Wild Water

The river surges around us like angry whipped chocolate. It is muddy, foamy, bubbling, fast. There are grey skies and driving rain above, grey rocks and churning water below. Either side of us the river cliffs loom up into steep forested banks that then fade into mountain mist. We are somewhere on the Rio Pastaza, at the edge of the Amazon Basin, bumping along in an inflatable dingy.

There are six of us in the boat. I’m up front with Spanish buccaneer, Fernando. Menna and Arthur sit in the middle, Matilda and Captain in the rear. It is the end of the rainy season and the water is high and fast. There are no less than three rescue kayaks around us.

We received instructions and a safety briefing before we set out. When the Captain says paddle we must row as if our lives depended on it. Fernando and I must shout time: ‘One-two! One-two! One-two!’ to set the tempo. If any of us should go under water then there is a rescue protocol: don’t panic, float on our backs until the kayak finds us, wrap arms and legs around the nose of the kayak so as not to flip it too. Allow them to transport you to safety. It all seemed easy on dry land. None of us thought to ask what happens if the boat capsizes and all six of us are floundering around in the rapids.

“What is the minimum age for this tour anyway?” I had asked when the minibus picked us up from the hotel at 5am.
“Well. How old are your kids?”
“Arthur is ten and Matilda is nine.”
“Oh. Have they done rafting before?”
“No.”
“Can they swim?”
“Yes. No! Well sort of. In a swimming pool they can swim fine, probably not in a fast moving river.”
“So they can swim. It is ok. They will be fine.”

Now, as we hurtle between rocks and the raft bumps into the hollows beneath standing waves, I can barely maintain my balance sitting up on the hull, one foot hooked under the central thwart. How will Matilda manage? Every time I turn around she looks frozen in fear and misery. She has given up paddling all together. The captain gives her words of encouragement but she just nods dumbly, unhearing, bounced around like a doll on a trampoline.

One member of our rescue team is a real kayak virtuoso. He hits the rapids with gusto, spinning and pirouetting, finding unexpected lines through the waves. He is also our photographer. We see him putting himself right into the middle of the most frenzied torrents, then flicking his kayak around so he can take pictures of us as we come hurtling down towards him. “Cheese!” He shouts as we paddle in fear of our lives. “Cheese!”

We go into a long section of waterfalls and whirlpools where all is noise and motion: ramping up wave faces, scraping past rocks, spinning one direction then another. Then we are in the calm of a pool and we clash our oars above the boat in the ritual high-five. We drift. Arthur behind me whoops and cheers, a huge grin plastered across his face. Is it river water on Matilda’s cheeks or tears?

The youngest member of the rescue team has been flipped though and remains inverted, trapped upside down in the water for a long half-minute, his kayak bobbing around in the rapids. Eventually his helmeted head pops up, spluttering, further downstream. Abandoning his boat he splashes over to shore and crawls into the shallows coughing. He looks scared. “This one is Pancho” Says Captain indulgently, “It is his first time.” Our rescue kayaker has never done this before?

The other two safety boats set off to retrieve the loose kayak, now drifting off downstream. Captain beaches our raft in the shallows and has some stern words with Pancho in some Ecuadorean dialect I don’t understand. We rest for a while before setting off again. “We have no support now,’” growls Captain. “Be careful.”

On we go through smooth passages where we glimpse egg shaped stones scattered like treasure beneath the water, then through angry, ugly sections where craters and boils appear, boulders jut out and the water surges up in white columns, spray and chaos. The rescue team swarm around us again.

We haul ourselves through a whirlpool where waterlogged trunks roll around like turds in an endless flush, and here Pancho somehow smashes one of his blades. He holds his paddle aloft helplessly, shouting out something which I interpret to mean “I can no longer turn! I am scared! Help!”. Photographer is up ahead, he turns and butts his way back upriver like a salmon leaping against the flow. He pulls alongside Pancho and swaps paddles, then skims off again with bravado. Having only half a paddle doesn’t seem to diminish his abilities, he changes his grip and uses it Indian style, holding the good blade down and deploying it one side of the boat then the other. “Cheese!” He shouts, taking a photo over his shoulder as he surfs down a rocky bank.

There are patches of river far ahead where the horizon is a blur of spray and mist and rain so sky and water are indistinguishable. It is the end of the world. There could be some epic waterfall there, white curtains roaring, smashing into dark rocky basins. Perhaps this is Captain’s surprise finale! I imagine our raft floating down white cascades like an Indiana Jones movie: gravity washed away, icy river water in our faces, lives flashing before our eyes.

We survive another heavy section of river. “That was grade IV,” says Captain with grim satisfaction. “From here on we can drift. You have made it. Well done!”

Pancho has a final trick for us. We hear his cries and turn around to see that he has managed to lose his new paddle and has grounded his kayak on a rock in the middle of the rapids. He sits there miserable, while the wild waters churn around him, unwilling to rock himself off his perch and fall back into the seething white foam.

Captain shrugs. We all laugh. “Hey Pancho!” shouts Photographer, pointing his camera, “Cheese!”. And even Matilda manages a little smile.

“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Kenneth Grahame

Brazilian Road Trip. Day Three

We spend the morning trying to solve the key conundrum. The sullen guy at our car rental company is approximately nine hours away and it is a Saturday. We agree that he is unlikely to be our knight in shining armour. We go and talk to a smiling lady who seems to be part of our hostel and ask her to find us a local locksmith instead. Maybe something got lost in translation because the guys who show up a couple of hours later are carrying a hammer and chisel.

We watch with some consternation as the lads set about levering open the top of the driver’s door with a screwdriver and then force in a wooden stake. Lots of slips, lots of grunts, a fair amount of sweat, this is not the refined lock pick I was expecting. A long wire (coat hanger?) goes in and then an hour of fumbling around, poking it down into the car, trying to hit the unlock button on the driver armrest. The alarm goes off long time before they hit jackpot and this is the soundtrack to the morning. It brings various onlookers and advisors from the road, so there is soon quite a crowd.

The lads force their way in eventually, but leave some wicked dents and scratches on the roof. It is a brand new rental car and these seem very conspicuous. I pay them $20 and they lounge around the hotel drinking coffee for many hours, hooting with laughter, telling stories of hapless tourists.

We are long past checkout at this point so we agree to stay on another night in Icari.

Menna has heard of some huge sand dunes nearby which hide exotic water holes. These will be deep and clear, she tells us, like an oasis in the Sahara. They will be surrounded by shady vegetation where we may string up hammocks and relax after swimming with the frogs in the agua dulce.

So off we head, in search of this desert mirage. The rural hinterlands of Brazil’s Nordeste region is not where Google Maps excels but we don’t have any alternative. Iguanas and ibis meet red herrings and wild geese as we blunder our way down back roads that are really no more than muddy tractor tracks. We drive through wind farms and cattle farms, down white grit paths, into little shanty towns. We inch past wobbling bicycles loaded with family members, we stop for goats on the road and we end up totally lost.

Eventually after squeezing several kilometers down a narrow flint track we find ourselves at a little house made entirely from flotsam, sitting among a mess of fishing nets. Various astonished dark-eyed children peer at us from hiding places in the shadows but no adult appears to offer help or directions. I am faced with a long winding reverse back up the track. Ahead through a plastic-strewn yard is an open gateway then a blue ribbon of sea.

I make a silent decision and gun the car through the gate before Menna can tell me not to. Down a small step we bump and then we are on the beach, dodging rocks, slaloming our way down the wide hard-packed sand, wheels spinning a little. Menna is freaking, thinking we’ll get the car stuck, the kids are screaming: Go faster! Hit the dunes! Drive into the waves! I turn up the Brazilian House Grooves album which I am seriously digging at the moment. And along we fly.

Eventually the sand gets softer and deeper and I feel there is a real danger we’ll sink our wheels so I bring the car to a stop. We spill out and run around, eat a late lunch up on a dune, vaguely worried the tide will come in and cut off our escape route. We find a giant bleached turtle shell and some skeletal flipper remains. In front of us the sea stretches away to Africa and behind is a never-ending landscape of undulating sand dunes and towering white windmills. We are ants lost between endless horizons.

We finish lunch and turn the car around then drive three kilometers at full speed along the flat sand, over rivulets, waving at fishermen and kids in the dunes. Some wave back, most ignore us.

As we rejoin the tracery of cross-country trails that lead homewards (we hope), we can’t help trying a few other blind alleys in search of these mystical pools. We take service roads that lead us to rows of silent monolithic windmills. We go and lie at the base of one, looking upwards, watching huge blades whirling silently against the hard blue. With no peripheral reference points this creates an optical effect, it feels like we are rotating too, lying on shifting ground, moving through immense orbits. Gravity ripples and slips. Stretched out in the dust we gently swing like Focault’s pendulum, proving the earth’s motion.

“The lakes in the dunes?” asks the smiling lady when we get back to the hotel, “Oh, but they are only there in the wet months. Perhaps in December you will see them – if you come back!”

Over a takeaway dinner that evening we teach the kids the meaning of the word quixotic: Committing yourself whole-heartedly to wild escapades, we say. Being idealistic but naïve. Chasing impossible dreams. Tilting at windmills.

Settling In

We are still in Brazil. We don’t have any means of escape. The mercury sits somewhere over 40˚c. The Covid statistics have not improved, if anything the crisis here is deepening. Somehow we have found our rhythm though and relaxed into our new home. Pragmatism has kicked in.

We know where to find iced coffee and where to pick up croissants or emergency icecream. The swimming pool keeps us cool. There is a gnarly surf break just beneath our house. It’s great for an early morning session but the paddle out is hard and the waves are a little too intense for Art, so most days, once school is done, we end up driving twenty minutes down the coast to a mellow point break that he loves. He catches wave after wave there and messes around with small Brazilian surf kids in the water, swapping boards with them, clowning around.

The bay curves away off into the distance, tangled vegetation dark against a creamy cliff with pink layers like a slab of cake. It is known as Praia Madeira and so there is a kind of linguistic familiarity. We have already explored the Portuguese Island of Madeira, stayed in the Nicaraguan town of Maderas, climbed Volcan Madera, now we surf at Praia Madeiras. The Portuguese Madeira (or madera in Spanish) means wood, as in ‘you can’t see the wood for the trees’ or better, ‘we are not out of the woods yet’. The backdrop to this beach is a crazy forest that runs up the sheer face, palms clinging tenaciously to the rock.

Today the sea is glassy, the waves are clean and the bay is full of dolphins. They surface next to us as we sit waiting for the set. Menna and Matilda go for a long swim and find themselves in the middle of a pod. There are fins and rounded sleek backs, then once in a while a spray of frantic fish that skim like stones on the surface, then a dolphin surges right up behind them, effortless, predatory, grinning. That explosion from the deep is unnerving when it happens close by, but then we get used to it. Dolphins are great surfers.

We went for a hike in the nature reserve on the cliffs above Praia Madeira yesterday morning very early. We followed woodland trails looking for snakes and armadillos and then we came to a point where the woods fell away and we found ourselves out on a promontory, looking down on our point break all empty in the early morning. Between the break of the waves we could see shadowy shapes skimming around in the water that we at first took for rays, but then one came up for air and we realised they were turtles. Our surf break was also their hunting ground. There must have been ten of them at least, illuminated by the early morning sunlight, surprisingly agile under the water.

Now we are in on the secret. We know we share these waters with turtles too. They are underneath us somewhere, flitting around, leaving bubble trails like jet streams. There must be sting rays and lobsters as well, baracuda, eels, maybe sharks. A hidden world of muted sounds and vivid textures always beneath us as we float over the reef.

And so it is that we unbend a little more, integrate a little closer, worry a little less. We chat to people. We book a couple of quad bikes in the afternoon. It is one of those ultimately selfish activities (like jet-ski) which are super fun to do, but intensely annoying for anyone else around. I am normally averse but today we’re in a ‘whatever’ kind of mood. It’s a release. We scream around cliffs trails, the kids gripping on tight to our waists. I try to leave skid marks in the red sand, aim to get all four wheels off the ground. The wind stings my face. Matilda screams and whoops behind me. Our blood is up, we stop at a deserted safari lodge so we can ride horses and shoot things with air rifles and bows and arrows.

As we drive back home, we see this little stretch of coast from a different angle. The sun is stetting now and from our vantage point up high the landscape has a new geometry. Euclidean planes in red sandstone, surging cubic structures, recessed cliffs like scalloped teeth-marks, undulating lines of sea-sculpted sand.

If we’re going to be stuck anywhere in Brazil, it may as well be here.

Momentum

We end up staying in Cozumel for an indulgent ten days. Not because it is the best desitination we have been to, but we simply don’t know where to go next.

Arthur and I find a surf spot that we like at Chen Rio on the east coast, it is big and choppy, and to enter the break we have to wade over a coral forest that lacerates our feet. There are three or four local surfers that we meet there, tough older guys in their fifties, but they welcome Arthur and I into the pack and help us find the exit point on our first day so we don’t get smashed into the reef. Even so I kick a sea urchin coming out of the sea and Menna has to dig many deep spines out of my toes that night.

Wheelie!

One Sunday we picnic on the beach besides the break and get sunburnt. As we pack up Menna spots a crocodile wallowing in a swampy stretch of water inland, right by where we have parked the car. I edge down the sandy bank to get close and take a good photo as it lies immobile at the waters edge. Suddenly it lunges up into the air to snap at a dragonfly and it scares the absolute living daylights out of me. That scrabbling dash back up the sandy bank is the stuff that nightmares are made of.

We manage to finally go on the snorkelling trip that we were supposed to do on Matilda’s birthday. We get a boat to the outer reefs and spend a long time floating serenely above coral cities that surge out of the white sands. We see an eagle ray, turtles, octopus, lobsters and multitudes of brightly coloured fish that I don’t recognise. After various different snorkel sites we are taken to a lunch spot where the lagoon extends for miles at waist height and the water is a crazy toothpaste green. We stand in the sea eating ceviche and guacamole with cold beers.

Then suddenly a dark shape appears.

Arthur investigates.

It’s a Manta Ray!

We potter around Cozumel in our little rental car, exploring wild litter-strewn beaches in the south and rock shelves where the sea is forced up through geysers. We drive down through mangrove swamps to the north of the island and park up on a desolate muddy marshland. An obese boatman offers to take us ‘over there’ for one hundred pesos, gesturing vaguely at a sandy spit across the water.
“What is ‘there’?” we ask.
“What is anywhere? There is a playa muy bonita there.”
”Take us there,” we say.
We find ourselves on a deserted promontory where the remnants of a resort hotel decay gently in the sun. The palm fronds have moulded off the beach huts. There is an old wooden scaffold in the shallows where hammocks once hung, it is now a sea gull perch and for a short time our climbing frame. A troupe of racoons hold dominion in the empty bar. We play there alone until sunset when our boatman drifts silently across the estuary to take us home.

It’s hard to tear ourselves away from this little Caribbean corner, but we must keep moving onwards, we cannot stagnate. But Menna and I are unsure where to go next. The clock is running down now on our grand tour and we just have a couple of months left. We need to maintain momentum and that means moving onwards from Mexico – but where to? Asia is still shut, most of South America is quarantined, USA is too western, Canada is too cold, returning to Europe feels unadventurous.

