4x4 Adventures Ltd Taunton, Somerset
Portugal Laning Trip
Words and pictures by Mark Morgan

It all started on a whim, or “how I came to be travelling around Portugal with a bunch of strangers”

“WOOOAA” I shout at Mo, who is driving the dark green Land Rover down a steep and rough forest track in Northern Spain. “What’s up”, he asks as he skids to a stop. I am still laughing as I tell him that the frying pan full of bacon has just fallen off the bonnet and we are about to run over it. We are ‘running from the law’ with a Full English still half cooked spread between the 5 vehicles in our Iberian expedition, having been discovered camping in a forest by an official in a Forestry Commission type Land Rover. Communication was difficult but we got the gist of it. “If you’re still here in 30 minutes you’ll be facing a 3000 Euro fine!” It’s the end of May 2008 and the last day of our 3 week trip, and the first time we have had any trouble despite camping wild on numerous occasions.

So how did I come to be here anyway, heading back to Bilboa to catch the ferry home after a 2000 mile round trip that took in the full length of Portugal much of which had been on unsurfaced tracks.

It all started on a whim prompted by reading a post on the LR4x4 Land Rover forum: “Place available on a trip to Portugal”. I just had to find out more. It transpired that a group of forum regulars were planning to drive the length of Portugal on a route that involved as little tarmac as possible in a group of 5 vehicles, more of which later! Each truck was to have a driver and a navigator but someone had pulled out at the last minute and a seat was free for anyone able to find 3 weeks off work at short notice. Being self employed, in need of a holiday, and having a very understanding partner who would look after the farm in my absence I replied to the post saying I would be very happy to join the group if they felt I would fit in. As it happens I already knew 4 of the participants, albeit through only very brief meetings on various challenge events in the southwest. The other members of the group were to be met for the first time on the trip. And so it began. My name was added to the Email list and the planning began in earnest.

One of the first things that happened was that Jim (Pugwash) sent us all a folder containing a roadbook he had gotten from a Toyota contact. As the Emails flew back and forth it became clear that although the route consisted of detailed tulip diagrams we had no up-to-date maps of the country to compare them too. However, given that many key junctions were given GPS coordinates, I hit upon the idea of plugging this data into Google Earth and playing a kind of “join the dots” game to work out the route. In addition I found that I was able to copy the aerial photos from Google Earth and to calibrate them into Ozi-explorer (a GPS mapping program) meaning that if all went well we would be able to use real-time tracking of our route in Portugal (as technology has moved on this can be done far easier these days). Happily the distraction of preparing the route meant that the departure date was rapidly upon me and I soon found myself outside of the house of a certain GBMud (Chris). Now I had met Chris before but had never really spoken to him, so seeing as though we were due to spend the next 3 weeks together in his 110 SW I was hoping things would go well. Luckily it transpired that we had loads in common including similar tastes in music so all was good. Mind you I had to give him a lesson in packing!!

So after a quick cup tea, it was off to Tescos in Salisbury to meet the West Country contingent of the trip. Being the first to arrive I thought it worthwhile to pop in to the supermarket to buy some beer for the trip. I was just returning with a case of Stella on each shoulder when the others arrived (first impressions and all that!)! Here was Jim (Pugwash) in the Lard Cruiser with the exhaust hanging off, Tim (TJ101) and Victor (grumpy old men) in the Puma 110, and James (JST) and Ian (Sticky) in a tidy red 90 CSW with super race suspension (lol). It only remained to meet up with Maurice (Mo) and Les, which we planned to do at a services near to the ferry terminal. Well suffice it to say we were a bit disappointed to learn from Mo that Les had been unable to sort his passport in time and would not be joining us. And so it was our slightly depleted group of 5 trucks and 8 persons boarded the P&O boat in Portsmouth, bound for Bilboa in Northern Spain some 36 hours later. Thankfully the Bay of Biscay did not live up to its reputation and a calm crossing passed uneventfully with just the odd whale and dolphin sighting to break the monotony of drinking overpriced coffee.

So it was straight off the ferry and on to the north coast motorway heading west. The sun was shining, the roads were empty and the scenery was stunning; mountains to our left, the Atlantic to our right. And so it continued until we turned inland into the Picos de Europa, a compact limestone massif consisting of spectacular canyons, cliffs and snow covered peaks. The road snaked up and over a high pass and dropped into the flat Alta Plano region of the Spanish interior. Initially we were shocked at how many Series Land Rovers were still in use in the area, until we realised they were in fact all Santanas which had been built in Spain. Leaving the mountains we headed quickly across the relatively boring plains on empty newly-constructed motorways, finally reaching the start of our roadbook close to the NE Portuguese border around 5 in the evening. Having come so far it seemed rude not to make a start on the route so we moved off along well maintained gravel tracks, passing through small villages and pine forests as the route took us up and over a small ridge before dropping into Portugal on the other side. It can only be described as going back in time. Compared to the relatively well developed rural areas of Spain we had just passed through it certainly came as a big culture shock to us all as we drove into this remote corner of what is after all a well established member of the European Union. The roads were rough cobbled, donkeys worked in the fields, old ladies dressed in black were sat around outside the church, while younger women did the washing at the village well. Amongst this were signs of modernisation, such as the occasional tractor, sections of newly constructed tarmac roads, satellite dishes and wind turbines that all gave an uncomfortable image of a land undergoing rapid change. We made camp that first night in a small meadow by a stream in complete isolation and following a good meal and a few beers retired to a well earned peaceful sleep.

