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Chapter 20: Bikepacking the Altravesur-Alcutar to above Bayarcal in the Sierra Nevada

You can see my YouTube of my ride from Alcutar here and a YouTube of my month in Alcutar here

Being in Alcútar, I was located equidistant between two ways back onto the Altravesur route. One was to return to Juviles, where I’d left the route. The other was to ride to the next pueblo of Mecina Bombaron. I chose the latter. If I returned to Juviles, the climb up the sierra above Bérchules would have been too tough a day after four weeks off the bike. The climb from Mecina Bombaron was going to be slightly easier, and I would only miss out on a few kilometers of the route.

During my last two weeks in Alcútar the pea picking was quite sporadic, giving me many free days to prep Bay ready for returning to the route; I repaired a slow puncture on the front tyre by removing many thorns, letting the tyre down and pumping in more sealant. A good wash, lube and spanner check, plus removal of the Gorilla cage mounts and refitting them with new tape and cable ties. They’d taken a good few hits riding through brush and had turned slightly on the fork. You may wonder why I don't go into all the repairs I have to do on my bike, well the reason for that is I don't have to do any except preventative maintenance. Specialized bikes although expensive, are made from high end components, and are well designed.

The days off also gave me time to do shopping and prepare myself mentally for the return to being alone in the mountains. I was enjoying my time in Alcútar, life was easy and safe. The thought of returning to the Altravesur was quite daunting, especially as the weather was heating up, now in the high 20’s. But cabin fever was setting in, I was ready to go. Not that I was bored, I just couldn’t afford do anything very exciting. I didn’t have the hiking gear to tackle say a climb up Mulhacen and I didn’t want to ride Bay as the tyres had taken a good bashing on the route so far and I was keen not to have the expense of buying new tyres.

Twelve years ago, I had met Di and Robin in the Alpujarras, they had renovated a lovely house in Alcútar. At some point they had returned to their hometown in Scotland, visiting their Alpujarran haven only occasionally. Luckily Di and her mother Edith had taken a short break in Alcútar whilst I was there, so we managed to fit in a quick catch-up, which was fab.

I also arranged to meet up with Amanda and Andy, the couple I had stayed with the August prior, in the Alpujarras for two weeks, helping with their horses. We were to meet in Cadiar, a town lower down the mountains. I hiked down from Alcútar on a beautiful Saturday morning. A short way into the hike, I met a lady, Antonia, that was taking a morning stroll. With my little Spanish, we struck up a conversation and walked together.

Antonia grew up in Cadiar, but now lives on the coast in El Ejido near Almeria. It is common for the Spanish to move away from their hometown but retain a residence there, returning to it for fiestas and the hot and busy coastal summer. Left to my own devices I would have hiked along-side the dry riverbed into Cadiar but Antonia, being a local, knew a much prettier route along the acequia. We had a lovely walk, chatting as best we could, teetering on the bank of the acequia, as we walked. Occasionally hopping over it at junctions, we passed by a beautifully restored mill, some pretty mountain scenery and Antonia’s husband, Geraldo, tending the land they still have.

On reaching Cadiar, we stopped and had refreshments on the terrace of a café and chatted some more. Antonia loved the Gerald Brenan book South From Granada, a book that I managed to read whilst in Alcútar. She adores the Alpujarras, and this book is the reflections of Gerald Brenan, an Englishman, that lived in the Alpujarran village of Yegen after getting demobbed from the army in the 1920’s.

After swapping Facebook contact details, we went our separate ways, both needing to do some shopping. I was keen to buy something to cover up the gap between my shirt sleeve and my gloves whilst riding, as my wrists had got quite sunburnt during the previous rides. I also needed some camp food and some more incense sticks. Things like this can be found in the Chinese bazar type shops, of which most pueblos have at least one.It was nice to be able to take my time shopping; Rich had taken me out shopping a few times but there wasn’t time to browse, which is what I needed to do. I managed to find some cheap wrist supports, not quite what I was looking for but as it turns out, very fortunate I did! And I found the other things I was looking for.

I got a lovely surprise when I met up with Andy and Amanda for lunch, as they’d brought along Tina, another lady I’d met whilst working with Amanda. We had a chilled afternoon, eating and chatting, under the shade of umbrellas on the terrace. I had such a wonderful day, meeting friends and making a new one in Antonia, strolling home, uphill back to Alcútar, it was just perfect.

