Stage 1.7: Tarifa – Algeciras, Spain

In which I race three cyclists, enjoy humanless beaches, get repeatedly lost, negotiate a lot of cows, find a very dead animal, and espy Gibraltar.

As I leave Tarifa, the forecast says mostly sunny, and the temperature starts at 8°C. And thus begins one of the most surreal runs of my life. Looking at the route a couple of times beforehand, I initially consider taking the road. But that would be 22 km of tarmac, which fills me with little inspiration. Someone where I’m staying tells me there’s a path that runs from Tarifa to Algeciras, and I decide to give this a try.

Passing through town quickly, I find the path with surprisingly little trouble, and set out. I soon pass three cyclists, who later take a higher path and overtake. This first stretch is really a runner’s domain; despite having mountain-bikes, progress is very slow for them, with lots of rocks and sharp turns. The race is on, for me at least. ;) For the next quarter of an hour or so, I can’t catch them up, but see them tantalisingly close.
At times, the path becomes easier again. The cliff drops away to the sea, a magnificent view which stays for the vast majority of the first half. Rocks stretch out in a line, and waves break against them.
The rocks break apart entirely, and progress in places is slow. There is no clear path through them, and running is a task of picking a route through and over small rockfalls. I finally overtake the cyclists, whilst they rest on their higher path. For me, it’s a first-aid break, still trying to find a solution to the blisters of days before, to stop them from getting worse.
The road opens up, and the cyclists have the advantage and speed away. It occurs to me that already on this stage, there’s a whole section of a few kilometres, where even having a bike doesn’t help you much. Sure, it’s nice for riding down the small straights, but even with a backpack, a runner can climb the rocks faster.
Vista after vista, each a stunning delight. To the right, the deep, deep blue of the sea. To the left, a countryside of hills, farms, and windmills. Yesterday was incredibly rainy, and these paths would’ve been treacherous. But this having completely cleared, the day is getting ever hotter.
This morning, I am asked by someone how fast I run with the backpack. And that really, really varies. Most of the stages so far have been in midday heat, and many of them have unexpected challenges. Such as these cows. I’m not chancing it, and reduce my speed to a slow walk as I go past. Their horns are far too pointy to risk upsetting them. It might be marked, but this is their path.
Now and then, the paths drops away, and it’s not clear even where the route lies. This, too, causes not insignificant delays; I get lost multiple times on this stage, sometimes for minutes at a time. The path suddenly vanishes, and there’s a rockfall, or a steep slope, or a pile of mud. Now and then, the cows give you a pat for having made it so far.
The path sometimes ascends steeply, within a few minutes taking you from sea-level to having a view over the sea and cliffs and world at large.
Cove after cove comes into view, and for kilometres on end, I am the only person in sight. For most of the whole first half of the run, in fact, I probably don’t pass more than a couple of handfuls of people. The cyclists. And old man walking a stick. The cyclists have turned off; there’s really no route for them. And one false turn would send them over the edge, anyway. I don’t dare to run around some of these corners. The ground is loose underfoot.
I’ve said it already, but it’s worth saying again: the views really are stunning. There’s no doing them justice. To see all this on a run, in the ever-warming sun, with beaches and paths abandoned by all. It all feels very surreal, like being in some kind of game. Except this virtual-reality is immensely plausible…
Rounding the next cove, it’s hard to see where the path lies. The markers here are absent, and it takes me some time and experimentation to find a way. If you were determined to go your own way even if wrong, you’d basically have two options: fall off the cliff into the sea, or penetrate tough greenery metres high spreading out over kilometres. Now and then, a little path through, not always clear. There are some very scratchy bushes with thorns in these parts; they like to grow right next to the path and claw at you as you attempt to go past.
Another empty beach. The tree is undisturbed, and attempts to make its own way into the sea. Over the rocks, various rubbish, particularly plastic, is a common sight. Other than that, though, the views are unspoilt. Like so many places along this stage, running isn’t actually possible (or at least, likely); the rocks are so high and uneven, or the paths so narrow and with frequent drops of 30 cm or more, that there’s really nothing for it but to walk. The sun beats down.
