Conquering Fortress Portugal

As a sliver of light peaks in through a small breach in the tent flap, I can feel the warmth in here – quite a contrast to yesterday’s awakening in northern France.

It’s pretty quiet on this Spanish campsite, in Burgos, as well, with less of a sense of birdlife around us. It is time to get out of the sleeping bag and make your presence felt to the world outside. The campsite is nice and clean and tranquil and the ‘neighbours’ are friendly, but it is time to go. We have a mountain to climb!

Flat and featureless

You know the expression: it rains on the plains in Spain? A familiar phrase that I never quite understood the meaning of, and frankly still don’t. It is not exactly accurate either, since it is very dry here.

I also thought we had left the flat countryside of Holland behind us, but it is almost the same here, with mile after mile of gently sloping featureless hills. And it’s dry, dusty and getting hotter by the minute.

I open the ventilation flap a little more and observe the featureless hills with nothing but grass, an occasional tree and fields of rapeseed, as we head ever further westward.

Empty plains

Scattered around the countryside are silos standing in the middle of nowhere. With not a grain field to be seen we speculate on their use. Later we find out that they are salt silos for the roads. Could it really get that cold here?

Traffic is surprisingly light. We have whole sections of road to ourselves. Even when we have to backtrack fifty kilometres we don’t pass a single car. But nevertheless, there are roadworks. We are miles from civilisation but somehow roads and bridges leading to nowhere are being built. This is Europe after all…

The heights beckon…

After hours on the open plains, the mountain range that was a permanent feature on the horizon looms ever larger. We know what’s coming – as we’ve been here before – and we know it is not going to be easy.

At the base of the mountain range, you can actually see the whole route from the bottom of the hills snaking all the way to a tunnel at the top. I would estimate that it is ten kilometres long; a grinding gradient that just keeps on going up, a severe test for all comers.

Flat out in third

As we start climbing it is a strain on the car. Even with my foot hard down on the accelerator pedal we succumb to the relentless climb and eventually fifty kilometres an hour is all we can maintain and can’t even get out of third gear.

The engine is labouring and the sound is deafening. It sounds like the pistons are ready to come through the bonnet but there is nothing I can do short of stopping on the hard shoulder, and that would be a mistake. It sounds like there is no way the motor can survive this – but we’re committed now.

Rising temperatures

Who was it who packed the trailer again?! The only gauge that is moving is the temperature gauge and it settles deep into the red zone. I remember previous Land Rover experiences with blown head gaskets and destroyed motors scattered throughout mountain passes across Europe. Just how accurate are these gauges anyway…

Fully laden trucks pass us by as we crawl along, helpless with the needle in the red, but the gauge is holding steady. Eyes are glued to the summit, willing the gradient to ease off, wondering why we came here in summer!

However, if you’re wondering if we explode in a cloud of steam I have to disappoint you. We make it into the shade of the tunnel and the road slowly starts to level off. And then like a slow-motion rollercoaster effect the highway heads slowly over the peak and we are on the downhill run!

Let it run

This is not the place to stop either. Let the cooling air rush through the radiator and the engine bay. The front flaps on the Land Rover are sending cool air into the interior as well as we look in relief at how the temperature needle swings left and into ‘positive’ territory. We made it!

Ahead lie endless hills as we spy the road twisting into the forested distance. The view is mesmerising, blues skies aloft and the sun beating down incessantly.

This is northern Portugal. Lovely, green, hot, dry and well worth the effort put into getting here – by man and machine. We cool our nerves in parallel to the engine and give the dashboard a pat in typical Land Rover style.

Things are never simple in a Defender, even a simple mountain pass. Every turn of a road can become the ultimate challenge. Crossing a simple gradient can be an enormously strenuous undertaking.

People often ask us why we do it. Why not just get a modern vehicle and leave these complications behind. Just press the pedal and you’ll get there. And, sure, I can understand the point being made.

But where’s the fun in that?

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