The dogs stopped howling the instant I pulled on the handbrake. I stepped out of the 4×4 into a cloud of dust that engulfed the vehicle then quickly dispersed in the strong breeze. Before I could fully lower the back door to the Ford Ranger they both leapt out and headed to the nearby grass to sniff and mark their arrival.
We’d parked to the side of the gravel track to let the dogs out even though there was little chance of another vehicle coming our way. As I returned to the open driver’s door I glanced up the steep hill to the village of Berdún perched at the summit. At first, we’d made the mistake of thinking we were within an old quarry but, actually, the landscape was all natural and known as the Badlands.
The engine very rarely got any higher than second gear as we made slow but steady progress down the slope to the bridge below. My sight was more fixed on the rear-view mirror than the road ahead so that I could monitor the whereabouts of our latest canine companions. I could just about make out their shapes through the dirt-obscured window, bounding down the track to catch us. Flashing through the side-mirrors, they’d appear ahead then dart in front of the vehicle forcing me to snatch at the brakes.
The route down had taken us through countless, small undulating hills between which were sharp gullies that had been cut by the rain. There was barely any vegetation and the ground was a bluey-grey colour like that of cement. From a distance you’d think it was gravel but on closer inspection it was more of a solid rock but with a top surface that could easily crumble away. As you surveyed the hills you noticed a single brown, rocky line drawn continuously around the area linking every formation. We pondered what incredible natural event could have resulted in this misplaced strata.
I swing the Ranger ninety degrees to the right and carefully aim the wheels at the centre of the bridge that is not much wider than the width of a bus. There’s a thin, rusty barrier to both sides that leans out over the rocky riverbed some six metres (20ft) below. The dogs have made it to the other side before us and have found something interesting to investigate.
We continue moving and pass one of the many allotments that can be randomly found at the edge of the farmer’s fields. Around the next corner we discover a deserted house that looks like it would make a fantastic renovation project. The dogs run passed with tongues flapping about at the sides of their open mouths then stop at the top of the road. They glance back at us with a look that says, ‘left or right?’
There’s plenty of plant life down in the valley including wild lavender and thyme bushes. The soil has changed to more of a creamy colour and is littered with large stones that have been rounded and smoothed by the river when it swells and spreads out across the valley during the wintertime. There are a couple of posts that mark our exit off the track and into the vegetation. We follow the tyre tracks that have been cut deep into the dry riverbed as they twist their way through bushes and over rocks. The Ranger lurches from side to side as we gently roll forward, my hands carefully hold the steering wheel as it violently twitches giving me an impression of the undulating road conditions below us. I make small, correcting adjustments on the wheel as the 4×4 chooses the direction of least resistance to follow.
We swing right then come to a stop parallel to the riverbank. Both dogs are already in the water but for different reasons; Chisco is there to quench his thirst, Tina to play and cool off. They also employ different strategies to get to the other side; he goes for the traditional doggy paddle straight across while she carefully plots a course that arches out and around allowing her to keep continuous contact with the bottom as she walks over. They both then disappear into the undergrowth, no doubt to track and hunt down some fantastic beast.
We choose a shady spot and unfold our camping chairs to sit and relax. There are small fish swimming in the crystal-clear water and the multitude of pond skaters create an impression similar to rainfall on the surface as they propel themselves about in short bursts of activity. All sorts of flying insects are going about their business and we watch them passing or stopping to drink on the nectar of thistle-like flowers.
In a while, Chisco returns with Tina following minutes later. They assess the situation and decide that we’re not ready to leave yet so wander off to find suitable dog-shaped shady spots for themselves. They scratch at the soil to reveal the cooler ground below and plonk themselves down then fidget about until comfortable.
Berdún is situated in the middle of a large plain that is ringed by mountains on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. It sits on top of a cigar-shaped mountain that suddenly appears before you as you drive west from Jaca. The old, fortified town consists of two parallel roads and the rest of the town buildings sit adjacent to the winding road that makes its way to the top. There’s one bar and one shop at the bottom and the same at the top along with a bakers, school, medical centre and of course, the church.
The town has just over a hundred houses of which only about thirty-five are occupied all year round. This is a poor, rural community that is struggling to survive. Our Spanish doesn’t stretch much further than hello, goodbye and a few numbers but, even so, we find the locals to be friendly and we enjoyed a nice cup of tea and coffee for 2.50€ (£2.12) during a stroll about town.