Spain: How not to Hike (Travel Tips)

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When I was about 5 years old, I wanted to be an adventurer. Twenty years later, I stumbled upon some old kids books that I used to read and occasionally scribble in. One was about a donkey living in Spain, and, clearly, five-year-old Bri thought that was the best shit ever.

I braced myself to read further. I wondered if I’d now managed to achieve some of the things I used to dream about depicted in the books. Maybe I’d even been to some of the places in real life, or had the kind of adventures that I aspired to.

Upon reflection, I realise that I had no fucking clue what being an ‘adventurer’ meant.

In this book I had scribbled across the pictures of the mountains where the donkey, Morro, would hang out using multi-coloured scented gel pens (remember those?!). I’d managed to identify that the mountains were probably hot, so I’d written a note to ‘water’. Nothing about bringing it or storing it, or how much – just ‘water’.

I’d also managed to identify that mountains were probably big. Bigger than me at least. I’d drawn me next to one of them, some 1/10th of the size (lets not even unpack how wrong that scale is). In my self-portrait I had one much longer and more wibbly leg than the other, so I can only assume this was a warning not to go climbing with unstable footwear.

I was also wearing a tutu.

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Stable footwear, neither leg wibbly.

Fighting uneasiness, I bravely continued to the end of the book. Right after the happy ending – where Morro rescues some kids from the top of the mountain – I’d written some further notes for myself. These seemed to be directly addressed to me in the future, as if I fully intended on finding these mountains and doing a better job than those other idiot kids who were fucking around at the summit and needed to be rescued.

My notes go as follows:

  • Water [I felt the need to write this again]
  • How hot? [a little more specific than last time, at least]
  • Trall trawl trayal trayel tril trail left of the big rock [fucking got there in the end]
  • Tell Sooty at the top [Sooty was my cat at the time]
  • Leave tutu at the bottom

These notes made me feel a lot of weird things, but I suppose at least I didn’t find out I was some sort of psychotic kid: simply one who liked mountains and donkeys, and later on in some other books a bunch of cool mice that hung out in a forest. And this magical rainbow fish in a tropical sea. In hindsight, there was a clear theme throughout my childhood.

Anyway, I did actually go on some mountain adventures in Spain. I did a lot of hiking and kayaking, as well as drinking a lot of gin. So, I figured for all you fellow adventurers I’d add twenty years of wisdom to my original case notes – not that they need improving, but you know – it’s nice to perfect things sometimes.

  • [original note] Water

Yep. That’s still a thing you’re going to need. Yep, you’re going to need a lot of it whether you’re hiking or kayaking. More water equals more adventure.

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“Look at all this water.”
  • [original note] How hot?

Fucking hot. On one of the days in the mountains I made the mistake of hiking to the top of the Zahara (citadel in the mountains) in 45 degree heat, because as my original note suggests, I still didn’t know how hot it would be. Never has the saying ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ been more true. It definitely was worth it worth it, though.

  • [original note] trail to the left of the big rock

There are many trails on many mountains, and many to the left of big rocks. Fortunately for five-year-old Bri, older Bri has a degree in geography and much better situational awareness.

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  • [original note] tell Sooty at the top

Sooty is dead, mate. Also how were you ever planning on telling your cat back in England while you were on the summit of a Spanish mountain? Either way, she was never going to know of your Spanish mountain prowess.

  • [original note] leave tutu at the bottom

This is honestly one of the smartest things that five-year-old Bri has ever written. I’m happy to confirm that you should not under any circumstances hike or kayak in the southern Spanish mountains wearing a tutu. They are cumbersome and hot, and those are two things that you could do without in an environment that is hotter than the surface of the sun. Good job.

 

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After I returned from Spain and later found this book I couldn’t help but think of all of the other things that I learnt twenty years later. So, in keeping with the tradition of trying to help my future self, and other fellow adventurers, here are some of my newly tried and tested tips on both surviving and enjoying the Spanish mountains.

  • Don’t hire a smart car as your mode of transport around the mountains. Sure, its the cheapest option, and it seems absolutely fucking hilarious when your friend can’t even fit his head in it. But, trust me, your equipment is more important.
  • Don’t have a hangover and hike. Yeah, I know, usually this is fine and the exercise makes you feel better. But trust me, in 45 degree heat while you’re already dehydrated this is a really stupid idea, and you’re going to make really stupid mistakes. Save your idiocy for a colder, safer hike.

