The stillness is overwhelming, no wind, no noise. Enveloped in a blanket of white, the snow smothers everything. The ground is dotted with tracks: human, dog, rabbit, deer, and many others I don’t recognise. Each path is a mystery, a traveller writing their own story. I choose the deer and follow the tracks off the path and into the forest.
It has been snowing all morning, the softest, purest, whitest snow I’ve ever seen. The top layer of snow falls through my hands like flour through a sieve. We are in Cercedilla, in the forested valley of Fuenfria. Today it feels more like Narnia (no Mr Tumnus, sadly). The heavy snowfall has put off visitors, we get a look of surprise at the information centre and are warned to stay by the river, not to climb any higher. We nod politely and then set off up, high into the mountain.
The air is hot and dry, the dusty earth crunches under my feet. I pause and look at my surroundings. Parched grassland stretches before me, squat, low oaks provide much needed shade for deer. I scan the horizon, past the grass and trees, to low, rounded mountains, some of the oldest in Spain, pushed back down to earth by millennia of erosion. I have to remind myself I’m still in Europe, not the plains of Tanzania.
Early October in the Parque Nacional de los Cabañeros, just south of Toledo and a mere hour and a half drive from Madrid. Looking around me I feel I could be on the other side of the world. Cabañeros has been both a mesmerising and frustrating experience. It is an undeniably beautiful area of Spain; wild, untouched landscapes, calm, idyllic rivers and streams, deep valleys leading to high, if slightly dry, waterfalls.
A movement out of the corner of my eye, I lower the camera, ignoring the protestations of Maria as she poses for a photo, large granite boulders stain the pristine snowfield. It was nothing, back to the photo.
Then, appearing as if out of nowhere, a large male Ibex, horns curled in perfect symmetry outwards, leaves the safety and camouflage of a grey boulder and trudges out onto the snow fifty yards in front of me, over the shoulder of the still unaware Maria. Six others emerge, diligently following behind. Enormous black vultures soar high on the thermals above, two young males ‘play’ in the snow, horns clashing with alarming power, a mother tends to her kid.