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Chapter 22: Bikepacking the Altravesur-La Calahorra to the Sierra de Baza

You can see my YouTube on this ride here

12th June 2019

I left Bar Rosabel in La Calahorra early on Wednesday, around 7am, taking breakfast at the posher hostal, Hostal Labella, before I left town. It’s so funny, in Spain, the bar staff just can’t understand the English way of taking tea. I ask for Té Normal, Té Classic or Té Negro, once over this hurdle, I say I want a large glass, full of ‘agua caliente’, and separately, a little ‘leche fria’. They have always managed to do this, but they just won’t fill the glass with hot water, it will be anything from half full to three quarter full. I often ask for the water to be topped up and they look puzzled. This is across the board; they all do this!! I giggle to myself each time it happens!

Next up, crossing the Marquesado Plateau between La Calahorra and the Sierra de Baza. I wasn’t looking forward to this leg, I’d thought it would be under the punishing sun with no shade but luckily a combination of starting out early, an overcast sky and cold wind, all added up to a cool ride. Albeit a bit chilly and into a head-wind!

It was strange terrain, sandy and featureless. Much of it was planted with crops, with a few farms scattered about. Around a kilometre out of La Calahorra I came across a disused railway line. I stopped to take some photos and on looking back towards La Calahorra, I noticed just how beautiful the Sierra Nevada range looked from there. You could see the whole range, with snow still lying on some of the peaks. It was a beautiful sight, one which I stopped many times to gaze at.

Some farm workers were busy watering their crops, kindly turning off the irrigation as I passed by, as the wind was so strong it was blowing the sprayed water across the camino, well that was the case for the first field anyway. For the next one I came across with the water on, there was no one there to shut it off, so I had to ride through the spray. It was biting cold, so different than I thought it would be. The high country of the Sierra Nevada was baking hot, such a contrast. At least I wouldn’t be cooking myself in the sun.

There was a lot of scrub land and brush, very non-descript. I stopped to shelter from the wind for a while, in the ruin of an old mill, opposite was a sheep farm. My ride took me around the perimeter road of huge solar farm, I was surprised to learn that not all solar farms are voltaic panels, this one was large curved mirrors, with what I believe are water pipes along the centre line, that I presume gets heated by the mirrors reflecting the sun onto them. They wouldn’t have been much use this day, it was freezing!!

Whilst riding past a farm, four dogs started chasing me, three backed off when I shouted loudly at them, the fourth just kept chasing me, luckily it was slightly downhill, so I raced away from it. But it did worry me, so I stopped when I saw a decent sized stick and strapped it onto my rear Rollpacker just in case I met more angry dogs!

After around ten kilometres the crops eventually changed from small vegetables to olive and almond groves, the terrain also became more undulating as it approached the Sierra de Baza. Eventually the camino became very sandy, and not ride-able, then I turned onto a narrow dry riverbed. This was fine at first, if a bit sandy, later becoming difficult to even push the bike along due to large boulders and overgrown long brush.

I couldn’t actually work out, from Google Maps, where I should be. The dry riverbed became more and more difficult so I really wasn’t sure this was the route, then it became impassable, so had to push up a very steep bank to get out of the dry riverbed. It was a struggled getting the heavy bike up the bank, I had to resort to getting to the top myself and dragging a laid down Bay through the rough bush, really not good for the bike, but it’s all I could do. Eventually I found the camino I should be on, but it was all a little flakey! I found in some areas, Google maps can be a few metres out, so knowing you are in the right place is sometimes difficult.

The camino was sandy again but rideable, eventually I hit the surfaced road, that I pushed up to a pueblo named Charches. I stopped at the bar and ordered a Coke, whilst sitting outside, eating the tapas they had kindly brought me, I could hear kids and music. I walked up the road just up a little, and nearly opposite the bar, there was a class of 8-9 year old kids practising a choreographed dance to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, and Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5. The teacher gave me permission to watch and film, which I did for a short while. It was so lovely to see, in fact it brought a tear to my eye, I don’t know why. It was quite funny too, some of the kids were half dancing, half messing around, and driving the two teachers nuts!

I loved Charches, everyone, but everyone was friendly. Many people stopped to talk to me, so I stayed and had another Coke! It must have been around midday by the time I left the bar, a short ride out of the village, directly onto the steep camino. This was the Sierra de Baza proper, I wasn’t feeling the scenery at first, I think I was comparing it to the Sierra Nevada. There was an embankment to my left, up the mountain with sparse trees, and an embankment, down, to my right with sparse trees. I wasn’t very inspired!

By now the sun had made an appearance, it was an uphill push on a well-maintained gravel camino, for a couple of hours. The views improved as I rode, it was very different from the Sierra Nevada, which is one mountain range with a defined ‘spine’, propped up by the humps!

