98. Off the shoulder of Orion – Costa de la Luz

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‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.’
Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott), 1982

A long, perfect beach in southwestern Spain, August 2005. Five miles through another blue morning under flawless skies in Zahara de los Atunes. It’s an elemental sort of place – the summer ocean is murmuring in the distance through the breeze to my left, the waves sparkling on the bay beyond the sand dunes front of me.

It looks like many another quiet tourist destination, but there’s more here, far more, for this is a historic coast. The scene of wars, migration and trade, telling the tales of human endeavour and ambition stretching back across millennia.

For hundreds of years, fishermen have plied these shores in search of the rich tuna harvest which has filled dinner plates both long past and present. Yesterday we ventured along the coast to Baelo Claudio, a two-thousand year old Roman settlement preserved almost perfectly at the western outpost of Empire, replete with its fish paste factories which exported the favoured delicacy across the ancient world. Trade dating from the heyday of a flourishing city which was devastated by an earthquake in the fourth century AD and abandoned soon after, the main street today still bearing the telltale rolling profile of wrenched rocks beneath.

In later centuries, this area formed the frontier between Christian Europe and the Muslim world. A scene of bloody conflicts, as the Moors invaded and then were driven out in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. Cultural influences long since forgotten and yet even now harmoniously subsumed within the architecture, the customs and the language of this part of Spain and its cities, white towns, its fortresses and narrow streets. Names like Almería, Albacete, Alicante – so many of them, even Andalucía itself (al-Andalus) reflecting their North African origin.

Not far along the coast from here lies the laid-back port of Cádiz, founded by the Phoenicians three thousand years ago, destined later to earn fame as the starting point of Columbus’ second and fourth voyages to the Americas. Favoured to become both a strategic and fantastically rich hub of trade from the new world. A port which became the home of the Spanish navy, scene of the devastating and daring raid by Sir Francis Drake who torched the entire enemy fleet under cover of darkness in 1587. His ‘singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’ successfully delayed the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England by just one year, but maybe enough to change the history, not just of the sea battle of 1588, but perhaps of the entire western world as well. No doubt we’d all be speaking Spanish much better today if Drake’s cause had been lost back then.

Cape Trafalgar looms across the bay in front of me. There, just two hundred years ago, Nelson’s famous last battle saw the destruction of Napoleon’s French and Spanish fleets. The British public were so grateful for being spared another threatened invasion that they named a square in London after Trafalgar, placing the admiral’s statue as its impressive centrepiece.

After the battle, Nelson’s disabled flagship Victory was towed into Gibraltar’s harbour nearby, where the huge white limestone rock (La Peña) looms still dominant over another once-Arab city (Algeciras). The garrison here, although much reduced, still guards the Straits, controlling the entry and exit point to the entire Mediterranean Sea. North Africa is clearly visible across the water, the mountains of Morocco forming the second of the Pillars of Hercules which the ancients believed guarded the entry to the known world.

It’s a long human story to uncover. And one that continues, for our whale watching trip from the harbour in Tarifa on Sunday reveals more than the passing pilot whales and dolphins. Just as the marine life returns annually to feed on the plankton-rich waters stirred by the currents and tides where Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, so the harbourfront is filled in these days with the huddled masses of North African migrant workers returning from their annual holidays to places of work across Spain, France, Germany and beyond. Whole families stuffed into ancient Audis and Renaults, waiting dejectedly in the heat to be searched by frontier guards on a hot and desolate tarmac strip – an international economic tide and a humble flow of humanity, all in one.

This is a thousand-mile journey, at its defining moment – a passage from Africa into Europe, a reflection perhaps of the entire history of this part of Spain. A mirror from one continent, one culture, into another, a journey across the gateways of Europe itself.

The rolling Atlantic waves rumble beside me a while longer. The horizon stretches to the southwest as far as I can see. The next landfall lies in Columbus’ New World, in the Bahamas, 3 000 miles away. The skies are just as blue and empty above me.

Or so I thought. For now, as I look upwards, it’s with amazement that I notice the sky all along the beach is filling with tiny specks. I gaze more closely, and then I see them for what they really are: squadrons of high altitude fliers, wave after wave of southward-travelling storks hugging the coast, soaring high on the thermals and then gliding on the wind thousands of feet up, hardly stretching a muscle as they wing their way on the high-level air currents southwards towards Tarifa and Africa beyond.

For half an hour and more, the pattern is full far above Cape Trafalgar and for mile after mile along the Atlantic shore. It’s truly a marvellous and inspiring sight.

These storks are leaving their northern summer breeding grounds in Spain, France, Holland and Germany, heading south to winter in Africa. And not just that one-thousand mile journey to Morocco, for many of these birds will fly farther still, south of the Sahara and to West Africa beyond. It’s a hazardous voyage – since for all of their gliding grace, these birds are not the strongest of fliers. They rely on the pattern of thermals to soar upwards and then glide steadily south on a journey that takes weeks. And weeks.

The thermals that enable the birds to soar form here on the land and hills along the coast. With no thermals forming out to sea, this is one of only two places where the Mediterranean is narrow enough to be safely flown. The Straits of Gibraltar here are just 16 km wide and form one of two ancient transit points for the birds, the other being across the Bosphorus far to the east. It’s an incredible thought that the birds have been crossing this terrain for millennia and millennia back in time, before civilisation even dawned.

The next morning, I’m out for my run early. Now I know what to look for, I see them – down amongst the dunes, resting in the cool air, a few solitary birds, white and elegant, unmoving. Standing by the path, looking upwards and waiting. Waiting for the skies to warm, for the thermals to form, and for their epic journey to resume.

And as I run by, there’s much to ponder. What far-off, unimagined places have these birds seen ? What fantastic tales could they tell ? It’s a journey of a scale and commitment so far beyond our own ambition and imagination. A journey that goes back in time, to a time which humans never even saw.

And – come January, February – they’ll be back again, returning the other way. The ancient pulse of nature, the primaeval forces of survival. For although so many will die en route, the migrating birds are selected ahead of those who stay behind, perhaps all of which would die in the cold northern winter which lies as yet unglimpsed ahead.

There’s just five miles to run along the beach this morning. My paces falter over the soft sand of the dunes, and pick up again on the firmer ripples beside the shore. So far the journey, so short the time. And so marvellous today, this morning, to be here to live it.

Related articles:
103. Atlas shrugged – in the mountains of Morocco
90. Iberian chains – Tierras del Cid, Spain
43. A sense of time – Earth history and the London Marathon
78. Spanish stroll: Almería Half Marathon
102. Moroccan red – Marrakech
129. Tenerife – 1: the light at the end of the world

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