Travel Report: Gibraltar Nature Reserve.
Gibraltar Nature Reserve.
In the spring of 2017 my yearlong adventure living in the Spanish city of Malaga was drawing to a close. I had accepted a new teaching post in Zhejiang Province, China, thus I was busy tying up a million and one loose ends before I left.
On my weekends, I’d scurry around Andalusia ticking off as many highlights as I could. Eventually, just a few weeks before I headed to China, I found a few days to go and check out Gibraltar. This British overseas territory had long fascinated me. After all, it’s a unique settlement with a curious history, beautifully located on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.
Even my arrival seemed fittingly unusual. I had booked myself into cheap digs in the humdrum Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, the so-called Gateway to Gibraltar. From there all I had to do was walk over the border through the security station where the guard barely even looked up at my raised passport.
Emerging into “Spanish Britain”, I found myself following a stone walkway that ran right through Gibraltar International Airport. It was quite bizarre, with zero security presence and planes landing and taking off either side of me. Still, it was here that I caught my first sight of Gibraltar’s famous rock and the nature reserve it sits in.
Gibraltar Nature Reserve.
The reserve and its stunning rock were the main reasons for my visit and I was relishing the prospect of a long afternoon hike. Hence I wasted no time in heading there. Exiting the airport, I made my way onto Winston Churchill Avenue, a 1.5 kilometre stretch that serves as the only road in and out of the territory.
At first glance the road looks unremarkable. However, it does have some notable history as the place where Operation Flavius played out on March the 6th 1988. This is when an SAS Unit shot dead three young members of the IRA as they made their way to Spain on foot.
The killings took place at a Shell Petrol Station, now GB Oil. According to The SAS, the Irishmen had been planning to murder a British military band. The operation ultimately led to an inquest at The European Court of Human Rights. In the end, though, the judges deemed the murders lawful.
Happily for me, the tone of the day ahead would be as far away from assassinations and petrol stations as possible. Rather, I was looking forward to peace, quiet and stunning views in Gibraltar’s world famous reserve.
There are countless ways to get up onto Gibraltar Nature Reserve from the town centre. I took the pretty Union Jack coloured steps of Devil’s Gap Road. They say this is the quickest route up. Local residents first painted the steps in 1967 in order to mark Gibraltar’s first sovereignty referendum. A repainting takes place every once in a while to keep things looking fresh.
Devil’s Gap Road.
Gibraltar Nature Reserve lies at the very heart of what makes this territory so special. It is absolutely huge, taking up just under 40% of Gibraltar’s total land mass. Home to a dizzying range of flora and wildlife, the entire park is beautifully kept and maintained, as are its numerous points of historic interest.
Local authorities established the rock and its surrounds as a protected area in 1993. Back then it was known as the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, and you can see still various signs referencing the old name.
A series of twisting, crisscrossing footpaths lead visitors up and around the rock. Inglis Way… Douglas Path… they all have fancy names taken from different aspects of Gibraltar’s history. I had entered the reserve via the Devil’s Gap Footpath, which soon led me into a pretty stretch of forest.
The going here was perfectly manageable, nothing compared to the steep switchbacks that would soon follow. Here, in the woodland trails, I came across numerous hikers making their way back down to town after a morning walk. “Good morning!” sang these two old dears as they passed. How very British.
Gibraltar Nature Reserve.
Before long the forest trail brought me out onto the rock’s western slope and the first of many stone switchback paths. Suddenly, terrific views unfurled before me. Over Gibraltar, its bay, the airport and the distant form of the Spanish mainland.
In fact, it was all so mesmerising I temporarily forgot all about my hike. Rather, I kept stopping every few minutes just to absorb it all and zoom in on various spots with my camera.
This is Victoria Stadium, unveiled in 1926 as a military sports ground. It takes its name from Victoria Canepa, the wife of John Mackintosh, a Gibraltarian businessman and philanthropist who did much to shape Gibraltar’s development in the 1920s and 30s.
The 5000-capacity stadium hosts the territory’s international football matches in addition to the annual Gibraltar Music Festival. Some local cricket plays out here too.
