Ever since I arrived here in Andalucia, nine and a half years ago, I have wanted to go to Doñana National Park, the UNESCO-recognised biosphere which straddles Huelva, Sevilla and Cadiz provinces.
Doñana is a carefully protected 500-square mile area of wetlands, dunes, beach and scrub which is home to over 200 bird species, including the Spanish Imperial Eagle, as well as animals such as the endangered Iberian Lynx, deer and wild boar. It is one of Europe's most important wetland sites, and many migrating birds use it for breeding.
Over the years various plans have been put forward, including a motorway from Huelva to Cadiz which would cut through the park, and one of these plans, to extract natural gas and build an 18-km pipe across the park, has just moved a step forward with a licence for testing. Needless to say this would be a huge catastrophe, as this vast conservation area has a varied and delicate ecosystem which is unique in the world.
You can visit various centres on the edge of the park, which have wooden boardwalks around the edges of lakes, with hides to watch the fowl. These are free to visit, and always have picnic spots, loos, information centres and teach you about the flora and fauna, as well as the traditional crafts and skills practised there.
But to see inside the park, an area where no building or development is allowed, is a privilege afforded by selected companies.
We took our tour with Doñana National Park Tours on a cloudy afternoon with a forecast for showers. The vehicles used are high 4x4 trucks, which can drive over mud, wet sand and anything else; their drivers are also official park guides, who explain all the various ecosystems and animals seen. The route takes you from El Acebuche, the main Doñana visitor centre, to Matalascañas, and then to the beach, where you drive along where the waves lap the shore - an experience in itself. The few fisherman's houses on the edge of the dunes near Matalascañas, with their boats next to them, use solar panels to produce electricity - these already existed when the park was created, so they were allowed to stay.
You then turn inland to the mobile dunes: these are sand dunes which are being slowly blown inland, interspersed with small valleys, or corrales, of pine trees. After this you come into a pine forest, where there are lynx, wild boar, deer, and rabbits - whose population was depleted by mixymatosis - are being reintroduced to provide food for the lynxes. Then you reach the marismas, shallow temporary wetlands which fill up when it rains, lower in spring revealing sandbanks and islands, and dry out in summer.
A spectacular site, 40,000 flamingos live on the marismas. They feed here during the day, and then return to their nests in Fuente de Piedra lake, near Antequera, at night.
The last stop is at the Pueblo de la Plancha, a group of chozas located by the river opposite Sanlucar de Barrameda. These are the traditional dwellings for Doñana residents, but only one is still inhabited, and then only part of the year. They are built of materials found in the park - wood for the timber structure and reeds for the roof. The inhabitants collected pine nuts, farmed, fished, and made charcoal. To visit them is taking a step back in time, to a simple, though hard, life.
All these routes are subject to modification, depending on local movement of animals - for example, we were on a relatively new track in the pine forests, since peregrine falcon breeding pairs had been discovered near the main track, which meant a diversion was neccessary and we saw less of the marismas than usual.
These tours last four hours and cover 70km of Doñana National Park. For nature-lovers, and especially ornithologists, they are heaven; and even if you're interested, but not an aficionado (like me), they make for a fascinating experience.