After some amazing days of surfing near Sines I drove, with a friend I had met that week, down the coast in search of sea cliffs and lighthouses. The road was quiet and took us through sleeping towns whilst hugging the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park. My hire car had a soft top which we put down for the entire journey, that, with Spotify playing through the aux cable I’d remembered to bring, we had ourselves a perfect late summer road trip.
Reaching Benigal, we drove down a steep, narrow road leading to Praia de Benagil. The small fishing cove was busy with boat trip operators and beach goes making the most of the late afternoon sunshine. We followed the road round and up the hill, parked the car and walked back down. We didn’t know much about the sea cave or how to get there, we’d just googled it and were wowed by what we saw on image search so had made the decision to find it for ourselves.
We walked onto the beach which lines the towering sea cliffs as they curve along the coastline. The beach is relatively short and it was obvious you wouldn’t be able to walk past the end of it, we wondered if we were even in the right place to access the cave so clambered up the rocks at the edge of the cove which pointed out further than the beach and gave us a better viewing point. We still couldn’t see the cave but noticed a cluster of tour boats just past the cliffs at the far end of the beach, surely that was our cave? We looked at the sea and it was pretty choppy, the tide was changing and the waves were swirling into each other in a battle of direction. There was a heavy shore break and nobody was swimming past it.
So with no further knowledge, all we knew was neither of us wanted to leave without trying to reach the cave, especially if it was just around the corner. We asked a local woman at the boat tours booth if it was possible to swim to the cave, she said no, and the only way to see the cave was to take an hour long boat trip in which Benagil cave was half way through. The woman ended the conversation abruptly, and fair enough, she just wanted us to take her tour. We discussed for a while if that meant it was a half an hour boat ride to the cave or if they just really didn’t want people swimming to it. Maybe foolishly we still decided to give it a try anyway, so we got changed, fixed the go pro to my wrist and headed out.
We jumped through the shore break and into the choppy waters, we were passed around by the waves as we started to swim towards the end of the cove. As we swam around the cliff edge and just out of sight of the beach we saw a small opening in the rock face. We looked at each other and grinned, was this it? We swam towards it and the closer we got the more our excitement grew, it was definitely the entrance to a cave, a few meters closer and we were sure this was the one. As we swam through the entrance, a wave crashed down onto us. We let it take us in and once out of it’s grasps, ran on to the beach. We span around, buzzing with excitement that we were actually inside. The sand was cold under our feet and light was flooding in from a hole in the roof and the two openings from sea. We had the whole place to ourselves and stood looking up at the incredible spiraling formations and shades of the rock. This was beyond what we had wished for.
It wasn’t long before our body temperatures were dropping and a realisation that we needed to get back hit us pretty hard. We moved towards the opening we had come in from and a huge wave crashed across it. One glance at each other was enough to know this was not the time to panic, that wasn’t going to help the situation. We just had to wait for this set to come in and then take the next low. It came and we both ran and jumped into the water, swimming as hard as we could to just make it past the cave entrance and the breaking waves. I reached the exact spot I needed to get passed and took a breath, but I didn’t. I gasped again and again and I couldn’t catch my breath. This wasn’t new to me, my asthma is triggered by a shock or a sudden burst of exercise but I really didn’t need it to be happening at this moment in time. My friend gave me a pretty heavy look of concern as she could hear my lungs struggling. “You have to move, you just have to get past that point” she shouted across the waves. I knew she was right but I also knew the only way my breathing would come back is if I stopped. So I tread water, knowing at any moment the next set of waves could come rushing at me and back in. Maybe 30 seconds later (I don’t exactly know because it seemed like an age) I took a long deep breath and started moving my arms and legs until I was swimming out of the opening. We swam until we were just about to lose sight of the cave and have the beach in our sights, we looked back and laughed. What an amazing, probably stupid but unforgettable experience that had just been. We swam back to the beach, exhausted in every way and continued our road trip to Lagos.