Trail Run Spain.

The STAAR Event

Sierra Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama Ruta.       

This route was designed to showcase the Sierra Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama Natural Park and takes in both the Poniente Granadino/Comarca de Alhama and Axarquia sides. It is designed for international mountain/ultra runners although a strong walker could do it with some alterations and it could be adjusted to take 3, 5 or even 6 days.

The plan:
For many ultra runners based in northern Europe early season races such as the Libyan Challenge and the Marathon des Sables come on the back of a cold, wet winter of training, not ideal preparation for these desert events. My friend Jacob Juul Hastrup, Denmark’s most experienced ultra runner, had prepared well for February’s Libyan Challenge but the day before leaving for the start the Arab ‘revolution’ began and the race was cancelled.

His next big event is a 590km race across the Australian Outback and Libya was to be a stepping stone in the preparation so this left an opening which needed filling. He needed a tough training session in high temperatures with lots of climbing, something that just doesn’t exist in Denmark. I decided to finally attempt something I had in mind for many years, something I wasn’t really fit enough for after an early season of short races, but something which would definitely provide the training for him and also boost my preparation for the Ronda 101 in early May; a lap of the Sierra Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama, my local Parque Natural.

STAAR start, Alhama de Granada. Tajo de Alhama. The STAAR.
Before moving to the Poniente Granadino side of the Parque I had lived in Competa on the Axarquia side so I was familiar with many of the tracks and trails which cross this area. It didn’t take long to work out a route which would include the highest, La Maroma (2070m) and second highest Navachica (1831m) and link many of the villages so we could travel as light as possible.

Dates were set April 1st to 4th and Jacob arrived on March 31st. The evening was spent preparing kit and sacks so we could travel light for the next 4 days. I chose to use a RaidLight Olmo20 as the bottle holders on the chest are far better than using a bladder, 2 x 750ml bottles (Camelbak Podium and a Hydrapak Gel-Bot) plus a RaidLight marathon pack, which is a waist belt with rear pouch and two hip flask pouches. The waist pack sits nicely below the main sack and the hip flasks were used for gels (Mulebar) as they take a few, which means no sticky satchets to dispose of and the main compartment was for cash, Eletewater pocket bottle, camera and Mulebars. A change of shirt, tights, underwear, spare socks, (Injinji and Teko wool), Compressport calf sleeves, Montane windproof and an OMM Kamleika smock plus wash kit, assorted maps, Grivel poles and my battery chargers made for a total of 7kg plus water, (1.5kg), for a total 8.5kg.

Shoe choice was also important: the route offers a huge range of variables from single track, jeep track, tarmac, dry river beds, pure scrambling and ‘no-track’ so one shoe had to do the job. I chose the UKGear PT1000 NC as it is a tough all rounder with a very hard wearing outsole, good for most trail conditions and also good for tarmac surfaces. Jacob used a Brooks Racer ST5 a lightweight mixed trail racing shoe which proved to be very comfortable.

April 1st, the adventure begins.
Stage 1: Alhama de Granada to Canillas de Aceituno.
The weather forecast was for sun, high temperatures on all days except the 3rd when we were to cross the mountains via Navachica. For that day it showed cloud and possible rain, unfortunate, but we hoped it would be wrong as quite often the weather changes are swift and happen during the night. It was a beautiful day as we walked to the chosen starting point, the Alhama de Granada Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) and Tourist Office building and at 11:00am we started running.

The day began with a descent into Alhama’s famous Los Tajos gorge (part of the GR7) and we took this beautiful trail out to La Pantaneta, a small lake and bird sanctuary, following a single track before re joining the steadily climbing GR7 track out to Robledal forest recreation area, the start of the first major mountain ascent, La Maroma 2070m. It is a tough climb but the beautiful weather mean’t we could enjoy the views, snow capped Sierra Nevada to the east and once on the summit, the Mediterranean coast and also Morocco on the far horizon. We reached the summit in 3 hours (19km) so were making good time so after a short stop we began the descent into the Axarquia. The route isn’t as well marked and I chose an old one I knew which included a now overgrown barranco and some fantastic single track via Loma de las Viboras and Llanos de la Fuente del Espino which took us to the Alcazar recreation area where we could top up on water. From here further descending took us via a very nice chiringuito (bar/café) so we stopped in for sandwiches and coke.

From here we continued on wider tracks to Alcaucin, a large village from where there are beautiful views of Lake Vinuela, rather too many villas and urbanisations and the western Axarquia. From Alcaucin we followed the track via disused quarries, which forms the boundary of the Parque, a route which was so undulating that at times you just wondered if the short climbs could be any steeper. This was a newly surfaced route leading to Canillas de Aceituno and where we were to finish the day with accommodation and good food provided by our friend Terry Bishop.

