Who would have thought that a Little Britain would actually exist? – but it does.
After a short walk from the marina at La Linea de la Concepcion, in Spain, along the ‘front’ we arrived at the border. Long since announced by the beeping horns of cars infuriated by the wait for border formalities.
We swanned through passport control of both Spain and The UK, barely causing a flicker of interest.
We appeared, blinking in the bright sunshine, outside the sliding doors of customs and the first thing we saw was a big red telephone box!
A moment later we saw a sign announcing that we are on Winston Churchill Avenue. This is no ordinary road, however, since it crosses the runway for the airport. We arrived at the barriers and as there was no plane due we were allowed to cross the vast expanse of tarmac that bisects the isthmus (great word!) between Spain and The Rock of Gibraltar.
The smell of bitumen was strong in the heat of the day and there was an overriding waft of sewage coming from the sewage works at the far side of the run way. A swish new airport terminal building dominated the view to our left.
We took the obligatory photos and marched sensibly and swiftly across the runway towards Waitrose supermarket, the Post Office, the Nat West Bank, Marks and Spencer’s and Morrison’s.
All the signage and street furniture was exactly the same as we see in the UK. The place was orderly and tidy and the biggest difference we can saw was that cars drove on the right. We walked towards what was oddly called the ‘city centre’ and wandered along, occasionally we glanced up at the enormous limestone edifice above us until we felt the need for caffeine.
My first impressions were of a Britain I remembered from my childhood; when service, food quality and surroundings were seemingly less important than they are today. What we saw engendered nostalgic reminiscences of instant, convenience food. What my mum always called ‘plastic’ ham; cheese that had hardly been introduced to milk; sandwich spread, Bachelor’s savoury rice,Heinz Salad cream, Primula Cheese in a tube; crab paste and Smash. It also reminded us of pier chip shops and fusty smoke-filled pubs. They were there….called The Victoria, The Hope and Anchor and The Trafalgar all selling uninspiring food of the frozen kind, long since dispensed with in pubs at home. There were all the usual tat souvenir shops and a high street retailers not unlike any you’d see in a provincial town in the UK.
Large, monolithic residential blocks crowded in, bumping shoulders in the limited land available. There was little character or charm in those. Dotted in amongst, were the remnants of defences used when the island was a series of bastions and military strongholds. There was even a small cemetery called Trafalgar Cemetery. Only two tombs still show details of those who died of wounds suffered at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
Some prettier, older buildings have been preserved on the Main Street. The Court house, the Bank of Gibraltar, Parliament House, City Hall and the Gibraltar Trust Heritage Building.
We lost ourselves amongst the warren of narrow pedestrian streets, climbing high up the steep sides of the rock. We saw a policeman wearing a traditional domed helmet, and finished our meandering by walking down appropriately named Ragged Staff Road to the quayside marina and a lunch of fish, chips and mushy peas!
With the exception of gin at £6.50 per litre, and petrol at £0.78 per litre, it was an expensive place to be.
Before too, long it is time to head back. We all feel somewhat jaded and have a quick nap back at the boat and then it is time to bid David farewell, as he set off back across the border to the airport to catch his flight home.
Just 48 hours later, we went back to the airport to greet our daughter, Keira (third visitor), who was flying in from the UK for a working holiday as she prepped for her finals. We watched her flight approach from the viewing gallery which gave an amazing view of aircraft as they came in from the east, shot along the runway, across the road and out towards the Bay of Gibraltar and yet more sea.
We did a little more exploring of Gib with Keira, but more focused on shops! We took a Number 2 bus out to Europa Point (£2.25 return), which is the southern most tip of Europe and a spectacular spot to see the confluence of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and the land masses of Europe and Africa.
On this huge flat piece of land is an enormous and striking mosque, built in 1997 by the generosity of the King Fahad Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia for the Muslim population of Gibraltar. The combination of the Mosque minarets, the British Flag flying on a tall flagpole and the bright white and red lighthouse made for an interesting juxtaposition.
In the surrounding area is a car park, a huge children’s play area, with very squeaky swings and a Mr Whippy ice cream van.
A few steps away was the impressive Gibraltar Lighthouse which is fully automated and is the only one regulated by Trinity House outside the UK. It dates back to 1841 and stands 49m above sea level with a range of 37km. Nearby is a 38 ton gun from the 1860s, being used as a climbing frame by playing children and a Polish War Memorial made from the original propeller recovered from the seaweed Polish Prime Minister in exile, General Sikorski lost his life in an air crash when his plane took off from Gibralter during WW11. We also spotted the University of Gibraltar and its playing field. Some great pieces of history and culture, but, in my opinion, sadly underdeveloped.
