Thursday, 20 February 2014

A Return to Tarifa

Tarifa is like no other place we’ve been to in Spain. I wanted to say some more about this little town and surrounding area facing off to Morocco, to wax lyrical a little, and invite everyone to the only place on mainland Spain I’ve been to so far that I would `up sticks and move to’ (I have had a hankering for Tenerife since 1989).
Moho Giving it Large, Feel the Raw Power of Pikey Life
We were at Tarifa for two weeks, it’s the second longest stay we’ve made since we arrived in Spain in December, and for virtually the same reason ... we bought some stuff and it takes time to get through all the hoops for delivery. This said the Kindles arrived a while back and every-day I could kick myself for procrastinating about buying them before we left England. This said, we have now got the latest Paperweights, with dictionary and Wikipeda links built in ... feel the raw power of your brain expanding as you read, they’re awesome and highly recommended.
Unlike during our earlier stop in Alcossebre waiting for bed toppers and subsequently being lost for what we should be doing with all the time we had on our hands. Now we are somewhat seasoned and have found the experience of just living out of the van to be as normal as living in any other form of dwelling. The van is home, and when we say `lets go home’ it’s to wherever our giant yellow tin hat is. When we aren’t at home, we are out looking at stuff, walking, cycling, taking pictures, reading, writing ... learning to play the Harmonica or adopting other peoples cats. This was a planned long stop, specifically to deal with E-cigarette upgrade, and acquiring Kindles.
Dunes (just like Tatooine without the Sarlacc or Banthas... or Sand People)

Bare Rock Sand hills

More Dunes

Odd Patch of Bare Dune
The campsite at Tarifa has community (like the naturist camp at El Portus near Cartagena). It’s off the beaten track, even though it and all the other campsites along that stretch of the N340 sit effectively on the main coast road from Malaga to Gibralter, Algaciras, Cadiz, and Seville ... it’s a busy road by Spanish standards, but not yet a toll road or a motorway. If you have no business along the road, I.E. cattle farming, growing olives or almonds then you’re not going to be stopping, because all the places named above and a few others are the destinations. Between these destinations is open space and lots of it.
Roman Town Closed for Archaeology 
 Tarifa town as mentioned earlier is pretty much just a summer town, a surfer and wind surfers paradise. And therein lies the charm. The crowd is diverse in age group, it’s the first time in two months that we haven’t been the youngsters, we’ve just been middle aged again. The surfer community ranges in age from twenties to at least sixties ... maybe older, and they are international, New Zealanders, Dutch, German, Belgium, Icelandic, Lithuanian, French the full gamut, and universally friendly even if it’s just your daily passing nod.
 The campsite (Valdevaqueros) we’ve stayed at has been the prettiest on our travels. The trees haven’t been pruned to their skeletal primary branches, so they provide some shade but also interest and movement. The birds clearly love it there, the pitches are grass and deep if a little narrow; this is only a tiny bit awkward for reversing in, but is fabulous for sitting and relaxing.
Roman Town ... Extensive Site
The bar has an atmosphere and is the locus of all those keeping track of home due to the fantastic `FREE Wifi’, the range of beers and sherrys, and the fire that gets re-lit around 5pm every day.  Morning and evening (when we are in), the noise of cowbells issues from the fields adjacent, as does the occasional `Moo’ ... though it took a while to work out what the noise was because it was in Spanish.

Tarifa is the third windiest place on the planet for wind surfers, kite surfers. Valdevaqueros beach has a character and community all of its own, boogie boarders, paddle boarders, surfers, kite surfers, wind surfers, walkers and cyclists, fishermen who spin from the shore. This spinning fishing is unique to Tarifa so far, everywhere else we’ve been, line fishing has always been bait orientated. Aside from these various sportsmen are the numerous surf/kite schools and bars on the beach, and all seem to open if the weather is fine at the weekend. During the week they are shuttered and locked, and have the look of abandonment (while we were there men with paint and tool boxes came and started getting ready for the start of the season proper). When open they just look like atypical beach bars battered by wind, rimed with the merest shimmering crust of salt or whitened by the same, their difference is in the murals, its pop art graffiti style, surfer chic.
Moo Cow (rain on the way)
The beach itself bears the scars of wars past, a watchtower, and modern pillboxes are slowly being consumed by the Atlantic. The remains of a major Roman hub are being excavated up the way in Bolonia literally eighty metres from the sea (and of course the town of Tarifa is Part Moorish walled city, part port, part resorts). There are streams that have been in various states of spate for the last week and a half. Some of these are just run off and are now little more than deep silt shined gullies, others are running all the time from much further inland. The two rivers that run to the sea have both been swollen by the recent rains, and one that we crossed cheerfully just eleven days ago nearly took two surfers out to sea when they tried to walk across it (my own attempt was stopped just before theirs, I had a camera to lose, they only had their pride so they went further).

Towards the town the runoff streams exit a short way out to sea, as fresh water springs, creating plumes of sand as they are forced from the cracks in the rocks below the surface. When the surf is `up’ these plumes of sandy fresh water create brown and green stripes in the waves, in-between times they are visible as oddly coloured flat spots on the seas surface. I’ve never seen this before, and the only other place I’ve seen a stream actively make a run for the sea across a beach is South Sands Beach Salcombe. It must be a boy thing, because I can’t help but try to create a dam of sand every-time I see one, I never succeed, and Amanda always asks why I even bother. I think maybe that in that tiny action, that desire to alter the course of a living stream that you can see the roots of mans slow crawl from cave dwelling to our modern edifices of glass and steel. It’s that desire to shape events and the environment encapsulated in building sandcastles in running water.

