It was another scorcher of a midsummer day, which could only mean one thing … we had a hike planned. We’d been delighted to receive an invitation to a barbecue north-east of Silves. Our friend Jörg rents a wonderful log cabin in the middle of an avocado plantation and he’d invited a few of us to his abode to celebrate his birthday earlier in the week.
Harri didn’t fancy driving (he enjoys a beer or five at these occasions) and I’m not a great fan of negotiating rutted, unlit tracks in pitch darkness (actually, I’ve never tried it but I am certain I’d be terrified). Public transport was out of the question given the remote location of our friend’s home. Our options were limited to walking or getting a taxi, and no prizes for guessing which one Harri preferred.
After an early lunch of delicious homemade tomato soup (the secret ingredient is paprika … lots of it), we set off and were flagging by the time we reached the end of our road. Suddenly, that taxi ride seemed a whole lot more appealing! Still, we reasoned, the pain would be over in under three hours, by which time we’d be getting into the serious business of socially-distanced socialising.
We still feel guilty whenever we have to lock ‘the boy’ inside for hours; however the only alternative is locking him outside, which Moses really wouldn’t like. His latest trick is to jump off our bedroom terrace onto the single-storey roof and then onto our car bonnet. He lands with such a thud, I’m surprised there’s not a big dent in the middle. He hasn’t yet worked out how to reverse this route, so minutes later he’s sitting on the doorstep crying to come back in.
The first section of walking has become one of my regular running routes, although the distance felt so much longer at walking pace. Eventually, we reached the N125, which remains exceptionally quiet and I felt like we’d started the walk proper. Our hearts sank when we spotted huge plumes of smoke in the distance. Fire is a very big danger in Portugal during the summer months and the Algarve has been on red alert for days. No-one here will ever forget the devastating fires of June 2017 when 66 people died and 204 were injured. The bombeiros (firemen) are quite rightly hailed as heroes. Incredibly, many of those fighting the wild fires sweeping the drought-stricken country every year and saving countless lives in the process are volunteers.
We last walked to Jörg’s home in January, when there were wild flowers in the meadows and colour everywhere. Now the grass in the fields is parched and the only colour comes from bougainvillea and the flowering shrubs in the gardens we pass.
Our route took us through the little village of Fontes da Matosa with its traditional whitewashed properties and – I kid you not – a huge articulated lorry parked in its square. There are no facilities here and perhaps unsurprisingly, the online ‘guide’ to the village just states where it is and suggests a list of other places you might want to find out more about. There is an antiques yard as you emerge on the far side, though perhaps the term should be interpreted loosely because the bulk of the goods on display (outside) were old bikes, battered wooden doors and secondhand tables.
We headed along a quiet lane and were delighted to find ourselves walking through a flutter of Monarch butterflies. When we walked this way in January, I posted a photograph on Instagram and asked if anyone knew whether it was a butterfly or a moth. I was delighted to have the species identified by a reader called Dave, who’d spotted my photograph and subsequently spoke to a butterfly researcher in the US.
The response which came back was:
“Very cool! It’s definitely a male monarch. Actually, there’s a small population in Europe, likely brought their by winds or human travel, possibly during maritime exploration. There are also monarch populations in New Zealand, Australia, parts of Africa, Central and South America, Hawaii and the Caribbean, though they are only native to the Americas. They don’t migrate like they do in North America anywhere else in the world, just small migrations moving with drought in NZ and Australia. Otherwise their population in other parts fluctuate with the availability of milkweed.”
The next landmark was Poco Barreto, the location of our nearest train station. Prior to lockdown, I spent two hours waiting here for a train to Lagos. There are no facilities, no toilets and no announcements. It wasn’t until a train going in the opposite direction stopped and a kind-hearted conductor called me over that I learned the reason for the delay was a tragedy on the tracks. Nowadays, Lagos is the most westerly railway station in the Algarve; however, for a brief time between March 19 1900 and February 1 1902, this isolated little place held the title.
Unfortunately, our route took a decidedly uphill turn after Poco Barreto. With seven kilometres under our belts and five to go, we wondered if it would be rude to turn up at Jörg’s having already consumed the eight cans of German beer in Harri’s rucksack. Deciding it would, we restrained ourselves and stopped to drink water instead. There was an occasional breeze but for much of the uphill slog our walk alongside dry orchards and giant cacti was airless. When an exquisite scent wafted across our path, it took me a few moments to identify it as the smell of fresh strawberries, growing in lines in a field to our left.
It’s at moments like this I imagine I could live in a remote, and likely rundown, farmhouse and spend my days tending a vegetable patch and picking olives. I visualise the scene in great detail before reality hits. Despite my great love of hiking and being outdoors, deep down I know I would hate being so isolated, without decent road access to my home.
We reached the citrus plantations. Here, I experienced pangs of guilt as I gazed at rows of healthy little orange trees and remembered the pathetic, three-leaf specimen planted in our garden. I can’t even blame the heat or lack of rain because the tree was already wilting in March when it was wet. Last week, in desperation, I added a few drops of vinegar to the watering can; however, there’s been no noticeable improvement. The poor dab just can’t decide whether it wants to live or die.
Vast avocado plantations like the one surrounding Jörg’s home are springing up all over the Algarve, much to the dismay of local people and environmentalists who are very concerned about the proliferation of these non-native crops in the region. Apart from concerns about the pesticides running off the soil and potential contamination of essential bore holes, there is the dubious morality of using scarce water supplies to sustain a crop that is not indigenous to Portugal (Mexico currently leads in the production of avocados). Over 50,000 of these water-hungry trees have now been planted around Barão de São João and there are reports of wells and streams drying up.
We passed what looked to be a recently planted field, its young trees supported with sticks. What I find amazing is that despite the rapid increase of these vast plantations, the cost of avocados remains high here — I paid over 2,50 for two medium-sized ones last week.
We reached Jörg’s place half an hour early — the second guests to arrive — and within seconds we were reaching into Harri’s rucksack for our cans of beer. Whatever you think about the avocado invasion, this is a truly idyllic spot. There is no light pollution here, something we made the most of back in January when we enjoyed gazing up at the stars.
Other guests arrived, including a really nice German couple who generously gave us a lift home later. Unfortunately, some seemed to be having trouble finding this remote location. One musician — who we hoped might play — never did arrive, and though Jörg’s long-term friend Miguel did eventually materialise, it was some time after Jörg had embarked upon a fruitless search for him.
The men cooked the black pork, which was served with a large salad and pasta. I’d have loved to stay long enough to see the stars again, but the temptation of a lift back was too great to turn down.