I am now in the south of England starting my first graduate job as a geophysicist at Macleod Simmonds, but a few months ago I was involved in a project I never knew existed. I first became aware of the permaculture movement when a good friend of mine, Guilherme (Billy), wouldn’t stop talking about it; he also told me they were looking for volunteers to go and help out on their new project in Spain. Having just graduated and travelled a bit I wanted to do something before starting work so I began following Ecosystem Restoration Camps on Facebook; they were setting up a new camp and within a couple of weeks posted an advertisement for volunteers where I wasted no time in applying. Three weeks later I was on a plane from London to Faro to meet Billy who would pick me up and then complete my 18-hour trip to the temporary camp at La Junquera in the south of Spain. A quick stop for lunch at Seville before arriving in the pitch black the dirt rubble road, but the high altitude and low light pollution meant we could see the Milky Way cloud which was breathtaking.
In the morning we met our fellow campers over breakfast, everything was either organic and freshly picked, and all of it was vegetarian and even vegan where possible. We were then explained how the next four weeks would work; we would stay in the temporary camp for the next three days and help where needed until our house was ready in La Muela. Over the next few days we picked fresh vegetables from the market garden for lunch and dinner, cleaned out the animal pens, familiarised ourselves with the 17th century ruins where we were staying and of course explored the site of the new camp that was being prepared and constructed.
There were two buildings, a small building were the ERC guys, Billy, Justin from California, Alex from the Netherlands and myself; it was mainly just sleeping quarters, we didn’t really use it for anything else. Next door was a much larger house where the Camp Altiplano team had been staying for the last several months. Their roles covered everything from marketing, administration, social well-being, carpentry, herbal medicine specialists, land planners, permaculture specialists and of course general volunteers. Ecosystem Restoration Camps is the Spanish branch of the much larger Dutch organisation Alvelal which in turn is part of a global initiative Common Land; all part of rejuvenating degraded land either as a result of over farming or erosion to flourishing landscapes rich in flora and fauna using traditional agricultural techniques and most importantly keeping it local. That is just one small part of permaculture, other areas include innovative compost generation, waste management, water retention methods and alternatives for modern farming of edible produce.
Everyone took it in turns to cook lunch and dinner in teams, one evening Billy and I made a giant soup using the sweetest of red pumpkins picked right from the adjacent market garden; not only did we manage to feed all 15 or so campers, there were leftovers too. During the mornings and afternoons, we worked on the new camp covering swales with mulching (dried corn stalks) to trap rain water; digging ditches for hugel beds to generate nutrients in the surrounding soil; spread compost for new vegetable patches and many more tasks. The camp had two pickup trucks with limited space, so a few of us had jump in the back, standing up as we drove along the dirt paths with winds rushing through you under the baking hot thirty degrees sun was exhilarating and the view stretches for miles on end with only open fields and low-lying hills in the distance; it was nothing short of a typical American ranch you’d see in Hollywood films. On the last night at La Junquera we were joined by our fifth ERC volunteer Cassandra from Miami, that night we drove to our new home for the next three weeks, an Olive Museum, yup you heard right, the south of Spain is famous for it so it made sense there would be one somewhere around here, unfortunately it closed down and has since been refurbished. After much driving around and some local residents of Velez Blanco having never of heard of it, meanwhile some older residents pointed us to a location ten miles out of town; eventually we found it and made ourselves comfortable for the next stage of our trip.
La Muela, the mountain side
The first day turned out to be a larger event, there were several people who joined us at the meeting point where we received our 4x4 vehicle for the remainder of the time and followed an entourage of pickup trucks filled with people from ERC, Alvelal, the local municipality, contractors and so on towards to the base of the mountain. As we approached La Muela the thought of having to go up became more and more daunting, Fernando gave a quick talk and introduced everyone before everyone was given a tool. Little did we know that over the next three weeks we would each bond to our tools and grow to love them and hate them simultaneously; I took the double ended fork and hoe tool while billy took the absurdly heavy rock bar weighing over 10kg. First, we walked through a thick pine forest for 20 mins before the trees cleared and we realised the true steepness of the mountain (somewhere around 30 degree incline); we soon learnt the easiest path was up the gulley where the rock was smooth with good grip. It was exhausting and after 40 minutes of using our hands to crawl up to get to the desired height of around 1200m (we started at 1000m) we branched off into the rocky sides where took a short break before going off in pairs and start digging holes.
The view was broad; towards the south was the valley of the region, further afield were some tall mountains and just in the horizon we could spot the Mediterranean Sea; to the north was the remainder of La Muela, getting even steeper before reaching the sudden protrusion erecting 100m of vertical cliff face to the peak at 1500m. At the top were vultures who circled us high above throughout the day. Digging was straightforward, but hard work; first we had to find a spot just behind a bush of a native species which would provide structural support and provide shade for the newly planted trees from the scorching sun. 50,000 trees to be exact, that was what Ecosia, the green search engine, was supplying us with, the rest was up to us. I usually began clearing the rocks and pebbles before digging a ditch about 50cm in diameter and 30cm deep using my fork and hoe, then Billy would come along, or anyone with a rock bar and loosen the hard ground; this step was critical as the roots need to be able to anchor themselves properly for any chance of survival. Each day we would climb up at 9am, dig for a couple of hours, have a lunch break, dig a bit longer before hiking back down and heading home around 4pm. The aim was to complete a section of the mountain each day, separated by a gully; there was also a team of local workers who were also digging holes in other sections of the mountain. From Monday to Wednesday the five of us volunteers worked alone and on Thursdays and Fridays we were joined by Augustin who was a landscape surveyor, his company Monte Vivo was hired by ERC to manage the project. Augustin also brought along with him local apprentices working within the land and forest restoration industry which went to show how large of a project this was.
