Wildlife and magic wands

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The February sun beamed down on us as we wound our way back through the hills to our home. We had gone into town to load up with food supplies, a two ring gas stove and solar panels, and left ourselves plenty of time to find our way back before nightfall. As we turned the 154th bend in this never-ending mountain road, I braked sharply as something darted across the road. It looked bigger than a cat, it was low to the ground like a weasel, and had a long tail with a tassel on the end.

Our fulsome descriptions were mostly met with bemused laughter. However, a few weeks later we solved the mystery after seeing something on the natural park information board that resembled Siobhan’s drawing. It was an Egyptian mongoose, a curious yet quite common creature of the woods – indeed, we saw them often in the coming weeks. A member of the meerkat family, they sometimes sit up on their hindlegs to watch you. However, until we had seen one clearly enough to identify it, we had not discounted the possibility that it wasn’t just a practical joke played on us by people in the village.

The information board was to solve an even more magical mystery of yet another creature that had once crossed our path in the area. It had been seen even before we had seen our new home, whilst we were happily chugging along in our little orange VW camper van looking forward to a change from our tinned stores with a slap up meal at the beach (- if only so we could brag to our friends in the midst of a miserable January that we were there.) The rain that poured down would have to be cut from the picture, though, and Siobhan’s muffled ‘Yes I think this is the way to the beach’ was not entirely convincing coming as it did from her head buried in the map.

Then, as now, a creature had darted across the road, caught by the full beam of the van’s headlights in the deepening gloom. It was too big to be a cat, yet it moved like one. It had virtually no tail, yet those eyes… All too quickly it had vanished into the scrub by the side of the road, leaving us perplexed. I had never seen anything quite like it. Now, standing in front of the information board, I realised we had been fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of an Iberian lynx, the world’s rarest wild cat, and the greatest marvel of the ‘montado’. What I did not realise was that its power was to be such it would come to dominate my life and we would even write a book about it…

Safely back at home after our encounter with the mongoose, we professionally angled our solar panels and charged up our mobile phone. Siobhan put the kettle on and listened to some music whilst I went off to explore. However, when I returned the music was much louder, and Siobhan was standing threateningly in the doorway with a saucepan in her hand. I wondered my fate, and tentatively offered up the bottle of wine I had left to chill in our well earlier that day.

“SNAKES … DON’T … LIKE … VIBRATIONS!” she shouted over the noise by way of explanation. “IN THE BREADOVEN … CAN YOU BELIEVE? … THREE WHILST YOU WERE GONE … JUST SUNBATHING THERE…”

She turned down the music a little. Relieved I was safe from the saucepan, I went towards her. Suddenly, though, she screamed and ran backwards up the steps. The snake had escaped via the vent in the back of the breadoven, or – as Siobhan saw it – leapt out at her at eye level.

I took over saucepan banging to hide my mirth, while Siobhan opened up the wine and remained twitchy for the rest of the day. She was to get the last laugh, though. The following morning, as I stood in the garden among the burgeoning undergrowth, Siobhan pointed speechless at my feet. Feeling movement, I looked down to see a snake making it’s way over my foot. I was wearing open sandals, and could feel the snake’s smooth skin gliding over mine.

“AAAARGH!” I leapt backwards, kicking out my foot, and in the process throwing the snake several feet in the air. Upon landing, it hurriedly slithered into the nearest bushes, clearly disturbed that it was in the presence of a maniac who would play football with it. Sheepishly, I looked over at Siobhan. She was helpless with laughter. After that I took my saucepan banging duties more seriously.

We had to go away for a few weeks. It was with the heaviest of hearts that we left, though. Our neighbours willingly took over watering the young tomato and lettuce plants in our absence, kindly lending us an old oil drum so we could leave sufficient water. Our shiny new solar pump efficiently brought up water from the well at the bottom of the hill, filling all the available containers. At this time, our only vehicle was a three-wheeled scooter van, a kind of corrugated iron box on a motorised tricycle whose engine screamed like an angry wasp. However, on our return to the village several weeks later, it’s battery was completely dead. Instead we got a taxi from our village to the nearest track turning into the forest near our home. Rucksacks hoisted out of the boot, we were given the cab driver’s assurance that if the dirt track was not so muddy he would have taken us all the way home. Then he screeched away.

The silence we had become so used to you, and which we had yearned for over the last few weeks, was still there. It was broken only by animal sounds, some bird song here, cowbells there. We reached the crest of the first hill, stopping by our neighbour’s cork pile at the top, and took a sharp intake of breath. The sheer beauty of the oak forested hills rolled out before us, the Algarve mountains almost purple on the horizon. The scene was all the more dramatic because of the steel grey storm clouds which framed them, and were fast heading our way.