On Friday we decided to head up to the top of the rock on the cable car. We took the short journey up there, 12 euros each, and enjoyed stunning views. We chose the right day. It’s was proper panorama!
(We declined the opportunity to purchase a scone, imprisoned under cling film, for £3.95 or a cup of tea for £2.10 from the rather disinterested staff in the Viewpoint Cafe, noting that the plastic ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread looked as they had been there since the ’70s!)
We were lucky to be graced with the presence of a family of Barbary Macaques which are a species of tailless monkey, particular to Gibraltar. They were clearly well used to being photographed by visiting humans. They posed precociously and you could almost here them tut when people wandered off without so much as a by your leave.
Ian photo bombed my picture of a posing macaque and so you see two cheeky monkeys!!
It’s probably safe to say that we haven’t been away from the motherland long enough to fully appreciate the charms Gibraltar had to offer.
One day last week, when the boat was back out of the water having its propeller anode fixed back on and having its rudder sorted, we hired a car and took a very scenic route up the mountains to Ronda.
We stopped for a coffee in a quiet rural cafe at a mirador (viewpoint) about 10 miles outside Ronda and were amazed that we could see the Rock of Gibraltar, and Africa beyond, so clearly. We also saw three interesting characters waiting for a bus in the shade.
On arriving in Ronda, we parked up in the centre of the city and wandered around it until we found our way to the amazing gorge that divides the city.
We hovered over the parapets of the bridge and took some vertigo inducing pictures.
We found a walkway that was literally clinging to the rock and soon came across a piazza with a view of a tall curved white wall topped with terracotta tiles. The bull ring.
We took the audio tour around this, the oldest and best preserved bull ring in all of Spain and were impressed by its incredible beauty. The columns, the tiles,
the space, the seats, the blue sky and even the sand, were all stunning, and the museum had some impressive weapons and costumes to ogle over.
We wandered further and strode across the New Bridge (built in the 18th century) to happen upon a little place for a spot of lunch. After this we set off to look around the historic centre of the city and found some lovely buildings, churches and tree lined squares.
Tempted by the dangling fruit, Keira and Ian conspired to steal an orange from a tree in one of the squares. As soon as Keira had bitten into one of the segments it became clear as to why the tree was still fully laden with its bountiful store. It was a bitterly sharp orange! Keira’s eyes watered and her saliva glands worked over time. She admitted that she would have liked to pretend that it tasted sweet, so that we would have popped a segment into our mouths and had a huge shock!
Having had our fill of history and Spanish culture for the time being, we headed back to the car and onwards to La Linea.
Our first visitor came to stay this week. We were delighted to welcome my great friend, Paula Vickers, aboard. Staying for one night only after a busy working week for Dial an Exchange in Portugal. Paula arrived on a sunny Friday afternoon and all too soon was jetting back to Blighty. It was great to catch up.
Over the preceding few days we had spent all our time prepping the boat for sailing. We checked the life jackets, took back the serviced life raft, fire extinguishers and the new EPIRB; refitting the VHF, washed some of the lines to get the salt off, deep cleaned the deck and polished the chrome, translated labels from Dutch to English and hoisted the dinghy. We also sorted the rope locker, marveling over the impressive collection of hose pipes and fittings, filled the tanks and stowed everything away safely, including Ian’s bike, which was shoe horned onto the bunk room.
Saturday brought the arrival of ship mate David Heane who was to assist as crew in delivering the boat to Gibraltar, one hundred and eighty miles away. Priorities, though, first we had to find somewhere to watch the rugby. So, we grabbed a taxi into Monte Gordo and found a strange little sports bar where the rugby was in full swing and beer was on offer.
We were up bright and early on Sunday morning and the Marinera came to help us with the turning of the boat in the marina. It was a beautiful morning with bright sunshine and flat calm which really helped us manoeuvre out of the restricted space.
We gave our new friends Tristan and Sue of SY Minerva a wave as we passed by and headed off down the long channel of the Guardiana River and out into the Atlantic.
First stop, Mazagon Marina about 30 miles off. We had very light winds initially but they built until we were able to deploy Genevieve the genaker, which quickly became Ian’s favourite sail.