Velez Blanco and our Olive Museum home
Many times, it felt like those coming of age movies or self-discovery and becoming one with nature, while it sounds cheesy the experience was honestly very humbling. I would say what I learnt most was how simple life has to be, as long as you have a comfortable shelter, food to eat and surrounded by friends and family; there is very little more one could hope to achieve. We did our weekly grocery shopping at the next town over in Velez Rubio where there were large markets with fresh local produce from the region. We lived within an old olive museum converted into a three bedroom house, barren at first, but we slowly made a home out of it over the weeks with our personal touches. Cooking was mainly vegan taking in turns to make meals in pairs for everyone else and considering we were a rather international mix we managed to have a varied diet which was great too. Unsurprisingly, Brits had reached into the remotest regions of Spain and many of our neighbours were expats or retired English couples, which was an easy conversation starter for me. Little Leo as we affectionately called lived next door with two adorable twin puppies who we decided to name Tinker and Taylor; we were greeted by the three of them every morning as we left and in the evenings when we returned, which was heart-warming. Occasionally when we had the energy we would walk up to the nearby hill to watch the colourful sunsets nestled in the unperturbed landscape.
Being an international and fairly young group of volunteers in a town with a small population mainly going into retirement had its perks. We personally became acquainted with the Vice Mayor of Velez Blanco Dietmar who was a German with a Spanish wife, hence, had made the move to Spain many years prior. During our time, he showed us around the town, gave us a personal tour of the medieval castle, and took us to ancient cave paints thought to be over 6000 years old from the earliest settlers in the region. We were immensely grateful for the extra care he took to make us feel welcome along with the rest of the towns people. We also organised a few trips ourselves including a couple of ruined castles where we watched the sunset from and stayed well into the night, a weekend back at Camp Altiplano. Despite off season, a trip to the Mediterranean Sea was necessary, we initially planned to do some cave exploring in Cabo de Gato as well as some kayaking, but everything seemed to be closed after summer which was a shame; on the plus side whatever was available was super cheap. We stayed in San Jose for two nights, enjoyed Paella, spent nights on the beach under the full moon with Justin’s ukulele and explored the surrounding area with a couple of hikes in the nearby mountains.
What made this experience truly ‘gezellig’ as the Dutch say was the people I met throughout my time there. All the guys at Camp Altiplano who are making the world a better place and opened their home and hearts to us; the people of Velez Blanco who took hospitality to the next level to make us feel welcome; and lastly my fellow volunteers who I will individually name. Alex from the Netherlands who blessed us with his wisdom and patience. Cassandra the bubbly girl from Miami, but made sure you knew of her Mexican roots from her fiery personality. Justin from California who was open minded, shared his passion for permaculture and serenaded us with endless hours of ukulele. Ottavia from Rome who spoke of revolutions and her anger at governments for failing to protect the planet, but to us was as sweet as the local honey and blessed us with her excellent cooking. Patrick from Germany who seemed lost at the beginning, it was clear he needed a break from study and the stresses of everyday life; over time he developed his character and grew closer and dearer to us. Lastly, there is Billy, my dearest of friends whom I travelled all around Europe with during our Geophysics master’s course and shared countless memories with. Clever, intelligent, gentle, an eye-opener, an avid coder, and many more; in honesty, he had a great impact on me, my aspirations in life, my desire to be a better human, to open my mind to all the good and bad happening around the world and who continues to inspire me. I hope to keep in contact with everyone well into the future and explore more opportunities outside of my main work and life.
The final week began with many goodbyes to some who I would never see again. The last leg my journey would be a road trip with Billy first to Granada where we saw the blend of east and west, Christian and Islamic in the city’s architecture, food and culture. Of course, we toured the Alhambra which is not overrated the slightest, a marvel of architecture and art. We spent another two nights in Seville which was a contrast to the calm atmosphere of Granada. A big city with a central business district and large surrounding suburbs; this was the typical Spanish city everyone imagines in their head, rich in culture and tradition. Billy dropped me off at Seville airport where I flew back to London and he drove all the way back to the Algarve.
If anyone has managed to read this far then thank you, I try to share my thoughts regardless of whether there is an audience or not, but its nice if there is. An incredible month which felt much longer has made me value life’s less materialistic assets of friendship and conscious wellbeing. If a similar opportunity arises I’ll be sure to take it up in an instance. Many people aspire to own a house, a nice car and accumulate wealth; in essence, to leave a legacy of their own. I wish society would think more collectively; we as humans of the 21st century are leaving a legacy of pollution, animal extinction, excessive waste, a disregard of nature and hatred among one another. As a race we should be aiming to not leave a trace behind of our existence, but to only coexist within our lifetime leading a happy and healthy life where all humans have the opportunity to enjoy life’s less materialistic assets.
On another note, despite having wrote the blog a month after my travels, I only got round to organising the photos and publishing this blog nearly a year later.
And here are many more photos, unfortunately unsorted and not captioned.
Graduated with a BSc in Physics at the University of Surrey and an MSc in Applied Geophysics at the IDEA League.