Song of Autumn

I usually walk home across the Bailey after lectures, but today I turned left at the end of Kingsgate Bridge and took the path along the river Weir. It was the goosanders that did it, I suppose. The one constant of my three years at Durham University has been that, come winter, there’s a family of three goosanders on the Weir (don’t know what a goosander is? Look it up, they’re beautiful). I was done for the day and everybody else had gone their separate ways to study, so I thought I’d treat myself to a half-hour’s isolation.

I don’t think I ever forgot how beautiful England is in the autumn. In fact, I think I grew to appreciate all the more for being so far away from it last year. There’s nothing like thirteen consecutive months of almost total sunshine to give you a real heartache for a cold, crisp autumn morning. Well, it’s certainly been cold recently, even if the frost hasn’t settled in yet, but now that our boiler’s fully functional, I’m not complaining. Even so, after the madcap nature of the last two months – I really have had something to do every day, come to think of it – something I really had forgotten to do was to make time for myself. And I’m not talking the lying-in-bed-watching-Youtube kind of me-time. Everybody has something that fills them up again when they’re feeling low. Maybe it’s good food, maybe it’s a hearty jog, or that song that never fails to put a smile on your face. For me, it’s nature. Between DELE revision, rehearsals with the Lights and this many other commitments, I’ve scarcely had the time to think straight. I’ve waxed lyrical about the importance of being busy and having people around you that radiate good energy, but for me, there’s no substitute for a good hour or so in nature’s arms.

Mrs Goosander wasn’t about this afternoon. She sometimes goes fishing further downstream. Mr Goosander and his rather shabby-looking youngster (still moulting, but more impressively, still here) were going about their business in their usual spot. The father looks especially impressive at the moment, with his feathers flushed that special shade of salmon-pink that is so particular to his kind. I think I saw him catch about three or four fish whilst I was there. Sit long enough in a sheltered spot and the little world accustoms itself to you…

An inquisitive little coal tit came to have a look-in on one of the trees overhanging the river. A couple of blackbirds were making a lot of noise rummaging around in the undergrowth as is their fashion. The soundscape was so autumnal, I only wish I could have recorded it for you. Words will have to do: the cooing of a woodpigeon in the trees; the machine-gun twittering of a roving party of nuthatches; the high-pitched seee of redwings overhead; the cawing of crows coming in to roost. The pitch-pitch, pitch-pitch-pitch of a chaffinch, tea-cher tea-cher of a great tit, and, once or twice, the distant shriek of a jay.

I don’t tend to talk about my favourite pastime all that often. Sometimes you don’t have to: the things that matter most are plain to see. Besides, who’d want to listen? I learned a long time ago that there are precious few who care about the distinction between wrens and robins, crows and jackdaws, mallards and goosanders. And, I suppose, the names are not important. What matters is that people know that they’re there. Planet Earth II seems to be extremely popular up here, and I hope it’s encouraging people to look around more when they’re out and about. 

So that’s my advice. The next time you’re out for a walk, whether you’re on your way to or from work, or just to kill some time, unplug yourself from the noise, find a quiet spot to sit down, shut your eyes and just let the world let you in. You won’t regret it. There’s no better music (and believe me, I’ve looked – my whole family are musicians).

Blackbirds, crows and redwings. The wind in the trees and the splash of diving ducks in the silent river. These are the sounds of my childhood. Of all the things life has taught me, I am no happier than in my knowledge of the world around me. I have my mother to thank for that, I think. That and my obsessive habit of chasing the details. I should probably have given journalism a little more thought. Then again… BB x

An old photo of mine from 2008, when I had nothing on my mind but birds!

Two Men Skilled in Climbing Mountains

We did it. We conquered Ghorghez. It’s been staring us in the face for all of six weeks but now I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that the beast has been vanquished. Call it the human desire to tame the wild in me, but I could never have left Tetouan with my head held high if I’d never managed to tackle that mountain.

Fortunately, Alex was of a similar opinion, so at nine o’clock this morning we hailed a cab and off we went.

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King of Tetouan (or that obligatory tourist photo)

We didn’t have the best of starts. My host father very kindly gave me the use of his topographic map and took me up to the roof to explain the route we could take; he would have come with us, if his wife was not still hospitalized from the accident. But when he asked how many of us were going, I had to lie and say five. If I’d told him the truth – that Alex and I alone were going – he’d probably have tried to stop us. The last time he went on a fossil-hunting excursion up in the mountains, he was attacked by a group of thugs and severely injured.

