7.00 O’clock. It’s still dark. A red pickup stops in front of my door. Today’s trip? – Perceves harvesting.
Nicolau and two of his dogs are inside. „Bom dia“. Good Morning. Let’s go.
The road to the coast is rocky, bumpy and full of holes. It passes close to the town of Vila do Bispo but it feels far off, in the middle of nowhere.
Pure nature. Rough. Beautiful.
But not that lonely though. Near and a far double lights are moving around. I can sense the tension. Who arrives at the best spot first?
„A traffic jam? I can’t believe that“, Nicolau smiles, but I can tell he is annoyed. We have to wait.
A car turns in front of us. He recognises the driver. This one as well as all the others. That’s a fisherman, that’s a percebeiro (People who catch Perceves). Their names, their stories, Nicolau knows all of them. He has been part of the scene since he was a teenager.
Some of the places where Percebeiros go to harvest are extremely hard to reach. Climbing up and down cliffs that range anywhere between 70 to 110 metres.
Only holding on to ropes. With approximately 20kg of Perceves and additional equipment on their backs for the most part.
The spot today – far more accessible. There is not much climbing involve and only a few meters to reach the bottom of the cliff. A rope is fixed around a big rock. We hold onto it while placing one feet after the other and slowly but surely move downward.
I remember the first time I went rock climbing with Nicolau. I was still about to attach the rope-security-system to my harness, when I looked up and he was already a few meters above the ground.
„Ey Nicolau, I’m not ready yet“.
At the time it seemed like climbing was in his blood and now I can see that is is.
Holding tight onto rocks and ropes. Never letting go. No matter how hard. With or without a security system. Only trusting himself. His body is trained. But his mind even more so.
It shows in every step he takes.
We are on the way to the harvesting spot. It’s getting more and more slippery. Walking over rocks of all shapes and sizes.
Well, I’m walking, but he is almost dancing. Each step is precisely placed. Not even the slightest thought of slipping away.
It’s different for me. I’m much slower and insecure. Being careful not to fall, also because of my photo gear. Two days later I can still feel my upper legs from the tension and exertion.
We arrive at our destination and put our things on a dry spot of the reef. Dawn is breaking, but the sun won’t come out from behind the cliffs till we are back at the car. Fishermen everywhere. Finishing up after a long night out here.
Nicolau tells me about the good old times, when he was often out here with his fishing-rod. He points to a rock formation at the end of the bay where a fishermen is standing.
„I spent a lot of nights there. I would take turns with 2 friends – taking over from each other – never leaving the fishing spot unattended, as others would take over and secure the spot for themselves.“
Even though I don’t understand a word i can tell that there is some tension here today too. Not in a bad way. In the way the Percebeiros approach and react, watch and talk to each other. “That’s not Portuguese” – a thought crosses my mind – “at least not the Portuguese I usually speak and understand.”
It seems to be preserved from older times – sounds rough, hard, somehow fisherman-style.
„There is a lot of respect between Percebeiros – not like in surfing. You wouldn’t just ‘drop in on somebody’s wave’. There is a hierarchy. There are the ones who are Pros and the ones who do it for self consumption for many many years. And most of us know each other. Some are really good friends of mine. We have spent a lot of of time harvesting together.“
The harvesting itself. Two words … Tough and Rough. Full of silence and concentration. Looking at the sea and then back at the rocks in front. Being mindful of the approaching waves and picking one perceves-group after the other.
Nicolau stands at the edge of a cliff. His feet in the water and wearing a wetsuit. A rope-bag tied around his hips. His tool „Arrilhada“ in one hand, the other hand free to secure himself or harvest.
At any moment he could be washed off the cliff by a wave. Perceves only grow where the sea smashes against the rocks. The hardest part to reach. The most exposed place to work. To even reach them you need strong tides and then a low tide. That is why, today we started early.
Nicolau knows the sea by heart, knows it’s tides, it’s movement. He knows when it’s time to climb up or down. But the sea is also unpredictable, you can’t always be sure of it’s next move. Sometimes waves just appear out of nowhere.
We know that from surfing very well. One wave got me today but only my jeans got soaked. My camera luckily is water resistant.
More than two 2 hours later. A tough time for any body. Exhausting for the mind. And the way back still remains. Apparently it is easier.
“How can they still climb up vertical rock faces only holding onto ropes with that weight on their backs and after those intense hours?”
We walk slowly, „I learned to take it slow, one step at a time, when I was in the mountains in summer.”
Nicolau spent 3 months shepherding alone in the high French Alps. Before that he was more of the speedy kind.
Nicolau has many stories to tell and has lived many lives. He has already experienced way more than most of the people do in a life time.
He is ambitious – but not the way we think of it in the northern world. His ambition is to live fully, to experience, to explore, to learn, to preserve nature, to fight for his believes.
He is way up in the sky with his mind and yet firmly rooted in the ground with his feet.
It’s beautiful to be able to experience a part of his world.
„Most of the older men you see in Raposeira [where both of us live] have spent nearly their whole life there. While some of their wives have never even seen this wonderful place.“ I feel special to have been here and taken part in that experience. As a woman. As a foreigner. As an outsider. With a camera. And truthfully, it is an incredibly, wonderful place. Magical, powerful and untouched wild nature. I hope it stays like this forever.
Thanks Nicolau for taking me to that beautiful place!
Thanks Adrian for polishing my text!
Nicolau offers walking tours in the West-Algarve, find out more here: www.atalaia-walking.com