Stage total: 43km. (inc approx 1700m of climbing in 6hrs 52min). I used a Garmin 305 but unfortunately for this stage the GPS hadn’t worked!!! Very annoying.
The STAAR. The STAAR. El Ventorro bird sanctuary.
April 2nd, Stage 2: Canillas de Aceituno to Frigiliana.

After a good breakfast we left Terry’s home with an immediate steep track climb up into the village of Canillas de Aceituno. We decided to have a quick coffee in the main square and then the serious part of the day began. The mountain road follows the edge of the Parque boundary so we made good speed via La Raije through to Sedella and on into Salares. We looked around this small mountain village and decided on taking a coffee and kebab break before beginning the next, more tricky section of the stage.

After the break and with the sun beating down, we headed back across the village and down to a Roman bridge which marked the start of a very nice single track into the mountains. I knew the track from past visits and we stopped off part way to visit an old ruin which is home to hundreds of bats. We continued on taking a fork which looked good but ended in some ‘off track’ scrambling before we hit the descent to an old flour mill below Canillas de Albaida. Descending into a gorge means a steep climb out again and the one up to Canillas is a particularly steep one. Once we reached the village we continued climbing passing the Santa Ana church and on to the ‘goat track’ to Competa. This track had been improved since I lived there and it didn’t take us long to run the 3km to Competa.

A short break in Competa’s main square and then away and out towards the Casa de la Mina, unfortunately we chose to follow the signed ‘senderismo’ marker instead of sticking to the jeep track. I knew the route but had forgotten just how long, steep and rocky it was, a nice route when you are fresh but very tough when you have been running for a few hours. The track gains height until you are well above the Casa de la Mina and then you have a steep and twisting descent back down to the jeep track. From here you pass the Casa (closed) and then begin another very long descent to the Fabrica de Luz where you have a river to cross. Beyond the river the track splits and we took the left fork, another long ascent which contours around the mountains before taking you into Acebuchal.

This is an interesting village; back in the time of the Spanish Civil War the inhabitants were wiped out by Franco’s ‘troops’ and the village was abandoned. A few years ago one or two people came back, houses were repaired and new ones built, assorted European’s bought ruins, renovated them and the village came back to life. We stopped here at a bar/restaurant where the locals were preparing a children’s party. We bought drinks, chocolate cake and were given sandwiches from the party buffet then continued on the final leg of the stage, which began with another descent and a long climb. I knew the route but we tried a loop which looked interesting, only problem, bee hives; the warning came too late, the bees can’t read anyway and I got stung, amazing how much a little sting can hurt when it is into your little finger, anyway Jacob now knows what Abeja warning signs mean.

A final tarmac climb took us into Frigiliana, voted in 1988 as Most Beautiful Village in Andalucia, and after running through the old village we eventually found our accommodation, the Hotel Las Chinas, the first hotel founded in Frigiliana and now our base for the night. Once cleaned up and changed we had steaks and generally ‘re-fueled’ ready for Stage 3, which was to become a real adventure.
Stage total: 46km.

Descent to Alcaucin with Lake Vinuela in distance. Loma de los Viboras. Old mines on track to Navachica.
April 3rd, Stage 3: Frigiliana to Jayena.
The day dawned with a grey sky and very light rain, I expected this stage to be tough and it didn’t disappoint a real adventure. We found a bar where we got some breakfast and then headed out towards the coast, the rain had stopped and we had grey sky but warm temperatures. The track we wanted crosses the Rio Higueron just below Frigiliana and a reasonably good track takes you under the A7 autovia and into El Capistrano, a large urbanization in the northern part of Nerja. This was the closest we came to sea level and the Mediterranean. We stopped for a drink and then took a rough track alongside the  A7 which led to the old, abandoned sugar factory which I believe is to be renovated as it is of historical interest. From here we found a tunnel below the A7 and a track which followed the edge of the Barranco de la Coladilla.

The original plan had been to take the track north from the Cueva de Nerja, a very popular tourist attraction, but the barranco track was ok and led to the same point we were heading to, the El Pinarillo recreation area. Whilst on this track we met Team Axarsport member Fulvio Villano who was out for a run, amazing to meet a team member when so far from our home patch. As he headed back to his home in Nerja we continued, topped up water bottles at the recreation area and headed for Fuente del Esparto and the track split which leads past the abandoned cave houses where iron ore miners used to live many years ago. The track from here follows the Barranco de los Cazadores, a very difficult route, very badly damaged due to the torrential rain storms of 2009.

The route was very indistinct, very much a rocky, river bed with steep walls to scramble up and mixed in with sections of single track miners paths. The track is marked with a few cairns and some feint green paint markings but it is a very difficult route. Eventually the ‘track’ leaves the barranco by way of an extremely steep climb with a loose and slippery surface and even when the gradient becomes slightly less severe the route is still difficult with loose rock and rough vegetation all the way to the summit of Navachica (1831m).

