My very first steps were taken in the shallow breaking waters of an island off the coast of England, where white cliff faces meet a dark blue Atlantic, falling away into a rising tide. Now, from the shore I call home, I can see it – the island, in the distance, with its sharp, tooth-like needles jutting up from the water below.
The summer months are hot. Thick morning air wraps itself around me as I close the front door, bleary eyed and fumbling with the broken lock of the sighing, aged house of our first southern summer. The heat reminds me of days spent in warmer climates, scents of pine and sea air filling my nose and lungs and sending me to far away, familiar places: a summer spent further south in a southern hemisphere, time zones away.
My days are mostly spent working in a hotel bistro, swerving around sun-warmed bodies giddy from heat and alcohol, serving drinks from the bar Henry and I later find ourselves sitting at until morning. We fall quietly into routine. And with working a lot comes money; a summer’s worth of change chiming as it falls into a jar on our windowsill.
Two friends I met a summer ago are planning travels along the coasts of South America, with nothing but two Honda XR150s, two boards, a tent, a loose grasp on Spanish, and their cameras. Tom sets up The West Road to document their travels, and seeing their preparation and future routes rekindles a familiar itch in my feet; the likeness of their plans to those I had made a year ago clinging to me like a limpet to a boat, finding me in sleep with dreams of passports and foreign soils.
Still, we make our own adventures. One day packing up the back of my tiny car and driving a few dozen miles along the coast to where the cliffs become sharp, and the water washes crystal as it laps against the pebbles on its shore. The Jurassic coast - if you ever get the chance to see it, you should.
A warm July day, cooled by a sea breeze. Leaving the car, we wade through marram grass and along gravel paths that lead to steep, stumbling stairs and a quiet, turquoise cove. Hiding behind a veil of seafret, the horizon is faint in the distance, and I have never seen a scene like it.
I sink my toes into the cool, smooth pebbles below my feet. Making my way to the waters edge and letting it lap against my ankles, I stand breathing with the tide, looking out across the bay. Henry joins me, rolling up the legs of his trousers and picking pebbles from the shallows, skimming them across the surface. His hair, shoulder length, sun-coloured in the afternoon glow.
Later, driving home along winding country roads we haven’t seen the likes of since leaving the North months ago, we listen to sweet summer sounds on the radio and swear we’ll return to this place and farther, adventuring and discovering whenever we can.
But a few weeks pass, and one morning emergency lights come up on my dashboard. Talk of ABS modules, electronic failures and hundreds of pounds make for no more adventures in my tiny little car; without viable transport, our exploring is cut short.
The sound of change falling into the jar on the windowsill echoes less as the days go on, gradually becoming more and more full until eventually we can add no more. It sits there for a while, until one day I wake up, turn to Henry and whisper “lets go away”.
For months I’ve been looking at a surfhouse in Portugal, on the southern most point near the Algarve, where waves break against what was once known as “the edge of the earth”. It seems perfect, the small town of Lagos, an hour’s drive from coves filled with green faces and golden sand.
That morning we empty our jar onto the floor, begin counting, and quickly realise our flights are already paid for. With more than half of what we need to spend five days adventuring new streets and beaches, we book two seats on a flight to Faro and make our way from there.
Between the days of work before our travels, we spend our time on beaches; miles of sand lined with groynes and piers with water that’s warm enough to swim in. Exposed skin in English waters is something I never expected to become familiar, but it does, as I float seal-like on my back, watching the clouds pass above.
Amongst all this, we begin looking for a home. A new home where we won’t be woken at 3am to the smell of cigarette smoke seeping through our open window, where our kitchen will be filled with our own things, not someone else’s, where home means more than just a room with a lock on the door.
A handful of empty rooms and estate agents later, I walk into a converted attic thirty seconds walk from the overstrand overlooking the bay. I know as soon as I set foot inside, and a few weeks, signatures and compromises later, it is ours. We are to move in the day we return from Lagos.
And so September rolls around, and on the morning of the 3rd, we grab our bags and catch a train to the airport. Our first time travelling together, and my first time out of the country without family; the freedom sets my heart racing as I let my mind wander, watching the world through the window of my viewfinder.
