I recently spent six weeks traveling around Portugal. The first leg of my adventure I lived in a small flat in the village of Alzejur, just inland from the South West coast. My landlord who lived next door to me told me one day that there is a great route from where we were to the beach.
“It’s beautiful!” he says earnestly, in broken English thick with German accent.
“You are young! You can run there! I am old, I cannot run there anymore.” He hunches over and shuffles around in demonstration.
“But you can go! Yes! Go! Go! Run to the beach! It is not far. Just 6km. Go! Yes.” he says.
“Yes!” I say, grinning.
He is right – I am young. But how strange too that this man who doesn’t know the first thing about me is telling me to go on a trail run. To the beach. Before I came to Portugal I decided I wanted to run off-road to the beach as often as I could. I’m no runner, nor have I ever been, but in an attempt to do more cardio in a way that gets me outdoors and into nature, trail running seemed like a good attempt. So it’s strange that someone who doesn’t know me from a bar of soap tells me to go and do something I had secretly been hoping to do. I am not one for missing such obvious signs, so on my first day-off I decide I’d give it a go.
The manager of the retreat I was volunteering at offers to give me a lift down to the beach. I tell her I am planning on running but thanks all the same (first pat on the back). I pack all of my beach essentials into my backpack. It seems that I have a ton of beach “essentials.” This backpack is freakishly heavy. No bother, I think to myself. All that extra weight will just add to the fitness – yeah! *air punch* (I am particularly perky and ambitious it seems). So now I have this pretty massive backpack filled to the brim and strapped on my feet are my mum’s aqua hiking shoes. I’m ready.
I must tell you at this point that the route the neighbour explained to me went something like this:
“At the old church go right. Then go down. Then go left. Then straight straight. Then cross the river. Don’t worry, it is a small river. Very small. Haha. Then you get onto the road and then straight straight and then beach!”
All in broken English. All whilst smiling profusely. So with as much optimism as I could muster I set off. I turn right at the old church (easy) and I go down (also easy) and the road curves left (eureka!) so left I go – ‘how easy is this!’ I think to myself. I decide to rock nature’s iPod and happily jog along the beautiful old Jeep track listening to the birds chirping. Flowers are overgrown on both sides of the path – all deep purples and fluffy whites. The trees give me soothing dappled light and my mind keeps repeating the (very apt) mantra ‘HOW’S THE SERENITY!’ (screamed rather wildly and completely un-serenely).
‘This is a piece of cake!’ I think to myself. Well, no. No it isn’t.
I get to a construction site full of workers and think shit, I’m lost. But onwards and upwards, keeping to the path, I reckon it is all still fine. Then up up up a massive hill, and down down down – ‘oh how lovely!’ – and then…nothing. Absolutely bloody nothing. No path. No makeshift pathway. No sign of people who had come before me. No livestock. Just a dead-end road, with a massive field before me filled with waist-high grass. The theme song to the cartoon ‘Adventure Time’ starts over-riding my ‘HOW’S THE SERENITY!’ mantra; and I think of Franc (my partner) – he is the ultimate Adventurer, always going on daring missions and encouraging me to be brave and to venture out of my comfort zone. Ok, in I go. Keep in mind that I am from South Africa – home to some pretty scary creatures who can do some serious harm if they bite you. They also tend to adore long grasses. Just the previous day I had very nearly trodden on a snake at the retreat but was assured that none of the snakes in this area were poisonous and so I had been in no danger. So, doing my very best Iron Giant impersonation I stomp my way through that grass as hard as I can with my knees lifting up as high as I can get them and my feet coming down as hard as I can manage.
Right. Road. Must get to the road. I see it in the distance so I make my way there. The grasses come to an end and I’ve reached the river – great! I’m on the right track after all! But Mr. German is either super hardcore or one hell of a prankster because this is a full-blown RIVER. I turn up my internal volume of ‘Adventure Time.’ I think of the beach. I think of Franc. OK, yes. I am doing this. The socks come off, shoes back on – who KNOWS what’s in that water. I thank my mum for giving me the ridiculous looking aqua shoes. Yes man. Time to shine. Next, shorts off. I thank myself for wearing my bikini bottoms. Right. Onwards.
The water is surprisingly refreshing (I hadn’t thought of that possibility). But then I start thinking of crocodiles. Do you even get crocodiles in Portugal? Because that would be JUST my luck – in the middle of nowhere, no one knows I’m there, and I’ve waded into a croc den. I have a brief moment where I live through the scenario of being attacked by a croc and wonder how the news would go down back home:
Morgan, deceased. Death by crocodile in the Algarve. Found short-less, wearing aqua shoes and carrying a backpack full of the most useless hiking accompaniments. What was she thinking?
Enough of that, something else has come up – I suddenly realize I am enclosed in the river by an electric fence. YUP. Electric fence, in a river. All croc thoughts dissipate as I wrap my head around this new conundrum. Who runs live electricity through a RIVER!? Damn. Franc is there with me. ‘Adventure Time baby!’ he says from the recesses of my mind. OK baby. Shit.
The live wire is (obviously?) above water on all sides so I just have to swim under it. Simple? Right. Backpack off (I can’t get my kindle wet). Time to test my guns. With a great ‘Ooomf!’ I fling the huge bloody backpack onto the opposite shore and it stays on dry land (second pat on the back). Then I carefully-as-fuck maneuver myself under the electrical wire. Sweating. Balls. Yes, I can limbo in slow motion! Thank you yoga! And…I crossed the river! Hell yeah! *second fist pump*
‘Now it’s just a mere 10 meter shuffle up the embankment to the road et voila!’ I jovially think to myself. Smooth sailing all the way to the beach! But as with most adventures (and surely with all adventure stories) this was not the case. In my excitement about crossing the river I had failed to notice that the foliage on the opposite embankment was the mother of all thorny bush entanglements. Damn. There is no way I am going back through the river and under that laser wire of certain doom. Plus, the road is so close I can just about smell the tar. So I put every yoga contortionist move to the test (shorts back on) in what is roughly 10 – 15 minutes of the most epic ninja stealth of my life. Oh what I wouldn’t do to see footage of those precious moments! Instant viral video. I get to that sweet, sweet road, victorious! OK I’m pretty wet, and my legs looks like Edward Scissorhands tried to get fresh with me but I’m alive and (more importantly) I’m a mere 3km from the beach!
Once on the tar I notice something strange just 3 meters to the left of where my scramble up the embankment met the road – a perfectly formed dirt road completely free of thorny chaos. I am floored. I wonder down this pleasurable path only to find it leads straight to the river. Oh life! You crazy bitch! I feel like crying but endorphins are running at an all time high due to my cardio-meets-ninja-stealth, so I just laugh. It’s all in the learning ey – stumbling and shredding yourself before you find the easier path. I guess I’ll know for next time right? I’ll take that sentiment thanks very much – it justifies my 15 minutes of awkward Kung Fu.
A short on-road huff and puff later and I come to sand dunes. Then to the river leading to the ocean, and then to the ocean itself. I strip to my bikini and face-plant in the salty freedom that was so well earned. It’s the Atlantic Ocean – the very same sea that licks the shores of my hometown. And I wonder if some of that sea has touched me before, in a place that feels very far away and yet tangled in my hair right in that very moment.
Adventure Time baby. Yeah.
Also in Voices: What I Learned By Swimming with Sharks
Photo: Morgan Jeanne