THE MEDITERRANEAN STEPS
O’Hara’s Battery: The highest point on Gibraltar at 470 metres, and end of the Mediterranean steps track which is on this slope. the now obsolete water catchment system is shown here.
To get to the beginning of this track you can either drive to the Upper Rock Road or, as we did, start the walk down in the town. This latter option will add another hour to your two or three hour walk. Note that locals affectionately refer to Gibraltar as The Rock, or El Peñon in Spanish.
THE ACTUAL TRACK starts well up The Rock at its southern end, alongside the Ornithological Society’s shelter across the road from the toll booth on the Upper Rock Road. Ornithologists from around the world regularly use this area to study and count the flocks of bird species as they cross between the two continents of Africa and Europe on their seasonal migrations. It is possible to see several thousand of up to fifteen species during peak movements. Meanwhile, there are the large flocks of rather vocal resident seagulls.
This area overlooking Europa Point is also known as Jews’ Gate, and 50 metres down the road is the entrance to an ancient Jewish Cemetery: a beautiful location given the view. The track’s starting point provides great views early on: south across the Straits to Morocco’s Riff Mountains and south east along the coast of Spain. These spectacular views are a unique feature of the walk, culminating in panoramic vistas from the top at O’Hara’s Battery and the other viewing points along The Rock’s ridge line.
The long way – from downtown and along the Rough Track.
STARTING IN Casemates Square, enter Main Street and turn left into Engineers Lane. Continue on until you find signs on your left indicating ‘Steps to the Upper Rock’. Then you must find Lime Kiln Steps and continue climbing: the Rough Track starts at the top of them but is not clearly sign posted. These back streets are a maze, and it pays to ask a local for directions. Besides, this part of the old township is quite interesting: once on the Rough Track, there are wonderful views out over Gibraltar Township and the port; and across the Bay of Algeciras to Spain. When you reach the main Upper Rock Road, head to the right in the direction of Jews’ Gate.
THE MEDITERRANEAN STEPS, A GIBRALTARIAN RITE OF PASSAGE
THE FOLLOWING NOTES were written shortly after our experience on the track, and capture my emotions at the time. It was our second attempt . . .
TO BEGIN WITH, the track heads gently enough up through dense bush. This gradually thins, becoming sparse vegetation as you round the Rock’s eastern flank. After we’d rounded this bend we overtook a young Jewish family (with yarmulkes on their heads) with their two very young children. As we left them behind, I distinctly heard the man say to his wife “It gets a bit perilous from here …” And I’m thinking “There’s no way they are going to go much further with those young ones.” We soon reached the site where a slip seemed to wipe out the track.
ON OUR FIRST ATTEMPT I had persuaded Rachel not to continue on through here because, with this part in deep shadow and the track seemingly obliterated with a slip, my nerves had failed me. I had then made the bad decision for us to scramble up the Rock’s slope, through spiny scrub and over unstable scree to an upper Ministry of Defence road (rather than face a few scary parts on the track that we had already covered). That was a nightmare: the ‘slipping helplessly down a steep, high cliff to smash onto the rocks below’ variety, not helped by the flocks of screeching seagulls we had disturbed from their eyries. But we made it: scratched, dirty, thorns in our palms, twigs in our hair and dripping with sweat.
THIS TIME, the same spot was in bright sunshine and we could see that it was an old, and therefore more stable, slip. The track continued, cutting through it. The track’s name derives from the actual steps built onto and into the Rock’s face in quite a few sections: quite necessary, but mostly very irregular steps. In some parts they are in a state of partial collapse. In one place they were partially destroyed by a recent rock fall: which did nothing to reassure me.
Information on these steps is scarce, but as far as I can work out, they were put in place by army engineers in the early 19th century as a supply route to the ancient gun emplacements and bunkers we encountered further along the way. However, it is quite likely its origins are a lot older. We came across a habitable cave, and the way the track snakes around the sheer seaward back of the Rock, out of sight of nearby Spain or the township on the other side, suggests it has more interesting origins. Up on St Michaels Road there is a plaque commemorating a shepherd in the 17th century. At night, he had led a division of Spanish soldiers up a shepherds’ track on this steep and inaccessible side to attack the Upper Rock garrison of the British. They were spotted, and subsequently repulsed, but when you look down these slopes from on high, you can’t help but admire their brave attempt.
We pressed on, the track descending steeply in places and twisting around The Rock’s form. Sometimes it was in bush, sometimes too near the sheer face. In many places I hugged the rock face, refusing to look down, while Rachel strode on ahead. I frequently resorted to hands and knees, holding on to any secure bush or shrub: in some instances Rachel had to check out the safety and practicality aspect before I would proceed. My ‘head for heights’ had flown off with the seagulls. Miniscule ships lay at anchor below us on the glittering blue Mediterranean.
The track began to climb. Knowing our goal was the knife edge ridge far above, I judged our slow progress by the distance between the ocean far below and from what I could occasionally glimpse of the ridge. At one of the gun emplacements – a place to relax, it being well embedded – we encountered a Gibraltarian family with a young son and daughter. The parents told us they used to walk this track regularly, before they had children. We let them go on ahead.
Some minutes later as we followed 100 or so metres below them, we heard this chilling sound above us of a child struck with terror. This was followed immediately by the anguished and fearful shout of the father, and a mother’s wail. Rachel and I looked at each other soberly and put some more pace on. My own nervousness was pushed aside. As we continued we heard the more reassuring sounds of both parents, and the subsiding whimpers of the children. We caught up with them and found that the girl had slipped and was almost lost. This is some rite of passage for children I tell you. Parts of the track are close to sheer 95° drop-offs, and the surface is often unstable. Perhaps because of this, it is a thrilling and exhilarating walk – a walk on ‘the edge’ if you like.
Far from being an anti-climax, the end of the track at O’Hara’s gun battery afforded brilliant 360 degree views, which were enhanced by my feeling of relief. The walking however was by no means over. We spent another leisurely hour along St Michaels Road – the upper ridge road – enjoying the views in a more relaxed manner, and sharing the company of the (very randy as it turned out) ‘Tail-less Macaque’ monkeys, the legendary Apes of Gibraltar. These monkeys are numerous around the top of The Rock, even crashing through the bush in parts of The Steps Track, and because of their long contact with people we were able to get really close to them. Rachel was even able to hold the foot of one for a while, a unique feeling. They are fascinating to observe, but they can inflict a nasty wound if you upset them.
Eventually, we strolled on down past the top Cable Car station to the 14th century Moorish Castle. We then took our time back-tracking down the Rough Track, through the old town, across the tarmac and frontier into Spain and La Linea to where our apartment was. It was a truly memorable day.
Terrified as I was on parts of that walk (vertigo mixed with distrust of the often loose surfaced and narrow track), I won’t rule out another shot at the Mediterranean Steps the next time we are over there. It could be a good measure by which to gauge my ageing.
Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009