“Quebrantahuesos!” nature guide Alexandra Farrell announces breathlessly, forgetting to translate into English as she points excitedly at specks spiralling high above us in a sky framed by dramatic towering cliffs.
“They’re Lammergeiers,” she confirms with absolute certainty, her trained eye immediately distinguishing these iconic birds with their massive wingspan of nearly three metres from the more common and less aristocratic Griffon Vultures. “See the shape of the wings and distinctive tail,” she coaxes gently.
They ride the thermals ever closer until we can almost see the glint in their eyes and I begin to understand how the preservation of this critically endangered species has been part of a life changing transformation for the Irish-born former pharmacist. Close up the Lammergeier – or Bearded Vulture – is utterly magnificent and it’s links with eagles and hawks are obvious. It relies on superb eyesight to locate its food, rather than the acute sense of smell that vultures use to detect carrion.
“For me these incredible creatures are right up there with the snow leopard and are a perfect example of the exquisite balance of nature, which is perfect until we humans tamper with it.” Like the Andean and California condors, these spectacular high flyers are the stuff of myths and legends.
By the beginning of the 20th century they had been pushed to the brink of extinction and largely wiped out in Europe where they fell victim to habitat degradation, reduced food supplies, poisons left for predators by ill-advised farmers and by collisions with electrical powerlines. Now, thanks to the dedication of environmentalists around the globe, the species is beginning to re establish itself in protected areas.
It is a story of patience, perseverance and the passion of people who place a high value on the well-being of the Earth and all its inhabitants, rather than simply worshipping at the altar of money and materialism. Alexandra has left most of the trappings of her earlier life behind, her exotic Lotus sports car being a reminder of days when money was more plentiful and her sense of purpose perhaps less defined.
Now she enjoys a nomadic life as a nature guide, photographer and translator, part of her year devoted to serving at the Pyrenean Wildlife Eco Museum in the town of Ainsa; also guiding for the Lammergeier Conservation Foundation which has its headquarters in the beautiful hilltop village of Revilla, adjoining Spain’s celebrated Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park.
Oscar Diez Sanchez is the charismatic and enthusiastic director of the museum and insists with absolute conviction: “This is the most beautiful part of the Pyrenees … just wait and see.” He plans an utterly memorable hiking exploration of the national park for my friend John Horler and I and within hours we’re in total agreement.
When we lose our way with darkness falling, we decide on the safe option and retrace our steps to a hiker’s hut we passed a couple of hours earlier, hunkering down for the night with a roof over our heads.
Dawn is a celebration of mountain magnificence and we lose count of the number of waterfalls as we negotiate rocky paths alongside tumbling streams, rapids and cascades each more beautiful than the last. Sometimes we have to clamber up steep rock faces, our hike through the Ordesa Valley taking more than 10 hours. We’re hot, tired and our feet and backs hurt, but John announces: “This is the best day of hiking I’ve ever experienced!” The beauty of the landscape is dazzling and we meet hundreds of other hikers, many with young children who seem undeterred by the ruggedness of the terrain, most having cheerfully walked several kilometres.
When we eventually reach habitation again we face up to a technology challenge we’ve put on hold during the hike – the chargers for my MacBook and iPhone were cooked by a faulty generator a couple of nights earlier that saw smoke pouring from various electrical appliances at the headquarters for what is being marketed as The Lammergeier Experience.
Abandoning the Trail to Salamanca for a couple of days we walk, hitch-hike and catch busses along a 300km detour to the city of Zaragoza, the kindness of strangers being a constant delight.
It is a national holiday in Spain and almost everything’s closed, but a lady and her daughter drive us from one hostel to the next, insisting that we be organised before she joins a family celebration. “I feel quite moved by her generosity of spirit and willingness to help complete strangers,” John observes.
Eventually a taxi ride takes us to the outskirts of the city and a new shopping mall that is a monument to high fashion and home to arguably the best Apple iStore I’ve seen anywhere. A smiling and super-efficient Laura Llorete produces the parts I need to re-establish communications with the world. Walking without writing about it, would be like winking in the dark and only I would know what I was doing and why!
I’m swamped by gratitude but already feeling claustrophobic in the city. Wildness beckons and I remember waterfalls, mountains and giant birds with an ability to see so much more than the two legged predators that are the greatest threat to their well-being. Hopefully we humans will begin to appreciate that we are all in this collaborative quest for survival together, our fates intertwined.
- *Lammergeier photographs courtesy of Alexandra Farrell and the Lammergeier Conservation Foundation