Islandmomma

Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age


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Walking with Volcanoes – El Teide’s Siete Cañadas Trail

It’s been pointed out to me that I haven’t blogged much in recent days, and it came a surprise  to realize  how long it’s been. That’s because my days, when not teaching or indulging in a “lite” social life, have been consumed by blogging, which made me forget that I hadn’t, you know, actually done any. This, in turn,  is because changes are afoot for this blog, and I’ve been preoccupied prioritizing and working out just how it needs to evolve. I’ve dropped hints before, I know, and also on Facebook, and there are times when I forget that not everyone follows all social media. I’m still keeping it all up my sleeve until it really is on the cusp of changeover,  – soon!

Mount Teide

In the meantime, one of the other things which kept me busy for a few days was a visit from my son, Guy – much in need of sunshine living in England’s drab climate over the last three years. Some great conversations were enjoyed, and good food was consumed – most of which was displayed ad nauseam on Facebook ;)

Guy siete cañadas

We’d intended the highlight of the brief 3 days to be a hike over the greater part of the Siete Cañadas Trail , without putting any pressure on ourselves to catch up with the bus to get back to the car, so then – to walk as far as possible leaving ourselves time to get back before it was dark. This is what we did, but not quite as far a we’d intended.

El Teide at the begining of our walk, framed by a mass of flixweed, which was prolific and added color to a landscape so often lacking in hues other than browns and blues.

El Teide at the begining of our walk, framed by a mass of flixweed, which was prolific and added color to a landscape so often lacking in hues other than browns and blues.When we arrived at the Parador we discovered that the trail was closed until 2pm because they were hunting muflon. Muflon? Sounds like something from Narnia, doesn’t it! Muflon are, in fact, wild sheep. This fact I learned only as a result of this experience. I thought that – if they existed – they were wild goats. Although, according to the Cabildo ‘s web site,  there may be as many as 125 of the critters roaming Tenerife’s mountains I know no-one (and that includes folk who walk most weekends) who has actually seen one. Austin and I did once spot some pretty large droppings on the hillsides above Siete Cañadas, so they might have been there, just ahead of us. Alternatively, there might be giant rabbits living up there, which sounds much more appealing.

Another misapprehension was that they were wild because they had been abandoned by the aboriginal Guanche when Spain conquered the island. But, no, they were introduced to provide “big game hunting” back in the 70s – again, according to the Cabildo (the Provincial Government). At any rate, last Sunday was the day for shooting at them. Supposedly, they are ruining the flora and I suppose robbing indigenous fauna of food. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men! If you want to know about them, here is a link in English to the Cabildo’s information about them.

So, we repaired to the view-point overlooking the crater’s flatlands, not the one all the tourists were staggering up close to the surreal and twisted Roque Cinchado, but the one on the opposite side, where our only companions in the hour or so spent there were a shy German couple.

This was our lunch spot. Not a bad view, eh? There in the background is Alto de Guajara, my "favorite" mountain

This was our lunch spot. Not a bad view, eh? There in the background is Alto de Guajara, my “favorite” mountain

Muflon we may have missed (no shots were heard during lunch) but we did encounter  reptilian thievery in the form of gallotia galloti galloti, this cheeky male lizard, quick as lightning filched a mini empanada from our container. He couldn’t manage to drag it too far, but came back for more! Just as we were going to remove it  (yep – you really, really shouldn’t feed them, and we wouldn’t have done it intentionally!) when an even bigger guy heaved into sight from below, like some minature dinosaur, and snarfed it before I could raise a camera, and all I could do was gasp!

And so we set off at 2 o’clock from the trail which begins by the Parador to do a shortened walk. We made it as far as the junction with the trail which meanders up the flank of Alto de Guajara, with frequent stops to take snaps, or, honestly just to admire and exclaim. Guy and I did a shorter version of this same walk almost exactly a year ago, but the flora weren’t a tenth as abundant or colorful as this year. Another remarkable floral excursion leaves me wondering at the surprises this island has in store.

This is my favorite part of the trail. We were inventing stories about the weird rock shapes. I think of these as petrified spaceships, frozen in another time, but Guy thinks it is the hand of  a god pointing to the skies.

This is my favorite part of the trail. We were inventing stories about the weird rock shapes. I think of these as petrified spaceships, frozen in another time, but Guy thinks it is the hand of a god pointing to the skies.

Guy and me Siete Cañadas

It was a lovely day on a personal level, but also a day of simply stunning beauty. The volcanic landscape of the National Park is so arid for much of the year (and no less majestic for the barrenness), that these few weeks of Spring are something like a wonderland, like the winter snows which never settle in the crater for very long, they are a moment in time, to be seized and enjoyed before it fades. It’s a constantly changing scene, nothing remotely like the more delicate scenery of England. Even though we were only at around 2,000 m there is very much a sense of “being on top of the world,” of somehow reaching out to the heavens.

A water break. The weather was perfect. Sunny but not hot.

A water break. The weather was perfect. Sunny but not hot.

Huge clumps of purple wallflowers grew by the trail.Huge clumps of purple wallflowers grew by the trail.

It’s a kind of ritual, living here, that if you don’t go to the National Park at any other time, then you go twice a year; once to see the first snow of the winter and once to see the tajinaste in flower. I knew that probably there would be some show, although it was a tad early, because of the gorgeous display I’d seen in Vilflor. Vilaflor is a fair bit lower, but three weeks or so had passed. We saw the first by the roadside as we drove up, and there are already several in almost full bloom in the crater now. These plants grow in the wild nowhere else on the planet. They are vibrant, usually swarming with bees – the honey made from their pollen is delicious, and the real harbinger of summer. By the time they are passed, those proud heads dropping and then withering, the island will be enveloped in summer heat.

