An uphill struggle

The battle of life is, in most cases, fought uphill; and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honor. If there were no difficulties there would be no success; if there were nothing to struggle for, there would be nothing to be achieved. – Samuel Smiles

We awaken at 06:00 to the sound of light rain and my alarm. It’s been a short night, but the rest has done me good. We pulled into this motorway truck stop five hours ago, after one of the most stressful days I can remember in recent history. Today will be better; today, we have a plan—just a short drive south to Pat’s Rescue Retreat and we’re golden. We set off almost immediately, skipping our usual morning routine in favour of going back to bed immediately upon arrival. Chaos prefers driving with the bed out anyway, though there’s not a dog’s chance of me letting him behind the wheel.

The three of us are not particularly talkative this morning; Spotify is playing one of our driving playlists instead. The Black Keys are quietly chanting about gold on the ceiling. I can’t see it in the dark. This stretch of motorway is unlit, and there is no other traffic around. The only light is our headlights and the faint green glow of the dashboard illumination. It’s still raining—the first rain we’ve had since Gloria. It’s the kind of miserable rain that’s just hard enough to warrant turning on the wipers, but not enough to leave them on. A year ago, this could have been my regular commute.

A voice pipes up from the darkness beside me as I exit the motorway for the final stretch to Álora. “Should we have filled up the LPG tank yesterday?” We probably should have—starving to death during lockdown after running out of gas would be a rather sad way to go. LPG stations are few and far between in Spain (755 in Spain vs 1263 in the Netherlands, according to, so I pull over while Anne looks up a map of LPG stations on her phone. We’re in luck, the nearest one is in Antequera, only one exit further along the motorway we just left. I do an about-face and take the on-ramp right back onto the motorway. It’s only a ten-minute drive, and we are soon greeted by the now-familiar orange glow of a Repsol service station. It’s open!

I used to scoff at the plastic gloves at the pump, but they’ve started to make a lot of sense lately; I happily don a pair. I fiddle with the nozzle for a while to no effect, before remembering to hold the giant button on the LPG pump. It’s still early. We leave with enough LPG to last us over a month if necessary. Another ten minutes and we’re back on track—a thirty-minute detour in total, but well worth it if we don’t have to eat raw eggs to survive. I set the satnav back to the dog rescue and settle in for the last hour of driving.

Dawn is well underway by the time we enter a small city along our route: Antequera. The name rings a bell, though I’m not sure why. The front wheels slide a little on the first roundabout—the first rain in months has left the roads greasier than the Gulf of Mexico. We cross the next two roundabouts at a snail’s pace. Traffic is still light, fortunately. The satnav tells me to turn right, and I obey. The road ahead climbs steeply; I shift down to second gear, then to first. It’ll be slow going, but we’ve made it up worse than this in first gear. The engine complains as usual, but it’s joined by a whining, slipping noise after 15 metres, coupled with a distinct lack of forward motion—we’ve run out of traction.

Front-wheel drive vehicles are notorious for their poor traction going uphill, and the oily film brought to the surface by the rain is the final nail in the coffin. I hit the brakes. The driver of a little green VW Caddy honks annoyedly behind us. I roll down my window and gesture at them to go, followed by an apologetic and somewhat embarrassed wave as they pass. Nothing behind us now, so I carefully inch backwards down the hill. The Caddy only makes it a few metres further before joining us in defeated descent. I take comfort in the fact that it’s not just us. We are reversing almost blindly onto an increasingly busy main road, something reasonably high on the list of things I’m happy not to do in a camper. A passing pedestrian notices our predicament and guides us out in between waves of traffic. We carry on along the main road, hoping for an alternate route. The satnav hates being ignored and makes multiple attempts to turn us around before presenting a new route. I ignore it. This city is a maze of narrow, one-way streets, and I don’t trust the satnav to not have its revenge by sending us up somewhere we don’t fit.

Halfway across town, we are finally sent up a broader, more accessible-looking street. It’s still steep, but the cobblestones are not as slick as the asphalt, surprisingly; not as porous, so less accumulated grime, I guess. The splutters and moans of our engine reverberate off the old buildings all around us, but we’re holding speed in second gear. I’m just starting to feel optimistic when the road changes ahead, replacing cobblestones with another length of wet tarmac. The wheels spin uselessly almost as soon as they touch it; nowhere to go but down. Anne hands me one of our walkie-talkies and climbs out. I gesture an apology to the SUV waiting to come down. I get the all-clear from Anne and ease off the brake, rolling backwards down the winding street, back into Antequera. Do we live here now?

