Many years ago, in my first year here in Seville, my brother and his wife and family – two small boys – came to visit. They spent some time at the beach, and one day we all took a boat trip from Sanlucar de Barrameda, the sherry town at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river, across the water to Doñana National Park.
The visit included walking along a wooden boardwalk alongside the river, to a collection of chozas (thatched houses) in a riverside forest clearing, where a few families still followed a simple, traditional way of life. We spotted some deer and various birds, but no lynxes. It was a brief but tantalising glimpse of Europe’s largest wetland reserve, 1300km2 of protected land which stretches across three provinces – Sevilla, Cadiz and Huelva. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Doñana National Park is one of the last untouched wildernesses of modern Spain.
In the years since, nearly a decade during which I have got married and had my own children, I have harboured an increasingly fervent desire to go back and explore more of the park. With my family, we´ve visited some of the information centres around the edge of the protected area – La Rocina (just outside El Rocio), Palacio de Acebron (a modern hunting palace nearby), and El Acebuche (near Matalascañas).
I knew that small green 4×4 trucks take groups of people inside the park to see the different types of landscape – beach, dunes, woods, wetlands – and to spot the wildlife, which as well as lynx, includes wild boar and many protected birds. Finally, about a month ago, after weeks and weeks of rain, I decided that with the marismas full, it was the perfect time to book myself and my family on a trip to Doñana – nine years after that first visit with my nephews, who are now strapping teenagers.
When we arrived at El Acebuche, the main visitor centre for Doñana, and the departure point for the tours, my own children (aged four and six, about the same age as their cousins on that visit) were beside themselves with excitement to see the sturdy, designed-for-adventure vehicles waiting. While collecting our tickets from the tour office, we were fortunate to see a live video feed showing a rare Iberian lynx with new-born babies, just a few days old.
The breeding programme at El Acebuche has seen continuing success, with young born every year, and a current total of 30 lynx in captivity, with 80 in the wild, who are provided with their own bridges and tunnels to cross the road safely which bisects their territory. The problem with releasing those bred in captivity into the wild, as our guide later explained, was food: making sure the cotos (reserves) of woodland were well-stocked with rabbits. The bunny population was severely depleted by mixymatosis and is still being restored – we saw several enclosures for rabbit communities near the track on our visit.
Settling in to our truck – sitting in the front row – we were impressed that our guide, Gonzalo, spoke perfect English and could make his commentary in one language and then repeat it in the other, slipping seamlessly between the two, and with an excellent accent; no details left-out through laziness (which happens quite commonly here). The route of the tour, which lasts about four hours, he explained, takes in 70km of Atlantic sandy beach, mobile dunes, woodlands and marismas. We would see a palace, chozas (traditional dwellings made from locally gathered materials), with three stops along the way when we could get out and have a look around, including the dunes and marismas.
The first part of the tour skirts around the back of Matalascañas, an unattractive resort town with some of the ugliest apartment buildings I’ve ever seen on a beachfront. You go through a gate and onto the beach, which feels odd and slightly wrong, to be driving directly on the sea-washed sand. Passing some of the few dwellings inside the park (allowed to remain since they predate the park’s creation, in 1969), fishermen’s huts, self-sufficient with their solar panels, you drive along the shore, half in the waves. The truck bounces up and down merrily over the sands, with a view of waves and birds. The sky and sea were both grey, and drizzle was falling, smearing our windscreen and windows with big, fat drops.
Only cyclists and walkers are allowed along the 30km stretch from Matalascañas to the Guadalquivir mouth at Sanlucar. There are no hotels, shops, chiringuitos (beach restaurants), nothing. In a country with as overdeveloped a coastline as Spain, that is a paradise to be cherished. Sadly, litter strewn across the empty sands dragged us back into an earthly domain – the tide had brought detritus from passing boats. Far more appealing, we saw a 16th century martello tower, part of defensive fortifications from a long-ago war with neighbouring Portugal, which is just up the coast.
After the thrill of driving in the sea, we turned inland to the dunes, which felt a little Lawrence of Arabia (in fact, some scenes of the David Lean classic were filmed here). These mobile dunes, blown inland by the south-westerly wind, move around 3-6 metres every year. Between the dunes are small valleys, called corrales, which have junco grass (used to make the rooves of the chotas) and pine trees. As the sand advances, it covers over the pines completely, creating a constantly changing and evolving landscape.
We stopped at the top of one such dune, and walked (or ran/rolled in the case of the kids, who by this time were delighted to stretch their legs and let off some energy) down to the corral. The other vegetation are juniper bushes, atop little sandy mounds. These have highly flexible roots and can cope with the mobile environment around them – they literally move up and down as needed. It feels (is) nature untouched by man – sure, truckloads of people like us come to visit, but noone actually lives here, leaves rubbish or produces sewage, damages or removes any part of this precious ecosystem, plant or animal. The notable exception to these strict rules is El Rocio, the massive pilgrimage which takes place in May every year, and sees thousands of people crossing Doñana, in 4x4s, trailers pulled by tractors, horse-drawn carts, and ox-drawn gypsy wagons, leaving mountains of waste such as plastic bottles in their wake.