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  • There’s going to be a lot of haze and dust in the summer, and often this can appear to be cloud cover: it is not, and you are still going to get sunburnt. You’re also going to get sunburnt when there is no dust. You’re also going to get sunburnt when you think you’re in the shade. The Spanish mountains are going to teach you a lot about sunburn and the simple solution is to take sunscreen with you wherever you go, no matter how much you don’t want to hike with extra weight.
  • You’re going to want to give yourself as much opportunity to watch the sunsets over the mountains as possible. Trust me, they are unlike anywhere else on earth.

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  • If you go kayaking on a lake that has a petrified forest half submerged in the water, the trees are going to be covered with spiders. There were probably some other insects on it too, but honestly as soon as I touched a branch and 95% of the country’s spider population fell onto my arm I did not stick around to find out what the other bugs were.
  • Don’t kayak with a lot of spiders in your craft.

Spain, I’m glad I finally got to visit your mountains, even if it wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten to see your beautiful country. I think five-year-old me would be satisfied. 10/10 would recommend – and if you do go on an adventure there be sure to let me know, and I will come along for the sunburn. 

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Macedonia: The Godfather of Lake Ohrid

 

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More photos on Instagram @travels_of_bri

Macedonia is a country that most folk don’t know about, let alone can locate on a world map. It’s the kind of destination that Barry from the pub down the road once claimed he visited on a 1980s football world tour, back when he had hair and an entirely misplaced sense of patriotism (cunningly disguised as racism).

And, in fairness, visiting Macedonia is a little like going back in time several decades; especially when it comes to the more rural parts of the country. Driving from the capital city of Skopje to the lakeside tourist destination of Lake Ohrid was certainly an experience*. Despite taking a holiday on the set from ‘Life on Mars’, myself, level-headed Molly, international spokesman Angus and trusted navigator Gord, all rapidly fell in love with the place. The scenery was stunningly beautiful, the way of life was relaxed and exceptionally tolerant, and the people… well the people were the most interesting part**.

To get around the country we had hired a rental car, and had been parking said car in the carpark of a local supermarket***. Each day we’d pick it up in the morning and go off on some adventures, parking it back up in the evening or late afternoon when we returned back to the lakeside settlement. One day, when we attempted to get the car we found that it was totally blocked in by other cars – one in particular. This had put a rather large spanner in the works as our plan for the day was to drive around the lake to a place that we could go scuba diving at.

Cocksparger.

We had a quick conference in front of the blocked car and decided that we would call our airbnb host, Vladimiro. He’d been very helpful in directing us to both the airbnb flat and the parking space, so we figured he may know the locals at the supermarket and be able to do some translations. To our surprise not only was he very helpful, he dropped everything to come over to the carpark himself and stage an intervention.

Vlad rocked up in a full grey tracksuit, sporting a man-bag, some worn out trainers, and stare that said “if you fuck with me your body might not ever be found”.

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Yes, Macedonia really looks like this. Photo by Fabio Dario.

Having never met him face to face before we impolitely stared at him, worrying about the consequences of our call. In a deep and rasping voice, with a thick and heavy accent he asked us about our plans and how long we had been waiting. Politely we replied, and made it very clear that it really wasn’t much bother, we could go diving another day. He nodded thoughtfully with a 1000 yard stare before wandering off into the supermarket to recruit some of the staff to his head-hunting team without saying a word to us. We remained by the blocked car, awkwardly waiting like stereotypical British colonials waiting for a  goddamn tea shipment.

A short while later Vlad came out of the supermarket and informed us that he had not been able to find the car owners. He pulled out an ancient nokia phone and got to work ringing apparently everyone he knew in the city****. We stood and waited for a while before trying to politely reiterate that we were happy to wait and go on an adventure another day instead. He silenced our protests with a slow shake of his head, and explained that he was going “get some contacts in”.

At this point we felt that we were officially in a mafia film.