Pressing on, I was treated to plenty of The Rock’s military history. First up were the sparse remains of this amazing Moorish Castle. Apparently a fort first sprang up here in around AD 711, a humungous complex that extended from the higher levels of the rock right down to the sea.
The Moorish Castle.
Today the limited remains include the Tower of Homage, built during the second Moorish era in the early 1500s. They say you can see it from all across Gibraltar, especially at night when it is lit up. A British flag, meanwhile, has been fluttering above the tower ever since Admiral George Rooke captured the rock in 1704.
Photo courtesy of James Cridland.
Since The Middle Ages, right through to World War II, there have been a succession of military garrisons up on The Rock. Within them stood large artillery batteries home to a fearsome collection of cannons.
Getting those cannons up the rock and into position was one hell of a task. Indeed it took squadrons of soldiers to haul them up using little more than their hands and some rope! Evidence of this awfulness remains with a number of surviving cannon rings, used as safety breaks, embedded into the stone.
I also saw what is left of an old lime kiln. Historically, limestone has been a major source of construction for Gibraltar. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries there were a number of giant ovens scattered across The Rock. This one produced lime for whitewashing houses. Oh and, somewhat grimly, for pouring over bodies in mass graves to prevent contamination. Yikes.
Gibraltar Nature Reserve.
These cool bits of history serve as warmup acts for the reserve’s amazing World War II Tunnels. Back in the early 1940s Gibraltar was a crucial strategic point for the Allied Forces as the so-called Gateway to the Mediterranean. Churchill knew that if the Germans took Gibraltar, they and the Italians would be able to launch all manner of offensives from the sea.
As a result, The British Army constructed a quite incredible network of underground caves and tunnels within The Rock. The compound was 52 kilometres long and capable of housing the entire 16000 garrison!
Inside, there was enough food to feed the soldiers for 16 months! They also had a power station, a telephone exchange, a water plant, a hospital, ammunition stores, a bakery and vehicle repair workshops.
For a while The British braced themselves for an attack from Hitler known as Operation Felix. But in the end it never happened, mostly due to Spanish dictator General Franco’s refusal to let The Nazis pass through Spain and attack Gibraltar. Phew.
World War II Tunnels.
Gibraltar’s World War II caves certainly had some high profile visitors during the war, including world leaders such as Churchill, Eisenhower and De Gaulle.
Władysław Sikorski, General Inspector of the Polish Armed Forces, also paid a visit to the tunnels in July 1943. Unfortunately, he lost his life as he flew out of Gibraltar, his plane plunging into the sea a few minutes after take off. The exact cause of the crash remains disputed. Today you can visit a limited section of the tunnels with tickets priced at £12. Oh, and an extra £8 for a 40 minute guided tour.
Returning to glorious daylight and lush greenery, the next leg of my hike took me along The Royal Anglian Way trail. Soon enough, I found myself crossing the wonderful Windsor Suspension Bridge. Opened in the summer of 2016, this 71-metre beauty was Gibraltar’s first such bridge. There are now a few more peppered around the reserve.
It stands between two batteries, precariously hung 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. But really there’s no cause for concern, as two massive support anchors keep the bridge firmly in place, both of them driven twelve metres into the rock face.
Gibraltar Nature Reserve.
The Royal Anglian Way leads visitors to what is arguably Gibraltar Nature Reserve’s most famous spot: The Ape’s Den. This is where you can see the territory’s magnificent community of Barbary macaques. They’ve been living here on the rock for centuries, as far back as the 1700s, some historians think.
One theory as to how they got here is that they migrated from Morocco’s Atlas Mountains region. Other experts reckon the British Army brought them over from Morocco. Wherever they came from they are definitely unique as the only wild monkey population on the European continent.
Gibraltar’s ape population has fluctuated wildly over the years. During World War II, for example, numbers were running very low. Legend has it that a visiting Winston Churchill was so tickled by the macaques he ordered The Army to import more from Morocco!
