The morning started strangely cool, a thick haze in the air. Having hidden my belongings under a screen of torn-up scrub – from whom or what I do not know – and followed the map I sketched last night back down the canyon’s twists and turns, I tried to locate Western Leone, but could find no sign of it. It might have been a mirage or a displaced memory. Now I am back underneath the desert, where the only view is of the layered walls on either side, cross-sections of geology sandwiched horizontally, vertically and diagonally, a parade of forms: honeycombed and organ-piped, rippled into spreading fans, concertinaed, cracked and slumped or eroded like rotten fangs. Further north, caña grows as if along a dried-out Nile. The riverbed turns to grey sand. It is an ashen landscape.
A rattle of falling stones pulls my eyes upward. Three ibex – an adult and two young – are moving with impossible calmness up a perpendicular rockface, ascending somehow vertically, a motion that cannot be described as walking and is not exactly climbing but seems closer to levitation in its sheer uncanniness. A type of wild mountain goat, extremophiles drawn to live in arid, inaccessible places, ibex are widespread in Arabia, Egypt and the Middle East, with a small population in the Alps; the animals floating up that cliff are from the Iberian species, numbering 50,000 in the Pyrenees and Spain. The one in front is a male, from the great size of his horns – ungainly, backward-curving things like thickly ridged scimitars, almost half his body’s length – like the one that ambushed me with a rock-attack yesterday morning. The lines of those horns are archetypal: black and yellow ibex appear, drawn with fingered dots, in 20,000-year-old Paleolithic cave art.
Their history in this part of Spain is long and mixed with magic. Near the town of Vélez Blanco, sixty miles north of here, is the Cueva de los Letreros, the Cave of the Signs. Its paintings and petroglyphs, dating back 4,500 years, depict the stylised forms of ibex, men and women, archers, hunters, birds and deer, as well as geometric shapes like interlocking triangles. The most famous of the signs is the iconic Indalo, which seems to show a human figure with splayed legs and outstretched arms holding a rainbow in his hands – thought to represent protection – which, painted on the walls of shops and houses for good luck, has been adopted as a symbol of Almería. But more potent is the figure of the Brujo.
Brujo means ‘sorcerer’. His body seems to be mid-dance. He has an elongated head, either a tail or a penis dangling between his legs and an object in one hand, perhaps a vessel or a heart. His arms end in sickles. From his head spread what are unmistakably ibex horns, mirroring the sickles’ curves, either a shamanic headpiece or an act of shapeshifting. Part human, part animal, the figure flows between the species as ibex flow up and down the rocks, a traveller between dimensions.
Whatever system of beliefs this Brujo might have represented, long before the Romans, the Christians or the Muslims came, is as vanished as the water that shaped the land. We don’t know what ibex meant to the people who daubed their likeness. But with their agility, their mastery of different planes, and their ability to thrive in harsh environments – and, perhaps, the crafty, knowing, strangely human-looking eyes that later religious prejudice would come to associate with the devil – it is easy to imagine that they might have been worshipped. Like the reindeer in the Cairngorms or the bison in Białowieża, they are a totem animal for the Tabernas Desert.
Lulled by the morning’s relative cool, I walk for hours northwards up this sunken valley, never quite able to resist the mystery of the next bend. Each corner is a plot twist that promises revelation. The place-names on the map are invitations to dark adventures: Cortijos de Haza Blanca, Farmsteads of the White Haze; El Tesorero, The Treasurer; Rambla el Cautivo, Ravine of the Captive; Barranco del Infierno, Ravine of Hell; and the horrifying Quemado del Muerto, Burned of the Dead. I wonder what their stories are and if anyone still knows them. The Arroyo de Verdelecho, Gully of the Green Bed, runs the length of Tabernas to a hamlet of the same name, and in a flight of fantasy I imagine walking on, past noon and into night, to emerge on the other side of the desert like some nineteenth-century explorer crossing the Empty Quarter. ‘[I]t lures a man on and on,’ writes the American writer and eco-activist Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, about his time working as a ranger in Arches National Park, Utah, ‘from the red-walled canyons to the smoke-blue ranges beyond, in a futile but fascinating quest for the great unimaginable treasure which the desert seems to promise. Once caught by this golden lure you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted.’ But I only have half an onion and a swallow or two of water left. This is not the age of great explorers. The Ravine of Hell and Burned of the Dead will have to remain vague nightmares.
The rambla narrows, squeezing tightly into a claustrophobic gorge, before widening out again to a waste of scree. Suddenly the air turns solid with the stench of death. My next breath comes out as a retch. The smell is like a wall. Exactly as I turn my head, the haze that has covered the desert since dawn shockingly peels away to reveal a raw blue sky. The white explosion of the sun sends me fumbling for dark glasses. The events seem ominously connected: death and the sun. I am hours of heat and light away from shelter.
The events seem ominously connected: death and the sun. I am hours of heat and light away from shelter.
