Into the outback
Once you get away from the coast of Fuerteventura, things change. You suddenly become a dot in a vast expanse of fascinating nothingness. Wide open skies, rocky plains, dunes, and lost villages, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. You’ve landed in the Fuerteventura outback.
To explore this wilderness, just hire a car, as I did, and head inland. Little-used dirt tracks crisscross the plains. You can drive most of these bumpy back roads with care. Soon all the hullabaloo of the coastal resorts is left behind as you roam the island’s interior. There are fields on all sides: what grows in them is a mystery. Water is in short supply. Solitary houses and ruins of lime kilns dot the landscape. Needless to say, it was a hard life for local people in days gone by. When the bleating of goats eventually replaces the sound of traffic, you suddenly realise how sparsely populated the island is. So make sure you’ve got a decent map, and remember to fill your petrol tank.
In search of the Houbara Bustard
My aim was to photograph a Houbara Bustard. Bustards are the heaviest flying birds in the world, and the Houbara is an iconic variety found on Fuerteventura. Following the advice of local expert Antonio Cabrera, I first took the main road to Tindaya in the northwest. The village lies at the foot of a sacred mountain, the site of over 300 rock carvings etched by the island’s original Berber inhabitants. The mountain itself forms an impressive cone visible from miles around.
After a snack in a local bar, I headed for the windswept plains further north. Apparently lifeless, on closer inspection these desolate areas hold many interesting plants and birds, including the emblematic Houbara. Despite its considerable size, the bird’s dappled plumage blends perfectly with its surroundings, and the Houbara wisely prefers to rely on camouflage, rather than flight, when disturbed.
My search technique consisted of slowly driving for short distances, then stopping to scan the plains. Binoculars are virtually essential for this kind of trip. The gently undulating, stony terrain shown above is where you might strike lucky. On dirt roads you can pull over wherever you like. There’s no traffic to worry about. All you need is patience…and a certain amount of luck.
“Try to think like a bustard,” I told myself. I could see no waterholes, no obvious sources of food for the birds; just a few scraggy tussocks of grass, and lines of larger stones here and there. Perhaps they hide behind them? Or in the small depressions and gulleys? Do they hear you coming and avoid getting too close to public rights of way? Thinking like a bustard is not easy.
None the wiser as to the Houbara’s habits, I found one remarkably quickly. It had been squatting on the ground not far from where I stopped, and calmly rose to its feet when it spotted me. I noticed its powerful legs, and the wary look in its eye. I got my photo:
A welcome oasis
Mission accomplished, it was time to head for an oasis. I discovered a perfect one at the village of La Vega de Río Palmas, a 45 minute drive to the south.
Pebbles crunched underfoot as I followed the riverbed. Majestic palm trees flanked the watercourse on either side. Birds darted for cover ahead of me, disappearing into the tamarisk bushes. Streams are a rarity on Fuerteventura, making this one of the best short hikes on the island, an absolute must do. Go early, before it gets too hot. Take time to savour the “lost world” feeling such places evoke.
Winding my way downstream, I soon reached a narrow reservoir where a dam spans the gorge. Flocks of Shelduck frequent this secluded spot. Several could be seen just a short distance away, occasionally dipping their heads below the surface, causing the muddy water to gently lap on the banks below. I spent time observing the birds as they dabbled. The silence was only broken by the occasional sound of approaching footsteps, and the exchange of greetings with other walkers.
Ahead, a section of path bounded by sheer cliffs led to a hermitage where the image of Nuestra Señora de la Peña, the patron of Fuerteventura, is kept. Yes, the Canary Islands have far more to offer than their beaches and nightlife, yet surprisingly few foreign visitors discover any of the hidden corners. And if you have an eye for landscapes, you’ll find subjects for photography literally everywhere, such as the agricultural mosaic shown below.
Rounding off the day
By mid-afternoon temperatures were soaring. There was noticeably less bird activity in the streambed at La Vega de Rio Palmas, and not a soul on the streets. I was getting hungry, so it was time to move on. Fuerteventura’s outback is definitely worth a visit, but the coast also has its attractions. Not least of which, the many good fish restaurants, often set in picturesque surroundings. I set off to find one.
I’ve never been keen on dining in major tourist centres. I prefer to try typical dishes, and experience something more authentic. It’s all part of the holiday. There are many excellent places for eating out on the island. Below is just one example: a small, locally-run restaurant located on the seafront in La Lajita. Delicious fresh fish, tasty potatoes boiled in their skins (papas arrugadas), the spicy mojo sauce, and a glass of chilled white wine to wash it all down. On the terrace, facing the sea, in the shade of the awning: the perfect way to round off a day in the outback…