To blow away the cobwebs I went out into the highest landscape in these parts, the Sierra de Aitana yesterday. It is from that ridge that I took the name for my youngest donkey, sweet Aitana – and it is a popular name for girls in this province of Alicante.
I needed to get out for some serious exercise anyway, but the trip had a secondary purpose. I have spent the past weeks teaching rocks and weathering – both for GCSE and AS level Geography – and all the examples of limestone in the textbooks are from Dorset and other parts of England, so I wanted to see the local limestone inheritance from the prehistoric Tethys Ocean seventy million years ago.
From the parking spot at the Font de Partagat, it was steady climb up the limestone escarpment in a strong cold wind whistling over the Aitana from the south. I had left my gloves at home, forgetting that the temperature would be much colder at high altitude; but once my hands had turned blue and numb, I got used to it…
The main feeling I had while climbing up to the ridge was a sense of being right there in that ancient Tethys Ocean seabed, seventy million years ago. All around me were graphic examples of weathering – mechanical, chemical and biological breakdown of the rocks – and internal structure being exposed to the light of day for the first time in millions of years: bright yellow ochre calcified material springing out of the grey weathered rock.
Looking back down into the valley of Guadalest as I climbed up the ridge, the Pantano de Guadalest far below, which is the main water supply for Benidorm, is the storage point for all the groundwater flowing through these great majestic limestone masses. All around me and criss-crossing the steep path were little streams of water bringing down the life-giving crystal clear water from within the limestone ridge above.
I am always astonished by the rapidity of the transition I have witnessed in Spain, from the 1960s when I first lived here, to the present time when I enjoy the benefits of living in a modern European democracy which has an impressive devolved regional system of government, where the natural and cultural heritage of the country are maintained with great love and commitment. The upkeep of the natural heritage that is the Aitana is the responsibility of the Generalitat Valenciana, and all around this landscape is the evidence of their conservation and care. Every plant on this majestic escarpment is clearly signed and interpreted for the visitor. A dull looking spiky plant is given an interesting name and suddenly it commands the attention of one who is not normally interested in wayside flowers!
After a steep hike, the final climb up to the ridge involved the kind of thing I try to avoid – as one who does not like going up step-ladders – carefully hauling myself up over increasingly sheer masses of limestone, with a correspondingly greater drop looming below… Not something any proper climbers would regard as a ‘climb’, but an unpleasant adventure for me! Some of my Finestrat friends seek out such sheer limestone cliffs for rock-climbing fun. I prefer the paths, but this time I had no alternative. I wanted to get to the Simas de Partagat, so I had to get up on the ridge.
On this route up to the Aitana ridge there is a magic moment when you go through a narrow crag and into a limestone wonderworld of gigantic movements of landforms. Huge slabs of limestone with a twenty metre square gap opening up between them. Finely sculpted stalactites and stalagmites meet up in the sheer rockface to form miniature gothic columns of blue and grey and orange limestone, like arrays of hundreds of organ pipes catching the wind and producing a low chord of resonance between the seventy million year old Tethys Ocean up here and the distant Mediterranean far below. The Simas de Partagat are a wonder, and just considering the forces that created them takes your breath away.
For a more detailed understanding of this limestone landscape, including an explanation of the Simas de Partagat, a PDF leaflet is available (in Spanish) with interpretations of the geology and points of botanical interest. http://www.sociedadgeologica.es/archivos_pdf/geolodia_aitana_alicante.pdf
When you look at something like these, changing over millions of years at the rate your fingernails grow, it puts the present in perspective. One reason I came up here into this landscape was to get over the pain of yet one more painful encounter with my family. I had promised myself years ago that I would not fall into the trap again, but I did, and don’t we all? My donkeys will outlive me. I am here for a limited time. These rocks are my tutors. This landscape is my Lord’s creation. Those moments of despair at the way we are treated by our fellow human beings must be subsumed into a greater understanding in which life, creativity, beauty and wonder are paramount!
Finally, as I began to hurry back on the long and precarious limestone pavement on the ridge, there was a spectacular view looking down on Puig Campana from the Aitana ridge. This is the mountain that always appears in the background to my donkey blog, as we look up to it from our little life on the donkey field. Here in its full majesty is the Jurassic protrusion of that mountain in the Cretaceous landscape around it.
My hands were still blue with cold but now I was also losing my blood sugar level as I raced to get down the mountain before dark. I found a brown woollen glove handing on a bush. It had a row of buttons along the back, like the gloves I remembered my mother once had – back in the 1950s when she had a job as a petrol pump attendant – and put on the glove with a real sense of being cared for. My right hand was protected. A symbolism in that, I think.
It is not coincidental that many icons depicting the saints of old, particularly the monks and hermits, depict them in a rocky landscape? See http://citydesert.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/brother-antoine-hermit-of-the-rock-of-roquebrune-sur-argens/
Lord, who made all things good, give us a sense of perspective in our lives, which are so filled with trivia that we rarely notice Your majestic timescale. Amen.