Jurassic Park – a week in La Garrotxa

May 24th, 2009 | Written by Simon Rice|

I’d noticed the droppings and marks on the ground near our tent late in the evening, too late to consider changing location, and sure enough the wild boar snuffled through the camp at about four in the morning. In the dim luminescent light of the tent I saw the dogs’ ears prick up briefly. Lucky, my lupine husky-cross stirred and looked at me across the groundsheet while Streak rolled over in his half-sleep, grunting in the process. The boars stopped and silence reigned for a moment, then the night air was shattered by a huge braying sound – deep in the primordial forest one of the larger inhabitants of was on the hoof once more! I couldn’t help wondering whether the story about large game not entering tents was apocryphal, but the next thing I knew it was morning, and a damp one at that. We had survived our first night in Jurassic Park!

The title ‘Jurassic Park’ is a joke, of course. In fact La Garrotxa is about as far removed from the Jurassic period as can be, the region’s volcanic origins make it one of the most contemporary landscapes possible; the last large activity was about 15,000 years ago, not 150,000,000! And our camp, even though it felt like being in the jungle, was in a well-organised and officially registered site – albeit a very distinctive one – owned and run by Dutch ex-pat Stendert Dekker and partner Maria Tamayo. Can Banal is located just off the upper Llierca valley in a narrow, densely wooded defile. It was the primordial appearance of the forest, together with the echoic quality of the landform, that inspired the nickname; the braying wasn’t a sauropod ploughing its way through the jungle, but a distraught male donkey, or ‘jack’, imploring Stendert’s four ‘jennies’ to allow it to mount them. As well as the camping Stendert has owned and managed about 90 hectares of forest since coming to the area in the mid nineteen-eighties. Can Banal is in the Alta Garrotxa district, just to the north of the more well-known Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa. He grazes cattle in areas where he has been able to clear the dense woods; a problem here since progressive waves of rural depopulation since the end of the nineteenth century has reduced human impact here.

Talking with Stendert gives a fascinating insight into woodland conservation issues. As well a grazing livestock, the woods were used for forestry activities like charcoal production, wood products like withies or osiers, etc. as well as for timber. Left to itself, however, the woodland has become too dense for use and is being damaged by invasive species like Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and European black pine (Pinus nigra), which outgrow the predominant native deciduous trees such as oaks, especially Downy oak (Quercus pubescens) and common beech (Fagus sylvatica). The problem is that as well as the pines starving the forest floor micro-systems of light, the autochthonous trees must compete for access to sunlight in the canopy and grow too tall and thin as a result. Stendert has to thin sections of forest gradually, otherwise the affected trees can’t withstand winds, and it can take over ten years of husbandry to restore the forest (this was music to ears for Mrs Simon, who is somewhat of an expert in the field, albeit her specialism is in humid tropical environments!). Fortunately, under the auspices of the new Plan per a l’Espais d’Interes Natural (the plan for areas of special natural interest or P.E.I.N.) the Generalitat (Catalan Government) has come round to the view that this intervention is necessary and gives the necessary permissions, and grants, for sustainable forestry practises. Another current issue, however, is the growing trend for second home ownership; managed tended forest is sparse compared to ‘natural’ wilderness and can appear ugly to urban eyes – supported by the myth that the natural environment is in stasis and that there exists a ‘pristine’ ideal form.

But La Garrotxa certainly does appear pristine and idyllic. The extent of the forest is truly astonishing and its undulating hills are dotted with beautiful masias, the traditional Catalan family homesteads. Although some of these are still farmed the agricultural economy needs input from urban spin-off such as rural tourism. We felt that the area was more like France than Spain and but for the lack of British ex-pat population it appeared more reminiscent of the Dordogne than the Dordogne itself! In fact we much preferred the Alta Garrotxa to the Pac Natural itself. We felt that there the villages have suffered from the impact of tourism and that there is a sense of being ‘over managed’. This is very laudable, of course, but it seemed to isolate one from the natural environment and villages like Santa Pau, beautifully situated in the heart of the Parc, was positively twee!

Much more to our taste was to walk around the immediate vicinity of Can Banal, where Stendert has marked numerous walks that take in the nearby section of the GR1 trans-Pyrenean route. Much more to our liking!