The Rock on the Road
The rock of Gibraltar. To the geologist, a faulted, 1,400-foot mountain of porous Lower Jurassic Age limestone rising abruptly from the westernmost extremity of the Mediterranean Basin. To the geographer, two and one-quarter miles of inhospitable rock near the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula. To the poet, a metaphor for might, a simile for strength. To the inhabitants of the ancient world, one of the twin Pillars of Hercules that marked the boundary beyond which no man dared to sail for fear he’d fall off the edge of the sea. To the historian, the site and scene of sixteen of mankind’s longest sieges and bloodiest battles. To the military strategist, a once indispensable bastion, the impregnable, invincible Lion of the Rock, crouched in dominance astride the shipping lifeline to Suez, strategically still important, even in an era of jumbo jets and superbombs.
To me, a place I’d always wanted to visit, a soaring stone peak forever imprinted in my childhood dreams. To our expedition, the shipping point to Africa, and, even more important, the only free port in Europe and the place we had to go to buy the $2,000 worth of film and equipment we still needed, a purchase that would have cost us twice as much anywhere else in Europe.
But to the British and Spanish, a still formidable symbol: to the former, a treasured vestige of a glorious empire on which the sun still never sets; to the latter, an irritating reminder of destiny’s desertion, of a dead Empire on which the sun no longer shines; to the two, a bone of contention for almost 300 years.
As we drove along the coastal road from Cadiz, Manu gave us the whole story. After the war of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Spain had been forced to cede Gibraltar to Great Britain. The deed rankled. Gibraltar was no unseen and quickly forgotten overseas island, but a part of the Spanish mainland itself, and Spain wanted her back. Three times she tried to blast out the British garrison, and three times she was thrown back. By 1830 Britain had made Gibraltar a Crown Colony, the status it holds today. With the opening of the Suez Canal, in 1869, Gibraltar’s importance expanded a thousandfold, placing Britain astride both outlets of the Mediterranean. The Rock became a symbol of British power and Spanish impotence.
The situation was relatively quiet until the spring of 1954 when Queen Elizabeth II paid an official state visit to Gibraltar, re-emphasizing British sovereignty over it and touching off in Spain vigorous demands that the Rock be returned-or else. Six months before we arrived the “or else” became an economic embargo.
Gibraltar is a rock in more ways than one: it grows nothing, produces little. Its livelihood depends on tourists and their purchase of cameras, liquor, film, perfume, cigarettes, binoculars and a thousand other items which are cheaper in Gibraltar’s duty-free shops than anywhere else in Europe. It was this tourist trade Spain decided to choke, and to do so she put prohibitive taxes on items being brought by tourists into Spain from Gibraltar. She later decided to slash the flow of traffic into Gibraltar, something she was ideally situated to do since the only road onto the Rock passes through the Spanish border post at La Linea de la Conception. In order not to insult Britain overtly, she operated under the guise of requiring time to search vehicles for smuggled goods, wasting a full hour on each car so that only ten a day got in, instead of hundreds as before.
As we brooded over this, we rounded a turn on the coastal road, and suddenly-there was Africa, looming up out of the mists in the distance, far across the sparkling Straits of Gibraltar. We stopped the cars and stared across the continents. Africa. The cloud-capped mountains of Morocco beyond the distant water’s edge rose alluring and beckoning. Africa. Home of the Sahara and the Sudan, land of the Niger and the Nile, Cairo and Khartoum, Kilimanjaro and the Mountains of the Moon. AFRICA. Still the living land of adventure.
We reached La Linea slightly after noon to find ten cars ahead of us in line, which meant that if this policy of one car an hour were true we’d never get through that day. And we didn’t. When six o’clock came the border closed with four cars still ahead of us. Neither flattery nor intimidation ameliorated the situation. Even the bribe, a time-honored custom in Spain, bore no results in this case, as two unhappy men in the Renault ahead of us learned. There was no nonsense, no leniency, and no more than one car an hour on the road to Gibraltar.
