Travel Report: Gibraltar Nature Reserve.
March 2017. A visit to the British overseas territory of Gibraltar offers up much for first time visitors. The town itself provides a charming taste of olde-worlde Britain with traditional pubs, a historical cemetery, tranquil Botanic Gardens and a world class colonial hotel where John Lennon and Yoko Ono got married. But let’s face it, the number one attraction is Gibraltar Rock, one of the most spectacular landforms in Southern Europe. I spent the better part of my two day visit exploring it with some hiking around Gibraltar Nature Reserve. This shot was taken on a trail that runs along the western slope, about eight hundred and ten feet above sea level.
Gibraltar’s stunning rock stretches back a mind boggling two hundred million years! Crane your neck up from the town centre and it’s impossible not to be impressed by just how vast it is, covering a whopping forty percent of the country’s entire land area. The upper rock was turned into a nature reserve in 1993 when, quite logically, it was unveiled as the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
In 2013 the area was extended and given a special protected status, along with the unveiling of its current name, Gibraltar Nature Reserve. The above photo takes in the runway of Gibraltar International Airport, which extends out into Gibraltar Strait.
If the national football team happens to be playing, there are some decent (not to mention free) views from up on Gibraltar Nature Reserve! Victoria Stadium was unveiled in 1926 as a military sports ground and was named after the wife of famed Gibraltarian businessman and philanthropist John Mackintosh. With a capacity of five thousand, a whole bunch of events are held here, from association and international football to rugby, cricket, athletics and the country’s annual Gibraltar Music Festival.
A series of increasingly steep roads took me further up Gibraltar Nature Reserve that afternoon. Historically The Rock was home to a number of artillery batteries and a collection of hugely impressive cannons. Getting those cannons up the rock must have been a hell of a job, especially as they were hauled up manually by squadrons of soldiers using only their hands and rope. You can still see some of the original cannon rings, used as safety breaks, embedded into the rock.
There are plenty of sights to pick out across Gibraltar Nature Reserve and one of these is the remains of a Moorish Castle, dating back to the 11th century. The original castle complex was massive, running all the way down to Casemates Square in the old town. Its dirty-grey Homage Tower can be seen all over Gibraltar and is dramatically lit up at night. The tower’s resident British flag has apparently been ever-present since Admiral Rooke captured the rock in 1704.
Keep your eyes open for Gibraltar Nature Reserve’s Old Lime Kiln. Limestone has been a huge source of construction for Gibraltar over the years and back in the 18th and 19th centuries there were a number of giant ovens scattered across The Rock. This one was used to produce lime for white-washing houses and, somewhat grimly, pouring over bodies in mass graves to prevent contamination!
At the outbreak of World War II the citizens of Gibraltar were evacuated and a tunnel system created within The Rock. This quickly expanded into what was essentially an underground city capable of housing the entire 16,000-strong garrison! As the gateway to The Mediterranean, Gibraltar found itself with a hugely important strategic role in WWII. So modern cannons were installed at the top of The Rock, making it almost impossible for enemy ships to pass between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
The caves have had some famous visitors over the years, including Churchill, De Gaulle, Eisenhower and poor old Polish Prime Minister W?adys?aw Sikorski, who died after his visit in 1943 when his plane crashed into the sea sixteen seconds after takeoff from Gibraltar Airport. For a deeper insight into the World War II Tunnels, along with opening times and ticket prices, check out Welcome To Gibraltar’s info page.
A highlight of any Gibraltar Nature Reserve hike is a crossing of Windsor Bridge, the country’s first ever suspension bridge. It was added in the summer of 2016 and is located between two batteries over a fifty-meter gorge. The bridge does wobble a bit as you make your way, so bear this in mind if you’re a bit queasy with heights.
As for Gibraltar’s Nature Reserve’s definitive highlight, it’s got to be catching sight of The Rock’s world famous Barbary macaques. These playful, ever-hungry creatures have been living on The Rock since before us Brits rolled into town in 1704. Apparently they originated from Morocco’s Atlas Mountains region and are now the only wild monkey population on the European continent.
Gibraltar’s ape population has fluctuated wildly over the years. During World War II numbers were running low and legend has it that a visiting Winston Churchill was so tickled by the macaques that he ordered for more to be imported from Morocco! Today there are roughly 300 families living on Gibraltar Nature Reserve and you can find a good number of them scurrying around Ape’s Den, a tourist spot at Queen’s Gate.
The apes have a reputation for being troublesome little creatures, though the group I came across lazing around on the walls seemed docile enough and I was able to get really close without even a hint of mischief. There are signs peppered around the place warning you not to feed them. If you do, and get caught, you might be fined as much as £4000.
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