Things don’t always go according to plan when you’re travelling. A lot of the time these unexpected events add to the thrill of being on the road. But, sometimes, these events can be a disaster. During our time in Peneda-Gerês National Park things definitely didn’t go as planned but this ended up making the trip even more unforgettable. This is how it all unfolded and how we had a brush with fire in Peneda-Gerês National Park.
“Only first class tickets left”
To the budget traveller these are never welcomed words. They’re quickly forgotten though when you step onto the air-conditioned carriage (especially when you start tucking into your complimentary food and drinks!). We’d already had to pay for a taxi in the morning when we tried to walk a 4 km journey to the station in 40 minutes. A difficult job in the baking heat when you don’t know the direction. After jogging for first 3 km we gave up with 10 minutes left to catch our train and jumped in a taxi.
After drinking our free teas I pulled out the guidebook and found our destination – Peneda-Gerês National Park! Although this place was top of our list it only ranked ’17th best thing to do in the guidebook. Regardless of this, it was one of our last stops in Portugal and we were going out with a bang.
Peneda-Gerês is a behemoth for hiking and the outdoors so we’d planned 5 days of non-stop adventuring. It’s the only National Park in Portugal, off the beaten track with multi-day hikes, waterfalls and supposedly the chance of spotting wolves. Sounds bloody brilliant, right? The journey was meant to be simple; A three hour train from Coimbra to Braga and then a two hour bus from Braga to Peneda-Gerês. However, as with most of our travels things didn’t go quite according to plan.
This is how our conversation unfolded at the Braga bus station…
“Today is National Teachers Day”
“What does that mean?”
“It means the bus not come”
Bloody hell. Twice in one day? I’ve always been messed around by teachers. To our luck the bus was still coming but five hours later than expected. Not ones to let a national holiday hold us back we quickly switched on the WiFi and searched for ‘vegan food Braga’. To our surprise there were lots of options. We decided on Gusto Superior as it was only a few kilometres walk from the station and what a find! The place was delicious, affordable and completely vegan, so make sure you stop by if you’re in town. With our bellies filled and 5 hours flown past we boarded the bus and had reached our destination before we knew it.
Campo Do Gerês is nothing short of breathtaking. Hidden in the Gerês mountain range the town is nestled in the bottom of a valley with rivers running through the town leading to an emerald blue lake. The town was surrounded by dense green forests, high valley peaks and most importantly loads of hiking routes. As soon as we arrived we could tell that this was the kind of destination we’d never want to leave.
Thanks to National Teachers Day we’d arrived late, so we quickly went to the local market to get some ingredients for a tasty dinner. As we walked to a fruit and vegetable stall we noticed clouds of dark smoke coming from the behind the valley top. The smoke was very clear to see but the locals didn’t seem to be paying attention to it. As we were surrounded by farmers fields I assumed it was a controlled burn used to clear the ground of old crops.
The next morning came and we’d planned a whopper of a 23 km hike. Travelling up the valley side to the top through thick oak forests, we planned to reach the valley top, see some majestic views and carry on through shrub land to an ancient stone village. We’d then make our way back in a loop through sun blazed forests and granite formations in time to have a beer and watch the sunset from our hostel. With our vegan lunches prepared and water bottles filled we hit the road.
Tempted by Peneda-Gerês National Park? Here are are few more reasons you should make it your next destination!
The opening few kilometres crossed through Gerês, over river streams and past elderly locals. The first trail marking was sun scorched and discrete but we soon found it and from here the only way was up. A 3 km climb, zig-zagging to the valley top through eerily quiet oak forests. This area was stunning, with a dense canopy shielding us from the sun. Within 15 minutes we felt a million miles away. No sounds of human life, just heavy breathing, wildlife singing and the wind blowing through the trees.
As we moved through the oak trees you could see the effects of the hot summer. All moisture and life from the vegetation had been sucked out by the sun and we walked to the sounds of dried leaves and twigs crunching underfoot. As we moved further and further up the valley side I remembered the articles I’d read about forest fires in Portugal and how they had caused devastation over the summer. The sighting of smoke yesterday didn’t register but I remember thinking ‘shit, if you dropped a cigarette this place would go up in an instant’.
Slowly we made a dent in our journey and hiked our way out from the shade of the forest. As we reach higher altitudes you could see the habitat changing with the landscape opening and the winds picking up. After about 1.5 hours we saw signs of the valley top with a lookout point 500m ahead. A hop, skip and a jump and we were at our first checkpoint and it was beautiful! With a view along the valley for miles and miles, it’s views like this which make every hard part of hiking completely worthwhile.
Our break was cut short by wasps that had nested in the wooden structure and were chasing us around. Taking two minutes to absorb the view, have some water and shield from the sun we were off again. Now on top of the valley our climbing had finished and we started our dusty 7 km journey towards the shepherds villages in the distance. 5 minutes after setting of we began to notice large patches of shrubs blackened by fire. Not that i’m an expert but it didn’t look like controlled fire marks. There was no structure whatsoever, just waves of burned areas which had been incinerated indiscriminately.
