Tarifa - kite surfing around The Rock

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Friday, July 13, 2007

With my good mate from Sydney, Alex, visiting Europe this summer, we had to catch up somewhere. Two years is a long time between drinks in anyone's language, but 'specially in 'stralian. London was the most obvious option but when schedules didn't quite work it was time to use a European base to advantage and meet him somewhere more exotic.

His only other destination this trip would be Spain, which was fine by me due to memories of last year's visit still fresh in my mind. So with a cheap Edinburgh to Malaga flight, I was out of Scotland's drab weather and into the blistering heat of the Sierra Nevada before I knew it. Four days of hazy, lethargy-inducing sunshine - I can see why this area is so popular with northern Europeans of varying descriptions!

Fortunately the highly developed Costa Del Sol, located around the focal-point of Malaga, was not the final port of call. Alex and another mate Blake had set up camp about 160km westwards down the coast in the little town/port of Tarifa. The area is generally known for one thing - wind - and it was here that veteran kite surfer Blake was hanging out through the early summer honing his kiting skills. By the time I arrived in mid July the school holidays were in full swing, so the area was jammed to the gills with families from central Spain escaping the inland heat on the one hand, and what seemed like hundreds of young college students streaming in to learn some Spanish over summer break on the other. Scary stuff indeed, but it would have been one mellow place in the weeks and months before.

Tarifa is basically one long beach, around 10km of white sand stretching along an expansive but shallow bay. Flanked by dunes and then a low ridgeline, the wind howls over peaks that continue the natural gateway between the Atlantic ocean and the Mediterranean sea. This literally is the most southern part of Spain and the closest point to Morocco, so is a natural crossroads both north/south and east/west. No doubt the area has seen a lot of cross-cultural traffic in its time. People have been known to windsurf between the two to illegally immigrate!

Beyond the hundreds of wind-powered electricity generators that have sprouted along the surrounding ridgelines, the main action nowadays is windsurfing and kiteboarding in the fresh sea breezes. Alex was here to learn the latter by the time I turned up he was at the stage of standing up and starting to cruise. To get to this stage takes at least three or four lessons - meaning it's a pretty complicated sport to learn or perfect.

This ruled me out from even attempting it, as I would have only managed a couple of lessons in my few days here. Probably for the best anyway, it's easier to type when you haven't had your arms ripped out of their sockets, which looks like a very real threat indeed in the gusting winds. I stuck to spectating and beer drinking, both sensible past-times in this climate, but cheers to Alex for getting up and surfing. I hope that the beaches back home aren't as crowded with kites as these so he can keep it up.

Tarifa town is a cute little place as well, sitting at the eastern end of the beach/bay. Aside from the 50 or so kite-surfing schools there's a couple of Spanish language schools, a nice selection of eateries and nightlife, a port for ferries to Tangiers in Morocco, and a dazzlingly white-washed cluster of old town buildings typical of the style of Mediterranean towns found in southern Portugal, Greece and Spain.

I love a quick wander through the narrow alleys of old towns like this. There's plenty going in corners and side passages not evident from your initial impression of listlessness and torpor, and if not, there's always a pleasant window into alternate ways of life that a deserted entryway or a shopfront brings. There's also a pridefulness that these fan-forced peoples bring to their homes despite the baked environment they live in. It seems to reinforce the community within the ancient walls of the old town, which is hard not to admire.

We spent a little time in Tarifa but there was also other exotic locations very close by as well. One of these is Gibraltar - a name synonymous with both British colonialism (captured in 1704 and held ever since) and strategic location (especially during WWII). Located just east of the most southern point in Spain it is a perfect base for guarding the Straits of Gibraltar and regulating access between the Atlantic and Med. The 400+ metre sheer limestone cliffs that form 'The Rock' make it a formidable redoubt, especially with dozens of cannon aimed down from the heights at its landward approaches which have kept the indignant Spanish out for so long.

This really is a little slice of Britain, but with a blazingly hot and distinctly Moorish twist. Still stupefyingly hung-over from the reunion drinks the night before, we managed to find the place after an extended drive and a then brisk walk across the tarmac of Gibraltar's airport. Wisely we parked on the Spanish side of the border, which gives you a great view of the territory and famous landmark.

A pub lunch set the stomach straight and then it was onwards and literally upwards, through the city centre and past archetypally English architecture, resplendent houses of governors, the bobbing Bobby helmets of the plods walking by and, just to complete the picture of mundane British urban life, rubbish bins and letter boxes all emblazoned with the royal coat of arms just as they would in London or Edinburgh. Cute. No wonder the Spaniards are continually irked by it all...

High on the priority list was a trip up the cable car to the summit of the looming rock. Europe's only tribe of wild monkeys live up here (surprised me too) and naturally anything to do with such creatures pleases ex-E-Plus staff no end. This bunch are quite used to human company, happily lounging and wandering around amongst the tourists and certainly prepared to grab anything that sparkles, but take the advice of the cable-car driver and do not attempt to pat or touch - the guy top above right (and the rest of the pack basically) has a pretty mean temperament, as one lady near us found out trying to give him a scratch behind the ear. Sheesh.

The monkeys wear thin quite quickly, but the views up here are spectacular. It's like Hong Kong but instead of skyscrapers and neon lighting you get a truly gigantic cliff. It's the same scale anyway and we were well impressed with the scope of nature's palate. However, with a fresh breeze carrying the feral tang of monkey on the sinuses and our best pairs of hiking flip-flops, we were ready for a trek back down, via some of the rockside sights.

Nothing is close by unfortunately. To the left as you head down is St Michael's Cave, apparently inhabited since the iron age (and more recently by a Saint it seems), whilst to the right there is a collection of military installations including a Moorish Castle, WWII siege tunnels and more recently occupied Ministry of Defence land. Naturally the military stuff won out, although to our grave disappointment we reached the cluster of attractions over 3km away about 5 minutes after they all shut (5.30pm on the dot, how very British). It was Friday the 13th so we can't complain I suppose...

Not to worry - our combination of hangover, heat exhaustion and hapless timing would have amounted to naught in the scheme of things. Especially compared to the poor heavy artillery-men stationed here over time, whose duty it was to haul massive cannon up the hill with only the help of a chain and large rings pounded into the road-side rock at intervals up the steep slope. So the sign said anyway. I shudder to think and we were just glad to retire to Casements Square for a G&T, before heading back to camp.

All in all a fine adventure. More to come from Morocco next entry >>
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Jon on

I have been going to Tarifa for about 4 years and have become addicted to kitesurfing after having a lesson with KTS Tarifa who I would thoroughly recommend!

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