Faro greets us with the familiar scent of breathing in the air of a new country for the first time. We land early evening to a dark sky and a soft, warm breeze that clings to our travel-tired bodies. I sleep most of the journey to Lagos, woken every time the driver slams on the brakes around a corner, muttering unknown words at cars passing by. Ours is the last stop on the drop-off journey from the airport, leaving us at a Mediterranean-looking building and a big, yellow gate opening onto a pathway lined with surfboards and bikes, and the soft glow of an open door.
We’re met with a scene of bare feet and board shorts, laughter and music humming in the background. A beautiful girl with olive skin and a soft accent takes our bags, gives us both a beer and the keys to our room. As we’re discussing maps and directions, a guy we come to know as Pat stumbles through and announces everyone is going into town, and that the taxi is moments away. Exhausted from travel, I can feel a knot forming in my stomach, but it’s our first night, so we go.
The night is bodies dampened by sweat and heat, one-euro beers and strangely named cocktails in a smoke-filled local bar laced with accents from every corner of the Earth. I try to take it all in, watching as girls in brightly-coloured barely-there clothes dance, mouthing the words to familiar pop songs, and couples sit intertwined in the corner, shamelessly exploring each other in the shadows. We leave early, stumbling mostly from tiredness down the winding cobbled streets as Pat leads us to a taxi rank near the marina. He shouts some broken Portuguese at the driver before waving us off and making his way back to the bar.
Sleep finds us easily. We leave in the early morning to travel with a group to hidden coves somewhere in the Algarve, and are greeted by green-faced waves running along the shoreline. I haven’t found myself amongst waves since leaving the North, and feeling the burn run from my shoulders down my back leaves me smiling as I paddle out into the break.
The days of surf are adventurous and sun-filled. We wake at dawn, drive with the group to find the best break, set up camp under a tarpaulin, surf for hours and then stop for lunch, returning to the water so soon that our stomachs roll in disagreement as we breach the waves.
One afternoon we return to the water to catch the day’s final sets and a thick, swamp-like seafret has settled itself as far as half way up the beach. We paddle out like a shoal of fish, me constantly looking over my shoulder making sure I can see the green of Henry’s rash vest making its way over the waves; I’ve been out of the water for months, but the strength in my paddle hasn’t weakened one bit.
Making it over the final wave of a heavy set, I find myself beyond the break, surrounded by nothing but water and seafret, bobbing up and down like a buoy in my own vast Atlantic ocean. There’s a connection I feel that I only ever feel whilst in water, but what I feel now is something deeper: a calm I’ve never felt before, a stillness as I watch the fret moving past the sun’s tiny circle in the sky, the water rocking me gently as my legs hang either side of the board beneath me. I breathe in. This is what it is to feel at peace. This. Now. And as the rest of the group begins to appear around me, the fret slowly clears itself and leaves us with a brilliant blue sky and a final set of waves. I paddle into position. Feeling the water behind me picking up the tail of my board I come to stand and ride into shore, a bittersweet melancholy hanging over me as we strap the boards to the tops of the jeep, knowing this will be the last time we surf for a while.
The five days of adventure we have pass by far too quickly, the day before our departure arriving with the clearest skies we’ve seen, and blazingly hot temperatures. I’ve been waiting for this day the entire trip; we’re hiking to the southwestern most point of Europe to watch the sun sink over “the end of the earth”.
A van pulls up outside the gates early morning, and we drop our bags into the back. TJ, a man with a gentle American accent and young skin weathered from travel greets us. We sit in the shelter of a tree near the van and introduce ourselves to others in the group; Boston, Berlin and other accents mix with our own.
A warm breeze flows through open windows, tussling hair and cooling warm necks as we make our way along empty roads through tiny Portuguese towns untouched by tourism and wealth. Eventually TJ turns off onto a dirt track lined with greenery and takes the keys from the ignition. We wander along pathways between the thick shrubs, so high that we can’t see over them and Henry and I are the last to see the view: miles and miles of coast lined with cliffs and azure waters, white faces of breaking waves scattered along each cove.
