About Me

Welcome to my blog. I'm feeling pretty smug right now because I've quit my job and on 25th October will be heading to Europe for 6 months to do nothing but surf. We're gonna hit France, Northern Spain and Portugal. It's a well travelled and documented road but I'll try to write up my experiences and hopefully share an insight into the road trip experience. I'll not blog regularly, but I will add the odd little story here and there. If you see a white LDV with boards on the side come and say hi! Andy

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Naming Ceremony, May 2009

Moments after the ordeal
Emre’s eyes lit up. He was sheltering in the red brick entrance to the station, rain and gusts of wind tearing at the surfboard under his arm. He bounded over to the van with his typical enthusiasm as I pulled into the car park, and leaped through the sliding door. He surveyed the inside of the campervan, taking in the fridge, cooker, shower and bed. He turned round to me and grinned,
“This is gonna be the perfect van for Scotland. I’m so stoked on it. What’s its name?”
“It doesn’t have one”, I replied. It hadn’t really occurred to me to give her a name.
“Well that’s a goal for the trip man, we gotta find a name for her!”

Five days, two thousand miles, two ferries and many waves later we were on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. We’d fully explored the north west of the island, where the hard rock of the peat moor meets the North Atlantic. Arriving in bright spring sunshine and blue skies we’d stumbled on a surf paradise. A few days later we’d tried to sleep out a Hebridean galein an exposed cliff top car park. We failed, and eventually decided to drive over an hour in the black of the night back to Stornoway to find shelter from the pounding wind.

A few days later we were exploring once again. We’d driven past salmon smokeries, deep sea lochs and miles of pristine countryside. Mangersta was the name of the beach we could see from the road. I’d heard there was a good point break nearby but so far we’d not been able to find it. We were in no rush because although it was early May, daylight lingered until nine in the evening or later.

I could see the beach and the swell on the horizon but couldn’t find a route down to it with the van. After some driving around we found another one of Scotland’s best road signs. They read “To the shore”, and this weathered and bent example pointed right, towards a decent enough looking dirt track that bent out of view behind a bluff of rock. We’d come across these signs all over the islands, and they’d not let us down yet.

I turned down the track. Emre jumped out to open and close the farm gate, fixing it in place with frayed orange bailing twine. He slid back into the passenger seat as I drove forward, confident in the high ground clearance of the van to overcome the bumps and ruts. The track bent to the right and lead downhill, but the corner was blind, shielded from view by the rocky bluff into which the track was cut. We both noticed a large boulder on the right hand side of the track. It was out of place, and looked like it had been moved there deliberately. There was some faded red paint, possibly writing, possibly in Gaelic, that had succumbed to the maritime climate.

Emre and I looked at each other. “I’ll just have a look round the corner”, I said, “and see if we can get down or not”. I nosed the van round the bend, as the track dropped sharply. It led straight down to the beach, cutting across a very steep rocky slope, for a hundred metres, with a sheer drop of fifty feet on one side. It was horribly rutted, with holes two feet deep in places. At the bottom of the track was an area of grassed sand, a few metres wide, with stone boulders, before it reached the soft looking sand of the beach.

“I guess we won’t be going down there” I said, and put the van into reverse. I lifted the clutch, but only felt the back tyres spin on the loose dirt and stone. “Shit!” The weight of the van had moved entirely onto the front axle due to the downhill slope of the track. I tried to move back a few more times but just span the wheels. I looked down the track with a sick feeling and cursed the inventor of rear wheel drive.

“Do you think we can turn it around in that grassy area?” I asked Emre. After some debate as to the availability of farmers with tractors in such a remote location, Emre walked down the track to inspect my proposed turning area. He gave me the thumbs up and I inched the van down in first gear, using the engine and the brakes to slow its fall. The steps and ruts in the track shook it violently but I kept a sure grip on the wheel.

I reached the bottom of the track and levelled out into the grassy area. It was covered in a short grass on sandy turf and was uneven with banks and some grass covered boulders. I was wary of bogging my wheels in the grassy sand so we took some of the surfboard bags out of the van and used them for traction. It took five minutes to complete the turn around, and was actually easier than I had imagined. During the process my kitchen cupboard had banged open, and a bottle of Scotch leaned out invitingly. We both had a dram to calm the nerves.

