Silver linings

It’s been a great week, a glorious week, down here at the cabin in the woods. After a few days of slate grey skies, the sun made a reappearance and suddenly it felt like spring. The children had a four day weekend, I had no weekend English classes, and we relaxed like it was going out of fashion. We sat on the dock in the sunshine, gathered vegetables from our neighbours vegetable patch (they invited us to), and had some visitors over. I wrote a blog post, ready to publish today, all about the sensory beauty of the place – sun on the river, bees in the almond blossoms, the heady aroma of orange blossom. And then this morning happened, and I realised there’s far greater comedy value in mishap and disaster than in everything running smoothly.

It’s Saturday morning so, although the girls and I get a lie-in, I still get up at 8.30 so I have a reasonably leisurely two hours before I teach English in the village. It rained steadily yesterday and through the night and when I get up I realise I need to give myself extra time because we will all have to dress in our wet weather gear for the thirty-minute walk into town. Julian has work as usual, which starts half an hour before my English lesson, so we’re both getting ready at the same time.

We’ve been living on borrowed time for the past week as far as our gas bottles are concerned. The cabin uses butane for two purposes – to heat the shower water and for the two-ring counter-top cooking hob. The two 26.5 litres aluminium bottles have been getting lighter and lighter with each passing day, and it’s been taking longer to boil the kettle – a sure sign we’re low on gas.

Aboard Carina we use gas (from smaller bottles) for our hob, grill and oven. We have three bottles, each of which gives us about a month’s worth of gas for cooking. When two bottles are empty we take them to the hardware store and replace them, so we always have spares and never run out of gas. Our Bohemian friend doesn’t have spares.

I thought the bottle servicing the shower seemed the lighter of the two and I planned that when it ran out I would replace it with the bottle from the kitchen and get a new one for the kitchen (cooking being more of a necessity than showering!). It was unlikely that both would run out of gas at the same time. And yet, this morning, as Julian and I start getting ready for our respective jobs – showers for us, the morning cups of tea we can’t live without, breakfast for everyone – this is exactly what happens.

‘I’ll take the first shower’, I say to Julian, who is on the phone to one of his parents. I strip off, turn on the shower and wait for the water to take its usual 30 or 40 seconds to heat up. The time goes by, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, a minute, and the water remains freezing cold. ‘Julian’, I call. ‘We’re out of gas.’ He immediately jumps into action, temporarily (as he thinks) bringing the kitchen bottle outside so we can both have hot showers before then bringing it back inside so I can make breakfast. (I have to say, it is one of those mornings when I need to shop, so the breakfast choices are limited – eggy bread, porridge or pancakes – all requiring cooking).

With the kitchen bottle now attached to the shower I try the water again. Still it won’t warm up. ‘Julian’, I cry again, and again he jumps to action. ‘You need to light the pilot light’. He calls for me to bring him a box of matches, so with a towel wrapped around me I go outside into the mud-covered garden (it’s been raining all night, remember, and is still raining). We both peer at the pilot light and cannot figure out how it works or where to light it. I traipse back into the bedroom, muddy-footed, giving up on a shower, while Julian returns the gas bottle to the kitchen. I haven’t had a shower in two days, and I’m teaching English. I can’t stand having a cold shower when I’m already feeling pretty chilly. I still have the key to the shower block by the Sanlúcar pontoon, so I’ll pack my towel and shower gel and shower there. Julian can do the same at the public showers in Alcoutím.

I quickly get dressed and tell the girls to get dressed, then set about making breakfast. Nothing happens when I try to light the ring under the kettle. ‘Julian’, I call, and he comes running, getting increasingly exasperated with me (and who can blame him). ‘You haven’t connected the bottle properly’. He removes it and reattaches it, correctly this time. He lights the ring, it fizzles sadly for a second or two and dies. It turns out this bottle is empty too.

So here are my problems. I need a shower. I need breakfast. I need to get the empty gas bottles upriver to Sanlúcar so I can replace them for new ones. It is 9.30 and the river is currently on flood – flowing upriver – but in less than half an hour the tide will turn and I will have the current against me. I haven’t yet figured out how to use the outboard on our friend’s dinghy, so I only use his boat to get to or from town when I have the current with me and can row.