Then we headed into the pine woods – diverting from the normal route along the edge of the marismas (marshlands), to avoid two pairs of nesting peregrine falcons which were recently discovered. We saw the areas where some pine trees had been removed, to allow light to come through so the grass could grow for the rabbits to eat, safely hidden behind their rabbit-proof fence (natch) till they’re numerous enough to be released and provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for the lynxes.
We spotted (well, the guide did) imperial and booted eagles, black kites, glossy ibis (whose numbers have recovered in recent years having disappeared from this part of Europe) and red deer. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough to catch any of the birds on camera (and my zoom’s not strong enough, in any case). But I did get the wild boar pair near the road, and their piglets. Shades of Asterix.
The next stage of the visit was the one for which Doñana National Park is most famed: the marismas, or wetlands. These are seasonal areas of shallow water, full in spring and winter, with some shifting islands and mudbanks, and dry in summer. A colony of 40,000 flamingos live here, coming to feed during the day, and returning to their nesting areas at Fuente de Piedra lake near Antequera, about 150 km away, at night. In total, there are 275 bird species to be spotted in Doñana, many of which migrate from Africa. It is an ornithologist’s paradise, with star spots including purple gallinule, Kentish plover, pochard, and marbled teal.
When we stopped to get out of the truck, the marismas were covered in hundreds, if not thousands, of pink flamingoes; a spectacular, breathtaking sight. However with one shout from my son, the spell was broken: most of them flew off – one of the challenges of appreciating nature with small children. Our fellow passengers were remarkably tolerant of this unintentional sabotage (which came despite, or indeed perhaps because of, numerous requests from me to please be quiet when we got off the truck to see birds).
Will all these wide open spaces full of endangered species to protect, you’d expect plenty of park rangers; in fact, few guards live inside the park, although today most are in the surrounding towns and come in by 4×4. Those who do live here, are marooned during the wet season, like the white house in the distance in the photo above. Their quarters are self-sufficient energy-wise, with solar panels for electricity, a mobile phone and radio, and a boat rather than a car. Previously, this type of vocation was passed down from father to son; now it’s for those who thrive on isolation and silence.
The families who lived in Doñana survived by collecting piñones (pine nuts) from the pine trees; fishing, hunting and farming; making charcoal, salt and honey; and other traditional skills using local materials such as weaving baskets from grass. Most have left now, though their chozas (thatched houses) remain and can be visited – the final stop on the route, called Poblado de la Plancha. The chozas are built in family groups called ranchos, inside a walled enclosure, facing each other: one as sitting room/kitchen area and the others as bedrooms (one is still occupied for a few months of the year). There is also a half-built choza, showing the frame, so you can see how they’re constructed.
After the chozas, we passed the Palacio de las Marismillas, where Spanish presidents take their holidays, as well as the likes of Tony Blair and the King of Belgium in the past; Rajoy was staying there that night. My husband’s joke about the unemployed (of whom he is one) showing up to wave placards and disturb the head of state’s visit didn’t impress the guide.
Other wild animals we saw included red deer and wild cows; Doñana is also famous for its wild horses, who live in the marshes and can be seen on the wetlands next to El Rocio town. Unfortunately, this protected area has been in the news lately for various unwelcome projects which threaten its ecosystem with environmental armageddon: fracking for natural gas inside the park, and dredging the Guadalquivir to allow larger ships to reach Seville. Both projects could have potentially catastrophic consequences on this priceless natural space, risking everything so carefully protected and nurtured in the bioreserve over the past 30 years. As ever, it’s economy v environment, and as ever, he who shouts loudest (and has most political clout) wins.
Returning along the beach, the tide had gone out, and seabirds were feeding on the sediment left behind, which made for a beautiful sight in the soft evening sunshine – turned out fine in the end. Not sure how much the strapping nephews would have enjoyed it, with its lack of WIFI and sporting possibilities, but for anyone who likes raw nature, rare ecosystems, and rural Spain as it once was, it is unmissable. And after so many years of anticipation on my part, I can honestly say it lived up to my expectations in every way.
We went as guests of Doñana National Park Tours. The visits leave from El Acebuche near Matalascañas (A483, km 37.5) at 8.30am and 3pm in winter (5pm in summer, from 1 May; note there are no tours during the El Rocio pilgrimage – 12 May to 25 May 2013). Tel 959 430432. Price: 29.50 euros per person (no child reductions).
If you want to see what a choza looked like when people lived there, La Rocina Visitors Centre has a fascinating recreation, with traditional furniture, tools used, and food grown, stored and eaten. To find out about local skills and crafts in Doñana Park, La Fabrica de Hielo in Sanlucar de Barrameda and Palacio de Acebron both have good displays. And for a less adventurous day out, but with lots of close-up bird action, Cañada de los Pajaros bird reserve near Sevilla has many of the same species as Doñana.