Even though I’m touring Europe, the opportunity to see some African animals is too good to pass up. So I make a detour from my coastal route into the mountains to Cabarceno Park. Not only is it an area of outstanding natural beauty, it is also home to a large number of species from all over the world.
Conveniently, I am able to stay next to the park entrance, in an area overlooking a small lake where ducks glide effortlessly across the surface and the leaves of the beech and elm trees fall like confetti. Opposite, in a natural hollow of the land, are a herd of elephants heading down to a waterhole, surrounded by buffalo and antelope. If it wasn’t such a cold, dull, grey day, I could almost imagine I’m actually in Africa.
The park itself is set in 750 hectares of mountainous land, dotted with pinnacles of karst. The suggested itinerary takes me from the lows of the hippo pool to the highs of the lions and tigers in their natural rocky amphitheatres. Unfortunately the spotted hyenas and wild dogs are a no show, and it seems impossible to reach the wolves in a motorhome. Many of the animals have been born here, including a baby white rhino and several elephants. Although the matriarch of the elephant herd is from England and her name is Penny. Some of the vistas offer stunning views across the park and down to the city of Santander and the sea beyond.
As it is a Monday in December, there are very few other visitors in the park and we keep running into each other as we follow our maps and the bold signposting around the park. For the most part the animals seem very content. Not surprising given the huge areas they have to roam. I too am extremely happy as, unlike Longleat and Planete Sauvage in France, I am not confined to my vehicle but can get out and wander around the roads and exteriors of the enclosures. Only the birds of prey, tethered to metal rings stuck into the muddy ground, seem discontent. They were born to fly, not to pose for photographs. The local crows appear to mock them from the surrounding trees and fence posts.
Nearly all of the cafeterias, snack bars and souvenir shops are closed, which is no great loss as I’d rather take a late lunch in one of the local village establishments outside the gates. On the menu today is the special – Highland Stew. It’s a variation on the Basque stew which I have already tried in Bilbao but the Cantabrian version uses fava beans. Next is another local speciality – baby squid in a sauce of their own ink – served with burning-hot chips. The grand finale is queso fresco con membrillo – a wedge of soft, white cheese with a slab of quince jelly. I don’t think I would be eating this well if I was in Africa. However, as I settle down for the evening I can just about hear the rumbles of the elephants, the whooping of the hyenas and the screech of an eagle owl.