The Eye of the Elephant: Climbing Through Millenia and Marking the Passage

View from the Eye of the Elephant

“Don’t be put off by this review, it is challenging but rewarding, go prepared and once down safely you will sit with an aura of satisfaction and a reason to ask someone else to go get your drinks….” (SteveL801, Trip Advisor) 

Last month, my husband and I finally made it to the Elephant’s Eye. 

The Elephant’s Eye, as it is colloquially known, is a large cave in The Montgó Massif, the 753-meters high mountain that is the focal point of the Javea skyline, the shape of which bears an uncanny resemblance to an elephant in a supine position. Pockmarked with caves, the most obvious of these is the “Elephant’s Eye,” and looks just like, in the words of my husband, “the wise, sad eye of an elephant.” 

El Montgó aka The Elephant

With striated limestone of varying colors, the Montgó is stunningly beautiful, rising up from the sea between the towns of Javea and Dénia. It was formed eons ago when the African continent slowly plowed the floor of an ancient precursor to the Mediterranean Sea into the Iberian peninsula. The Montgó appears to change color depending on the weather and time of day, ranging from almost white to blueish-purple-pink to a golden orangey-brown. The variety of hues are further emphasized by the variation in the texture of the limestone: craggy and sharp in some places, while softer and undulating, like fabric folds, in others. Although the mountain dramatically towers over the landscape, it does so in a way that feels protective rather than intimidating, and it is hard not to feel the reassurance of its solid comfort while in its presence. Indeed, there is a saying that those who stand in the elephant’s shadow will never be able to leave Javea. It is an iconic mountain.

View from climb

There are two well-marked routes to Montgó’s peak: the quick, steep way from the road that connects Javea and Dénia, and the longer, more gentle route from inland near Jesús Pobre. We had hiked both several times since moving to Javea, preferring the Jesús Pobre route for its views, foliage, and wildlife. But we had not yet made it to the Eye, mainly because the route is notoriously difficult to find and then to follow. Then one evening we happened to meet some friends of friends who had made the climb earlier that day. Buoyed by the euphoria of their accomplishment, they showed us a series of photos, each more dramatic than the last, and were quick to assure us that while indeed hard to find, the trail itself was relatively short, and the overall hike not terribly challenging.

Climbing through millenia

“…it is easy to also go off the path, where no doubt some would stand and pretend to look around as if enjoying the views, whilst really looking for the path….” (SteveL801, Trip Advisor)

So the following morning at sunrise we decided to give it a go. A last-minute online search turned up a post on TripAdvisor written by one SteveL801 and automatically translated from its original language into English. Although rather sparse in terms of details for identifying — and following — the trail, it more than made up for this lack through its florid and baroquely phrased psychological predictions of what hikers would likely be thinking and feeling along the way. It gave us a chuckle, and we set off. But after a couple hours of steep hiking including crawling across a few moraine rivers of fallen rocks, navigating some dicey cliffs, and bushwhacking our way through thick, thorny brush, we gave up and turned around in defeat.

Hard to climb up, harder to come down.

The route to the Eye is likely intentionally unmarked for several reasons. For one thing, some of the caves are deep and potentially dangerous. But they also contain historic–or, more precisely, prehistoric–significance. Roughly 30,000 years ago, the Montgó was home to paleolithic peoples, and various Stone Age relics such as flints and hand axes have been found there. There are even ancient cave drawings in another of the Montgó’s caves called the Migdia. It may be that park authorities keep the trail intentionally obscured in an attempt to discourage visitors, thereby decreasing the likelihood of graffiti and vandalism. 

Closing in on the Eye

“Having completed the walk several times to the top of Montgo, we thought a quick climb to what appears half way up, The ‘Eye’, would be a stroll in the park, which is exactly what it is, although the word stroll could easily be replaced…” (SteveL801, Trip Advisor)

We made our second attempt the following week after getting more detailed instructions from friends. Parking by the hunt club on the elephant’s trunk, we walked from our car along the red clay path leading up to the mountain, winding through sections of pine forests and the occasional Kermes Oak. It was just after day-break and the mountain rose above us to the west, bathed in a warm, golden glow from the rising sun. This time, we managed to find the trail, although I would use the term loosely. It was more like a rough path of slightly trampled brush which appeared, then disappeared, only to reappear. And so it went. We kept our eyes glued to the ground so as not to lose our way. 

