Lily and I took the ferry to Olhão to buy presents and party food for Katie’s birthday. On the ferry we befriended the Dutch crew of Mallemok – Patricia and Boris and their two sons, aged 7 and 10. Back on Ilha da Culatra we met Julian at the bar nearest the ferry and all enjoyed an evening together.
The next day we met again, this time on the beach. As well as sharing their delicious picnic and a bottle of wine with us, they showed us the shells they had collected earlier in the day. I had only seen shells like these in museum display cases before, and so the girls and I decided a shell-hunting expedition was in order.
We awoke early the next morning and took the dinghy to shore through the slowly lifting fog. Julian took the ferry to Olhão and the girls and I went hunting. It was less than an hour after low water, on a spring tide, and we passed old women, far out on the mud flats, bent double, foraging for clams.
Oh what shells we found! Huge spiral shells of sea snails, shells covered in sharp scary-looking thorns, shells as thick and hard as rocks, others delicate and translucent.
We followed the beach around, as our Dutch friends recommended, and soon we came upon a strange and bizarre live-aboard community. Twenty or thirty catamarans, of various shapes and sizes rested on the sand (it was shortly after low water). Some were without sails, some were without masts, and many looked as though they hadn’t been away from this little corner of the island in years.
But they were all inhabited. On the land, right by the high water mark, some owners had constructed lean-tos, with make-shift kitchens and living-rooms, made from scrap timber, tarpaulin, old garden furniture, and even a dilapidated looking brown velvet living room suite of furniture. There were shell gardens and washing lines and many of the boats had one or more pet dogs.
As we walked along I said good morning to the people going about their daily chores on their catamarans. They replied in accents from England, Germany, Holland and Spain, and the youngest person I spoke to was about 65 years old! Since then I’ve met some younger inhabitants with young children.
Later in the day I met a woman on the path to the beach. She was deeply tanned and carried an empty 10 litre water bottle that she refilled at the public tap. On a whim, I asked if she lived on one of the boats. In one of the most upper-class English accents I have ever heard, she confirmed that she did. She looked to be well over 70, and I found out from someone else later that she is 74, and lives alone on her boat with a lot of cats! She told me that many people live in the little lagoon year round. She herself is staying on this winter for the first time, having wintered in Vilamoura in previous years. She was quick to point out that she lived on the other side of the inlet from the boats with the lean-tos and shell gardens. ‘This is a nature reserve’, she said. ‘But those Germans always have to keep busy doing something’!
From the catamaran community, the girls and I walked through a cool salt-water stream which floods at high water. It was delightful and, as the fog returned, it grew blissfully cool. We found some more interesting shells in the stream and then spent the rest of the day on the beach. It was hot but foggy at first, with very poor visibility, which made for a slightly eerie swimming experience. After an hour, the fog lifted and we stayed in the water for most of the day, determined to keep cool. Katie delighted in ducking her head into the waves, and she even swam a few strokes independently for the first time! It was one of the most pleasant days I’ve had – and that’s saying something.