Today there are roughly 300 ape families living in Gibraltar Nature Reserve, the majority of which live in and around The Den. As you would expect, they have a reputation for being troublesome. Give them half a chance, various online accounts suggest, and they’ll beg you for food, try to steal your belongings and playfully snatch at any loose bits of clothing.
The Barbary macaques.
On the afternoon of my visit though, the macaques were perfectly docile. They lazed around on the stone walls napping or gazing out to sea. They yawned, scratched each other and stared at me blankly.
I was delighted that they didn’t cause any trouble, nor indeed pester me for food. There are numerous signs around the den warning you not to feed them. If you do, and get caught, you might be fined as much as £4000!
In any case, chilling out with the macaques was a great way to cap off an excellent afternoon exploring the reserve. Thus it was time for me to set off on the long descent back into town. I had by no means done The Rock, there was plenty more to see. As it turned out, my next hiking project, The Mediterranean Steps trail, proved so memorable I felt it deserved its own article. Until then…
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A lovely read Leighton. I enjoyed every part of it as you’ll probably recall that I spent six wonderful days in Gibraltar 21 months ago. We adored our stay and would happily return any time. Look forward to your next article.
Hey Marion, I remember well your adventures in Gibraltar and was quite jealous that you stayed in The Rock Hotel. If I ever go back, I shall make amends.
Yes. The Rock Hotel was lovely. Hopefully you can take Sladja there sometime!
fabulous article leighton, as usual you really bring the place alive on the screen with your words and images. the world war 2 tunnels would be top of my list and a nice counterpoint to all that natural beauty
Cheers Stan, next time I’d maybe go with the guided tour of the tunnels. Thanks for joining me at the start of this new Gibraltar series. The Rock is amazing but I think the hike featured in Sunday’s upcoming article stole the show for me.
Brought back memories. Wish I had stayed longer
Hey Kelly, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I feel the same way, as I had just a weekend and would love to take Sladja someday to explore a little deeper.
I remember crossing the runway thinking,”how odd”
I must admit I only knew the name “Gibraltar” before reading your post and now have learned its history (and macaques) in just a few minutes! 🙂
Hey Bahanur, thanks for taking a look. It’s always great when I can bring a place to someone for the first time. I have two more Gibraltar pieces coming out over the next week, hope you enjoy them.
I am looking forward to the new pieces! And I hope the macaques in Gibraltar are more friendly than Japanese macaques 🙂 They cause serious problems here, especially in the countryside.
Ah now here’s somewhere we haven’t been, although it was scheduled to be on “Trip 2” of our retire plan until you know what. It’s kind of dropped off our radar since then but reading this I think we should resurrect the plan.
Hey Phil, hope you are enjoying your time back at home and managing to keep your wanderlust under control until the next trip. Gibraltar was a pleasant surprise for me, I was somehow expecting the town to be… grottier. A few more posts from Gibraltar on the way, including a less-travelled hiking route.
Looks so beautiful, I’d definitely love to see this! Those views from the top sure are neat but the monkeys would freak me out a bit haha.
The macaques are definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Luckily for me they seemed to be on their best behaviour that day.
Glad you got to visit Gibraltar Leighton. It certainly has a lot of history for such a small place and the views from the rock are well worth stopping for. All those macaques look so grumpy, as if to say “Don’t mess with me.” Thanks for taking me there. Allan
The macaques were a bit grumpy yeah and standoffish. Glad I caught them on an indifferent day rather than a “let’s get ‘em!” mood.
A walkway through the airport grounds … astonishing! And what a great walk with scenic views (and a castle – bonus)! I understand the hospital and other facilities inside the tunnels, but the bakery was a surprise! A bridge that wobbles … please blindfold me! And I like the video of the macaques (you can make a whole new story just about what happens here 😄).
Yes I’d say the bakery, in the middle of a World War II hideaway bombardment crisis, would have been quite the luxury! Thanks for joining me Corna at the beginning of this new series on Gibraltar.
Loved this tour of Gibraltar! Those steps are fantastic and just seem to be begging to have music videos filmed there. And to have that ruin of a Moorish castle so close to the WWII tunnels really gives a perspective of the expansive history of the area. Those monkeys though look like they are not to be messed with.