Plants growing from rock walls

Before long, the forest began giving way to shrub palms, wild lavender, fennel, rosemary, succulents, and tough, tenacious little wildflowers, one smelling beautifully sweet like orange blossoms but with wickedly spiked leaves. Almost all the plants around these parts are armed and dangerous–even the acorn caps on the oak trees come with spikes–and before long, our ankles were covered in nicks and scratches. We also saw hoof prints from wild boars, adult and “squealer” sized, plus a few dug-up root bulbs scattered here and there, remnants of their nightly foraging. Every now and again we would spot a large, black rhinoceros beetle making its cumbersome, laborious trek across the rocks. Ravens cawed as they soared overhead. The more we looked around, the more we noticed the mountain quietly teeming with life. Pausing to rest, our breathing quieted, we could hear it all: the calling birds, the scrabbling beetles, and the wind through the scrubby brush. Although we never encountered another human, we were far from alone. 

Wild boar prints

“Once past the ravine, the climb begins to take on a more strenuous and difficult manner, whereby you will be breathing more heavily, sweating more profusely and if not used to this type of activity more apprehensive as to your desire to complete this walk…” (SteveL801, Trip Advisor)

About fifteen minutes into the hike, we hit a point where we weren’t sure if we were still on the correct path. Tom asked me to stay put to mark our spot while he went in search of anything indicating a more promising route. As he wandered off, I looked around and noticed what appeared to be a toppled cairn. We live close to several beaches, almost all of which are rocky. Each time we go, we spot at least one cairn and I almost always build one as well. Constructing them is an urge that I, and clearly many others, find hard to resist. In this case, I wasn’t sure the rock pile was indeed the remains of one or whether I was just wishing it so, when Tom returned and said, “I’m pretty sure we need to continue the way we were going. I even think I saw part of an old cairn.” Validated, I paused to re-stack the rocks before continuing.

Rebuilt cairn

“Do not be afraid to retrace your steps back to the path, as I would imagine it would be easy to get into difficulty, once away from the marked trails, unless you are a[n] experienced walker with the correct equipment…” (SteveL801, Trip Advisor)

Before long, the grade steepened significantly and we were breathing heavily. The trail was also becoming less clear. Increasingly confused, we frequently had to head in separate directions while staying in shouting distance in the attempt to rediscover the path. But our slowed ascent afforded us the opportunity to take in the views, and we were rewarded with spectacular panoramas of the sea and town below. We even spotted our neighborhood on the next ridge down the coast. On this rare overcast morning, the newly risen sun glinted weakly off the waves, and the water looked heavy and grey, like an oil slick.

Kermes Oak: small but mighty thorny leaves and acorn caps

Due to extra thick brush and loose rocks, our hike soon devolved into a three-, sometimes even four-point scramble. But that I’m okay with. I like touching the earth with my hands, especially rocks. Each time I do, I marvel all over again at the eons they have both witnessed and endured, yet remaining steadfast and unchanged. Especially in this part of the world, one of the cradles of civilization, I find it’s like traveling backwards in time through touch. And it is in these moments when I can sympathize with some of the locals we’ve heard about who believe that the Montgó doesn’t just resemble an elephant, it is an actual fossilized mastodon colossus. For them, exploring the “caves” is wandering through the bony remains of the eyes and the ears of a formerly living creature. Laughable? Sure. At least in most circumstances. But picking my way along, bent nearly double as I carefully made my way up the steep and scrambly path, I could, for a brief moment, understand this belief: the Montgó holds such a primal draw, it’s understandable to wish for an origin story more romantic and humanly meaningful than some arbitrary plate tectonic mashup.