I snapped this plant on the outward walk, but returning as the sun was dipping its colors seemed more pronounced.

I snapped this plant on the outward walk, but returning as the sun was dipping its colors seemed more pronounced.

As we wound our way down in the early evening, mists shrouded part of our route. Down below, we discovered, those mists had blocked out the sun. We’d risen above them and into the sunshine of the crater,and a different world. And there you have it – again. The astounding variety which has kept me here so long.


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Crossing the Caldera

Missing the full impact of the sunrise I described (or at least tried to) in my last post I would normally have sulked (at best), but on that day I was able to be delightfully zen about the missed opportunity. Why? Because I was on my way to crossing an item of my bucket list, and that was to walk the Siete Cañadas trail, a walk which takes you some 16 kilometers, across the breadth of the caldera in the Teide National Park, from the parador to El Portillo, the crossroads where the downward journey to the northern side of the island begins. Crossing the top of the island you might say.

Pilar taking a closer look a local wildlife.

I’ve been hearing for a long, long time about this walk, that it’s a  challenge on a hot day; that it’s a journey through time – from the volcanic eruptions of pre-history, through the legends of the Guanches (the aboriginal island inhabitants); through the remains of more recent pastoral and colonial history to present day status as a World Heritage Site; that it’s a dream for photographers, botanists, birdwatchers and geologists; and that the surreal landscapes of the area, at times majestic, at times ghostly, are even more dramatic  at these close quarters.

All of that was true, and more.

I’d walked a part of the trail twice in recent months, around an hour into the four-and-a-half of the whole each time  (once en route to my memorable night sleeping in a cave before we diverged as it joined another trail, and once as a short walk a couple of weeks back), so my imagination was already in overdrive when we set out on Saturday from the village of La Camella, just above Los Cristinos.

The early start was utterly worth it. We passed hardly any other cars on our ascent, let alone buses or motorbikes. That alone was dream-like, curving lazily around the bends, slowing down when we passed something interesting, and relaxing for the walk ahead. When we alighted at the parador, which nestles in the heart of the crater, there was the faintest chill in the air, just enough to don  a light windbreaker, but we had risen above the cloud cover and the crystal clear skies promised heat in the hours ahead.

Looking back at Guajara, the moon was still high in the morning sky.

The beginning of the walk, if you set off from the parador end,  is, arguably, the most impressive part,  with its truly weird and twisted rock formations, and this was the part I already knew. The photographer in me was glad I’d done it before, because at 8.45 the sun was only just rising over the mountainsides, leaving the tortured volcanic shapes in shade. The picture below is from a previous visit.

More and more, as I walk this island, I realize how  connected its history is to the landscape. It flows out of its peaks and woodlands, and it’s almost tangible.  This route, on which we were setting out, previously called camino chasnero, was at one time the quickest way of connecting  north to south. Last Saturday we probably didn’t meet more than a couple of dozen walkers in the five hours we rambled, but it may well have been much busier in the past than it is today, as farmers  from the north, with mules laden with chestnuts, pigs, and farm implements, traveled southward, and figs, potatoes and cochineal were hauled north, and this was the easy part, the plains of the caldera, there were mountainsides to climb first and then to descend after the crossing. The stories remind me of those of the “Wild West,” of the wagon trains which crossed North America around this same time in history.

Along the way traders would have met goatherds and their flocks; folk hoping that the mountain air would cure illnesses like asthma, bronchitis or tuberculosis, and in later years scientists and astronomers studying earth and sky. The central plain is littered with crumbling, one-or-two-room buildings, which are probably a mixture of goatherds’ shelters and the simple cottages used by the infirm. I knew from January’s bivvy how cold it can get at night, and these simple buildings seemed totally inadequate protection!

Abandoned shelter and an army skeletons marching down the mountainside, the remains of last year’s abundance of tajinaste rojo.

Even before the route was used by farm folk taming and colonizing the island,  evidence suggests that it was used by  the Guanches. The mountainsides which form the wall of the caldera, like so many places here, are pockmarked by caves of some dimension or other, and archaeologists have found  remains, including mummified bodies along the route, most famously in Cañada del Capricho. Mummies have been found in these surreal rocks in caves so high up that they could only be accessed by modern climbing methods. How they were placed there remains just one of the mysteries which died with the Guanches. Of course it’s hard to separate fact and fiction now.

The Guanche princess Guajara is said to have thrown herself to her death from the mountain which now bears her name, as I mentioned back in January, but there are other versions of that story too, and somewhere the aboriginal beliefs and real history intertwined and soon became lost under the rule of the Conquistadors.  Guanche folklore, or as much as has been gleaned from the remnants of the past, told of the fire god, Guayota, who kidnapped the sun-god and hauled him down to the depths of hell through the portal which was the mountain top, El Teide.  Magec, the sun-god, was rescued by the god of gods, Achamán, who then trapped Guayota inside the mountain. Thought about logically, all of that makes prefect sense as an interpretation of volcanic activity by a Stone-age people. El Teide (or Echedye as it was called by the Guanche) was both feared and sacred.  When you walk Siete Cañadas he watches you, brooding, waiting. You can’t ignore or escape it. Its colors seem to change with the light or the angle from which you view it, its lava flows speaking of times even before the eruptions the Guanches remember.

Teide seen from the end of the walk.