We find ourselves immersed again in that familiar nocturnal morass. Beery nights in hot apartments whispering about visa requirements while the kids sleep; analysing Covid stats and lockdown policies that change daily. For a long time we try to find a route to visit our friend Nico in the Caribbean, but key flights are canceled and we can’t make the connections work. We try to get to our friend Dan in Colombia but the quarantine rules there are getting tighter.

After five nights of circular discussions we have decision fatigue, so when one of us throws a curveball (I can’t remember who), it sticks somehow. Brazil! Yes, that could work. it was pretty terrible in the early days of the pandemic, but the covid caseload seems to be flattening out now. Besides, it’s a huge country right? And when you look state by state, there are areas that are doing way better than most places in Europe. And the climate is great. There’s no quarantine. The surf is epic. And we could learn capaoiera. And it’s fuckin Brazil man! Home of samba, Pele, the Amazon rainforest, Ayrton Senna…

And so it is, late one night in the dying days of February, ignoring all the horrified reactions and earnest advice, we book extremely expensive flights from Cozumel up to Dallas then onwards to Saõ Paolo and finally to Natal up in the Brazilian Noreste region.

Once the tickets are paid and the commitment has been made, the kids are over the moon but Menna and I find ourselves in a strangely emotional state. We have made an grand gesture for freedom (we think), we have found impetus and forward motion (we hope). We are taking the road less travelled and renewing our commitment to the adventure (right?).

There is an ominous drum beat though somewhere in the background. Slow now but gaining tempo.

We pretend not to hear it.

Spot the boy

Winds of Fortune

After a couple of nights in Cancun we’ve had enough. We move on to Holbox, a small Caribbean island off the Yucatan peninsula. A ferry leaves from a scorching port and twenty minutes later we are a little wooden shanty town where the roads are just sand and clay and the only mode of transport is golf buggy. It seems a little desolate at first, in the way that poor Caribbean communities can do – corrugated iron shacks, stagnant pools of ground water, rusted car skeletons – but then we emerge into a charming little town square, tree lined streets of restaurants and bars, a white sand beach thronging with travellers, kitesurfers and fishermen. We see dreadlocks and beards, fire spinners, a guy doing a roaring trade selling organic empanadas on the beach. The tattoos are soulful, feet are bare. It is the antithesis of Cancun.

There is no conventional surf on the island, the coastal shelf is too gentle, but the winds are strong, so Arthur and I are going kitesurfing. Arthur is a total beginner and while I used to kitesurf a fair amount, it is about a decade since my accident on Lancing Beach and I haven’t been back out since.

It is a burning day when we walk round the island to get to kite school. On that long hot walk, I can’t help dwelling on the accident, obsessing over it perhaps, so it starts to feel like I am trudging towards some kind of reckoning.

We are back in our Brighton flat. It is Father’s Day and there is a new, loud baby boy in our lives. Menna is telling me something, laughing and crying. She is pregnant again! We drink champagne. And to celebrate my heroic contribution she will take me kitesurfing. I haven’t been out on the water since before Arthur was born.

The conditions are not so different on the day when we rock up to Kite Beach in Holbox though the sea is warmer here. The wind is blowing about fifteen knots or so, the waves are rolling in, there are white horses on the lagoon. Arthur gets led away by chatty Cathy to learn the rudiments of wind theory. I end up with a laid-back Czech guy called Henrik for my refresher session. I tell him I am nervous. He eyes me up and down and tosses his dreadlocks.
“Ach, you will probably be ok,” he says.

I have two kites – A 9m Cabrinha and a 13m Slingshot. The wind is strong and the smaller one is certainly right for the conditions. Somehow while inflating it I pull out a strut, or a valve blows or something. It deflates rapidly and is useless. I can either to go home now, or take the bigger kite and be over-powered for the session.

Henrik and I set up the kite on the narrow spit of beach between the lagoon and the thorny bank of brushwood. He’s putting me onto a 17m, even larger than that time before. Kite technology has come on some way in the last decade, he tells me. There is more power in the new shapes but you also get much more control. I nod and smile insincerely.

I’m not a great kiter but I have just sired a new offspring and I am feeling invincible. And as soon as I set off I know it is the right decision. The water is cold bottle green, whipped by crisp winds, the sky pale blue. I am screaming along, clearly out of control, hitting waves, crashing, relaunching, wiping-out spectacularly in the deeps. I shout a lot. Life is great right now.

Arthur is out on the water already before we have even set up our kite. He suddenly looks tiny underneath the huge clouded sky, bobbing in the waves, attached to a green kite that is straining on the lines. He is too young for this, I think to myself, how can he possibly take on the elements? How will they catch him when he gets blown away over the sea’s face like an abandoned crisp wrapper?

After an hour on the water it is time to wrap up. Quit while ahead. Menna is feeding our baby up on the headland, her face is turned to the horizon in that way that wives look out to sea, waiting for their absent seafaring husbands. I will ride in and perform a stylish stop in the shallows for her. Perhaps a little jump to finish off. 

Henrik surfs the rig out to our launch spot on the sandbank, leaving me to walk across the lagoon to meet him. It is a slow wade through chest-deep water in my harness, helmet and the annoying lifejacket he insists I wear. I make the far sandbank and am transfixed by a group (school? platoon?) of five or six stingrays that are hunting there, gliding along in perfect formation in the turquoise waters. They skim beside me as I walk over to where Henrik is waiting.

Of course I wipe out on Lancing Beach. That is how the universe works. My board catches an edge in the shallow water. I flip face-down into the shore break. Undignified, but no immediate harm done. Except that as I fall, I unleash a combination of factors that dramatically change my situation: Firstly I pull hard the kite bar, putting my too-large kite in the maximum power position. Secondly the kite drops in the sky, finding a 45˚ angle downwind of me, an area known as the Power Zone. Thirdly a major wind gust happens to occur at precisely this moment.    

“It is a big kite,” says Henrik in the present, “so you will let it do the work. Keep it high, do not drop it too low. If you go too much downwind past the buoy there, then you must come back in and we will walk back upwind on the sandbank. If you go past the end of the spit we are in trouble, for you will get blown out to sea. Ok you know what do do. Off you go and I watch”

It is the closest I have known to true flight. A sudden whiplash acceleration upwards, legs pedalling, mouth gasping, eyes wide. In a second I have achieved a crazy stomach-lurching height, Lancing Beach is stretched out far below. Then the upward force dies and there is a weightless moment at the apex before gravity reclaims me and the rocks rush up. Blackness.

I look mutely at Henrik but his face is bland, expectant, it reflects none of my fear. Alone I must go into the wind and waves, still reverberating with that long-ago bone-shattering impact. The kite strains at its apex pulling greedily at me.

Then we are moving and the breeze blows the past out of my mind, salt spray washes the worries away. I am pulled into the present, floating on turquoise waters, smooth and slippery as a sting ray. The kite hangs above me silently, capturing the power of the wind. We find a balance between the force of the kite, the position of the board, the pull of gravity, the angle of the waves. It all works perfectly for a minute or two, then I hit a trough and the equilibrium disappears. I wipe out.

I recover, set off again and next time I crash harder. I smash the kite down into the water and struggle to relaunch it. I drift fast downwind for many minutes with my kite twisted and shuddering on the sea’s surface, swamped by waves. The lines are taut and tangled, attached to my harness, pulling at me. People can see I am struggling and shout things at me from far off, but I can’t hear them.

Somewhere far away back towards the coast I see a small boy suddenly plucked out of the water by his kite, then there is a big splash. I nearly smile.

I feel the fingers of panic gripping my gullet and the bitter taste of self-recrimination – of dreadful inevitability. That sense that I have put myself in jeopardy once again. Why do I seek pursuits where the highs are overshadowed by fear and disaster? I am treading water, swallowing water, the lifejacket is bunched around my neck. How do I find these situations? I drift towards the end of the spit, the point of no return, alone, the vast open ocean waiting beyond. I shout impotent insults at the kite and at myself.

Finally the wind picks up a little and ponderously my kite turns over, then lifts. I finally get it up into the power zone and perform a desperate and humiliating body-drag back into shore. I trudge a long way back up to Henrik who smiles and shrugs, takes the kite from me and zips off in search of my board, floating somewhere far out to sea.

Then minutes later we start over. Again the fears of the past fade, replaced by the rush of the present. Lessons float away unlearned, for while it is true that disaster seems ever waiting, there is a corollary that I also know to be true: it always works out alright in the end.

Soon I am up and riding again, hollering, crashing, skimming, laughing, flying, drowning, wading back time and again to receive Henrik’s quiet advice.

But this time I do not snap my humerus in two like a twig, I don’t damage my shoulder socket, there is no morphine, no surgery, no titanium implants, no year of rehab.

Just wind, waves and the spectre of imminent disaster, riding beside me like a shadow. Like an old friend.

I sign myself and Arthur up for another session tomorrow.

The higher the hill, the stronger the wind: so the loftier the life, the stronger the enemy’s temptations.

John Wycliffe

Lakes Apart

To get to the island of Ometepe we have to take a ferry from Rivas, a dangerous and ugly port town all sprawled out and gently cooking on the lakeside. After a long and bumpy ride along country roads, our taxi drops us right in the danger zone – that is bang in the middle of the docks – and we are instantly swarmed while at our most vulnerable: sweaty, disoriented in the midday sun, a huge pile of bags and surfboards anchoring us down, unable to move, unsure where to go.

Tour sellers and porters pluck at my arm, men compete to sell us cheap ferry tickets, people edge forward and pick up our bags – presumably they are porters, though who knows? Money-changers wave rolls of bank notes at us. Somehow, unasked, we acquire a fixer. He hauls away our baggage into a kiosk, shoos off the beggars, marches me up to a window to buy tickets, procures us a table for lunch and paints a picture of various breathtaking excursions that he alone can organise on the island. I manage to escape without booking any expensive tours, but he extracts a $5 tip and a promise that when we return from the island he will arrange our taxi transportation onwards.

The café on the dockside looks rough and not particularly hygienic but the chicken, beans and rice they serve taste great and the tough old proprietress dusts off a cracked smile for Matilda. We pile our luggage around our table so it feels we are bunkered down in a foxhole. Occasionally an arm appears over our barricade, hand outstretched. The children judge how needy the supplicant looks, and hand over an appropriate amount of coins from a small pile that we have accumulated.

And then action! We all load up with as much luggage as each can carry and jostle our way onto the Che Guevara ferry, winding our way between hooting pickups and revving motorbikes, floating amid a sea of brown faces, jostled by old ladies with live chickens, making space for toothless men with enormous sacks of grain on their backs. We stash our surfboards and skateboards on the car deck and heave everything else up to the top floor, and there we sit triumphantly in high winds and fierce sunlight.

The passage is rough. Wind-swell rocks the ferry, white horses race us as we plough across the lake. I am seated by a huge open barrel of water that is being transported to the island and I get periodically sprayed as the boat lurches.

Lago de Nicaragua is huge – it has about the same surface area as Cyprus. It is inhabited by one of the only fresh water colonies of bull sharks in the world. These were once prolific and such savage predators that for years the lakeside inhabitants refused to learn how to swim. Now of course the sharks have been overfished to near extinction. Chinese demand for shark fins led to a booming trade back in the sixties when a hundred or so boats competed on the waters here and delivered their catch to a dedicated shark processing plant in nearby Granada. The fins went to China, the skin was used for leather, shark liver got made into supplements and the meat became dog food.

As the stock depleted this became a game of diminishing returns and the whole operation was eventually shut down after the revolution. Sharks were finally protected by law but by then over 20,000 had been killed. Nowadays there are whispers of illicit nighttime shark fishing trips, big game hunters on high speed launches – Chinese and others; corrupt officials bribed to turn a blind eye. And so it goes.

We don’t see any sharks on our journey, but there are some elegant storks that fly across our bow. We have dosed Matilda with sea sickness tablets and she flops around drowsily in the sun. The crossing lasts for forty minutes and then we are on the volcanic island of Ometepe. A pickup truck sits waiting for us at the dockside and once we have loaded the baggage, and our son, into the rear, we roll slowly across the island, down roads lined with lush shiny-green foliage, into little rural villages, through coffee plantations and up steep hills. Then at last the day’s journey is complete and we are at Tenorio Lodge.

We rest. Tomorrow we climb the volcano.

Sting Ray

Humankind has depleted the oceans and destroyed coral reefs. We have hunted, fished, polluted, driven many marine species to extinction. But sometimes the fish fight back.

Today was such a day.

The normal way of things has been inverted: a human has been hooked by a fish. More specifically a small girl has been pierced by the barb of a sting ray.

I am listening to a podcast on the beach, not quite asleep, not quite awake, digesting my lunch in the sunshine. Menna, Matilda and Arthur are somewhere out in the waves. Then somewhere in my half-dream, screams of pain intrude, jarring with the mellifluous but self-righteous tones of Sam Harris.

And now I am awake, up and running towards the sound. Menna is first on the scene and gathers Matilda up out of the waves. As I approach I can see her left leg stuck out rigidly, the thick trickle of blood glistening on her heel. I awkwardly receive her from Menna and carry her back up the beach. She screams and sobs and a crowd gathers. Everyone wants to give advice and practice their English or just be part of this exciting event.

“What happened?”
”¿Qué pasó con la muchacha?
“Was it a barracuda?”
“A sting ray no?”
“¿Una raia dices?”
“You have to take her to Emergencias right now.” says a lady with diamanté earrings and a no-nonsense voice. “I’ve seen this before.”

This is not a great option for us. We are a couple of hours from the nearest hospital, which will probably be riddled with Covid, and we don’t have a car. This doesn’t feel like the kind of injury that justifies an ambulance. “No problem guys. Is fine. My husband can drive you.” She cranes her neck and looks around, but husband has slipped off.
“Our buddy Josh got hit by a sting ray in Costa Rica” I said. “He was ok after a short while. I think he peed on it or something.” I’m aware that it sounds like I don’t care much about my daughter’s wellbeing, like I’m just trying to avoid the hassle. I catch Menna’s eye and am relieved to see she is thinking the same.

‘You must put her foot in hot water’ says another woman in a yellow swimming costume, a wealthy Managuan lady down for the weekend I think. “Like real hot. It’s going to hurt, sure, but you gotta stop the acid. Is it hurting now honey?”. Matilda howls and nods.
“That’s it. Hot water! No pee needed. That’s what we’ll do,” I’m liking this scenario more and I give a thumbs up and an encouraging smile to Yellow Costume.
There are three or four kids watching the scene, chattering away in Spanish, laughing. A huge muscled American surfer with a tiny head wanders over.
“Hey man, was that a sting ray? Nooo! I got stung by like five of them last year. That shit hurts so bad! You got to dig out the spine. Hey, look at this” hopping in a circle to show us all a scar on his sole. “Got one went right through my foot here.”
“Take her up to the bar, they’ll have hot water,” says Yellow Costume waving a well manicured finger. We all troop up to the beach bar.

