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.
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.
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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