Another hour on and we started to notice dark clouds above and a thick smell of smoke in the air. By this point we were surrounded by high rocky formations and the only long view we had was from the way we’d come. No fire over there. You could definitely see and smell smoke in the air but we had no idea where it was coming from. After another 500 m, we finally came to an area of flatter ground and could finally see further ahead. Ahh, that’s where the fire is.
Now clear to see about 5 km ahead of us clouds of black smoke billowed into the air. We couldn’t see the fire but we could see the smoke rising and drifting towards our location. Neither of us had ever seen controlled burning and although it’s not great environmentally, it was quite exciting to see. We clambered on top of a rock and tried to get a better view. Hypnotised by plumes of smoke and the incredible landscape we forgot about the hiking and sat and watched the black clouds.
As the excitement subsided we started seeing helicopters flying around the fire. We also realised that our trail path was heading over the horizon straight in the direction of the fire. At this point the clouds seemed friendly and after a little pep talk we decided it would be safe to continue. Our logic was that we’d been at the tourist office in the morning and told them our hiking route – they would definitely have warned us if any controlled burns would be affected the paths.
Now walking forwards again it was hard to think of anything but the fire. The smoke was growing thicker and thicker and in the further aheas we saw the first glimpses of the fire causing the darkness. Despite our distance from the fire we also noticed ash and embers falling from the sky and covering our shoulders and hair. Looking around at our crispy surroundings it wouldn’t take Bear Grylls to realise it was not a great situation to be in. At this point rather than being happy snappy hikers we put the camera away and focused on the task at hand.
4 hours into our hike, the wind picked up worryingly quickly and spread the fires directly in the way of our route. What was a relatively small cloud of ash in the distance was now a very large, quickly growing fire raining down embers and blackening the sky. The air was thick with smoke and the whole landscape was being covered with ash. For the first time we realised we may not actually be able to continue. This is definitely not what we had planned.
Determined not to retrace our footsteps we stopped and checked the map for alternatives. We found an option to cross down the valley ridge much further ahead but could see the fire was slowly spreading in that direction as well. A quick change of winds could cut us off so that didn’t seem like a good idea. So, I switched into my outdoors survival expert mode and surveyed the situation. Besides the 5 m wide path we were on, we were surrounded by fields of waist high bushes and the odd tree. Everything was dried to a crisp. As the ash rained around us and both our options ahead seemed scorched, we decided to retreat.
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Pulling out of a hike is definitely not ideal but I’m glad we turned back when we did. The wind really started to pick up and it was hard to tell which way the fire was heading. Black smoke was now drifting all across the valley and it was noticeably harder to breathe. Watching the smoke rise and the ash fall I remembered the 3 km of oak forest we would need to return through. With the floor carpeted in dried leaves and thistles and the trees ready to fall for lack of moisture, I thought it would be a good idea to pick up the pace. Whether Sarah with her unshakeable calm noticed it or not, I was a bit nervous. We started to scamper back towards these hazardous oak trees and the journey seemed to take an age. We crossed back past the already blackened fields and it still never occurred that it could be anything other than controlled burns.
4 km later as we approached the forest I was pretty certain I wasn’t the only one nervous. Brushing the ash off my shoulders I pictured us running through the woods being chased by flames. Fortunately as we began our descent down the valley side we bumped into another hiker from our hostel. She’d also seen the fires and decided to turn back so we headed back down together. Although she claimed to be chilled about the fires, she did go incredibly fast so perhaps she just had a good poker face.
With relief we arrived back to the hostel greeted by all the hostel staff standing in the car park looking towards the smoke covering the valley. The fire that was originally 7 or 8 km away was now casting clouds all over the region.
Speaking to the staff in my broken Portuguese, I asked if the fire would be a concern. I learned that it was actually a wildfire which had been burning for the last 4 days and it probably wasn’t anything to worry about. We told them that we’d been hiking and the fire had cut us off and again they seemed quite relaxed. With the fire going for 4 days we were surprised the tourist information hadn’t warned us. We had showed them our map and planned route right through its path. With a smoke covered village filled with super chilled locals it was only the tourists who seemed concerned.
Now back in the safety of our hostel we felt slightly reassured by the staff who seemed calm as could be. Sitting down, we had lunch under a parasol and had the surreal experience of watching the ash rain down for the next few hours. I thought of what may have happened if we didn’t turn back and tried to make it past the fire. Again, I imagined us being chased down the valley by a raging inferno. No point in stressing now I thought, if the locals weren’t worrying then neither would I. Waking up the next day fortunately the smoke had cleared from the sky and the air was fresh again. The only lasting evidence was the odd bits of ash left on the floor and a picture I took from when we could first see the fire.
Looking back, although the hike didn’t go according to plan, it was a pretty amazing experience. We learned that in the north of Portugal the locals are quite laid back when it comes to wildfires. We also learned not to assume that fires in farming areas are controlled! My only frustration is that we weren’t able to finish the epic hike. Besides the fires, Peneda-Gerês was absolutely amazing and we barely scratched the surface of some of the hiking opportunities. We’ll definitely be going back to discover some of the other trails but maybe after its rained for a few days!