David Craig

The most baffling part of the climb was getting to the base of the Rock. Or so we thought until we embarked on the Face itself. On a Saturday we started to ask our way along the limpet-horde of wrecked garages and scrapyards that encrust the base of the reef. Nowhere does the 500-metre soaring triangle of raw limestone actually sprout from common ground. These rusting corrugated-iron shanties shut us out. At Rock Haulage Ltd, 26 Devil’s Tower Road, a tanned and stubbled man is standing in the doorway of a den stacked up with cannibalised cars. When I say, ‘We want to climb the cliff here,’ he says instantly, ‘Are you sure?’, looking me full in the eye. He is friendly about access but must clear it with his boss, who ‘should be back by 6’. As we talk, the crag leans over us hugely.

For a few hours Neil (my youngest son) and I work out at the other end of Gibraltar, on the sun-warmed and flowery tiers of Buffadero Bluff, where I had climbed two years before. When we get to No 26, the door is padlocked shut. At No 24 (Rock Services Ltd) another tanned and stubbled man, younger but with a bigger paunch, is sharing a brew in the doorway with a stoned-looking man whose lower face is invisible behind a luxuriant walrus moustache. They too must wait for the boss, who ‘should be back soon’. The Paunch says: ‘I wouldn’t have the guts to climb that. Or the brains.’ At this my own guts turn to water. The sun dips, more tea is brewed among the scarred limbs and torsos of unidentifiable cars. Paunch takes us through to the back and gestures at a great sagging hole in the roof: ‘A big rock came through there. Whole place was fuckin shakin’. He grins, half-proud of his desperate environment.

Giving up on the invisible bosses, I wander along Devil’s Tower Road to what looks like the only other feasible access, a pair of open steel gates in a solid, well-painted yellow wall. It’s Royal Navy property, apparently. A young serviceman in a blue uniform and beret was here earlier. Now the yard inside is deserted, seemingly disused. Nothing could be less shipshape or Bristol fashion. The bare concrete is littered with stones from fist to skull-size. A reinforced concrete walkway leads to a painted metal door in the base of the Rock. As I walk about eyeing the drifts of nettles and sagging mesh marking the boundary with the cliff, the young rating comes out of the door and says: ‘Can I help you?’

‘Yes,’ I reply, ‘we could do with a strong boarding-party, preferably with helicopter back-up.’ Actually, I utter my usual request for access and he beckons me to follow him into the Rock. Inside, a few feet from the seeming dereliction of the yard, are passage after passage lined with immaculately-maintained consoles, generators encased in metal, vents and piping and wiring and needles in dials quivering with massed voltage or tonnage or whatever. From here, I suppose, are powered the instruments with which the Forces monitor all shipping and aircraft movements in the Straits. An RAF flight lieutenant has already given us clearance (by letter) to finish our climb beside their little nest of masts and pylons; a major in the Army has given us clearance to approach the base of the cliff. The Face itself is owned by the Gibraltar Government, which doesn’t care what we do. Now only the Navy stands in our way.

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