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In the wrong place at the wrong time - pure adrenaline

Is it dangerous to go wild camping alone in nature?  What we experienced in 400 nights.   How safe is vanlife and overlanding?   How likely is it to be mugged, robbed or have a vehicle stolen on a trip?

In April/May 2022 we were on the road in Andalusia for 2.5 weeks. One of our more intense experiences occurred while wild camping - something that really got under our skin.

In the last third of our journey, we reached Cabo De Gata, on the recommendation of our research queen and also on the recommendation of Juan, an employee of a hotel in Seville. 

The last kilometres of the journey were quite desolate, endless vegetable fields covered with fabric roofs, unusually littered roadsides - and then one of the most unadorned places "Cabo de Gata" did not really invite us to linger.

But we stopped at the restaurant "Goleta Cabo de Gata" and had an extremely delicious lunch, I had mussels and then swordfish steaks on the table - both exceptionally tasty. 

On arrival, we had already marked a branching track in the sat nav, which, according to satellite image research, led directly to the beach, between Almeria and Cabo de Gata. 

After lunch, we ploughed about 1-2 km along a rough track towards the beach. Close to the historic Roman salt works, we pitched ourselves directly on the pebble beach, about 6-7 metres from the surf. 

A beautiful Wilcamping site with a wonderful sound of the usually rather low surf of the Mediterranean Sea. According to Google, the difference in sea level between high and low tide is only about 10cm - and we thought it was close to the edge but safe enough in terms of distance.

Is it dangerous to go wild camping alone in nature?  What we experienced in 400 nights.   How safe is vanlife and overlanding?   How likely is it to be mugged, robbed or have a vehicle stolen on a trip?

We were a bit exhausted from the previous two days and nights - and lay down in the pop-up roof by 4pm and soon fell asleep. Downstairs we had darkened the windows with magnetic mats, so you couldn't see into the vehicle. 

I slept through until about 4 a.m. when a much stronger surf woke me up, I also heard the nailing of a heavy diesel engine on the sea in the distance.

I followed the call of nature and relieved myself - and took the above photo along the way. Even at night and in the dark, a new smartphone from Apple is able to capture the surroundings to some extent.  The waves were much bigger - but we were far enough away from the surf. I lay down again in the pop-up roof and pulled out my Kindle to read something.

Shortly before half past five in the morning, several vehicles approached. Since the Kindle is backlit, there were no lights on - and I still didn't wonder at first why I only heard the vehicles but didn't see any cones of light.

Doors were banging and people arriving were having animated/excited discussions. I wondered why local fishermen were so communicative in the middle of the night, but noticed the Arabic language. 

When my friend turned around, I reassured her that it was probably the fishermen launching a boat, meanwhile we could hear men talking animatedly all around. It was getting so loud that we couldn't sleep through it.... 

Is it dangerous to go wild camping alone in nature?  What we experienced in 400 nights.   How safe is vanlife and overlanding?   How likely is it to be mugged, robbed or have a vehicle stolen on a trip?

My girlfriend opened her side window in the pop-up roof (zipper) and looked out - but immediately closed it again without comment. On the VW bus, after opening the window, there is still a mosquito net outside, so we inside should still not have been directly visible (see above).

I did the same to myself and looked out. A man dressed fully in black was standing directly in front of the window, wearing a balaclava that only covered his mouth and eyes, with an orange pattern around the eyes. He had his arms crossed in front of his chest and was staring straight up at me. 

My friend looked out too and quietly we zipped it back up a little (but not all the way) - and lay back down again.

In the pop-up roof, one is surrounded by the fabric, both light and a lively exchange were not possible - without this being visible from the outside. Even going down out of the roof would have led to noticeable fluctuations - and we decided not to react for the time being.

All around us more and more people were shouting, discussing and I slowly straightened up - to take another look. I was lying on my side facing the sea - and saw that the masked man was no longer in my field of vision. 

Out in the sea there was a wooden fishing boat, the kind fishermen use - and a large inflatable boat. Just then, a number of suspected migrants left the dinghy and a crew of about 15 men was in the process of bringing larger white packages ashore in a human chain. We were really in the way and the flow of goods/people seemed to pass us on both sides of the vehicle. 

Startled, I lay back down. This was not some small operation - here was what appeared to be a huge cargo being unloaded. Intimidated, I lay back down - now even more worried.  

