water erodes the edge of tracks which break away leaving sparse access for our Land Rover. The two nearside wheels brush the mountainside while the other two reach for purchase on the broken edge. A slip of concentration can be fatal as several tragic shrines reveal.
We have seen red kites with their delta tails spread, riding the mountain air currents on their huge 1.8m wings. We have also seen great soaring gryphon vultures and a pair of rare lammergeyer. Later we watched 7 lammergeyers circling together. They were taking a keen interest in a buzzard which was stooping on rabbits bolting a newly cut hayfield.
Next day we passed by the old Gorea church and up a very difficult stony trail, much eroded by winter rains with ruts and washouts and many hazardous sections.
We reached the mountain ridge eventually and followed it past an abandoned hilltop village. We were now in cloud and a light rain was falling.
We turned down a very worn track, running with water and riven with ruts and deep scars. After slithering and sliding ever downwards for an eternity, I called a halt to prospect the route ahead. The continued descent worried me, I didn’t want to end up bogged in a flood lake, and the poor visibility failed to reveal any improvement. So I reversed back a little, slithered around in a 16 point turn on the steep slope and backtracked up the hill.
The Discovery performed heroically and dependably. We emerged muddier and wetter from the track and regained the ridgeway. Still in cloud we climbed further and reached an ancient dolmen at 3,200 ft.
We took a break and I served tea and cake from the ‘Kitmax Twintop Tuckbox’. The cloud cleared and we were able to savour a grand view from this elevated position.
By the end of the day the sunshine had returned and we located a campsite in the trees. A grand dinner was prepared, cottage pie made from Soya stew with local potatoes, served with French beans and backed with Rioja wine. Coffee and chocolate biscuits to finish.
Next landmark was Loarre Castle which was beautifully sited on an isolated rocky promontory high up in the foothills north of Huesca. It is very historic, built to oppose the spread of the Moorish invaders in the 12th Century. It was extensively restored in recent decades and is now listed as one of the most important of its genre in Europe.
After visiting the castle in the afternoon we went to a little campsite nearby and were checked in by the landlord’s young daughter. We were the only guests. A superb meal was prepared for us all for a few pesetas, er… euros.
In the morning we were aroused by a hoopoe’s distinctive call. Several cuckoos joined in. We breakfasted early, started off down a good track where we promptly flushed a massive lammergeyer from a small tree. It flapped lazily off down our track before soaring effortlessly into the blue sky. They are huge, over 2.8m across the wings, Europe’s biggest bird and one of the rarest. We are now at over 5,000ft, driving along a ridge where the views on either side are breathtaking.
Further on we reached the head of a long valley which ended in a gorge. To one side was a deeply cut cleft in the rocks and as we watched, a cloud drifted by far below us, like a wraith animated by the warming sun. High above eagles circled and nearer at hand we saw deer, marmot and wild goat.
We continued down the main valley into a gorge which became steeper and more spectacular as we continued. We were now in shadow and the trees dripped wet in the still air. Far ahead we glimpsed sunlight on a perpendicular rock, and this marked the mouth of the gorge. As we neared the narrow mouth after nearly three hours of driving, it looked like there was no possible way through except by water. At the penultimate turn our track ran onto a flimsy scaffold roped to the vertical side of the rock wall. We advanced with caution and emerged into a wide flat refuge below the gorge mouth, a spectacular exit to an amazing land form.
We travelled for about 6 hours per day and covered about 600km off road. For four days we didn’t see a single car or a single human, such was the remoteness of our location. On the fifth day we met three British Land Rovers doing what we were doing and we stopped to chat.
This was a great trip and for those who love the great open spaces, an ideal way to enjoy them. Four wheel drive is essential, coupled with good ground clearance and stout tyres. Essentially Land Rover country.
Pictures to follow, come back soon