Monday, 27 May 2013

The Monegros ´´Desert´´

I´ve just got back from a research trip to the Monegros - a desert steppe area just East of Zaragoza.  My good friend Borja is from the area and he really kindly showed me some magical places and we saw a huge variety of birds including Great Bustards.   

1500 year old Sabina

The area´s name Monegros translates as the Black Mountains and it comes from the ancient forest of the very dark looking Sabina trees which were here until the 17th/18th Centuries when most were cut down.  This is a Juniper species (Juniperus thurifera) which, if left, lives thousands of years.  It produces a rot and woodworm resistant timber that was used for building some of the finest houses and palaces in Aragón.  
Barley field
Monegros is a semi desert area dry and hot in Summer, dry and cold in Winter.  It is also swept by ferocious Cierzo (westerly) winds.  This Spring has been very wet however and everyone said they had never seen the area so green. There were flowers everywhere!  There were also a huge number of birds.  The highlights of our trip were the huge and very rare Great Bustards and Little Bustards and many birds of prey.  We saw Golden eagle, Booted eagle, many Montagu´s and Hen harriers, as well as numerous Griffon vultures and Red and Black kites.  There were also many larks.  We saw all of the spanish lark species except the Duponts lark which, as so often, is heard but not seen! An area of salt marshes revealed Black winged stilts which had just arrived. I will get the bird photos from Borja (excellent wildlife photographer) for another blog entry soon.  In the meantime you can see an album of his Monegros photos if you click on the link below. 

Upland arable
We visited the Sierra de Alcubierre where we spent the night in a hut very kindly lent to us by the local monks who use it for retreats. There is a hermitage on the Sierra with a fascinating set of cave dwellings and chapel carved out of the rock and used by the local friars of whom there are now just two left.

Cave Entrance

Cave Living room

The wooden framework is a ´just in case´.  This area has a lot of seismic activity so you can´t be too careful.
Cave Chapel
View South from the Caves

Lonesome Sabina

Flowers were everywhere and, although most were familiar, there are many plants which only grow in the Monegros.  There is also a Mudskipper (amphibious fish) adapted to live in this area.  In times of drought (most of the time) it buries itself in damp mud until the rains come again.

Flowers and Wide Open Spaces
The Monegros is fascinating.  A unique landscape with a huge amount of wildlife to be seen.  It´s well worth a visit particularly for birders and naturalists.  April and May are the best months to visit as it is cool enough and relatively green.  In August temperatures are above 40 degrees and winter can be bitterly cold.  Please get in touch if you´d like us to arrange a visit for you!

Grey leaved Cistus
To see Borjas bird photos from our trip click here

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Navatas & Navateros Log Rafts In the Hecho Valley

Steering under the bridge - hard work and good coordination! 

In the last few years the Chesos (people from Hecho) have re-enacted the old log raft (navata) river descents which were the way timber was once transported from these high Pyrenean valleys down to the lowlands along the Aragón and Ebro rivers and on to the Mediterranean.  Timber was cut during the winter in the high valley and then the logs were floated individually down the upper river making the most of  the spring snow melt.  Then the trunks were bound together into rafts using green willow laths and the rafts were floated downstream until the timber was sold along the Ebro or even at the coast. 

The original rafts would have been made of much bigger trunks
Slow growing Silver fir from the high Hecho Valley was often used for guitar tops by makers in Valencia as it was considered to have excellent acoustic properties.  Otherwise timber was sold for construction and furniture making.  Nowadays very little timber is cut in the valley as it is a conservation area.  The only timber  extracted now is pine used for a newly opened biomass plant in the Ansó Valley.

Willow laths for binding the logs together were freely available and were less likely to break than ropes
The navateros (rafters) job was tough and dangerous and it demanded a great deal of skill and strength to steer the rafts.  Cold wet feet, the danger of drowning or getting a limb crushed were everyday hazards.  The rafters had a reputation as tough, hard living and wild adventurers.   
In the 1950´s dam building along the Aragón and Ebro rivers put paid to this ancient trade and transport was done by road.  Log rafting still happens in the western USA and Canada and it´s quite possible that the skills used there originally came from this ancient Pyrenean tradition.
You can see the Navatas around the beginning of May in the Hecho, Roncal and Cinca Valleys.  It´s well worth it!  