Our patient and ever so slightly nervous waiting shifted into anxious pacing, occasionally throwing one another uneasy glances. At any point we were expecting to be thrown into the midst of an interrogation. And, being British, we were not well equipped for that level of directness with a stranger. After a few intense minutes Vlad hung up the phone and fixed us with a penetrating stare. Expressionless, he told us that “it was being taken care of”. Fucking hell.

…And then the police show up.

This was a little too much for us and before we knew it we were spouting clear and forceful protests such as “well, you know…”, and “honestly, it’s not a big deal…” to Vlad and the police, hoping that the sheer passive strength of our protests – that had as much structural integrity as a damp piece of toilet paper – would somehow convince them to take pity on us and let us go home for a sit down and a cup of tea. But, they were having none of it. Vlad told us to wait, and so in fear of waking up to a horse’s head in the back of the car the next day we feebly agreed to stay put.

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More pictures on Instagram @travels_of_bri

Five or so minutes later a black car rolls up with tinted windows and specialised hub caps. The carpark becomes deadly silent. The supermarket staff pause their tasks and watch the car. Vlad waits in silence with a jaw that would make a setsquare jealous. Two huge, tattooed tracksuited-up guys get out of the car and slowly begin swaggering up to our car in a motion that put john wayne to shame. We look up at them like rabbits caught in headlights.

They speak in Macedonian. We reply in English, telling them that we’re sorry, we don’t know the language.

They pause, frown. A scowl appears across their colossal brows. Fuck, we think collectively.

Vlad stares on in silence. The tension in the carpark could be cut with a knife…

And then one of them blurts out “We are SO sorry! Goodness, you must think so badly of us!”

We briefly exchange looks with one another, baffled. What on earth was going on…

The Macedonian man continued flamboyantly “Idiot here (camply gesturing to his partner) wasn’t supposed to park the car like this. We are so SO sorry to ruin your day!”

We immediately apologise as well, being British. Honestly, it wasn’t a big deal. No day ruined. Projecting big smiles around the carpark and especially at Vlad in a desperate effort to make the situation end quickly and with no bad blood.

“No, no no. I will not hear it.” The man continues, “We have ruined your day. Stupid is as stupid does, eh?” He playfully punched Angus in the shoulder, knocking him back several feet across the carpark.

We profusely agree. Honestly, we’ll get out of your way now. Vlad slowly nods towards them. They notice Vlad’s signal and one of the men gets into the car and removes it from blocking ours, while the other leaves the car park in the other pimped up car that they arrived in. Vlad remains motionless by the side, expressionless. We leap into the car and start up the engine, Angus manoeuvres us out more quickly than I’ve ever seen him drive before. As we leave the carpark we wind one window down to say thank you to Vlad on our way out. He nods and says, “When you get to the lake, you find a man called Yohan.” –

Fuck. Were we expected to do him a favour now that he had done one for us? Were we officially in the mafia too? How were we going to tell our mothers that we had ended up murdering someone on holiday because we couldn’t leave a carpark?

-“You tell him that Vladimiro of the lake police sent you. He will give you a good price for scuba diving.”

Utterly dumbfounded we couldn’t even muster a response. The police? This is the Macedonian police? Molly took the initiative and leaned out of the window and said a final thank you before whispering to Angus to “start fucking driving”. And so, after the carpark saga and the plot twist of the century we rocked up to the scuba diving centre in the nick of time and had an utterly amazing, adventure-filled day.

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Me, needing to have a break after much adventures. More photos on Instagram @travels_of_bri

*The kind of experience where you wonder if you kept on driving to the other side of the country would you eventually end up in the dark ages, foraging for berries while your family died of the plague.

**The people were unbelievably friendly and welcoming. Unfortunately this did mean that upon meeting one of our airbnb hosts we were unable to get her to stop talking about her cat – Zorro – for several hours while she made us continual rounds of thick, black coffee.

**We had been assured by our airbnb hosts that this was in fact the allocated parking spot that was included with the flat. It was definitely just a supermarket car park.

*** Although Ohrid is technically counted as a city, it is definitely the size of a small town in the UK.

Wales: A Camping Calamity

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With or without rain Wales is stunning. Image by @condenasttraveller.

Wales is a country where it rains roughly 98.73% of the time. I know this not only because I have a bachelor’s degree in geography, but also because I have attempted to go camping there on several different occasions throughout my life.