Before man walked here, the earth’s violence scattered these plains  with rocks, boulders, pumice and finer sand, which were wrenched from its bowels and vomited over the landscape. Sometimes, in a field of small, black rocks you find an enormous, red boulder, which doesn’t fit with the other types of rock you see around. Was it flung from some more distant eruption? Which one? How far did it soar into the air before it landed just here?

This walk is far better than any theme park, back-to-the-future-type ride.

About half way we stopped to eat, seeking shade from the sun in one of those crumbling shelters, with Teide hovering above, all-seeing. Up to that point we had seen little fauna, but as we rustled our wrappers and bags, tiny eyes appeared at seemingly every crevice in the stonework, and a few, braver lizards came out to inspect us. Bird life apart, the zone’s fauna is mostly invertebrates, and I’m far from knowledgeable about them. Spiders’ webs decorated the space, strung between plants, but there was little sign of anything more to my ignorant eye.

El Teide from our “dining room” in an abandoned shelter.

Birds were another matter, thanks to Pilar, I have new knowledge of the birds of the high mountains. Kestrels, of course, are everywhere on the island. They swoop over autopistas; you look down them as they hover in valleys, their reddish feathers gorgeous in the sunlight, as you drive or walk upwards; and they soar above you at this height, perching on high rocks to survey their territory, as they did this day. I’ve seen the odd buzzard sometimes, and at the beginning of this walk we disturbed a couple of really brightly colored blue tits, as we approached our first tajinaste of the day. However, the treat of the day, and I got excited by Pilar’s enthusiasm, was when we heard what sounded like a gaggle of mini chickens, making a fair old din. It stopped us in our tracks, and Pilar, in stealth mode, neared the tangle of plant life from which it came. As she tiptoed closer another sound which I would never have identified as a bird. It was deep and sudden, and not at all animal-like, clearly a warning, which reminded me for all the world of some tone for a mobile phone. I stayed back for fear of disturbing them more than necessary, but it turned out to be a great grey shrike nest. We had already spotted one a couple of miles back. Eventually momma bird flitted off in search of sustenance, and I got a nice view as she scooted from branch to branch, her head with its Zorro-type mask cocked to listen for possible dangers. She was far too quick for my camera, though. I’m thinking that a serious birdwatcher might have a great old time there right now.

Lone tajinaste

From time to time as we walked there was a whisper of the scent of broom on the air, but whether it was that last year’s display of flora was so utterly magnificent that everything was worn-out and recuperating,  or whether two years of scant rainfall have taken their toll,  I have no idea, but nothing was as abundant. In fact, flowerings were sparse, the odd tajinaste (Tenerife’s emblematic plant) braved it here and there, fragments of the broom bushes were ventured into blossom, and here and there other species popped up. The skeletal ghosts of tajinaste still stood erect as reminders of last year’s opulence, and tangles of dead and dying broom were all around. At the southern end of the trail rosalillo were beginning to flower, but it was too soon to say if they will extend to the vast carpets we saw last year. At the northern end they were barely sprouting.

The “find” of the day, almost at the end of our trail, was a tajinaste picante, the  delicate, blue flowers looking vulnerable in the heat compared to the hot pinks of its sister the tajinaste rojo, and here was something new for me.

Tajinaste Picante. The only one we saw.

After the walk we called into the Visitors’ Center across the road from its ending, where I learned that the plant I thought was the tajinaste azul is actually tajinaste picante, and the blue variety grows only on the island of Fuerteventura. Looking at photos on the internet now I can see the difference, with the tajinaste azul being much bushier and denser, more akin to the familiar tajinaste rojo. I know a couple of years back I described plants I’d seen as tajinaste azul, so my apologies to anyone who may still be reading. I can’t tell you how much of a thrill it is to learn new stuff, though, especially when it’s about flora and fauna which occur nowhere else on the planet. It makes me realize what an amazing place I live in, how much there is to learn, and how lucky I am to be here when I can’t be in motion!

And as we near the end of the trail, we spy El Mar de Nubes (the sea of clouds) hovering over the northern coast. An utterly different scene from the parched plains we’ve just traversed.

Notes: The National Park (one of the earliest created in Spain in 1954) entered the 21st century with the added honor of being a World Heritage Site, having received the award in 2007. In the citation it is described as being “well managed and resourced,” and I couldn’t see anything to make me disagree with that. We came across only one piece of obvious litter, and, sadly, of the sort we didn’t want to pick up and remove with bare hands. Note to the ladies – we all have “calls of nature” when hiking, but please, please carry a bag to take the paper you use away with you!! This was a very easy walk, with no sharp gradients. Last Saturday there was a very welcome breeze, but in summer it must be very hot, it’s very important you take sufficient water, sun screen and protection for your head. There is no shade at midday at all. It’s described, variously as four or four and a half hours. We took five because we stopped to look at flora and fauna, to take snaps and to eat, so if you intend to walk both there and back it’s a long walk. If you do one way, as we did, you need to note the bus times to return you from the end of your walk to your car or back home. They are infrequent, but comfy and air-conditioned :=)

All my pictures were shot in automatic mode, because that’s what I do when I’m hiking with friends who are not as nuts about photography as I am. They’re snaps. If any turn out to be “photographs” there is a lot of luck involved!

When I was in the parador some weeks back I picked up a great book in their gift shop, “Flora and Fauna del Parque Nacional del Teide” by Juan Manuel Martínez Carmona and Francisco Torrents Rodríguez, which I used to check information. I don’t know if there is an English translation, but it’s a good, little resource with loads of information set out in easy-to-read style, and with lovely sketches, although the few photos, describing walks at the end, are less good. I hesitated about buying it, given the state of my bank account, but I’m really glad that I did. I can see it’s going to be much-used.