To make matters worse, it was now 1700hrs and the clouds came down bringing poor visibility and light rain. The track to the summit had been hard to follow and the one we wanted to continue on was non-existent. The compass bearing was attempted as we had no visual references but the needle wouldn’t settle, maybe caused by the iron content in the surrounding rocks. Not a good situation, we tried to find a track but the mist made this impossible so the only thing to do was either climb back up and try to find the summit marker again in the hope that a break in the cloud would occur or hope that the bearing I had from the map would be ok. We tried a few alternatives but they always led to steep drops until, eventually we found a barranco which seemed to provide an escape route. We took a chance, the mist cleared very slightly and we saw we were below a sheer cliff face which helped us locate our position. Fingers were crossed that the barranco would remain navigable but we were starting to work out where we could bivvy for the night as we spotted small caves during the descent. We were lucky that non of the drops were too high and also that the barranco wasn’t blocked by thorn bushes and brambles. The rain on the summit was slowly building up the stream depth in our route but we managed to stay ahead and eventually we spotted a track and a ruin which we thought may be the Cortijo de la Cueva Colica. Once on the track we had to make a decision, left or right. It was now nearly 19.00hrs, still a bit more daylight (we didn’t have torches) so we decided to turn left and head for the ruin, if the track split here then it definitely pinpointed our position.

Fortunately it did and so we started running to beat the dark. The original plan to descend, take a track to one that I know well (part of AAUT route) and another to Bacal and Jayena was changed. It was safer to head north east and join the GR7 track leading to the Meson Prados de Lopera, a bar/restaurant next to the A4050 Granada to Almuñecar road. The run was as expected, hard going, many long drags, descents, raining and getting quite cold but eventually we reached a GR7 marker and the track to the bar. The next hope was that it would be open, it isn’t one that is always open being more of a weekend hunters venue. We were in luck, 2015hrs., it was open, log fire blazing and we were soon warming up with hot chocolate, food and coffee. It was now dark, we were faced with a 15km road run to Jayena, not a busy road and very unlikely that we could thumb a lift. The bar owner said he was closing at 21:30 and he could give us a lift but a young couple overheard and said they were leaving for Jayena so they gave us a very welcome lift to Jayena and our overnight lodgings the La Almijara, part of Bar El Nota which is one of our supporters during the Al Andalus race. Emilio the owner welcomed us and once we were changed we had a much later than planned but very welcome evening meal.
Stage total: 36km.
Entering Alhama Tajo. Last climb in the barranco before summit of Navachica. The final descent into Alhama's tajo.
April 4th, Stage 4: Jayena to Alhama de Granada.
The overnight rain had cleared, clothes were dry and once again we had hot and sunny conditions for the final leg of the journey. We took the road from Jayena to Fornes and by linking a number of roads and tracks we soon reached Arenas del Rey, after a short coffee stop we headed through the village to join the GR7 track to Alhama de Granada, at least that was the plan, unfortunately the route markers had been damaged and we missed the GR7 track by taking a wrong fork.

The direction was ok but the track gradually faded to leave us with many kilometers of cross country climbing and descending and the improvised route took us via the Cortijo de los Castillejos Alto. In the end we reached old GR7 markers, ones I knew had been replaced when the route was altered, and by following these we reached the main track I wanted to follow. We made good speed and soon reached the track to Alhama which led us to the road which circles the Tajo.

From here we took the ancient path into the Tajo, crossed the new footbridge and climbed the steep stairs which lead up into the Moorish part of Alhama de Granada. A final drag through the narrow streets and we were back at the Ayuntamiento, our starting point and a few hundred metres later we reached La Seguiriya where Jacob’s family were waiting ready to begin a week’s holiday. Our improvised ‘straight line’ route had knocked over 10km off the stage but with the effort of the previous day’s mountain adventure still in our legs we were happy to have saved ourselves the extra hour.
Stage total: 26km.
Total 151km.
Total ascent approx 6200m (first stage data estimated at 1700m ascent, this includes the highest point of the STAAR, La Maroma 2070m).

Running sack can be light, 6-7kg, only need overnight kit, waterproof jacket, change of clothes, water, (2 x 750ml bottles minimum) and trail food/bars, gels. There are plenty of bars and village facilities along the route although Stage 3 does require more care. Accommodation in villages is good.
Stage 3 needs to be changed slightly to make a better route up and over Navachica. This can be done but an alternative will be to stay in Competa overnight and make stage 3 the final stage by going across the mountains via the Puerto de Competa, Jatar, Arenas del Rey and back to Alhama.
The 3STAAR will be just as challenging and will form the basis for a future ultra race. Distance approximately 120km.
The 3STAAR and 4STAAR can be accompanied trail running tours or maps and accommodation can be supplied/booked as part of a self support trail week package.
Maps; La Axarquia, 1:50000 and/or Zafarraya 1040 and Durcal 1041.

Paul Bateson.

The STAAR is a TrailRunSpain designed route.
First run in April 2011 by Paul Bateson and Jacob Juul Hastrup. 

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