And so it continued for the next few days, our small convoy drove slowly southwards sticking close to the Spanish border mostly on unsurfaced tracks, often with spectacular views and brilliant sunsets. The area was far more mountainous than we had expected and mo almost set fire to his brakes on one particularly long and steep descent. 2 more wild camps were made, including one in an area of spectacular granite outcrops, which was made even more memorable as a result of cheap red wine and one of Pugwash's mega-BBQs. The next day we drove through more spectacular granite landscapes with many river crossings and much wildlife in evidence before breaking out into a more fertile area overlooked by the impressive ruin of Castello Rodrigos standing high on an isolated hilltop. From here we wanted to visit the fortifications of Almeida, which I had read about during the planning of the trip. This massive fortified garrison town is like no other I have visited, being constructed as a massive hexagon with several layers of fortification and walls of up to 10 metres thick built from solid granite blocks. Very impressive.

From Almeida we headed west away from the Spanish border to have a night in civilisation in a hotel in the town or Guarda. A shower, a meal out, clean sheets and a massive breakfast were a welcome change from our wild camping regime. 22 Euros well spent! A late start saw us heading up to 1200m in the mountainous interior on some very nice tracks before a long descent on hairpins into a deep alpine looking valley and the town of Manteigas. Some impressive waterfalls and thick pine forests led us to a beautiful narrow track surrounded by colourful mountain flowers before mist and rain descended and somewhat spoilt it. With the weather so poor we decided to drive to the summit of Serra da Estrela, at 1993m the highest point in Portugal. The tarmac road to the summit was spectacular passing though a bare granite landscape with many hairpins and tunnels and far reaching views back to where we had driven earlier that day. We were quite surprised to find large amounts of snow complete with a ski-centre at the summit. Definitely a side to Portugal we had not expected. Too cold and miserable to camp on the mountain so it was back down and continue along the route book until we finally found a quiet spot to camp.

We awoke the next day to find a fox in the middle of camp. A nice encounter with a surprisingly intact natural world. In fact everywhere we went in the country was rich in animal and plant life, from the thick pine forests in the north, through the marquis scrub and the cork oak forests, and into the fertile plans and the costal dunes, there were unusual and interesting birds and plants around each corner. One of the best aspects of taking the road less travelled and camping wild away from civilisation is the different perspective one begins to adopt with respect to your surroundings. How often do we tear down a motorway for a few hundred miles or take a flight across a continent without ever realising how the gradual changes to climate, altitude, vegetation, and geology have such a profound affect on the human settlement patterns we take for granted. One thing that never changes however it seems is Mo's ability to use a TomTom to get lost as we found to our cost while trying to cross Castello Blanco, the busiest town yet encountered. Eventually, through a combination of mobile phones and CB radios we all managed to find each other again and continued on to a proper campsite near the Spanish Border that was run by an ex-pat. While the others drank cold beers and took a dip in the pool Sticky and I crossed the border to do a bit of rock climbing surrounded by Bonellis eagles. Our return however was a bit of a challenge, as we had to re-cross the border into Portugal only to be stopped by customs and asked for our passports. Naturally in these days of free movement across Europe I had left mine in the campsite on the Portugese side of the border! A bit of blagging and we were finally let through with a telling off. Phew!

After a late start the next day and a bit of faffing it was decided to have a rest day and to spend it climbing and sightseeing and to have another night in the campsite. Meanwhile TJ, Victor & Pugwash decided to leave later in the evening to go and watch a couple of stages of the Portuguese Rally, which was taking place about 150 miles away early the next morning. The rest of us made the most of a day off from driving and after a morning of rock climbing we spent the afternoon at the very impressive fortification of Castello Marvao checking out the views and buying souvenirs.

And so it was the next day we said goodbye to the Spanish border that we had closely followed up until now and headed west towards the Atlantic coast where we had arranged to meet the others in a small village near the sea. With the exception of a close call finding an petrol station in time for Mo (42 litres in a 45 litre tank) the day passed without incident and found us towards evening driving through a landscape of sand dunes heading south a few hundred metres from the sea. There was no shortage of suitable campsites but the risk of fire meant we had to choose very carefully where to site the BBQ. We spent the next day heading south and exploring the wild Atlantic coastline of steep cliffs and secluded sandy beaches. Wherever we went there were signs of increasing development and as we approached Vila do Bispo and crossed onto the Algarve it was as if we had arrived in a different country. A huge contrast to the other Portugal we had been travelling through for the past 9 days.

At this point we all realised that following the road book through this heavily developed and densely populated area was going to be an anticlimax after the peace and tranquillity of the northeast and so it was decided to call a halt to the driving and to have a day on the Algarve before heading over to have a look at Gibraltar. This proved to be a sensible choice and a few relaxing days followed during which we were able to prepare ourselves for the inevitable long drive back up through Spain to catch the ferry home. It was also during our trip to Gibraltar when we caught our first glimpse of Morocco across the straits. I don’t think any of us had realised up until then just how close we were to Africa and a whole new world of off-roading beckoned to us across those few miles of water. The final seed was sown when we met some French offroaders returning from a tour of Morocco and spent an evening drinking wine and swapping stories and routes with them which left us in no doubt as to where we would be heading the following year.

And so after stocking up on duty free, diesel, fish & chips and bacon in Gibraltar we left the south coast for the long drive home. En route we made a stop off at the town of Ronda, the birthplace of bull fighting and home to a very impressive bridge over a 300 foot deep gorge. Then about 400 miles of driving saw us in a beautiful isolated woodland clearing somewhere north of Madrid surrounded by orchids and pine trees. A really idyllic campsite. Idyllic that is until our untimely and rapid departure, complete with half cooked full English. But then memories are made of moments like that and this trip has left me with many memories and a whole new circle of friends. To anyone who ever gets the chance to do something similar on a whim then please don’t hesitate. Just do it.

Some pictures from the trip