‘Girls, we’re going now, NOW’, I yell, as Julian disconnects the gas bottle in the kitchen, carries the two bottles down to the dock and loads them onto the dinghy. It’s drizzling now and we all dress in full wet weather gear. While we set off up towards Sanlúcar in our friend’s dinghy, Julian sets off for Alcoutím in our much smaller rubber dinghy (too small to haul those gas bottles). When he sees my pathetic rowing in the, by now, almost slack water, he turns around and takes the painter (the rope) and tows us upriver, our tiny rubber tender towing the much bigger and heavily laden wooden dinghy we’re in.

Well, that’s the worst part over, I tell myself, as I tie up on the pontoon and head off to take a shower. Clean and more calm, I walk with the girls to the Chiringuito for coffee, hot chocolate and toast with jam. The Chiringuito is also where I have my lesson (I teach one of the bar staff) and where I can replace the gas bottles. I tell Fran, the head barman, that I want to replace two gas bottles and he informs me that the Chiringuito doesn’t stock that brand. Cepsa, the brand of bottle I have, is delivered to the village once a week – on Wednesdays – and I won’t be able to replace my bottles until then.

Aaaaahhhhhhhhh. What am I to do? Well, right now I cannot do anything, because I have a lesson to teach. While I’m encouraging my wonderful student to tell me all about her recent trip to London, my mind is wandering, wondering how I’ll get around this problem of not being able to get gas until Wednesday. Surely someone in the village will have a spare bottle they can loan me until then. But how do I find out who uses that brand of gas?

By the time my class ends, Steve and Lynne, a lovely English couple who frequent the Chiringuito, have arrived in. I decide to start with them, and ask if they use or know of anyone who uses that gas. ‘Don’t worry luv’, Steve tells me, ‘Lynnie and I will drive to Villablanca and get your bottles replaced’. My saviours! They finish their drinks, and while they walk home to get their car, I bring the empty bottles up from the boat. While Steve and Lynne are in Villablanca I have time to shop for food and bring the girls to their friend’s house, where they are having a pizza and board games party. I arrive back down to the pontoon just as Steve and Lynne’s car pulls up.

I am so thankful to them. ‘Don’t worry. Settle up later luv’, Lynne tells me, as Steve loads the two new bottles into the dinghy. I have the tide with me, so decide to bring them back to the cabin now. With all the rain overnight, the dinghy is already lying low in the water, at least two inches of water in her. Now Steve adds the heavy gas bottles and I add my shopping, and I precariously set off downriver, the boat creaking like it’s never done before, and constantly veering towards the Spanish bank of the river, so that I have to work extra hard to keep her in a straight line.

Once I get back to the dock, I have to haul the bottles out and up to the house. I take one up onto land, go back for the other. Take the first up the steps that lead to the first cabin, go back for the other. Take the first one half way up the garden to a bend in the path, go back for the other. Take the first one to the bathroom, go back for the other and take it to the kitchen. Sweat rolls down my face as I try to attach them. I try the kitchen one first, and realise why Julian had trouble with it this morning. Connecting our gas bottles aboard Carina is so easy (or perhaps we are just used to is) and I curse and struggle and strain to connect this one. I give up and go to the bathroom. This gas bottle is easier to attach and I now understand what I need to do to attach the one in the kitchen. There is also no need to light the pilot light. I test the shower and have hot water in seconds. I return to the kitchen and after a few more attempts manage to connect the nozzle and soon the kettle is boiling and I am making a delicious cup of strong tea.

Then it’s time to walk back into town to collect the girls from their friend’s house. All of this walking and rowing and lugging gas bottles in and out of boats and up steep slopes and gathering and carrying and chopping firewood is like some fitness boot camp. And it has the same results. Since moving in here three weeks ago I’ve dropped a dress size. Clothes that were tight a month ago now fit me, and clothes that fit me a month ago are now loose. And that is certainly a silver lining to this cabin in the woods lifestyle!

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Romería

It’s almost two months since the good citizens of Sanlúcar de Guadiana and El Granado walked out one Saturday around midday and met in a field midway between their two villages for two days of fun and frolics. Men came on horseback, dressed in high-waisted trousers and wide-brimmed hats; women, some on horseback too, were dressed in voluminous layered figure hugging flamenco dresses, their lips painted red and their hair elaborately coiffed. This was the annual Romería, when neighbouring villagers get together to, ahem, expand the gene pool.