“The barb snapped off inside me so they had to dig it right out with a knife. I was just sitting there, like crying and hollering and drinking rum. Man! So bad!” says Muscles.
“It’s early for sting rays. They only come when the water is colder.” Diamanté is seeing her authority diminish. “Was there blood? Perhaps it’s a scorpion fish, or a jellyfish. How do we know? She should go to a doctor. Don’t you worry sweetie, my husband’s gonna to take you. It’s gonna be ok. Where is he now?” More urgent head swivels but husband is still lying low. “Was there blood?” she repeats.
“I don’t think it’s too early for rays,” says Muscles. “the hurricanes messed up all the currents so it’s running colder than usual. You should go down to Marbella beach, there’s always loads of sting rays there. They like to, you know…”, he mentally tests out options, “…breed, in the bay.”
We assure Diamanté that there was indeed blood. She looks a little sour like we’ve conspired against her. “She still should go to a doctor in case there’s an allergic reaction. No se sabe! We gotta truck, it’s big. My husband gonna fit you all in.”
We are English, we specialise in polite but firm. “It’s alright thanks, my wife is a doctor. Maybe if we just sit her down for a bit.”

We put Matilda down on a sun lounger at the beach bar. She sobs, hides her face away behind the crook of the elbow, embarrassed about the attention. Menna inspects the wound for snapped-off barbs but Matilda is jerking her leg around wildly.
“There was another time I landed on this piece of coral,” says Muscles. “Sliced open my calf through here, under the tattoo. You know that coral can grow inside you? I saw it happen once to this guy. He was like a human cactus! I didn’t know if I was gonna wake up one day with like stalactites growing out my skin.”

The waitress from the bar come up with a bowl of hot water. She’s seen this drama play out before. We put Matilda’s heal into the water and she screams and jerks it out. The waitress gives a little smile, like ‘they always do this…’
Yellow Costume is in the ascendency. Diamanté has faded back to the second ring of onlookers.
“It’s got to be as hot as she can bear,” she says, “that’s the only way to neutralise the acid”. She makes the waitress add further boiling water to the pot.
“Or are they stalagmites? Which ones are the ones that go upwards? Though I guess they would have grown straight outwards really, so could be either. Like a dinosaur!” says Muscles enigmatically.

Matilda will not submerge her heel in the water and is converting her pain into rage. She howls and spits like a little wildcat, tenses her leg upwards, kicks out. I test the water temperature, it is really very hot. But probably bearable I think. She can do this.
“Come on sweetheart,” I say, “let’s just give this a go. The hot water will take the venom away. It’s hurting right?”
“Go away!” Matilda screams at me, “You’re hurting me!”
“I’m not touching you darling but you do need to put your foot in that water. Otherwise we’re going to have to take you all the way to Granada to a hospital there,” I say, really working on my calm tone.

Morwenna does her doctor thing.
“Let me explain from a medical point of view why we need to do this Missy,” she says in a soothing but matter-of-fact voice, “you’ve been injected with a venom that is irritating your skin and working it’s way up through your blood.” Matilda screams again. “We need to flush out the venom with hot water. It will take away the sting and reduce the risk of infection.” Menna gently pushes Matilda’s foot into the water.
“I don’t care! I don’t care about venom in my skin.I’m not putting my foot in that water,” says Matilda kicking her leg high into the air.
“You see your nervous system is getting agitated by the toxins,” Menna continues.
”And we’re getting agitated by your screaming,” I add. “It can’t hurt that much surely.”
“It gotta to be real hot honey or it don’t work,” cuts in Muscles, “they actually poured water from the kettle onto my foot when I got stung. I got blisters all over afterwards, but hell, even the burns were better than the stinging.”
“I bet it won’t hurt anyway. I’ve checked the water and it’s fine. Look! I’m putting my finger in now. Hardly hurts. This is a great chance for you to practice being brave!” I say with a smile. I try to hold her hand.
“Shut UP Daddy! You’re making it worse! You don’t know what it is like!” screams Matilda through clenched teeth, snatching her hand away. “You’ve never even been stung by a sting ray.”
“No you’re making it worse.” I snap, calm voice lost, “You’re making such a fuss. And we’re all going to have to drive all the way to Granada and hang out at a bloody hospital if you don’t put your foot in that water. We’ve all spent enough time in hospitals already. Come on!”

Yellow can see that I’ve lost control of this situation. She squats down next to Matilda and grabs her hand.
“Look at me girl. Your foot needs to go in that water to get rid of the stinging. It’s gotta happen. I don’t care if you shout. Shouting’s fine. You shout at me all you like, but you get your foot in there at the same time. This is for your own good.”
Matilda has never experienced a complete stranger ordering her around in a tough-but-warm-hearted American-Nicaraguan accent and is unsure how to respond. She’s taken aback and stops screaming for a second.
“That’s right girl. Now put that foot in the water. You look at me. You look into my eyes. You’ve got this honey.”

“Yeah. That’s what I said. Good stuff!” I murmur, feeling kind of displaced. Matilda lowers her foot into the now-cooler water. She jerks it out again theatrically, and then allows Yellow Costume to gently push it back down again. She writhes and makes some extraordinary grimaces but keeps it in there.

Yellow costume has prevailed. She owns this situation now.
“You gotta watch out for an allergic reaction, like if she gets bumps or something,” says Diamanté quietly. It is a last gesture, she knows she is defeated. “Come on honey, we got to go find Daddy.” A shape detaches itself from behind her and we see she has a girl with her, about Matilda’s age, who has been literally hovering in her shadow. “Hope you get better now,” she says to Matilda and they walk off down the beach.
“I broke my leg one time,” I say to Muscles, “snapped the femur clean in half!”
“What, surfing?” he says.
“Nah, on a scooter. Crashed into a lorry.”
“No way!” he says.

We huddle around the invalid for the next twenty minutes. Some people drift off . The amused Nicaraguan waitress periodically tops up the tub with hot water, Matilda groans and writhes, puts a weak hand upon her brow. We bring her fries and ketchup and horrifically sweet cherryade. People put damp towels on her head and shield her from the sun. Yellow Costume talks to her the whole time in a low monotone, murmuring encouragement and words of wisdom. Menna hugs Matilda tight and whispers in her ear. At some point Arthur wanders up with his surfboard under his arm to see what all the fuss is about. He’s impressed with the injury but he’s made a friend in the waves and after a minute or so he runs off to play with him.

After a while I see that my presence isn’t required and I go back and finish off my podcast.

Limping home.

Hog Tide

Arthur and I are going fishing today with our buddy Josh. All the charter fishing companies in San Juan del Sur have terrible reviews – but they are cheap! – so we have chosen one that seems a little less terrible than the others, or perhaps a little cheaper. It is called Hog-Tide Fishing. The logo features a pig in eye-liner winking.

We have a 5am rendezvous in town, which means an early taxi for Arthur and I. It’s one of those annoying meetings where everyone is late and then you do a lot of aimless hanging around anyway, grumpily calculating how many extra minutes after your 4:30am alarm you could actually have got up.  Arthur does not say a single word for two hours, which I suppose is a kind of silver lining.  

The three of us are joined on this expedition by Jason the boat owner, a scrawny surfer called Simon with lots of facial hair, and Candy who is together with one of the two guys, though I’m not sure which. It looks like Josh and I are bankrolling this expedition and the others are on a freebie. Lastly there is Capitán – real name not given, definite article not required. A silent, competent local who is there to do the work.

The owner Jason has been described in many of the Trip Advisor reviews – sometimes admiringly, more often not – as a real ‘character’. He is certainly larger than life, with a lumbering swagger, a range of eye-opening opinions and a good southern drawl. He has a beloved pet pig back home in the States it turns out, hence the shop name. I think about the bondage reference, the sexy pig logo, and various questions bubble up – but it is too early in the morning.

Jason hits us up for the payment straight away – cash only please – and we have to fumble across a large pile of notes. He then asks for another $50 as a tip for Capitán, his paw thrust out insistently. He’ll make sure Capitán gets it later, he assures us. I would prefer to give him a tip directly, but Jason is very firm on this point. The fifty dollar bill disappears into his pocket.

As we finally set off to sea, there is dark line stretched across the horizon. Arthur and I have barely seen a cloud since we’ve been in Nicaragua, but now we watch the front advancing towards us with a sense of inevitability. The rain is cold and insistent when it hits and instantly brings a nostalgic memory of wet days mackerel fishing on Plymouth Sounds. I have only brought a t-shirt and I’m soon soaked through, so for warmth I pull Arthur into a bear hug and refuse to release him.

This has been billed as a day of sport fishing and surfing. We will catch big fish then catch big waves, anchoring at hidden reef breaks that are only accessible by boat. It soon turns out though that we are not going big game fishing in the true sense, more coastal trawling. We potter backwards and forwards along the shoreline in our stubby little vessel, a couple of lures strung out behind us, eventually hooking a bonito which Josh pulls in. We all pose for pictures with it.

We nose up to a couple of beaches and reefs up and down the coast but the surf is flat and blown out and our boards stay in their bags. Jason suggests a swim, but none of us wants to get in the water. We stay on the boat, sliding around on deck, telling stories to warm ourselves up.

Simon is a real character. He alternates between moments of stillness and sudden uncoiling position shifts. To chat with him you must be light on your feet, spinning and twisting to follow his moves.
“I fast every Sunday, it makes you feel great. Complete digestive flush.” he tells us from a lotus position on a locker, “but Monday, it’s like Disneyland” – squatting on the cabin roof – “I’ll eat just about anything! Ice cream, burgers, shrimp you name it.” Big hoot of laughter as he twists around a stanchion. “For the rest of the week I’m vegan.” The scion of a rich Armenian family, he has bought land in Ecuador and built a yoga and surf retreat that is also a cultural collective, a local community centre and various other things. He has a ski lodge in Colorado, he is negotiating a land deal up the coast here in Nicaragua. Soon he is talking about potential investments we might consider together.

At one point we stop the boat and drop handheld lines. It’s like crabbing off the pier. Jason catches a baby grouper which he conscientiously throws back in, only to see it flap weakly for a while on the surface before being snatched up by a gull, which is in turn attacked by other gulls, so the rescued fish is literally pulled apart in mid-air above us. Scales and fins rain down onto the deck.

I haul in a red snapper. “That’s a nice catch” Says Jason, “That’s one of the best fish you can find round here.”

There is a lull when none of us catches anything for half an hour and Jason suggests cutting up the Bonito. He makes some rudimentary gestures at Capitan, who silently guts the fish, cleans and filets it with precise knife-work, then adds soy, lime and chilli. We crowd around and eat it with our fingers, directly out of a plastic tub, stuffing spicy raw fish into our mouths. It is eight in the morning and it tastes fantastic. We look like savages, huddled around in sodden clothes, chomping away silently with soy stained mouths.

Jason comes to life after the first couple of fistfuls of bonito sashimi.
“I first came down here for a bachelor party – that was some event I can tell you. You met the girls here?” He gives us a leer and a wink that for a moment replicates uncannily the winking pig logo he’s got embroidered on his chest. “It was so good I went home and sold up. Hauled my ass back down here and got me a boat. And since then… Good times.” He indicates the ocean expansively.

Arthur catches a large grouper with his handheld line, pulling it in himself. His grin is enormous and the sun comes out at the same time. The mood on the boat improves.

“It must have been hard getting a business up and running in this environment” I say to Jason.
“Oh yeah. No shit. No tourists means no trips. It’s been drier than a bone in a box round here last couple of years. I had to sell my car!” He says. “But you know, you can live pretty cheap round these parts.’ I guess it hasn’t all been good times then.

Jason is off and running. He outlines various contentious views about the government here, the females, the intelligence of the locals. “Don’t worry about him” he indicates Captain, “he don’t understand a damn lick of English. Most of em don’t. Me n him, we got our own sign language we use.”
“He does speak English” Arthur whispers to me. “He was teaching me how to gut the fish earlier.” Jason offers us a beer.

Capitan reels in a macarela.
“That’s the jackpot that is.” says Jason. “Tastiest fish in the sea. You guys got lucky!” We all pose for pictures with it.

After a three hours on the boat we have caught five fish and we are ready to go home. “You guys can keep all the fish.” Jason tells us “And hey listen, y’all should drop around to the shop some night, I do fish fry-ups in the evenings sometime. Bring along some beer and join in the fun. I do like free fishing trips too, just for my friends. You’d just have to pay the gas. And a tip for Capitán. It would be pretty cool” I think Jason is lonely.

Back on shore I ask Arthur how it was. I feel the trip hasn’t lived up to expectations, that it wasn’t the sun-soaked marlin chase in deep seas that I had described. Arthur looks up at me, soggy and tangle-haired, splashes of soy sauce on his cheeks.
“It was brilliant Dad! We’ve got to hang out with Jason more. Can we go out with him again?” I think back on the other fishing trips we’ve been on – rainy mackerel hunts in Plymouth, casting lines from various jetties in Spain, trawling from a boat in Greece, crabbing in Norfolk. We’ve never actually caught anything before. Well, nothing we could eat anyway.

The bag of grouper and snapper feels heavy in my hand. We will go back, throw it down on the table. Arthur will gut it. The girls will cook. There will be a feast. We set out for the high seas at dawn like real men, and now we will return home, wet and salty, laden with our catch.

I hope Capitán got my tip.

Frigate Birds

We are sitting on the beach of Majugual watching frigate birds gliding far overhead. Their silhouette is unmistakeable: a long crucifix shape, wings raked back to a point. They are motionless as they circle the thermals, but when they dive then their tail opens like a swallow’s, so they can fine-tune their trajectory, finding the optimal angle to hit the water and seize the fish beneath.

We’re not the only ones watching the birds. Every time they leave their distant circuit and start their long dives, an old man emerges from a patch of shade above the beach. Fishing rod in hand he bounds down the scorching sand. He is surely some way into his sixth decade but he still has an impressive turn of pace. He charges straight into the water, wading out to where the waves are breaking and starts casting lures into the area that the birds have indicated. He reels them in furiously and casts again, and the again, until he is rewarded.

We’ve watched three ventures so far and each time he’s landed at least one fat fish – they look like bass from where I’m sitting. He then runs back up above the water line and buries the still-flapping fish in the sand, before returning to the breakers. On this cue, a little old lady comes trotting down in her apron (they are all so energetic!). She digs up the catch and whisks it back up to the little taverna tucked up in the tree line, the simply, but appropriately, named Foods-Drinks. Sometimes there’s a man with a net who jogs down too if the shoal looks abundant, but he’s a less urgent runner and always seems to arrive too late.

This is quite a show and I sit there watching for a while. There is a mildly slapstick element to the sprint down the dunes, the fully-clothed plunge into the sea, the frantic speed of it all. Over time it becomes apparent that this is serious work though and smiles give way to admiration. The silent crouch under the palm tree reading the frigate birds, the sudden explosion of energy in the midday heat. This is a family team, I decide, they have fished these shores all their lives. They use the wisdom of their ancestors, following the birds to find the shoals, grilling their fresh catch on charcoal fires with wild garlic and lime. This interplay between man and nature feels primordial, maybe it has beeen passed down generational lines over hundreds of years. I can imagine indigenous tribesmen, squatting high up in the meagre shade centuries ago, squinting into the blue, twining nets between their fingers, ready for the abrupt shift from stillness into motion. The sparse landscape around them would be exactly the same as it is now.

I try to talk to the fisherman as he trudges back up after one foray, but he is taciturn and unwilling to talk through his ancestral history with a random gringo in the heat. In any case the birds are falling again, right at the other end of the beach, and he’s got a long run to do.

