17 Feb River of stone
We often walk the Ruta de la Mineria. It runs through the hillsides where, until the 1970s, lead and iron were wrested from the rock. It’s a walk of about 10km, simultaneously scenic and chilling. Setting out from the village, you climb up into Serena, a tiny pueblo aptly named, through an almond grove and, from there the track winds through the hills and valleys that gave up their treasure to men crouching in deep dark holes wielding pickaxes and shovels through long hours of dangerous work. Disused mine workings still dot the landscape, brick and stone crumbling back to earth; traces of wooden sleepers along the narrow verge where a track carried wagons pushed by men or pulled by mules to take the day’s pickings away through tunnels dug out of the rock.
The miners’ trail sits high above a gorge, the bed of a river that eventually joins another, wider river further downstream. Or just ‘down’ – ‘stream’ is an abstract concept here. We’ve never seen water flow through these rivers, though we’re told that occasional storms bring torrential downpours that fill them rapidly – a sudden fortissimo interlude in a quiet lullaby.
We’d always talked about walking down the river bed to where it joins the bigger river at a bend where a ruined house stands guard over more almonds and where you can climb back up to re-join the trail. We’d been told that sections of the river course might be impassable – massive rocks, steep drops. But we reasoned that the man who told us had never done the walk himself, so what did he really know? If it was impossible, we’d just turn back.
The descent starts gently; easy walking over pebbles or low, smooth rocks. Sides cleaved by the river over millennia are wide for the first hundred metres or so. We’re entranced by the rocks strewn across the floor. Such absurd variety seemed not to belong in a single landscape. Had a sample of every rock in the world been put into a huge tub, shaken around then poured from a great height? Colours that mesmerised; patterns that baffled; shapes that confused. A slab of rock with dark lines dribbled across it as if water had been spilled a moment ago and had not yet dried. I touch it and my hand comes away dry. Pale rock with dark veins as if alien blood had coursed through; massive, smooth, steel-grey boulders mottled with white like the skin of a spotted seal. Smaller stones of every possible colour – white, copper, bronze, ochre, aubergine, green, black, every shade of grey and brown. What a show-off this hidden river bed turned out to be.
There were moments when the mouth went dry and deep in the belly something fluttered. A 30 ft precipice of sheer, smooth rock that time has not yet humbled. No footholds. And obviously no rope – we’re hikers after all. But maybe there’s a way round. We’d hate to give up. The childish delight of scrambling and slithering and telling ourselves we could do it overcame the combined chronological age and the fact that we probably should know better.
It was a thrill for every sense. Adrenaline pumps and you can feel the tingle in the tips of your fingers. An intense smell of thyme that seems to grow everywhere, tucked into unseen crevices, so that when you sit to slither down a glossy rockface you inhale the pungent aroma. It’s a narrow canyon now whose steep sides must trap the moisture at night and limit the evaporation by day so that the further and deeper you go the more abundant the wild flowers and shrubs that litter the river bed. The spindly, delicate lavender that thrives by the roadsides higher up is plentiful here, no fierce sun to shrivel its leaves, no dust to dull its colour. Lavatera look-alikes reach up for light, their pale lilac petals around a bright yellow heart. This feast of nature and time was so far beyond our expectations.
Then we found the little cross.
By the edge of what would be the river were water to run here, a cross painted yellow, red and green. Stark colours that reminded me of the little trolley of wooden bricks I had as a child. It was set into concrete and the dates of the life commemorated were inscribed. A four-year-old child died here in August 2010. We feel shocked at this tiny, poignant memorial that hardly anyone will ever see. And we speculate about what happened, here on this unmarked route far below the narrow miners’ trail, about parents still grieving, unable to forgive themselves or to forget.
It’s all about the contrast, I suppose. A walk through geological time and the eroding passage of a river over thousands of years. The span of life of a child.