Cabañeros –Spanish Serengeti
Looking through the window of the minibus as it moved across the yellow planes fringed by hills, I saw the vulture swoop down in front of us. Large and black, it flapped its big broad wings moving upwards and downwards before gliding off to perch on one of the distant trees. This was my fist glimpse of a black vulture, one of the largest birds of prey in the world and one of the many denizens of Cabañeros National Park in Spain.
I was on a guided tour of Cabañeros, which with an area of 41,000 hectares contains, supposedly, the most extense range of a Mediterranean forest anywhere in Iberia consisting of la raña (a sweeping plane speckled with the native encina( holm oak) and alcornocales or cork trees. Encircled by steep hills it may remind the visitor of the African savannah.
Perhaps for this reason Cabañeros is also known as the Spanish Serengeti, although really the park derived its name from the word Cabañas and from the type of dwelling the earliest settlers in the region used- mainly straw huts.
People have throughout the ages used this area for different purposes: for cereal cultivation, cork production and later as a military shooting range. Ecologists though, soon realised its value: the most extensive range of a Mediterranean forest anywhere in Iberia and home to 276 species of vertebrates, 198 species of birds, 6,000 deer, hares, rabbit, foxes, lynxes, otters and wild boar; so in 1995 it was designated a national park.
A 4-wheel- drive tour had been recommended to us. Obviously, this option doesn’t sound very environmentally-friendly, but we were told it is the best way to get an overview of the park in a short space of time and, apparently, the best way to see animals. We were also informed that to see any wildlife you have to go very early or very late in the day.
So, we found ourselves driving there in the twilight of a Saturday morning in November as the rising sun gradually lit up with a reddish glow an undulating landscape of olive groves and vineyards. We were to be picked up by our guide at 8 o clock in Alcolea, a village just outside the national park. At the meeting place there were 3 minibuses with 4 visitors allocated to each. Our guide, Juan, greeted us warmly and introduced us to our travelling companions, a couple from Madrid who´d got up at 5 that morning for this trip.
As we made our way to the park entrance along narrow country roads, the jeep´s heater cleared the mist from the windows revealing a landscape seemingly void of human touch ( in fact this part of La Mancha is the least densely populated part of Spain with less than 25 people per square kilometre). Looking up into the sky I saw a flock of cranes fly by. After a few minutes Juan stopped at the gates of the park. Unlike in Britain, where the boundaries of national parks are designated just by signposts, in Spain entrance to the parks is strictly controlled by the authorities, hence the need for guides and fences – you can´t even walk you dog here. Unfortunately, the Spanish feel they have a bad reputation for neglecting nature, so protection is needed from poachers or troublemakers.
Now underway, I quizzed Juan about the animals. The wild boar, tend to be nocturnal and live on the slopes of the park. They eat acorns, but they don´t try to take these from the rañas as they get too much competition from the deer.
“Do you think we´ll see any wild boar?”, I asked
Juan shrugged: “ If you´d come twenty minutes earlier, it would be more likely”.
I then asked about the lynxes, but Juan said we weren´t going to see them either because there isn´t enough of their main food supply: rabbits.
Trying to shelve my disappointment about the elusive boars and lynxes, I watched the scenery as we continued into the park and the jeep rumbled along a bumpy track, we spotted herds of deer on la raña. We were told, September, the rutting season, is the most popular time to see them and to witness it you have to book at least 3 months in advance. Deer numbers are controlled by the park authorities so if one year there is a surplus population, the excess are captured and sold to the fincas, private estates , where they could be used as game for hunters.
We stopped after about twenty minutes to take in the view. We could see that one of the trees had a fence around it for protection. All the deers had chosen the same tree to ram themselves against to bring acorns down.
Juan had to go back to pick up some hikers who´d got lost, so we continued in one of the other minibuses. “Now, you´re in for a treat”, said one of the other guides. We moved on through the plane and Africa came to mind as we drove through the bowl shaped scenery with a large flat plane surrounded on all sides by mountains. Here and there were the ruins of old buildings showing the area had once been more alive with human activity.
We stopped a few minutes later because some vultures had been spotted, perched on some trees in the distance. Everybody got out excitedly as the guides set up their telescopes. We waited, ignoring the cold, biting wind. Others breathed in the fresh air or took a cigarette break.
Looking through the telescope I could see clearly two black vultures easily identified by their dark plumage sitting next to each other calming surveying the landscape for carrion. Next to them was a lighter coloured bird: the Leonardo vulture.
Yet the highlight of the tour was still to come. We drove on into a wood until we came to the edge of a cliff. Again the telescope was set up and through the lens I was able to make out a bald bird with a sharp peak: the imperial eagle. These birds are very territorial and need lots of space so we saw lots of dogfights between eagles and vultures and even eagles against eagles as they fought for their dominions. Juan looked impressed:
“This is a sight you don´t see every day- they might even be the other eagles´children”.
It was time to go back and the slow motion of the jeep lolled me into a sleep as we moved over the narrow track that drove its way through thick vegetation and moss covered trees- the moss, we were told, is a sign that the air is very pure here.
To wind down we had a cup of coffee with the other two passengers at a local bar where trophies of deer heads hung from the wall. Hunting is a popular hobby in La Mancha.
We said goodbye, reflecting on all the exciting things we´d seen promising ourselves to return to see the animals we´d missed. In fact, we did go back and saw those elusive wild boars!
Click on the following url and follow the link to download a pdf file about the park in English. It gives more detailed information about the park, access (it is best to travel there by car as there is no public transport to the park itself ), accommodation and the range of activities you can engage in there: