Hot & Wild Up The Guadiana
We wanted to spend time here, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the Guadiana experience, we’re doing just that.
The weeks have passed quickly, Gail has been back to the UK, I’ve been thinking, writing, re-thinking, not writing. It was time for a change of scene.
So, last week, we lifted the anchor and headed upstream with the tide, pottering along at a few knots enjoying the views.
Many of the boats that come up the Guadiana never go further than Alcoutim and Sanlucar, they’re missing a treat.
The signs of human habitation become fewer, the occasional ‘Finca’ with obligatory pontoon or landing stage, a boat on a mooring and maybe a bit of cultivation. Apart from that there is just the odd ruined building, missing roof, crumbling white painted stone walls. The countryside on either bank is drier and sparser.
Some 8km miles on from Alcoutim, after passing the Rio Vascão, we reached the old Spanish mining port of Puerto de Laja. The place is dominated by the old ore bunkers above the quay where, up until the 60’s, copper ore was loaded onto sizeable ships and transported worldwide.
The ore used to come from various mines in Huelva province between the Rio Guadiana and the Rio Tinto some 70km East. Rio Tinto, of course, gave it’s name to what is now one of the largest global mining companies in the world. It was formed in the late 1800’s and dug up a sizeable chunk of Spain to get at the valuable ore and sulphates.
Inevitably though the industry went into decline, the mouth of the river silted up preventing the ships getting in, the mines became less productive and then, in the late 50’s Rio Tinto pulled all the English staff, families and belongings out overnight. The first the Spanish workers knew about it was when they turned up to work next morning to find the gates locked. They left the land scarred and the people bitter.
A web search on Rio Tinto Mining soon shows that this shameful behaviour became company policy. Their record of environmental damage and human abuse continues to this day; Sad.
Another 5km upriver we arrived at Pomarão, once again the ugly rusting remnants of mining dominate the place. There are some signs of life though, a small pontoon, a few cafes. It didn’t appeal enough for us to stop.
Pomarão is notable mainly as a junction. On the East side lies a huge dam holding back the Chança river and its massive reservoirs beyond. It’s here that the Spanish border splits from the Guadiana and heads North. For the first time since entering the Guadiana we now had Portugal on both banks as the river swung West.
Reaching Pomarão meant that ‘Gleda’ has now sailed the entire navigable water border of Portugal, saltwater and fresh. Coincidentally we did it almost one year to the day since we first entered Portuguese waters North of Viana de Castello.
The river really changes character past Pomarão, it’s much narrower, the sides become steeper and rockier. Navigation becomes more of a consideration, shallower water, less mud and sand, more rocks. This is where having a shallow draft catamaran reduces stress and using the excellent Navionics chart and eyeball pilotage we had no trouble.
A few kilometres past Pomarão we found a slightly wider stretch of river between two bends and dropped the hook in 3 metres of water quite close to the bank. It was time to chill out and take in the peace and quiet.
Chilling out is a poor choice of words actually. We stayed for three nights and the temperature didn’t drop below 25°C (77°F) the whole time and maxed out at 42°C (107°F). The breeze was coming directly from the inland area of Iberia known as ‘the oven of Spain’. We were right in front of the oven door.
We came South for heat and we found it.
Everyone warned us, ‘July and August are too hot’ they said, ‘most people head down to the coast where it’s cooler’ they said. OK fair enough, it’s good to know. But here’s the thing. I spent years building my boat in a cold, damp, drafty barn in the UK. The memories of torrential rain, sleet, snow and ice are fresh, the memories of fingers and toes numb with cold are fresh, the memories of biting winds and freezing fog are fresh. I’m ready for hot and dry, I’ll take it over cold and wet any day of the week.
That’s not to say it didn’t cause a few problems though. The first was with the new Waeco fridge I installed in the pod back in Lagos. Up to now it’s been brilliant, but on the the first night at anchor we realised there was a problem. The fridge temperature had climbed to 8° despite being set for 2° and, as I watched the display, the low voltage indicator light flashed on before the whole thing shut down. After a few minutes it would start up again only to repeat the sequence. This was puzzling as the battery voltage as shown by the charge controller was nearly 13v. At first I thought it was an overheating problem, I’d put plenty of vent holes in the cockpit seat locker but the unit still felt very warm. It was too late to do anything about it that night, so we pulled the whole fridge out on deck and connected it direct to the battery. The compressor kicked in straight away and soon bought the temperature down.
By the next morning I’d figured out the problem was two-pronged. Firstly there wasn’t enough airflow around the fridge. That was easily fixed with the drill and hole cutter, apart from when the cutter came loose in the chuck and dropped through the hole into the Guadiana. The power issue was down to voltage drop. The cable I’d used wasn’t beefy enough, so I ran a new heavier cable direct from the battery and checked/re-soldered all the connections. It was a mornings work I hadn’t planned on but well worth it. The fridge now holds at 2°C day and night no problem. Cold drinks are not a luxury in this climate.
One issue I couldn’t resolve though was keeping the smaller galley coolbox going. It draws a lot of current anyway, and the fan was running non-stop trying (and failing) to cool its contents. Even during the day the solar panels could only just keep the battery charged and after the first night it was flat. There was only one solution, switch it off and suffer the minor inconvenience of having to fetch the milk and butter from the Waeco in the pod.
I’ll definitely be replacing the wind generator and fitting a bigger battery this Winter.
Anyway, back to the heat. Yes it was hot, but we coped. The new sunshades over the deck helped, we kept well hydrated, and, three or four times a day, we lowered the stern ramp and got into the cool river water. Even in the upper reaches the tide still runs strong and it was only sensible to swim at slack water. Hanging onto the ramp and letting the tide flow round you was bliss though. We were far enough away from civilisation to skinny dip as well. In our three days at anchor there we saw one yacht, one motor cruiser, a jet ski and a canoe. For one 24 hour period we didn’t see anyone at all.
What we did see were a Kingfisher, Herons, Golden Oreoles, Swallows and lots of fish. At night a canopy of stars came out above us. We both caught a glimpse of a fireball trailing its fiery tail as it burnt up in the atmosphere. The Milky Way lay across the sky like a star spangled brush stroke. Our connection with the modern world had faded. We had no internet and no mobile connection. Our world became that little stretch of river, the surrounding hills and the Universe above. It was magical.
After a few days of relaxation we picked up the hook early in the morning and gently motored another 8km or so up to Penha da Águila. This stretch was particularly spectacular. On the North side steep rocky hills end in sheer cliffs that drop into the water. There are large rocks in the river to keep you alert and just before Penha, Ilha Maria, passed via a narrow twisting channel.
I’d expected to anchor again but to my surprise there was just enough space on the small pontoon there for ‘Gleda’, so we nosed up to it carefully, avoiding the lump of rock seemingly placed directly in the approaches, and were soon tied up with the kettle on.
There’s not much to it, a dozen houses, three or four of which were up for sale.
We woke up the local dog population, but the cacophony of barks bought no human to investigate.
There’s a restaurant overlooking the river but it only opens Sundays.
The place was a one horse town without the horse.
We went another 24 hours without seeing a soul.
The views were amazing though.
We stayed a couple of nights, it was novel being tied to a pontoon again, we’ve been anchored every night since we left Lagos three months ago and it can be uncomfortable on the Guadiana when the seemingly constant breeze blows against a strong tide.
We were now some 60km upriver from Vila Real de Santo António and the sea, and just 10km short of the absolute limit of navigation at Mértola. I toyed with the idea of going the whole way. It’s possible, even with deeper draft than ours. But it’s tricky. There are two rocky drying fords to pass as well as numerous other hazards. It’s really not recommended without a river guide. We visited Mertola by bus the first week we were here, it was amazing, but I decided a second visit wasn’t worth the stress. We’d already come much further than most visiting boats ever get.
On our last night at Penha I did wonder if I’d been too cautious though. It was about 10pm and, with no moon, very dark. Gail spotted some strange lights seemingly heading up river towards us. I got the binoculars out. It was a boat. A single red light over a single white above the dimly lit wheelhouse, and a bow wave that showed she was moving at a rate of knots. I thought she must be heading to the pontoon but no, she ploughed right by. A blue and yellow fishing trawler of some 30ft.
As she came abeam and ahead of us I could see no other lights but the red and white ones at the masthead, I couldn’t imagine how the helmsman could even see where they were going as the boat rounded the narrow turn and disappeared toward Mértola.
I mentioned the incident to Christian at the finca when we came back downriver. After describing the boat he nodded his head. ‘Yeah, that sounds like José, he was probably drunk. He’s piled onto the rocks more than a few times, good river pilot when he’s sober though’.
The following morning we untied and headed back downstream, happy that we’d had a proper taste of the more remote parts of the Rio Guadiana. Next up, another very different Guadiana experience; Finca sitting.