Saturday, 31 October 2009

Harsh Mistress

I’ve had the best surf of the trip so far this morning, in fact I’m at a stage on my surfing path to be able to say I had the best surf of my life this morning! It’s coming up to five years since I first set foot on a foam-board in Byron Bay but the mix of being a late starter, with an already (too) well developed sense of mortality, and the intervening years being spent deep in the design mines of England’s south east - keeping me from surfing as regularly as I would like - means that a good surf has a fair prospect of being my best ever! It didn’t look much from our van viewpoint on the cliffs above Praia Amado on Portugal’s south west coast, perhaps similar to last nights easygoing sunset session, but paddling toward the clique I could see that at this higher stage of the tide the now submerged rock, which breaks the wide open bay here, was producing a well overhead A-frame peak offering lefts and rights to the bold and well positioned. A troupe of British kids were hoovering up everything going for the first half hour and I resigned myself to picking up the odd wave which swung wide of the take-off spot. But en-masse the Brits left the water, lured no doubt by elevenses, and there were more than enough waves to go round for those of us left. By my standards there were big sets pushing through, certainly well overhead, I might even call some double-over but then again it always looks bigger peering up from sea-level, but instead of just rearing up, faltering and closing out in unison across the bay today a distinct peak feathered, tumbled and peeled. I had countless lefts and rights, making cavernous drops which spat me down the line at speeds my board hasn’t encountered before, trailing my hand in the smooth, shimmering, carved wall of water for stability, rising to the lip before turning and dropping back down the shear liquid face again, and again….. and again, kicking up and launching myself head-over-heel over the brim before it dumps into the shallow sandbar. Every cell of my being was vibrating and alive, very much alive, reverent of the ocean’s grace for allowing me to catch those fleeting rides sharing her surging energy for a few seconds of Life.

This south western corner of Portugal feels like home, for two distinctly different reasons. To observe starched English families spending tense half-term days at some of the beaches we frequent has seemed bizarre, in a detached other-worldly way and served as a reminder of the proximity of the British tourist colony of The Algarve. Yet the wild, arid, red-earthed south western tip with it’s rugged undeveloped coastline, herbaciously pungent, sheltering herds of goats, leather-faced shepherds, packs of wild dogs and van-dwellers of all denominations feels like the place we’ve been looking for as we traced Europe’s Atlantic fringe. If only the British hadn’t invaded nearby pushing prices of land beyond it’s natural level.

Footnote [After the second surf of the day]
Don’t do your surf check from the hill above the beach, the angle and distance distorts perspective rendering judgement calls hazy at best. Don’t ignore the Swiss duo you’ve been surfing with these last few days when they come back defeated, unable to get past the cascading walls of raging spume. And, most importantly, don’t take the sea for granted, don’t get complacent and don’t ever feel like you’re getting the hang of this surfing business! I managed to get out back in a lull between sets using a rip at the north of the beach by the rocks, and when I did everything seemed more acute. The waves were not only taller, but more voluminous, more powerful, formidable. I found a position to sit out wide of the main peak in order to watch for a while, to analyse. But the peak had spread out across nearly the entire bay and this once quiet spot was in path of the relentless marching behemoths. I was in position to dig deep and go a few times but as I rose up the face, inertia giving way to gravity I pulled back as I saw the canyon-like drop beneath me, suddenly aware of the rocks scattered on the inside. I paddled up the bay navigating my way precariously over the cresting waves, and through the swirling, churning waters between as huge masses of water heaved around, but what had been the ‘outside’, the safety zone, the non-breaking belt was quickly becoming the dangerous ‘inside’ as progressively bigger waves were breaking further from shore, the gaps between sets decreasing and the faces of the handful of surfers left out more determined. My mind turned to the book I had recently finished about Mark Foo and Ken Bradshaw’s ten year tussle amongst the huge surf of Hawaii’s Waimea Bay and I began to get a sense of what genuinely large wave-riding was about, whilst gaining a humbling perspective on my pickle as I visualised waves at the very least three times this size. Walls of ferocious whitewater were unavoidable and on my buoyant fish un-duckdiveable. Numerous times I tried only to have my board ripped from grasping hands and flung about thuggishly underwater. Once I turned and tried to ride the whitewater in on my belly, yet the boiling, seething mass was too turbulent sending me end over end, head over heels, inside and out. Edging closer to shore in any discernable hiatus I was reserved to an un-triumphant exit and looked for smaller waves to shuttle me back to dry sand. Choosing my monent, and wrapping my arms around my board I hugged her as I was shot gleefully onto the beach and trudged back up the hill to the welcoming arms of Sofie and Neil, bedraggled, defeated but wildly exilerated. Two things were traced on my mind:
I loved the experience, the Nowness of the situation, the sharpening of the senses, the vitality of being.
She’s the boss.