The masked man had shaken me at first - apparently they didn't want anything from us - as long as we didn't do anything - otherwise they would have tried to get us out of the car long ago. But the fact that we were in such a big operation made the coming trouble because of unnecessary witnesses somehow more likely.

But we kept still, stayed in the pop-up roof. I had my mobile phone with me, but didn't dare to do anything because of the light and noise emission. 

After about 20 minutes, 1-2 vehicles started and it got a bit quieter, but we were still surrounded by lots of people and heard voices. Quietly I let myself slide downstairs and cleared the driver's seat a bit. My friend also came downstairs - and she whispered I should call the police.

Down in the bus we were a bit more protected with the darkened windows, and they couldn't hear us as well as up in the pop-top. At first I said no, "they leave us alone and we leave them alone", but she was worried that things could escalate. 

So I called 112, the international emergency number. In a whisper I described that we were standing with our bus by the sea in the middle of a drug/migrant delivery. "Why are you whispering" came back - and I described that we were surrounded by people. I asked if they could locate me but they replied in the negative and asked for our location. 

"Cabo de Gata" Beach wasn't enough for them - and we had to use Google Maps to find our location ourselves (36°49'18.1 "N 2°17'41.2 "W).

Probably due to a lack of excitement, I hung up on the research - but she got back to me with a local (but very short) number. 

We were hugely fortunate, - that my phone was on silent - otherwise it would now have been clear outside that we were active. The local police wanted to know our exact location - then they hung up. After 2-3 minutes the phone rang again - and a lady without much knowledge of English tried to find out more about us and our vehicle - but soon resigned and hung up. 

Shouts could still be heard around us, men were still walking around our vehicle. Then there was a big commotion, vehicle doors were slammed and about 3 vehicles started and drove around us and away.  It got quieter - but some voices showed that we were not completely alone. A very strong engine could also be heard at sea - apparently they were manoeuvring (but not driving away).

The vehicles came back after 3 minutes, doors slammed and a loud shouting started. Were you going to get rid of the witnesses after all??? The shouts were returned from the ship(s) on the sea side - and while some were running to the beach again, I heard 2x "Policia, Policia" in the discussion next to us. Now they seemed to know that we had called - or at least that they were active.

They called again and the vehicles drove off again. I sat down in the driver's seat and got ready to drive in case of an emergency, but I thought it was safer not to drive off yet, but to wait. 

For one thing, the "outdoor package" (table, folding chairs) was loose on the bike rack and would get lost, also there were still at least 2 boats right on the shore. I loosened the thermal mat at the front and peeked outside - there was no one in front, so I completely uncovered the windscreen and tried to get an overview.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend closed the pop-up roof and made us a bit more ready to drive. We removed the other thermal mats and were able to get an overview of our surroundings.

At the sea, the medium-sized wooden fishing boat was still there, the rubber dinghy or dinghies had apparently already chugged quietly out to sea. The migrants had set off on foot in the direction of Almeria, some of them perhaps also in the vehicles. Since there were only cars and no buses, the cars must have been full to the brim with the (drug?) delivery - 20 minutes of unloading - that was a big delivery.

From inland, a vehicle with headlights approached - maybe the first fishermen or the police? I started the engine and was ready to go. There was only one access road, but the gravel beach would have been passable without a 4x4, so we had plenty of escape options. 

We considered starting again, but then decided it was safer to wait instead of a possible chase with lack of local knowledge. In driving direction, there was a river mouth before the next town, I didn't assume we could have gone all the way to Cabo De Gata.

The car approached and turned around, apparently to be able to illuminate our cab with the headlights (we saw that there were 2 people in the vehicle, driver and passenger. I manoeuvred at walking speed - to prevent exactly this, but without trying to drive away any further. 

The driver got out and ran to the sea where the human chain to the boat was active before. Had they forgotten something, lost something - goods, trackers or something else? A green marker light showed us that the fishing boat was still waiting less than 10m from the shore. 

Watched by us, the man looked out to sea and went back into the vehicle, turned around (with me again driving away at a slow walking speed) - and drove past us back inland. 

I stopped again and waited. I knew only one way out of here - and considered it still compromised - and felt safe(er) in the car now with the engine running and ready to go - too.