I’ve chosen the word ‘attempt’ for a reason.

While the country is stunningly beautiful, there really is little variation in the weather. It’s not one of those adventuring experiences where a few minor things go wrong and you’re forced to band together, talk about ‘Band of Brothers’, and ramble on through despite it all. Maybe break out the fire-lighters instead of the hand crafted ‘bow and string’ method. No amount of ‘stiff upper lip’ positivity is going to dry your socks out for the 17th time when you are essentially sat in a lake the size of a country. That you paid to get into.

Despite this wealth of knowledge, a group of friends and I decided to go back and attempt to camp there again. Pat and Pete – the punk liberal intelligentcia – were always up for some sort of foray into, or with, nature. They were the sort who, in the words of Stewart Lee, would go anarcho-punk orienteering: they had the boundaries marked out on the maps but they would cross them out and make a spud cannon instead. Then there was Kim, the rational and calm cornerstone to our quartet. She’d seen every antic we could pull, and was somehow both positive and caring when we’d come back to base camp having lost a fight with a pine tree.

If we were playing a role playing game you would have sighed at the dungeon master and asked for a better party.

So why did you bother go back then, you ask?

Did we want to practice our survival skills? Perhaps overcome previous barriers and become more developed individuals? No…

We went back because they had built a trampoline.

…A really big one.

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I told you it was big. ‘Bounce Below’ image by @alamy

Not only was it a really big trampoline, it was also built in a giant abandoned mineshaft underground*. This gave the impression of bouncing up and down several hundred feet in the air while in an eerily-lit cavern. As we were (and still are) dirt poor we decided that we would have to brave camping again. We would also drive because a majority of the countryside is inaccessible to anything other than small cars, bikes, or putting saddles on the local sheep**.  We would backpack between campsites over several days and have some hiking adventures along the way***.

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One of the places we hiked to during our trip, looking suspiciously dry and serene. Photo by @bluestonewales.

The road trip began well. We set off from a sunny Southampton in high spirits. Driving to Wales took several enjoyable hours where we passed the time by singing along to music and joking around. Once in Wales there was another couple of hours of driving to do before reaching our first campsite…And then another couple of hours…After yet another hour we were beginning to distrust the SatNav. It didn’t matter which celebrity voice actor read out the directions, they all translated to ‘fucking lost’. It was especially disappointing in the voice of beloved and mild mannered TV personality and doctor of physics, Brian Cox.

By now the light was fading, and the weather was getting worse. The rain had intensified and the single track roads we were carving down in Pete’s tiny car were beginning to fill with mud. Still, the SatNav insisted we were going the right way****. We pressed on into the night, each looking up different routes and attempting to locate ourselves. Meanwhile, it had become apparent that the thrashing rain wasn’t the usual, totally normal thrashing Welsh rain we were used to: it was definitely part of a storm. Still, we kept trundling through the countryside, listening to the wind whistling against the dinky car and the distant rumble of thunder on the horizon.

Eventually we stumbled across a few blurry buildings in some fields far away. These had to be the basis of the campsite we theorised, because fuck all else would be built out here (unless, of course, you have seen the film ‘Dog Soldiers’). We carefully made our way to the buildings… but there was no sign of any other tents. Or indeed, anything you would even vaguely associate with camping. Just some empty fields and some outhouses.

Polite SatNav Brian Cox was in the back of our minds, meekly chiming in ‘fucking lost’.

But, the old wooden sign on the way down the track had definitely mentioned the name of the campsite. By now it was late and the storm was raging around us. We made the choice to pick a spot in a field where it was relatively protected from the worst of the weather. In gale force winds we tried – and failed – to pitch the tent several times. We had to use the car beams as our only source of light in the pitch black fields of rural Wales, which meant that every task had to be done in front of the blinding, retina-searing headlights. Add to this the maelstrom of noise from shouting survival instructions at one another and  the storm itself, drenched clothing and freezing hands and you have an episode of Ray Mears ‘Extreme Survival’ right there.

Finally, we made a camp.Soaked and utterly exhausted after our saga we crashed with the tent billowing wildly around us. But it didn’t matter. We had somewhere relatively warm and out of the rain that was big enough for all four of us to sleep in. The question of where we were faded to the back of our minds as sleep enveloped us in a cosy embrace.

