Tarifa, centre of the wind surfing universe, sitting at the southern tip of Spain is quite a sight. It is very early in the season, yet out to sea is a Mardi Gras spectacle of coloured surf kites swooping, rising and weaving, with the backdrop of Africa so close you can almost touch it.
And it’s so windy. I should have known it’d be blowy when we booked into the Hurricane Hotel. Somehow the significance of the name, the forest of wind turbines on nearby hills and ‘windsurfing capitol’ status, didn’t quite register.
Known as the Levant, the wind sweeps across the Mediterranean and through the Pillars of Hercules, those high hills on both sides of the narrow Straights of Gibraltar. The way the wind honks through the bottleneck Pillars, it’s no wonder the hills are alive with the low frequency hum of wind turbines.
After a hectic round of sight seeing, water sports, socialising, eating and drinking it’s a relief to be embraced by solitude and silence of walking for a while. Like my beach-mad home ground, gardens are not a priority here. So I’ve turned my attention to the landscape. I amble along a pleasant winding road weaving through riverside fields, looking for a walking track up into the hills. As I walk away from the busy tourist coast, the land takes on a depopulated feel, nearly empty of crops and stock, and liberally dotted with weeds.
In contrast to the intensely cropped landscape of our previous sojourn in Italy, here it appears farmers have abandoned less productive land in recent times. There are many signs of Spain’s economic woes in the cities, but I am surprised such times are forcing farmers from the land. Does the bounteous Earth no longer provide refuge from poverty? Have globalisation, industrial farming, and urban drift completely disconnected these people from an ancient culture of cultivating the Earth?
With its dry hot summer air, tawny colours, broad stretches of dusty bare ground, and ahead of me, low rolling hills mounding up into distant mountains, the landscape is vaguely haunting in its familiarity. The feeling is deepened by the presence of river red gums, symbol of childhood’s home that fleetingly evokes a trace of nostalgia and longing. The river gums are different here, not so broadly spreading, and lacking the fibrous sock that distinguishes them at home.
Initially I thought the trees to be bluegums until I found the fruits with their baby-bird-beaks. Unmistakable! But these trees, dotted along the valley floor and up into the sandstone hills are an invasive weed here, unlikely to attract the affection with which I hold them. One man’s meat…..
Leaving the road, I follow a rough stony stock track that climbs the rearing escarpment at an easy grade. While this landscape is welcoming in its familiarities, the differences are impossible to ignore. To my left the 500 metre sandstone ridge rears up sharply into the sky. Long stretches of exposed bedrock, large boulders casually strewn through patches of low scrubby vegetation, and higher up the slopes, dense dark domes of pine trees endow a rugged sculptural quality to the landscape. Such jagged edges on the hills are rarities in Australia’s ancient smoothed down geology. Here, you can feel the grinding of tectonic plates as Africa butts up against Europe.
However, the difference of landscape that really hits me along this walk is the flowers. All along the way a fairyland carpet of wildflowers is spread about. Some I know as weeds, Patterson’s curse, thistle, creeping speedwell; some I know as herbs, yarrow, dandelion, red clover; some I know as cottage garden plants I struggle to grow in Sydney, scabius, poppy, centurea, and heaps of different daisies; and some I don’t recognise at all.
What surprises is the brightness of colour and the abundance of flowers, so different from home where you really have to seek out flowers, usually so pale small and hidden. Here entire fields of farmland can be coloured red or purple with weeds. The rough old track I climb is lined with wildflowers like a Chelsea Garden Show set piece. But here is no artifice, just Nature’s handiwork. I ask myself why there’s such a striking difference between the two continental ecologies. Probably just the sheer amount of time, great gobs of eons, in which the two continents have been disconnected while their biota developed along very different evolutionary pathways in response to vastly different local environmental conditions.
It’s no surprise that Linnaean taxonomy emerged here in Europe. The flowers of the various species and genera are so distinctive. Whereas so many Australian plants seem to be derived from the same basic template sporting similar flowers that require skilled botanical detective work to differentiate species, rendering natural communities a chaos of similarities, here flowers are all shaped and colour coded for easy reference. And there’s few naturally occurring hybrids like Australia’s ‘bastard gums’. No blurring the boundaries of the neat taxonomic pigeon holes here. Botanising in Europe is easy-peasy.
Absorbed in immediate detail of my walk and beguiled by the gentle grade of the rough track I am surprised to find how high up the sandstone hill I have climbed. There are sweeping views along the coast, across the water to Africa.
Up here, the landscape is more rugged and baked. A trickle of water flows down some of the gullies offering escape from the baking heat. In one of these cool bowers I am surprised by mauve rhododendrons in full bloom. Garden escapees? How the hell did they get themselves so high up the dry landscape, so far from the easy water of the coastal strip.
As the uneven, stony path winds up a rugged landscape. To my surprise, I am quite taken with the savannah-like, wide-domed pines, the likes of which I have not seen before. It’s usually a genus I have an aversion to because of the cold, dark, quality of its foliage, which I find slightly sinister, and just as with the redgums here, pines have a nasty reputation as environmental weed at home.
Restricted to the higher slopes, the pines’ dark compact foliage endows a solidity of form that is softened by their rounded shapes. Small patches of forest give the hillside an evenly dimpled quality.
The way the light falls on their crowns softens their dark mass. This visual form balances and contrasts agreeably with the pale stone of the escarpment ridge, the rough boulders and unkempt textures of the scrubby vegetation. Amongst the solitude, silence, rocks and pines, I fancy, Lao Tsu and the immortal sages would have felt quite at home here, contemplating the Tao.