I spent 10 weeks in a hut in the Spanish wilderness: this is my experience

‘In the evenings, the mountains are silhouetted by deep orange and black sunsets. A blood-red sun splashes pink streaks across the sky’

On an afternoon in the third week, a huge horned animal appears out of the forest: majestic, almost mythical. It stops on the path and turns to face the human in its midst, as a dozen other giants noiselessly cross behind. Time stands still; I can see the animal breathing, its flanks pressing in and out, the hairs on its beard swaying gently. It’s about 10ft away, and this may be the weeks of solitude taking their toll, but it feels like communication. Once the rest of the herd has crossed, it slowly ambles to the other side of the dirt road, and clambers behind a boulder to higher, safer ground.

It’s an aoudad. Shaped like a goat but about the size of a stag, this caprine, also known as the wild Barbary sheep, is a relatively recent arrival to the Sierra Aitana in southern Spain, where I’m spending 10 weeks in a hut as part of a writing retreat, off-grid. As I’m solitary for the first eight weeks, the aoudad (pronounced oo-dad) is often the most relatable company I get.

The baaing of their young comes down from the upper slopes as the high rocks turn pink after sunset, filling the evening air with their anthropomorphic noises. Sitting outside my stone hut in the warm December evening air, I hear their peaceful baas, and the occasional rockfall, as young return to their parents. (The sounds are not always so peaceful. The previous autumn, locals witnessed an eagle drop a lamb against the mountainside, before ripping it apart over the following days, the lamb’s piteous cries disturbing all who heard it.)

The hut is basic. There is solar electricity from a noisy transformer and one socket – when it’s overcast, the candles come out. There is no fridge: cold cupboards keep food fresh. Fruit, vegetables and dry goods are delivered to a box a two-minute walk away every week. The nearest hot running water is a shower in an empty building 15 minutes walk downhill.


There are consolations: a wood-fired stove fed by logs chopped remnants of trees that fell the previous winter; views for miles outside my window; complete silence most of the time; and great weather for about six weeks, even though it’s the middle of winter.

Pine martens scuffle on the roof of the hut after dark – a frightening prospect at first but commonplace after a day or two, give or take a few bangs on the ceiling with the broom and the occasional scat left on the yellow chair outside. Some mornings a particularly large spider warms itself by the wood stove. Eventually, I bring him on a 20-minute walk to a communal hot shower further down the mountain and deposit him outside, but he mysteriously reappears the day later, again by the fire, before going into hiding.

Outside, chaffinches compete with robins for local almonds and wash themselves in a lunch box full of water and stones. On sunny mornings, goldfinches fill the clearing. In the afternoon, a lizard peeps up from behind a wooden block, eventually deciding to make a run for the stone walls of the hut.

There are other delights. An hour sitting on a rocky outcrop – looking down upon a sea of cloud, and flanked by mulberry trees and stunted pines of scree slopes – is rewarded by a sparrowhawk hovering for its prey, to the backdrop of a huge vista of connected valleys, pines, almond groves, and wispy clouds. Next comes a wild boar minding its own business, trotting down into the valley to rustle up some dinner. In early evening these boars snuffle around the hut, overturning large stones outside, occasionally squealing after a lovers’ tiff, and always fearful of any human movement.

Finally, another aoudad leaps up on the nearest ridge, the picture of pride, before running down the scree slope at a furious pace towards me, stopping to dive behind a bush and, after some hesitation, eventually plunging across open ground below my rock into the thicker woodland.

In the seminal travelogue The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen joins George Schaller in tracking a different caprine, the blue sheep or bharal of the Tibetan plateau. After several weeks here I begin tracking two herds of aoudad – more closely related to the bharal than our domestic sheep – and spot two groupings, including one 25-strong herd. On occasions, I spend an hour watching them, possible only by slowing my movements to the bare minimum under their careful, skittish observation.

The aoudad is often shot by farmers and hunters – although the landscape here is much wilder than Ireland’s agriculture-focused national parks, or the Hibernian Desert of our uplands, it’s not a protected area, let alone a national park. The owners of this valley let them be, however, and despite a voracious appetite for scrub, the thick pine forests seem in good health to my untrained eye.

Walking paths zigzag their way around the forests and mountains. Aitana itself might be a squat lump of a thing, disfigured by a Nato radar station on its crest, but nearby is the majestic Puig Campana. It’s the second-highest in the Valencia region, looming over the coast like a Romantic painting. Around the corner is El Divino, once the home of a Muslim holy man. Above, an eagle flies past in the relative warmth of the afternoon.

In the evenings, the mountains are silhouetted by deep orange and black sunsets. A blood-red sun splashes pink streaks across the sky. On windy days, transient faces appear in the swirling clouds, part of our mental tendency to form faces known as pareidolia. And so, on a moonlit walk, the shadows on mountainsides coalesce before me into a Da Vinci self-portrait; the next minute it’s the Virgin Mary or Che Guevara.

Coincidences proliferate during my time here. A morning spent reading Troilus and Cressida – and the speech Shakespeare puts in the mouth of the Trojan commander Aenas – is followed in quick succession by mentions of the Iliad and Troy in two other books, a Buddhist memoir and novel by Elena Ferrante. The next day, I read a passage by one of Ferrante’s characters on communism just before I spot the Soviet acronym CCCP scrawled in red graffiti across a familiar rocky outcrop, a remnant from the Spanish civil war.

History is etched into these mountains in other ways. Old farming terraces criss-cross every inch of the semi-arable mountain. It was about 200 BC when the Carthaginians settled in this area, centuries before successive Roman, Visigoth and Moorish rule. Some hillside terraces are even older than that, but most were built in the 17th and 18th centuries, reminiscent of the pre-Famine potato drills found in Irish bogs. For decades now they have been crumbling, part of a broader gradual rewilding of southern European highlands.

Aitana still has some small farmers, tending almond and citrus groves. In my final two weeks here, temperatures plunge, and the valley turns white. Ice appears in my laundry rinse bucket. Fetching the logs – cut months before – from a short walk up the mountain becomes a crucial daily chore. I think of the aoudad sheltering its young from the cold on the upper slopes as the evenings close in.

When the thaw comes, the access roads to huts like mine become treacherous, and a delivery van to a holiday home further up the valley gets stuck in the mud. Six of us spend an hour digging thick, greasy mud from out under the van’s wheels, before attempting to push it up on the verge, narrowly avoiding the steep drop, and back on the track. But the van doesn’t want to move, and so must stay until the mud dries.

There is still one surprise in store. A few days later, Achalamati – a Venezuelan Buddhist whose name means Unwavering Mind – offers a lift to the coast, en route to a class he is leading at a village that evening. A biologist by training, he gets out to examine a dead animal on the road. It’s a genet, a small carnivore that came to Spain from Africa a millennium or so ago. After so much time alone, it’s unexpectedly moving to see a small dead body – a reminder of the fragility of life, and how dependent we all are on each other to remain clothed, fed, sheltered, inspired, alive.

After 10 weeks in the mountains, gratitude for life seems the only sane response.

For retreats in Spain, see Suryavana (suryavana.es), Monte Irago (monteirago.org/en/), Solterrano (solterreno.com), and O Sel Ling (oseling.com).