On a bicycle journey of three months it’s desirable to spend an occasional night camped stealthily alone. It helps the budget, but also is a true rest from the stimulus of travel. We know our routines, rarely need to speak a word as tent is pitched, sleeping pads and bags unfurled, panniers unpacked and placed in the tent in order. By now, we have a system.
Willie is the wild camp site selector. He works it like a master, spying hills or groves, often dropping his bicycle to pursue a path on foot returning with a thumbs up or thumbs down. In western Spain the possibilities for wild camping are severely limited by the increase in fenced land. Barbed wire fences or stone walls effectively keep touring cyclists out and cattle, sheep and rocky fields in.
As the master, I rarely question his judgment so only raised an eyebrow when he opened the 10 foot tall gate and slipped inside to hike up a hill through a sparse thicket of sage brush and gnarly old oaks. He returned with a thumbs up and beaming grin, excited by the spectacular view we would have that night.
Up the rocky terrain we huffed our laden bicycles and just off the center top, we pitched the tent, unfurled the bags, unpacked the panniers, got out the stove, kitchen kit and makings for dinner. Clothes were changed and we settled in for a slight rest noticing the tiny tinkle of far-off bells.
Each slow breath seemed to bring that tinkle a little closer. Imagination? Then a motorcycle swooped back and forth, back and forth in perplexing rhythm. Hoping it would just leave, the noise finally trailed away, and only the tinkle of sheep bells remained. Growing louder. Growing louder still. Growing loud enough to make us sit up and scan our hilltop and see the first puffs of white crest. More followed and sheep streamed by the far edge of the clearing, rambling down the hill from which we came. A few shakes of a shirt startled any sheep willful enough to look away from the flock and in our direction. Soon enough they were gone.
Time to start making dinner, light the stove, boil the water. When the tinkle and baaaying of sheep grew stronger again. Scanning the hill top, this time not one or two or twenty, but two or three hundred sheep poured over the top and charged directly towards us. Leaders formed a semi circle around us, while those further back raised their head and jostled their neighbor hoping to see. Sweet tinkling of bells was replaced by bellowing and braying. The boldest sheep would start towards the tent bag or towel or pannier strewn about our camp site. Waving of arms shooed them back, but only to the edge of their semi circle. They cried and balked and made terrible noise. Then stopped. Dead silent, but all 600 black beady eyes saying the same thing. “Get off my hill!” Then on cue, they start the baaying sounds again.
Times like these, I feel like such city kids. Willie thinks the sheep will just go to sleep. I think he’s crazy, but truthfully, I don’t know if sheep sleep. I do know that we are the most interesting thing they’ve ever seen on their hill. He thinks it will take too much time to pack our bags and move, I think we have no choice but to move. The sun has already set and dusk is giving way to dark and minutes of indecision are stolen from our light. As a big sheep in front makes for the tent fly flapping in the slight breeze, I declare emphatically we can not stay here and at last we agree.. Willie’s job becomes the defender of camp while I scrunch and shove all our belongings into a bag, any bag, and undo our campsite in minutes which normally takes an hour. We take turns defending our ground and attaching our panniers to our bicycles readying for a hasty retreat. As we push off, walking our bicycles quickly down a path more perceived than actually seen, the sheep turn away and comfortably munch their hilltop. Victorious.
It’s a scramble for us in near darkness. Thankful sheep dogs were not with the flock that night, we breathe a sigh or releif. We found a gate, not the same gate since we are turned around in the darkness, but outside is a road and our bicycles know they belong.
Nearby we found an opening to a stone walled field of hay stubble. Bristly and uneven, but it was out of sight, tucked low from the close-by road. We cooked our simple supper under moonlight and clear skies and went to sleep counting our lucky stars.