Again headlights came from inland. Had the vehicle turned around to come back to us? The vehicle made a turn and we saw from the silhouette of the blue lights that it was a patrol car. I flashed my lights and saw a second patrol car return them. 

The police car turned on its blue lights and stopped towards me - I got out and signalled that I had called. One of the officers knew English reasonably well and soon the officers swarmed out somewhat unmotivated. A team bus and another police car appeared.

When a police officer shone a small hand torch into the sea, I turned the bus around and shone the LED headlights into the sea. The boats were gone.

The officers questioned us briefly and then said that it was quite normal for cocaine and migrants to come ashore here all the time.

They said we could go back to sleep now - but we drove to the nearby 24h BP petrol station to regain our composure. Not 100m from the beach we discovered another small parked van - which hadn't been there that evening either. 

On the way, I was also surprised that after calling the national emergency hotline and triggering a police operation with 4 vehicles and at least 6 men, we didn't even have to sign a report. Was this only due to the language barrier?

We stood at the petrol pump and watched it slowly getting light. We wondered if there were people in the cafeteria who had been on the beach earlier and were now worried that we might recognise them. 

We decided - first of all - to make kilometres. We examined our bus very carefully, filmed the underside and wheel arches with the selfie camera of our smartphones to detect any GPS trackers or airtags (without having to crawl under the vehicle) - and drove off. We took detours to make sure we weren't being followed - and left the coast to head inland.

It was 1:30 pm until a Spanish number called - and the police would have liked to see us, for the purpose of a report. But we were already 120 kilometres away in a national park and tried to calm our nerves with a short hike. We said we were already on our way to Portugal - and gave all the information only by phone. What had we already seen. 

A fishing boat, a rubber dinghy, a masked man, a crew of about 15 unloading, some suspected migrants, numerous white parcels, some vehicles without lights, one of them an Audi, the vehicle with lights a dented Peugeot 206 or similar - no number plates, no identification of persons.

The next night we spent in a small resort town, a golf resort in the middle of nowhere, with hotels, restaurant, walls around it - and its own security service. Every vehicle was stopped at the entrance via barrier, the occupants had to identify themselves and we also had to request access with our hotel booking.  

Is it dangerous to go wild camping alone in nature?  What we experienced in 400 nights.   How safe is vanlife and overlanding?   How likely is it to be mugged, robbed or have a vehicle stolen on a trip?

A great environment for our increased need for security.... In the sense of confrontation therapy, we had another wild camp with campfire the next evening - so that this rather traumatic experience could not settle down.

This was one of the more dangerous moments of my travels, even taking into account Trans-Africa. In Mauritania I had an incident that similarly fueled my adrenaline, on the Panamericana it was also a bit tighter once, but without these big adrenaline surges.

The following links show that this is a bigger problem in southern Spain, and that immigrants & drug smuggling via sea routes have also occupied the media on several occasions: 

EuropolThetimesElpaisTheolivepressSpanishnewstodayEuroweeklynews

Did we do the right thing ourselves? Could we have reacted better? Was it dangerous to call the police? I am curious what you readers think about this! Via satellite image we later saw that we could have fled along the beach - even in both directions. 

Especially as we have just discussed the topic of "Safety when travelling and our own influence on it" here in the vantripping blog, the above incident also shows that you can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

By the way, you have also seen our temporary travel vehicle after the sale of Brummie, we are not yet sure if this setup will last. 

You may also be interested in the following links:
Summary: which vehicle modifications were really helpful when traveling?
Comparative test of sand sheets, waffle board and other recovery aids
Which apps help when traveling and when & where?
World trip / sabbatical - what is the ideal age?

Comments

  1. Yeahh, don't' be there in the first place. You are just LOOKING for trouble camping like that in areas you have NO knowledge of . Lucky you and your lady did not wake up dead. Smarten up!

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    Replies
    1. As you may have read, we are travellers. We did wild camping on our trans-Africa, South America, Europe (120`000 Kilometers till today). As you can guess, we can't "get knowledge" on every place we sleep in.

      In your eyes, our entire lifestyle is "looking for trouble".

      Nor would we assume that the whole operation really has to be exactly where we stayed. The beach is huge, there were many other places to reach the sea.

      Delete
    2. Haha, I like your comment 'In your eyes, our entire lifestyle is "looking for trouble". Yes absolutely! Enjoy your life - I'm envious of your lifestyle.
      I think you did the right thing.

      Delete

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