My mother and sister were visiting from Ireland and we couldn’t but join in the festivities. While proper flamenco dresses are way beyond our price range (and where on earth would we store them aboard Carina?), we were advised to dress the girls in the cheaper children’s flamenco dresses to be found in every resort town in Spain. We owned one already, and borrowed a second.

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Katie and Granny on the road to El Granado

For a week or more before the festival the people of Sanlúcar and El Granado, a village of similar size ten minutes away by car, were busy making their preparations. The same field, midway between the two villages, is used each year. Extended families build casetas – temporary structures made of wood and tarpaulin – which provide shade and shelter. In Sanlúcar carts were decorated with flowers and bunting, and cars and trucks loaded with chairs, tables, barrels and crates of beer to be transported to the site.

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On Friday evening Julian went out for a walk after supper. He was gone almost an hour when I heard the unmistakable sound of flamenco singing and someone playing a tambourine. I looked up the street to see a covered wagon slowly making its way along the street, pulled by a mule, and Julian sitting up in the middle of a bunch of women! They’d picked him up as he was walking along and plied him with local wine as they went on two circuits of the village, singing and making merry.

 

On Saturday morning we prepared a picnic, the girls dressed in their flamenco dresses, and we set out. A misjudgement on my part meant we missed the opportunity to travel in one of the covered wagons. Earlier in the day I’d met Pepe, the mayor, and he said Lily and Katie should go in a wagon. Last year the procession of men, women and children on horseback and in mule, horse and tractor-drawn covered wagons had set out from Sanlúcar at around 2pm. So, despite being told the procession would begin at midday, I assumed it would not be prompt. I was wrong. So we ended up walking. Even so, we reached the Romería site almost two hours before the procession. We took the main road and walked for half an hour. The procession took a dirt track and stopped every few minutes to drink, sing and dance!

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A well-deserved picnic after our walk in the hot sun

The Romería site was like a gypsy camp. Each extended family had its own caseta, some with bars set up, some with people playing guitars or accordions, all with vast amounts of food. We joined some other ex-pats we know in the shade of their camper van awning, and we ate and drank our fill from our picnic.

The two processions – Sanlúcar from one direction and El Granado from the other – arrived simultaneously and entered the field amidst great fanfare. It was an amazing spectacle, gorgeous men and women astride prancing horses and the tipsy passengers in the carts singing.

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Arriving in style!

Lily and Katie quickly found their friends, and we found the friends’ parents. We were invited into various casetas to partake of food and drink. Throughout the afternoon men paraded around on their horses, and the occasional teenage boy cantered past with a pretty girl sitting behind him. The joy of the day left a smile on my face.

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Lily and her friend Israel

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Lily’s friends, Isaac and Israel outside their family’s caseta.

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The girls had lots of fun with their friends

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Katie enjoying herself!

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Some of the Sanlucar men even ate on horseback!

Last year we watched the procession set out from Sanlúcar, not sure what it was all about. I’m still not quite sure what it’s all about, but we certainly had fun joining in this year.

Orange grove

On the spur of the moment we walk north on the Spanish side of the river, along the old goat track now marked for walkers. It is a walk we have both done before, alone, together, with the children, walking just for walking’s sake or walking to visit friends who live upriver.

The path is uneven, at times laid down with rough stones, meandering up and down the hills that line the river, steep rock walls on one side, the land falling sharply away to the river on the other. It is a warm morning and soon I stop to remove my fleece top and tie it around my waist. We walk fast, stretching out our legs, our heart rates quickening, uphill climbs rendering us breathless, sweat on our brows and trickling down our backs. By the time we cross the dry creek we are thirsty from our exertions.

Up the other side of the creek we climb over the sheep fence to get back on the trail. The old whitewashed well stands in front of a grove of orange trees. The trees are heavy with fruit and the ground is littered with fallen oranges. The air is heady with the rich fragrance of the white orange blossoms.

I reach for the metal bucket sitting on top of the well and lower it by its thick rope into the water, watching it fall into the dark pool below. I pull the bucket up, half full of water. We cup our hands and slake our thirst on the delicious cool clear water. Water runs down our chins, wetting our t-shirts and wrists. We laugh at the satisfaction and joy we feel from this simple and timeless act.