Monday, 26 October 2009

More pictures...


We should have seen the individual events as omens, portents of the approaching storm, nature’s way of warning there’s trouble ahead. First a flip lost it’s flop rendering it useless except as a fly swat, whilst in the background the van’s fridge was petering out. ‘These things are to be expected on a long trip’ we rationalised. Hurtling into Portugal, making use of the first, and admittedly unplanned, toll-road we’ve savoured we heard a loud crash-scrap-bang. Scanning windows and mirrors for the source I saw the blue taurpalin that once perched comfortably on the rear roof-rack swinging and swaying behind the back doors and immediately feared that it had spilled it’s contents, a bike, a fire-pit, wood and charcoal over the motorway behind us. At this speed the results could have been disasterous, but once we pulled over to the hard-shoulder to inspect the damage we could see the reassuringly bulging tarpaulin clinging to the one remaining roof-rack bar by one precarious bungee, with the other bungees tangled up around the cargo and the broken roof bars. A close scrape, but a few minutes later we were on our way and nothing more sinister was read into it.

Pulling into Praia Baleal car park just north of the surf centre Peniche the surf looked uninspiring and prohibitively busy so we decided on lunch before a surf-scout further afield. Pouring over my Stormrider for likely quarry the calm was broken, first by the sight of boiled eggs, pan and accompanying water sailing out of the back doors onto the tarmac, followed closely by loud yelps from Sofie as she ran round the van pulling her trousers down. Now we’re a broad-minded couple but this seemed extra-ordinary behaviour even by our standards. I’m ashamed to admit my first instinct was to rescue lunch and I leapt after the eggs until Sofie’s mantra of “Cold water, Cold water, Cold water...” alerted me to her predicament. The scalding water had melted a crisp-sized layer of skin off on first contact and the spillage had reddened a much larger area further down the leg. Cold water followed by application of a burn-sooth pad from our first-aid kit gave a little respite from the sharp, incessant, deep pain of the burn and as the day passed so did the worst of it. It wasn’t great, but the feared hospital trip wasn’t necessary. So once the patient was comfortable Dr Templeton went for a little surf. And what a surf! A little north of Peniche near Ferrel are lots of beaches down winding, rutted red earth tracks and we stumbled upon one with some rocks shaping two A-Frame head-and-a-bit high peaks and a mixed crowd of locals and traveling surfers crowding it. I spent the first hour watching great waves come and go with better, hungrier, more aggressive surfers aboard until high-tide flattened the peaks and everyone left the water. I hung around looking to snag a few small ones before trudging back up the cliff to tend the sick, and to my surprise fifteen minutes later the wave started working again and it took another thirty minutes before everyone cottoned on and flooded the water again.Thirty minutes in which I had the best surf of the trip so far, carving fast across the open faces, cutting back toward the curl to gather more of the waves energy before racing the feathering crest ahead, finishing with a do-or-die off the lip re-entry and a quick paddle out to do it all again, but this time on my backhand.

That night the heavens opened and our lazy night-time preparations resulted in a drenched, muddy boardbag and chairs. Another harbinger of doom? Or just a bit of rain? We opted for the latter and headed in to town to dry off and stock-up on provisions. Pulling out of our beloved InterMarche, just as we approached a pedestrian crossing, the van lost power and ground to a halt. And wouldn’t start. And there we were, stuck in the worst possible place on a busy town centre crossing with angry locals, beeping, shouting, swearing and at one point trying to run over the silly foreigners who’d parked in the wrong place. Whilst contemplating our current plight the previous three days pickles began to press home, are we having a run of bad luck or is there something more to it? Finally some friendly faces helped push us out of harms way and my hard-fought (for a ’91 Nissan) breakdown cover kicked into gear. Within three hours we were on our way with something-that-we-couldn’t-quite-work-out-in-translation having been cleaned and still time for a little surf before dark. And another great surf it was too. Buoyed by the previous days blockbuster I charged the Baleal beach break with a new vigour and scored my fair share of waves and then a few more, taking off on and handling the monster wave of the session, as a new-found friend described it.