We pitched our camper at the border. Two cars had pulled out of line, so with luck we’d be through by ten the next morning. Despite the delay, we were all, save Woodrow, in good spirits, for we had wine, food, friendly companions, and an interesting story to tell our friends about the time we had to wait overnight to get into Gibraltar. Poor Woodrow was in the middle of a diarrhea siege, his third or fourth on the trip, and he was forced to spend most of the night visiting various shrub-hidden sites off the road near the heavily patrolled border. Near midnight he had an armed escort back to our camper. His last latrine, it seemed, had been somebody’s foxhole.
The border opened at eight, and by ten we led the line, all anxious to push through. But the Spaniards were pushing also-backwards. If we wanted to go to Gibraltar, they told us, we’d have to go in an empty auto because the embargo rules wouldn’t abide our heavily loaded cars and camper. They also told us that we couldn’t get our bond refunded if we left Spain by way of Gibraltar. We’d have to ship our equipment directly from Spain to Africa if we wanted our $1,750 back. Manu, they also pointed out, was a Spaniard-something he hardly let us forget- and as a Spaniard he was forbidden to go to Gibraltar for any reason- something he’d neglected to mention.
We left the border and drove to the bustling ferry and fishing port of Algeciras and camped to ponder our problems. We had to get to Gibraltar to buy our film and other important equipment. We had to find some way of getting that material to Africa. And we had to find some way of getting back our customs bond and getting to Africa ourselves.
There was only one way, complicated and extremely inconvenient: we would leave the Jeep, the camper, and all our equipment in Algeciras with Manu so that the rest of us would be free to drive to Gibraltar to make our purchases; and while Willy and Woodrow took them by ferry from Gibraltar to Tangier, Al and I and the girls would return to Algeciras to meet Manu, pick up our equipment, claim our customs bond, and sail to Ceuta, the Spanish port in Morocco, and from there drive the difficult mountain road to Tangier to pick up Willy and Woodrow and the rest of the equipment. It was about as convenient as going from Brooklyn to the Bronx by way of Cucamonga but there was no other way.
Early the next morning, with Manu soundly guarding the camp in his sleep, the seven of us set out for the Rock, reaching La Linea at eight only to find thirteen cars already in line. That meant we couldn’t get in until the morning after, but our ferry sailed that next day at noon.
We went to work on the line. The thirteenth, twelfth, and eleventh cars were easy enough to get rid of by simply explaining the arithmetical facts of life.
I told the occupants of the tenth car, five American sailors from the naval base at Rota, that there was absolutely nothing for them to do in Gibraltar, that the women were all married, the goods overpriced, the beaches overcrowded, the casino crooked, and the sightseeing attractions closed until summer; and that they’d be much better heading for the action up around Torremolinos. Hadn’t they heard about the bikini contest there?
Now we were sure of getting in, but why stop there? Willy and Al slipped out of the Land Cruiser and walked around the long way to the front of the line where they befriended the driver of the third car and made themselves so much at home that, after half an hour, everyone else in line assumed it was their car. Then they could operate; surely no one would suspect deviousness from someone at the head of the line.
Walking back to the ninth car in line, a German family of six crammed in a VW, Willy introduced himself as a fellow Deutschlander. After a while he said, “By the way, why do you wait in line? You won’t be able to get in today.”
“No, you are wrong,” the German answered. “I have it carefully computed. I will be the last car in, just when they close the frontier at six o’clock.”
“Oh, haven’t you heard?” asked Willy, looking genuinely upset. “They’ve changed the system in the past few days. Now they close the border at five o’clock.”
“But when I was in Algeciras this morning I was told six.” Willy thought for a moment, then asked, “Do you speak Spanish? -No-only the numbers-well, let’s go ask the guard.”
So Willy, with the distraught German following, went over to the guard, whom he asked in his speediest Spanish what time it would be one hour before the border closed.
The guard looked puzzled. Willy repeated his question.
The guard thought for a minute and answered, ”A las cinco.” An angry beetle buzzed out of line.
“I say there,” I yelled at Willy, pretending not to know him, and making sure that the car ahead of us could hear, “why did that Volkswagen leave?”
Willy, going along with the ruse, and making sure his reply wasn’t lost on the car ahead of me, answered, “The guard told him they close the border at four o’clock today because of a holiday.”
“What did you say?” our victim responded.
“I said the guard said they close the border at four today. That’s why the Volkswagen left. You’ll just miss getting in.”
A couple of curses, a turn of a key, and we were up another hour.