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Rio Tinto, Huelva

The quiet hand of nature takes back control

I could see her eyes widen as the train lurched forward. Her claws scrabbled for purchase on a wooden floor polished by the passing of thousands of feet and I almost heard her utter the words, ‘fkcu me!, the floors moving!’

As if on the tips of her paws, she shuffled her long body to a more comfortable position in between the wooden seats and feet of the other passengers and looked at me for some indication of sanity. I knew she probably wouldn’t see much so I stroked her head which, her being a mastiff, had almost reached to the level of the window through which she had been watching the scenery, before her world had started moving, clattering down the rails of a line built some 60 or 70 years before and, from the sound of it, lacking in maintenance since.

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Warily watching the ground move through the rickety floorboards that separated her (and us) from the tracks, Lea didn’t take much more interest in the journey after that, and we rattled along, pulled by a train that had been operational in the mines of Rio Tinto for many years and had been lovingly restored for its reincarnation as a work-horse pulling thousands of tourists in old-style carriages that now plied the line between the rail-head and a stop somewhere along the steel ribbon bordering the banks of the river Tinto in Huelva province in southern Spain.

The line snakes along the line of the river for 83 kilometres and eventually reaches the port of Huelva, the same one from which a certain Mr Columbus started out from on his trip of discovery over 500 years earlier, but our scheduled stop was to be long before that hallowed destination.

Our journey took us down the winding course of the River Tinto; the red, coloured or perhaps even blushing river and, as the train rattled slowly down a line that, under different circumstances, I might have consider unnaturally perilous, it was easy to see where the name had come from. The water of the river is coloured, mostly yellow but there are bright greens, purples, magentas, blacks and reds, all jostling to be noticed in the sometimes turbulent swell, much like a nest full of five-day old cuckoos and eventually mixing into a murky soup that defies the passage of light.

After an hour or so, we arrived at our destination, a desolate and dilapidated station beside the river. Carriages disgorged their passengers and we swarmed to the edge of the river which, we were told by our guide, has a metal content of 6 grams per litre and a pH of 2-2.5, and which even Lea decided was not particularly palatable. The guide had told us that the pH of coca-cola was, in fact, 2.53 so it seems that life, albeit slightly deranged, might have been possible if the water had been inadvertently consumed.

The railway line passes the detritus of years of mining where an English company, the last traces of the Spanish branch of the Rio Tinto Mining Company who had run the site since its purchase in 1873 to its decline and close in 2001.

However, this was not the whole story and since times immemorial, the site has been mined for copper, silver, gold and other minerals. Mining started in around 3000 BC when the Iberians and Tartessians began mining the site. These early miners were followed by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and the Moors, after which the mines were abandoned.

A series of bad management moves on the part of the Spanish government of the day led to the mine being sold to a group of investors, who launched the Rio Tinto Company in 1873. At the end of the 1880s, the mine passed to the Rothschild family, who increased capacity of mining immensely.

Although there is now some limited mining for copper still going on today, the majority of the old mine workings have been left to oxidise under the Andalusian sky. Old English trains and railway stock litter ancient sidings and box cars quietly fall apart as water, ice and heat take their toll on the workings of man. Nature is gradually making itself felt and, even though the area is perhaps one of the most toxic in southern Spain, animals such as deer, wild boar fox, Egyptian mongoose and badger are colonising empty niches; trees such as cluster pines, umbrella pines and holm oak are extending their roots into the soil and plants of a myriad variety are quietly yet inexorably taking back control.

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Rio Tinto, Huelva

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