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On Sleeping in a Cave: or A Childhood Dream Comes True!

There is the scrapping sound of small rocks falling.  I lie still, and wait for another sound, holding my breath, then, Austin’s voice from the darkness;

“Was that you?”

“Nope, it wasn’t you either then?”

“No.”

“What was it then?”

“Just some stones falling. Rocks fall.”

The same sound again, as stone dislodges from the rock face, perhaps disturbed by a small animal.  I know already that we are sharing this cave with a mouse and two spiders, any of which might have dislodged small stones to make the noise we heard. I wrap my arms around my body to fend off the 1º below temperature, and relax again.  My nest in this cave is really quite comfortable, and apparently I drift off to sleep.

This day began sunny and bright in El Médano.  We drove up the twisting road from Granadilla de Abona, on Tenerife’s south east coast, through Spain’s highest village, Vilaflor de Chasna, and into the Teide National Park to the familiar sight of the bizarre and preternatural landscape that is the caldera at the Park’s center. Along the way, the atmosphere had changed from sunny to chill as we passed Granadilla, then to shifting mists as we drove through the pine forest above Vilaflor, to emerge into the sunshine again as we entered the crater.

The landscape had alternated from parched near the coast, where we have had little rain over the last year; to verdant in the forests, where the mists, captured by the trees, are fed to the earth below; and back again to arid as we neared the National Park. The flora had reflected the climate, the pines and eucalyptus on the roadsides lower down were wilting and dusty, and at the top were only dry skeletons of the broom, tajinaste and rosalillo that had flowered last summer, but in between almond blossom flourished, we saw trees were laden with lemons and oranges, and the first California poppies were hiding in sheltered spots.

We had donned light jackets quickly on arriving – although the sun was bright there was a wind chill factor bringing down the temperature. Austin had promised me this hike for my birthday, but we hadn’t been able to do it at the time, and I was looking forward to it tremendously, especially after the theft of my Blackberry (see previous post) which had upset me more than I liked to admit.  It had been a bleak kind of week up to Thursday, but it was all set to change beyond my expectations.

Austin hoisted his heavy pack onto his back.  He was carrying everything except for my sleeping bag, and other than that, I had only my extra clothes (though plenty of them), camera equipment and some odds and ends, like binoculars, in my own pack.  Still, it was heavier than I am used to carrying when hiking.

We set off along the trail known as Siete Cañadas which is a hikers’ favorite, being well- laid and easy. It begins by the Parador and emerges at the crossroads of El Portillo, on the other side of the crater, from where roads descend to La Orotava, or along the backbone of the island to La Laguna, either way a stunning drive. The air was so clear that the colors of the landscape seemed almost unbelievable, they were so bright and vibrant, and turning back to look at this mighty mountain, El Teide,  which dominates the vista on just about every inch of the island, I was already beginning to get a sense of the surreal.

We had only been walking for about twenty minutes or so, when Austin veered off the path and motioned me to follow. Two minutes later we were inside the heart of the rock formation you can see below, which had been making my imagination work overtime as we approached it. Even after living close to this landscape for so long, its eccentricities never fail to amaze me.  These rocks look far more like something from a science fiction movie than anything which belongs on this earth.

Inside the formation was even more like being in another world.  We perched on rocks and ate lunch, the spiralling, volcanic pikes rising around us like guardians, protecting us from the fierce sunlight.  We could only wonder at the forces which had created these shapes, as Nature threw them up from her soul millions of years ago, crenated, twisted, their layers reflecting the origins of the planet.

Collecting all our rubbish, we set out once more. For me this was destination unknown, a birthday surprise, but it turned out to be surprise upon surprise. As we blinked again in the sunlight Austin gestured upwards with his hiking pole:

“That’s where we’re going,” he grinned.

I swear I caught my breath. Behind the rocks rose Alto de Guajara, at 8,917 ft (2,718 meters) one of the highest peaks in the National Park. I’ve seen it described as the third highest, but a marker along the route seemed to indicate otherwise, it might be fourth or even fifth, still, it was high and craggy and, well, er, very high, no matter its credentials in comparison to the surrounding mountains.

More interesting than the height is the legend.  Guajara was a Guanche princess, daughter of  Beneharo, ruler of one of the kingdoms into which the island was divided, and wife of  Tinguaro, the brother (or possibly half-brother) of Benecomo, the ruler of another kingdom. The Guanches were the original inhabitants of Tenerife, a stone-age culture when the Spanish Conquistadors finally took the island for the crown of Spain after fierce fighting.  The Guanches fought hard and long, andTenerife was the last island of the Canarian archipelago to fall. One of the heroes of the battles was Tinguaro, who was slain, after ferocious fighting, at the battle of Aguere (the present-day La Laguna) in 1495. Heartbroken, Guajara withdrew inland, and finally, in her despair, threw herself from the peak of the mountain which now bears her name. That she met her end in that way can never be confirmed, but the story is in keeping with others relating to the time following the Conquest. Were we, perhaps, about to meet the ghost of a Guanche princess?

We turned off the Siete Cañadas trail and began to hike upwards on what is designated as Hiking Route 15. It took us higher and higher along a narrow pathway marked by stones through scrubland dominated by broom.  When we met a few walkers returning along the same path we had to stand to one side to allow them to pass. I began to slow down, constant climbing always takes its toll on me, and, as always, I vowed to get fitter before the next hike. Austin’s fitness level is amazing. He takes part in triathlons and trail running, and he forged way ahead at times, despite carrying most of our overnight gear.