In that knowledge, Alex and I arrived at Ain Bou Anane and set off on our journey.

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Don’t be fooled… It wasn’t anywhere near as easy it looks

For the first ascent we had it easy, as there was a reliable, well-trodden path to begin with. Emphasis on ‘begin with’; after a hundred metres or so it vanished into the sea of thorns and scrub that covers most of Ghorghez and we were forced to resort to free-navigating the mountainside, cutting from goat track to goat track with the occasional wayward boulder as a bridge between the paths. And just as well: the tracks often vanished into thin air like fireflies in the night, leaving us stranded in the scrub.

The mountain wasn’t entirely wild. What I took at first for bird calls turned out to be the Ghorghez shepherds out on the slopes with their flocks. I’d quite forgotten how far sound travels in the mountains. More than once I thought we’d been followed, only to see the source of the noise sitting atop a boulder watching over his goats on the far side of the valley. I must admit, due to my host father’s tales, I was more wary than usual around these hill-folk. Seeing their silhoettes appearing and disappearing between the rocks set my teeth on edge. More than once I let slip that we might have to make a break for it if they ‘came back with reinforcements’.

But they didn’t, and Alex smiled and waved at them, and some of them waved back. I think we could all do with a reminder from time to time that, at the end of the day, everybody’s human. A smile and a wave could change everything.

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Now that’s what I call a hike!

As for their fences… Seriously. Fuck fences. The amount of backtracking we had to do to find a way around the vast sections of the mountainside that had been cordoned off was unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary. Who even builds fences on a mountain anyway? I guess they’re for the few cows we saw munching through the scrub, but what kind of a sadistic individual drives their cattle up into the mountains and then fences them in with barbed wire and brambles? Fuck those fences.

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You’ve got to hand it to Maroc Telecom. Fully functional 3G up in the mountains is impressive

Delaying our hike by one day was one of my better decisions. Not only was Alex fully recovered from his late late Friday night, but the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun shone out from behind the clouds all morning, and the wind, though strong, was cool and refreshing. Compared to the Azla trek, it was a much easier ascent. Which is jammy, for double the height.

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Ghorghez’ summit in the clouds

Alex had a run-in with a rather large snake on the way down. I know because one minute I was powering ahead with my trusty bamboo cane, and the next he was racing past, raving about snakes and putting about as much distance as he could between the cliff and himself. ‘I don’t like snakes. No one likes snakes. There isn’t a culture in the works that likes snakes. There’s just some things that nobody likes. Donald Trump, snakes… Oh, it was more than a metre long, easily.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Indiana Jones. ‘We don’t even have any antidote’. True, when I was packing this morning, I didn’t really think about preparing for a snake attack. I was too busy filling up five water bottles.

Five. I’d like to emphasize that five. Ben’s clearly learned his lesson from last year’s Dana disaster (you can read about that here).

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The coolest overhang in geology (or possibly the Wall from Game of Thrones)

Not sure about the snakes, but the cicadas were absolutely massive. Blood-dripping-from-their-fangs massive, as my parents would put it.

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Who needs Pokémon Go? I found a Ninjask without my mobile, thank-you-very-much

Besides the creepy crawlies, the mountain was spectacular for wildlife. That’s probably my favourite thing about mountains: the wonderful creatures it brings you into contact with. Mountains are some of the last truly wild bastions on the earth. Especially for birds, and birds of prey in particular. For a city, Tetouan’s got its fair share of wildlife, namely the local kestrels and cattle egret colonies, as well as the flyover storks and kites, but if you want a really wild experience, you have to go out into the sticks. I watched a pair of booted eagles wheeling and diving and whistling overhead from the summit, as well as clocking a flyby peregrine, a couple of kestrels, a few buzzards, five or six kites, ten ravens and an Isengard-level swarm of choughs. Saruman the White couldn’t summon such a flock.

The scenery up at the top might have been taken from that very scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, strewn with jagged rocks and sparse bushes. But if Saruman was indeed watching our passage south, he must have tired of his vigil before long and gone for a coffee break because, as is the way with mountaineering, coming down was three times harder than going up.

