It’s more than food for free

Sturdy walking shoes? Check. Long-sleeved shirt and heavy trousers? Check. Work gloves? Check. Sharp knife? Check. It’s time to go asparagus hunting!

It’s that time of year again, when tender young asparagus shoots are to be found on steep overgrown slopes up and down the river. Julian had a rare Saturday off work yesterday and once the sun had burned through the mist along the river, the four of us set off.

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Lily with the first few shoots

If you think foraging is all about putting free food on your plate, you’re sorely mistaken. Just as Jaws isn’t really a film about a shark and hunting isn’t all about the kill, foraging isn’t all about the end product – food for free. Sure, the wild spinach, alexanders, asparagus, oranges and lemons that have been gracing our table recently have been marvellous to eat. They’re delicious, free of nasty chemicals or additives (or as much as anything in the wild can be), and they cost nothing. But foraging for food is about a whole lot more than the end product.

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Taking a break by the well and orange grove

We set out early yesterday afternoon, walking north along the old goat track on the Spanish side of the river. Our senses were caressed, challenged and enriched by the landscape we walked through. We stopped to bathe in the sound of bees buzzing loudly as they gathered nectar from flowering rosemary bushes (one of the few plants flowering at this time of year). Birdsong filled the air. Winter flowers dotted the sides of the trail and the occasional open glade was peppered with the white and yellow chamomile that filled my nose with sweet aroma when I bent down to identify them by scent. Poisonous but colourful mushrooms lined the path, which we stopped often to admire. We picked oranges and drank from a well, and the sun shone from a clear blue January sky and by late afternoon a gibbous moon was already high in the sky to the east.

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Julian ahead on the trail

We walked up hills and down hills, through bright sunshine and dank shade, hearts and breaths racing at the exertion, feet slipping on damp rocks, striding out across hilltops. From the tops of hills we caught occasional glimpses of the river winding its way through the valley below, a brown ribbon through a landscape turned green and lush from December rains.

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A glimpse of the river

Some foraging is easy. Alexanders, spinach and fennel grow along the sides of the path. Gathering them is like picking flowers. Oranges, figs and plums require height and/or ingenuity (memories of gathering apples from the vantage point of Julian’s shoulders in autumn come to mind), and oranges have occasional but nasty thorns to avoid.

Asparagus don’t give themselves up so easily. Around here, the larger and more productive plants are to be found up steep rocky slopes, strewn with thorny bushes. The asparagus plant itself is thorny as hell, and it’s hard to believe that such a delicate shoot (the part we eat), if left to grow, develops into a thorny mass that could well surround Sleeping Beauty’s palace. Hence the need for long sleeves, heavy duty trousers and gloves. To get to the succulent shoots necessitates climbing the slopes, searching through masses of thorns then plunging hands into the middle to cut a single, or at most two, shoots from each plant. It’s hard work, all that scrambling and searching, with a knife in one hand and a few delicate and precious shoots in the other. But it’s fun too, not to mention good exercise. We certainly exert more energy from gathering the asparagus than we gain from eating them.

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Up the hillside he goes

We stopped and searched and gathered along slopes for an hour, gradually making our way to a patch where Julian had been successful last year, where a stream ran through the bottom of the valley. The girls removed their shoes and socks, rolled up their trouser legs and dipped their tired feet in the chilly water. When I tired of foraging, I sat on the bank of the stream, while Julian carried on foraging and the children ran around, feet and bottoms wet, hands covered in soil, picking chamomile flowers.

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First dip of the year

By the time we got home, three hours after setting out, we were tired and dirty, but with our spirits soaring from all we had seen and done, our bodies and minds enriched and enlivened from our immersion in the landscape.

And then? Steamed asparagus shoots to accompany our roast chicken for supper and and then for breakfast with poached eggs on toast this morning. Food for free? That’s merely the end product.