The Sierra de Baza was different, it was just as high in places but with many, what seemed randomly placed peaks. The distant views were beautiful, as was the woodland flanking the camino. A couple of hours into the ride, I came across a large stone building, it looked like a posh refuge, that had recently been built or reformed. Nicely fenced off, with seating, tables and fuentes in the grounds and some beautiful views across the hills. I took an early siesta under the large covered terrace; the building was locked. It appeared to be an ‘outdoors centre’ where perhaps scouts camped or something similar. I stayed for around an hour or so and took the time to remove all the dry foliage darts that were stuck in my jumper, socks and shoes, gained when pushing through the brush in the dry riverbed earlier. And I replenished my water, I believe this was the only water opportunity until I reached the Refugio.

The views, from the camino, across the peaks of the Sierra de Baza got more and more beautiful. The camino surface was rougher than earlier, undulating gently, it was great to ride. My thoughts on this Sierra had changed totally now, I was enjoying it so much.

This is the first sierra where I’d seen some small herds of deer, running out of the woodland, across the camino, into the woodland the other side. I didn’t see a human being the whole time I was on the sierra, which was over 24 hours, I think I had it all to myself. Even when I came across a flock of sheep, there was only a large dog guarding them. It was quite strange really, I was doing my usual thing of baaahing at the sheep, they scattered, and along saunters the dog towards me, passes me then laid down next to the sheep, in their new location. It was quite friendly but didn't want to engage in petting! It seemed to know its job was to protect the sheep and not get distracted.

The Sierra de Baza was very well signposted. But still with my map reading skills I couldn’t find the first Refugio I was looking for, I thought I was on the right camino, possibly it was a very small one that I passed which was being rebuilt, there were no signs stating this, but it could have been it. I could see across to another peak, way in the distance, perhaps 5kms away as the crow flies but about 20 kilometres on the camino, a building. I was hoping that it wasn’t what I was looking for as time was getting on, around 6pm by now.

I kept on riding for a couple of hours, then I made the mistake, my usual mistake, of missing my turning when I got overexcited at a fast and rocky descent, overshooting the turning by one and a half kilometres. Although it had set me back, this diversion was worth the fabulous views! Looking North, from this vantage point gave me my first view of Baza, and some beautiful mountain views. It was getting on for eight o’clock now, and I had to push-up for half an hour or so. Arriving at the turning I missed, it was a hidden gnarly singletrack to the left of the camino. You’d have to be looking at the map constantly to acknowledge this turn as it’s quite inconspicuous.

I was getting a bit hot and overheated, I’d been going for over twelve hours now, I was tired and really didn’t have the energy to ride this very steep rocky singletrack with any style. It was one of the steepest singletracks of the Altravesur thus far, barring the drop into Albuñuelas and the Tello valley. With many rocky drops, tight switchbacks and trees or sheer drops to the side, it was going to need a lot of concentration. I was aware from my accident the few days before that I couldn’t afford a crash in such a remote area and this was remote. So I pushed-down some of the gnarliest sections and rode the parts that I had the energy and concentration to tackle. It was a shame I couldn’t ride it all, but I wasn’t going to take the risk with no phone signal and no one around, no farms or cortijos, nada. Still, I found a second wind and had a fast ride down that excellent singletrack.

It was a good half hour ride down from around 2000 metres to 1500 metres. The singletrack exits onto a camino, very soon I came to a recreation area of Canaleja Alta. Here, under a dense tree canopy was picnic tables, chairs and barbecues, a couple of fuentes, opposite a couple of buildings one looked like it was toilets and a café, the other was a refugio, Refugio Canaleja Alta. All the buildings were locked, or I failed the initiative test to get into the refugio!

I decided I didn’t want to camp in the recreation area as it was too heavily shaded by the dense pine trees, so I took a look around the refugio, I couldn’t work out how to get in it, it was either locked or I was being a dipstick but anyway I didn’t want to sleep in it, I was just being nosy.

There was plenty of water here which is a good job as I only had enough water for tonight’s dinner. All the fuentes had non-pottable signs on them. I found it really strange to have non-pottable water fuentes in a picnic area.

I’d travelled just over fifty kilometers this day, and what a fantastic fifty kilometer ride it was. So many beautiful views, total solitude and peace. Looking back at the Sierra Nevada from the Marquesado Plateau, the mature woodland, peaks in all directions, just so much to see. And so you know, Baza although spelt B A Z A, the Z is pronounced as a T H.

Anyway It was starting to get dark by the time I’d pitched-up my tent behind the refugio, it was around half nine by now. I had some tea and some quick noodles, with a pretty moon to keep me company.

I’d had a good nights sleep, and again I wasn’t disturbed by anyone or anything.


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