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‘Let’s not throw ourselves to our deaths just yet.’

Finding our way up the mountain had been easy enough, since the next crest was always in sight. You’d think that the same might be said for the descent, but mountains are fickle. Not only do they play with sound, they also throw your perspective off frequently. More than once we followed the latest road/path/goat-track/dry river to its end only to find ourselves staring into abyss as it plunged fifty feet down over the edge of a cliff we’d never seen coming.

The resulting backtracking led us back into bramble country, which didn’t bother me and my long sleeves too much, but it ripped Alex’s exposed limbs to shreds. By the time we made it to open country again he looked as though he’d been mauled by a particularly savage beast. We couldn’t even use the wild boar we’d seen as an excuse, as it took off into the scrub as soon as it heard us coming. Nope, that’s just the bush at work.

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Ain Zarqa at the feet of the Great Pyramid and Saddle Mountain

Seven hours since setting out from Ain Bou Anane we found our way back down the mountain to the village of Wargane, completing the arc that had taken us around most of the Ghorghez ridge. I left my trusty bamboo cane at the side of the road (again) and Alex flagged down a cab to take us back to Tetouan. Three mountains in one. All in a day’s work.

Ghorghez is down. Mission accomplished. BB x

Four Days without Reggaeton

‘You want taxi, my friend? No? What, you no want talk to me? Why you travel if you no want talk to people? You all the same, you think you are better than us, but you are wrong. We are better than you.’

Welcome back to Morocco, I suppose.

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Goodbye Tarifa!

There’s something endlessly enchanting about waking up in a new country. It breaks up the monotony of the everyday. It sends gears spinning that had until recently been lying dormant. It also comes with a change in breakfast too, which is never a bad thing.

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Bang in the centre of the medina and all you can eat for 10 euros a night…

On one of those fantastically last-minute whim decisions which I have been known to make , I decided to take up the offer of two of my English department colleagues to spend the puente de Mayo in Morocco. Four days isn’t nearly enough to enjoy Morocco – each town deserves a full day and night’s exploration to even begin to get a taste of the area – but when it’s so close that you can see the cars from the other side of the sea, it’s impossible not to feel the tug of the south. I’m not very good at saying no to anything, but when it comes to adventure, I find it exceedingly difficult to say no. So here I am, on the 12 o’clock bus to Chefchouen, saying yes – and loving every second of it.

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Getting Bourne Ultimatum vibes…

The last time I was in an Arab country was Jordan. Let’s not go over that again. Jordan’s going to be a bug-bear of mine for a very long time. It’s a name which carries greater fear for me than Syria, Korea and the Democratic Republic of Congo ever could. It wasn’t so much the country as it was the fact that I simply didn’t want to be there. Backed into a corner as I was with my commitments to the British Council, I wasn’t given a choice. And in that frame of mind, as always, I was defeated before ever I got on the plane. It wasn’t in my interest… And as my parents will know only too well, if something is not in my interest, the chance of me doing well is next to zero.

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The Rif: b-e-a-utiful

Not so Morocco. Maybe it’s the green hills and the icy rivers flowing down from the mountains and into the sea. Maybe it’s the jaw-dropping kasbahs of the desert south or the quiet, homely feel of the melting-pot medinas of the north. Maybe it’s even the simple fact that this is Africa. But I think that the real reason I have so much love for this country is because I want to be here. It’s a minor difference, but it changes everything.

Waking up with the dawn chorus in the middle of a city sounds ridiculous, especially when there’s a complimentary alarm service courtesy of the mosques at four in the morning, but in Tangier it’s easily done, and the soundscape is just as fantastic a mix as the city itself. There’s the warbling calls of flocks of roving bulbuls, that ever-present feature of Arab towns; on top of that you’ve got a chorus of roosters crowing at the dawn, interspersed with the occasional bubbling note of a laughing dove, two quintessentially African sounds; and then there’s the aggressive cackle of the gulls, which smacks more of Europe than anywhere else. Even the repetitive wi-tu wii-twii-tu wii-twii-tu of the house buntings echoes the sales pitch of the taxi driver, yelling the name of his destination over and over as though it were an object to be bought or sold.

