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Chapter 26: Bikepacking the Altravesur-Sierra de Cazorla to Hospital

You can see my YouTube of this ride here

17th July 2019

At the Refugio Fuente Acero, in the Sierra de Cazorla, I’d pitched the tent facing south, in front of the refugio so was in the shade first thing in the morning. The sky was clear and blue, the sun rose, lighting up the side of the refugio. I needed to dry the dew on my tent and catch some rays on the solar charger, so put my things in the sun then took my empty bottles down to the Fuente for filling.

When I arrived back at the refugio a fox came by, it seemed used to humans and sat looking at me, waiting for food. Unfortunately, I’d packed my food already so didn’t have any to give it.

I was hoping to get to the village of Santiago Pontones by nightfall, I left the refugio at half nine, a lot later than I’d planned. By now the sun has climbed high enough to be quite hot, with the heat and leaving late, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the village.

I rode out of the refugio grounds, that are protected from motorised traffic with large boulders and an iron girder, I tried to pass through a gap between them, forgetting my forks are much wider as I had the Gorilla cage luggage on them. The right-hand Gorilla cage snagged and was pulled off the cleats, I swore as I thought it was broken, reached down and attached it back on, it pushed firmly home. I was so relieved that it wasn’t broken. Not stopping to check it, you will learn later was my downfall.

I needed to ride the camino back to the signpost I’d turned left at last night. I needed to go straight ahead, which would have been last night’s right turn. I could have sworn, to the left was uphill and to the right was downhill, alas not. But no matter, the distant and immediate views were beautiful, a small herd of deer ran across, into the protected woodland to my left. There were signs stating it was ‘Area de Reserva’, I was guessing it was protected land, and what a fab job they were doing. A fabulous way to spend a Monday morning!

I’d forgotten to put sun cream on my face, and to put my sunnies on, so I stopped at a random spot to do it. I propped Bay up against a lone tree, then realised what a view I had. This sierra was just the best! I was even pedalling up the gently ascending camino, the sun was hot already, with all the trees there was enough dappled shade to keep reasonably sheltered from it. Moments like this, to experience the beauty and solitude is what made this tour something I’d never forget, and forever want to replicate.

At this stage of my tour I was increasingly forgetting to turn off my GoPro, which flattens the battery and fills the SD card, so I devised a mechanism to help me remember; every time I turned it on, I would count to sixty then turn it off. This mainly worked…. when I remembered to count! I’d flattened both my 8400mAh power packs as I’d flattened both my GoPro batteries the day before, and both my phones, charging them overnight on the power packs, so had my Big Blue solar charger out on my bike this morning charging the power packs. I need to devise a better method of mounting it on both the front or rear of my bike, often it flops around and is quite distracting, although I've now found if the sun is behind me, attaching it to my Exped Lightning backpack works well.

The ascent levelled out; the terrain didn’t stop delivering, I was riding through wooded plateau and mountainside, eventually coming to a small lodge building and gate, with a signpost to Pontones, 9 hours walking time it said. That’s where I was heading, it was around midday now, so I was thinking I may not make it there this day but would decide later what to do. There was at least another three refugios en route, around 11 kilometres apart, so I was trusting they all had water.

After passing through the gate, the terrain soon became less green and rockier, with many eroded limestone outcrops, some small aside the camino, others large distant spires. In this desert-like land I came across the next refuge, Refugio Rambla Seca, it was a pretty little building, I had no plans to stay but thought I’d take a look. A lot smaller than the refuge I’d stayed at, but fully equipped with the bed platform, table and seating and the bonus of a water pump and sink inside.

Strangely the door had been left open, and when done I left it open too as there was a large green lizard inside! I hadn’t needed to filter any water at this point, a short distance after the refuge, perhaps 100 metres or less, I noticed many geckos, birds and butterflies. Then appeared a cascaded set of water troughs, the water flowing into the top one and flowing down into the six or so others. Where the water had spilled over the trough and dampened the ground, many small blue butterflies were covering the ground. It was a wonderful sight, as I walked past, they would flutter up, their closed brown wings then flashing the beautiful sky blue of the top of their wings. There was one different type of butterfly, with dark brown and white striped wings. Although I didn’t really need water, I thought I’d take advantage of this fresh supply and topup my bottles.

I continued on across this undulating desiccated terrain, the camino quite rocky at times. When there was a rare tree, I took advantage of the shade. After half an hour the trail became hillier, quite tiresome in fact, up then down, up then down, my helmet and Panama hat was being swapped continually! Then I realised I’d missed a turning. There was no excuse for this as whilst having my lunch I discovered that if I opened the Altravesur in the Google My Maps app, I could open it without a signal. This was good news as I’d not had a phone signal for well over a day now, there’s none at all in the Sierra de Cazorla. I couldn’t work out how to measure a distance in this app, so I could see how far I’d have to back track. What a pain, it was hot and hard work riding those hills again.