Cortijo Cairo doesn’t have Wi-Fi, spending so much free time there, with no tekky distractions, gave me the opportunity to read some of the many books that are at the house. I again read Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart, and, for a first time, South From Granada by Gerard Brenan and Ghosts Of Spain by Giles Tremlett. The first two of these three books are wholly pertinent to the Alpujarras, the third touches on the Alpujarras as it was where the deposed Moslem leader of Granada was banished several hundred years ago. All such good reads if you’re interested in Spain. I also watched the film El Sud de Granada, the film based on the Gerald Brenan book. For me, it was so much better than the book, as the storyline includes his love affair with a Spanish lady, it didn’t really make him look very honourable to be honest, and it’s a sad tale.

Many years ago, I had read The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara. At Cortijo Cairo I read the book Travelling With Che Guevara; The Making of a Revolutionary, written by Alberto Granado, Che’s companion on the motorcycle ride. This book gave a good insight as to why Che became an activist, he was enraged at the treatment of the poorer people of South America, by foreign capitalists such as those of the US. It was such a shame that he chose to make change by force as I think he would have made a great statesman, being so charismatic. But I also understand that the foreign industrialists were foreign government supported and it would have been a dirty fight. Che, supposedly, desperately wanted to take the revolution to the rest of South America after conquering Cuba with Fidel Castro. My personal belief is that he was set-up by the US or Fidel Castro or Russia, or a combination of those, when he was sent to his death in Bolivia. This is my opinion on the matter, I really feel he was a humanitarian and my opinion is that it’s propaganda, trying to make us believe he was a brutal murderer, and moreover I believe he was set-up, with another contingent raping and murdering innocent civilians, whilst Che got the blame. He was an activist trying to get his fellow South Americans out of poverty, he wasn’t a murderer. Sadly the United States have done a great character assassination on Che, and sullied his memory forever.

was getting itchy feet into the third week of being in Alcútar and wanted to get moving but I wanted to stay until Rich could manage the pea-picking on his own. It was a little awkward, as I didn’t know how to broach the subject, and I think he felt the same, I think he'd had enough of me!

I was so glad, if a little surprised, when one evening Rich walked his dogs up to the cortijo and mentioned he didn’t think there was enough peas left to bother doing any more picks. I said I was happy to stay until he was sure and that I thought there was at least one more decent pick to do. So we agreed he'd think about it over-night, after checking the crop we agreed we would do one more pick, the next Monday, Day 76 of my tour, 3rd June.

It’d been great helping Rich, in return for him helping me, now and in the past. I’d got my trainers and Rich had his crop picked. We had lots of heated political debates! Lots of lovely meals, cooked by Rich, and he took me out for a great lunch at El Cercado, his neighbours’ restaurant. He also gave me 60 euros, that were most welcome. And I got to know him a little. I think he was glad to see the back of me, I think I annoy him.

After agreeing I was no longer needed to pea-pick, I kept an eye on the El Tiempo weather app, so I could decide when I should make a move. You have to take the forecasts with a pinch of salt in the mountains, there are so many variables, it is difficult to predict the weather. I could see that in a weeks’ time there was a three-day period of cloud predicted. I was keen to ride in the coolest weather possible, so decided upon leaving on the middle of the three days, Sunday the 9th June.

I spent the Friday saying my goodbyes, the Saturday was spent cleaning Cortijo Cairo and packing as much onto Bay that I could. I was up at 5am Sunday, I finished off the cleaning and set off at 7am. The weather forecast was spot on, there was a heavy mist that morning, with the surrounding mountains swallowed by low cloud. Without the beautiful views, it was so much easier to leave Alcútar, still I felt sad, as I doubt I’ll afford to go back, so it was a final farewell.

Once out of the narrow steep streets of Alcútar I turned downhill onto the surfaced road, joining the camino that would lead to the Altravesur after a couple of kilometres. A steep push to start with, the misty ride was so refreshing, no overheating or punishing sunshine, with surrounding mountains appearing and disappearing as the low cloud blew in and out.

In 2015 I’d ridden up to Cerro Gordo on Stumpy, my blue Mountain bike, this ride was heading towards it but bypassing the peak itself and continuing up and East. Looking back and way down, I could see the town of Bérchules in the distance, this giving me an idea of how far I’d climbed.

My ride was directly up the Sierra Nevada range, heading towards the ridgeline. Once at the top, I joined the Altravesur, the camino running East along the range. I don’t know why I was so worried about returning to the route, I’m a loner and was totally at home as soon as I got on the bike. Solitude. On joining the Altravesur there’s a Fuente, but it was dry, a little past it there was a spring dribbling water from the mountainside, so I replenished my water from that, only to find another Fuente a little farther along, that was flowing well.

