After several hours walking along stark cliffs and ridges, I come down a hillside dotted with white asphodels and find myself on an untrodden beach. I have not seen another person since breakfast. Behind the beach, which is black, are banks of wild aloes with their massive spiky leaves at ground level and skinny dried flower stems jutting upwards.
They look like upside-down palm trees in a beach scene sketched by Picasso. I strip off and swim. The water is icy cold, but the beach is warm so I lie on it until I’m dry. Then I notice the shelter. It is tucked away in the cliff at the back of the beach, under an overhang of twisted, scorched volcanic rock with a few palm leaves as camouflage. Inside is a bench of driftwood and some empty plastic containers. Robinson Crusoe has not been here for a long time. I go to sit on the bench and am instantly slammed down into the sand.
I’m not knocked out, just stunned. I’m lying on the sand, groaning. I feel the top of my head and there’s a bit of blood, not much. For a moment I think some jealous caveman has bludgeoned me with a club but, from my prone position, I can see that there is a nasty rock protrusion at head height. In the gloom, eyes still sun-dazzled, I’d missed it. It was the mountain that had attacked me. And they do say deserts are a hostile environment.
Europe does not possess a lot of desert. There are some barren regions of Italy, Romania and Scandinavia. But there is only one real, true-to-type, sand-and-rock desert: the Cabo de Gata in Almería, Spain’s south-east corner, where annual rainfall is just 200mm – the lowest in Europe. That’s where I’ve come, to be pole-axed. In summer, this can be a searingly hot experience – not that sun-lovers are deterred: it is also the busiest time. In all other seasons, however, this is a unique and beautiful coast, perfect for a multi-day hike.
I had started with a night in Rodalquilar, a white-washed village inside a large volcanic crater. Here, German émigré Eckhard Kost has built a quirky desert garden around an old farmstead, now a B&B – El Jardín de los Sueños, which means garden of dreams (doubles from €76). He has grown used to the reversal of all common sense in this environment. “If you build a swimming pool,” he tells me, “the main problem is you can lose all your swimmers due to it being too hot, and then all your water by evaporation.” His strange garden of cacti, stone and succulents both creates and reflects the mood of the place: a bit Heath Robinson, but also intriguing and serious. “I love it here,” he says. “I’d never live in Germany again.”
On the rock walls above the village, I spend a day hiking up past the old gold mines – keeping a weather eye out for anything that glitters in the scrub – then over to the next valley. There I find an avenue of huge aloes that leads me to the church of Cortijo del Fraile. It was here, in 1928, that a local woman, Francisca, eloped with her true love, her cousin Francisco, shortly before she was due to marry another man, Casimiro, whom she did not love. Casimiro’s brother then caught up with the runaways, murdered Francisco and severely beat Francisca. Four years later, the playwright Frederico García Lorca took this tragic tale and created Blood Wedding, a dark vision of rural Spanish life salted with surreal influences (the Moon and Death both appear as characters). That play made Cortijo del Fraile something of a byword for intense, elemental passions, something that drew the Italian film director, Sergio Leone, to rediscover the location in the 1960s, using it in For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
Unfortunately, on my visit, the place is being restored so it is impossible to enter the actual church. I’m sure, however, that the celebrated desolate ambience will not be lost.
My second walk is to head in the opposite direction from Rodalquilar, up to the lonely beach at Cala del Carnaje and the lighthouse at Torre de los Lobos for views of the jagged coast. I am already regretting not having more time: the real deal would be to spend several days trekking the entire coastline from Agua Amarga to Cabo de Gata. For me, however, time is short. Eckhard tells me that the best section is between the tip of the peninsula at Cabo de Gata and the village of San José, so I transfer there.
This tight-knit little village, sitting among a series of narrow beaches and rocky bluffs, was where a local woman, Doña Pakyta, took her stand against unwanted development of her beloved Gata peninsula. Throughout the 1960s and later, various misbegotten plans for massive hotels and corniche roads were concocted by outsiders, keen to exploit the spectacular beaches. The formidable Doña Pakyta, however, saw them all off. As the owner of 3,300 hectares of land around San José, she understood the value of the unique landscape and flora. She also knew the land produced the most remarkable meat from rare Celto-Iberian goats. I try it that night in the hotel named after her (she died aged 103 in 2014) and can confirm it is superb.
Next day, I begin to appreciate more deeply what an important fight she had waged. I take a local taxi around the inland roads, past the flamingoes on the salt flats, and get dropped off at Cabo de Gata itself, the starting point for a long hike back to San José.
Magnificent beaches are dotted all along this trail, lonely and untrodden, each a slightly different colour, each buttressed by jagged walls and ridges. It proves to be one of the finest day’s walking I’ve ever had, despite that attempt by the desert to take bloody Lorca-esque revenge on me for intruding. That evening, once again with a large plate of Celto-Iberian goatmeat in front of me, I raise a glass to Doña Pakyta and toast her foresight in preserving this stark and hypnotic landscape.
• The trip was provided by Inntravel (01653 617001, inntravel.co.uk), which offers a self-guided Dramatic Landscapes of Almería walking holiday from £335pp, including four nights’ B&B, one picnic, luggage transfers, routes notes and maps and return transfers from Almería airport. Available Jan to May and early Sept to Octo. Holiday Extras provided airport accommodation and transfers for this trip. A number of operators fly from UK airports to Almería from around £62 return