A bequest from the drought

Emerging for the first time in 50 years from the drought-stricken Valdecañas Reservoir, the five thousand year old Dolmen of Guadalperal (Martin Kelsey)

We are facing the third worst drought of this century and it could become much worse if the autumn rains on which we depend to break the drought fail. Whilst many of the small rivers here are habitually dry by late summer, the impact is telling on the farm pools which provide water for livestock. Even those which are reliably holding water in August have water levels which are far below normal. Perhaps the most dramatic images are the reservoirs. The Valdecañas reservoir is the fourth largest in Extremadura in terms of water capacity and was created in 1963 with the completion of the dam across the Tagus River, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula. But because of the drought the reservoir holds just over a quarter of its potential and the water body, although still vast, appears shrunken and bordered by vast margins of bleached pebbles and sand, the surface shimmering in the late summer heat.

We were there on an impromtu family trip to see for ourselves a remarkable bequest from this drought. For the first still since the reservoir filled over 50 years ago, the water level is now so low that a megalithic site, a dolmen hidden from view for so long is now visible. Built about 5000 years ago on the banks of the Tagus, comprising 140 granite stones, the site was known by the Romans but was only subsequently rediscovered by a German priest and amateur archeologist, Hugo Obermaier in the 1920s. Transportable finds were sent to Munich, but the stones were left and within 40 years were submerged under the rising waters of the new Valdecañas Reservoir.

Although the monument's reappearance had reached the newspapers, there was not much we could easily find regarding specific advice on how to visit the site itself. So we set off this morning as early as possible to avoid the heat of the day, forecast to reach the high 30s. The most direct route to the site was impossible because our way was barred by a padlocked gate and entrance to the large private estate of Guadalperal, on which the dolmen was located. Reservoirs are state-owned and their immediate banks are public-rights of way, but we could not cross this private land to reach the shoreline. Eventually, we found a road which led to a pumping station where we could leave the car and walk.

The trek took us across varied terrain: flat sandy bays, damp green zones and treacherous gravel banks. We had spent too much time finding this access point and the sun was already high in the utterly cloudless sky. Migrant Common Sandpipers and statuesque Grey Herons were the only signs of life beside the water on the right of us, apart from the slap of breaching carp on the surface. To our left the land rose and disappeared into the cover of the holm oak dehesa. It took us a full two hours hike to reach the site itself, we had passed four couples of people returning, whilst a similar number were spread ahead of us and behind.
The standing stones surrounded by a an embankment (Martin Kelsey)

The site is marked by a ring of stones lying flat on the ground and a bank of gravel (which would have been turf-covered before submergence), with an entry passage from the east. The bank is so high that as I approached I would not have imagined what lay behind it. Indeed it was only because there were a handful of people standing there looking down that I suspected (and hoped) that we had arrived. Once on the bank we could admire the standing stones below us, set in concentric rings. Some have described this Dolmen of Guadalperal as the Stonehenge of Spain.

The site has been under water for over fifty yeras (Martin Kelsey)

As I stood there I tried to imagine the landscape five thousand years ago. The brooding Gredos Mountains to the north would have looked pretty much the same. The Tagus River would have meandered across this plain before reaching a rocky gorge where the dam now stands. Perhaps there would have been marshes beside the river, whilst the wood pasture now on the rising ground would have been denser Mediterranean forest, still dominated by holm oaks. Perhaps there would have been small clearings and areas for grazing on these gentle slopes, with the livestock moving down to the river to drink.

A boatman appeared, bringing some visitors across from a village on the other side of the reservoir. We agreed a fare for him to take us back to the start of our trek and the breeze as we sped back across the water was a welcome respite against the heat of the midday sun. We clambered back through the woodland and I was distracted by the call of a Pied Flycatcher. These autumnal migrants would also have been passing through these same woods in late August five thousand years ago.


KarenL said…
What an incredible image Martin - a very special encounter no doubt. Your photos are great. It reminds me, although given its age is slightly more spectacular, of Mardale Green flooded to create Haweswater Reservoir here in the Lakes. No buildings remain though - they were used as target practice by the RAF - but the place where it was becomes visible in drought years.

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