Dropping into another world

The nature of paragliding is that you are held aloft by thermals that are bubbles of heated air that separate from the ground and rise up to cool and condense to form clouds. It is a haphazard process and sometimes (often) you run out of lift and gravity takes over forcing you to land in a place you hadn’t planned. As you are nearly always over open countryside, you descend unannounced, into places you would never normally visit and come across people you would never normally meet. 

Last summer I was flying in the sierras south-west of Madrid. This is countryside the like of which exists nowhere else in Europe - high, dry, harsh and beautiful with free roaming horses and cattle amongst villages out of a spaghetti western. 

The valleys in between are more fertile - with olive groves and walled meadows, goat paths and tracks that wander and hesitate around towering rocks like the streams they often follow. They are only for those on two or four feet. 

The unseen hand had given up on me and I spotted a narrow field with enough room between the olives and almond trees to land. When sound of the wind of flight ceased, the first impressions were of beating heat and a blanket of cicada shriek. I was on the edge of hill and I knew there was a road in the valley but had no idea how to get there. I climbed a dry stone wall onto road of sorts - rough, uneven and smelling of figs and sheep droppings - but leading down the hill. I could hear the sound of animal bells below and as I rounded the corner there was a flock of sheep - more like goats, pungent and bleating - herded by rough dogs and supervised by a man so elemental and bucolic that he was like something from another age or another world - a time of ancient gods, satyrs and dyads. He was of no age, deep brown and weathered, lean and hard with barely a tooth in his mouth when he smiled welcome. He was dressed in little more than rags.

The flock were crowded round a spring with an iron faucet splashing water into a trough that overflowed onto the track and he parted the sheep to usher me towards the spring, shouting in rough patois that even I could recognise was hardly Spanish. I drank the chilled water and put my head under the pipe soaking my shirt and hair, instantly cool and refreshed. We shook hands and waved at each other as he gesticulated directions, shouting to make himself understood. 

As I rounded the bend I wondered if I had met Pan himself and half expected to hear the sound of ancient pipes among the holm oaks that shaded the track.


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