Ha, I can actually envision The Spice Girls there for a comeback single. Geri Halliwell’s skimpy shirt matching the colours of the steps. Glad you enjoyed the many sights of Gibraltar Nature Reserve Meg. I wouldn’t mess with a macaque either.
hahaha!!! It’s so funny you say that because just yesterday my friend sent me a picture of us in our freshman year of college where we dressed up as the Spice Girls for Halloween and I went as Ginger Spice! Day made 🙂
I fully expect a photo of these shenanigans to appear in a future blog post 😉
What a variety of experiences in one post. I would dearly love to visit that Moorish fortress. And the tunnels truly were an underground city. I was surprised at how rough they left the walls. The picture of the suspension bridge set my stomach off before you even mentioned it. And that old macaque has a world class scowl. Wouldn’t want to tangle with him. Great start to my day!
Cheers Memo, a day hiking Gibraltar’s Nature Reserve is a great day indeed. The next post though was my favourite experience by a whisker.
Brilliant post, this is a different side to Gibraltar. The tunnels look right up my street, I do like a bit of military history. Intrigued to see what comes next!
Thanks Helen, the nature reserve and its rock are stunning, I’d been looking forward to sharing this one for a while.
Wow what an interesting post! I had no idea there was such a large nature reserve area and the tunnels are so fascinating! What a funny way to get there if walking like you did basically through the airport grounds. Great photos and history too 😀
Hey Linda, thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. Gibraltar surprised me too, I really enjoyed my days there. A few more posts from this British territory coming out over the next week.
I’ve never been to Gibraltar, therefore, the only two images its name conjure up in my mind are a giant rock and rowdy little monkeys, but I know that Gibraltar is a great starting point for further exploring – a short ferry crossing will take you to the winding souks of Morocco, a hop across the border to Spain will connect you with the rest of the mainland. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx
Luckily, Gibraltar has lots to offer those that come and take a chance. I’d say Gibraltar Nature Reserve is worth the trip alone with all its various hikes, viewpoints and rich history. The town itself is also quite charming, as one of my next posts will hopefully show. Thanks for dropping by, Aiva.
I didn’t really know much about the lengthy history of Gibraltar other than the rock and the monkeys. You made it sound much more interesting than I imagined. Maggie
Thanks Maggie, I’m glad there were a few surprises and hope that maybe you’d consider a visit one of these years.
I enjoyed reading about your time in Gibraltar, but was a little concerned at first with your description of walking through airports! The WWII caves sound so interesting. I can’t imagine seeing so many macaques in one place; how cool!
Thanks Tricia, the airport thing was surreal. I kept looking around thinking: “Is this allowed? Have I wandered off the border control path?” There was literally no such path, you just stroll along the runway with not a single security officer to keep an eye on you or point you in the right direction.
Yes, Leighton, this would be right up our alley! The only thing I had ever heard about Gibraltar was that the macaques would steal anything that wasn’t tied down. I can see why the fine for feeding them is so steep. As you know we love nature and parks, so this would be a perfect destination for us. Love the views from the rock, too!
Hey Kellye, I’m so glad Gibraltar gets a thumbs up from you. I’m surprised its abundance of natural beauty isn’t more of a known thing. I guess their tourist board hasn’t been doing their job properly in terms of informing the world. I only ended up visiting because it was on my doorstep so to speak.
I loved seeing it through your eyes and voice!
Gilbratar is such a strange place, it takes many pages of history to arrive to this oddity. A visit to the Tunnels is certainly something I would enjoy. Thank you for this excellent post!
I like your description, it is both amusing and true. Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.
That is so cool that there were apes in the Gibraltar Nature Reserve! Also the Windsor Suspension Bridge looks like it gives some pretty amazing vantage points!
Thanks Allie, Gibraltar is a unique and somewhat kooky place. Appreciate the read and comment, as always!
Thanks for sharing this. Such an amazing site you visited. we only stayed in Gibraltar but we did cruise by.
