Spain: An untamed corner

Runner-up: The Independent/Princess Cruises Call of the Wild travel-writing competition

We could have died. Or, worse, become the shamed beneficiaries of a midnight mountain rescue... not in Nepal or the Andes, but in a pleasant rural nowhere, two hours inland from the Andalusian costas. It was sunny and clear; the sort of Spanish November day you get in an English June. I had been looking forward to it.

We could have died. Or, worse, become the shamed beneficiaries of a midnight mountain rescue... not in Nepal or the Andes, but in a pleasant rural nowhere, two hours inland from the Andalusian costas. It was sunny and clear; the sort of Spanish November day you get in an English June. I had been looking forward to it.

Maybe the late start or a lazy complacency undermined our plans. But it's only about 10 miles across stark hills and scrubby farmland, from Benaocaz village to the viewpoint on the road above Grazalema. And you don't feel like rushing through this landscape of cobbled mule-tracks and open meadows, punctuated by a few self-conscious trees and goat-like sheep.

At least, I don't. I like looking at birds, and other creatures of interest along the way. Joe would rather forge ahead, as though he has an appointment to keep at the journey's zenith. So he's the one who sees and scares away the rarities before I can enjoy them, tantalising me with his sketchy outlines...

"There was a cat-like fox thing with stripes on its face."

"Sounds like a marten, you lucky bastard; where did it go?"

"Into the scrub there. Just before the golden eagle nearly caught a rabbit before you came up."

Still, this time I find him running back towards me, pursued by a low-flying vulture, as big as a hang-glider. We sit and watch, as 30 more cruise over, like a squadron of Second World War bombers, but without menace, as though heading home after a mission. What gory carcass will greet us round the next corner; what Judgement Day horror by Bosch has come to pass beyond the next hill? Nothing more than a muddy and newly-deserted waterhole – even griffon vultures have to drink in this sun-dried sierra.

We're over halfway, but now the path is becoming confused with other animal tracks which converge and fork, like the palm-lines on your hand. This one ends in a rocky cul-de-sac; that one seems to evaporate in the warm afternoon air. We're not exactly lost, but the lowering sun behind us points long, ominous shadows in the direction we have to go, so we hurry on, to the mocking cries of the goat-sheep.

Over a crest, we see our viewpoint destination as though through the wrong end of my binoculars; as reachable as a rainbow. Suddenly everything becomes dispiriting. Those once-cheery sheep-bells carry a hollow, death-rattling note; will the vultures hear it, and return to pick our brains? We hope the spongy knobbles beneath our feet are only turf and sheep-turds, but they feel more like corpses.

But wait, isn't that a farm light ahead? Yes – just a small cliff to descend in the gloom, and we're back among the living, in a familiar and semi-exotic landscape. Good walk, really, wasn't it? No sweat.

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