Nearly 1000 years ago, the Castilian knight Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar was roaming across Spain, making a name for himself as a successful warlord and noble warrior.
He would become known as El Cid, ‘the champion’, and is immortalised as a national hero of Spain in the mediaeval epic poem, El Cantar de mio Cid.
This might seem an odd start to an adventure article, but this knight’s wanderings form the route of a modern-day Camino.
Set apart from the trails of the better-known and much more-frequented Camino de Santiago, the Camino del Cid crosses through some of Spain’s most beautiful, wild, and historic areas, as well as providing a fulfilling physical challenge - and I was drawn to it.
Over the course of a month, I walked over 600 km from the small town of Calatayud to the bustling city of Valencia on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.
Though I was interested in the history of the route, it formed a backdrop to the main sources of enjoyment I gained during the hike, namely the incredible landscapes I passed through, fantastic wildlife sightings, beautiful towns and communities, and a simple and introspective daily rhythm.
Some highlights were:
- Seeing cranes flying over the gigantic lake of Gallocanta
- Swimming in the warm waters of Montanejos, surrounded by towering cliffs
- Coming face-to-face with a family of chill ibex and a family of not-so-chill wild boar
- Descending from high hills to the ridiculously picturesque town of Albarracin
- Encountering flamingos and a plethora of other waterbirds in the Els Moro Marshes
- The slightly underwhelming end point: a statue of El Cid on a traffic island in central Valencia
However, as with much of the world, this part of Spain is feeling the effects of our changing climate. This was thrown into especially sharp relief for me by two full days of hiking, where my surroundings were little more than charcoal and ashes.
A forest fire had torn through over 4,000 hectares of forest in the Valencia and Aragon regions, less than a month before my arrival. The smell of smoke still hung in the air.
Walking was hard work under the hot sun, as the bare blackened trunks of trees provided no shade. Birdsong, which had been abundant elsewhere, was virtually non-existent. When I reached viewpoints, charred trees stretched as far as the eye could see.
To a limited degree, forest fires are natural and useful: they release nutrients locked in dead wood, they stimulate new growth, and can help create a mosaic of different habitats that boosts biodiversity.
However, climate change is taking us way beyond the natural balance. Spain had suffered from an exceptionally dry winter followed by an exceptionally hot April, creating a perfect storm for fires.
In fact, news agencies prophetically called it Spain’s ‘first major wildfire of 2023’, gloomily accepting that more were inevitably on the way.
Yet there remains hope. Back in 2012, Spain’s Alto Tajo Natural Park suffered its own huge wildfire, losing 1,200 hectares of forest. Since then, individuals and organisations have collaborated to boost the forest’s recovery, drawing on scientific knowledge and ingenious tech. Spanish startup CO2 Revolution is pioneering theuse of drone technology, big data, and ‘smart seeds’ to accelerate reforestation.
Drones gather data on environmental conditions, which can be matched with existing data on the most appropriate native species to plant in different environments. ‘Smart seeds’, which are coated with protective substances that dissolve when they’re ready to germinate, are deployed by drones at a high level of efficiency.
I walked through Alto Tajo on my hike, and it’s virtually impossible to tell that such a huge wildfire ever happened there. In only a decade, it now looks like a pristine pine forest, complete with flourishing understorey and vibrant wildlife.
The technology used to help restore it has the potential to be used for reforestation efforts across the world - a significant silver lining from a tragic episode.
Such sights, both of the worst effects of climate change and of human ingenuity in fixing them, are most impactful when seen with one’s own eyes.
Travellers and adventurers are especially likely to be exposed to such experiences, given more time spent than most exploring the natural world. We then have an important job of communicating these experiences to the rest of the world - what they look like, what they feel like.
As gigantic wildfires across the world continue to dominate headlines, it’s vital to turn to solutions - to what we will do next.