See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2016
Mud, rocks, sand, dust and water. Plus of course a motorised vehicle. It’s a fool-proof recipe for fun. How dirty can you possibly get? Enjoy the Algarve is about to find out as this month we try buggy riding near Loulé.
“What would be more suitable to wear, short or long trousers?” Paulo Timóteo (33) smiles at my question: “It’s completely up to you. But know that whatever you’ll wear, it’s going to be covered in dirt afterwards!” The Portuguese owner of Algarve Buggy Tours knows what he’s talking about: with big groups, he’s the one driving in the back, getting everyone’s dust. His business partner Eduardo Vieira (44), a former competition racer, has tons of off-road experience as well. The men started their company in Cerro Cabeça de Câmara (near Loulé) two years ago, currently owning eight buggies and planning to expand. I, for one, do not have any off-road experience and thus settle on wearing my pristine white hotpants because it’s sunny. Come on, they won’t get that dirty, will they? I’ve driven a jeep once and my clothes were fine afterwards.
Then again, buggies aren’t jeeps. They look like a cross between the LEGO Technic 8296 Dune vehicles my nephews play with (albeit on a bigger scale) and the stuff they drive in Mad Max: Fury Road. All in an orange colour that seems more suited to my native Holland than to the south of Portugal. On the back, there’s something that resembles a rocket-powered gas tank, but is actually just for storing the petrol I’m told. In the safety briefing we also learn to keep an eye on the temperature gauge (red = bad), and get informed about the fact that the wheels are outside the car body instead of inside. In other words: better pay close attention on corners next to a cliff edge. Buggies don’t have a reverse gear, so tour guide Gabriel Campos (29) has to push us in case we need to go backwards. They also don’t have any other gears or hand brakes. I make a mental note of not parking my buggy on a hill and getting out to admire the scenery.
What these vehicles do offer, is the guarantee of a thrill ride. The average maximum of 40km/h might not seem much, but feels definitely fast considering you’re driving on roads you’d normally avoid with your car. (Or, if you suck at map reading like I do, you’ll end up on those roads and won’t drive faster than 5km/h, anxious not to break your car as there’s no mechanic in sight). The suspension gets a serious pounding as we explore the Serra do Caldeirão, but for the buggies, rough tracks are no problem at all. It’s hilarious fun; I enthusiastically get into my off-road adventure mode and make ‘VRRRRRRRRRRRRRRM’ sounds (a bit like a three year old playing with toy cars), which are luckily drowned out by the engine noise.
Despite the explanation about the wheels, I shamefully admit to misjudging the distance most of the times, ending up precisely in the small trenches and on top of the rocks I was aiming to avoid. Photographer Kyle gets a bumpy ride – fortunately the leather seats are very comfy. I’m also grateful for the other kit that’s provided. The helmet ensures my head doesn’t hurt as I whack it on the cage getting out of the driver’s seat at a rest stop. And was I first sceptical about the need for a protection mask, 10 minutes into the ride a layer of dirt has already formed on my skin. Somehow it manages to get everywhere, including underneath my clothes. The mask is the only thing keeping the grime from entering my nose and mouth as well. On the positive side: the brown shade sticks on better than a spray-on tan.
Being able to go places most cars aren’t, you’ll discover hidden parts of this region. Gabriel’s favourites are the higher bits of the route, which allow for panoramic views all the way to the ocean: “That scenery never gets boring. It makes me so happy that I can enjoy it every day.” The landscape varies from forest-like, with leaves of cork trees on each side of the road forming a green tunnel, to almost Martian, consisting of nothing but red clay and stones. The Algarve, it proves again, is very diverse. Encountering all that in just a three hour ride makes me wonder what you’ll see when choosing the longer options. A lot more it seems: “Last month we did a five days tour and went to Sagres, Silves, Monchique and Quarteira, all by buggy,” answers Paulo.
During a stop in Querença, where crossing through the silent village in our loud buggies feels a bit surreal, we taste local jams, liquor and rosemary honey. When passing cork oaks, Gabriel explains about the Algarve’s national tree (want to know more about cork? Read ‘Planting for future generations’ in our February 2016 issue). Another stop includes swimming in the river near the old Roman bridge of Tôr. To get there, we drive through the riverbed. Water splashes into the buggy, but doesn’t hinder the drive at all. All-terrain vehicle really means all-terrain vehicle. I’m shocked at the steepness of some of the tracks we drive on in the mountainous region, but according to Gabriel, the buggy can easily take angles of 45˚. Funny enough, it’s on a flat and easy bit that one of the buggies gets a flat tire. It’s changed within minutes, Gabriel lifting the front of the 500kg weighing buggy up in the air (no, he hasn’t got superhuman strength; the heavy engine is located in the back).
As we get more familiar with the vehicles, the pace increases, and on sharp corners I feel the buggy drifting a bit which only adds to the thrill. On an extremely narrow lane, we encounter another car which has to reverse as we can’t. Driving on dry roads causes clouds of dust so thick you can hardly see the other buggy in front of you. The few puddles on our way make mud splash up in our faces. “Some people come here only when it rains, because they love driving through mud. Especially Brits, for them it’s: the more mud, the better,” Paulo comments. Despite it being a relatively mud-less day, even the high pressured air afterwards can’t get completely rid of the dirt that has accumulated during the tour. My white shorts will never be white again. Eduardo and Gabriel smile half apologetic, I don’t mind. With a bit of luck, khaki will be a very fashionable colour for the summer of 2016. Also, the fun I had during this tour is worth a dozen new shorts!
When to go?
Whenever you want. Buggy tours are held all year round. Fancy mud? Come when it rains. Fancy dust? Come when it’s dry. Fancy a swim in the river? Come when it’s hot and don’t forget to bring your bikini/swimming shorts. April and May are good for seeing wild flowers along the way. It’s busier in summer months.
Take some old clothes because they will get dirty. There’s no need to wear any specific type of clothing or footwear.
Want to go? Book the tour via their website algarvebuggytours.com
Adventurous people who like to explore the hilly Serra do Caldeirão region and learn something about local Algarve products along the way. Wannabe motocross/rally drivers will love it.
Only persons with a valid EU drivers licence are allowed to drive the buggy. No drivers licence? Anyone with a minimum age of 7 can be a passenger. Want to share the driving? There’ll be stops along the way where you can switch.
The Safari tour lasts three hours. There are also shorter (Dirt & Dust, 1h) and longer (Buggy Adventure, 6h and Cross-country, 2 days) possibilities.
See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2016