Fringing the beach are pine trees (Stone Pine if my tree recognition lessons serve me correct), they look like skinny trunked green mushrooms, and from a distance they really do bear a strong resemblance to Broccoli. Dense clumps or random landscape sized bonsai in a Fuchinu Gashi style  lending perspective to a landscape that would fool you into thinking it was smaller than it is.

Beyond the trees the hills rise smoothly at first and then in many places near the sea they abruptly rise to escarpments and peaks, craggy ridged and rippled or grooved vertically where softer layers have been dissolved and washed into the sea as minerals and grains to feed the Phytoplankton that feed the zooplankton, that feed the fish that feed the whales out in The Straits of Gibraltar. We found a road that explained much about why the peaks are so oddly eroded. The answer lies in the wind. That may seem a little cryptic, but, from observation, it looks very much like the cliffs are eroded vertical almost universally. The slopes at the bottom aren’t rock, they’re sand. Sand that has been bound by roots of dune grasses, then colonised by trees, that in turn have been buried by sand, that has in turn been colonised by grasses on so on and so on. The exposed dunes in some places are twenty or thirty metres tall. Inland a way we found a road that has to be cleared by the sand equivalent of a snow plough, and it’s along this road where the underlying process is exposed. It also explains a strange thing I realised one day when I was off cycling across a plain covered in rich pasture and populated by huge red brown cattle. The cycling was far too easy, I was going down-slope, the entire area is below sea level a vast bowl maybe three miles wide and at least that deep back towards the hills inland. And you only had to kick at the grass on the road margin to realise the whole area was sand. A short way further on and the road bore all the hallmarks of unstable ground, and a few days before that we’d been up in the hills close to the sea and seen the same effect at, at least fifty metres above sea level. Tarifas beach is made from, and the hills roots are buried in sand and dust blown across the Straits, from the Sahara ... one morning we found Moho painted in a rime of pink dust that had fallen with the previous nights drizzle, everything was covered, the grass, our furniture and the hedges separating the pitches.

Along the coast road for miles in both directions Storks have nests atop electrical pylons, and telegraph poles. Some of these are set on top of platforms installed for the job, others are just well built wild constructions. Each of these nests seems to have a community of sparrows, nesting or roosting in the sides, or maybe just grabbing bugs that inhabit the nests. Once in a while the storks fly in loose wheeling flocks, huge soaring birds bigger by far than the occasional eagle seen gyring near the hills. Snowy Egrets gather in huge numbers where ever the cattle or horses are, this is very odd for those of us used to seeing the occasional one at an RSPB site in the south east of England. And of course now we have our `eye in’, Flamingos seem to be everywhere along with Cormorants, all manner of small waders, ducks and the ubiquitous gulls. We think, though we will never know for sure, that we spied a flock of Cranes. Whatever they were, they were the wrong colour for either Storks or Flamingos. The charm of Tarifa and the Straits goes on and on.

Some days you wake to clouds the size of countries, by early afternoon the sun is too fierce to sit out in, other days are windy and the usually blue sea is tea colour. Others the sky is neither cloudy or blue, just a blazing blinding white, diffuse powerful sunlight through a fine even skin of high mist. It’s the pinch point for Saharan, Mediterranean, Atlantic and continental European weather systems, all colliding and fighting for supremacy as the seasons wax and wane.

A few days ago I ran into a couple from Germany, that we first met in Hospitalet Del Infante 800 miles and 8 weeks ago on our fourth day in Spain. I recognised them by their unique T2 VW camper van with its custom paint job, and under body bells and whistles that make living in such a small van for so long possible.  They are wild camping a mile or so back towards the town, off the main road with a dozen or more others in the clapped out bangers that seems to be the mark of the true adventurer. Tarifa’s streets are dotted here and there with all manner of cobbled together campers, from the diminutive one berth (and tight at that) Vauxhall/Bedford Rascal Motorchalet (I jest with that definition it’s still a motorhome), to over-landing Unimogs and all sorts of (no disrespect intended) Crusty wagons in between, even an old American School bus circulates at the surfing and kite surfing hotspots. A trip round Lidl or Mercadona allows a broad view of the demographics, surfers, new age travellers and the ubiquitous over winterers; nationalities various, but, and it’s a big but, not the typical on the Costas over winter crowd ... Snowflakes all the same, we’ve learned that’s what we are called `Snowflakes’ we melt away when the sun rises above March 31st or Easter, whichever comes first and the price for pitching rises.

The old town despite its seeming failings at pushing and promoting its history is alive and in the main has avoided all the trappings of the resorts further round east on the Mediterranean side. According to Mark and Wendy from New Zealand the towns population quadruples in summer.

There are more police here per square foot than anywhere else in Spain, and this is for two reasons. One is drug smuggling in small skiffs at full moon and high tide, and especially when the sea is a little rough, because the rough sea prevents the land to sea radar from picking out the boats, and they use full moon because it means the boats have light to work by. The smugglers employ the same tactic to ship across people or as we in England call them illegal immigrants.
Bit of Beach Dune Stripped of Vegetation
Tarifa, furthest southern point of Europe, so close to Africa you can almost touch it, it’s got me and it’s got Amanda. I’d drive all the way here for a two week holiday if that was all the time I had to spare, put it on your bucket list.

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