We decide that we must go and eat some of that fresh fish at Foods-Drinks. When we sit down for lunch however we discover we have made an unfortunate misunderstanding about who was supposed to bring the bankroll (Menna for sure), and of course they don’t take credit cards. We managed to stump up about four dollars in change and so the family ends up sharing a quesadilla and some patacones for lunch. We cannot participate in the fish-to-plate ritual. We must remain voyeurs, observing the ancient tradition from the outside, uninitiated, reduced to writing about it in blogs. I saw little old lady delivering a plate of fresh sea bass to a nearby table though and it looked really good.

Ghost Town

When we were last here in Playa Grande we lived with a wild crowd. There was Rob, a Bahamian drug dealer who had done some fairly serious jail time in Miami. I forget his girlfriend’s name but she was pretty with semi-dreadlocks. She had lived through tough times and this had left her with a vicious streak and a tendency to hysteria. Then there was Benny, an alcoholic chef, flushed and vitriolic at work in the kitchen then soft and wet-faced in the early hours; he would occasionally proposition Menna and then pull me aside to apologise, sagging and spitting into my ear. There was another English boy there too at the time: Ollie. They called me posh, but he was posher. He worked as a hotel manager nearby. His parents would periodically send him food parcels and once a hamper from Fortnum & Masons, which he would consume unabashed, occasionally throwing tidbits to the crowd of ravening travellers lounging around.

Other surfers, punks and lost souls drifted in an out of Casa Iguana. We surfed and smoked weed, got loaded, played pool at Kike’s joint. Someone would come home with five bucks of fresh tuna from the fishermen on the beach and we would eat it raw with chilli and tequila shots. We hung Benny’s bike from a tree once while he was passed out drunk in a hammock. It stayed there for a week.

Now we are back at our old haunt. We are staying in Casa Iguana once again, but over the intervening years it has shrunk, the big sunny garden has been divided with a wall and gravelled; shaded by tall cycads and leafy rubber trees. The place is run by a neurotic South African lady. The ghost of Rob is still sitting in the corner though. “You wanna bump?” he asks as I unpack the bags and stack the surfboards.

“The beach is this way.” says Menna brightly to the kids, “Let’s go and watch the sun set.” We have been in the car all day and now we can hear the waves, or perhaps it just that we need to step out of this garden that is full of shadows and nostalgia. We head out into the dust and sunlight of the road, but the access routes have changed and we go the wrong way, down into the forest, past barking dogs, on a winding swampy path that leads us for twenty minutes to the estuary edge.

We finally emerge from the twilight of the trees. We find the river mouth lit up like tin foil under strip lights and I am rocked by a deep sense of déjà-vu. For a few months in 2005 we lived in Tamarindo, on the other side of the river, and we used to paddle our surfboards across this estuary every day to seek out the better surf break. Sometimes if the tide was coming in fast and the water was high, we would get swept right up-river when we paddled homewards at dusk. Menna and I would wind each other up with tales of the huge apocryphal crocodile which was said to live in the muddy river waters. It turned out the crocodile wasn’t so apocryphal after all. It surged out of the water a couple of years ago and took a bite out of an elderly man who was standing in the water. It mangled his leg pretty bad and he had to have it amputated. The victim was a high court judge and he took the town to court, won himself a big pay out. The upshot is that these days you can’t paddle across the river any more, but have to use one of the boatmen that sit like mosquitos on the water, whistling at you from their dugouts.

Today we don’t want to cross the estuary to Tamarindo anyway, we want to walk back around the headland to get home. The sunset is pretty much over and it wasn’t a good one anyway. The moon will be full tonight and we have a springs tide at its peak, running high and stormy. Waves are swamping the beach, throwing foam and flotsam right up to the tree line. We can’t walk around the point to make the main stretch. We get soaked trying and are forced by the waves back into the undergrowth. We clamber back over broken foliage, get scratched by brambles, sink into waterlogged sand. The ghost of Benny rattles dimly along the forest path behind the tree line. He is weaving erratically on his bike and shouting something I don’t understand. Matilda falls over and cuts herself. Dark is falling.

We finally make it back to our apartment, which is both hotter and smaller than we remember. We bargained hard on rent and in a last negotiation twist, the neurotic South African lady removed the air conditioning remote and will only give it back for another $10 a night. A thin phantom dreadlocked girl sits in the hammock and nods with a tight smile at this righteous manoeuvre. The kids don’t understand what is so special about this cramped apartment anyway; they are tired of listening to our old stories and don’t want to share a bed in a cramped room. Without the chatter of the ghosts and the film of drunken stories the place is just a rundown set of rooms. “This place is absolutely totally nowhere near as good as our last house” says Matilda definitively.

The surf is glorious though over the next few days, mellow and glassy, visible lines stretching right out to the horizon. Arthur and I surf morning and night. The break is near empty yet at the same time it is crowded with ghosts and memories. I fail to catch a cracking wave and watch as Rob slips silently into the barrel. “I missed so many good waves while I was inside,” goes his calypso lilt as he paddles back out afterwards, “Now I’ve got my freedom again man, I’m just gonna catch right up.”

And over there is Bob on his sky blue epoxy board, paddling and hollering. Behind him is the German man we call Jesus, with his flowing blond hair and Teutonic precision, his girlfriend on the beach applauding another text-book ride. There are those dark Mexican brothers with the perfectly trimmed beards and the film-star cut-backs. I can see that scary muscle guy with the neck tattoos who keeps snaking my waves. A crowd of ghosts live in this ocean and they are waiting for us every evening. Together we see in the sunsets, call out the sets, we fight for the peaks and float in the lulls.

But Arthur is out there too, my own warm little surfer boy, my flesh and blood; full of life; smiling and chatting non-stop, wanting to make sure that I’ve seen every single wave he’s caught. He silences the ghosts and pulls me back to the present.

Beach Bums

Guanacaste is the northern Pacific region of Costa Rica. The hottest region in the country, it was once covered in tropical dry forests. In the seventies, much of this was cut back to make way for cattle ranches but now under government sustainability programs you can see stretches of new growth as the land is rewilded and reforested. It is still cowboy country though, where they breed bulls and ride hardy Spanish criollo horses.

It is also where the best surf breaks are found and consequently where Menna and I made our home when we lived here in 2005. Cold and damp from the cloud forest, run-down, a little stressed, we make our way back there now.

We choose the beach of Avellanas as our base. This was a secret spot for us all those years ago and we share bleached memories of endless waves, pelicans, creamy banano con leche under the palm trees. Menna got tumbled in a barrel here and sliced her back to the bone on a fin, leaving a perfect crescent scar that we agreed was better than any tattoo. I think it was here too that I once saw a sting ray leap straight up out of the water. There was a difficult river you had to drive through back then, so Avellanas would be inaccessible for most of the wet season and somewhat off the main tourist circuit, but the surf here was always worth the trip. The wave was famous for holding a perfect shape in almost all conditions.

The area has been developed of course in the intervening years. There is a paved road now, more cabins and hostels, a handful of beachfront bars. Overall though the feeling is much the same: a dusty, sun-dappled, village where nothing moves fast except the hollow right at Little Hawaii peak; it is an outpost for the more adventurous expat settlers (mainly Dutch and Canadian). We stay with a delightful Quebecois couple who have just emigrated to Costa Rica to work remotely, learn surfing and run a handful of eco-cabinas down in the shade by the river.

Fine sands, rock pools and crazy sunsets, a dark mangrove jungle framing the beach – the location lulls us. We loosen our grip, let down our weary guard. It is hard to be street smart in a place with no paved streets and we need a break. We don‘t think about bogey men hiding away in the shadow of the trees. When you are in the sunshine you don’t remember the clouds.

It’s nice to be back here again after all these years, Menna and I whisper to each other. Who would have thought that one day we would be surfing here with our kids. It’s like a dream!

We go to a night market at the skatepark and eat burgers and drink beers with the expat crowd while Artie loops relentlessly around the concrete bowl with a pack of feral skater kids. We light an evening bonfire in our garden. We befriend a huge locust in our outdoor kitchen. Arthur and I get stung by jellyfish in the waves. Our alarm clock is the roar of howler monkeys in the trees above our cabin, as they define their territorial limits at 5am each morning.

We ease into a routine that is perhaps too relaxed, too predictable. Breakfast at six, early morning surf, morning homeschool at our favourite beach bar, Lola’s, where we can always find good coffee, cold smoothies and fast wifi. Then a picnic lunch, a siesta, a sunset surf, dinner, games, bed.

For three days we float around like this in a happy state of sun-dazed lassitude. But on day four they get us…

An intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise.

Victor Hugo

The Landlord

On our second day in Corcovado I wake early, around five am, and go down to the beach to look for nesting turtles before the sun rises.  I walk for a couple of kilometers but see nothing, so I creep back into camp, grab my surfboard and paddle out for a sunrise surf. I make my way through the break and out to deep water, and then there is a moment when the sea softens and quietens, flattening like a mirror as the first rays of sun break over the horizon. I am totally alone in the limitless ocean and it is one of those quasi-religious experiences. It is briefly marred by another round of coughing, and there is the blood again. I spit it out in bright red swirls that float on the water’s surface.  There is no pain and I feel physically fine, it is just like my body has decided to remove some excess ballast. It passes. I float on.

A couple of minutes later a fin slowly breaches the water dead in front of me, very close. It glides along silently for a few metres and then sinks back under the surface. I am mentally far-away in that moment and I watch it with detachment. Dolphin or shark? I ask myself. How amazing it would be if a bottle-nosed dolphin was to suddenly jump out of the water and maybe come to play. I lie down on my board and carefully lift my legs out of the water. I see the fin again a few seconds later, now five meters to my left, gliding smoothly away. It is a substantial fin, not sharp at the tip but slightly rounded, a deep charcoal grey and matte; sunlight does not seem to reflect off it. Then a third time in the distance it breaches again, still on the same bearing, heading away up the coast. I lie and ponder things for a minute, but then the swell picks up and the set comes through. I catch a long ride through many rolling sections, right in to the beach. It is a good enough wave that I decide to paddle back out for more.

I catch another three or four waves until I see Meg on the beach, waving furiously at me and beckoning. I can see that she is anxious and I paddle in hurriedly, thinking that one of the kids had been bitten by a snake. It turns out to be no less of a tragedy: Meg has seen an anteater being savaged by one of the guard dogs in the camp. The dog was pulled off, but the wounded creature has limped away along the beach into the undergrowth by the water’s edges to die. We can hear it panting and rustling in a nest of fig vines that tangle back into the sandbank. I am very keen to see an anteater and we attempt to lure it out with coaxing noises, thinking perhaps that we might nurse it back to health, tame it, adopt it. Unsurprisingly it does not come out.

After breakfast we meet Alvaro, a local guide who we have booked to take us deep into the Corcovado jungle. I tell him about my fin story and he chuckles.
“Dolphin? No! A dolphin is swimming with leaps and jumps. No, no, no. My friend it is a shark that moves in straight lines with the fin like this,” Does a gliding move with his hand. “It is mainly bull sharks we have here, but he will look at you and think you are too big. He is going to the river mouth. A tuna or mahi-mahi is nicer for him. Bueno! It is worse for you if you get a crocodile in the sea moving between the rivers.”

Josh and I check this out on the internet later and got a stern list of shark risk factors: surfing alone, at dawn, near a river and various others. It seemed that I had broken every single rule. Nonetheless the three of us go surfing again that evening, but this time we take Arthur along as bait.

I never got a sense of threat from that smooth gliding fin, rather an insulting lack of interest, as I think back on it. There was no change of course as it cruised past me. We simply cohabited for a moment in the waves.

In surfing slang, sharks have many names: ‘the men in grey suits’ sometimes or the ‘Noahs’ (a cockney riff I suppose on ‘Noah’s arks’). My favourite term though has always been ‘the Landlord’. It has the gravitas that this apex predator is due. We humans are out of our milieu in the sea, we float and submerge ourselves temporarily for kicks, then we return to dry land. As unreliable short-term tenants of the ocean we might get our eviction notice at any point. We must know our place, make sure to pay our dues and never disrespect the Landlord.

Avoid swimming at dusk, dawn or night since some sharks are more active during these times.

Avoid entering the ocean near a river mouth

Avoid entering the ocean with a bleeding wound.

Do not surf, dive or swim alone

“How Common Are Shark Attacks in the Beaches of Costa Rica?” The Costa Rica Star

Island Madness

When I was younger I spent a year on Réunion, a volcanic island out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I remember it as a place of mighty green mountain-faces and cloud columns, battered by ferocious waves and patrolled by Great White sharks; full of creole superstition. I was young back then and impetuous. I got myself in some trouble and left the island with a broken arm and a hostile crowd at my back, my name bandied around on local radio.

I am a respectable man now but there is something about the cliffs and mountains of Madeira that is very similar. It brings back memories of that wild year and makes my heart run faster. Last time I was here, in the grip of island madness and suffering from blood loss, I accidentally proposed to my girlfriend on a mountain pass. Now I am back with her once again and our two children.

Madeira gives us a typical island greeting. We land into a thick sea mist and drive blindly across the island in fog and darkness, late-night reggaeton playing on the car radio, kids sleeping in the back. Overnight the mist becomes a squall and we wake to drumming rain and the banshee howl of the wind. When we venture out for breakfast our car is nearly blown off the cliff road. ‘Come to me!’ the Atlantic shouts at us far below, pounding the rocks in anticipation, throwing up spray as our wheels skid on the roadside. We have other plans though and we drive on; we eat breakfast in a warm bakery on the mountain top, then return to our house to do some half-hearted schoolwork and pace out the day. 

By nighttime the storm has passed and the next day is absolutely stunning. We are high on a cliff, with ocean below us and mountains behind. A series of vertical escarpments curve around the headland like folds of green corduroy, each ridge slightly more faded than the one before until they melt away into haze and shadow. Kestrels hover over the gorge.

Some way down below us the village of Paul do Mar is a series of pastel bricks tossed down at hazard behind the sea wall. It is only about three kilometres away as the crow flies, and so we decide to stroll down after lunch, using the rambler’s trails that zig-zag down through the vegetation. For the crow a 25% gradient is just wind and freefall, but we however are chained by gravity. We set off on the hike full of excited chatter, but soon we are blowing hard and conversing in grunts. The views are amazing, but our legs are properly shaking once we get to the bottom – and that was just the walk down. It requires a cool-off period, some beers, passionfruit mocktails and a serious pep talk before we are ready to attempt the return leg. We make it home though and Matilda doesn’t even moan once. Encouraged by this we drive off to a waterfall, then on to a lighthouse for sunset.

This sets the tone for our week in Madeira. There are too many beautiful things to see and it feels like we are racing against time, trying to capture the island in a week. We march to the rhythm of invisible drums. It is a novel way to travel after months of lazy meandering down the Portuguese coast. The frantic pace becomes a game. How much can we do in a day? How many sights can we see? Schoolwork becomes shouted quizzes that take place in the car as we traverse the island.

We spend a day in the capital, Funchal, bombing down vertiginous streets in strange sledges pulled by goat-like men in straw boaters. We go swimming off the quay and dress up for a colonial tea in Reid’s Hotel for a special Matilda treat. We do a 10km hike to a famous waterfall in the interior and try to swim under it, but it is too glacial to stay in that dark mountain pool for more than a few minutes. We spot the mighty Madeiran Buzzard. We take a cable car down to a deserted ghost town in the northern tip of the island and we eat a picnic on the rocks, then get drenched by huge waves as we try to paddle. We climb up the kind of cliff path that would give Indiana Jones second thoughts, scrambling over rockslides and slithering along wet ledges where all that lies between you and the abyss is wind and fear.