Julian plucks an orange from the tree, rips it open and gives me half. Despite its small size and the number of pips inside, it is unbelievably sweet and juicy. We each pluck one more, two, three, gorging on the juicy flesh of these spectacular fruits. My chin is sticky, and my hands and wrists. I eat six oranges, one straight after the other, feeling wild and alive.

We wash our hands and faces in the water from the bucket, take another draught, and carry on walking, our connection to the land somehow stronger for its having fed us and quenched our thirst.

One year on the Río Guadiana

Next week marks a year since we sailed Carina into the Río Guadiana. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we turned north from the Atlantic coast of southern Spain and into the river, but it wasn’t this. Live aboards we met on Ilha da Culatra in the autumn of 2014 sang the praises of the river and told us we had to check it out. We sailed past on our way into the Mediterranean, but sailing west back out of the Med seven months later, we thought we’d better go see what all the fuss was about.

I had heard of the strong floods that visit the river from time to time, and I knew there were two marinas not far from the river mouth – Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. And I knew the river was navigable some way up. Beyond that I knew nothing. I had seen no photographs or charts, read no pilot books or websites, and had only vague recollections of conversations in the bar in Ilha da Culatra months before.

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Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

In my imagination I saw a smaller river, darkened by overhanging trees. I suppose because the flooding was upmost in my mind, I saw pewter skies overhead, pregnant with rain. I imagined a river running through a rainforest, not a river in drought-prone southern Iberia.

So much for my imagination. I remember the most surprising thing upon first entering the river was its width and the flatness of the surrounding land. We spent our first night in the marina in Vila Real de Santa Antonio, on the outside pontoon, with a clear view across almost a kilometre of river to Ayamonte in Spain. We arrived just after dawn on a cloudless day. Vila Real, with its predominantly white architecture and paving, was bright and fresh. I looked across the fast flowing river to the vast expanses of sand dunes and beaches south of Ayamonte and laughed at how wildly off target my imagination had been.

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Looking across to Spain from Portugal

Our plan was to motor twenty-two miles upriver to some place that had pontoons and good anchoring. Beyond that, I knew nothing. Once again I had no idea what to expect. We departed Vila Real on the flood tide and motored for four hours through a riparian landscape that grew narrower and more hilly the farther north we went. I was agog at each new splendid and surprising sight – herds of sheep and goats on the hillsides, white washed cottages and large haciendas, orange and lemon groves, herons and egrets, cormorants and swallows, fish throwing themselves bodily out of the water.

We passed a couple of small settlements and clusters of yachts on moorings, and then twenty-two miles up we rounded a bend in the river and ahead were the splendid whitewashed villages of Alcoutim and Sanlúcar, facing each other across 200 metres of river, the latter overlooked by a massive white fortification on a nearby hill. As we slowed, a man (who we later discovered to be Ted) came up in his dinghy and advised us on a good place to anchor. We anchored south of the villages, turned off the motor and I was thrilled by the sounds I heard – sheep bleating and the heavy bells around their necks ringing, a donkey braying, and woven through it all, birdsong. Could we have found ourselves in a more delightful place?

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Sanlucar (foreground) and Alcoutim (background)

We didn’t intend to stay very long. As I recall, we had a vague plan to make our way back to Galicia. Yet the Guadiana sucked us in. After a couple of weeks we decided to register the girls in school for the start of the next school year, thus committing ourselves to the river for the medium term at least. The unexpected five months back in the UK did nothing to dim our enthusiasm for the river and we returned in November keen to fully immerse ourselves in river life again.

And here we are. Carina has not left the river in a year, the girls are in school, and we find ourselves part of three communities. We are inevitably part of the ex-pat community of yachties and small-holders, people from diverse backgrounds who have been here for days or months or decades. One of the unexpected side effects of the girls going to school is that we have become part of the community in Sanlúcar, as outsiders of course, but nonetheless welcomed and accepted by the other families in the village, as we take the girls to birthday parties, and participate in school and community activities. And in Alcoutim we have come to know a small number of local people.

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That first nerve-racking morning of school now seems so long ago!

We continue to delight in walking the many paths up and down the river or east and west away from the river. We enjoy the changes that come with each season. All four of us continue to improve our Spanish language abilities, to learn more about local history, culture and politics, and to find ways to contribute to community life.

