20 million years ago the tectonic plate carrying the continent of Africa, travelling west and north, collided with the plate carrying the continent of Europe. The collision raised the Betic range of mountains that reach from Alicante in north eastern Spain in a vast arc west and south through the Gibraltar Strait into north Africa where they form the Rif mountains. At the same time a slab of limestone, laid down during the Triassic and Jurassic periods over 200 million years ago, was ripped from its moorings, carried 100 kilometres west, tipped on edge and, in one place at least, Gibraltar, totally inverted, before, now almost vertically inclined, plunging itself deep into the Earth's crust like a blunt wedge under the influence of gravity and its own monumental weight. These geological processes finally cut off the western end of a shallow arm of the former Tethys Sea about 6 million years ago and the Mediterranean basin became a desert. Even as the sedimentary rocks were being thrust into the air, erosionwas occurring. Wind, rain and frost split the rock causing the typical rugged outcrops in the steeply angled, sometimes vertical, beds we see today. Not for this region the more rounded, gentler hills and shaped valleys of further north for, even during the depths of the ice ages starting two million years ago, there was never any great thickness of ice over the land this far south. There were rivers though, raging torrents, miles wide, carrying the melt water from the glaciers further north. They carved out deep valleys that later became the Guadiaro and the Guadalquivir. Between those valleys was a mountain chain gradually eroding to a lower altitude with intersecting, steep sided, valleys, Los Alcornocales Parque Natural.
Meanwhile erosion had done its work in what is now the Gibraltar Strait and the Atlantic broke through a rift and refilled the Mediterranean. Only then did the first mammal to walk upright on two legs make his appearance on the Iberian Peninsula.
It is hardly surprising that such thoughts should occur as you sit, sipping your first coffee of the day, on the terrace at La Vina de Linan, for your view is up the valley of the curiously named Hozgarganta river. To left and right are the jagged crags formed over the last couple of millennia, the steep valley sides are covered in impenetrable maquis in shades of green and overhead is the deep blue of an Andalucian sky, a scene that must have greeted the first hominid to see it. Later the vegetation would change to steppe like foliage as the more recent ice ages made their presence felt before again reverting to the Mediterranean foliage we see today as the ice finally retreated twenty thousand years ago. Twenty million years of continuous geological processes cannot fail to produce magnificence on a scale that render mans attempts to mould the landscape to his own purposes insignificant. Man however has had an impact on the area in the relatively short time he has been here that is no less interesting than the natural history.
Los Alcornocales occupies the southern tip of the Iberian section of the Betic mountain range. It covers over 17,000 hectares and ranges in height from sea level just north of Tarifa to the peak of Aljibe at 1,092 metres near the north end of the Parque. Jimena de la Frontera is situated about half way up the eastern boundary of the Parque.
The name Alcornocales gives a clue as to the main type of vegetation, alcornoque is the cork oak and it is this tree that predominates along with its cousin the gall oak. Together with wild olive trees, sarsaparillas and white poplars they make up the largest Mediterranean forest in Europe. Oak trees are a life support system in themselves. They harbour more insects in and on them than any other tree in the northern hemisphere. Consequently they also attract a great range of birds to feed off the insects and nuts. Los Alcornocales is famous for its bird life. Insect eaters include robins, blackbirds, great tits, nightingales, bee-eaters and swallows. You will see warblers and tree creepers and pied and yellow wagtails in abundance along the streams and rivers. Soaring on the thermals you will see many species of eagle including booted and short toed and hovering, waiting to pounce, falcons and goshawks. Sparrow hawks hunt the perimeter of copses skimming the earth looking for rodents and smaller birds. There are three main species of vulture here too, griffons, over 800 pairs, and the more rare spotted vulture and Egyptian vulture.
Mammals are also well represented. Hidden away in the thickets and occasionally seen are deer and roe deer. Badgers and foxes come out at night to join the owls in their hunt for food. Otters, once almost extinct here, are making a come back in the rivers whilst ferrets are only ever glimpsed streaking between patches of cover.
In the southern part of the Parque, an area that is easily accessible from the atmospheric Hotel La Solana, there is a unique area of 'canutos' or pipes, narrow valleys that, protected from the prevailing weather, have their own microclimates. Here you will find flora of a different sort. In spring rhododendrons provide a mass of pink and white flowers. Alders, ash, laurels, hazels and hollies proliferate providing even more variety for the food chain. Reptiles thrive in the damp humid conditions and you are very likely to spot the Stripeless Tree Frog.
Betty Eleanor Gosset Molesworth Allen, to give her full name who lived in Los Barrios at the south end of Los Alcornocales from the mid 1960's until her death in 2002 spent twenty years studying the indigenous flora of Andalucia. She became famous in 1965 when she discovered Psilotum nudum, the fork or whisk fern, growing in a crevice in a canuto near Los Barrios. This unprepossessing plant is a relic of the past, 300 million years in fact, and was thought, until 1965, to have survived only in the tropics and sub tropics. The whole study of plant distribution had to be rethought and rewritten.
One such canuto is encountered on the walk from La Sauceda to the top of Aljibe. You will also pass through a small settlement. Originally a group of houses around a mill and a church the hamlet was abandoned to bandits and smugglers. The hovels have now been modernised and provide basic overnight accommodation for those who really want to get away from the crowd. Just beyond the hamlet is a clearing that is frequented by deer.
Another, contrasting, micro climate is experienced on the summit of Aljibe. Here you will notice that the low shrubs are actually oak trees but so persistent is the wind up here that they only grow to a few inches high.
Another microclimate can be found at the summit of El Picacho. This walk in the northern end of the Parque is only 6 kilometres in length but fairly strenuous with steep scrambling towards the summit. Once there however you will find yourself in a world of its own. The top of the mountain, only about 100 metres across, is sheltered all round by buttresses of rock. In the bowl shaped depression heathers and herbs flower out of season and butterflies flit around on mild days even in winter.
Closer to base, La Vina de Linan makes an excellent starting point, is a walk that takes in another mill, this time on the Hozgarganta. The walk also includes a fine limestone ridge reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales and ever changing scenery in the central part of the Parque. Towards the end of the walk, on the far side of the river is the site of the Royal Artillery Factory that was established during the mid 18th century to provide the cannon balls to bombard Gibraltar during the 1779 - 1783 siege. There is a well-preserved canal that supplied water to the iron factory, to provide power for the water driven bellows used to blast the furnace. The Rodete Mill used the canal, downstream of the furnace, until 1964 to grind flour. Little now remains of the furnace or factory itself although the canal is still in good condition. This walk finishes in the village of Jimena itself.
Every civilization that has passed through Andalucia has left its mark on Jimena. Paintings in Laja Alta caves on a high ridge overlooking the upper reaches of the Hozgarganta depict sailing ships that look very similar to those used by Phoenician traders around 1000 BCE, a time when Jimena was a settlement occupied by Iberians. Later, during Roman times, the settlement was called Oba and then under the Moors, Ximena. The castle that dominates Jimena dates back to the Romans and there are extensive excavations that reveal a small settlement beneath the original walls. The Moors re-used some of the stonework and stones inscribed with Latin text can be seen in the main gateway. Following the reconquest of Ximena the town became known as Jimena and gained the title de la Frontera due to its position on the border between Moorish and Christian territories. During the Peninsular Wars, 1808 - 1814, General Ballesteros used the castle as his barracks. The wall around the Moorish tower was built during this period.
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.