“That was the easy part” claimed Emre, “now we’ve got to get it up the hill again”. We both walked up the track inspecting the course we should take. Within the ruts were steps of stone a foot high that I’d never be able to drive over without seriously damaging the van. I took a despondent look around at the fields overlooking the beach, but could only see one house, about a mile and half away. Help was not on the horizon. There was no shining knight astride a John Deere tractor to come to our rescue.

“Can you drive with one wheel on the middle of the track, where it’s covered with grass, and the other on the side?” asked Emre. I looked at it and considered my options. I was never going to make it up the wheel ruts, but there was a chance that if I picked my line I could fit one wheel on the grassy ridge between the ruts and the other on the right hand side of the track. It was not without risk, however, as I had only two foot or so of ground before the steep drop to the beach below.

We decided to go for it, with Emre walking up in front of me to help me guide my wheels. I waited for a nervous minute while he climbed the track. The tension stung my stomach as I started the engine. I crept forward and lined up my route. As the van started to climb I felt the rear wheels grip as they took the weight of the van. Looking ahead I decided that the best way to do this was quickly, because I did not want to get stuck half way and have to try to reverse back down for another shot. I gunned the engine and took a white knuckled grip on the steering wheel.

Ignorant of the shattering jolts and shocks from the track I shot up the hill, forcing myself not to look over the edge of the drop to my right. I passed Emre was shouting something at me from halfway up the track.

I reached the top, rounded the corner onto the flat area in front of the gate and turned off the engine. I fell out of the door and sat on the boulder by the side of the track. My hands were shaking as the adrenaline washed through me. Emre must have caught up with me because when I next saw him he was thrusting the bottle of whiskey into my unsteady hand. I took a long gulp from the bottle and hugged him.

“You know that van is my house now, it’s got everything I own it. If it had got stuck, or if I’d slipped off the edge...” I ranted. But Emre interrupted me, “But it didn’t. You made it. And man, she climbed that track like a mountain goat”. Emre paused to open the sliding door to the van. Every cupboard had opened, spilling clothes, tins of food, spaghetti and surfboard leashes and wax . “Yep that was a real cupboard opener “ I said, but Emre was lost in thought.

He span round and looked at me, grinning.
“We’ve done it” he said.
“What’s that mate?”
“We’ve named the van! She’s called the Goat” he shouted, and grabbed the bottle from my hand to pour some whiskey over the bonnet. “I name you the Goat!”

“Next time”, I said to myself, “next time I see some red writing on a stone I’m going to take bloody notice of it”.

I like to imagine, when I remember this story, that somewhere on the moors overlooking the beach a local farmer sat in his Landrover watching us with an amused grin cracking his weather beaten face. “There’s one every year” he thinks to himself, “I really should repaint that sign”.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Praia Amoeria. Picture by Jon Hendy

Today I noticed that I becoming more European. I spent half an hour enjoying a cafe con leite and reading the Spanish edition of the Daily Telegraph while sat in the sun outside a small restaurant. Perhaps I should be sent home immediately as an ambassador of the Government's proposed "Cafe Culture". This is not normal for me. I am uncomfortable with going out on my own for meals and drinks, and I usually can't sit still for more than ten minutes without fidgeting or finding something pointless to do.

Other symptoms of my Europeaness include:
A worrying lack of concern as to the time being taken to fix my campervan; a shrug of the shoulders seems to suffice as an answer to my enquiries.
An inability to function at full mental capacity without several strong coffees through the day.
Eating dinner at an hour that shock a mother from Yorkshire.
Being able to say "cheers" in all major languages.
Being able to remain calm while being driven to the beach by a caffeine fuelled Portuguese surf instructor turned rally driver.

I would like to point out that I do not see this Europeaness as a bad development. Rather it just seems to be a coping mechanism for what would otherwise be a very stressful situation.

I am in a sun bleached town called Aljezur, in the northern Algarve. Having driven over 5000 miles, my campervan threw a wobbly at the idea of having to return to rain soaked Wales and decided to break down. I limped into AutoZur and have been dealing with Francisco the chain smoking manager for several days. After spending all day running around Portimao, over 60km away, looking for a part, he said that he never wants to see my van again.

I cut a dejected figure last Wednesday, walking through the town with some clothes and some groceries in a dog eared Lidl carrier bag, searching for something amazing to pick me up. As I crossed the warmed metal footbridge in the middle of town, I saw something amazing. Or rather Amazigh. The Hostel Amazigh. Newly whitewashed, with new wooden framed windows and a roof terrace, the hostel had just opened for the season and was able to offer me dorm room for fifteen euros a night, a brand new kitchen, WiFi, and cable TV. The name comes from the Berber phrase for "free people", and it is a converted hardware store and warehouse that backs onto the fortified hillside that dominates Aljezur.