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Adios Nieve Hola Primavera

Snow-fed spring feeding into the Rio Veral, Ansó Valley.
With temperatures up to 28 degres Spring is here at last.  It´s amazing how quickly everything is coming to life after what seemed like an endless winter. The record amount of snow fallen this winter is melting fast - losing about 10cm of depth every day.  The rivers are magnificent with all the meltwater.  With so much moisture the Spring and Summer are going to be wonderful.  For details of  our trips in the Pyrenees please see our new website at:

Coming into leaf in the rapids

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Snow Shoeing in Paradise

I had a few spare hours yesterday after doing some cross country ski classes so I went snowshoeing up on the border with France.

The snow is still metres deep the weather gorgeous and there was no one around except myself. The only sounds were the wind in the pines and the calls of Alpine choughs. Pure bliss!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Spring in the Pyrenees Foothills

While the snow is metres deep in the high Pyrenees in the foothills the almonds are in blossom and the sun gives a blissful feeling of warmth and well being. The Mallos de Riglos pinnacles in the background are the nesting site of hundreds of Griffon Vultures whose chicks will soon be hatching. Roll on the spring!

Mallos de Riglos & Almonds

Snowshoeing in the Roncal Valley

Beautiful powder snow, a fresh, sunny day. Perfect for snowshoes! These folks don't ski so it's the only way to explore this beautiful area without sinking up to our waists in the snow!

The Roncal Valley.  Pic d´Anie in the background

Snowshoe trip.  Perfect day!

Cross Country & Back Country Skiing and Snow Shoeing Week Feb 2013

We´ve had a spectacular snowy winter - perfect conditions for a week of cross country & back country skiing and snow shoeing in the Western Valleys.
     Back Country Skiing, Ansó Valley
Tony, Sarah, Richard, Jayne, Jo and Alison - arrived on the Sunday evening and checked into the Hotel de La Val in Hecho.  We had a briefing/chat about the week over a couple of beers (brewed here in the valley) and on Monday morning headed off to the Linza ski circuit in the Ansó Valley.  Here the more experienced skiers explored the pistes through the Beech forest while  I introduced the beginners to cross country skiing.  We had a good lunch with hot soup by the fire in the Linza mountain hut and carried on skiing.  Next day we went to the Somport ski circuit just over the border in France and had some excellent skiing around the forest and mountain trails.  One or two of the group preferred to snowshoe so they had a great (and more stable!) time exploring different routes.
     Snow Shoeing on the border
After a couple of days on prepared circuits we headed off piste up the Hecho valley, some of us on back country skis and other on snow shoes.  We had a spectacular day with bright sun, great snow and the whole valley to ourselves!  A real highlight was seeing the local pair of Lammergeiers circling just above us as we were having our lunch - hot soup, and chorizo sausage cooked up on my little stove.
    Cooking chorizo for lunch, Hecho Valley.  Richard has seen a Lammergeier! 
The snow was perfect for back country and we all had a great time gliding along the valley making our own track.  Some nice gentle slopes were perfect for fun descents and even attempting telemark turns!
   Chocolate stop, Oza, hecho valley
The following couple of days were similar.  One day we skiied up to Taxeras set below the stark Alanos ridge and had a wonderful, though quite challenging descent through thick snow.  We had a very welcome beer in the village of Ansó on the way back to the hotel.
    Linza, Ansó Valley
The last day was spent at Linza back country skiing and snow shoeing.  We had a good lunch in the hut and had a good afternoon with most of us snow shoeing on a forest trail up to a pass and the Gamueta forest where we hoped to see the elusive White Backed Woodpecker (it didn´t show!)  We did, however see a big band of Cranes migrating North over the mountains on their way to Northern Europe from their Southern wintering grounds.
     Richard, Richard, Jayne, Alison, Tony, Sarah and Jo
That night Pepito at the Hotel de La Val prepared a paella for the group as a nice farewell gesture and then, next morning they headed off to Reus airport and back to the UK.  The group couldn´t have been easier or nicer - thanks to all of you for making my job such a pleasure!  It was also great that everyone enjoyed the snow in their own way - either on skis or on snow shoes.  A big thankyou to all for coming and especially to Tony for getting you all organised to come!  See you all again soon I hope!
If you´d like to organise your own winter trip please get in touch at: for details of tailor made trips all year see: