Guiding us through both the tale and the accompanying recipe is the passionate Kieran Creevy, with every significant moment captured exquisitely by Lisa Paarvio of Suki Media.
Grunting with weight, we lift heavy packs and inflatable paddleboards onto our backs for the hike into the Mont-Rebei Gorge. Though it’s still early in the morning, the heat from the surrounding hillsides and cliffs radiates outwards, making us sweat.
As we round the first corner, we stop to stare in wonder. Where’s all the water?
The Noguera Ribagorçana River, separating Aragon from Catalunya, should be just feet away. Instead, it’s far below us. Scrambling down the steep slope, our heavy packs force us to choose our footing with care. At the bottom, river mud is baked and cracked on the surface but fragile and insubstantial.
Our first steps breakthrough, sinking to our knees occasionally.
Leaving some essential snacks with the river team, I shoulder my pack, departing on foot to our planned rendezvous later.
Ahead of us lies the stunning Congost de Montrebei National Park. As I hike uphill, I can hear the whistling of air being pumped into paddle boards.
Dancing around the team is Eko, a massive branch clutched in his jaws, pleading for someone to play with him.
I’m barely at the edge of the canyon before I hear shouts of joy from high above.
A hundred meters away on the Aragonese side of the canyon, ribbons of green and orange flicker in the sunlight.
The climbers are hidden in the various folds and curves of the wall.
Soon, many of the climbing areas will be clear of human voices, instead a refuge for a host of nesting vultures and eagles.
Deeper into the canyon, the cliff face curves over my head as the path narrows.
Wire cables are anchored to the wall, providing reassurance and a lifeline for those who fear the void mere metres away.
Far below, the water turns into glorious shades of Prussian Blue as the sunlight finally clears the ridgeline.
Snippets of Catalan words echo up the walls from the river. Voices blend together, becoming muddled, their original meaning lost.
Far below me, moving at deceptive speed, the SUP team dip their paddles in rhythm.
The trail widens and bends towards the forest again, I turn to stare in awe at the beauty of the landscape.
This rough-hewn hiking track, constructed by hand pales in comparison to the majesty of the canyon.
Its walls are carved into wondrous shapes, all smooth lines and curves, banded with colour.
The bands display geological forces and timelines beyond most of our comprehension.
Unfortunately, this beautiful landscape, like so many others, is in danger. All around are the signs of massive drought, none more stark than the water level. Where normally, the river rises almost to the forest edge, now it’s almost 20 metres lower. For those who still think climate change doesn’t exist or have an impact on our landscapes and livelihoods, just go to the areas most affected by the changes.
Here, in this gorge the river levels are down.
On the other side of the planet, whole islands are about to be consumed by a sea that has risen less than a metre. Now imagine what a 20-meter sea level rise would mean for billions of people!
With the river far below its normal level, I descend on a fixed rope to a floating pontoon anchored in a cove.
Gingerly place my backpack on the Tandem SUP, our food for the journey carefully cached inside.
As Chuan paddles us out into the slow current, we hear a splash behind.
A sleek dark shape flows underneath, chasing carp in the depths.
We find a giant wave of stone formed into a small cave around the next corner. The perfect place for our lunchtime refuel.
Firing up the stove and unpacking insulated containers, we soon have our simple tapas of Trinxat.
While cooking, some of the team is at the river edge, filtering water for the next leg of the journey.
Bellies full, hydrated, and water bottles topped up, the team deposited me on the bank once more to continue my hike.
As the sun wanes, I’m outside the national park, waiting for the team at the river’s edge, but something has changed.
This morning the river was placid, slow-moving, shifting in colour from clear to green to light blue.
Now it’s grey-brown, with tiny rapids starting to form.
Far upstream, on of the power companies has opened sluices, the currents carrying mud, stones and small bits of debris.
Then, the call comes over the radio.
The team has had to beach their SUPs far downstream, unable to paddle against the increased current.
With the water levels far below the norm, between the team and I now lie kilometres of soft mudflats.
Post-holing and crawling through hip-deep mud while dragging a twenty-kilo SUP is exhausting work.
What should have been an easy paddle now becomes an adventure.
For now, my job is to check in with them at regular intervals to make sure they’re safe and have food and water ready for when they arrive.
Hours later, they round the corner on the opposite side of the river.
We’re only thirty metres apart, but first, they have to ferry glide across a much faster current.
Faces and hands streaked with dried mud, the team pull their paddle boards up the last few metres and crumple to the ground.
Chests heaving, but with mile-wide grins, the flip over onto their backs, elated.
Tonight, we feast on slow-cooked Catalan stew and sleep under the moonlight, ready for whatever tomorrow brings.
- 1 head cabbage, cleaned, cut into 4
- 1kg potatoes, peeled and diced
- 8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- Sea salt
- Olive oil
- 4 Fatty bacon slices, finely diced
- 1 leek, finely diced
- Baby lettuce leaves to serve on the trail.
- In a big pot, bring salted water to the boil
- Cook the cabbage for 10 minutes
- Add the potatoes and cook for another 20 minutes.
- Drain and mash together roughly.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste
- Allow to cool slightly.
- In a frying pan, heat up a little oil.
- Add the garlic slices, cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Add the mash and fry until there’s a good colour to the potatoes.
- If you’re using bacon, add it after the garlic but before the mash.
- Serve on a plate with Spanish Jamon, grilled black pudding or Bottifarra.
If you leave out the bacon, this is a great dish to chill then have on the trail for a hot lunch as it doesn’t have any animal fat.
Slow-cooked rabbit stew
If you don’t like rabbit, you can replace with lamb or goat.
- 1 whole rabbit, cut into 8 (ask your butcher to do this) or 1.2 kg rabbit loin (left whole), plus 1 whole roasted chicken carcass
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled
- 4 banana shallots, peeled and quartered
- 1 leek, cleaned and diced
- 1 jar roasted tomato puree
- 1 jar grilled red peppers
- 2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
- 4 carrots, peelde and sliced
- 1 glass red wine
- 1.5 litres good vegetable or chicken stock
- Sea salt
- 4 tsp ground black pepper
- 4 tsp smoky paprika
To serve: Pimentos de padron, roasted and salted.
- In a large frying pan heat the olive oil.
- Season the rabbit with sale and 1 tsp black pepper
- Fry the shallots, garlic and rabbit until the rabbit is lightly caramelised.
- Spoon into a slow cooker set to medium.
- If you’re using rabbit loin and chicken carcass, add both to the cooker.
If you don’t have slow cooker, use a large stockpot, set on the lowest heat setting.
Add the rest of the ingredients to the cooker/stockpot.
Simmer for 6 hours until the rabbit is falling apart.
Allow to cool then remove as many bones as possible as rabbit has a lot small bones which can be a choking hazard.
When cool, store in the fridge if eating at home and reheat the next day.
If you want to eat this meal on the trail. When cool, transfer the rabbit to insulated food containers (with the lids off) freeze hard overnight.
Cap with the lids, and take with you on the trail.
A good insulated food container should keep the stew frozen for 5-6 hours, so on a full days hike, it should be thawed by dinnertime.