This huge sail pulled us along at almost the speed of the wind. We made much better progress. We realised that since we were now in Spain protocol requires that one should change the courtesy flag on the starboard spreaders. We successfully removed the Portugese flag and attached the Spanish flag. Somehow, the string to which it was attached had become jammed in the pulley and nothing was happening to lift the courtesy flag to the required height. We added it to the list of jobs for the skipper to do the following morning.
Winds dropped so we chugged into the marina and were finally berthed by 2000hrs; a long day, but we all agreed it had gone very quickly. We headed for beer and wifi and then quickly rustled up a spag bol and collapsed into bed. Next day, we were up fairly early and the first job was to hoist Ian up the mast so he could fix the pulley. He was trussed up tight in a harness and attached to halyard. We pulled him up to the first set of spreaders, winches creaking disconcertingly as he rose high above the deck. Mission accomplished. He fixed the problem and we were sorely tempted to leave him up there on the naughty step!
However, we decided to let him down so we could continue the trip to Chipiona. We made good progress and were berthed early enough to grab a shower and head into town to replenish food stocks at the Allimentacione.
Moments after completing our provisioning duties, we walked down to the delightfully un-touristy town centre where we spotted a brightly lit bar on a street corner. Serano ham legs were hanging from the ceiling like a collection of upturned, day-old, party balloons. We suddenly noticed that we were all exceptionally thirsty, so we piled in and plonked down at the scrubbed Formica table and ordered beers. We were presented with a menu by the friendly Spanish waiter and tried to match the overflowing and delicious looking tapas dishes on display with the names of the dishes on the menu.
Los Faroles turned out to be absolutely fantastic. We were the vanguard of a run on the place and within ten minutes of us sitting down, the place was packed with Spanish families, couples and workers on the way home. All chattering nineteen to the dozen and enjoying the tapas. Fabulous evening, scrumptious food.
Next day, we set out to Puerto America at Cadiz. The wind was strong today and we were tied up on the arrival pontoon by 1600hrs. Absolutely shattered.
The port staff asked us to move to another berth just in case several 20 metre yachts might arrive and want to moor for the night. So we had to un-tie and go through the trauma of parking all over again. My least favourite part of the day!
By this time, the wind had really got up and was 18 knots and gusting much more. In a confined space this makes manoeuvring tricky, because big areas of the boat tend to act like a sail and make steerage challenging. As we pulled up alongside the pontoon a particularly big gust began to push the boat away. The breast line that was ready didn’t quite make it to the pontoon first time. Suddenly, the stern was being blown across and with no other boat in the pontoon there was nothing to cushion or stop our progress horizontally into the berthing bay.
With the bow being the only place to get ashore I was commanded to leap to the pontoon in order to assist David who was already there. I prepared to make the leap from the pulpit, the highest point of the deck, calculating my trajectory so as to avoid the anchor and the bow spirit sticking out insolently in my way. It was at least four feet down to the pontoon far below. As I rather nimbly, I thought, began my descent, my left ankle kicked up hard against an errant spinnaker pole with enormous force. Since the pole was firmly strapped on to the rail, it did not budge and my ankle received the most tremendous clonk. By this time I was airborne and cat-like somehow managed to land on the foot of my one dodgy, previously broken, ankle and judo roll to my feet. Now, I was aware of a tremendous pain in my left ankle and realised that I now had two dodgy ankles to contend with!
Finally, we managed to sweat the boat I towards the pontoon and get her sorted.
After a medicinal snifter, whilst applying an ice pack fashioned from a frozen chicken fillet to my elevated limb, we all decided we needed a nap to get over the trauma of the berthing.
Awaking at 1930hrs we set off for Cadiz town, me limping on both sides, where it soon became apparent that something was happening. There were people everywhere. We followed a group down a maze of streets off a huge square and came across a little bar on a street corner with a free outside table. We descended and abandoning any attempts to say more than ‘por favor’ and ‘gracias’ ordered a range of tapas by pointing at plates of food on other people’s tables.
It was delicious! Swordfish, anchovies, sardines, potatoes and sea bass. All the while the crowds were building up along the street adjacent to us.
We heard drumming and a procession of people marched past us clad in white robes and hooded headgear, topped by an enormous point; like extended dunces hats with a KKK mask attached, swiftly followed by three crosses. Ahhh! Now we could see that it was an Easter Passion Procession.
The file of people continued to go past down the narrow street. A huge and ornate wooden sarcophagus was carried by, then finally an elaborate silver one with a model of Mary Magdalene perched on the top. Everyone clapped and then almost immediately started to disburse as the heavens opened.