Knowing that I have come too far, taking my last swallow of lukewarm, plastic-tasting water, I start to retrace my steps back along the Green Bed, misnamed in both instances. There is no resting here. The ground is white, encrusted in a crystal scurf of salt, which has the effect of escalating the quality of my thirst from nagging to insistent to quietly desperate. At one point, where the caña grows, I come across a brown puddle in the middle of the track – leaked, perhaps, from some irrigation failure far away – and dip a hopeful finger in. But it is foul and brackish. At least I can use it to dunk my hat, cooling my head and hanging a dripping curtain around my face, which feels briefly wonderful. It is bone dry in a minute.
Bone dry, bone dry, bone dry: a marching step. Bone for the left foot and dry for the right. Repetition breaks the phrase apart – it is one I have never considered before – and in the context of this heat the words turn sinister. Bones, when situated where they should be, are enwrapped in wetness, only taking on that description when they are removed from flesh and left in places such as this, a land of moistureless remains. The desert resembles parts of a desiccated body. The path is a rubble of pinkish quartz, pale rock like marbled fat. Baked vehicle tracks here and there in the mud look fossilised. Miles on, the carcass of a tractor tyre lies like a monument to a vanished age, which it might be before long. The sensation of thirst is as placeless as cicadas.
The warning signs of heatstroke include dry skin, headaches, rapid breathing, dizziness, slurred speech and confusion. I do not have the worst of these symptoms but I have the least of them. Or do I have all of them? In this heat, this unreal glare, it is hard to know what feels normal. In my mind is a simple, brutal fact: above a certain temperature the body’s cooling mechanisms no longer work effectively and the system shuts down. It is no great mystery. The heating can be external or internal – a result of environmental conditions or overexertion from exercise – or a combination of both. The damage starts once the body’s core temperature reaches forty degrees Celsius, which is the same temperature as the air around me now.
At forty degrees and above, the transpiration of sweat is no longer enough to cool the skin. A positive feedback loop is tripped: as they malfunction, systems designed to reduce the body’s temperature effectively make it hotter. Forty-one degrees brings seizures. Forty-two degrees brings vomiting and diarrhoea, massively exacerbating dehydration. The emergency redirection of hot blood away from vital organs deprives the intestines of oxygen and puts strain on the heart, leading to a risk of strokes and cardiac arrest. At forty-three degrees increased pressure in the skull causes the brain to swell and the body literally starts to cook: blood vessels haemorrhage; liver and kidney cells are destroyed; perforated intestines leak and toxins flood into the bloodstream; proteins disintegrate; muscle tissue melts.
There are fewer than six degrees between the body’s optimal core temperature – 37.7 degrees – and the ‘critical thermal maximum’ that brings absolute collapse.
I think of the colour map of Europe, the livid scalds and blotches that resemble haemorrhages, outward signs of the heatstroke that is raging through the continent. A core temperature has been breached and systems are breaking down, positive feedback loops are kicking in everywhere. As climates aridify, evapotranspiration from foliage – as with sweat from the human body – no longer helps to cool things down. The hotter it gets the hotter it gets. Aquifers dehydrate. Like overheating body cells, individuals and species die.
It will only intensify, according to the forecasts. Climate models show heat-related deaths increasing year by year as record-breaking temperatures become ordinary events. Manual and outdoor labourers – farmers and construction workers, the fruit-pickers of the Plastic Sea – will be especially vulnerable; in the worst-hit regions such work will become physically impossible. One point five degrees of warming is predicted to increase the average length of droughts in the south of Europe by three months, and the area burned by wildfires by forty-one per cent. With two degrees of warming this rises to six months and sixty-two per cent. Three degrees is exponentially worse.
Globally, there are fewer than four degrees between an optimal climate and absolute collapse.
Bone dry, bone dry, bone dry. My saliva has formed a solid. An itching heat-rash has spread across my arms and chest, my skin blotched with pricks of red. My eyeballs feel exhausted. But ahead is a fork in the road and in the sky appears an aura of dancing specks that coalesce, the closer I get, into the shapes of sand martins. I recognise rock formations, the walls of the ruined cortijo.
It seems I am delusional because I hear voices as well, an animated conversation or an argument. No, it is a single voice, either angry or ecstatic, echoing off the rock walls around the next bend. The hallucination progresses from the aural to the visual: here he comes, a kind of heatstruck demon materialising out of the air, a manifestation of all the fears that are in my head. The figure takes shape as a ragged man in a green shirt and tattered shorts, his skin scorched a reddish brown, his dust-caked mass of frizzy hair piled in a towering afro. He is kicking up dust and waving his arms, shouting at the sky, the sun, the rocks, the desert or himself – I understand ‘mierda!’, ‘shit!’, followed by ‘Dios!’, ‘God!’ – striking out determinedly in the direction I have come from.
‘Qué tal?’, ‘How’s it going?’ I ask as the apparition nears. The question really answers itself. His bloodshot eyes stare through me. For a moment I think he might attack but instead he makes a dismissive flicking gesture with both his hands, as if he were chasing away a fly, and when I look back he is doing a bouncing, limb-jerking dance, a kind of defiant jig of performed nihilism. On his back is a small knapsack. Off he goes around a rock. Minutes later I can still hear the echoes of his rage.
‘The desert drives people crazy,’ said Laurence.
Either that or I have just met the Brujo without his horns.
Outlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes is published by John Murray Press. Excerpt by kind permission of the publisher.