We drank the evening away with the new-found friend and his girlfriend, corraling our vans together against the wind yet what should have been a light-hearted evening seemed infused with something more ominous. We got too drunk, there was a crackle of tension in the air, Sofie and I concluded the evening with a pointless yet deep-felt argument, talking late through the night as if compelled by this cogent unseen force. We woke, bleary eyed, hung-over and drained to find the carpark buzzing with excitement. The storm we had disregarded, that had been building these last few days, had hit…. And BOOM! It really hit

The carpark we called home was coincidentally also home to the travelling World Pro Surfing circus for a couple of weeks as the worlds best surfers earned their transient livings, and as I stumbled to the loo the breaking news was that Fanning and Knox were readying the jet-skis to tow-in to the huge waves lashing the headlands around the crescent shaped bay. I don’t really follow the pro surfer thing, but the the excitement was palpable and we gulped coffee and rushed to the headland to join the throng watching the spectacle. It really was an amazing spectacle to observe, for these guys to not only survive, but to feel so comfortable amidst the power, fury and energy of the storm, energy created and stored at the epi-centre of a storm thousands of miles away, transferred across the ocean and unleashed on our beach for us to watch and for them to tussle with.

It felt like the previous days crosses to bear had been building toward this moment, as if nature was communing with us in abstract ways… either that or we’d had a bit of bad luck. Either way, the release of the storm energy spread a lightness over us. Our moods lifted, the bad luck petered out and we headed south again.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Hum Along

The mornings are too cold, and dark. The sun doesn’t rise until about 9am and the heat from it doesn’t seep through until about midday, so beautiful as our location is we need to begin heading south, seriously south. But an inexplicable intrigue draws us first to Santiago de Compostela, the great Catholic pilgrim destination. And thank god for intrigue… or was it a calling from a higher power?

What a city! The best by far on our little journey, the stunning medieval town, centred on the magnificent cathedral is fully in tact yet it operates as a thriving, living, bohemian city overflowing with cafes, bars, restaurants and the sense that there’s stuff happening here, stuff we want to know about. Only our meagre budget forced us to retreat to our van before an evening of pinxtos and caƱas blew an irreparable hole in our budget.

Stopping off the next lunch time in Afife for an unsatisfactory bumpy, high tide surf before pushing further south into Portugal coming to rest in the tourist town of Mira.

It’s surprising how busy one’s days are in this transient life, driving, blogging, photographing, finding camp spots, surf spots, food, toilets, water and the occasoional wash. The time and space, to reflect, contemplate and work on the various projects I have in mind has hardly materialised so far, but recently I have noticed a subtle background hum of unease sitting beneath the chatter of my mind. My initial reaction on noticing this just-perceptible anxiety was of disappointment and a sense of unfairness. Leaving the maelstrom of work and life at home, with the 101 things to do in a day which will only allow 74 to be done, was an attempt to leave such feelings behind. But then I realised three things.
The fact that I can notice this ‘hum’, like feeling a distant generator vibrate, is due to some time and space opening in my life allowing me to observe the phenomena. Since deciding to do this trip the level of activity-induced adrenaline to make it happen has been so high and stress- producing that I couldn’t even detect what was going on within me. The unease is a positive sign of slowing down.
Noticing this ‘hum’ is to be distinct from it. Being distant enough from it to observe it is proof that this unease is not actually ME. At overly-busy and stressful times I don’t notice it because I am consumed by it. This mind-made anxiety is just that, mind-made and is not the deeper, inner me.
Time in the water quells the hum. There’s no dwelling on past events, now worry about the the things I ‘have’ to do in the future. The generator, splutters out of fuel and stops for a while as I am content with the hear and now.

Onwards and inwards.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Time and Space (pictures)

Time and Space

Over a week and probably 1000 miles have passed since my last rambling, time which has seen Spain, my first published piece in the Guardian and my birthday come and go. After Zarautz we swung by San Sebastian to find it was (pretty much) closed for winter, and then we hoofed it across the top of Spain, speeding by Mundaka, Rodiles and other world-class waves as the drizzle descended appearing to take the swell with it. Overnighting in a damp Tapia de Caseirega(??) we crossed into the wilder Atlantic outpost of Galicia, a land more soulful for the lack of European Union ‘cleansing’ funding which has seemed to over-sanitise Northern Spain into a land of newbuild bungalows and grandiose yet empty motorways and viaducts.