There was at times beautiful views as I rode along the mountain range, when the clouds separated I could see down the valleys with the distant whitewashed Alpuharra villages nestled on the hillsides. The route took me along and around each ‘hump’, riding along one hump then along the hump that had been opposite. I like it when I can see where I’ve been and where I’m going, makes more sense to me and I can see how the ride is progressing. When I say hump, if you imagine the spine of the Sierra Nevada runs East to West, all the way along the spine at 90 degrees to it, running North to South are the hills that I call humps. I am running along these humps towards the East, approximately two thirds the way up to the spine.

The ascents and descents were mild, just bimbling along the side of the mountains was most enjoyable. I could see small farms on the slopes, now and again a village in the distance. The views were scenic, with many rocky outcrops and forested sections, not a lot of shade, but I hadn’t needed it thus far. On this section I experienced a lot of the strange optical illusion, where what looks like a descent, is actually uphill and vice versa. I think I understand it and it means I need to ‘test’ every section to see if I want to ride it or not! The dirt camino was in pretty good condition, sometimes where it had lacked traffic it would be grassy in the middle.

I stopped for food and a rest at a waterfall around 1pm, a pretty little spot that had had some effort put in to pretty it up for tourists, with some seating surrounding the catchment pool. Mid afternoon I was feeling tired, mostly I hadn’t slept well in Alcútar, as I hadn’t the night before and I’d been up early, so I stopped by the camino and had a quick nap.

Whilst in Alcútar I’d made a change to how I held my tent on my bike, adding a plastic surround to the tent bag that prevented it squashing down so much by the straps of my front luggage. This also enabled me to get my tarp out of my tent bag, without removing the bag from the bike. So I had my nap on the tarp, alas two different ant colonies had the same idea and pestered me all through my nap!

Continuing on, the last two humps, high above the pueblos of Nechite, Mairena, Júbar and Laroles were slightly steeper ascents and descent than the previous humps. The area felt very remote, I’d seen perhaps three cars on the camino all day. And none in the past two hours. I could hear cow or goat bells, but not actually see the herd, it’s quite a soothing sound, knowing civilisation is close by but no humans to pester me!

It was very scenic and a lovely ride. The sky was a mix of sunshine and cloud, staying cool when the sun was shrouded and very hot when not. One thing to note was that after the first couple of humps there wasn’t any water replenishment opportunities, all the acequias were dry. If desperate I could have taken some from a water deposit at the farms that were scattered here and there. I’d originally thought this leg of the journey would take me two days, but as I was making such good time, I was on target to get over to the Northern side of the Sierra Nevada range in one day.

Alas, I missed a rather inconspicuous turning. I stopped to take stock, have a biscuit and a drink, and to try and establish exactly where I was. I thought I had understood how I needed to get back on the route, and that was by returning one and a half kilometers uphill. I got around half a kilometer into this return pushup, only to realise I wasn’t where I thought I was, this camino would be three kilometers until I was back on route. So stupidly I walked back down the hill to the point where I’d stopped earlier to try and work it out again. I then saw the camino that would be the shorter, one and half kilometer return to the route, but it was steep and very rocky. So I set off back on the three kilometer less steep uphill track again.

It was around 7pm by now, the sun just wouldn’t stay behind the bloody big clouds, so it was very hot, and annoying! I eventually arrived at the turning I missed, which would have been a left fork originally. I had seen it, but as it was steeply uphill and chained off, I didn’t even consider it to be part of the route. No matter, I decided to camp for the night right there.

There was a large ruin slightly higher up from the camino, I spent twenty minutes climbing up there, checking it out, but couldn’t see a decent flat area to pitch up on, so decided to pitch up in the runout of a rocky gulley that was a grassy little clearing. If it had rained, I’d have been in trouble, it was clearly where rain run down the gulley! It was reasonably flat, sheltered and quite a pretty spot, with woodland to my left and in front, and mountains to my right with the rocky gulley behind.

I love it when I’ve decided upon my camp, looking forward to my first cup of tea of the day and something hot to eat. Unfortunately, there was a ridiculous number of mozzies and flies at this one, the little buggers bit my ankles so much they were bleeding. As soon as the tent was up, I lit a couple of Sandalwood incense sticks inside the vestibule of my tent and it cleared the bloody pests quickly.

Still, there was no water available, which made me wonder where the mozzies had come from, there must have been some water around here. I’d passed a mountain river several kilometres back, before I got lost, but wasn’t going to back track, so would have to make do.I was on a slight incline, I thought I’d positioned the tent correctly, with my head at the top of the incline but on lying down I found I hadn’t, so had to sleep with my head at the narrow and junk end of the tent. This didn’t pose a problem, I slept from around 9pm to 2am, then had a cuppa and some biscuits, and slept until around 7am. I’m not sure of the altitude I was camping at, but I think it was somewhere around 1600 metres, so there was a lot of wind noise that night, luckily I was well sheltered and could only hear it.

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