Luckily, we were kept dry by the huge umbrella above our table. We waited for the shower to abate and then headed back to the distant marina.
Next day we set off to Barbate. The last, most Easterly port of call in the Atlantic. We left after an engine check, hoping to complete the 37 mile trip in good time.
There was very little wind, however, and quite a moderate swell, so we wallowed about making slow progress. Eventually, we pulled up at the visitors pontoon at dusk. The light drops very quickly here so by the time we had negotiated a berth via Google translate with the security guard, it was really quite dark. The marina was well sheltered and so we smoothly slipped along side the finger pontoon, no heroics today, to park quietly there for a few hours.
In double quick time, we rustled up a supper of ham, cheese, salami salad and potatoes; showered and set the course for the following day’s sail to Gibraltar.
We decided to leave at 0500hrs the following morning.
(Poor David would be glad to get back to work next week, for a rest!) The distance was at least forty miles on a straight course and was further complicated by tidal streams and currents with which we needed to coordinate as we squeezed through the Straits of Gibraltar. (Dire Straits?)
Not only that, there were the usual plethora of man made obstacles to avoid, such as; massive tuna nets laid over vast areas, military exercise zones, underwater cables suspended two metres below the surface. All of these are charted so routes can be planned accordingly, however, we would be sailing in the dark for that added extra challenge! We would need to be able to identify all the different flashing, occluding and constant lights in our sight lines so we would know where we were in relation to the chart. Also, in coastal waters, car headlamps can be a bit off-putting too!
In addition to that, there are the veritable mine fields lobster pot floats to keep an eye out for and skirt round.
During the week we had become accustomed to being alone on the wide open sea. Sighting another sailing boat was unusual. We spotted the odd ship in the distance and checked their identity on the AIS tracker.
So, as we approached Tarifa, the part of Europe closest to Africa, we were interested to see things becoming distinctly busier on the traffic front. There is a traffic separation scheme, for large cargo vessels, operating in the Straits. We saw it in action. We checked the details on the AIS of one of the ships as she passed us by some two miles away. 345m long and 50m wide! Yes, that’s correct! 345m long! The circumference of her deck being almost a kilometre! And then there’s us – 13m long. Definitely don’t want to get in the way of one of those.
There are entire books written about transiting the Straits, with warnings about overfalls, currents and counter currents as the Atlantic squeezes into a narrow eight mile stretch of water. For example, it is said that the wind blows at Isla Tarifa at 40 knots for 300 days of the year. It is also said that, ‘If the wind is light at one end of the Straits it will be blowing hard at the other.’ This is exactly what we experienced as winds built during the course of the day. Luckily for us it was one of the other 65 days on which we passed Isla Tarifa, our half way point, and although we had planned to anchor in the lee of the island to eat lunch and have a nap we decided that with the fair wind we should just crack on. By the time we reached the mouth of the Bay of Gibraltar the wind had reached 30 knots.
We tonked on with the wind behind us, gybing three or four times. Exhausting work, winching in the main sheet each time on a powered up sail. It was precarious to put the preventer on the boom each time we gybed but somehow we manage to do it all whilst cooking and eating scrambled eggs on toast. The skipper was on the helm so David had to feed him!
Suddenly, we saw The Rock of Gibraltar ahead. There were vessels everywhere, travelling in every direction, at ridiculous speeds! I was detailed to keep track of them all. A large red vessel crossed in front of us and we skirted her stern. A huge cargo ship surged past our starboard beam at twenty four knots. Ships lay at anchor on both sides of the bay, either waiting to off load cargo at Algeciras or Gibraltar. Fuel ships hugged up against other vessels to fill up their tanks. We bravely sail in amongst these giants. The wind is strong, the waves moderate and the current carries us along. We make good progress even with two reefs in the sail and half the head sail in.
Before long, we spy the breakwater up ahead. We head for the reception pontoon and two mariners are there to help. Wonderful.
We complete the copious paperwork for the fifth time this week and are allocated our berth.
We limber up for the gymnastics associated with parking our boat by rearranging the fenders and recoiling our lines. We complete the calisthenics necessary to to kick our legs over the rail, mooring lines in hand, and perch, precariously on the rail. The finger pontoon looms ever closer. Notoriously thin and wobbly, they are not the greatest thing to try to jump on to. Their minimal width does not allow an extra step to counter forward motion. It must be a standing landing. David jumps with the grace and delicacy of a man half his size and age. He makes it, with barely a wobble and hooks us on. The wind pushes us away. We utilise another cleat and manage to pull clear of the boat next door. A bow line is attached and all are sweated in against the wind and current to sit us fairly close up against the pontoon. No damage done, except to David’s finger which is scraped, bruised and bleeding all over the pontoon.