Eventually, we reached a crossing of pathways, affording us a stunning view of mists creeping up a valley. Hemmed on each side by rock face and crags, the mists would advance, fingering their way along the mountainside, and then just as quickly withdraw as if stung by some unseen presence.  We knew that below the mist and cloud lay the south east coast, Granadilla and El Médano.  We stopped to put on warmer clothes. It wouldn’t be long until dusk, and already it was getting cooler. It was then that I cursed not bringing an extra camera battery.  I’ve never needed to carry one for the amount of photos I expected to take on this trip, and I’d tried to keep baggage to a minimum, but the cold air was already having an effect, and I stopped snapping, aware that I would regret not having enough battery for the surprises which were promised ahead.

“We’re almost there,”Austinsaid cheerfully, and we moved on and upwards at a fairly leisurely pace.  It wasn’t long before he darted off into the broom, and I assumed that he was answering a call of nature, and plodded on, but, from waist-high in bush, he called me over to follow him. We scrambled over rocks under an over-hang which formed a shallow cave, and onto a natural platform of rock.  There two enormous rocks almost formed another, smaller cave, and the shelter had been extended by previous visitors with rocks, branches and dead grasses to roof it in and shield it from the biting winds which sweep across the hillside.  It was a scene straight out of my childhood dreams.  People had also strewn dried grasses on the stone to make a natural sleeping place.  It was so perfect I wanted to cry (as you will see in the video which will be in the next post!).

Austin got busy right away, placing ground sheets over the dried grasses, and stowing our packs as we staked our claim to our resting place for the night. First, another treat in store, everything stowed, we donned yet more warm clothing, and walked on a bit further around the mountainside to catch the sunset. It was so much easier to walk without packs, and at one stage I actually ran to make sure I didn’t miss the scene.

As the sun dipped behind the mountain to our right, its last rays lingered on the hillside across the valley, and way around over the heart of the island it dappled the dark volcanic cones and sands. Cursing my lack of sense in not bringing a spare battery, I snapped what was, essentially, the reflection of the sunset, because we were facing south east, and the lavender hue was bleeding along the horizon above the mist and tinting the low cloud below us.

Returning to our cave (do you know how incredible it feels to say that?!), Austin produced vacuum-packed dinners, which he heated up with water boiled on a small burner.  My first taste of real camping food! Better than I expected, plentiful and hot, it was good and warming as the temperature inside the cave fell to minus 1ºC.  Followed by bananas and hot chocolate, I really wouldn’t have changed places with anyone in the swankiest restaurant in the world, as overhead the heavens began to shine with the achingly endless display of stars which the clear skies of the Canary Islands yield up at night. To make my night complete a bright shooting star crossed above us.

As we put on so many layers I now lost track, and zipped into our sleeping bags I felt like a child at Christmas, albeit a very chunky one! I’d dreamed of camping since I was a small child, and this kind of camping really was a dream come true, to be almost out in the open, to have only rock and dry grass between me and the night sky, and to experience not another sound in all the universe, just utter silence……. except for the soft rock fall, that is.

Not only all of this, but promise of something even more wonderful the next morning. Sleep didn’t come easily, but it seems at last that I did doze off, because, apparently I snored something rotten!  For the rest, well, that’s enough writing for today, but soon, very soon, and, what’s more, with video!

Please note that camping, as such, is strictly forbidden in the National Park. What we did is bivvying – not using tents, nor driving anything into earth or rock, but simply sleeping under natural cover, and of course, we took all our rubbish home with us.


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How We See the Heavens: Open Day at the Teide Observatory

There’s a lot to be said for curiosity – it took Columbus to America (o.k., yep, I know there was some greed involved there too, but don’t tell me the man didn’t have an inquiring mind!), and it took man to the moon (well a handful of them at least). Last Saturday morning it kicked me out of bed at 6am.

Now, that’s not a whole lot earlier than my preferred time to rise anyway, but considering how achy and pain-y I’d been for a couple of days, and that Thursday night’s Noche de San Juan celebrations down on the beach at the end of my road, had gone on full volume, and I mean FULL volume, full ON disco trash, well, but WELL, into the wee small hours, putting feet to floor required some effort.

There are just two days in the year when the Canarian Astrophysics Institute hosts an open day at the Teide Observatory, and I’d been wanting to go for years, but never made it. This year I was determined, even had I still had migraine and stomach pains, which had laid me low, I would still have crawled up there! Maybe I was stung by my inability to afford to go to the Starmus Festival which was going on last week at the Magma Center in Las Americas. Tickets were a cool €1,000, so far out of my price range it might as well have been a trip to the moon, though to be in the presence of Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong, not to mention Brian May, I might have bent the plastic a bit, had there been any to bend!

To anyone who has ever been up in the island’s mountains after dark I won’t need to explain the fascination.  I don’t pretend to any knowledge at all about the heavens, but their breathtaking beauty, when seen without interference from clouds and light pollution, is something I struggle to find words for.  If I said imagine black velvet studded with billions of diamonds it doesn’t even come close to doing the scene justice.  You have to see it for yourself.  One of the things I remember from my first time was my totally inability to identify the constellations I did know, because they were simply lost in the abundance of the cosmos.