We awoke to the sound of clicking.

But, at least that meant that the storm had blown out. For a while we listened, wondering what it could be. Wildlife perhaps, a woodpecker? Before we could get any real grasp of it it stopped, and countryside became silent once again.

That was.. Odd.

Fairly quickly the previous night’s ordeal came back to us. Storm. Rain. Lost. Tent… where were we?

Our trail of thought was shattered by the impact of something hard and round to the side of the tent – BOING! – it rolled off back into the field.

We jumped up, confused and alarmed. Rushing to pull some boots on we were targeted again – BLAM!

The fuck!?

We signalled at one another to, one by one, get out of the tent entrance and investigate. SatNav Brian Cox calmly chimed in the back of our thoughts ‘probably fucking dog soldiers’.

Patrick darted out first, with Pete close on his heels. Kim and I paused, listening to what was happening. To our alarm we heard nothing. What had they seen? Why hadn’t they shouted back that it was something ordinary? Was SatNav Brian Cox right?

Then we heard a whistle. The pounding of many feet on the sodden ground. The noise of something… coming.

We looked at one another and raced out of the tent entrance after Patrick and Pete…

… and found them stood motionless several metres in front of the tent… where they began laughing.

It turned out that we were in fact mostly correct about our location. The collection of outhouses and buildings were indeed part of the campsite where the information cabin was located. It also transpired that the reason we couldn’t actually see any other evidence of the other campers was because the allocated fields, you know where people actually fucking camp, were on the other side of the buildings and clearly marked by a fuck-off-large sign that said ‘CAMPING THIS WAY’. So where on earth did we manage to camp, then?

We had instead managed to pitch our tent slap bang in the middle of a goddamn football pitch.

A football pitch in which there were various groups of youths running around and pelting footballs at one another as part of an adventure weekend for teenagers.

We sheepishly looked around at one another observing a muddy remake of the ‘Battle of Britain: Football Edition’ unfold around us. After one of the ricochet balls set off the car alarm we decided that we didn’t have the troops to hold position and so we rapidly packed up camp and stopped by the information cabin to apologise. When we entered we found an elderly Welsh chap with a rue smile, who winked at us and said ‘Nice spot you found there, I hope you slept well’. Being British we immediately apologised profusely and offered to pay him extra for causing disruption to the youths planned activities. He chuckled, and said “Don’t worry ‘bout it, I’ve gotten my payment in another way!”

We stared back at him, puzzled.

He showed us the series of pictures he had click-click-clicked of our tent in the middle of the pitch, surrounded by excited and energetic youths hurling footballs at one another, with our half-damp and utterly confused selves pondering how on earth we had gotten there.

“Don’t you youngun’s worry, I’ll print this out and put it right on the wall here, so any camper can look at you lot and learn a valuable lesson”.

And so in this mis-adventure we learnt that camping in Wales has many layers. You must be hardy, seasoned to damp weather, and have back up map-reading resources once it becomes obvious that SatNa Brian Cox is a fucking liar even if he does sound politely and genuinely concerned about your welfare. In Wales the least of your problems is the weather, the biggest? Well, that would be yourselves.

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While this is what we had hoped to look like gallantly striding around the Welsh landscape, we definitely looked drenched, cold and tired of standing in rabbit droppings. A better photo from @welshrarebit

 

*Honestly, as soon as we saw the advert for this place we knew we were willing to brave any and all weather to go there, like the giant adult children we are.

** While this prepollent approach appealed to the punk brothers, level-head Kim reminded them of the last time they tried to ‘harness nature’ and were left wrapped around a tree in several inches of mud after underestimating a mountain-bike route.

***Topped off by the adventure where we went to the British equivalent of the Blue Lagoon – a place on the coast where an ancient mine shaft had collapsed and so the sea had filled it, protecting it from the tides and creating a serene pool. Pete dived into this with his GoPro and lost it at the bottom of the lagoon. So, if you ever want a free GoPro feel free to try and dive to the bottom: there is a buttload of stuff down there.

****In fairness, SatNav Brian Cox was right. But, a good rule of thumb is only ever to trust it to an accuracy of about 1 square mile, lest ye repeat the infamous stuck-in-the-marsh incident of 2014.