“Car coming up,” the walkie-talkie chirps. I steer as close as I dare towards the buildings on my left, leaving just enough room for the car and then the SUV to squeeze through on the right. I back up until a side street provides enough room to turn, allowing us to head back to the main road with a little more dignity. We’ll avoid further side roads for now; we can take the motorway down to Malaga and reach Álora from the other side. We pass a familiar-looking Repsol service station on the way out of Antequera, and only then do I realise where I knew the name from. Just one of those days, I guess.

The motorway is the long way around, but the more gradual approach to hills is better suited to our climacophobic abode. The rain has stopped and the sun is out in full force by the time we reach the city limits of Álora, around five kilometres from our destination. The clouds and gloom have all but disappeared, revealing lush greenery, rolling hills and bright, whitewashed buildings set against a distant mountainous backdrop. The road quality has been gradually deteriorating the further away we get from the motorway. I take a right turn and it disappears entirely, giving way to a rocky dirt track running along a mostly dry riverbed. The track snakes back and forth across the water along the route, seemingly at random. It’s the Tardis’ first river crossing! The stream is clear and shallow—less than half our wheel height in the deepest gullies—but the fine gravel is as soft as quicksand. I’m not taking any chances and power through the crossings just a little faster than the suspension would have liked. Cooking utensils clatter off their hooks and onto the floor. Every bounce triggers a cacophony of creaks and groans and crashes from the cupboards, but our home takes its punishment like a van, and all the critical bits seem to be holding up nicely.

My heart sinks as we pull up at a green steel gate just off the riverbed. We’ve arrived, but the driveway is steeper than both the roads that bested us only hours ago. Failure is not an option here, however, and the driveway is rough concrete and, more importantly, dry. Pat pushes her way through a crowd of dogs at a second gate up top and comes down. After a quick introduction, we establish a game plan. The gates can’t be open at the same time if the dogs are to remain rescued, so she will close the first one behind me after I drive through, and Anne will open the top as soon as the bottom gate is closed. The timing has to be spot on—if I have to stop halfway up, I won’t have enough traction to get moving again. I back up a bit for a run-up and gun the engine. I listen intently for the sound of wheelspin as the camper tilts backwards, but the wheels are holding on. Anne opens the gate with time to spare. I just hope the dogs stay out of the way. They’re used to cars, but they’re milling about in the blind spot just in front of the bumper. There’s no screaming behind me, so I guess they’re jumping out of the way on time. The left wheel slips as I go around the bend at the top, but the Tardis powers through. The drive levels out a little, transitioning into a gravel path. I follow it up to our intended parking spot at the back of the property. The path is lined with lemon trees, and their stiff, overgrown branches scrape loudly along the camper on both sides. It’s moments like this that I’m quite happy to be driving something this old.

My happiness is short-lived, however, as the path ahead rises and makes a sharp left. I’m halfway up when the wheels begin to spin uselessly, loudly spitting up gravel against the chassis. I back up and try again, only managing to polish the tyres further. This day is cursed. Anne catches up and we discuss our options inside. Most of the property is on a slope, so there isn’t really anywhere else to park where we won’t be in the way. Pat has gone back to cleaning kennels and is nowhere to be found. If we can’t stay here, we might be leaving Spain after all. Spirits are low in the camper. Chaos is snarling at five large dogs jumping up to say hello through the side window. Anne is lying dejectedly on the unmade bed, using an arm to brace herself against the absurd angle we’re parked at. I’m getting hungry.

We rest for a while, munching on Spanish stroopwafels and contemplating our options—they aren’t great. I spot Pat coming out of a doorway near the house and run out to intercept her before she disappears again. There’s a flattish spot in a fenced-off lemon orchard we can try, she says. I’m all for trying, and the field is downhill from our current perch. I reverse slowly back down the path, branches grabbing at the top of the camper all the way. The flattish spot is still sloping, but our levelling ramps get the camper level enough that we only fall over a little when standing up. It’ll do nicely. Anne closes the fence, and I switch off the engine and climb into the back. For the first time since getting kicked out of our campsite, we can fully relax. We’re asleep within minutes.

1 Comment

  1. Peter Cunningham

    “Takes its punishment like a van”. Genius.


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