It seemed very apt that the moon shimmered so brightly above as I trotted around the block with Trixy.  Poor thing she doesn’t care much for the dark, so she wasn’t too bothered that it was such a short walk, she was far more excited about the prospect of early breakfast.  By the time I’d showered and dressed it was already time to go.  As I left El Médano the smell of smoke still clung thickly to the morning air, (I’d heard on t.v. that there had been a fairly serious fire in El Médano Thursday night, in an old market garden, presumably co-lateral damage from the bonfires) but once on the autopista with a dazzling sunrise reflected in my wing mirror, the air was fresh and clear all the way to La Camella, where Maria, Pilar, Cristina and I had arranged to meet at 7.30.  The Observatory gates were to open at 9am, and we figured the first group to enter would have the advantage.  It would hopefully be quieter and cooler.

We all arrived in La Camella at the same time, and set off in high spirits.  It’s stimulating to do something different.  The roads, especially going upwards were quiet.  I love it when it’s this way, not exactly an “open road” in the sense it stretches interminably before you, but a winding road, which curves its way smoothly up into the mountains.  We were making good time, and found a bar open in Vilaflor (Spain’s highest village) for the coffees we’d missed earlier. Starting off again, we were quickly through the pine forest, and had those views of the other islands seemingly suspended over the ocean which never cease to thrill me.  El Hierro was under a cloud blanket, but La Gomera and La Palma were quite distinct, smokey-blue outlines on the horizon, and later we were to see Gran Canaria too.  Sometimes you kind of forget that you live on an island, and seeing so much of the archipelago strung out across the sea this way is always a reminder of our place on the planet.

As we passed the spots where just a few weeks ago we’d stopped to admire the tajinaste and the broom, we saw that their time was already past. The flowering seasons here are so short as the summer heat intensifies, and the vibrant tajinaste reds and yellow broom had been replaced by the gentle, blush-lilac of the rosalillo, which now carpeted many areas in spectacular fashion. But we weren’t there for the flowers this time, we were there hoping a bit of the excitement of being “close to the stars” would rub off.  There are only three places in the world where this type of bank of telescopes can be found, here in the Canary Islands (on La Palma and on Tenerife), in the Hawaiian Islands and in Chile.  In these, three places conditions are optimal for viewing the universe.  Weather, winds and pollution are such that there is minimal interference with studies. Atop Tenerife’s mountains the various buildings, all painted a brilliant white, stood out against the crystal blue sky as we approached.  My excitement mounted.  I’d only glimpsed these mysterious buildings from the road before, and now I was, actually, going to see inside some of them.  Places where the secrets of the universe were being unravelled.

Our theory about arriving early was  good, the parking was easy, and we entered the actual grounds of the observatory with the first group, after whiling away the short wait cutting out and putting together various devices for figuring out where constellations are, phases of the moon and so forth.  Interesting for me, and positively brilliant for kids……..if only this kind of thing had been available when I was in school, how much more interested in science would I have been!

I don’t pretend to have retained every bit of information we were given (although I did try to video on my Blackberry, which didn’t work too well), and I don’t understand the subject in enough depth to be able to translate it into everyday language, so what I’m trying to convey here is an impression of the experience, the “snapshots” which are still sharp in my mind a week later, not a scientific essay. Also lots of the photos are not too sharp.  I had the wrong lens with me, and used my Blackberry a lot.

First, a bit of magic – as he began his chat, Alex (as he introduced himself) set in motion the opening of the domed roof of the building in which we stood, and rotated the IAC80 telescope to demonstrate it. I’ve never though of myself as much of a nerd, but a little thrill went down my spine, so maybe I am, just a bit. Despite the brilliant azure revealed as the ceiling opened up, it was easy to imagine being there after dusk and seeing the millions upon millions of stars above. The talk was by no means too technical, the workings were explained to us in language which even I could understand, and so the rest of the morning proved to be.

We learned that not only stars, planets, black holes and comets are studied here, but also the sun and its 11 year cycle of activity, which, as we know, can drastically affect things on earth, like telecommunications. There is also a reminder and homage to those first astronomers a complicated and fascinating sundial.  How far man has come in just a few thousand years – and, of course, as on our own planet, we are leaving our junk behind in space!  It might seem inconsequential given the enormity of the heavens I described before, but even a small fragment of broken satellite travelling at the speed they do poses a threat to other, working satellites (think of your mobile phone or your favorite tv channel!) or to the International Space Station.  Indeed, only a couple of days later we read in the newspapers about the Space Station crew having to evacuate to the shuttle, as one of these pieces of junk passed uncomfortably close to them.  Of all the objects circling earth only a fairly small percentage are actual, currently-functioning satellites, the rest are defunct satellites or broken pieces of our attempts to understand space or communicate with each other.  They are considered to be out of control, and have to be monitored, as, of course, do natural threats like asteroids.  This is just one of the jobs undertaken.

Night time visits aren’t allowed, Saturday’s visits had to end at 5pm, and at that altitude the sun beat down quite unmercifully as we strolled from place to place over the grounds.  Our guide was great, but clearly under pressure to keep us moving.  You can’t really complain, when we arrived back at the car park we realized how lucky it was we came early – it was packed to capacity, so maybe more folk than expected had turned up, and it was all free, and of course, people with far more important things on their minds had given time to talk to us about their work.  I passed on the chance to use one of the small telescopes provided to take a peek at the sun.  I hate queues, and I was busy snapping away.