So happy to have survived the Straits (not so dire, after all), sailed 180 miles, and to have arrived in this spectacular spot, under the Rock, tucked into the marina of the appropriately named town of La Linea.
All too soon, our days in sunny Koh Tao with our darling daughter, were coming to an end.
We began to measure time in terms of the number of remaining meals we could take at Tukta’s. (The most fantastic, authentic and reasonably priced Thai food on the island!)
We had so many things to fit in to the last remaining days… Ian wanted to dive with Erin. We had booked to help out at a beach clean up with the delightful Josh from Master Divers on Mae Haad. There was yoga-ing, shopping, tanning, reading, eating and games playing to do.
One day, we walked over to Haad Tian beach and half way up a vertical hill were thankfully offered a lift from a local fisherman to the beautiful resort hotel there.
It was gorgeous; land to sand luxury!
Since we were complete interlopers, only getting through the security-guarded gates by virtue of being best pals with the local fisherman and restaurateur (Eagle View), we were banished to the tiny, narrow strip of sand under the gnarled roots and trunks of the mangrove trees along the edge of the beach. In this way, we were not encouraged to set foot on the green and hallowed turf of the sun-lounging area round the infinity pool, darling.
However, we had an interesting hour of tide-dancing, desperately trying to avoid the waves as they crashed up the beach on the incoming prevailing wind. So, with our second set of exercise completed for the day, it was time to relax and read…bliss.
On our return to Chakok, we came across a great vantage point to watch the sunset at the bar ‘Natural High’. It has a huge, open patio which offers amazing views of Chalok and its environs. From so high up and through the haze of spliff smoke, man, all you can see is tree canopy below. It’s tricky to identify landmarks and makes it seem all the more ethereal and remote, hovering there on its unique peak. We had a delicious dinner here and enjoyed some people watching before sand sliding down the hill.
During our last few days we spent a happy couple of hours helping Erin source the items she needed to decorate and equip her home. There are some great road side stalls and market places in Mae Haad and we spent time in them all. We spotted many bird cages en route complete with song birds that apparently Thai people take to bird singing competitions. That takes X Factor to a whole new level. The ‘Chick’ Factor perhaps?
We tried road side barbecued chicken for a snack on the walk back and for lunch I tested my paltry Thai at a food stall for Thai people (only Thai signs, no Englishified food, no English spoken), where we were assured we wouldn’t like anything they had to offer.
Well, as much as I’d like to say I eat anything, my digestive system and taste buds are not quite ready for chicken offal curry, and marrow spicy soup. I had fish curry and it was delicious but highly ‘prik’, as the vocabulary is here. My mouth was on fire. The centre of the table displayed a huge basket of vegetables and spices. Raw long beans, Thai basil (hot) Thai basil (sweet) and a variety of egg plants in every size. Ian had freshly deep fried fish in little batter clouds. Toptastic. However, I wasn’t brave enough to try meal worm and other delicacies offered at this road side stall.
We enjoyed our last lunch at Coconut Monkey in Mae Haad with Erin and Paul, also saying goodbye to Anne-Marie (our yoga teacher from Ocean Sound Yoga School). During our wait for the boat there was just time for Erin to secure victory in the traditional Holiday Back-gammon Championships.
Then we were heading back, bumping through lumpy waters, on the bilious Lomprayah Catamaran, to the mainland pier and then, by bus past the beautiful, unspoilt, deserted coastline beaches of Chomporn, to the town’s railway station.
We took a stroll round town and came across this well loaded motorbike, a fascinating police box and one of many gorgeous spirit houses.
After yet another other lovely roadside stall supper, we were back on the sleeper train which left Chomporn at 8.30pm so most passengers were already prone, tucked up in their little bunk beds behind twee, coral coloured curtains. Our beds were already made up and, soon, we too, were happily ensconced.
Next, we arrived in Bangkok at 5.30am…. The best time to be taking a taxi ride since there is virtually no traffic. We headed for Silom but somehow just struggled, in the Thai language department, to communicate sufficiently to find our friend Don’s apartment! Our fault, of course.
We had a wonderful day in Bangkok, catching up with friends and then it was silly o’clock again and we were heading to the airport at 4am to catch our flight to Doha.
So sad to be leaving Erin and Paul and lovely Thailand but looking forward to the next phase.