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Easter visitors

A couple of mornings ago Lily called to me from the cockpit. ‘Come up quick’, she yelled. I was in the middle of making breakfast, but the urgency of her call made me stop was I was doing. Excitedly, she pointed to the water, where a mother duck was busy shepherding her seven ducklings on their very first paddle in the river. What a moment. Seven tiny balls of fuzzy perfection, their little legs and feet paddling for all they were worth. When they put on a burst of speed they were so light they actually walked on the water momentarily. We have been besotted ever since.

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Carina has been alongside the Sanlúcar pontoon for over a week now and we are regularly visited by the many mallards that live nearby. They are a constant feature of village life. Groups of ducks waddle through the streets, knowing which houses to stop outside where they are sure of a snack from the Spanish grandmother living inside. A couple of weeks ago I went to the bakery and asked the baker for the loaf of bread sitting on the counter. He wouldn’t sell it to me. It was yesterday’s bread, he said, and he was saving it for the ducks!

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The arrival of these seven ducklings is a delight. But they are also causing me maternal worry. I counted them the first morning – seven. And every time I see them I count them again, to make sure all seven are still there. A big seagull appeared on the river a few days ago and I’m worried about the duckies.

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The ducklings aren’t the only avian visitors we’ve had recently. I was in the forward cabin a week ago. The hatch was open and I could hear the most delightful trilling birdsong coming from the fore deck. Quietly I peeked out the hatch and saw a swallow sitting on our guard rail. It was joined by its mate, and for a couple of days, while we moored in the middle of the river, the two were regular visitors to Carina’s fore deck.

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There have been attempts at nest building aboard Carina too. One day, while the girls were at school, I was sitting quietly working on my laptop in the saloon. I guess our visitors thought no-one was home. I stopped what I was doing and watched as a pair of what I think were house sparrows began investigating the inside of the sail cover on the main mast boom. I had no choice but to shoo them away. I couldn’t have them build a nest and lay eggs, only to be made homeless with any disturbance of the sail cover. It doesn’t stop sparrows coming to visit, however, and every day they alight on our guard rails, cockpit and rigging, chirp-chirruping for all they’re worth.

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What a delightful and joyful sign that spring is here.

Weekend away

After their first two weeks of school, the girls have a three day weekend. Enough of this bustling cross-border metropolis (total population 800), we want some quiet time. On Friday afternoon we restock Carina with fresh food, on Saturday morning we do a load of laundry and refill the water tank, and on Saturday afternoon when the tide turns we pootle five miles upriver.

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Sheep on the river bank

The moored and anchored boats thin out a mile or so upriver from Sanlúcar and Alcoutim. There are about six houses on the five-mile stretch of river and a small hamlet with an impressive ancient-looking mineral works. We round bend after bend in the river, at one bend steep cliffs on one bank and water-edge reed beds on the other, and on the next bend the scene reversed.

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A rare photo of yours truly

We anchor a couple of hundred metres north of where the Rio Vasçao enters the Rio Guadiana on the western, Portuguese, side of the river. Julian lays out the anchor and I cut the engine, taking bearings from a tall tree on the Portuguese bank, a tall tree on the Spanish bank, and a scrubby bush on a hill in Spain. The almost complete absence of human-made sounds fills our ears.

Birds sing in the trees and brush lining the riverbank and an occasional fish leaps from the water, a glint of silver catching the eye as it arches in the sunlight, and a splash as it returns to the water. From somewhere in these echoy hills I hear the hammering of a woodpecker, rapid, like a ruler sprung on a classroom desk.

We hear no cars, no engines, no airplanes, no human voices other than our own. There is the occasional echo of gunshot through the hills. This is hunting country. Wild boar, deer, rabbits and hares are all hunted here for food.

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Beware the river witches

For what’s left of the afternoon the girls and I make Advent calendars. We make a good start, but they will require a couple more days work to be complete, just in time for the start of Advent on Tuesday.

By 7pm it is almost completely dark. It is a clear moonless night, perfect for stargazing. We dress in warm clothes and turn off all Carina’s lights. Lily lies down on the port side of the cockpit, wrapped in a blanket with a cushion under her head. I lie to starboard, with Katie lying on top of me as my blanket. As the darkness deepens more and more stars reveal themselves, the Milky Way flowing richly across the sky. A shooting star catches my eye, and then another which we all, except Lily, see. As if on cue, the tide turns and Carina swings slowly around on her anchor chain, giving us a panoramic view of the entire night sky.