Arthur and I go rock-climbing in the cliffs in the south and Arthur astonishes our guides with his monkey abilities. I don’t astonish anyone, except perhaps by not injuring myself, but the challenge of man against rock speaks to something deep in my soul, and I resolve to do daily strength exercises in future and climb El Capitán with Arthur before he is eighteen. Straight afterwards, still soaked with sweat, we hike up the highest peak on the island and Matilda treats us to a glorious meltdown at the summit.

Amid all this motion I find some hours one morning to hide myself away and have a long chat with a lovely lady from BA. Then at lunch I am able to casually mention to the family that I have bought us one-way tickets to Costa Rica next week. It is a complete bombshell and it sends everyone into disbelief then squealing and dancing. I am puffed with triumph at my own largess, the modern day hunter-gatherer of airmiles and companion vouchers.
‘We are going to Costa-Coffee Rica-pica!’ the kids sing as we rattle over mountain passes and along cliff roads in our pathetically under-powered rental car.

They are distracted now, their heads far away, but as we drive along every curve brings a new wonder and I start to wish I had held back the news until later. I can’t help thinking that even the majestic Costa Rican cloud forests may not top this wild and beautiful island.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman

Another month passed somehow as we meandered our way down the southern coastline of Portugal. Without the anchor points of the school dropoff or work, we were subject to some pretty surreal distortions of time. Some days were featureless and stretched out like old chewing gum, but then everything flicked into double-time and we couldn’t cram enough stuff into the hours we are awake. ‘What did we do that week after Aterra?’ I asked the kids, but whole sections of our recent past have compacted into a series of fragments and we can’t tease them apart, only watch the showreel and listen to that crackling soundtrack. And it’s bloody Bob Dylan of course.

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while / But Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues / You can tell by the way she smiles.

A week in Vila Nova de Milfontes was disappointing. After many frothy recommendations from fellow travellers we were excited when we arrived, but our AirBnB was small, dark and expensive; we were in a boring suburb and we had to drive twenty minutes to find indifferent surf. The streets were too rough to skate on. On one beach trip we lost our beloved old Nikon camera, an inexplicable disappearance that puzzled us for days. We went standup paddling on the river mouth and got caught up in a gale so Arthur nearly got swept out to sea and was very shaken. We saw a man dying in the aftermath of a motorcycle accident. 

I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind / You could have done better but I don’t mind / You just kinda wasted my precious time / But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

Near Aljezur we found a crumbling old sun-baked mansion, perched on a hill that overlooked the sea on one side and estuary plains on the other. It was full of eccentric African ornaments and Swedish books and it flooded whenever it rained. We loved it. We extended our stay for over two weeks there. Menna and I dusted off old memories from a weekend break we took near here a decade ago and bored the kids with them (“Look children! That’s where we sat and drank vinho verde – or was it port honey? – and watched the fishermen come in!”). We threw a lavish Halloween party for all the family, that is to say, the four of us, project-managed ferociously by Matilda. The organisation took her nearly a week, what with all the baking (severed-hand pies!), inventing complicated spooky games (spider web dash!), choosing the perfect film (Adams Family!) and it culminated with everyone ‘sleeping over’ in our bedroom. We were all tucked up by nine, which is how our parties generally end these days.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.

We hit the bottom of Portugal and turned the corner onto the south coast. Salema was a pretty little town that seemed to have been packaged up for winter hibernation. We walked the empty streets and spent some time observing a colony of stray cats living a enviable life on a abandoned mattress behind the recycling bins. Our nearest proper surf break was Zavial, a fast hollow wave that jacked up suddenly on a shallow sand bank to create perfect turquoise barrels. It was fantastic to watch and dangerous to surf. We went on a boat trip and standup paddle boarding with our friends Josh and Meg and explored the coastline from the sea. A section of porous sandstone cliffs, full of caves with shell-fossil walls and twisted stone columns rising up out of the waves. The boat trip turned into lunch, into dinner, into a birthday party that went on until nearly midnight. (Midnight! I know right?) I had my first proper hangover of the year next day. A night or two later the whole family awoke to intense strobe light in the early hours. We thought must be some malfunctioning streetlight, but it turned out to be the most epic electrical storm going off right above us. It felt like the world was ending.

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line /
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine

As we drifted along, it felt like our time in Portugal was winding to an end somehow, but our future beyond was still misty and worrisome. Lockdowns were looming, but not just here, everywhere we looked. Menna and I had long muttered arguments on beach walks about where we could go if things got bad. Africa was dangerous, Australia was shut, South America was sick. We expended ever more energy into loving Portugal and some days we thought that maybe we could winter here and it would be ok. We would find a remote house on the clifftop and stock up with winter provisions, surf huge cold Atlantic waves, watch lightning strikes out at sea, go for wind-blown walks in the early light. These stone houses are built for summer but we could find one with a wood burner and we would huddle around it and read the Greek myths aloud to the children while the viral armageddon raged outside.

A worried man with a worried mind / No one in front of me and nothing behind / There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne …I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train.

Berlenga

The far-off island that we can see from our roof terrace is Berlenga. It is a shadow on the horizon right where the sun sets; misty, distant, often hidden. Over time it has worked its way into our imagination: it is a fantasy place, an enigma. The kids are sure there are pirates there. We catch ourselves gazing at it – particularly Menna, when she’s in one of those wistful moods.

We head there by boat one day, after some early morning haggling on the Peniche quay. We travel in a rib to be precise, light and buoyant but with a ton of horsepower. With its inflatable hull and lack of keel, it feels like the wrong sort of vessel to tackle the unexpectedly large and brutish waves that greet us when we swing round the headland. The captain seems to know what he is doing though and we smash our way bluntly over everything that the sea throws at us, airborne at some points with engines whining, before skidding down into dark troughs where the sun disappears and the spray feels very cold. Matilda squeezes my hand throughout the journey, and lets out keening cries like a little storm petrel. There are no other signs of life upon the ocean.

After an hour the vague shape of Berlenga solidifies into a rocky mass in front of us. Cliffs soar, the sun steadies, and the grey of the ocean lightens into a post-card aquamarine. We putter into a bay where a ramshackle cluster of white cottages and a taverna are strung up the cliff road and the rocks are draped with fishing nets, lobster pots and buoys. We clamber onto the dock all damp and unsteady and lurch off to explore the island.

We’ve done this trip the Nicholl way – which is to scorn all of the organised tours but then to forget to do any of the research ourselves – so there is a period on the quayside where we march backwards and forwards waving our phones in the air to find signal and load a map of the island. In the end we give up and stride out to navigate by visual clues. The standard island symbols are all present here: a fort, a lighthouse, some ruins, the ubiquitous clifftop church. This much we can see without Google’s help. It turns out moreover that there is also one of those tourist information boards halfway up the mountain road. Peregrine falcons nest in the cliffs it says, and there is a huge cavern in the Northern rock face – a Catedral. Best of all though… pirates! It turns out actual pirates were here, ransacking the monastery, butchering monks and generally having fun.

We cover the island in a couple of hours, snacking on salt crackers and pomegranate seeds like true buccaneers. Berlenga is a windswept and rugged place, handsome from some angles but very forlorn. It is how I imagine the Falklands to be, only without the puffins. There is very little vegetation though there are plenty of epic rock formations. We see a lot of bird skeletons and Arthur is able to scavenge various interesting bones for his collection. We find the cathedral cave, which is truly awesome, but we do not sight any peregrines.

The highlight of the island is the fort, where you can read stirring accounts of the Spartan-esque heroics of twenty Portuguese soldiers who held off fifteen Spanish warships and a combined force of two thousand men in 1666 (though a little later digging shows that they simply surrendered once they ran out of ammunition). It is the Portuguese Thermopylae and we are honoured to be there. The Portuguese don’t have a lot of military victories to celebrate, but like the Scots, they savour their heroic defeats.

The fort is an imposing structure, jutting out to sea but joined to the mainland by a stone walkway that zig zags over some very clear turquoise waters. We picnic here and spend some time snorkelling. We see lots of fish, some crazy underwater geology and then Menna spots a huge octopus. We follow him along, pointing and making excited whale-like snorkel sounds to each other, while he changes colours, squirts ink and finally folds himself away into a crack in the rocks to be rid of us.

With rash bravado I have opted not to bring my wetsuit and despite the sun I get very cold floating in the Atlantic waters. I drag the family out of the sea and march them back over the cliffs to catch the afternoon boat home.

A bare-chested chap in Hawaiian shorts is the Berlenga harbourmaster. He greets incoming boats, ties mooring ropes and bosses around a pair of barefoot urchins. His belly taut and rounded and he has a fine black moustache which gives him authority. We watch him explaining some important unloading procedure to one of his underlings when he astonishes us by throwing himself off the pontoon mid-sentence. It is a neat dive and he enters the water with barely a splash. Some seconds later he re-emerges on the slipway at the far end of the jetty, walking slowly and majestically up the ramp and it is like a messiah is rising up out of the sea. Best of all, he resumes his conversation as if nothing has happened, although he is now quite some distance away and has to shout. Arthur and I are deeply impressed.

On the way back the waves are with us and the ride is noticeably smoother. The boat is pumping out house music. We plane along the big rollers until we reach the port at Peniche. Then our captain decides to give us all a virtuoso finale. As soon as we are level with the ‘4 Knots. Speed Restriction’ sign on the harbour wall, he slams his throttle forward, revs up to maximum and slaloms his way through the breakwater at high speed, tipping the boat hard up on its side through several sharp curves. We are horizontal at points, thrown one way then the other and only our seatbelts stop us being ejected into the water. Everyone screams and an elderly Dutch couple look like they’re going to have a heart attack. It is a bizarre manoeuvre and I’m not sure if it is intended to generate tips, demonstrate his helming skill or as a anti-disestablishment ‘fuck-you’ salute to the port authorities.

Once inside the marina the captain kills his speed and glides smoothly into his pontoon slot. He cuts the engine, turns off the music and says nothing. We all turn to look at him but he is inscrutable behind his sunglasses.

We disembark and head off into Peniche to look around the prison, but it is shut on Tuesdays.

I am who I say I am.

Our place in Ribamar was run by Jose, a tattooed surf hipster who talked a big game. He greeted us on arrival and sauntered around the house, talking expansively about his portfolio of rental properties; various big waves, the local night life. There were hints of a kid somewhere back in Lisbon and a girlfriend, also conveniently distant, in Sintra.
“Sometimes I sleep here, sometimes there, sometimes in one of the other houses. I just see what I feel like.”
Nice set-up, we thought (or was it just me?), AirBnB keeps the rent flowing in, hassle free, while he surfs all day, parties all night and keeps his dependents at arm’s length. Is this an economic model we might consider for the future?

Alas, as with all things that are too good to be true, the ideal didn’t stand up to prolonged scrutiny. During our stay Jose’s grandeur gradually ebbed away like the tide. He went from owner to implied partner, then manager and eventually he settled as a glorified caretaker (to the distant and fearsome Miss Maria, who we never met, but who Jose kept scrupulously updated through a rapid-fire stream of text messages). Jose had a single dark room at the back of the complex with a mess of ketchup bottles, complicated coffee apparatus, ashtrays and piles of clothes. He would emerge from this little cave around midday in his skinny jeans, silver bracelets jangling, baseball cap awry, blinking and scratching. His footloose agenda seemed to be rather on hold. I suspected he usually crashed in any of the rental properties that were vacant, though I doubt Miss. Maria ever got a text informing her of this.

We talked whenever we met in the courtyard but Jose would often get called away just as I was getting a review of the local skateparks, or a description of the killer octopus in O Pescador. The Sintra girlfriend seemed to stay in Sintra much less that Jose might have wished. She was a strong-jawed, hard-eyed lady, and seemed to have him firmly in check. The kids were scared of her and maybe I was too. She would sit chain-smoking outside our back door late into the night and I would have to make excuses when Menna told me to take out the rubbish.

There was always a surfboard propped outside Jose’s door, but on the days when the swell got big at Coxos, he lay suspiciously low.
“Dude! You are mad to surf there. It is far too heavy this wave!” He admits one afternoon when I tackle him,
“But you said the entry point was tough and it was a fight to manage the rips. I thought this was your local wave.”
“Yes, but only from watching I know this. I don’t go in there to surf. I am only surfing for a few years. I like the beach break over at Santa Cruz. This is where I learned”. In this moment of candour and mutual levelling, I am able to confess that I too am far too poor a surfer to attempt most of the big waves we have spent hours talking about with such implied familiarity. We have both tacitly overstated our abilities. Now we bond over the pragmatic unlikelihood of ever being able to surf Coxos, Supertubos or Nazaré.

We all liked Jose more and more as his pretences dropped over the course of the week. Our leaving impressions were of a super open and pleasant guy who loved to chat but would sometimes get a little carried away with the detail. I have a lot of time for people who don’t let reality dull a good story. Menna likes to mother lost souls. The kids would do skateboard tricks for Jose in the courtyard and he would applaud.

Our relationship was slightly strained on departure though, when Jose spotted what looked like fresh graffiti all over our gleaming white doorframe. Stars and lightning symbols had been scrawled at waist height together with – the smoking gun – a clearly visible ‘A’ and an ‘M’. The kids made a good attempt at denying all knowledge of this, but the evidence was fairly incontrovertible. Under sustained interrogation they broke down. It had been an experiment. Scientific really. They had used the leaves front the potted agave plant here, which gave out a little juice like this, which when smeared on white paint, leaves a dark line like that. Arthur had done a project on cycads last term, so it was all in line with the school curriculum. Homework almost.

“It’s just leaf juice Jose. I’m sure it’ll come off easily!” I chuckled and we enthusiastically grabbed cloths and set to it. Jose frowned and grimaced, sent texts to Miss Maria. After twenty minutes of scrubbing it is clear that agave juice actually does not come off white walls. We offered to send Arthur back next day to repaint it, but after silently appraising him for a moment and estimating the quality of workmanship he would deliver, Jose declined. It is best he takes care of it himself he told us with a sigh. The Sintra girlfriend rolled her eyes.

We leave Ribamar with the kids in disgrace.

Who Dares Paddles

For the next ten days we floated up and down the coast. We were based for a while in Ribamar, a sprawling little village strung along the coastal highway as it loops up through the hilltops. It was a good place from which to explore a long run of scalloped bays with exotic longwinded names: Ribeira D’Ilhas with it’s stone shelf and excellent left point; Praia do Banco do Cavalinho (Pony Bank Beach?) where the rockpools are perfectly round like manholes in the flat rock; Praia de São Lourenço, with smuggler caves high up in the cliffs and a suddenly shelving beach which generates a booming shore break, no good for surfing but awesome scary-fun for children to mess around in. Our favourite bay though was the closest and also the most notorious: Coxos, another of the famous big wave spots of Portugal. It comes with this ominous warning in Surf Europe:

“Coxos is a right-hand point break. Long, fast and furious, the wave is no kindergarten: heavy sections can turn the barrel of your life into a nasty beating. Lots of water running along the rocks make getting in/out of the water a game of patience and know-how…”

Surf Europe Magazine

It’s a world class wave and the swell is pumping, so what do the Nicholls do? Well, they paddle out of course! Not on a surfboard though, because they still value life, but just with their little naked feet, in the shallows. It seemed like harmless fun, but when there are giant Atlantic rollers battering the beach, even venturing knee-deep into the water means taking your life in your hands. We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again. That is to say within minutes we nearly lost Arthur, who got totally smashed by a giant wave, properly rolled around in the shingle and then sucked back out to sea underwater. I grabbed a handful of his shorts and yanked him up again just as the lifeguards came running for us and the beach turned silent.