The rugged, ragged Northern coastline was gratifyingly reminiscent of other Celtic bastions, Cornwall and Brittany, similarly ravaged as they are by the vigor of the North Atlantic Ocean. We settled in bay near the village of Pantin for a couple of cloudless days surfing the amazingly clear waters, lush with seaweed so green you could almost hear it singing the joys of life and spending the evenings in a secluded, almost separate section of beach at the eastern end watching the sun set whilst drinking wine and plotting the next chapters of our lives. On the third day the swell rose with the wind, closing out across the bay with sonic-booms that shook the very suspension of our Neil so we pushed on further to the highly recommended Razo further west. The expanse of open beach didn’t take kindly to the north-easterly wind and the town’s caretaker had already locked up for the season so we carried on to Galicia’s west coast heading for a secret camp-spot shared with us by a friendly Austrian couple a way back down the trail. As evening approached a mediterranean mirage literally stopped us in our tracks, we found a campsite and wandered down through pine trees to a soft white sand beach lapped by a gentle turquoise sea. This gentle landscape seemed incongruous to our rugged Atlantic coast journey and provided welcome respite. This coastline is riven with fjord like Rias, the interiors of which are protected from the harsher ocean borne elements. As we drove South hugging the coast the following day, rounding the headland marking the entrance to Ria de Muros y Noia brought us back to an Atlantic coastline and my all important waves. The dropping swell left waves with enough punch to have some fun and enjoy sharing the squeaky clean Galician waters with a pod of 30 or 40 dolphins racing, leaping and gamboling down the long Praia Furnas to the delight of the much smaller pod of surfers.

Driving back from the Atlantic to the Med we found our dingly dell, a small pine-wood bound clearing behind the dunes on an empty, but alas unsurfable, white sand beach. The next morning, my birthday, we arrived early at Noia market and enjoyed the hubbub of buying fresh caught red mullet, squid & prawns and local sweet delicacies from the bakery before spending a long, languid sunny day in the privacy of our glade decorating our camp, and preparing a bonfire fueled feast atop the dunes soundtracked by beautiful music spanning the genres. As much pleasure was gained in the preparation as the event yet the drunken, gluttonous sunset revelry that resulted aptly concluded a truly magical day. Thankyou Sofie. x

Monday, 12 October 2009


Turquoise turned to jade green which merged with a deeper grey-blue sliding into seafoam green fragmenting into golden yellow, duck-egg blue and a cool fathomless green, Pantone numbers swimming round my head as the eternal dance progresses as light particles penetrate the pulsating water. Mesmerised yet mindful of my locale I keep an eye on the horizon for the tell-tale darky, inky smears which bleed from the horizon warning of approaching rogue sets. As I scrambled down the rocky hillside from our campsite the beckoning, shimmering waves rolling in to the wide sandy bay were unruffled by wind and peeling left and right from several distinct peaks yet as I paddled out I realised the distance from which I had originally been bewitched was deceiving. These waves were bigger than anticipated, probably four to five feet, and powerful. On the outer rim of limited capability and experience, but if you time your paddle out with the lulls between waves and sit just seaward of their breaking point waiting for your moment then it’s no problem… except, that is, for those sly sets of waves which emerge at irregular, unpredictable intervals a foot or two bigger and harnessing even more of the latent storm energy than their more disciplined cousins.

As these six, maybe seven, foot waves, with faces soaring almost 12 feet above the prone surfer, pitch beyond vertical and the seething apex is launched out beyond the face the explosion as the two water masses collide impacts on all of my senses combining to produce a solitary survival emotion - fear. At the first signs of these deliquent undulations the skirmish begins. I paddle toward the horizon hoping that my timing is fortunate and I manage to scrabble over the back of the beasts traveling in packs of 4 or 5 increasing in size. To be caught just inside the breaking wave with it’s tumbling, towering, impenetrable wall of whitewater is to be spun and tumbled underwater, limbs flayed in unfeasible directions like a rag-doll until it releases it’s grip allowing you to surface 30 yards back toward shore gasping for air. Worse still is to get the timing absolutely, utterly wrong and for the pitching lip of the wave to smash onto you at the point of impact adding a wind-ing body blow to the mix….. But sometimes, and to be fair to myself more often now than not, the timing of the paddle out combines, to quote Hansen, with “Pace, power & technique” and I dive the nose of the board under the water a few feet before the lip crashes down, I dig deep enough with all the might I can muster to get under the impact turbulence and the centrifugal forces which are pitching the lip forward work in my favour and suck me under the wave and out of the back, to momentary safety before the next wave approaches…

The next few days the ferocity of the ocean subsided but we stayed on in Zarautz in the Basque region of Spain and Sofie and I played in the calmer waters together and enjoying the warm, still evenings and the awesome widescreen sky’s created as the ocean meets the mountains.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Poor old Neil

Before leaving Gers we squeezed a Hatha session in, breakfasted then saddled & watered Neil and headed South to the Pyrenees. It’s a momentous day today, we threw caution to the wind and had our first non-van dining experience as we ordered Steak Frites in Eauze town square as we broke the journey toward Oleron in the western Pyrenees.
Arriving late we found a place to park by an Auberge on the side of a mountain and had a cowbell-symphony accompaniment to our omelette making.

