Beyond the Beaches: An Algarve Jeep Safari
Portugal’s Algarve may be a seaside paradise but there’s more to it than sand and surf. With orange groves, cork plantations and traditional hillside villages, the interior of the region is ripe for exploring by foot or bike. And if the sun is too hot or your feet too tired you can go by jeep on a forest track safari, sampling the layered history, landscape and local produce of the region. If you took a map and called yourself an explorer you’d be in good company…
Adventure began here…
You could say world adventure began on the South Western tip of Portugal. This is where Henry The Navigator studied the ocean and built a school which attracted explorers like Columbus with a thirst for knowledge, maps and plans. “Henry’s school led to the mapping of West Africa. But Henry rarely went out on a boat. He was the thinker,” says Frank Koopman, our Jeep Safari guide and owner of Outdoor-Tours.com.
In today’s group Cameron is the thinker
As we drive through neat orange groves on the climb up Foia, Algarve’s highest mountain, my son comes up with his own plans. Not to explore but to clean up financially, “We’re going to come here, cut down the trees and plant more. Not oranges but lemons. We’ll have 1 million trees producing 50 lemons each. They’ll be picked and put on conveyor belts and taken to the lemonade factory to be squeezed and bottled.”
“Do you think 7 Up might already have corned the market?” says Stuart gently, not wanting to pop his lemon flavoured bubble too quickly.
But Cameron isn’t put off. “If you warm up lemons before squeezing them, you get more juice. 7 Up might not know that. And our lemonade will be fizz free. That will be its USP.”
A quicker return on investment
In truth, he might be better off producing cork to push into the bottles. It’s phenomenal here; all the way up the mountainside oak trees half stripped of bark reach for the sky, slowly recovering from the last harvest and growing the next batch of bottle stoppers. Once the bark has been taken, the tree isn’t allowed by law to be touched again for nine years.
Cameron wouldn’t make a quick buck here. “It’s a 25 year investment that can be destroyed in one summer by a forest fire.” says Frank. “So Cameron, if the lemon trees don’t work out, what are you going to do?” My son stops in his tracks. He hasn’t got a plan B. Yet.
“Well, here’s where the eucalyptus starts.” Frank tells him, planting a new seed in the mind of our own Alan Sugar. “Eucalytpus takes just six or seven years to establish and takes over everything.”
“You’d get a return on that much quicker,” suggests Stuart.
Nature is abundant here
In truth, a small boy would never run out of dreams in the Portugese hills. While towns like Albufeira rely on the ‘strip’ to bring in tourist bucks from England, France and Spain, the Serra de Monchique mountain range and its surrounding rural interior are far more diverse than the coast in terms of income and landscape. At this time of year it’s a green and pleasant land, although later it will become parched and brown as the summer sun beats relentlessly down.
Frank guides our vehicle along rivers, orange terraces and shady track. We bump over potholed road past fertile valleys spotted with mimosa that hasn’t yet flowered, rock roses that have been and gone and orange trees that will soon break into blossom. All around us grapes, carob and cork grow at snail’s pace on land nourished by sunlight and protected from the north wind. We pass houses with water wheels that were once driven by donkeys, and whitewashed houses and sheds. It’s a journey back in time to life at a slower pace.
Coffee time and the best cake
In the hillside town of Casais, weathered old men manage to pass the time of day on the streets without talking to each other. We stop at Café Canelas for the best chocolate cake my grandmother never made. We are the only customers in the tiny, dark space. I want to tell the whole mountain about this cake, but I can’t speak more than a few words of Portuguese and my mouth is too full. Frank is originally Dutch but knows the lingo. He orders lemonade for the kids. It comes freshly squeezed and ice cold.
“I think someone might have got there before you,” I say to Cameron, who has moved on to designing the layout of his lemon groves.
A rich and fertile land
Coffee break over, and cake washed down, we move up through the village, passing more locals sitting in the sun. “They probably don’t have heating in their homes and it’s warm out here,” laughs Frank. Our destination is the mountain village of Monchique and when we arrive the morning market is just winding up. There were once 9,000 residents in this settlement but occupancy has now dwindled to 5000 as the younger people headed down to the coast to look for work. Mind you the ones who stayed must be doing alright as they share ten high street banks between them. “That makes one bank for every 500 people,” says the entrepreneur in the back, assessing his chance of getting credit from the Portuguese financiers. I don’t tell him about their current credit rating in Europe.
Up and up through terraced countryside
We pass the biggest fire station in the region; designed to handle the many forest fires that annually attack the landscape. Then we’re back into the countryside, where lone women with garden tools in their hands work the land.
“The water is in the hills and it runs down from one terrace to the next. You’ll often see the women out here, changing the sand to irrigate the next terrace. The men will be drinking coffee. It’s a good system here,” jokes Frank as we pull into a smallholding with an entrance piled with cardboard beehives. Antonio and his family have a licensed business producing honey and medronho; a local firewater that makes your eyes water with one tiny sip. We take a look at the kiln and taste his wares while he sits quietly watching us on an old chair in the barn.
Frank explains how the medronho berries are kept in barrels to ferment, before water is added and the liquid is distilled in casks for 3 months. Antonio is poorly dressed and his distilling equipment is ancient. I buy honey from him and consider buying a bottle of Medronho I will never drink so the guy can feed his family. As we drive on to the top of the mountain Frank points out the extent of Antonio’s land. I’m not feeling quite so sorry for him any more. In fact, I’m considering sending Cameron to him for a business loan.
Race to the top
We go above the tree line and look down the valley as it stretches away into the distance. “I love the sea, but the mountains are more interesting as they change all the time,” says Frank. Today there are a few unusual changes to the top of the hill as the stage is set for the finishing line of a stage of the Volta ao Algarve bike race. Riders from countries as diverse as Columbia and Russia will be bombing up the mountain in bright journeys on lightweight machines in just a few minutes time. We stand on a bend and look out for British rider Mark Cavendish once we have established that Bradley Wiggins won’t be joining us. With a few leaders more than seven minutes ahead, the peloton steadily climbs the hill. Whole teams of riders shoot past us in a blink of an eye. They’ll probably be back at the coast before we will.
Winding down the valley
Frank needs to do some three point turns on tight bends on the way back down. But the views are worth the effort. At our feet is Sagres – the symbolic end of the world, and we spot our temporary riverside home of Portimao. There are walking trails and biking trails all around, including the Via Algarviana walking route to the Spanish border. I think of the ugly tourist strip at Albufeira and wonder why so many people come to the Algarve and stick to the beach when they could head straight into paradise like this. There is so much for a family to do here; hiking, biking, horse riding, exploring. The hills are made for an adventure.
But they’re not just for fun. Frank points out the cork factory in the valley; busy steaming the bark to smoke out the ants and other bugs. He shows us the trucks trundling around a quarry that sends granite kitchen tops to the Middle East. He takes us past a vast Formula One race track that from time to time buzzes with cars but is eerie and silent today.
All the time Cameron takes notes. In case he ever comes back. With a wad of Euros, a realistic business plan and a few more words of Portugese.
You can do one of Frank’s downhill tours by bike, or you can head up the hill like we did in the jeep on a safari adventure. Frank is offering readers of our site a 10% discount on a four person jeep tour if you book before 31st October 2013 and quote Family Adventure Project. Call +351 912 120 123 or check out http://www.outdoor-tours.com/