The levante has been blowing for days. It keeps us all inside and dusts the town in a fine sand. Kites are grounded. Bars are quiet and restaurants don’t bother with terrace tables. Noisy fronds flap horizontally from leaning palms along the street that descends into Tarifa from the highway. It’s like a ghost town, complete with howling.
Wind has names. According to where it comes from it is the levante – a gentle wind that rises around the Balearic Islands in a Mediterranean stupor and then reaches gale force in these Straits, the sirocco – a hurricane of sand from the sahara, the ostro – a warm and rainy Adriatic breeze, the libeccio that pummels Corsican summers, the poniente that blows in through the Straits from the west and keeps the kitesurfers aloft, the mistral of France and its southern shores and the tramontane which blows in over mountains from the north like a cold barbarian.
In these straits though only two of them count. In this east to west pincer squeeze at the Mediterranean’s western extreme we know only the levante and the poniente and this week, just the fierce levante.
At Spanish class our teacher looks haggard and complains that the children he was teaching that day had gone crazy. Loco. He struggles to find words that would adequately describe their deranged behaviour but through his efforts we learn a new one – infernal. Same in English. He blames the wind. It makes sense – everyone cooped up, windows rattling and drafts wailing day and night. K is starting to look a bit edgy if you ask me.
We are to expect the poniente – he tells us – after the weekend, and two intervening days of relative calm. He’s right; the following morning is hazy and still, the haze burning off to reveal blue skies and strong sun. We head for the hills.
Just to the north of Tarifa there is a height called El Cabrito – a part of the Parque Natural. We leave Polly at the mirador, check in on the lagomorph and head on up. Like every other elevation in the area it is lined with wind turbines. Sometimes the wind dies down up here too but it’s as close as sometimes gets to never.
Today the turbines are in full effect; three-pronged propellers spinning at speed. They are massive close up, the shwoot shwoot shwoot of the blades passing overhead a little close for comfort. A path winds upwards amongst them to a birdwatching shelter at the summit. I beckon for K to follow me but she shakes her head.
“Come on, there’s nothing to be scared of.”
“No. I don’t like them. It’s like War of the Worlds.”
I’m determined and take her by the hand although if I’m honest it is a little like War of the Worlds. Beneath the centrifugal shwoot another sound – a motor whine like an aeroplane powering up – sets our nerves on end.
The eyes are drawn upwards time and again as we pass beneath the rotary giants; outlined against a fast moving sky of cloud and space. You can see why they call this tiempo here – a cloud can travel from one horizon to the other in minutes. As they sweep by overhead they almost shwoot they’re so swift, like time lapse photography.
The shelter isn’t pretty – built from concrete and just to the side of a small power plant. Everything you can see from there though is retina-burningly beautiful. The Atlas mountains of Morocco across the sparkling strait, the coast road and mirador below and inland nothing but wide open country, adorned here and there only by the turbines and decorated with dots of light and shadow made by travelling clouds. It’s too hilly to farm or for the most part to pasture so it has been left. Wild and uninhabited.
The skies above it though are anything but empty. They are filled with white storks, cranes, black storks, kestrels, vultures, falcons, hawks and eagles. A swathe of ornithology. It’s a wonder they don’t bump into each other up there. I see a kestrel. Or maybe its a falcon. Or a hawk. I see a big bird anyway.
And then we see them.
Colony, committee, wake; all acceptable terms for a collective of vultures. I have to look it up when I get home; I don’t know up here as we watch so many glide in from the north describing three dimensional arcs, semi circles and circles in the air above us.
It is mesmerising to see so many. This is the upper echelon of the wind that has kept us indoors for so many days and these are its inhabitants – all these birds, big and small, swift and slow. Airborne hierarchies. The vultures are slow and they are big, the underside of their great wingspan an imperial crest. Built to survey, they make sense up here on the wind.
Not infernal at all, but another word we learnt in the same lesson.