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The mist burning off

The next morning dawns cold and misty, and the sun behind a nearby hill is not yet warming up our patch of river. The tide has turned twice again and the anchor chain is badly snagged on a huge raft of canes. This is one of the more unpleasant and hazardous aspects of life on the river. We’ve become snagged before on massive tree trunks and on rafts of canes and we’ve had friends who’ve had to cut their anchor chain to escape the clutches of a huge tree trunk floating on the river.

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Carina encased

Julian tries to free the anchor but to no avail. He gets in the dinghy and sets about removing the reeds by hand, using a boat hook. I stand on deck, holding the dinghy painter (rope) and walk back and forth, pulling the dinghy astern and forward as Julian instructs, as he drags reeds back behind Carina to where they are free to carry on their journey downriver. It’s two hours of back breaking work – Julian with his hands in the cold dirty water, getting cuts from sharp pieces of reed; I hauling the dinghy back and forth on command. The girls play wonderfully together – which they seem to do when they sense that there’s something really important going on, such as the time we found ourselves in an electrical storm in the middle of the English Channel, or when we ran aground near Falmouth and the engine failed.

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Like unmaking a giant bird’s nest

Finally the anchor is free of the dreaded canes and we take a breather. But it’s such a beautiful day we want to go exploring. Julian makes and packs a lunch and we climb into the dinghy and make for the Rio Vasçao. Julian rows up this splendid little river, with its steep rocky banks and we search hard for the terrapins that live here. Alas today is not our day to see them. But I am thrilled by a kingfisher flying from one side of the river to the other, iridescent wings flashing like sapphires in the sun.

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In search of turtles

It’s almost low tide and Julian rows until the river turns to rocks. We paddle in the shallow water for a while, but the rocks are muddy and we fail to find anywhere to sit to eat lunch, so we climb back aboard the dinghy and eat lunch as we slowly drift back down the river.

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Splish splash

Back on the Guadiana, Julian rows across to the Spanish side of the river, trying to find a place to land so we can go for a walk. But it is a very low spring tide and the banks are muddy. We find a place that has potential, so we return to Carina for a couple of hours while the flood tide sets in, and hope to go ashore later.

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Carina on the Guadiana

The girls and I carry on with the Advent calendars and when we tire of that we get in the dinghy again and return to shore. The tide has now risen sufficiently to allow us to get ashore. But only just. We slither and slide up a muddy bank, all four of us getting utterly mud-covered in the process. I try not to think about how we’re going to get back down that muddy slope when we want to return to the dinghy. We are on the Via Guadiana, a walking trail all along the river, which we frequently walk along its stretch near Sanlúcar.

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Hatching plans on deck

It is beautiful here. Lush trees, including olives and figs, growing beside the steep grey rocks. The path winds up and down along the riverbank, into glades of grass and out along steep banks. There are sheep droppings all along the route and we guess a farmer must herd his sheep along here to get them from one pasture to another. The girls run on ahead, delighting in their energy and their wildness. They disappear from view, around a bend in the trail, one of them always returning to report what they’ve found up ahead.

After half an hour of the girls running and Julian and I walking at a fast pace, we decide to turn around and head back home. Getting back down the slope to the dinghy is as difficult as we suspected and we get even more mud splattered and turn the dinghy into a mud bath. But it’s worth the fun we’ve had ashore.

While Julian cooks dinner I remove the thick caked mud from four pairs of shoes, and I soak our clothes, hoping some of the mud will come off! From climbing aboard, Carina’s stern is mud covered too, and I clean as much as I can. As for the dinghy, I can’t even face it. I decide to leave it until we are back on a pontoon in the next few days.