A highlight for me was listening to a young Englishman (sorry, I was at the back and I didn’t catch his name…..and I don’t really think it was Kevin, or was it!……..take a look at their website and you’ll know what I mean, people :=)) talk about the work of the Bradford Robotic Telescope.  The primary function of this telescope is educational.  It’s used by schools to teach and experiment.  Pupils can track and take photos of whatever in the heavens they are studying.  Most of the schools participating at the moment are in the UK, as it’s a British project, but it’s available to schools throughout the world.  I can imagine little more thrilling than having been able to do something like this when I was in school!  Take a look at www.telescope.org, where you can register and take your own photos too.  I haven’t begun to explore it all yet!

All I can say, girls, is information overload!!!!!

As a parting reminder that not only is this all fascinating stuff, but also simply stunning, we were shown a video of the Aurora Borealis.  It was an apt ending to our visit.  It left us with a sense of wonder, a certainty that “There are more things in heaven and earth………. than are dreamt of in (our) philosophy.”


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Mountain Glory

Three months ago it seemed as if the whole island was in motion, heading up into the hills for a glimpse of snow, which was falling heavier and later than usual.  This week it seemed that everyone was talking about the profusion of wildflowers, the colors, the extraordinary numbers this year.  Pictures, like the one below, which I snapped close to the cemetery in Vilaflor on Thursday,  dominate the newspapers, and are on t.v. daily.  The rich colors of Tajinastes and California poppies contrast magnificently with the endless blue of the sky.

Tajinaste grow nowhere else on earth except in the Canary Islands, and some types are native only to specific islands.  They appear on so many postcards, videos and snapshots you probably remember seeing them before.  They’re symbolic of the islands.  I know you don’t want to know all the latin names and explanations, because you would be reading a wildflower blog if you did, and you can look them up elsewhere if you want!  Sufficient to say that when they burst into bloom at this time of year it’s a noteworthy day on the calendar. We enjoy them for a month or more, before the summer heat forces plant life on the peaks to wither or hide.   People will be rushing up there this weekend to see them in the same way they rushed up to see the snow 3 months back.

Maria, Cristina and I, aiming to avoid those weekend crowds headed up into the hills late Thursday afternoon, as soon as Maria had finished work.  Top down on Cristina’s baby we breezed the curves enjoying the flow of warm air and the freedom……..one of the things I miss about living on an island is the potential for road trips!

Note the magnificent white broom on the hillside just where we pulled over.

We hadn’t been driving for very long when we began to notice the colors on the hillsides we were cruising, it really was as if life was bursting out from every turn.  Tajinaste don’t grown below about 2,000 meters, so we were on the look out for our first one, and there was cheering as we spotted  it, although it was a smallish one in the garden of a hamlet we were passing. Still, before too long we were seeing more, and then clumps of them, and then a the stunning group we spotted by the cemetery, pictured above, and below.

We skirted Vilaflor and glided through the Corona Forestal as we climbed continuously, and leaving the forest behind we rounded a bend to see the islands of El Hierro, La Gomera and La Palma shimmering on the horizon. In certain conditions the other islands take on a sort of fantasy pose, seeming to hover over the ocean, with their mountain peaks emerging from cloud. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I know. Sadly my lens wasn’t up to capturing what my eye saw, but this is the best I could do. You can clearly see La Gomera, and El Hierro is the smudge of blue on the horizon to the left.  The lens wasn’t wide enough to include La Palma too.

It was whilst we were stopped to snap the islands that we realized how busy the road had become, particularly with wagons and heavy goods traffic.  We’d come across very little traffic until then, travelling late afternoon it was all going in the opposite direction.Then  we realized were coming from the set of the “Clash of the Titans” sequel, which is being filmed in the National Park as well as other points on the island. Have to say, even from what I’d read and heard about film making the sheer volume of this traffic amazed me!

For us it was onward and upwards however.  A few more twists and turns and we were in Valle de Ucanca, which is where I’d taken the great shots in the snow February and March.  No snow this day, though.  The sun was strong and just high enough in the sky to give us plenty of light, but still lend shadow.  The snows had long seeped into the rock to the underground caverns where it is stored, and in their place were splashes of vivid color –  white  and bright yellow  broom,  cheerful margaritas and still some lingering wild lavender, but most stunning, the tajinaste, great clumps of them,  tumbling down the mountainsides, like the pointy red hats of dozens of garden gnomes.

They can grow up to 3 meters tall, and are heaven on earth for bees.  I’ve never seen one which wasn’t emitting a buzz as the bees collected their pollen.

The broom had been perfuming the air since we’d stopped to photography the islands, and around the caldera the scent was heavy in the late afternoon warmth.  I don’t remember fragrance hanging in the air, just like that, since being in Provence, in the heart of perfume country.

After scrambling around and taking snaps for a while we stopped at a mirador, or viewing point with the caldera spread before us, and El Teide rising in all his glory from its midst.  I imagine he looks down and is pretty pleased by what he sees at the moment.  We made time to pause and picnic for a short while, before heading back down.

The obligatory tourist shot – Cristina and Maria with the volcanic landscape in the background!

 We took the route I’d taken back in March, when that white wall of mist had seemed to follow us down the snowy road, but this time the malpais (badlands) were in their accustomed  stark and impressive state, the odd tree bravely hanging on to life here and there, and La Gomera and La Palma visible again over the tops of the forests before we descended through them.

It was interesting, after last week’s hike, to note the difference in the flora on this which was, more or less, the west side of the island, and the east where I was last Saturday.  Even in such a small space, life, as I always keep harping on about, is so very varied.  I’m hoping to get back up there before the flowers fade, but the chances are that the next time I make it summer will have seared the already austere landscape, and I’ll have to wait for next year to see this amazing scene again.  That’s why everyone will be scuttling up there this weekend – everyone except me that is.