We tread carefully along the paths, careful not to step on any signs of life as TJ has told us, listening intently as he recites the history of these cliffs and waters, watching as he plucks a leaf from a nearby tree, smells it, and tells us its name that soon escapes me. We pass by a small white chapel, out of place in this scene, a large colourful bird painted onto its side glowing in the sunlight.
Clinging onto old fishing ropes we descend backwards into the shadows of a cove. TJ leads us to different areas in this hidden wilderness and we stumble over rocky cliff faces whilst taking it all in. The way he talks of these places echoes the love he has for them, his eyes wandering across the horizon whilst telling stories of times long past. He allows us to pause for a few moments before running off again, beckoning us to follow.
Heading back to the van, we have to move fast. We’ve spent longer than usual on these tracks and the sun is setting quickly; we have to get to the point before it hits the horizon. We are literally racing the sun.
TJ pulls off one track and down another, flooring the acceleration and suddenly we are flying breaking out into a clear opening with dust kicking up around us and the amber glow of the setting sun shining on our faces. I glance at Henry and we both fasten our seatbelts for the first time that journey – we aren’t the only ones. The energy between all of us is iridescent, Sympathy for the Devil blaring through the radio and laughter filling the van, every so often TJ shouting out “everyone good?” as we hit potholes and rocky ground.
The race from the van to the point is frantic, everyone carrying boxes and blankets and stumbling down the hill. My foot catches on a loose branch and I stumble, falling backwards and landing in a heap of laughter as Henry rushes to help me up. The sun is inches above the horizon and we are running and laughing and it is beautiful - ten strangers who met only hours ago sharing such raw moments with each other.
On a huge rock in the middle of a cove we drop our bags and stand and watch as we finally catch the sunset we’ve been waiting for. The sky changes from blue, to orange, until finally the sun seeps over the edge of the earth, leaving a pale bruise on the horizon where pink is now just another shade of red. There’s a silence the whole time and for some time after, and I wonder what it would have been like to watch this mammoth star sink below the ocean and be unsure it would ever rise again. A few more moments pass and then we hear the clattering of pots behind us – TJ once again telling us when the moment is done.
We lie out blankets, hand out mugs of red wine and watch as he makes guacamole, filling ourselves with fresh bread, sardines and cheeses, the light slowly fading around us as we share stories and quiet moments, taking in the scene.
Tea lights are handed out as night sets in, but we don’t light them. Instead, we huddle in blankets on our tiny little island and watch as constellations become light in the darkness, listening with warm hearts as TJ tells us their names and stories. A man of wisdom and soul.
I watch a shooting star fizzle out in the atmosphere, and make a wish because I still believe it might come true. I feel the rise and fall of Henry’s chest next to me, his breath on my ear calm and slow, echoing the sounds of the water washing below us. Everyone is quiet, soaking the moment up. I realise that this is what I am searching for, this feeling, now. The feeling of belonging, of contentment, of being part of this universe that we live in. I am so overcome by emotion that I feel my vision blur as it takes over for a moment, broken only when TJ stands and begins collecting blankets. It’s time to go.
We blindly clamber back up to the van, walking in line, helping each other when needed; our tiny little tea lights make a constellation on the rocks as we go. TJ asks us to stand in a circle, pauses for a moment before thanking us for our time: “Thank-you for being such wonderful partners to adventure with. I hope that you take this time away with you and remember what it felt like to watch the sun go down in this corner of the earth. And keep adventuring. Always.”
The only sound on the journey home is that of tired breathing and cars passing by. I rest my head on Henry’s shoulder and look out of the window at the stars above, desperately trying to cling onto the feeling, to this moment, to the now. I want to live in this moment forever. I don’t want to get on a plane tomorrow and return to what is “home”. I want to keep going like this. Forever. My eyes grow heavy and I watch as another star enters our atmosphere and disappears in a shard across the blue-black sky, and before closing my eyes I wish for this. Exactly this. For as long as I can have it. Always.