Stage 1.8: Algeciras – La Línea de la Concepción, Spain

In which I round the Bay of Gibraltar, encounter an unexpected and watery roadblock, see some birds’ nests, and hobble up a mini-mountain.

Today’s challenge is to round the Bay of Gibraltar (or the Bay of Algeciras, if you prefer). For crows, this is easy; a mere 12 km or so (although I do wonder actually what a comfortable flying-distance for crows is…). For cars, this is a more serious 26 km. For runners… well, 36 km is a minimum. This is one of those times when it really is faster to go by almost any other mode of transport (well, of course—but you get the idea). Seemingly, it is not possible to merely skirt the bay; a brave hairstyle needs to be traced, instead. I spend the first couple of kilometres getting free of the city, then the countryside opens up. I know the day’s proceedings have begun in earnest when I cross a railway track with no barriers, right against which a child’s plastic car has been parked, and then follow a cat into a hole in the bushes on the other side, seemingly the continuation of the path.

Today, in  an attempt to restore some sanity into my route-planning, I am trying out a new app: Komoot. This is supposed to have such luxuries as footpaths marked, as well as settings to differentiate between cycling, hiking, and running. There is no setting for running-with-backpack. My initial impression is positive, except that it keeps overriding my north-lock, and spinning my world around. This really irritates me, as I like to know whether I’m running in the complete wrong direction or not, and takes some getting used to. It then promptly directs me to run through a private road through the middle of a farm. Somewhat mindful of those who follow GPS and drive into the sea, I humour it, and encounter a fixed look from someone as I run by. I continue as if I have every right to visit their animals, and they don’t try to stop me. When a kilometre or so later I have to climb a gate to exit, I conclude that yes, this was indeed private land. Later when a similar direction occurs, I ignore it and take the road.
Overall, I am pleased with its routing, though. It is certainly circuitous, but it was similar for Google Maps, and the roads I’m running along are neither busy nor threatening. I cross a river, as the the sun streams down.
I’ve already been running for kilometres, and taken a couple of turns away from my final destination. Now for the moment, at least, I am running in the approximate right direction. In the distance, hiding under a tree, I see the Rock of Gibraltar. This is on the opposite side of the bay, next to La Línea de la Concepción.
And then, just as I need to cross underneath the motorway, a major setback: the way is flooded. Like, really flooded. Filled with muddy water of an indeterminate depth, going on for the width of many lanes. Not only do I not like the look of it, I want to play it safe, today; I’ve only been about 10 km, and have about 30 km left to cover. I continue on the road alongside the motorway for a bit, looking for an alternative. The motorway veers away, with fields and fences in between. Besides, it is far, far too busy. I check the map; there is no alternative for miles around. It’s basically go back, maybe most of the way, and then do—what?! I gotta get through this.
I spend some time preparing. For the first time on my journey, I wish I’d brought two large dry-bags, instead of one. I put them over my already-muddy trainers, and tie them as high up around my legs as I can. All this, and the transferring the contents, takes some time. Eventually, I am ready. I wade cautiously in, and find not only is it deeper than I was expecting, it’s really, really muddy. Even keeping to the edges, the mud is thick, I have to use my hands against the wall to keep my balance. The water is frequently about a foot deep, and I have to keep stopping to pull the dry-bags back up. At some points, smallish metal spikes protrude out of the wall, and I grip these for extra balance. The going is slow, and a trickle of water gets into my right trainer-bag. I can barely believe the surrealism of it all. This is no longer running. This is no longer even trekking. This is something else.
Safely through the other side, I ginger roll up the dry-bags for later washing; they are filthy, inside and out. And then a car comes slowly through, in the opposite direction I came! There’s no telling which way I’m trying to head, and I do feel rather nonplussed that they don’t offer me a ride through. I watch the car as it drives through the middle, very slowly, wheels out-of-sight almost the whole way. I complete the repacking, and head on my way. Including staring, doubling-back, preparing, wading, and repacking, it has taken me close to half-an-hour to go a distance of a couple of hundred metres. I rejoin the road.
Fields stretch out beside me. It’s a glorious day, sunny and hot, with glorious views. The road is mostly quiet, except for large lorries and some cars, and later, a van rescuing a litter of stray dogs.
Crossing another river, I look out at the picture-perfect scene, and think: this could be Czechia!
Along the way, I discover an ingenious system of housing for large birds: nests on top of electricity pylons. They seem content up there (as much as I’m a good judge of the contentedness or otherwise of wildlife), and I don’t see an empty nest.
This really is a circuitous route, and I’m feeling the heat of the day. The path becomes smaller, and tree-lined, as I head through a couple of villages (hamlets?) too small even for a local shop.
Already mixing walking with running, I find myself becoming exhausted. The road leads down the middle of small houses. I wonder how many dogs I have made bark since the beginning of this trip.
And then, the path climbs. And climbs. And climbs. And climbs. First up to a bridge over the motorway; a steep ascent which takes many minutes. Then, a rocky road which snakes up around the hill. And finally, an actual path of rocks. Rocks. More rocks. There’s no way I can run this—neither the ascent nor the rocky terrain. And still I climb. I realise that the path leads over a mini-mountain. And I’m going right over the top of it.
Still not at the top, I can at least see the sea again, in the distance. I keep ascending, rock, rock, bump, trough, climb, small rockfall, steeper rock, ouch-ouch-ouch, rock… This is described as a technically demanding trail, and I can see why. If I didn’t have my backpack, and if I hadn’t already gone around 30 km, I would consider trying to run it—but no promises; the ghost of a broken ankle haunts every step.
Stretching back behind me, the Great Wall of Mini-Mountain-With-The-Radio-Towers (this might not be its official name).
Finally over the top, I begin the descent. It’s really very windy, up here, caught in the wind from both sides. I find that running is not possible here, either, again because of rocks and the path. When it clears a bit, I try a gentle jog—and almost go tumbling down the hill, the weight of my backpack punishing my misstep aggressively. I go back to mostly walking. On my way down, I discover a couple of concrete bunkers. From my reading at a similar one all the way back at the flooded tunnel, these were built to defend against the British (and other threats). Looking ahead at just how near Gibraltar is, I can understand the concern…
Whilst descending, my mobile battery becomes very low. I stop and plug it into a power brick, with a long cord looped round. With so many cables, I probably somewhat resemble a Christmas tree. Finally near the bottom, I look up at the way I’ve come. It’s been occurring to me that: I definitely still did not bring enough water; perhaps this wasn’t the best day to have not eaten. ;)
Even though I just a kilometre or two left to go, I make a detour and visit the supermarket. I’m completely out of strength. As I walk the final part, eating breakfast, I wonder to myself about what exactly running is. For Olympic walking (‘racewalking’), there has to be the rule about foot-contact, so as not to give an unfair advantage. But if you walk part-way in a marathon, that’s a disadvantage. If you walk 1 km in 20 km, is it not running? And if you end up hiking over the top of a mini-mountain where the path is so rocky running would probably break something? You get the idea. I conclude that it ‘counts’—whatever that really means; I worked hard for each and every kilometre. Checkpoint. 41.5 km (stage) / 207.7 km (total)