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Visiting the Snowclad Volcano

My friend, Cristina, and I had been in a meeting for over an hour, and as we stepped out into the sunshine, we had an almost unobstructed view of the mountains from the office in Las Galletas, and the breathtaking sight of Mt Teide as he rose triumphantly over the island in his winter coat.  Down here on the coast we’d had high winds and heavy rain, but up there, at over 12,000 ft, the precipitation fell frozen and glistening white.  El Teide is the highest mountain in Spain, if I failed to mention that before.   We were seized by the impulse to drive straight up there to see it up close, but it took only a few minutes to realize that between us we had too many commitments and plans to change at such short notice, and knowing that the forecast was for more bad weather over the weekend we planned to go this week, when there would be even more snow.

As it happened, even though the weather had been a bit rough over the following days, we could see, as we set off from La Camella at a very chilly 8.30am, that there wasn’t as much snow as there had been exactly a week before.  In the meantime, roads had been closed and access restricted for hours and even days, to protect both people and the National Park over which Teide reigns, as fierce sleet and winds battered the peaks.   Our intention was to take a leisurely drive, stop for me to snap, go our separate ways for a while once we got down to La Laguna, and perhaps take in the movie which was showing in the Caja Canarias season of movies on the photojournalism theme, and so we snaked up the mountain roads in the cool early morning, under an impossibly blue sky.  Though we didn’t lose sight of the sapphire skies, the clouds were closing in behind us, and forming the famous Mar de Nubes (Sea of Clouds).  The effect is like that you have when flying, high above the clouds, so that you look down on a fleecy blanket of white, and can’t see the land below.

The roads were fairly quiet.  It was the day after a holiday, and maybe the forecast had been too iffy for tourists to bother.  They missed a treat if that was the case.  We found ourselves in the caldera in no time, and cruising through a landscape, which is for me, after 20-odd years of living here, both familiar and yet strange.  I do not exaggerate when I say that it never, ever fails to awe me.  These rocks, this pre-historic landscape, the sense of the power of nature, and the stark contrasts between the somber crags and  that indigo sky, all conspire to suspend the current reality and allow the imagination to run riot.  Let’s be honest here, Mother Nature is nothing if not a drama queen.

Magnificent and unspoiled though the landscape was, first impressions were of a distinct lack of snow.  Pockets could be seen in shady nooks, where the sun had little power in winter, but not what you’d call even a “covering”.  That said, since the area became not only a National Park, but a World Heritage Site in 2007, there are far more restrictions and regulations aimed at  limiting  damage to the natural and unavoidable rather than the disrespect of man, and it was very likely that, had we made it a week before, we would have found roads closed and access to the caldera cut off.  There were days, years ago, when, at the first sign of snow, we would rush on up with sleds or plastic bin liners, hot chocolate and ski gear, but earlier this week access from the north was one way, via the village of La Esperanza and down via the Orotava Valley, and if you climbed the way we did, from the south, then the road was blocked roughly half way across the vast volcanic crater, and you had to return the way you came, via Vilaflor or via Chio.   Those are the four main routes up and down the mountain.

As we were going north in any event, we continued, knowing, as any fan of adventure movies will tell you, that there was more chance of snow on the north-facing slopes, and we were not disappointed, as we drew closer and began to circle El Teide, and the car’s thermometer registered 5ºC,  we saw more and more, until, leaving El Portillo behind and beginning the at first gradual descent we discovered enough of the wet and white stuff, as Cristina said, to make snowballs.

I put a couple of these pictures on my Facebook page earlier, and received some nice compliments, but, honestly, with these colors, these contrasts, with the snow and the sky, and that majestic mountain – how can you go wrong?

So, I happily snapped away, and Cristina made snowballs and had an abortive attempt at a snow angel, but it was too hardpacked for that.  It was after this that she put down the roof on the car, we bundled up against the cold even more, and  began to mosey down , past the observatory, in the direction of La Laguna, reminding me of the days back when I was young and had my much-loved MG Midget, and had the top down in all but serious weather.

Cristina and her talking car

We had only been going for a few minutes, however, when I had to call another stop.  The extraordinary Mar de Nubes, which was now masking the northern coast from view, was on the move, stealthily slithering its way up the mountainside, creeping between tree and rock in a surreal and measured glide, and it had changed from the fluffy, white clouds of the southern slopes to grey and forboding, with different colored layers.

I’ve seen this before, it’s eerie and other-worldly, and I could sit and watch it for hours, but the real world, down below was calling, and we resumed our journey.

It was about halfway down that we caught up with the clouds, as they sneaked their way amongst the trunks of Canarian pines, blackened by forest fires, but with defiant new growth emerging on their tops.  I swear, Hollywood couldn’t have set a scene more perfectly, and up went the top of the car, as the icy haze surrounded us.

It was just after this that I began to wonder if perhaps it really all was a dream, as outside it fell to 4ºC, and an alarm went off as the car actually warned us of the fall in the temperature.  Cristina, I should add, was delighted that her car was communicating with her – this wasn’t a feature she’d actually ever expected to function on this sub-tropical island!

Following the curves from that point down was entering yet another world, where, leaving the forest behind, lush and green fields and yellow flowers bordered the road, until the clatter of motorway traffic could be heard, and we crossed into the outskirts of the city, and then back out into the country villages for lunch……..but that is another story, for another day.  This morning belonged to the mists and the mountains and the snow, the coast, the city, bright lights and shopping malls belong to a different world entirely…….or at least they seem to…….and that, as you know, is what I keep harping on about – the variety to be found in less than 800sq miles.

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