We woke with the light and a striking reminder of our location as we drew the curtains back and the Pyrenees slid into view. The ever-changing bedroom window view that defines campervan life is a joy to behold. We’ve enjoyed dunes, ocean, forest, mountains, panoramic countryside vistas, cornfields, widescreen epics and errr…. carparks.

We gathered provisions in the local village and drove up the valley to Borce, the home of the last few remaining wild Pyreneean bears. Parking by the church we walked up winding tracks and found a picnic spot looking up the valley and shared a couple of hours lunching and snoozing with some mountain eagles in the heat of the sun.

After lunch we headed west again ambling towards the Atlantic once more as the promise of waves were on the Magic Seaweed horizon. The route we took was much steeper, treacherous and breathtaking than we had imagined, and the sharp, winding inclines were almost more than poor Neil could take. Dragging his weary frame over these peaks left him hot, bothered and smelling unwell. I can’t quite put my finger on it but the burning, metallic smell reeks of worry.

Our unplanned destination that evening, St Jean pied-de-port, was aptly an ancient pilgrims rest and recuperation site and we followed tradition and recharged in a carpark on the outskirts of town throwing caution beyond the wind this time as we purchased two alcoholic beverages in the towns hostelries, another first for this trip!

Karma Yoga

The flyer that Tom, Danuta’s son, thrust into my hand at Natstock a few weeks previously whilst discussing our impending shoestring tour of Europe focused understandably on the full-board, full-price Yoga retreats on offer. Tom’s insistence that his mum invites people to stay on-the-cheap if you’re prepared to work was enough to arouse our budget-conscious curiosity though, and I had an inkling that mention of ‘Karma Yoga’ might be the key. All we knew for sure was that €10 a day would cover us for whatever was in store.

We set up camp in the former central square of the 18th century farming hamlet, our van’s door opening out onto that five-star Provence-esque view, and were invited to join our hosts and the guests for dinner whilst the Karma Yoga concept was explained. The Radha Yoga tradition that Danuta teaches uses the concept of self-less service as one of it’s core tools. Radha practitioners will work but focus on the process of that work rather than the outcome and use this focus in a meditative way, as a reflective process in conjunction with their other introspective Yoga practices. The ‘meditation’ offered to us the following day was to help Steve move fallen sandstone building blocks from their land beneath the terrace back up to the house level for use as building materials in their ongoing renovations. It sounded more like hard labour to me than cuddly-sounding Karma Yoga.

After a dinner of dhal, coconut rice, raisin chutney, wine, figs & grapes from the garden, concluded with a regional-classic cheese ‘Bleu de Bavier’ a surprise Yoga session was offered and so began our three day crash-course in the ancient Indian Kundalini system and an introduction to Radha yoga’s contemplative, note-taking, emphasis.

Frankly we were both a little overwhelmed to be contemplating the meaning of our existence within three hours of arriving, particularly as our expectations had been little more than a nice morning stretch and a bit of help in the garden, but it was all voluntary. I’m no Dalai Lama but I do have a spiritually inquisitive side and Danuta’s warm, welcoming manner and the small retreat group we joined - a couple from San Francisco - made for a comfortable and supportive environment so I rolled up my spiritual sleeves and got my metaphysical hands dirty.

The next morning began with a gentle Hatha yoga session easing us into the physically daunting Karma Yoga session ahead. My healthy skepticism paradoxically combined with an open mind and I reveled in the hard work. It was great to spend time helping Steve who’s dogged passion for renovating these beautiful sandstone farm buildings was contagious and I found the work to be physically and mentally satisfying. In the group reflection period afterwards I was heartened to realise that the simple joy’s of physical work and problem solving — shifting stones too heavy to lift using logs as rollers, planks and teamwork — not only had a meditation-like quality but also provided surprisingly relevant lessons to the other yoga sessions. Alas, this spiritual insight did nothing for my freshly calloused hands and aching back.

The morning before our departure our Karma Yoga treat was to shop for produce at the weekly market in nearby Lectoure, a handsome hilltop Spa town. We bought some amazing local produce and yet all of our karmic-budgeting efforts were ruined as we were duped, wide-eyed, by the Frenchest man believable resplendent in beret and D’Artagnan moustache, into buying the most expensive yet deliciously sweet, nutty artisan cheese in the market.