The Serra de São Mamede is a spur of the Toledo mountain range, sitting high above the Alentejo, dividing countries and climates. On the eastern side you have Portugal and the Atlantic terrains, and on the west is Spain and the Mediterranean. We are staying deep in the protected national park that nestles on the Portuguese side of the mountains, and it takes us five hours driving cross-country to get there.
There is a symbolic aspect to the journey as we gradually leave civilisation behind us and wind our way up mountain roads into the wilderness. Towns become villages, vegetation thins out, roads get pocked and increasingly rutted until finally the asphalt ends and we bump the last few miles down a red dirt track, squeezing between rocks. Then we have arrived – that is to say there comes a point where we can’t drive any further and we abandon our car in a scorched sandy clearing and proceed on foot as the sun begins to set.
The domain of Terra Sangha stretches out over the hillside like a dusty crumpled blanket, seamed with dry stone walls and scored by a river’s crease. There is an simple farmhouse in the middle of it all and that is where Ben resides, cooking on wood and lit by candles. He has no power at the moment, the solar panels have been out of action ‘for a few weeks now’, but Ben does not let such worldly matters affect him. It won’t affect us either, he tells us as he takes us to our cabin, we didn’t have solar panels to start with.
After some months of relatively civilised living on the Iberian littoral, we are now going totally off-grid. That means living with no electricity, drinking water, flushing toilet, oven, shower, tv, window-glass, wifi, phone signal or refrigeration. “There’s a cool box somewhere if you need it. I can bring you ice.” Says Ben vaguely and disappears off into the dusk, leaving us alone in our glade.
Our car, full of the heat-sensitive provisions that we have purchased for this week, is about a kilometre away and darkness is falling fast. The evening is dry and windless, the temperature still sits obstinately in the low thirties. We have some work to do.
“Does anyone know where the head torch is?” Asks Menna pointlessly.
We toil backwards and forwards to the car, laden with many (un-eco) bags full of (non-vegan) provisions, (unsuitable) clothes and (unchargeable) electrical items. We leave surfboards and bikes dumped on scrubland by the car. We climb walls, stumble over hidden obstacles, get scratched by tree branches and curse a lot. The night falls quickly once the sun has dipped behind the mountains and the darkness is complete and unequivocal.
Dinner is a basic pasta, cooked by torchlight outside on a rusty two-ring gas stove. Around us the night comes alive with wild calls and rustling that may be leaves in the breeze but may equally be prowling paws. The Iberian lynx still lives in these remote mountains I tell the kids, maybe bears too, certainly wild boar. They have both gone very quiet and don’t venture outside the safe sphere of light that the solar lamp throws over our trestle table. Matilda screams occasionally as flying creatures suddenly zoom past her head. This is a sanctuary for bats as well we remember, and our cabin has no window panes. They will come in and sleep in the rafters.
By ten o clock we are all tucked up in our single room, wide eyed in the darkness, listening to the forest breathing around us.
The best thing about arriving somewhere after dark is that you get to arrive all over again in the morning. Our cabin sits up on a flat terrace and when the dawn sun emerges over the shoulder of the mountain opposite, it throws beams between the tree tops and through our windows. The light illuminates the dust motes floating in our dark wooden room and falls across our faces of our sleeping children in their driftwood beds, making them look unwashed and strangely angelic. I stumble to the window and stick out a squinting sun-scrunched face to take in our new world. A glade of yellow grasses, a wall of poplar, cork and lime trees, the mercury flash of running water glittering in the shadows, mountains ahead and behind, forest all around us. Birds flitter through the foliage.
We can live without wifi for a while I think.