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.
However, Cabañeros has another side to it – hunting. We walk pass endless rows of high barbed wire fence, signs aggressively declaring ‘Private hunting estate – Keep Out!’ Trekking routes and areas for the general public are extremely limited. It seems here, even in Spain’s National Parks, experiences are sold to the highest bidder.
Yet we soldier on, determined to make the most of our time here and, even amidst man’s attempt to control nature, wildlife seems to flourish. We picnic in the shade of a tall oak, next to a 10 foot high fence, a dragonfly lands, almost invisible amongst the wires. A rabbit scurries away from us, under the wire and into the danger of the hunting ground. We gaze through the wire, willing ourselves onto the other side. A stag stands in the distance, flanked by three does. Even from far away the majestic, regal beauty of this animal amazes me. Thwarted by the fence the best I manage is a blurred photo, not doing justice at all to these magnificent creatures.
It is Sunday afternoon, Madrid is beckoning us back. The park opens up before us, no fences, yet we are told to enter we need to book an evening Jeep safari; the best way to see the animals that call this place home – Wild Boar, Foxes, Deer, Black Stork, Vultures, Eagles and also the extremely endangered Iberian Lynx. The Jeep is full, come back next week. We see an opening and head into the park on foot, following tracks made by deer in the dust and hoping no angry hunter has seen us.
We don’t go far, the park is vast and we are anxious not to disturb the fragile ecosystem. We keep to the tracks made by the Jeeps and added to later by the deer. I picture the deer following just behind the Jeep, the occupants looking forward unaware that a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps is going on right behind them. A vulture circles just above us, its forked wings protruding outwards like long, elongated fingers.
A doe and her fawn pass in front of us, far in the distance herds of deer gather, some 30 or more strong. We see fox tracks near a gap in a fence, small birds perch precariously on long stems of plants and flowers, impossibly light, seemingly floating. I imagine them acting as sentinels to the world beneath our feet; a world of insects and small mammals, the tall grass standing as tall as oak and pine to the creatures of this unseen world.
I venture into the tall grass towards a small copse of trees, curious as to what secrets it might reveal. I see a doe not too far ahead, I duck down onto my stomach, commando crawling forwards, feeling like Rambo but in reality probably looking like an idiot. I inch closer, camera at the ready. She hasn’t seen me, she is munching away happily on the grass and looking in the other direction, unaware of this strange Englishman lying in the grass a few yards away. I wait, patiently hoping she’ll turn her head for the photo. By now I’m caked in dust, I hope Maria will let me in the car for the drive back home. Sadly, nature doesn’t always do what you want. After 10 minutes lying in the dust I’m hot and bored, so I stage my retreat.
I traipse back, the doe has run away – scared and probably a little confused as to where I suddenly came from. Maria gives me an ‘I told you so’ look, my new white shirt is now more ochre than any other colour, so too are my knees. I glance back towards my new friend, she’s waiting for me, looking the camera dead in the eye giving me one last chance to take a photo, ears erect like yoda she holds the pose. Then she bounds off into the freedom of the savannah-esque plain and we too make our way back to Madrid, not quite as enthusiastically.