Arthur thought it was hilarious but not the lifeguard. We got an earnest lesson on how to paddle without getting drowned. We felt chastened and we went to sit quietly up on the cliffs to watch some people who knew what they are doing instead.

Watching waves is mesmerising, particularly when they are breaking like this. We spent some hours up there on the cliffs, sitting in the sun, tuning into the ocean. It’s very hypnotic: the rhythm of the swell, the power and force of the break, the subsonic roar, the moment when a huge wall surges up and seems to hang there in the sunlight, the lines and swirls of the waveform clearly illuminated for a moment before it all crashes down in clouds of foam.

There was a whole crowd up there on the cliffs, standing, chatting, photographing, sitting on rocks and camper chairs, maybe sipping beers. We were all watching the surfers (only two!) who had braved it out that day, offering them encouragement, criticism, armchair wisdom. Our kids loved being part of this scene and sat quietly for ages up on the rocks, murmuring appreciatively about a particular face, tutting and pointing out where the surfer should have taken off to get deeper into the barrel, or, best of all, moaning with horror, little hands over their eyes, when our hero got caught inside and took a hammering.

The next day I surf at Praia Azul where it is not nearly as big as Coxos but still worryingly huge and messy. I imagine the audience up on the cliffs, and spend the session with their eyes mentally upon me, gravely critiquing my performance as I get smashed around. I see Matilda peeking through her fingers as I am caught out of position, (“Daddy’s getting a beating, she will be saying!). I hear phantom cheers as I finally catch one after many minutes of drift. I paddle back in after an hour or so and get turned over by the shore break, rolled twice, sucked back out and then dumped upside down on the sand. The comedy finish! Oh, they’ll love that!

The beach is empty, the kids are building a sandcastle and no-one has seen a thing. Menna gives me a casual wave like, oh, there you are!

I take a bow to the imaginary clifftop audience and invite them back to my next session.

We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again:
And, by that destiny, to perform an act,
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge

The Tempest. William Shakespeare

Massacre of the Innocents

We got back into Portugal at midnight on a Friday. Reunited with our car at Lisbon Long Stay, we drove valedictory laps through some industrial estates before eventually finding our room for the night. Menna had booked somewhere cheap and cheerful and we had no idea what we would find. It turned out to be a huge ‘family room’ with a chintzy Louis XIV vibe, high up in an apartment block. There was no private parking and it wasn’t the kind of neighbourhood where you just left a car piled with possessions on the street, so I unloaded the bikes and the boards in the dead of night and we carted them on up to the fifth floor. Our suite quickly became the cluttered dosshouse we were used to.

We were down in Café Angola early next morning. We ate custard pastries, drank exotic juices and got very engrossed in a snooker match that was playing on a tv suspended over the bar. At some point Menna and I remembered that it was our wedding anniversary and we had a quick peck over the table while the kids made grossed-out faces. She admired the croissant crumbs in my beard; I thought the guava on her breath smelled like the tropics. A man called Wilson eventually won a dramatic last frame and took the semi-final.

Over the next two weeks our intention was to explore the area between Peniche and Ericeira, starting North and working our way down. Our first stop was Baleal, three hours from Lisbon, on the (toll-free) scenic route, where we would camp for the weekend.

Urban Art Camping was an indulgence for the boys. The website had various soft focus pictures of graffitied walls and skate ramps, laughter around communal barbecues, brightly coloured surfboards tossed artfully upon the grass. We had booked a ‘chalet’ (trailer) for the weekend and looked forward to immersing ourselves into the party scene.

I had to raise a admiring hat to the Urban Art marketing department when we arrived, for those careful blurred shots had made so much of what there was little, and made so little of what there was most: hard earth and grit, a veil of dust hanging in the heat.

There were some murals there it was true, and a skate ramp too, in an area of sandy wasteland among abandoned breeze blocks and plastic pipes that coiled like snakes in the silt. There were also two concrete barbecue grills as promised. They were hidden on a little walkway between the toilet block and a chainlink fence that looked out onto a desolate vista of weeds and rusting agricultural machinery.

The website certainly hadn’t mentioned that the site was right next to one of the most decrepit, rundown chicken farms that can ever have flown under the animal welfare regulation radar. The tang of ammonia and chicken shit hit hard when the wind turned westerly, cries of tortured poultry haunted our nights.

We were one of approximately five occupied berths in the campsite, so the bonfire surf vibe was muted. It became quickly clear though that the real residents here were of a different species entirely, and they were having quite the party. Flies everywhere! They came coursing into our trailer if we left the door open. They danced over my face when I tried to siesta. Matilda had twelve of them in the shower with her. Their buzz bored deep into the cranium.

There is a family philosophy that we don’t kill any creatures unless they are mosquitos. No stamping on spiders or harpooning manatees for the Nicholls. Live and let live. I have to explain to the kids that there is however going to be an exemption on flies.
“But Dad, why? They’re not actually hurting us.” Asks Arthur, rightly.“Is it ok to kill something that just annoys you? Can I kill Matilda then?” There is some difficult semantic legwork to do to build a moral case for this one.
“They carry diseases and they are super annoying. It’s just better for the world if we reduce the fly population”
Arthur proves coherently and at some length that if you were to eradicate the fly population then, in a complicated web of cause and effect, there would be at least sixteen other species that would become extinct including, somehow, the Golden Eagle.
I am reduced to: “But they eat crap and then crawl on your face. They vomit digestive juices on you and then lick it back up!” And then I am plunged into a long difficult period of self-reflection. Why can’t I argue a better case for the morality of fly swatting – or at least a more eloquent one? The fly has faster reflexes than any other living thing. They are perfectly adapted to their environment and clearly a highly successful species. They play a vital role in the decomposition of biological waste. Perhaps we should just leave them alone.

Our campsite apart, Baleal is a beautiful little village. The old town sits high on granite island and its churches and towers make a classic medieval roofline silhouetted against the afternoon shine of the westward sea. It connects to the mainland by an isthmus: a single span of tarmac that runs through a spit of beach with a unspoken ‘who dares first’ priority system. There are curved bays with fine white sand and turquoise waters on either side. This is ideal surf terrain as there are waves approaching the spit from two opposing directions, so it works on both northerly and southerly swells, and one side will pick up an offshore whatever the prevailing wind direction. We eat toasted cheese sandwiches and pickled lupini beans at a café on the cliffs, marvelling at our luck.

There is a series of beautiful beaches to the north of town with terracotta sandstone crags towering above them and this is where we spend Sunday. The waves are booming and I have one of the best ever surf sessions until my leash breaks, leaving me with a long swim back into shore. There is no harm done though and we walk the dusty road back to our campsite tired, scorched and happy. I find my spot behind the loos, fire up the barbecue and cook us up a chorizo-themed feast to finish the weekend in style. I am mellowed by surf and sun, the wastelands now stretch in front of me like a blank canvas full of promise. I superimpose all sorts of heroic and unlikely visions of the future there.

The mood evaporates later though when we return to our cabin and are greeted by a terrifying sight. We have left the door open and the flies have invaded. The ceiling is dark with them, so are the walls. They are flying lazy loops in the kitchen like they own the place. There are too many to count, though Arthur tries.

We have a family meeting. While it is true that we are a peaceful lot who seek no quarrel, tonight the fight has been brought to us. The sovereignty of our very trailer has been attacked and we must respond. We arm ourselves grimly with towels, magazines and Grandma’s fly swat, and we stride forth with murder in our hearts.

I have only fragmented memories of that night. A strange dark ballet. Metallic swirls in the dusk. Menna howling and swinging wildly. Arthur grinning diabolically as he leapt from chairs, his face streaked with some dark residue. Fluorescent lights flicker like strobes. The air-con unit groans. Dismembered limbs and wings; dark streaks down the wall; piles of small furry bodies amassed upon the floor. Matilda is a blur, twirling and stamping, teeth gritted, letting out animalistic cries. But still they pour in. They are in the plug sockets! Under the fridge! Hiding in the toaster! Sweat, blood, buzzing, shrieks. We killed them in their hundreds. Stamped on their mute bodies. Plucked off their wings. Did we…eat them?

We drive out of Urban Art Camping at nine the next morning still twitchy and agitated, the bloodlust barely subsided. We leave the crime scene behind us and flee south.

Somewhere in the car there is a buzzing sound.

Nazare

Nazaré is Europe’s big wave Mecca and we are here on pilgrimage. We are not the only ones either, a wave of this notoriety pulls a crowd. Firstly you spot the life-or-death hardcore surf crew with their deep tans and bleached eyes. Then there are the others, softer, like us, who seek vicarious thrills from the sidelines. Around all this is the periphery: the tour operators, guides, rickshaws, buskers and falafel vans.

For your surfing to qualify as ‘big wave’ you have to be paddling into monsters that are 20 foot high or greater. As a family we watched Riding Giants, the seminal big wave documentary, when we were staying in Croyde – some decades ago it seems now. It tells the story of a wild renegade scene, a group of guys who had dropped wilfully, out of straight fifties society and set themselves up on the undeveloped North Shore of Hawaii. They slept wild on the beach, lived off the land and discovered and surfed the largest waves that had ever been ridden. This scene then grew over subsequent decades as boards developed, bigger spots were found and new generations of surfers pushed the boundaries ever further. As surfing became commercialised, the big wave hunters remained splintered from the mainstream in their own secret club, a circuit without sponsors, a cabal of riders with their own mystique – until films like Riding Giants brought exposure. Now the XXL and other big wave competition are worldwide; Arthur and Matilda can recite the roll-call of largest waves ever surfed. They drop those exotic names casually into conversation: Waimea Bay, Pipeline, Mavericks, Jaws, Teahupo’o, Cloudbreak, Nazaré.

They know the big wave legends too, the stories of mythical waves were hidden in plain sight, or thought impossible, crazy, chimeric until some hero stepped forwards. Mavericks, one of the biggest, ugliest, heaviest waves in the world, was surfed alone by Jeff Clark for 15 years because he couldn’t convince anyone else it was worth the long dangerous paddle out. It was said impossible for such a wave to exist in California. Greg Knoll paddled for three hours in a unique storm swell to be the first to surf the third reef at Pipeline. Jaws was thought too fast, and heavy to surf until Laird Hamilton got a jetski to slingshot him right into the heart of the tube. And Nazaré is a deep water dragon who awakes only when the wind is right and direction of the swell merges with cold funnelled up through a 130 mile underwater canyon. This is a wave that is commemorated in shrines and for hundreds of years meant only death in this little fishing village. Until someone persuaded Garrett McNamara to come over from Hawaii to take a look at it. The picture of him riding an 80 foot smoking black mountain put the town right on the surf map.

Nazaré itself is built on legend. A twelfth-century lord hunting up on the cliffs; a white hart; a sea mist. Our Lady of Nazareth reached down from the skies to miraculously suspend his horse as it reared out over the void, she brought him back to safety. Now the old town that bears her name, with its churches and shrines, sits proudly up on that clifftop. It is connected by a funicular railway to the lower part of town, which, seen from above, is a labyrinthine swirl of of red roof tiles, white walls and narrow streets that extends down the South beach. Old ladies salt their fish in the traditional way out on the sands. A surf school runs lessons in the mild waves in the bay. A veneer of wave-generated tourism sits uncomfortably over the traditional fishing village, ‘Rooms for Rent’ say the handwritten placards that women in traditional dress wave at you. Surfer Paradise! Nazaré Monster Wave Tour! American Burger Bar! At the other end of town, Praia do Norte, where the big wave breaks, is still wild and undeveloped.

We stay in a place belonging to Tim Bonython, a veteran wave-chaser, photographer and filmmaker.  It is a stylish apartment in the old town.  There are moody prints of giant waves on the wall and a DVD copy of Tim’s latest film The Big Wave Project has been left casually on the coffee table.

We watch it of course and we are immediately plunged into the gladiatorial world of big wave surfing. A spectator sport quickly becomes compulsive when the penalty for poor performance is death. When your adversary is as implacable and relentless as the ocean then you are deep in a classic myth archetype: man – small and flawed but big of heart – doing battle with the gods. In high definition slo-mo. We find this sense of poetic heroism throughout the Big Wave Museum within Forte San Miguel, housed right under the iconic red lighthouse that features in all those famous Nazaré surf shots. The gallery of hero’s weapons is laid out for us here, in this case the wall of ‘big wave guns’, huge elongated surfboards that can achieve the necessary paddle speed to catch a ten storey wave that is moving at 20mph. The padded wetsuit, with it’s impact protection and buoyancy aids, is up-lit in the shadows, glowing like armour. There are elegies to those who have fallen, messages to the wave. “Nazaré, you gave me the best and the worst time of my life” says one marker-pen homage, scribbled on a broken surfboard.

We go down to Praia do Norte but it is deceptively, quiet. There are some fairly mushy waves breaking late on the shore. You can see the water is seething though in heavy roiling surges, churning up behind the break, sucking back from the beach in dark angry rips. We watch some surfers paddle out and they get pulled around, dunked under the water for long times. They don’t catch much.

We shiver and remember the graphic descriptions of the wipeouts that we heard on the Big Wave Project. The ability of a wave to smash you down 50 foot under the surface in seconds, rupturing your eardrums, twisting limbs, breaking vertebrae. Then to hold you down there, rolling and spinning in your dark-water prison for long minutes. We’ve all experienced enough miniature versions of this scenario to understand the world of panic and limp helplessness that waits down there under the waves. We won’t be surfing Nazaré. The wave is hypnotic though and we sit for a long time up on the beach, just watching the suck and pull of its waves.

A Session to Die For

On the last day of our stay at Dreamsea I was invited to come along for a surf session with the instructors. There was a serious swell forecasted and a bunch of them were getting up early before work to go and catch some big waves at a Gerra, a distant beach which is ‘much more pumping!’ than Oyambre where we normally surf. I wonder if I am ready for this, but it is too good an offer to turn down.

Despite my good intentions, I ended up staying up late the night before. I can never turn down a pub quiz. I got a few hours of restless sleep but was already awake when my alarm went at 5:45am, visualising alternate scenarios where either I totally amazed everyone with epic surfing – of the kind that I had certainly not shown in any of the sessions so far – or where I drowned. I quietly eased out of the tent and dressed outside in the darkness, where I had a small pile of clothes waiting. “Don’t die” said Menna sleepily and rolled over.

There was mist below the pines and a morning chill. It was either that or I was shivering from nerves (how big exactly is ‘big swell’?). I was the first one at the rendezvous and struck a nonchalant pose by the gatepost: surfboard under my arm, wetsuit over one shoulder, wishing for insouciant cigarette to hang off my bottom lip. Gradually the others appeared in ones and twos and a minibus roared up to the gate. We loaded the surf boards onto the roof. We were six all together, I was the only camp guest and I felt a little like I’d gatecrashed a private party.
“You coming too?” I am asked, surprised, by Matteo from the kitchen. Even though the camp is very relaxed, there is the inevitable division between staff and guest, no matter how much ping pong you all play together. Is my presence restrictive? Are the team unable to relax properly and enjoy their session? Do they feel they need to look after me? I was offered a banana and ate it in silence.