And now it is coming close to decision time. Do we stay or do we go? Our conversations on this topic are long and frequent. We have reasons to stay and reasons to go. I guess you’ll have to watch this space and see what conclusion we reach in the next month or so!

Wildflowers

On geography field trips to New York, my colleague Henry Buller exhorted our students to look up, to raise their gaze and take in the splendour above street level. So much of what is great about Manhattan is upwards – the magnificent architecture, the iconic facades, the murals, the life of a city built upwards and upwards. Neck craned and an upward gaze, that’s the way to take in Manhattan.

If I was to have visitors to the Rio Guadiana at this time of year my advice would be the opposite. Look down. Focus on the ground. In fact, get down on the ground. Draw your attention into the minute grandeur of the riotous life at your feet.

In The Wild Places, Robert MacFarlane eloquently describes the miniscule universes of floral life in the grykes in the limestone pavements of The Burren in Co. Clare in Ireland. He describes how his attention was drawn ever down, and the closer he looked, the more tiny splendour was revealed – profuse ecosystems of Arctic and Alpine flowers, each individual flower so tiny and delicate as to be easily overlooked by the casual passerby. But take the time to get low to the ground, nose to petal, and a diverse world of colour and beauty reveals itself.

Here on the banks of the Guadiana I have been getting down to ground level, knees dusty or muddy, chin on the grass, marvelling at the tiny perfection of the wildflowers that have suddenly burst into a riot of colour. Walking the old goat path south above the river, the land around is a haze of purples, pinks, yellows, oranges, blues. Get a little closer, and each individual flower is tiny perfection, delicate, ethereal, some tinier than a quarter of the nail on my little finger, others big and brash and showy.

Walk upwards from Sanlúcar towards the castle to find entirely different flowers to those a half mile down river. Walk north a half mile and there are different species still, each delicate species with its own niche along the river. They are all beautiful beyond words. And that’s my problem. I lack the words to adequately describe what is around me. Oh to be Robert MacFarlane.

I’m not much of a photographer either, but I’ve captured a sample of some of these delightful flowers on an hour long walk south along the river yesterday. Enjoy.

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Fun foraging

We love foraging! It’s fun, it’s energetic and when we get home we have some good food to eat (well, usually!). I know Julian, who has written before about his foraging exploits, would agree with me when I say there is a great sense of pride and achievement when we prepare and eat food we’ve gathered ourselves. We both grew up far removed from hunting, fishing, gathering and foraging our food, so for us it’s still quite novel.

In late November, Julian tried his hand at preserving olives, with great success. The innumerable wild olive trees that grow hereabouts were heavy with olives – large green ones on some trees, small black ones on others. Seeking advice from fellow foraging live aboards, and observing the locals harvesting tons of them from their cultivated trees, Julian opted for the green ones. Some suggested it would take eleven months for the hard, bitter-tasting fruit to be transformed in brine into soft tasty edible olives. Others said the process could be sped up by regularly changing the brine and slitting the side of each olive with a sharp knife. Lacking the patience to wait eleven months, Julian opted for the latter process.

He gathered olives of different sizes and from different trees, experimenting to find those that would magically transform into succulent nibbles. The process is simple. Add salt to fresh water. The water is salty enough only when you can float an egg on top. Clean the olives and add them to the brine. Seal the jar. And that’s it. Easy peasy. Rows of jars – old jam jars, coffee jars, kilner jars, were lined up in our aft storage space (the unused aft heads!) and every couple of days it was Lily’s and Katie’s job to give the jars a shake and a turn over. Every couple of weeks Julian changed the brine, adding a couple of cloves of peeled garlic, a few peppercorns and a bay leaf along the way.

By Christmas the first batch was ready. It took some experimentation to get them to a nice level of saltiness. Now that they were soft, Julian put them in fresh water for a day or two, to draw out the excess salt.

The result? Truly delicious, garlic-flavoured juicy green olives. We devoured them, gave some away to friends, brought them as gifts when people invited us to their boats for dinner. All too soon those multiple jars of olives had dwindled to the last one and it was with some regret that I popped the last one in my mouth a couple of days ago. If we are in a position to pickle our own olives again, I am determined that Julian redouble his efforts so we have more than a mere six week supply.