I bunked up with a Canadian who was on a weeks guided surf trip. He offered me a lift to the beach with his guide Nuno who runs the Arrifana Surf Camp. Nuno arrived the next morning like a whirlwind, complaining about Benfica's performance in last nights game, worrying about his ill young boy, delightfully telling us about exactly how many beautiful women come to the beach in summer, and driving as if he was under fire from a Libyan MiG.

Nuno took us to Arrifana, a famous surfing beach in Portugal. The beach is overlooked by steep cliffs, giving it a coloseum feeling. It is known for its right hand point break which awakens in the biggest of swells. The cliff tops provide a vantage point for hazy views of the cliffs and coves for fifteen kilometers to the south. Nuno told us of the flocks of girls and surf lessons on the beach in the summer, with a look of wearied mischief. He runs his school from an old boat house set into the foundations of the buildings that nest on the rocky ledges of the cliffs. I imagine that in big winter storms flood the room and attack the foundations of the village.

Nearby is Praia de Monte Clerigo and Praia Amoeira, which is the sandy conclusion of the sheltered river valley that leads from Aljezur. Its twists and turns give it a hidden feeling, while it is the greenest area I have seen in the Algarve. A scramble to the cliff tops here revealed a whale, possibly a Minke, drawn to the coast by shoals of fish at the rivermouth.

We drove back to the hostel, three of us and 5 surfboards in an Audi estate that looked like it has had some interesting experiences. After 5 months of cold campervan showers, I enjoyed being blasted by hot water in the hostel bathroom. Francisco had told to me wait and enjoy my holidays, and after two days of forgetting about the van problems and enjoying the waves in Arrifana I felt that I had taken his advice on board.

All of which leads me back to feeling more European. In my five months of driving and surfing I have met lots of travelling surfers from all over Europe. But I have realised that by being forced out of my van - my little peice of England on wheels - I have been forced to operate on the local timetable, and I have met people outside of the van-living surf trip circle. So what started out as my most stressful week of the trip, could end up being one of the richest.


Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Cadiz Carnaval

The crowd roared. The artificial light blazed yellow off the sandstone of the cathedral illuminating thousands of faces. Every person was focused on a slight figure on the balcony overlooking the plaza, commanding the attention of everyone present.

Have I just described a scene from the Vatican? A Papal address perhaps? No, this was Cadiz Carnaval, one of the biggest parties in Europe. The figure on the balcony was a resident of Cadiz, braving the scenes below her apartment. She was an old lady, probably seventy years old and wearing the traditional black and white colours of grandmothers throughout Spain.

“Dance!” shouted the crowd. And she did, tapping and clapping to a rhythm from her past. They cheered like animals. We all did. She took a bow and went back inside. It was ten thirty in the evening and this party was just getting started.

A few days before I had been enjoying the morning offshore breeze at El Palmar, to the south of Cadiz. I knew it was time to leave the area. I’d spent six weeks here, during the peak season for surfing, but the forecast was not good. Spring was coming and the northerly swells would be blocked by Portugal. Meanwhile I had to plan some work for the summer and that meant heading back to the UK or to France.

I’d woken early and driven to the beach, pulling up on the side of the road when I saw some shoulder high waves form perfectly over a low tide sand bar. I’d caught a few waves but the surf was inconsistent, and the water chilly in the weak light. I noticed a wide set of waves from the north, looking like they would peak in front of the old watchtower. I paddled towards them, letting the first one go and paddling into position for the next. I felt like I had moved to far to one side of the peak so paddled hard to my right, catching the next wave. I dragged my hand as I stood and crouched into an open tube of water for a second or two, before being pushed out of it and onto the shoulder. This was the best barrel I’d had all trip, better still for being witnessed by a couple of other surfers who cheered as I made it out.

I thought about paddling back out for some more waves, but somehow it seemed right to finish on such a high. I walked up the beach, feeling the sun warm the back of my wetsuit. During my six week stay in the area I’d surfed long rocky pointbreaks, heavy beach breaks and fun reefs. The friendly local surfers were happy to share their waves; apparently it had been an excellent winter season for them. Meanwhile the van parking spots had been free, the Guardia Civil reasonably relaxed, and some early morning beach walkers had found several kilos of hash on the tide line; six more months travelling or six months behind bars depending on how you played it.

