I stared at the cobwebs on the ceiling as I listened to the reverberating snores of my roommates in the hostel dormitory. The rising sun was already illuminating the room, making a mockery of the paper-thin curtains hanging by the bunk bed. Knowing instinctively I wouldn't be able to fall back to sleep, I got up and headed south.
Three weeks previously I'd departed Valencia in Spain on a budget bicycle. Setting off from Granada that morning, I was approximately halfway along my 1,300km adventure to Gibraltar. I'd crossed the Sierra Nevada to see the Alhambra and now, traveling back towards the coast, I believed the most grueling leg of the journey was behind me. Yet it was cycling through the unheralded Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama Natural Park that proved to be my undoing.
After cycling through central Granada—its narrow, cobbled streets almost unrecognizable in the absence of tourists so early in the day—I was soon riding through empty fields. Every so often I would pass small villages such as pretty La Malahá, where the population is counted in hundreds rather than thousands. The size of Agrón, another nearby rural village, is belied by the fact it moved its festival marking the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (celebrated globally on 8 December) to mid-August in order to ensure enough people are around to attend. Maybe Christmas comes early here too.
I stopped briefly for an early lunch in the white Andalusian village of Fornes before my progress was halted when the road unexpectedly deteriorated into gravel. I suspected the terrain would have a deleterious effect on the tires of my road bike, but my options were limited.
Either I risked proceeding on the rough ground for the remaining 36 kilometers of my route through the park, or I could cycle a circuitous 80 kilometers around the park's perimeter. Mindful of the heavy bags on my pannier rack, I chose to stick to the original plan. Many of my favorite moments of the trip had come from taking the road less traveled. It was always slower, but it was safer than cycling on main roads and many times more interesting.
How bad, I reasoned, could the journey ahead be?
I was relieved to find my tires still intact after 40 minutes of climbing. It was soon faster to walk than cycle, but the scenery was beautiful. Pine forest covers the majority of Almijara y Alhama Natural Park's 100,000 acres and I appeared to have it all to myself as I made my way across the limestone hillside. From the summit I looked out towards the sea and surveyed the surrounding mountains. Hundreds of meters downhill, small paths occasionally emerged between the trees. The question was how to get there.
The problem was compounded by the paucity of defined tracks and an intermittent mobile signal that confused my phone's GPS. Furthermore, I hadn't anticipated being in the mountains for so long and my water supply was already dwindling.
The terrain became more extreme on the southern face of the mountains. Full of deep ravines and rugged crags, the area's almost complete inaccessibility meant that for centuries it was a haven for bandits and served as a retreat for anti-Nationalist guerrillas during the Spanish Civil War. No, not the kind of place to be atop a $200 road bike with only seven gears.
For more than an hour in the baking heat I walked down towards the sea along the widest path I could find, dragging my sorry bike all the way. The slope made it difficult to balance the weight of my pannier bags and every now and again my rear wheel slipped off the path, causing stones to dislodge and fall around my ankles.
The path grew wider and deeper and was soon roughly a meter wide and a meter deep. I still had yet to see anyone else in the park, but I took the path's broadening furrow to indicate that it received significant footfall. I came across some fallen trees obstructing the track, but I thought little of them. I hadn't passed any obvious alternative routes, so I resolutely continued my descent. Alarm bells began to ring though when I approached an eight-foot drop. Having convinced myself I was on a well-trodden path, this seemed odd, but I reasoned that perhaps only hardy hikers came here.
Pushing aside any reservations, I lowered my bike down as I leaned over the rock face. The front tire hung in the air. I couldn't stretch any further, so I dropped the bike as gently as I could onto the ledge below. The rear wheel landed heavily, causing the bike to bounce and jerk in the dust. I dropped down onto the ledge, desperately hoping I hadn't just placed myself into a self-imposed prison.