I had been riding along one of the GR routes, before getting lost the signposts had gone another way, but I was on the Altravesur at that point. When I got back to the turning I missed, at the end of that short road it had some signs with the GR cross on, basically saying don’t go this way, so I reckon whoever mapped the Altravesur had took a wrong turn earlier, and this odd turning that I missed, was returning onto the GR route, as after, the GR posts appeared again. I’d wasted around an hour with this mistake.

Riding on, now back onto the less hilly plateau, I was hoping to get to the next refuge so I could stop for lunch and rest. But I was still a few kilometres away from it at around 1:30pm so I stopped in the shade of a large Hawthorn bush to get out of the sun and have something to eat. I was so glad I’d had that large bocadillo from Casa Pepe, it was so big, just a quarter of it was enough for my lunch. It was a vicious bush! I got a long hawthorn through the sole of my shoe, it had gone right through, into my foot!

When I went to return to my ride, I noticed that my front Rollpacker’s bracket had broken. The Rollpacker is the luggage at the front and rear of my bike, a waterproof bag hung off a bracket that attaches to the handlebars. The metal bracket had snapped clean through, near the handlebars on the left side. I took one of the lower straps off and used it to hold the lower section of the bracket to the handlebars at the front and the seatpost at the rear. Where the break was, the metal was jagged and close to my brake pipe, I did my best to hold it away from the pipe with the strap but it wasn’t too clever, I would have to nurse it until I could get it somewhere I could stand the bike up against something and do a better job. I’m thinking perhaps the Rollpacker was damaged in the accident I had a week or so before.I rode on, taking care not to hammer it over rocks, which was quite difficult on any descents!

I reached the next refuge, Refugio Forestal, within around an hour. It was another pretty little building, like the previous one but this didn’t have any beds, just one table and ten or so chairs. The room is dominated by a large open fireplace. Strangely there was sacks of dog food inside, and large bags of salt, I’m not sure what for, I guess it gets icy in winter?

The refuge was on a hill, to the left of the trail. For some reason, on Google maps, it was called Refugio de Cañada Rincón. Equipped with a sink and water pump, I filled my bottles. And had a nice rest in the large porch that sheltered me from the sun and the wind. This being at around 1600 metres, there was a nice cooling wind blowing across the plateau.

I tidied up my Rollpacker repair, still it was a bodge, and I’d have to be careful. I removed the plastic map of Spain, that I’d had wrapped around my tent bag to protect it, my thinking being that the handlebars would take more of the tent weight, rather than the Rollpacker.I had planned to siesta at the refugio, through this the hottest part of the day, but I wasn’t feeling tired so decided to move on. There would be another refuge in 11 kilometres, should I want to stop. I can understand the need for these frequent refuges, it’s so desolate and arid out here, with no phone signal, if you had an emergency, it’s a long way to get help! I’m unsure why there couldn’t be a phone mast on one of the mountains, perhaps they don’t want the eyesore, why not make it look like a tree or a rock?!

I rode on, very soon coming across a beautiful white Arab horse, eating grass that was growing around another set of cascaded water troughs, that were dry. Very strange, the surrounding land was damp, again with colonies of the pretty blue butterflies. Grass was growing in a large area surrounding the troughs, presumably irrigated by them, when the Fuente is running, perhaps just once a day?

I thought the horse was roaming free, but its front fetlocks were tied together with a short piece of rope! The camino became increasing undulating, and rocky, luckily with steep but short ups and less steep, long downs! Soon I came to the next refuge, Refugio Campo del Espino, of the same pretty design as the other two. I didn’t go in, I stopped and deliberated about staying the night but it was only about 3pm so decided to keep going.The dry white land continued, with the undulating Camino disappearing off miles into the distance, the village of Santiago-Pontones seemingly a long way off, I could see way into the distance, with no signs of a village.

Struggling to keep my speed down on the stony descents as they were good fun, I was annoyed with myself that I wasn’t nursing my broken Rollpacker. I came to a small green wooded copse of perhaps ten large trees, very strange, it was like an oasis in this chalky land. A flock of sheep were sheltering in the shade of the trees. I stopped to baaaah at them!

Tearing down a hill, not as fast as I could go, but quite fast, the next thing I knew I could hear loud screaming. I was laying facedown on the dusty gravel camino, not knowing where I was, having a prolonged episode of de ja vu, in great pain. Luck of all luck, this happened next to a large bush that gave shade. I’d fallen, and hard.

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