A river makes its way to the sea. There is a path across, and for a moment, I am sandwiched by two beautiful bodies of water. And soon afterwards, I plunge into the darker trees, and once again become lost.
I find what seems to be a path. A large dead animal is blocking it. Really, it’s rather dead. And the path ascends, without any room to pass. I doubt myself; surely this cannot be the right way. Finding no other, I resolve to pass. Although this doesn’t take more than a minute or two, this is one of my less favourite moments of the stage; I really, really don’t want to step on it, but to pass it I must cross over the top, and the trees on either side are spiky.
To my absolute amazement, at the top of the ascent I find another green post, confirming that it’s the right way. I cannot understand it. But I have bigger problems; running is still rather hopeless, here, because of the terrain, and where it flattens out again and I attempt to get back into a rhythm, I have to negotiate thick mud once more. Passing these last few kilometres has taken truly ages; sometimes, I’ve only advanced a kilometre or so in half an hour. I never expected the going to be so tough, and didn’t bring enough water. My backup bottle gained some cracks a few days ago, and I didn’t replace it. The temperature has risen so much, and I’ve had little shade all day. I’ve also been going mapless for the majority of the route. Sensing that I’m soon about to become dehydrated and start having real difficulties, I cut a course as straight as I can for the road, some kilometres away. I need to make sure I can find some water within the next hour or two, even if that involves asking at a random farmhouse—once they come back into view. I head north.
I eventually rejoin a farm road, having lost the official path and not particularly caring how. I have to slow down and use all my best farm-animal psychology as I pass a many-bodied roadblock. I wonder to myself whether I’ve actually having much of an effect or not, but I pass my unmolested. With a few metres between us, I run a bit again, to gain some distance. I don’t want to have to think about what’s coming up behind me. :)
My map says there’s no road from the farms up to the village, without going all the way around. Running down a rural track, every house seems to have at least a couple of dogs, and every dog barks at me. I decide I might be more of a cat-person, simply because they tend to bark less. I discover the reason why the Google Maps-mobile can’t make its way directly; it’s a car, not a hovercraft. But humans can use stepping-stones. :)
I reach El Palayo, and find a convenience store. I’m seriously relieved to buy a couple of bottles of water—but these I stash in my bag; I don’t want to run out again. For me, juice and a Spanish beer refresh me as I look out over the hills. I’ve taken to removing my trainers during rests, to let the heat escape. This seems to help prevent my feet from swelling too much.
Rest over, I rejoin the road I’d been so eager to avoid. Admittedly, I’m joining it for only the last few kilometres, but my over route certainly hasn’t saved any time. But I’m certainly not complaining about this; I never would’ve seen such stunning views had I simply taken the direct route.
These kilometres fly by, and I find myself picking up in energy. I’m having to run on my least-favourite side of the road, with the traffic, because it’s far wider. But I’ve had to run on far worse roads, this trip, and I roll down the gentle downhill quite merrily.
I’m pleased to be able to pass the horned-beasts so easily; for once in my run, there’s actually a fence separating us. For a few seconds, I catch my first-ever glimpse of Gibraltar. My first impressions: it’s a very large rock; it looks nothing at all like the UK.
My first impressions on entering Algeciras itself is that it reminds me of parts of Bratislava; lots of high-rise concrete (except in Bratislava, they do tend to paint it different colours, at least…). But there are less-than-pretty parts to any town, and my impressions improve gradually upon acquaintance.
At last, my journey’s end. The day has been demanding and intense, but also hugely rewarding. I’ve probably rarely ever made such slow progress, and that’s including the many kilometres I’ve had to simply walk. I’ve covered only around 28 km, but have been on-the-go for over 6 hours. Clearly, that was not a route for clock-watchers—but for the love of the sea and the pure extremeness and variety of terrain, it’s highly recommended. (But if you do it, please, please take lots of water…) But now, I’m very glad to rest. Checkpoint. 28.1 km (stage) / 166.2 km (total)