Thanks for dropping by Anita.
You had my attention from the get go with that strange entrance through the middle of a large airport. Gibraltar would be a really neat place to visit with the views, history and fauna and flora. The footbridges might give me some trouble.
That’s interesting John, I wouldn’t have had you down as delicate with heights. Or is it just the wobbly aspect? Thanks for checking out the start of my Gibraltar series.
I have a fear of heights. Being in an airplane doesn’t bother me. Those bridges probably would.😄
How on earth have I missed or forgotten this detail having followed your blog these last years?!?!
It’s fascinating to find a “Spanish Britain” situated in the place it’s in (and its history as being a British Overseas Territory), and the fact that the macaques were brought over from Morocco! Gibraltar is certainly a strange, yet unique place to visit for those expecting Spanish culture (which appears to be totally absent here), but interesting all the same. PS the last photo of the macaque and the sea behind it certainly sums up life in Gibraltar, haha!
Ha, I would agree with that. Those macaques are certainly great loungers. When they’re not causing trouble at least. Thanks for joining me at the beginning of this new miniseries Rebecca.
Sounds like you had quite the leg workout with all that climbing and walking. I love the Union Jack coloured steps to get to the Gibraltar Nature Reserve. That’s crazy how the nature reserve takes up nearly half of the land in Gibraltar. Looks like it’s a great spot to go hiking and enjoy some nature mixed with some lovely views of the city below. The WWII tunnels are so interesting. And how fun to see some apes!
Thanks for your enthusiastic reply Linda. Gibraltar is something of an underrated gem alongside all the much-trumpeted sights of Andalusia.
Love it!! I’m a new one to start my blog! Hope you follow me back to see my blog about travelling here in the Philippines. Thank you! 😊❤️
Hey Angela, thanks for following and leaving a comment. Sure, I’ll take a look at your blog, have a great day.
It’s a great place, walking across the runway is certainly an unusual experience! Glad the monkeys were docile for you too, I’d read a bit online about them causing havoc, but they seemed pretty uninterested in me haha. Looking forward to reading the follow-up Mediterranean Steps hike!
Hey Jason, great to hear from you. Yup, Gibraltar is an unusual place but a really underrated one too, I feel. Those monkeys can be mental when they’re in the mood, so I guess we were both fortunate.
I completely agree, such an underrated little country 🙂
I was in Gibraltar for brief stay a few weeks ago. Again, i wish i had read your interesting posts on this fascinating place before I went. It is however the only “country” I have walked from one end to the other, Europa Point to La Linea. The moral of this story…. before travelling, check out if Leighton has already been there!
Ha ha ha that last line made me laugh, Geoff. I’m glad you also had a good time in Gibraltar, hope you enjoy the next few articles. I’m sure we’ve had some shared experiences.
Those monkeys scare the **** out of me! I remember being so surprised you just walk out over the runway and how small it is – a beautiful little peninsula 🙂
It’s a unique, surreal experience right? Thanks for dropping by Han.
I feel like Gibraltar is one of those places that attract people because of their oddities — not in a negative way, though. It ‘should’ be a part of Spain, but it’s British. And across the strait, what ‘should’ be a part of Morocco is Spanish. Geographical curiosities like this are always a source of fascination for me, and a good way to learn about the history of the world.
The oddness you describe is one of the reasons I wanted to see Gibraltar. And to see if I had any connection with this strange chapter of British history. Thanks for visiting Bama.
Thanks for this post—a place I definitely want to visit
Thanks Mallee, appreciate the read and comment. Hope you get to Gibraltar one day. 🇬🇮
Wonderful for a small territory.
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.
A very interesting article, thanks for sharing.
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment Hassan.
Amazing work, enjoyed reading this.
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!
Gibraltar Nature Reserve has such wonderful views!
Absolutely, it’s well worth all the effort hiking around the rock. Thanks for reading!
Wow, so beautiful! Great photos!
Thanks for reading!
Looks like an amazing place. Thanks for sharing your trip!
Hey Gregg, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Gibraltar is quite an underrated corner of the world, I feel.