I arrived in Cadiz a day ahead of some friends I’d met surfing. I’d thought about an early night, then thought better of it and decided that I’d probably meet some people if I just walked into the centro historic from the campervan car park outside the city walls. Forty five minutes later (it was further than I thought!) and I was stopped by two guys asking directions. Giles and Jouen were from Portugal, and had driven down to Cadiz on a whim, but had no accommodation for the night having only booked a hotel for Saturday, not Friday. They were looking for the carnival, but didn’t know where to go.

We teamed up and walked the remaining mile into the old town of Cadiz. It was strangely empty. Perhaps the narrow, twisted streets were soaking up the noise of the carnival. We walked on, past plazas filed with ghostly stages and steel work, expecting to stumble upon huge crowds of people. Instead it seemed like Tunbridge Wells on a Tuesday evening, but with fewer tramps.

Eventually we found, of all places, an Irish theme bar called O’Connells, complete with a drunk Irish man from Wexford. I wondered if he was hired by the owners to provide authenticity to the place, but my cynicism was forgotten by the pints of beer. I even forced a pint of Murphy’s down my Portuguese friends, but they retaliated with tequila. We asked some girls at the bar about the carnival. They were from Madrid, but told me that the party had moved to Puerto Santa Maria for the evening and that the main event was tomorrow night. Apparently there were plenty of people hadn’t moved to the new venue, and we soon found a square filled with temporary bars, fast food stalls and music.

I woke up the next day at three in the afternoon and opened the curtains of the van. The first thing I saw was a pair of men dressed as leopards with bottles of Cruzcampo in their hands. I decided that the right way to deal with the situation was to go back to bed.

Later on I was sat on the promenade of Cadiz beach having my face painted. I was with some friends who were dressed as blue Navee from Avatar. Fancy dress is the order of the day for Cadiz Carnaval and it gets taken seriously. Groups of local men and women dress up in a theme and perform satirical or traditional songs as part of a competition that has been held for centuries. Groups of people, young and old, dressed as anything from devils, pirates, flamenco dancers, to two guys who came as showers, and one as a bedside cabinet with working lamp. Despite the range of ages, everyone gathers to watch the groups perform. I couldn’t think of an English gathering where such traditional entertainment is appreciated by all generations.

The musical highlight of the evening happened in the main cathedral square. After a performance by some local groups, four men took the stage, one dressed as Elvis, the others looked like they’d just finished work in the docks. They played a few songs before launching into an energetic version of “It Ain’t Unusual” by Tom Jones. The crowd loved it, a team of girls dressed as American football players danced like they’d scored in the Superbowl. Ten minutes later, having run out of other songs, the band played it again, and it had the same effect.

The maze of Cadiz old town was a riot of colour and noise. People crushed into small plazas and narrow cobbled streets. As a newcomer to the city I really didn’t know where I was going, and would reach the end of fairly quiet street to find another hidden square or park full of revellers. I think I spent most of the evening just looking around, trying to comprehend the visual and aural assault that was taking place.

The mood was very welcoming and friendly, and I started several conversations with people that I could not finish due to my lack of Spanish. They all ended with a handshake and a smile and with me shouting something like “Cadiz esta el major”. Several people approached my friend, who was dressed in old military parade jacket and a Latvian army officer’s hat. They all commented that he looked like an officer from the Guardia Civil and expressed their dislike of that particular law enforcement organisation with a variety of interesting gestures and phrases. I think he might have had a better night dressed as a can of worms...

I left the party fairly early, around three, assured that it would be going on till late the next morning, and then most nights for the rest of the week. Two days was plenty for me, as I was planning finally leaving Andalucia. If Cadiz would let me go.

The next day I left the car park at eleven, weaving in between some erratically parked cars, and groups of people who were still hard at play. I had a five hour drive to Algarve, and nearly every half an hour someone I’d met at the Carnival texted me or called me to see how I was or what we were going to do that night. I felt guilty for leaving, for being a quitter.
Cadiz is one of the oldest settlements in Europe; people have been living there for 3000 years. It seemed to me that the success of the city, and its longevity might not be purely based on its natural harbour and fortifications, but on the determination of its residents to enjoy every minute they have. Don’t be put off by the number of people that go mad for the week of the Carnaval. There may be ten thousand people in the streets, but if you’re there with them, then you have ten thousand new friends.