Five minutes down the hill, I came across a gorse thorn thicket blocking my route. I realized with a sickening sensation that this wasn't a path at all. I should have suspected it before; the fallen logs were a giveaway. The reason this "path" looked bigger than any other was that it was, of course, a dried-up riverbed. I returned to the rock face I had just descended to assess my options. Poor judgement had left me marooned on a mountain with little water and very little food. I looked at the birds circling high overhead and darkly wondered how long before they would start to circle ominously over me.
It is in situations like these that people call the mountain rescue service. I promised myself the circumstances were going to need to get much graver before I did that. I couldn't bear the thought of my name being in the news as the stupid English tourist who got stuck coming down a steep mountain with no trails on a road bike.
I first took the pannier bags off the bike. This meant there were three things to move to the ledge above my head: the pannier bags, the bike and myself. It was like the old riddle where you have to get the fox, the chicken and the sack of grain across the river intact. If I hauled myself out, there was no way I would be able to collect the bike and the pannier bags. Conversely, if I chucked the bags over, but then couldn't get myself onto the ledge, I would lose access to all of my remaining food, water and clothes.
The pannier bags weighed a little less than the bike and were certainly a lot easier to throw. This left my bike as the biggest problem. I knew it would be a hollow victory if I escaped without it. Even when I lifted the frame over my head like an Olympic weightlifter, I couldn't get the wheels over the lip of the rock shelf. I tried throwing it from this position, but it made little difference. The wheels bounced ineffectually off the rock and the bike fell back, cutting my shins. Short of a serious growth spurt or months in the gym, this technique was doomed to fail.
Trying a different tack, I pushed the bike as high as I could on the slope to my right. I knew it wouldn't get to the top of the ledge, but if it gave me an angle from which I could reach the bike when I made it to the top, then I would have a chance of retrieving it. But every time I tried, the bike slid back down to my feet, like grains of sand in a hole at the beach. It was exasperating.
I tried the other side of the slope where gorse thorn bushes were growing. I'd been disinclined to try this side as I was keen to avoid puncturing my tires, but by this point it was more important to have a bike with a puncture than no bike at all. I placed the front tire and handlebars on the slope and then pushed the frame up as high as I could from the rear tire. The bike moved only a little as a branch became snagged between the spokes of the front wheel, but as a consequence, the frame stayed in position.
I turned my attention to the interconnected pannier bags. Using my best hammer throw technique, I launched them over the top of the ridge. I must have looked like Miss Trunchball in Matilda when she hurled that girl out of the window by her pigtails. The bags landed out of sight on the rock above.
My ego had convinced me that getting myself out would be the easy part. However, the rock face wasn't at a straightforward 90-degree angle, so I wasn't able to get the purchase over the edge of the rock required to drag the rest of my body over. I tried various techniques, scuffing my hands to little avail. Adopting an alternative approach, I grasped a root growing up the side of the slope and used this as leverage to grab a branch higher up in order to successfully haul myself out.
The shame of needing to make an emergency rescue call appeared to have subsided. A wave of relief passed over me as I briefly forgot about the myriad other complications caused by my predicament.
On my knees at the top of the rock, I could see that many of my possessions had fallen out of the pannier bags and scattered across the dirt upon impact. Turning around to my bike, I stretched down and grabbed the handlebars. The bike twisted awkwardly as I pulled it up towards me.
It was now past 4pm. I had told my Airbnb host that I would be arriving within an hour, so I sent her a message explaining that unfortunately I wouldn't be arriving anytime soon. I then began searching for the path I should have taken. Around 100 meters up the mountain I spotted a single, unmarked wooden post to my left. If I hadn't been looking so carefully for something, anything, to guide me, I would have missed it a second time.
I crossed the hillside next to gnarled trees contorted by years of wind exposure. The path, which appeared not to have been used for months, was obscured by dense, spiky gorse which scratched at my arms and legs. Fighting a way through would have been tricky enough if I were hiking, but the need to drag my bike behind me made my limbs look as if they had been attacked by stray cats.
After half an hour, things started to look up when I could hear the quiet burble of a stream nearby. I turned to collect a bottle from my bag. As I did so, I realized one of my pannier bags was open and that one of the plastic bags I expected to see inside wasn't there. It must have got caught on a branch as I made my way through the bushes. A quick inventory revealed I was missing a water bottle, a few bike accessories and the food I had been assiduously rationing.
