A New Year but the same old story

THERE GOES another year and, as I age, each day becomes more precious – that I should be so blessed when such a multitude in the region of the Indian Ocean has been snatched by the sea, cuts to the roots of belief in a benevolent Creator.

Natural disaster or ‘act of God’ – take your pick – the upsurge of giving from across the world goes a long way to restoring one’s faith. Such generosity from ordinary folk has shamed niggardly governments into digging deeper into their coffers. Now, the billions must be kept out of the hands of vultures, already drawn by the smell of money, and orphaned children will have to be protected from circling paedophiles.

With good and evil battling for our souls, it is the simple things that matter and New Year’s Day, in this neck of the woods, was bathed with sunshine from first light. Narrow valleys among the foothills, which in past years have been channels of bubbling water, were white with frost and, at dusk, a bitter wind rattled among the dead eucalyptus trees. Rain that fell last December has long disappeared among the boulders, and pools and private Barragem are receding. Having read that it has become necessary to sink boreholes in the Algarve to augment municipal water sources points to big trouble in the future.

Construction work continues across the region as if there were no tomorrow and the concrete used ties up an enormous amount of water. Once these buildings are occupied, demand will continue to outstrip supply and, unless the pattern of diminishing rainfall is reversed by some miracle, existing aquifers will not refill. Already a few wells drilled below sea level are showing signs of salinity. Meanwhile, some of the ancient cork oaks on our land and adjacent slopes are dying back in the present drought, while burned hills from 2003 have not maintained their initial recovery. Patches of cistus that were spared are already in flower, together with spikes of golden gorse shooting from the bare earth where nothing else grows. With very little ground cover, except near underground streams and pools, morning walks are silent affairs without birdsong. Nothing for Fred to get his teeth into which, in no way, deters his hunting instincts – silent, swift and invisible against the stony ground within seconds as he chases after imaginary rabbits. With Bess at my heels and almost home, he appears from nowhere and plunges into a nearby lake oblivious to the cold water and chill wind, then shakes himself dry – all over us!

Still on the subject of water, which in the human body makes up about 75 per cent, without it everything grinds quickly to a halt – to waste it should be a criminal offence in times of drought. Last week, as we turned off the EN125 near Mexilhoeira Grande into Sítio da Mesquita, a small industrial complex, there was a lake covering the dirt road access. Creeping through to avoid hidden potholes and muttering rude comments, we soon located the source to be a burst irrigation pipe. According to the owner of a business on the site, this leak was fed directly from a central borehole supplying all buildings and to make repairs would involve cutting off the supply to the whole area. For this reason, the powerful spray shooting skyward from a lush flowerbed had been running to waste for sometime. If the marble factory close by depended upon the same source, much of the work done there, which involves the use of a great amount of water, would come to a halt at once.

Untouched by human profligacy and oblivious to anything but the joy of the moment, two Monarch butterflies were dancing with stately decorum in and out of the sparkling mist and, when we visited there today, the muddy lake was beginning to disappear and the broken pipe had been mended.

However, there is one hidden oasis among the foothills that remains moist all year round. Off the beaten track in a jumble of hills are two very small, deep wells, which, for some reason, never run dry and, most of the year, overflow generously into the surrounding cul-de-sac. Lovesick frogs hide between cracks in the old stonework, croaking passionately to their mates and perhaps dining off mosquito larvae. Under a lush and varied carpet of vegetation, brambles and wild cotton plants, lies a fertile patch of black mud. Various tracks have been worn down the sloping land into this tacky morass, made by shy and thirsty nocturnal animals. Interesting pug marks suggest an assorted population, all part of a self-contained ecosystem where the food chain still operates.

Sadly, the human species has intruded with evil intent. This morning, as I walked with our dogs, I took a hike off my usual route and, after a while, came upon the wells. Lying half-concealed among the greenery, I found a stout piece of tree trunk that did not belong and tied to it was a stainless steel wire snare. Designed primarily to trap wild boar, it would also catch fox, genet, mongoose and dogs, and we almost lost Fly in a similar device, but managed to free him. Declared illegal some years ago, these brutal instruments are still in use.