Wednesday, October 15

Wind-swept Gibraltar

One of my most enduring travel memories is the moment I rounded a large stone boulder near the crest of the Rock of Gibraltar, almost 18 years ago. We suddenly felt the wind in our faces as a stunning, cliff top vista came into view. The contrast between a calm, silent verdant mountain slope on one side and a bleak, sheer cliff face battered by howling winds was utterly unexpected.

On Saturday, the wind conspired to create yet another stark memory of Gibraltar. Hours earlier the southern coast of Spain had been battered by force 8 gale winds sweeping through the straits of Gibraltar. The weather caused considerable damage. Harbour breakwaters were destroyed, homes damaged and several ships wreaked. Dramatic pictures were even published worldwide of a large Liberian-registered cargo ship resting on the rocks of Europa Point, Gibraltar's southern-most tip.

The storm drama as captured by Reuters

Garry and I were obilvious to all of this drama when we rose at 4.15am on Saturday morning for our early morning flight from Gatwick. We even checked online before we left the house to confirm that our flight was on time. It was. However, shortly after reaching our departure gate, we were told that the flight would be diverted to Malaga, 90 minutes north of Gibraltar.

An almost text-book budget airline experience then began to unfold. First, we endured a rough, turbulent flight before finally reaching Spain. Then, airside coach chaos, long immigration queues and transfer bus nightmares meant that we eventually reached our Gibraltar hotel four hours later than scheduled. Garry was absolutely livid. I'd simply resigned myself to letting events unfold as it was clear the weather had won the day.

The main road as its crosses the runway

As we drove down the coast in our transfer bus I was fascinated by the dramatic surging storm waves sweeping in from the Mediterranean Sea. I'd never seen such massive waves in the Mediterranean. It was abundantly clear that the region had been seriously battered. However, in Gibraltar itself, while the surrounding seas were rough the weather was warm with nothing more sinister than high-level haze.

About 4pm on Saturday we found ourselves outside a bar, the spitting image of a classic English pub, ordering a late lunch of English fish and chips. Perhaps our weekend could be salvaged? Given the hazy conditions we decided to fill the remaining daylight hours with a 90-minute "official rock tour" offered by local taxi drivers.

These are great value. Our driver took us through the back streets of the town and up into the Upper Rock Nature Reserve enclosing the top half of the Rock. Here we explored St Michael's Cave, an amazing natural grotto carved into the Rock's limestone interior by seeping rainwater. We wandered through a magic scene of dramatically lit stalactites and stalagmites. One of the cave's largest caverns has even been converted into a concert chamber complete with tiered seating and expansive stage. We're told the acoustics are sublime.

Our next stop was the Ape's Den, a shelter on the crest of the rock where Gibraltar's famous Barbary Monkeys live. While not native to the Rock, these animals have lived here now for more than tow centuries. Currently, more than 60 apes in a five family groups inhabit the area. Tradition has it that the British will leave this territory for good when the last monkey does.

Our last stop on the tour were the Great Siege Tunnels. These were excavated during the siege of 1779-83. More than 300 metres of tunnels were carved by hand along the rock's sheer north face to provide a deadly line of heavy artillery. Today, the same gun emplacements offer stunning views across the airport and white-sand beaches of the Costa del Sol.

Sunday dawned with spectacular blue sky and clear views of the horizon. Our hotel room included a complimentary buffet breakfast, hosted in a rooftop restaurant. As we dined we enjoyed wonderful views across the Bay of Gibraltar and the Strait itself. You can see the view of the Strait above.

After checking out, we rode the local cable-car to the top of the Rock. The views were magnificent. I was reminded once again of the breath-taking experience etched on my mind 18 years earlier. The majestic Rif Mountains of Morocco could be seen less than 20 kilometres away, while dozens and dozens of ships were anchored throughout the area.

Our next stop was Europa Point. We were keen to see the weekend's shipwreck for ourselves. However, police patrols prevented us from getting close and we were left with little more than a fleeting glimpse from our bus as it circled a nearby roundabout. You can just see its mast jutting above the cliff face in the photo above.

To console ourselves we made our way to Catalan Bay, a picturesque village on the eastern coast of Gibraltar. The village offers impressive views of the Rock's sheer cliffs from sea-level. The view skyward is almost as dramatic as the opposing view from the summit. It was hear we also heard the locals talking about the drama of Friday's storm and the subsequent damage they'd encountered. They described it as the most intense storms in more than a decade. Our diverted flight was clearly a minor inconvenience.

A prehistoric dune also dominates the area. It once housed an enormous corrugated iron collection system for collecting rainwater, the territory's only water supply. Today, only a small portion remains as large desalination plants provide all of the area's portable water needs. While walking along the lonely coastal road we stumbled across a gated tunnel that could be seen passing right through the rock itself. We later learned that the rock is riddled with more than 70 kms of man made tunnels.

However, the most enigmatic structure we visited was the Moorish Castle. This is a rugged stone fortress was built in 1333 by Muslim invaders. It sits above the main town bearing silent witness to centuries of war and invasion. Its walls are pock-marked by craters, the scars of cannonball bombardment hundreds of years ago.

Despite the nerve-shattering start to the weekend, Gibraltar was a refreshing break. It bought back wonderful memories and left us with few more. Where else in the world can you enjoy a hearty meal English Fish & Chips, paid for in euros with the mountains of Africa as your backdrop?

1 comment:

Rhonda said...

Glad the weekend ended well. Great snaps!