At around the same time as Julian was gathering olives, someone told me about prickly pears. Those big cactus plants grow all over the place here. Land owners plant them on their borders, where they create a barrier to human and animal intruders. And they grow wild all over the countryside. On top of the cactus grow the pinky-purply fruit that I was told is prickly pear. I’d heard of this before, from reading American literature, but I’d never seen it, nor did I know it was edible.

My informant told me it’s very tasty, but very difficult to collect, given the long spiky thorns with which it protects itself. I gave it a try one day, gingerly plucking a pear from the top of a cactus, and managing to get at least ten thin thorns stuck in my fingers and thumb despite my care. The peeled-back skin revealed a pink pulp filled with seeds. It was quite delicious and I thought about picking more (on another day when I am protected by gloves and long sleeves) and pulping it into juice. I am told it is packed full of healthy vitamins. I haven’t done it yet, but every day I see more and more large pears and know I must go foraging soon.

Our latest foraging exploits have taken place over the past three weekends, when we have been a-hunting wild asparagus. Wild asparagus is identical to its cultivated counterpart, but I was surprised that such an innocuous and delicate food could be the offspring of a very nasty thorny tangled mess of an adult plant. To reach those new young green shoots of asparagus one has to thrust ones hand deep into the thorns. The adult plant doesn’t give up its babies easily.

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The fearsome wild asparagus. Don’t believe the other pictures on the internet. The best bits are often at the centre of this woody thorn bush, half way up a dangerous rocky slope!

Two weekends ago the girls and I were out walking and we met a couple gathering asparagus. They were covered almost head to toe and wearing heavy gardening gloves. The woman showed me where she was gathering the asparagus and later on our walk I saw some other people up the side of a hill doing likewise. The girls and I scrambled up the dry stony hill and with my trusty Swiss army knife I gathered a handful. It took some searching and I came away with long scratches to my arms and legs.

The next weekend Julian came with us, and while the girls played down on the edges of a dried river bed, Julian and I scrambled up hills, slithering and sliding, searching for the elusive asparagus shoots growing under the shade of olive, almond and cork oak trees. It was a fun workout, apart from anything else and I was torn between giggling and cursing as I inevitably and repeatedly lost my footing and slid down the dry, loosely packed hillside, a bunch of asparagus in one hand, my knife in the other, and nothing to break my fall except for the next thorny asparagus bush down the slope. We returned home dirty and dusty, scratched and scraped, with enough asparagus for two day’s worth of dinners. Although the season is almost at an end, Julian’s solo foraging yesterday resulted in enough asparagus for another dinner.

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Wild Asparagus (Asparagus Officinalis Prostratus). Gathered and ready for the poached eggs!

Besides the seasonal olives, prickly pear and asparagus, there seems to be a seemingly endless supply of lemons around here (oranges too, although wild orange trees are as rare as hen’s teeth). We haven’t foraged for lemons in the longest time, as people keep giving them to us, wild or cultivated, all delicious.

With spring just around the corner, I wonder what will be next on the menu?

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.

Early morning stroll

I set my alarm for 6.20am. At 5.30 I wake to the familiar sight of Katie, pillow tucked under one arm, Monster Rabbit tucked under the other. No point sending her back to her own bed now, so I move over and she climbs in between Julian and me. She’s cold, from having kicked her own covers off, so I wrap myself around her and snuggle her close. I can’t get back to sleep, so I lie there, listening to the riotous birdsong coming from the banks of the river. When 6.20 comes round I am ready to get up.

I climb over Katie, careful not to wake her, and quickly get dressed. Julian gets up too, pours me a bowl of cornflakes and makes me a cup of tea. I pack my backpack with water bottle, notebook and pencil. At 6.45 I am ready. I climb down into the dinghy and motor the 300 metres to Sanlucar, tie up on the pontoon and fill my water bottle from the public tap.

I have planned a three-hour walk on the Spanish side of the river – one and a half hours north, one and a half hours back south. I aim to be back in the village by 10am, before the energy-sapping heat of the middle of the day.

