Exhilaration and/or sheer terror can strike in a Malaga gorge, writes Philipp Laage.
The guide is sympathetic as the walkers head off up one of the scariest hiking trails in the world, telling them his own little secret: "If you're afraid of heights, that's fine. I'm scared of heights too."
The adventurers are walking the Caminito del Rey — the king's little pathway — in Spain's Andalusian province of Malaga. The trail is often billed as "the most dangerous in the world," as falling off its ledges leads to certain death.
After fatalities, it was blocked off from the public for 15 years before being reopened in a safer form in 2015.
The morning autumn air quickly warms the day in southern Spain, and there's a pungent smell of pines. From the car park in the small town of Ardeles, it's about a 30-minute walk to reach the official starting point of the Caminito del Rey. There, each visitor is registered and handed a helmet. Not only can walkers slip, but there is real danger of rocks falling on them.
"Better safe than sorry," says Juergen Nolle, the 43-year-old guide, who grew up in the Netherlands and has lived in Malaga for six years.
A business project brought about the creation of this path through tortuous terrain. At the end of the 19th century, a system of dams, pipelines and power plants was designed in order to tap the waters of the Guadalhorce River for electricity production. For this purpose, a water channel was built through the Gaitanes Gorge, and in order to service and maintain the channel, a trail was built. Construction began in 1901 and was completed five years later.
The trail earned its royal name after King Alfonso XIII of Spain walked it in 1921.
Over the years, the trail fell into disrepair and became increasingly treacherous. When three young people were killed in 2000, its use was prohibited. But soon there were plans for a new, safe path. Now, it doesn't take too long for hikers to reach the middle part of the gorge. The path, hugging the walls of the gorge, often consists of stretches of metal-grille walkways through which one gets a glimpse of the dizzying depths below — often a vertical drop of up to 100m.
Despite cables to hold while edging forwards, many visitors move extremely cautiously, while Nolle energetically strides on out in front. He doesn't give the impression that he is all that afraid of heights. The Caminito del Rey is, including the access trail, all of 8km. This means that not long afterwards, the hiker can sit down in a cosy inn at the other end.
Just before that haven is reached, the trail experience comes to its climax. Walkers edge along walkways bolted to the sheer wall. Below them is the old walkway: rusty and bent.
They then have to cross a spectacular, featherweight suspended bridge with a view of the dam below.
The bridge is about 15m-long and you can feel it shaking as you cross. Those who by now have not overcome their fear of heights will certainly face a heart-pounding test here. Others will enjoy the airy heights and spectacular views.
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