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Spot the six species of bird in this picture (better still, imagine them)

And that’s just the naturalist in me. The linguist side of me is in his element: this is a place where I could be using all four of my languages – English, French, Spanish and Arabic – at any given moment. Across Morocco, but especially in Tangier. It’s like something out of a dream, and we haven’t even got to Chefchaouen yet.

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Tangier’s Kasbah is actually a lot more impressive than it is made out to be

But for a less-than-welcoming start thanks to a jilted taxi tout lying in wait at the dock entrance, it’s been so good to be back. And as I’m the only Arabist in tow, this time it’s up to me alone to do the talking – and that’s a huge plus right off the bat. I hope there may soon come a time when it’s safe enough to study Arabic anywhere, from Western Sahara to the Sudan, from Yemen to Iraq; to excel, I need to be on my own. And that’s what this year has been all about. I’ve learned from my mistakes in Jordan. Moroccan Arabic won’t be any easier than Jordanian, if not harder, but I’m going to tackle it head-on and alone – and better still, in a willing state of mind. I can’t wait. BB x

Griffonheart

Sometimes, when a bird flies low over your head, you can hear the rush of wind through its wings. Swifts do that, from time to time. Swifts and pigeons. It’s a quiet, singing sound like a sudden release of breath, over and gone by the time you’ve worked out where it came from. Now try to picture the same scenario with a nine-foot wingspan. The result sounds something like a gale, a genuine roar of wind, every bit as impressive as those giant wings. This is Monfragüe and this is a griffon, truly one of the most spectacular creatures on the planet.

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I don’t really know what it is that attracts me to vultures so much. They’re not the most attractive creatures on the planet. Their heads are snake-like and feather-bare, their eyes are cold and sinister and they spend their entire lives feeding on dead things. If birds are supposed to sing, vultures sound like they have a bellyful of iron filings when they make a sound – and that isn’t often. But for some reason, I’m obsessed with the damned things, and always have been.

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Extremadura is a very special part of the world, but doubly so if you’re as much of a bird nut as I am. The immense blue skies are almost always dotted somewhere in the middle with a black speck wheeling round and round on the thermals: kite, eagle or vulture. I grew up in the south of England where the largest soaring bird you’re likely to see is a rook, and I still remember the sheer thrill of seeing my very first vulture when I was about nine years old. For me they represented Valmik Thapir’s India, of cliff-forts and desert kingdoms. To see them wheeling lazily about the Spanish sky was like something out of a dream. And so the love affair with the griffons began.

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Since then, they’ve got me stranded in the mountains, terrified my little brother, warned me of thunderstorms and – in quite possibly my favourite travel anecdote to date – they even got me arrested by the Spanish military police. I kid you not. Apparently photographing vultures isn’t a believable excuse for wandering about the countryside alone at fifteen without one’s passport…

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(Not even for results like this…?)

If I’d had any idea what kind of scrapes my passion for vultures would get me into, I wonder whether I’d have had second thoughts. Somehow I doubt it. Something tells me I’d have found my way to the same spot sooner or later.

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There are four kinds of vultures in Europe, and all four of them can be found in Spain – if you know where to look. The griffons are the most obvious and by far the most numerous, nesting in colonies that can number as many as a thousand strong. The other resident is the far rarer black vulture, recognisable by its sheer size alone; fully-grown adults measure three metres from wingtip to wingtip, making them one of the largest birds in the world. The Egyptian vulture is a smaller summer visitor from Africa, where they eat ostrich eggs by smashing them open with stones. But it is the fourth and final that is the most famous: the lammergeyer, a golden-bodied, diamond-tailed king of the skies that feeds almost entirely on bones. I’ve only ever seen one once, at an incredible distance, whilst in the French Pyrenees some seven years ago. It remains one of my greatest dreams to go chasing after the legendary quebrantahuesos, ‘the one that breaks bones’.

Like I said, I’m hooked on the creatures.

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I have to admit, they do have some seriously menacing eyes…

Dad was in a grouchy mood and didn’t let us stay very long. Must be something to do with the distance from Villafranca to Monfragüe (which, I should point out, is as beautifully in the middle of absolutely nowhere as are all of my favourite destinations). I could happily have spent five hours and more just stood atop the castle with the vultures wheeling about all around me, or sitting under the cliff and watching them plummeting out of the sky and onto the rock in a fierce rush of thunder.