“Come on, let’s go before it hits us,” I called to Siobhan, as she took a photograph of the breathtaking scene. However, we had time only to hoist our rucksacks on our backs once more when the first heavy drops of rain fell. Our steps quickened, whilst behind us the tinkling of goat bells also quickened as they were ushered into shelter. It was no use, though. We got thoroughly soaked. Yet somehow, as our senses filled with the scent of rock rose and lavender already coming into bloom, it seemed not to matter. On the contrary, I felt strangely excited. “Let’s go to our valley garden!” I shouted to Siobhan over the sound of another clap of thunder.

We hurried alongside the stream until we reached the garden, and laid down our rucksacks under a tree. The fruit trees were now in flower and full leaf. The locquat tree that had been heavy with blossom when we left was now dripping with the apricot coloured fruits. As I reached up to pluck this first fruit of my farm, the first sunbeams fell on my head. Loaded with all the extra fruit we could carry, we found the forest path that led through our woods to our home.

Rucksacks hoisted out of the boot, we were given the cab driver’s assurance that if the dirt track was not so muddy he would have taken us all the way home. Then he screeched away.

The silence we had become so used to you, and which we had yearned for over the last few weeks, was still there. It was broken only by animal sounds, some bird song here, cowbells there. We reached the crest of the first hill, stopping by our neighbour’s cork pile at the top, and took a sharp intake of breath. The sheer beauty of the oak forested hills rolled out before us, the Algarve mountains almost purple on the horizon. The scene was all the more dramatic because of the steel grey storm clouds which framed them, and were fast heading our way.

“Come on, let’s go before it hits us,” I called to Siobhan, as she took a photograph of the breathtaking scene. However, we had time only to hoist our rucksacks on our backs once more when the first heavy drops of rain fell. Our steps quickened, whilst behind us the tinkling of goat bells also quickened as they were ushered into shelter. It was no use, though. We got thoroughly soaked. Yet somehow, as our senses filled with the scent of rock rose and lavender already coming into bloom, it seemed not to matter. On the contrary, I felt strangely excited. “Let’s go to our valley garden!” I shouted to Siobhan over the sound of another clap of thunder.

We hurried alongside the stream until we reached the garden, and laid down our rucksacks under a tree. The fruit trees were now in flower and full leaf. The locquat tree that had been heavy with blossom when we left was now dripping with the apricot coloured fruits. As I reached up to pluck this first fruit of my farm, the first sunbeams fell on my head. Loaded with all the extra fruit we could carry, we found the forest path that led through our woods to our home.

However, as we reached the edge of the cork forest, where the oaks gave way to our olive grove, we had another shock. What had our neighbours been up to? The sprawling fig tree before us had been excavated, the stone wall which surrounded it’s roots partially knocked down. Further up there were more deep circular excavations. Try as we might we could see no pattern or explanation. Our neighbours had meticulously used up every drop of water we had left and the salad garden had grown well, and the only other odd sign was two large plastic sacks which had been carefully hung out on the washing line. They flapped noisily in the wind.

Two days later I spotted Antonio with his herd at the bottom of the hill. It was time to solve the mystery. “It was the wild boar!” he laughed, as I explained my puzzlement. “They’ve been digging up your garden. The sacks should keep them away.” They had certainly done a fine job of turning over the clay soil, and I hit on a brilliant idea. “I’m going to finish planting out the 50 kg sack of potatoes,” I called cheerily to Siobhan who looked clearly perplexed at the lack of spade in my hand. “The boar’s snouts have done a great job. You know, humanity and nature in harmony.” She looked only half-convinced.

In spite of our idyllic isolation, it was time to get connected to the outside world. We filled out the forms at the offices of the telephone company, and were surprised a few days later to hear the soft tooting of a car at our door. A denim-clad man in sunglasses was draped over the front of a gleaming blue Renault 4 bearing the company’s logo. “Is this the home of Eduardo Gonçalves” he asked, drawing on a cigarette whilst holding a map in his hand. Yes, it was, I replied. “Just checking where you lived. That’s my job, finding these places,” he explained. “I’ll tell the engineers. They should be here next week.” He got back in the car, and drove off. Not a bad job, I thought.

Sure enough, a week later two men in a van came chugging up the driveway. Instead of telegraph poles and rolls of cable, however, they had only a small box and what looked like a magic wand. “All we have to do is line this up with the antenna on top of the mountains over there,” one of them said, waving casually at the horizon where a small pinprick could just be made out on its rim. In a little over an hour, they were finished, leaving our new radio-phone expertly planted into the side of the house over the doorway. Almost as soon as they were gone, a housemartin landed on the ‘wand’. It was the same one that had still had not given up on the possibility of rebuilding it’s nest inside our home. The wand was to become its favourite resting place and watchpost.

Evenings were now filled with it’s trilling notes, and even occasionally a stranger sound – our phone ringing.

Chronicle 4: The coming of the cork cutters

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