At first the path follows the river, flat and tree-lined, a steep fall away to the river a hundred metres below to my left, steep grey rock face rising up to my right. I stop at a break in the trees, from where I can see the six boats at anchor in a bend in the river. The river is moving fast with the ebb current, trailing around the boats, bamboo and tree branches and other debris entangled in anchor chains and surrounding the bows. It is my first time to stop and I am startled by the stillness. There is no sound of human life here – no car-filled road in the distance, no airplane flying overhead. My senses are consumed by birdsong, the light, bright early morning voices of a multitude of birds.

Soon I pass a house where a big lumbering dog lazily barks at me. Orange trees grow in the garden and vines form a shady pergola on two sides of the white washed house. The house has no road access, but a path leads down to a small pontoon, where a small white boat is docked.

The path in places is over the bedrock and I scramble along, energised and breathing deeply. I come to a second house, protected by a thick wall of orange-blossomed cactus, with a white washed well, orange and olive groves and a collection of fig trees. Beyond this house I cross a small stream and immediately the land changes.

The path has veered away from the river and I walk among olive groves set in meadows of bright wild flowers. The scent and colour of the flowers and the buzzing of the bees makes me stop in my tracks. I can’t walk through this too fast. I need to absorb it.

I come to an unmarked fork in the path and I choose the path that leads down towards a dry riverbed, rather than the one that leads upwards to the top of a hill. At first this path is wide and clear, passing through more of the same enchanting olive filled meadows, but when it leads down to and along the dried river bed I wonder if I have made the wrong choice. I follow the riverbed until the path rises out of it again. But now it is less clear. I follow what I think is the path, but I have to scrabble through undergrowth and my legs get scratched by thorns and branches. I soon realise that I am on one of the many abandoned terraced hillsides, this one growing almond trees. I wonder if the path I am following has been made by humans at all, or if it is the trail of a deer or some other animal that lives in these parts. I turn around and return to the fork and take the path that leads uphill.

At the top of the hill the terrain changes again, or rather I walk up and down on a wide trail over the hills rather that around and between them. Up and down the paths goes, rounding bends, always revealing more and more hills stretching away to the distance. The bend in the river where I stopped to listen to the birdsong is now far behind me, a small living ribbon in the distance. Here the walking is easy and I stretch out my legs, increasing my speed.

The hills are terraced here, but subtly so, like old tent rings on the tundra, and you have to know what you’re looking for before you can see them. But once you’ve seen one terraced hill, you start to see them everywhere. Lines of ancient terraces gently encircle the hills with overgrown olive groves and almond groves long forsaken for more accessible groves closer to the villages and the river.

From around a bend in the path I hear the deep bark of a big dog before I see the huge sandy-coloured beast coming towards me. His head is as high as my waist. Before he reaches me I see his two companions. They are almost as big as his is and they bark too, but I can tell by their body language they mean no harm. ‘Shh’, I tell them soothingly as they crowd around me. I offer them the back of my hand, so they can have a sniff. Their owner appears, a suntanned man in his 50s, bald on top but with long grey hair almost to his shoulders. ‘Buenos dias’, I say. ‘Or good morning’, I venture, because, despite his deep tan he doesn’t look Spanish. ‘Good morning’ he replies in a rich English accent. ‘They don’t often meet anyone out here’, he says, looking towards the dogs. He seems as surprised to meet someone as his dogs are. We chat for a few minutes. He tells me he lives on a small holding near the river. He is the only person I see all morning.

I stop every so often to enjoy the birdsong. Each time I hear different songs. Part of me wants to know more – which species of birds make these beautiful songs. But mostly I don’t want to know, content with closing my eyes and bathing in the orchestra of sound. Let them be who they are, as unknown to me as I am to them.

All too soon I find I have been walking for an hour and a half. Just to the next bend in the trail, I tell myself, and then, just to the next olive tree. But I know I have to go back. Soon the temperature will be hitting 30˚C and I don’t want to be out walking in that heat. As it is, my t-shirt is soaked underneath my backpack and the flies are starting to take pleasure in my sweat-streaked face. I turn around, retracing my steps, winding my way up and down the hills, across the wild flower and olive tree strewn meadows, past the houses, and along the river.

I reach the edge of Sanlucar just before 10am. At the bakery I buy a fresh loaf of bread still warm from the oven and at the tiny shop I buy cheese, cucumber, lettuce and fruit to bring home to Carina. I refill my water bottle at the pontoon, untie the dinghy, and head home.