We drove along the high coast road and already the waves looked big. We parked on the cliffs and the waves looked bigger. We climbed down to the beach and the waves look bigger still. Glacial green mountains rolling ponderously inwards then smashing down with percussive impact, throwing spray high into the air. The white water is foaming and heaving and sucking. The paddle out looks long and dangerous.

“My God! We gonna surf today!” Says Gigi, good-looking Italian receptionist.
“Those waves look like Bali when it gets big on the reef” says playboy Manu, camp owner.
“Hombre! Last session like this I broke my board” says Victor, our surf coach, though it is understood that he is not on duty now. I am on my own here.

They’re smiling and joking and doing complicated warm up routines. Getting pumped. No one notices that I’ve gone silent and am contemplating quietly hitching a ride back to camp.

But you can’t right? All the bravado; all of the tales of Costa Rica; kids looking up at me with little disappointed eyes, ‘But Daddy, you said you could surf anything…’ (‘That was a frickin joke Arthur! Go back to bed damnit!”). Some things are worse than death by drowning.

So of course I paddled in after them and it turned out just as you would imagine. I quickly lost the others; saw them find the outbound channels; make quick progress out in the gap between sets; paddle up and over those vertical rushing walls that would soon come crashing down on me. Then we were separated by angry mountains of salt water.

I spent a long time in the impact zone on that paddle out. I had some bitter moments of self realisation there. I made the line-up fifteen minutes later, tired and breathless, salt water in my belly, but that arrival felt like a triumph in itself. Friends! Safety! Of a sort. We were bobbing on our boards in a loosely strung-out line, pulled around by rips and currents, floating up over the rollers. I triangulated myself against various reference points on the faraway land. I mustn’t go too far out (too long to paddle in again) mustn’t go too far in (get caught by the big sets) mustn’t drift too far right (rocks). And eventually I found a kind of peace there, in the perfect antithesis of surfing, trying my hardest to go precisely nowhere on a board. Occasionally I would give a thumbs up or shout “nice wave” at one of the others, as they caught another epic ride. It felt good to be part of the pack.

“Go Weeliam, go! Go! Paddle now!” Victor shouted at me, totally breaking my zen. Startled, obedient, I turned and paddled. I was in just the right position and for a moment I felt the wave loom up behind me and saw the line I would take inscribed on it. I felt then that I might do something amazing on that wave. It was so big and steep though that I just screamed my way down the face for some eternal frozen moments, then totally failed to make the turn at the bottom, got caught up in the break and tumbled underneath for a long time. As I rolled in the darkness, twisted and massaged by mighty underwater forces, I reflected on just how amazingly that wave might have gone. And that was pretty much the highlight of the session. There was another time when I drifted out of position and got badly caught inside by a set of five big waves, but I don’t count that.

After the last hold-down I decided that I’d proved my mettle enough for one day and paddled alone back to shore. I had been out for less than an hour.

I sat cross legged on the beach and thought I might meditate for a while while the others finished, but I was far too adrenalised. Instead I watched the white walls and red tiles of far-off San Vicente light up in the morning sun and I congratulated myself on a heroic session.

Did I catch any good waves? No!
Did I have fun? Not really!
But did I survive? Yes!

So let’s take that as a win shall we? A war story: I was out there in the big Gerra swell of 2020. I couldn’t wait to tell the kids how big it was!

Dreamsea

In the foothills of the Cantabrian Cordillera, somewhere between Santander and the baroque palaces of Comillas, we found Camping Huelguero, a neat little spot, fringed with flags and pine trees. As we drove through the site, wondering if those regimented rows really captured the true spirit of camping, we found a smaller hill right at its centre, deeply wooded with oak and eucalyptus, where a steep winding access road was marked out in chalk. We took this track upwards and there, nestled in clearings between the trees, were the tents and rolling walkways of Dreamsea Surf Camp.

It was perched there like a crusader encampment above enemy lines; all bamboo structures, white bell tents emerging from the vegetation, fluttering banners and downtempo beats.

We arrived in this serene oasis and promptly vomited the contents of our car out onto the decking, under the bemused gaze of a handful of surf-bums drinking daiquris at the bar. Bikes, surfboards, skateboards and yoga mats are piled up, wetsuits, backpacks, bags overflowing with laundry (we only left Plymouth two days ago – how is this possible?), electrical wires, a box of school books, half a bottle of Llaphroaig, a badminton set.

We were urged to chill. Just let the luggage sit there, someone will probably deal with it.  Come and take a tour…

There was a central living area with a canteen, bar, chill-out zone and some kind of Swiss Family Robinson bamboo shower block. A teak yoga platform juts out over a gorge, then down a twisted path is an elemental dance floor, sunken in a hidden glade where tree roots tangled with lighting cables and lizards danced in the sunbeams. There was a skateboard ramp and a rack full of bikes and longboards and surfboards for you to help yourself to.

Our bell tents sat on a raised wood decking and they had carpets, beds made of authentic looking coffee pallets with proper linen and there was some kind of antique chest there under the yucca plant. For pampered city folk easing into a life under canvas, this seems like a pretty good start.

There was an ethno-organic-Bali-soulsurf kind of vibe that permeated Dreamsea.  It was super chilled and a consequently a little chaotic.  The showers didn’t have hot water; someone was going to get around to it but they’re probably off surfing right now.  You wandered to the bar to order your sunset mojito to find that bartender, manager, and pretty much everyone really, had downed tools for an impromptu group session on the skate ramp and they’re really into it, and pulling some pretty gnarly moves, and it was probably better not to disturb them.  

The camp was staffed by a tribe of young beautiful people with floppy hair and great tattoos, usually with a beer in hand. They loved to chat. It seemed to be a mandatory requirement that all personnel not only surf, but skate as well, and they were keen to prove their credentials on the ramp that is conveniently right by the bar. Arthur, with his new birthday skateboard barely out of his wrapper, was in total awe. Within three days he had been fully assimilated into the crew and was taking his turns on the ramp and being earnestly coached on how to throw a healside turn. Despite being a longboarder myself (read middle-aged sedate cruiser), this scene was seductive enough that I wanted in. I gave it a few goes and predictably I wiped out hard each time, and soon had cuts all over my feet and elbows. Everyone was so encouraging though, I wanted to nail a big move just to please them.

These were the Lost Boys and Wild Gals of Surf. Chasing the next big wave and some impossible dream, unable or unwilling to put down roots, talking animatedly about what adventures they might find next season (I have a friend in California! I hear the surf in Bali is going off! Head for Sri Lanka dude!). Always looking for something around the next corner: girls, boys, waves, enlightenment, but never having quite found it yet. I liked them a lot. Come and have a mojito! Let’s go and have a dance! Hey Steve, get the BMX onto the skate ramp! They inhabit a celebratory live-for-the-moment kind of world. I think that’s what we’re looking for too.

It became apparent there is a bit of a cult thing about Dreamsea. The Cantabrian location isn’t a one-off, there is a list of sites that reads like a roll call of the surfer heartlands – Bali, Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, Portugal. The staff drift between them, and the more avid guests challenge you for prior visits, before listing the four or five that they’ve stayed at, with their relative merits. We wondered if we were in a subtle indoctrination program. Perhaps we would wake up hungover one day in Bali with Dreamsea hoodies, a collection of tattoos and a rinsed-out bank account.

Victor, our surf instructor was from the Canary Islands. He had a moustache, zinc warpaint and melancholy eyes. His passion for surfing was huge and the kids absolutely loved him. We got a family coaching session on day one: drills and technical instruction on the beach then out together into the breakers where Victor pushed the kids into the smaller shore waves while shouting instructions at me and Menna as we surfed further out at the back.

“No Weeliam, in the bottom turn you must look for your line, then lead with the hands. Shoulder and hips will follow… It’s like salsa! You dance salsa right” Wrong Victor, I dance a kind of jerky techno.

“No Manna, two step pop-up only! Why your knees?”

Our days quickly settle into a pattern that looked something like this: wake, sunrise yoga session, breakfast. Arthur and Matilda do some reluctant school work in the central living area. Morning surf coaching. Picnic lunch on the beach. Afternoon surf coaching. Beach chill, visit local town, eat ice creams. Menna tries to make us all go for a run and sometimes we give in. Skate ramp. Ping pong. Cocktails. Dinner in the dining area. Party / salsa dancing / quiz / concert. Bed. Repeat.

It’s exhausting, but we all made good progress at surfing. The waves were big but mellow. I had my pop up totally re-engineered. The kids are very enthused and would do anything that Victor says. All of us feel our shoulder strength building: we can paddle for longer, catch bigger waves. Arthur is getting the parallels between surfing and skating, it is not long before he starts to put together some fairly slick looking turns on the skate ramp.

We talk to Victor about his tattoos and he weaves a life story around them.

“This one has the lion waving the Rasta flag. People all say it looks like the gay flag but it is not. And ok, so what, I still like it. It was done on a beach in Thailand. This one is the mermaid firstly because of the sea but also because of what she symbolises about love, you know, it never works out and it’s all like an illusion really. You think you’ve found the one but then something always goes wrong. It disappears.” Shrug. “These ones on my shins are High Tide, Low Tide, very common. This one here, ‘Be Everything You Can Be’, was from an advert, a big sign outside the house when I was staying all alone in Canada. It gave me big motivation…” He stops and sighs, something of that lonely Canadian winter flickers across his eyes. “So anyway, the tattoos are my history. Now let’s go surf!”

Matilda won Wave of the Week in a campwide prize ceremony. There was some confusion when she wasn’t there to receive it and we had to drag her out of bed at 11pm in her pyjamas. She was all sleepy and confused but very proud. So were we. So was Victor.

Pont Aven

We are on a ferry! Going to Spain! Escaping Covid, Brexit and the peculiar malaise of being British in the summer. We have slipped the surly bonds of home. Windblown and barefoot, small Nicholls flit across the sundeck like sparrows. We have all of our travel essentials ready: Pringles, beer, a G&T in a plastic cup; binoculars, a picnic and an orange hoodie to wave at tiny far-off Grandma on Plymouth dockside, who cheerily returns our farewell using a Sainsbury’s plastic bag.

We were leaving England on a magnificent adventure, only three months later than planned, and it was Spain of all places that was to be our first overseas destination. Spain I tell you! A country of lemons and olives, jamón, paella, Rioja; with matadors strutting around in their finery like a relics of a bygone age. There would be lush coastlines and parched desert interiors, granite massifs peppered with vineyards, olive groves and precarious adobe villages clinging to the rock face. We would follow the footsteps of George Orwell, Laurie Lee, Ernest Hemingway. The Spanish are a dark-eyed sinuous race, ever laughing and twirling, impervious to the heat of the day. Their glossy hair is always groomed. Some of this flamboyance and self-belief will rub off on us surely. Not for us the Mediterranean sun traps of Malaga and Marbella though – claro que no! We are going to surf our way around the Atlantic coast. Live on pan y chorizo and apricots picked from the tree, fall asleep to a soundtrack of flamenco guitars and Balearic beats. We would camp in the clifftop wildlands of Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia – and just how satisfying are those names as they bubble through your mouth, with their deep Spanish assonance, strange feminine ‘c’s, vibrant fricatives and trilled rhotives (rolled ‘r’s right?)? The Iberian peninsula is the only place to be in summer 2020.

And the ferry was awesome! Huge and new, proudly proclaiming herself the flagship of the Brittany Fleet. The Pont Aven, God Bless her! Or rather que Dieu la bénisse! as onboard there was an charming francophone insistence, which meant all signs, announcements and crew interactions should be initiated in French, despite the fact that the boat was heading between Plymouth and Santander and had nothing to do with France whatsoever. Magnifique!

Our cabin was a triumph in ergonomics. It had a sofa that flipped into a bed and three further bunks that pulled magically down from wall and ceiling panels. There was a bathroom the size of a phonebox full of clever folding gizmos. The kids nearly exploded with excitement, but given the lack of space they could only squeak and bounce furiously for a while before creating a game where you had to hop from bunk to bunk in a certain sequence. I tried it, but was disadvantaged by my size and then Menna told us all off before I could really nail it. We stayed up long into the night, piled on one bunk ,watching Jurassic Park on my iPad, then we slept in very late, confused by the total darkness of our internal berth.

The best thing about the ferry was the wake. A churning highway that stretched straight and true for miles behind us, gleaming foamy white against the dark bottle green sea. I sat on the top deck and watched it for hours with Menna as the kids scampered between decks. At one point we saw a commotion of gulls and dolphins in a feeding frenzy and later there was a lone tern that seemed to navigate along its line for some hours (I wished it had been an Albatross!). We passed the lonely Edistone lighthouse, far out at sea, a navigation milestone that unleashed many nostalgic tales of Menna’s childhood cross-channel voyages.

That wake was a road that connected us to our home port, but it was also a symbol of progress. We were surging forwards on the unmarked face of the ocean, blazing a new path where there was none before.

We have a one-way ticket outbound and who knows when we will be home again.

Why We Ride

I got pulled into surfing because it felt cool and alternative, shallow though that sounds. Menna grew up in Cornwall where the surf culture permeates, so she had an excuse. I still don’t know how an obsession with waves grew so voracious in a lad who grew up in landlocked Hereford and couldn’t even swim that well. Certainly it had something to do with Point Break, a film that detonated deep in my adolescent psyche and left some pretty deep marks. I had an image of surfers as a bunch of carefree, muscled, tanned, laid-back Gods of the Sea. And who doesn’t want to be in that gang? It’s anti-establishment but it’s not nihilist. There are associations of punk and skater culture on the one side, and a spiritual, at-one-with-nature, mysterious soul-surfer ethos on the other – but there’s a stick-it-to-the-man kind of vibe that bridges both camps. It’s aspirational, particularly to anyone who believes themselves to be liberal and non-conformist. We know of course that many elements of surf culture today are as manufactured and infiltrated by big business as any of the tribal demographics that are packaged up and marketed to us, but even so, it came from something pure and simple and the value-set feels good.

The reputation and culture is enough to get you out there into the ocean (probably on a foamtop). You want to give it a try. You’re ready to rip! Then you get to find out the first hidden truth at the heart of surfing: for something that is predicated around such a simple ideal – to stand up and glide for some seconds on the unbroken face of a wave – it is astonishingly difficult. There are levels of complexity that hide behind that simple premise, and once you start breaking down the constituent parts, then they quickly become complicated and technical. Position on the board, paddle techniques, getting out back (over waves, turtle-roll, duck-dive), reading sets, understanding wave shape, anticipating the break point, the paddle-in, the pop-up, stance and positioning, turning and moving on the wave face, power zones, when to bail, wave priority and etiquette.

When you start out it seems like a trick has been played on you. Something you assumed would be so straightforward is in fact fiendish and full of hidden artforms. But whenever you watch anyone who is half-decent, their movement on the wave is so graceful and elegant it strips away the complexity. A great surfer seems to embody a mental and physical sense of flow that seems otherworldly and very connected in form to the ebb and swell of the sea.