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Needless to say I will be back. Everyone has their vice. Some like their drink, some like their fast cars, others have difficulty sitting still. I have this peculiar fascination with vultures and I’m not even close to understanding them. Yet. BB x

Paradise Lost and Found

I wish I could tell you I’d read Milton’s poems, from which I’ve shamelessly adopted the title of this post. I haven’t. But even if I had, I doubt a throwaway quote here or there would be necessary. I’m in a place that fills me right up to the top with pure and simple happiness, gives an edge to my writing hand and recharges my well-worn batteries. Paradise has a name and though this one may sound like a cross between a stud and an aviary and smell like a sweet mixture of manure and marshwater, it’s perfection for a country boy like me.

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El Rocío. More correctly known as Aldea del Rocío, as that is exactly what it is: a village. It may be the size of a small town, but looks can be deceiving: over half of the townhouses are empty for the larger part of the year. Once a year in May, El Rocío plays host to one of the largest, loudest and more colourful celebrations of the Iberian peninsula, the Romería deal Rocío. As many as a million Spaniards, dressed to the nines in rustic splendour, descend upon the village from all over the country to pay homage to the Madre de las Marismas, El Rocío’s very own Virgin Mary.

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This is a very big deal. Accommodation in that week is normally booked out months in advance, if not years. To give you some kind of idea, have a look at the price hike in this particular hostel below:


My mental maths isn’t brilliant, but I’d say that’s at least ten times the price I’m paying per night, if not twenty. That gives you an idea as to just how popular the festival is.

Semana Santa, on the other hand, is a minimal affair. A couple of special Masses and a single daytime procession on Holy Friday. So what on earth am I doing here now?

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The answer is all around me. El Rocío is drop-dead gorgeous, but better still is the countryside that surrounds it: the skirts of Doñana National Park, one of Europe’s most beautiful remaining wildernesses. Sandy forests of stone-pines stretching into the infinite. Scrubby heaths awash with colourful spring flowers of yellow and white and powder blue. Shimmering lakes and marshes teeming with flocks of noisy flamingoes and an eternally blue sky that almost always has at least one kite whirling about in the distance, whistling a beautiful trill into the mix of carriage bells, chattering swallows, whirrupping bee-eaters and the incessant oop-oop-oop of a hoopoe. This place is as close to paradise as this world allows. It’s also a place where absolutely everyone wears a cap or riding boots or both, so it suits me down to a T. Especially now, when my hair is a triple-crown disaster of a birds’ nest and in bad need of a cut – and therefore hidden under my very own flat ‘at.

I won’t bore you to death with five hundred words about my birdwatching adventures. It’s not a passion that everybody understands. What I will say about it is that it is deeply rewarding, endlessly unpredictable and that Doñana National Park is the very embodiment of that unpredictability. I swear that it’s different every single year, and I’ve been coming here for the best part of a decade now. In some years it’s half-drowned in rainwater, in others mild after a dry winter. I’ve seen boar, deer and mongooses in one year and never again since. The same goes for the gallinules, herons, pratincoles, harriers and marsh terns; each of them in one good year apiece, but never together. This year’s treasure is the glossy ibis, a Doñana regular that I’ve never been able to get that close to… until now.

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Doñana is one of those places where I can sit and do nothing and watch the world go by without feeling in the least bit guilty. Time just seems to stand still here. That the entire populace of El Rocío seems to prefer the saddle to the driving seat goes a long way to entrenching that romanticism, naturally, but there’s a similarly timeless feeling to be found in sitting in the shade of a stone-pine on the Raya Real and listening to the wind. Every once in a while the blue-winged magpies cease their chattering, the hoopoe calls it a day and all that you can hear is the dry whisper of the wind. It’s spellbinding. Like Merlin to Morgana, I’m ensnared. But it is a very beautiful enchantment.

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At some point I’m going to have to turn my feet back in the direction of town and head for the bus stop (this town’s not big enough for a bus station, especially since they diverted the main road). This morning I was almost keen to move on, in that snug-in-bed-with-a-good-book way – this one’s Shadow of the Moon by my favourite author, M.M. Kaye – but three steps outside and I was entranced once again. Oh, to live here and to spend my days in the saddle! I get romantic notions of owning an Andalusian stallion called Suleiman and riding about the stone-pine woods with the One, whoever and wherever she may be.

That’s quite enough of that. I’ll see you in Seville. BB x