In Search of Wolves: Part 3
I head north, armed with a map of Iberian Wolf distribution, a pair of binoculars, my old dog Henry, and my even-older but still-going-strong Salewa tent.
I drive through the Rio Douro Natural Park, which runs along Portugal’s northeastern border. My park4night app shows a camping spot, right beside the river. The Douro is a mighty beast which, for some distance, makes up the boarder with Spain. When I meet it, it is snaking it’s way through a deep gorge, and the road likewise, snakes along beside it. On this, the Portuguese side, there are olives, vineyards and citrus orchards. The Spanish side on the opposite bank is mostly wild, with a few cattle grazing the scrubby forest.
I arrive at the site on the app to find a beautifully manicured park, and a bar, jutting out over the river. It’s a delightfully warm day but this place is almost entirely deserted. Covid, I think. I study the lovely green lawns, no doubt sprinklers will go off here in the dead of night. This might be a good place for camper vans, but it’s no good for a tent.
I’m anxious to find a place to camp so after a late lunch in the park, I take a walk down the dirt track beside the river. Half a kilometre later, the verge beside the water widens to accommodate 7 large Poplar Trees. Beneath them is a perfect spot for a tent with an enchanting view across to the wild hills of Spain. This place is also however, very solitary. As long as I set up camp at night fall, I think, not many people will see me, and I should be safe enough. Best make it only one night though.
An exotic sounding bird calls from the canopy, a rich song which would be more at home in the tropics. I take out my binoculars and try and find it amongst the quaking leaves, but to no avail. From the recesses of my mind it comes to me that this is the song of the Golden Oriole, a beautiful summer migrant. As I look up once more a streak of yellow darts from the tree tops, off down the river.
I fetch the car and set up camp as day fades to night. The almost full moon is just rising above the hills on the other side of the river. All becomes still as the last of the sunlight fades. The only sounds are the occasional fish jumping, and the clatter of bat wings, as they fly about over-head. I sit for a longtime beside the water, under the light of the moon. It is healing something in me this trip, being out here with my wilder kin.
The following morning the rising sun fills my tent with a delicious warmth. A Black Kite is working it’s way back and forth along the bank. Chaffinches and Sparrows chatter in the branches above my head. A Fox barks on the opposite bank and I can hear the Golden Oriole in the canopy tops once more.
I take out my phone and study the maps of Wolf distribution on the Iberian peninsula. I’m supposedly in Wolf country already, but I can’t imagine Wolves here, amongst all these farms. The wildness of the Spanish bank looks much more hopeful. I sit contemplating the view across the water, wondering what to do with the day, I should really pack up and move on.
Henry, my dog, has Cushing’s syndrome. His body over produces cortisol due to a tumour in the brain. I have little choice in the heat of summer, but to slow down to his pace. Like a wolf pack, travel at the pace of the slowest member of the family. At times this is frustrating, but mostly it is an immense teacher. I have to stop, and be still more.
Sensing Henry’s need of it, I decided to take a rest day. I’ve found this beautiful place after all, but I still don’t seem to have dropped out of my everyday ‘doing’ mode. I don’t feel completely here, in the moment. I watch this unsettledness within me. I notice (much like a predator does when hunting), that I am looking intently out at the world. So I try something once taught to me, and switch to taking-the-world-in, through a lens of wonder, awe and curiosity.
I am astonished by the immediacy of the effect. I quickly feel calmer, more present and content to be still. I also start seeing more. I turn and look up at the crag behind me. I can see tell-tale signs of raptors, their bright white guano splattered on the lichen covered granite. I train my binoculars and find Griffon Vultures. One, two, no four, lazing in the morning sun, one with wings outstretched. Later, one by one they take off onto the thermals and drift upwards in figures of eight.
House Martins and Cliff Martins fly back and forth beneath the cliffs, and Bee Eaters fly somewhere high above me, evident by their chattering calls. A bright red fresh-water crab ambles out from under a rock near the water’s edge, and a large green lizard suns itself in the ashes of a fire.
So much of life is spent on the move looking for the next event horizon, but when we stop, it seems we become the event horizon. Life gathers around, animals and birds get used to our presence and treat us like we belong. When we take the world in through the lens of an innocent child, we go from being threatening, to being part of the world, and these close encounters become the norm.
Amongst this peace and tranquillity, the human world does it’s damnedest to create disturbance. A man in a council vehicle and a fire truck turn up to burn tree roots and branches, piled up in the siding behind my camp. I’m more than a little alarmed by this, seeing how many forest fires Portugal experiences each year. As the fire rages into an inferno with 4-5 metre high flames, the fire brigade folks spray water to calm it down. They’re all of the opinion that it’s perfectly safe. But no doubt so are the people who end up causing wild fires!
After he’s finished telling me his life story about living in Canada and ending up here, I asked the man from the council about Wolves. “There aren’t any here,” he says, “but over there maybe.” He gestures towards the other side of the river. There’s a feeding station however, just 5 kilometres up the hill from here. A place where lynx and vultures come to feed.”
“What! Really?” I get super excited at this prospect. The Iberian Lynx is the most endangered wild cat in the world, existing only in fragments of habitat, mostly hunting reserves. We agree that he, the man from the council, will come back at 6.30 so we can go there together. He tells me his name but I promptly forget because he tells me 3 names. Now all I now know is that he’s one of the three wise kings. I google it, oh yes, Gaspar, Belchlor and Baltazar.
Gaspar arrives promptly, in a beat-up old, red, seat. Once I’m in the car however, I realise that he’s drunk. I’m unimpressed and consequently quiet as we drive. He wants to know what’s wrong, but I don’t wish to say while he is driving me up this steep winding road. Then he casually informs me that he’d got it wrong. There are no lynx here, just vultures. Great, I think. Oh well, let’s get this over with and try and stay alive.