So you have a choice. Either you realise it is too hard and will take too long to master, and so you give it up and maybe turn to golf. Or you are fired up by the challenge, your desire to be a zen master of the waveform is strong enough for you to take the first steps on a long winding road where progress is measured against a far off horizon that never seems to get any closer. You must learn to take beatings, that are many and varied, yet specific enough to have names – the Hold-Down, the Spin Cycle, Caught Inside, On the Head and the worst one, that sinking feeling when you think you’ve just made it over a large breaking wave, only for it to suck you back over the crest to topple down the face with the full force of the wave (and maybe your board) landing on top of you. We call that Over the Falls.

You have proper realisations of ‘this is it. I’m actually about to DIE!’, not just once or twice, but tens of times: moments when you are thrashing blindly in deep water, having been spun viciously, now swimming towards the surface in desperation, lungs empty, only to realise your leash is tugging you the other way and in fact you’re swimming downwards. But as the beatings get worse (you’re progressing to bigger waves) so do the moments of victory get more intense. You catch a wave right in the sweet spot and suddenly you’re there, in a moment of sunlight and silence, the universe crystallised down to a single point of time and emotion, as you scream down a wall of water, knees compressing with the g-force as you bottom-turn into the wave and see it stretched out in front of you like an emerald highway, and you ride it for perhaps five seconds, maybe even eight. Two or three waves like that in a session will sustain you for weeks. You’ll talk at length about them to anyone who’ll listen.

Over time you get to understand another of the dichotomies of surfing. The emotional intensity is driven on one side by the feeling of flow, elevation and ‘oneness’’ with nature when you catch a wave. On the other side it is pushed by adrenaline and pure fear when the wave catches you. Above and below. Fear and joy. Effort and grace. You’re never quite sure which side of the game is responsible for that aching, shaking, drained feeling you get once you finally climb out of the surf.

Your mindset changes over time of course. A large part of any surf session involves sitting out on your board beyond the break, examining the topography of the ocean. You’re trying to anticipate wave size, speed and peak from a distant bump on the sea’s face. Is this set spaced out? Are they clustered? Doubled-up? Where will they spike? Can I catch this? Am I in danger? You need to calculate all of this before the wave reaches you in order to select the right waves and get in position to catch them, or identify the ‘clean-up’ sets and get safely over them. So you sit watching the ocean with single-minded focus. For long stretches. In silence. Floating. It’s a lot like meditation really and it’s an addictive part of the game. You see a lot of surfers off-session just sitting on beaches, cliffs, dunes, zoning out and watching the waves build and crash. I’m writing this now in a notebook, sitting high up on a dune, watching the waves peal in between sentences. They look sweet today, coming through in well ordered lines with a slight offshore breeze glassing up the faces.

A moment of honesty here. Even after a year of surfing in Central America, trips to Bali, Sri Lanka, Hawaii and various European sessions here and there over the following fifteen years, I am still not a good surfer. Not close. I don’t catch lots of the waves that I paddle for. I don’t link beautiful turns on the face and I can’t do a snappy cutback. I have been deep inside a few barrels, but flailing around, off my board and preparing for an almighty beating. But I love it and I want it always to be a part of my life. “The best surfer out there is the one who’s having most fun” as the zen master once said. So I try always to smile as I get sucked back once more over the falls.

Surfing is such an amazing concept. You’re taking on Nature with a little stick and saying, ‘I’m gonna ride you!’ And a lot of times Nature says, ‘No you’re not!’ and crashes you to the bottom

Jolene Blalock

Covid Don’t Surf

What drew us to North Devon, other than having nowhere else to go, was the surf.

Since our year in Central America we still think of ourselves as surfers. Yes, it’s true that barring a couple of weeks in Bali in 2008 and a very occasional session here and there in Cornwall or Portugal, we haven’t really surfed properly in 15 years. But it’s like riding a bike right? And so, once we get down to Devon, boards loaded on the top of the car, many readings of the swell reports en route, heated discussions about pressure systems and fin types, we are ready to wind back the clock and dive back into a life on the waves.

A storm system battered the South West on the Friday a few days before our arrival and our go-to forecaster Magic Seaweed is showing that there is still going to be some solid swell on on our first morning. It’s a little big for Menna’s first day, but I’m itching to paddle out.

The sun’s shining. I wax up my trusty 6’4” squash tail thruster, attach the leash and walk into the sea. I bob over the first few lines of white water then start to paddle out to the line-up with strong powerful strokes. My shoulders wake up, instantly responding to the demands with some innate muscle memory. I navigate a large incoming set without too much difficulty, timing my duck dives to slip smoothly beneath the breaks. The cold water hits my face like an invigorating tonic. The waves are coming in neat clean lines, about six feet high and barrelling slightly. It‘s big, but nothing compared to Puerto Escondido in 2005 – or that gnarly reef break we surfed in Panama. Getting out back, I feel my heart rate is nicely elevated, lungs are working well, there is blood coursing through my muscles. There are about 15 surfers clustered around the peak. Fellow pros. They look at me and recognise one of their kind.

I float on my board and wait. It’s not long until the next set, and I watch the guys position themselves and then drop in smoothly on wave after wave. It’s clear they know this break well. Then my chance comes. The last wave of the set breaks late and the peak has shifted slightly to the left, catching everyone out of position, except for me out on the edge of the pack. I paddle hard for it, feeling the tail of my surfboard lift, getting my chest down and accelerating my strokes just as the wave ramps. Then there it is: the glide, that most amazing sensation as my speed matches the wave speed and then we are planing together. I am high on the face of the wave and bang in the pocket, the wave face is crumbling right next to me. I explode to my feet and I’m off, left rail wedged into a green wall that swells and builds in front of my board. The ride picks up in pace as I take a sharp diagonal down the wave face and then a sweeping bottom turn. Up to the top and it’s time for a cutback. My board carves a tight S shape to turn back towards the break and refind the pocket, which I’ve now outpaced.

On and on the wave runs and I’m drawing beautiful lines. My fins carve a white signature into the green face for all to see. It’s a moment of pure harmony between man and ocean. The tears in my eyes are only half from the wind.

And then a soft fade back to reality. This is a composite of several daydreams I’ve been having on the way to Devon, and they have carried me happily right up to this moment. This moment now. My surfboard under my arm, a hero’s pose, standing calm and ready at the water’s edge

The sun’s shining. I wax up my trusty 6’4” squash tail thruster, attach the leash and walk into the sea. I bob over the first few lines of white water then start to paddle out to the line-up with strokes that feel rather laboured and ineffective. A big set comes in and I remember the adrenaline shot of fear as a huge slab rumbles towards you. I remember how huge a wave looks from your low vantage point at its base. I remember the feeling of impact that resembles nothing so much as a ton of liquid cement being poured on your back from height. There are relentless white walls lined up angrily in front of you, and you need to pass through them all before you find yourself in deep calm waters. Inefficient duck-dives rob you of air and leave you floundering in foam before the next wave crashes right on top of you. Poor paddle technique means you lose meters of progress with every wave you pass.

And so it happens today. I get caught in the impact zone for a long time, shoulders quickly weakened, lungs on fire, salt water in my stomach. For several waves I have to ditch my board entirely and just dive under, feeling the leash on my ankle yanking frantically as my abandoned board gets smashed around on the surface. Finally there’s a gap between sets and I’m able to limp my way out back, gasping and red faced.

I float on my board and wait. It’s not long until the next set, and I watch the guys position themselves and then drop in smoothly on wave after wave. It’s clear they know this break well. I’ve no heart to go after anything myself, I’m exhausted already. I try to get my breathing back to acceptable levels and slip into a reverie. I don’t notice that everyone has suddenly started paddling fast for the horizon. The clean-up set has arrived, a group of monster waves that are far larger and therefore break far deeper than the rest. One by one everyone makes it over the crest of the first roller, but I’m caught inside again and I take the full impact of the first big wave and then its companions. I am dragged deep under and spun around flailing, emerging for a frantic breath before getting hit by the next. And the next. I get swept far enough towards shore that once the super set has finished, I’m way out of place again and have to do another weary paddle back out.

As I reach the line up again I see a beautiful wave coming through. The peak has shifted slightly to the left, catching everyone out of position, except one lad. He paddles hard for it, feeling the tail of his surfboard lift, getting his chest down and accelerating his strokes just as the wave ramps. I am totally in his way. He is forced to pull out at the last moment and he mouths something at me which I can’t hear. I limp my way to the edge of the pack. There are about 15 surfers clustered around the peak and they look like pros. When they look at me it is clear that I am not one of their kind.

But I will be.

Signs of Freedom

Since we escaped London some weeks ago now, we have been going through a mental shift.

It is something to do with moving into a very rural area, having lots of free time and being outside for most of the day. There is a different set of signals we pick up now. New priorities steal our attention. People talk a lot these days about re-wilding gardens and outdoor spaces; allowing nature to reclaim manicured lawns and geometric lines. In a way it feels like we are rewilding too.

We came here from the city. That means we came from a place where energy and determination are revered and prioritised above all else. We measured efficiency and productivity at work. We obsessed about ways to improve metrics and smash our targets. At home we charted our step count, heart rate and sleep time, sharing them with communities who would then push us to improve. We tacitly competed with our friends on the quality of our dinner parties. We tried to improve our running speed and build our pushup count. Life moved fast and all moments were accounted for.

Once you step out of all that and dial down the speed of life, it takes a while to reprogram the system. The first week or two down here you could see Menna or I suddenly stiffen up like prairie dogs at a given moment, as our minds threw up random worries to try and get the panic systems rebooted. (NO! I forgot to put light fittings on the inventory! Coffee cup slips out of numb fingers to smash on the floor.) We would ping awake in the night, grasping for something to get all twisted up about. (What if we need to vote in a snap general election? We have no current residency! Heart thumps madly in the darkness). We’d check social media surreptitiously on family walks. We would obsess about the news.

Then slowly it slips away. The interruptions become less frequent, then disappear. The nights become longer and fuller. We wake slowly with strange tastes in our mouths and the lingering aftermath of heavy dreams. Focus builds and small tasks absorb us. Sometimes we find ourselves just sitting and thinking for a while, doing nothing really.

Busy minds, deprived of action plans and to-do lists, start to open up other enquires. They turn outwards towards the world. The wind is strong today and it’s shifted to behind the dunes. I’ve never seen clouds twisted up into a vertical column like that. Who is that small bird who trills between the sea gulls’ screams? It feels somehow like it’s going to rain later.

Once you recognise this shift, and you open yourself to it, then the world suddenly seems full of signals and patterns that were hidden to you before. It feels big. You can turn it into a huge spiritual revelation and believe that the universe is whispering in your ear. Three cormorants heading east before summer’s dusk? Winds are coming I tell you! Or maybe it just makes you feel content and a little more connected to this new landscape around you. You might feel that yes, you did make the right move coming down here.

A kestrel hovers on the headland almost every evening now hunting his prey. Little pulses of his wings keep him motionless above the gorse even as the wind blows everything else around.

The fields near us hide a subterranean population of rabbits who emerge out for a cautious sniff early mornings and at dusk. A slight noise and they will all skitter away, a tumble of white feathery tails disappearing into the hedgerow.

A pungent weed permeates the hedgerows and dune flowers. It is called Houndstongue but known locally as Rats and Mice because of its musky damp rodent smell. We all found it disgusting the first time we smelt it. Now it’s like a soggy friend that comes to greet you as you walk down the sandy lane to the beach.

Foxgloves are everywhere this month, priapic purple stalagmites rising out of the gorse. There is a similar-looking but more reserved blue flower in the dunes which I prefer. It’s got the awesome name of Viper’s Bugloss.

The tides reshape the beach and headlands every hour. We’re getting to know the timings more intuitively now, and more importantly to recognise the confluence of wind, tide and swell that makes the best waves.

A flock of goldfinches (no sorry, a charm of goldfinches) surprise us with sudden flashes of red and yellow as they flitter past like leaves in a gale.

You come to see how the prevailing westerly wind has comprehensively sculpted the landscape around us. You realise how relentlessly it bends and pushes everything away eastwards, and then then you start to see its mark everywhere; triangles and wedges sculpted into dunes, gorse, trees, hills and even the limestone cliff faces. The hypotenuse always points down to the most westerly point.

I saw a single dolphin far out at sea one evening, a leaping shape midway to the horizon. I was alone in the surf as the sun was setting and to be honest it was something of an epiphany.

Arthur and I went out to do some starwatching in the dunes. We found The Pointer stars at the end of the plough and they directed us to Polaris, then on to Deneb which, together with Vega and Altair, make up the Navigator’s Triangle. This always points you southwards I lectured Arthur (well ok, an iPhone is easier but that’s not the point).

On a Sunday cliff walk we saw a family of seals far below in the rockpools. Their whiskery heads bobbed up for a quick a chat before they slipped down again below the dark green swelling waters.

There is a good but infrequent wind that comes from the east and makes the waves clean and glassy.

I want to develop a subconscious sense of where the cardinal points are, even in cloud cover or deep in a forest (Arthur can already do this but I can’t. I’ve always had a rubbish sense of direction).

We arrived into two straight weeks of atmospheric high pressure, so hard blue skies and sun. Now the system has moved on and we feel smaller beneath a huge expansive cloud world whose architectures show various distinct textures and densities in different strata above us.

For many days last week there was an ominous storm cloud which stretched squat and black right down to the horizon. It seemed to trap light beneath it, so that the hills and cliffs seemed strangely illuminated and you could see for miles. We spent our days outside slightly on edge, feeling that the storm might vent down upon us at any point. The air was so thick and charged with electricity. All that tension and power just hung there in stasis though, hovering above us for days. It barely even rained. I don’t know why.

A dead gannet waited on the beach the other day. It was on its back, half submerged, neck thrust up as if its last moments were spent trying to force its way up from its sandy tomb for one final flight. We gathered in a semi circle around it, the kids silent and solemn. It was a sober moment, like finding a whale’s carcass in the desert, or a frozen hand reaching up out of the glacier. I was going to give some homily about the circle of life and how death comes to all things, but in the end I just kept quiet.

There are books that help decipher these messages. On my bedside table right now I have Wild Signs and Star Paths by Tristan Gooley. It’s a lucid exploration of hidden keys and signals in nature and how to determine their significance. Can we recapture such a sense of awareness of our environment that we read signs and link patterns instinctively, generating subconscious insights on weather, direction, animal behaviour that feel something like sixth sense? (Pretty cool right?). Then, as a counterpoint, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos lifts your gaze away, up to the most distant horizons, for a universal context. Great travellers lead the way – Redmond O’Hanlan, Bruce Chatwin, Ryszard Kapuściński. They talk about leaving behind the impediments of your former life and going through a kind of rebirth on the road. We have guides to animals, flowers, geology, trees, stars. On my phone I have downloaded the Collins Birds app.

It feels like there is a lot to learn.

I had long felt in my gut that the world was extravagantly rich with signs… Many thousands of hours outdoors had led to my spotting patterns, asymmetries and trends; they were beautiful but often hard to explain.

Tristan Gooley. Wild Signs and Star Paths

Finally, at the end of our wandering, we return to our tiny, fragile, blue and white world, lost in a cosmic ocean vast beyond our most courageous imaginings. It is a world among an immensity of others. It may be significant only for us… It is on this world that we developed our passion for exploring the Cosmos, and it is here that we are, in some pain and with no guarantees, working out our destiny.

Carl Sagan. Cosmos