I no longer had the energy for anger, but the loss of these items was undeniably a kick in the teeth. Dusk wasn't far away and the bag could have been anywhere. Going back for it wasn't an option.
I knew it was essential to get out of the park before darkness fell. During the hours that followed, I walked in the descending gloom as quickly as the loose ground and my tired legs would allow. At around 10pm, in the last fragments of light, I could just make out a couple of farmhouses in the middle distance. Against the odds, I thought I had made it out of the park in the nick of time. But far from being my salvation, this milestone merely marked a new chapter in this nightmarish saga. For while I'd finally arrived on the sweet even surface of a tarmacked road, the absence of streetlights left me virtually blind.
While in Spain I hadn't planned to cycle at night, so the bike lights I carried were the cheapest money could buy. As a result of the limited illumination they provided, I could only see two meters in front of me. Sensing my presence, dogs barked ferociously nearby and I desperately hoped the perimeter fences of the surrounding farms were secure.
I was preoccupied too by the road's countless hairpin bends. I worried that having worked so hard to get out of the park, I would miss a turn in the road and ride straight over a precipice. From the apex of the bends I could sometimes see the shining lights of the town below. They were gradually getting closer, but as I knew from bitter experience, catching sight of something and finding a way to get there were two very different things.
Only 10 cars passed me in the hour and a half I spent in the darkness. Each set of glowing headlights provided a precious opportunity to see the layout of the road. Halfway down the hill, one of the cars slowed to a halt next to me. My imagination, which was already running wild with fears of rabid dogs, went into overdrive. If I were kidnapped here, it could be weeks before anyone found me. As my eyes adjusted to the bright headlights, I heard the man turn off his radio and wind down his window.
'¿Está bien?' he asked doubtfully. Are you ok?
The innocence of the question caught me off guard. I could feel myself beginning to unravel, the stress of the past few hours bursting to be released. I wanted to tell him I was far from ok, that I'd been trapped up a mountain, I had run out of food and still barely knew where I was. But I knew such an outpouring wouldn't help.
So in true English fashion I simply replied, "Si, gracias," as if being out there in the pitch black at 10.45pm was where I had intended to be all along. Unsure what to make of me, he shrugged and began to pull away in his car. I was alone again.
By this point both my phone and power bank were almost entirely drained of battery. I was trying to preserve the last few precious minutes of usage I had remaining until I needed them to locate my accommodation in the small seaside resort of Torrox-Costa. As I got closer to the town, the number of roads increased and I was forced to pause at every junction, peering through the inky blackness to guess which way to turn. Invariably, I'd end up in a dead end. Confused, I would shine the torch on my phone over the area like a detective at a crime scene and find I'd cycled into a cemetery or up someone's drive.
Eventually, I saw signs pointing towards Torrox-Costa and reached roads with streetlights. Energized by the achievement, I was belatedly able to make real progress. I was acutely aware that at this late hour there was a chance my host might tell me to buzz off. She patently could have done without the amount of inconvenience I was causing her.
Nearly 45 minutes later, at 12.15am, I finally arrived at my accommodation. I was braced to receive a fully deserved barrage of criticism, yet my host just seemed relieved to see me. I must have looked a mess: weary, enveloped in a layer of dirt and covered in cuts.
I began to apologize profusely, but she gently pointed to her lips. She bid me goodnight and I crept into bed. I instantly fell asleep.
Chris Atkin is an author and freelance journalist. His recently published book, (Just As Well) It's Not About The Bike is an account of his cycle across Spain and the extraordinary episodes of history he learned about en route. Find out more about Chris at https://chrisatkinonline.com/.
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Catalunya or Bust by the Back Roads - Amy Rosen
Accepting Fate on the GR7 Hiking Trail of Spain - Jeremy Bassetti
Biking Across Borders in the Balkans - Tim Leffel
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