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North

On Monday morning a mist hangs over the river and the moon is high in the sky to the west. Twelve Iberian magpies fly over my head, from east to west, their long tails making their wings look precariously short. All is utterly still. I stand on the fore deck, cup of coffee in hand, and soak up the peacefulness of this place.

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Morning moon

Next weekend, the girls have four days off school. We’re going to come up this way again.

Moving upriver

Once we’ve settled onto our pontoon at Vila Real de Santo Antonio, tidied up and had breakfast, I pause for the first time. We are on the outside pontoon with nothing between us and the river. The river is still, but lively with terns, swooping and diving and shrilly chattering. Occasionally a fish leaps from the water, flying through the air for a split second, splashing back into the river, disturbing the peaceful surface with an expanding pattern of concentric ripples. Across the still river, only 500 metres away is Spain. A different country, a different culture, a different language, a different time zone. It’s surreal to be in one country and yet be so close to another. I’ve done it before, driving through Europe and on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. But the political lines that are not always so arbitrary never cease to amaze me.

Looking across to Spain from Portugal

Looking across to Spain from Portugal

We’ve had a tough night of sailing, so we don’t get up to much on our first day back in Portugal. Julian takes the girls out for a walk and a picnic while I catch up on some sleep and in the afternoon I return the favour, strolling with the girls through the pretty white-washed town of Vila Real, old men drinking coffee in the town square, groups of men and women, young and old, gathered in and outside bars watching a football match on TV.

The town square of Vila Real

The town square of Vila Real

We leave Vila Real at 8am the next morning to take advantage of the currents on the flood tide that will carry us up the river. Our destination is Alcoutim, a Portuguese village 22 miles up the river.

Beyond the small towns of Vila Real on the Portuguese side and Ayamonte on the Spanish side, we are quickly into countryside. The first thing I notice is the smell. A deep, fresh, rich, earthy smell of the river and its banks, that makes me want to inhale deeply, fill my lungs, get drunk on this heady air.

The banks on this stretch of the river are flat and muddy, with herons and egrets standing still on long legs or carefully high-stepping in the shallows, scanning the water for fish. The terns are ever present, reminding me, as they always do, of the Point out beyond Arviat.

Riverbank

Riverbank

Two miles upriver from Vila Real we pass under the suspension bridge. I’ve flown and driven across international borders before, but this the first time I’ve gone under one. Beyond the bridge the gently rolling farmland is dotted with the occasional olive, orange or almond grove, herds of sheep led by a clanging bellwether resting under the trees from the already hot sun.

Looking serious as I emerge from under the suspension bridge

Looking pensive as I emerge from under the suspension bridge

Abandoned dwellings are dotted on the slopes of the riverbank – tiny, white washed houses with windows and roofs missing or in various states of disrepair.

As we carry on up the river, rounding long curving bends, the landscape subtly changes. Gradually the muddy banks give way to lush green hills sloping down to the bamboos and tall reeds that flank the river. Even above the noise of our engine I can hear the birdsong and I look forward to reaching our destination so we can cut the motor and listen to this orchestra.

DSCI0372 - CopyIn places, where tributaries feed the river with silt, the Guadiana is no deeper than 3.5 metres, and we navigate carefully. We draw almost 1.9 metres, and we don’t want to touch the bottom. But for most of the trip up the river we have 9 metres or more and we comfortably chug along, slowly and with enough time to take it all in, take photos and spot birds on the river banks.

It takes us less than four hours to reach the twin villages of Alcoutim, on the Portuguese side of the river and Sanlucar on the Spanish side. Both are tiny and white washed, rising steeply from the banks of the river. There are plenty of boats at anchor here already, and we motor around, trying out a few different places until we find a place we like. We drop the anchor, turn off the engine, and sit in the cockpit taking in the sights and sounds of the place.

Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

The air is electric with birdsong, accompanied by a goat’s bell in the field closest to us. On each hour four church bells ring – two on each side of the river. Occasionally an outboard motor hums as a dinghy crosses the river between the two countries. In a field nearby, on the Spanish side, a farmer tends his orange trees.

It’s time to inflate the dinghy and get ashore!