Climbing up

“After approximately 30 minutes of climbing like this you will see the opening of the Cave ahead of you, here you will be scrambling over the rocks more than walking but your Goal is almost upon you…” (SteveL801, Trip Advisor)

Continuing upwards, we hit the mountain wall; a variety of plants growing out of its vertical rock face. I recalled reading the Montgó is home to over 650 types of flora. We inched our way across the rocky trail and scrubby brush, our backs firmly pressed against the limestone, one hand glued to the mountainside for additional support. Rounding the corner of the wall, we knew we were close. 

And suddenly, there it was: the Eye, looming just above us. 

Seeing the cave up close after almost two years of looking at it from afar was surreal and rather intimidating; the massive mouth, large and dark, yawning over us. Swarms of swallows swooped near the opening.One more big step up using our hands as anchors, and we were inside, blinking as our eyes adjusted to the darkened interior. Turning I looked out, the mouth of the cave framing my view of the sea, the sky, and the town below.  

Offshoot cave mouth

“We saw a family of 6 walking down with obviously no water, some of whom, would you believe were wearing sandals but all with their phones in their hands, I could not recommend this as the manner to come down this route and will always wonder if ALL the phones made it down in one piece….” (SteveL801, Trip Advisor)

We made our way inward. Various smaller offshoot caves, tunneled to the right and left. A few very low ones near the back had openings that dropped steeply off into darkness. Tom threw a pebble into one. We never heard it land. Stalactites and stalagmites lined one of the walls reminding me of Luray Caverns back in Virginia. Although only about 400 meters up in the entire 750 meter climb, the Eye felt a world — and eons — away. The feeling was both beautiful and unnerving. Something about caves does that to me. And the cloudy sky, the autumnal chill, and the calling ravens served only to amplify this sensation.

Tom, deep in the Eye

“It is easy to spend more time here than you anticipated but you should be well refreshed for the decent which takes about the same time as ascending but without the stops to catch your breath, although be aware because of the loose stones you may, like one of our group, spend time picking yourself up and dusting down your behind…” (SteveL801, Trip Advisor) 

In the dusty floor of a small cave we saw the scat of a genet, a rare species of catlike omnivorous mammal. There were also more permanent signs of life, namely, graffiti painted on the walls. I paused to study it. Although written in Valencian, essentially, it was no different from that which I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. But here, in the Eye of the Elephant, it bothered me more than usual, and I paused to consider why. I realized that, unlike the built environment, the natural world is so sublime in its pure state, the graffiti seemed almost an act of violence against the mountain. Unlike a cave painting or a cairn, the markings struck me as profoundly worthless in their sheer banality. But then I recalled the old joke about the definition of religion being cult plus time. Maybe the corollary in this case is prehistoric cave art is simply graffiti plus time. Maybe the ancient drawings were done in the same spirit as the graffiti; just some guy trying to say “I WAS HERE!”

Graffiti

Humans differ from other species in that we have a compulsion to leave something that outlasts us; whether through graffiti or cave paintings; cairns or colosseums. As Kristin Schaal said, “Everybody’s trying to leave their mark on the world. That’s why there’s graffiti and babies.” But perhaps permanence and perpetuity aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Although accepting this can be hard on the ego. And the ego usually wins. 

Close up of stalagmite

The sun went behind another cloud and the temperature dropped, signaling it was time to leave. Descending, we first heard, then saw, hundreds of bees murmuring busily through the lavender. El sol had finally warmed their little corner of the world enough to signal the start of another day’s work. For a while, we watched them as they matter-of-factly went about their business, full of admiration for their efforts, wondering if they appreciated ours. 

Wondering if they saw that we were here. 

Rock and sky

[On a subsequent ascent Tom and our friends, Anatoly and Ksenia, ventured deep into the dark and dusty caves. At the bottom of one, Anatoly found a lost cell phone, demonstrating once again  SteveL801’s prescience. Their attempts to charge it and find its owner failed, likely due to the irreparable infiltration of the fine dust of eons. Perhaps it should be returned to the cave so that future archeologists can ponder the significance of the 21st Century’s primitive tools. One thing they will know, someone was here.] 

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