The Vultures Gorge

There is a joy in danger.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Deep in the gorge…

I’m sure that M. Bonaparte never had the opportunity (or the inclination) to journey through a deep limestone gorge but if he had this would have been where he might have uttered his famous words. As we are nearing this strange ‘confinamiento’ stage of our lives we are told that now is the time to promote ‘turismo del interior’. I’m not sure that this is what they meant but here goes.

A crease of light seen from the bottom of the canyon.

The Vultures Gorge (‘Garganta de las Buitreras’ in Spanish) is a 200m. deep chasm where the contour lines on a map are pushed so close together they form a thick dark line obscuring the blue of the Guadalhorce river. Even in the height of a blistering Andalucían summer the water is so cold wearing a wetsuit is obligatory and a helmet a necessity.

In normal conditions the water would be well over head high at this point.

Canyoning is a curious sport, a mix of mountain and water where in perfect conditions the harmony of abseiling into pools of clear water, the rush as one jumps into a chute you can’t see the bottom of or floating in darkness looking upwards to a crease of bright light is a magical experience. When things go wrong however these narrow canyons turn in to death traps where the limestone is so smooth returning is impossible and where a storm miles upstream create a spate of water that pushes bodies and equipment in to a whirlpool of crushing, choking death.

Due to several fatalities the main section of the gorge is never officially open but can be approached from the bottom along a charming track lined with oleander and yellow gorse. However this will only take a hiker to the bottom section and its mysterious deep dark walls. Water polished limestone is impossible to climb so the only way is down which means, obviously, starting from the top. Wheeling vultures nest in the upper sections and woe betide the young ones that leave the nest untutored and land in the bottom of the gorge from which they will never escape.

The remains of a young Griffon Vulture deep in the gorge.

The Buitreras is a legendary canyon not only in Andalucía but for aficionados world wide. The sheer depth of the 200m. chasm and the narrowness of its tight walls sometimes just shoulder width make this a pilgrimage for gorge lovers everywhere. However its complicated access make it difficult to find, the top section can be approached in the summer season via a long parched 3 hour walk along a dry river bed (the actual Guadalhorce river is underground at this point) or a mad dicing death challenge along the quaint San Roque to Ronda railway line. When you are in the middle of a long tunnel and you literally feel the hiss of the steel as a train approaches maybe a mile away you know at this point that no amount of running will get you out in time. It is an exhilerating experience throwing yourself to the stony gravelly floor (avoiding the dismembered goats and mummified stray dogs that litter the length of the tunnel). Seconds later the force of the air and the ear shattering roar of the train flattens you against the side wall and you dig your head as far down as possible in to the ground. The train seems very very long as it screams past and then suddenly – silence. A hush hangs in the air and we all breathe a sigh of relief.

Water levels in the gorge vary from summer to summer and my respect for the varying conditions never changes. I have been through at least 20 times in the last 30 years, every time giving me a sense of deep privilege to be visiting this natural phenomenon but I always breathe a sigh of relief on reaching the end. A rescue is here is a very challenging task. A few years ago a group of 3, unprepared for the challenge ahead, abseiled in to the gorge in a year with unusually high water levels at the end of the summer. Normally we do the canyon only between July and mid-September when we can guarantee no rainfall at all in the Grazalema hills. On this occasion freak conditions meant that what should have been gently falling showers down the ‘pozos’ (the deep wells we abseil in to) had turned in to powerful cascades of freezing water. Unable to turn back the 3 forged on, every section forcing them to take greater risks as the pressure of the water at the bottom of an abseil will hold you under and drown you in less than a minute. It is impossible to skirt these deep wells of cascading water as the sheer polished limestone gives no grip or even the tiniest fingerhold. The only way is down, deeper and darker.

Swimming in the dark.

As the 3 adventurers moved slowly through the gorge they finally arrived at the longest and most challenging abseil, a gap in the rocks means the first to cross has to jump with a leap of faith on to a slippery boulder with a rush of water pounding below them. This was as far as they got when they realised that it would be impossible to abseil in to the next pozo without being pounded to mincemeat on the rocks below. They couldn’t go forwards and they couldn’t go back. Darkness was setting in (even on a good day the gorge will take a small group 3 hours minimum to traverse the 1,5km.) and they had no headtorches, no food and way too much water.

The only way is down – at the head of one of the ‘pozos’.

Perched on a narrow ledge the 3 ladies somehow managed to survive the night, probably saved by the air temperature being considerably warmer than the water rushing around their feet. No mobile signal works in that depth of canyon but they had let somebody know where they were heading. 24 hours after starting out a complicated rescue took place. The mountain rescue team located them first by sending a team through the gorge and then a second team abseiled 3 pitches (150m.) down the sheer face above them from where they were eventually winched out by helicopter. What had started out as a light hearted adventure had ended with the 3 in hospital with multiple contusions and hypothermia. In summer, in Andalucia.

The final stretch of the gorge takes us through a mass of bludgeoned rock looking like the sort of place Thor had an argument with a mountain. A giant 1,000 ton chunk of limestone hangs wedged between the tight walls making me cringe every time I pass underneath although it’s probably been there for several thousand years. The prize for us all is the ‘Charco de la Mora’ (The Moors Pool) where water bubbles up from a deep natural spring (the continuation of the Guadalhorce river). An inexplicable tropical bluey green, the water is so fresh here we let it dribble in and out of our mouths as we swim along like great black neoprene clad frogs.

‘The gorge here looks like the sort of place Thor had an argument with a mountain’.

Andalucía’s natural beauty never ceases to amaze; from the barren heights of Mulhacen (mainland Spain’s highest peak at 3,478m.) with its dazzling views of the mediterranean, to the lush glades, quaint hamlets and chestnut forests of Aracena and on to the quiet beauty of the dunes and forests of the Costa de la Luz. But here, in these hidden depths undisturbed for millenia you will feel the sheer bliss of undisturbed nature at its finest with the happy knowledge that this will never become a destination for the masses.

El Charco de la Mora