The feeding station is a none event, however we carry on a little further to a view point. Drunk or not, I am grateful to Gaspar for showing me this place. The views up and down the Douro are spectacular. What from my camping site feels like an intimate corner of the river, is suddenly thrown into a much greater context.
To our left, the old Spanish lookout post from times of contraband traffic is dwarfed by the dam and electrical installation below. The scrubby forest I look out at from camp, is now a fragment of wilderness. A few hills at the edge of the vast Spanish meseta, which stretches as far as the eye can see.
My drunk companion, who is alarmingly wobbly as we walk up onto some craggy rock to see the view, keeps asking ‘do I like it?’ I tell him it’s spectacular, each and every time, which is about every 3 minutes.
While looking down I spot a Black Stork circling below us, it’s brilliant red-pink bill and legs, poking out front and back as it elegantly glides. This is an endangered species here in Portugal, along with the Griffon and Egyptian Vultures. Am I endangered species I wonder? A lone woman with a pair of binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of the birds and animals that live here.
Through the binoculars I spot a Griffon Vulture’s nest. There is what looks like a baby bird, huddled within a sparse circle of stick on a ledge. I keep my eyes on it for a while, then the grey lump stretches its featherless wings. My not so wise companion is too drunk to find it through the binoculars. As he tries, an Egyptian Vulture skirts the cliff and away again. Entirely white and black, this is the smallest of the vulture species, and what a friend describes as, beautifully ugly.
Eventually we get back in the car. On the way Gaspar insists on giving me a tour of his town, stopping to say hi to everyone he knows. I feel I might be on parade. He wants to take me to dinner, I want to go home. He dutifully drops me off.
I feel a bit frazzled from the outing with my drunk friend, so I go to the bar on the river and have a drink myself. I end up talking to a girlfriend in the UK on the phone, so I order a second beer. Then after a while the waitress comes over with a third. She says, “The man over there bought you this,” pointing at a rotund middle aged gentleman who looks like he might push paper around for a living. “He’s a councillor,” she informs me with a smile that says, ‘you’re in luck’. It’s always slightly strange being bought a beer by someone you’ve not met. Unsettling in my situation, a single woman, camping wild. Refusing it does nothing to alter the odds of risk, so I drink the beer and leave, thanking the man as I pass.
Back at camp, a candle lite, the moon blazing down, I start to figure out what to eat. It’s late and I’m really hungry. It’s another magical, still night and I’m happy with the moon and Henry for company. Then I stop what I’m doing. I can hear the sound of a vehicle coming down the track. There are no houses down here, and no through road. I instinctively blow out the candle and get into the tent and get Henry in with me and hold him tight, hoping he understands not to make a noise. I don’t even have time to close the tent door, so I huddle out of sight, and reach out for my machete.
The pickup passes, slowly. Then it stops 50 metres away and turns around. My heart pounds with fear. What the hell will I do if it stops? It passes slowly once more, then 50 metres back up the track, it turns around again. My heart is in my mouth now. Who is this, and what do they want? It passes slowly a third time then goes further, a few minutes away. I stay stock still not knowing what else to do. Then it passes one final time before disappearing into the night.
Was it that man who bought me the beer? Or some other guy in the bar? Whatever, whoever, it doesn’t matter, because I’m raging. More than afraid I am furious. Furious that it is so difficult for a woman to feel free and safe at the same time. I feel myself transforming into a witch. Angry words pour from my mouth. “If whoever that was dares to come back, he’d better be afraid, because I have a machete and will be happy to use it.” Like a woman possessed, a vicious wild cat, I overflow with fury. But I’m frightened too. Too frightened to move in fact, I don’t eat any dinner, I don’t even move from where I am. Eventually I fall asleep, machete in hand, hungry and exhausted.
The following morning Gaspar comes to check on the remains of yesterday’s fire. He is with a colleague and I am glad to see his familiar, friendly face. To break the ice after yesterday, I show him the Black Stork in the bird book.
“No, we didn’t see that,” he says.
“We did,” I say, “but you were to drunk to see it.” I say the last bit quietly in English to save him embarrassment in front of his colleague.
“No!” he insists, “I wasn’t drunk! Well, maybe a little.”
They leave and I pack. On the way out I stop at the bar to use the toilets. Gaspar is there, watering the lawns. The water has gathered in a puddle, and a dozen House Martins busily collect the mud to make their nests. Gaspar starts with an apology, he’s evidently very embarrassed about yesterday. He tells me he’s so sorry, it was his friends fault. That they had a drink because a colleague died recently, and the funeral is tomorrow.
I feel glad that Gaspar has the chance to save face. I’m guessing he’s an alcoholic, but he’s a good, kind-hearted man. We shake hands, and say goodbye until next time. Sometimes you just know good people when you meet them.
There have been occasions in my life when I have found myself in a discussion (usually with the academics) about whether instinct is a real phenomena. To me, the idea that it is not is absurd. The world on many occasions hasn’t just sent me felt instincts, but has actually spoken directly to me.
Cultivating a relationship with this inner knowing, which is one and the same as an intimate connection with the world around us, is essential; not just to keep safe from danger but in order to grow into a soul-lead life. To stop listening solely to the social-conditioned mind, we must cultivate this ability to listen, through our bodies to Gaia, Mystery – the vast collective intelligence of the world around us.
This journey in search of Wolves is, in part, the seeking of this wilder way of being. What can I learn from Wolf? What does she know about how to be in the world, that I am yet to understand?