Next weekend my heart is going to be half in the islands and half in England. On Saturday Austin takes part in an ultra trail marathon, from the village of Güimar to Garachico on the other side of the island, a distance of around 72 kilometers, which will take him halfway up a mountain and down the other side. The following day Guy will complete in the London Marathon, running for asthma awareness, something from which he has suffered since he was tiny. (Even if clouds of volcanic dust weren’t around I couldn’t make it to both events for other reasons, unless I were rich enough to have a private jet!).
A couple of weekends ago I chauffeured Austin up to Güimar one early morning, and collected him from Mt Teide later in the day. My pride in him aside, it was the most stunning day of scenery and weather I’ve experienced in a long time. This is what I wrote afterwards, filled out with some explanations of where and what various places are:
My day begins before dawn, not unusual, but today, as in “way before” dawn, glugging down strong coffee, and at 6 I am washing my car windows. Living this close to the ocean they become claggy with salt spray and sand, and the previous night I’d had difficulty in seeing traffic in the rear view mirror. Even this early there is plenty of traffic, the driving force of the South of the island is tourism, of course, so lots of shift workers, as well as tourists up early or out late, so it still takes me almost a half hour to get to Austin’s place, door to door.
As we head North East along the autopista, the ocean to our right, the sun begins to rise over the island of Gran Canaria. Small, pink clouds are scattered around the horizon, but the sun rises huge, glowing and solitary over the island’s purple shape, before it disappears behind a bank of hovering cloud. Hiding there it fires rays of light skywards and seawards. We travel silently, in awe.
It takes us around 40 minutes to reach the village of Güimar, where we turn away from the ocean and into the foothills. As we being to ascend soft, white clouds nestle in the valleys above. The storms of February and early March have bequeathed greenery, and the fields through which we pass are lush. The village’s crooked streets meander down the hillside. Güimar famous locally for being the site of 6 pyramids, which caused much excitement in the 1990s when Thor Heyerdahl took an interest in them. Like many of his theories, it seems that nothing came of this, and they have been dated back only to the 19th century, although some Guanche remains were found in a cave under one of the pyramids. Visiting the site, which is now a pleasant museum, is worth doing though. As well as theories about the origin of these pyramids, speculation about links to others in South America and Egypt (Heyerdahl’s theories) it contains memorabilia and information about the man himself (including a reconstruction of one of his reed boats), who, if nothing else, was a great adventurer.
It’s only 7.30, but the people are stirring, the old guys are gossiping at the small, local gas station when I stop to fill up. Onwards and upwards, we leave the village, and I drop off Austin on a country road, which seems to be the middle of nowhere. Is the middle of nowhere. Except that this is a small island, everything is relative, in miniature almost.
I turn around and drive slowly back through the town, noting some pretty, traditional cottages and features I want to come back to photograph some time.
Arriving home to an eager dog I quickly put on her lead and let myself out again. It’s still early, little heat in the sun which sparkles on the ocean and reflects off the white wings of the gulls as they cruise overhead. The wind is brisk and reminds me of the place in which I grew up, although it is considerably warmer at this time of year than the North West coast of England. Waves crash onto rocks, but gently. There is a lone windsurfer enjoying the early morning breezes.
Home again, more coffee, chores to do, and then Trixy and I pile into the car and set off for Las Cañadas del Teide (the Gullies of Teide). As we leave the ocean behind vegetation grows thicker and greener, at San Miguel village we turn left and then right up to Escalona, and it is after Escalona that I really get the feeling that spring is in the air, even on this island they sometimes call The Land of Eternal Spring.
They say, and I have come close to experiencing, you can pass through all four seasons in one day on Tenerife. That would be around this time of year, because summer and winter are quite distinct when you get used to them, and by Fall the flowers are withered from the summer heat.
Escalona lies at around 1,000 m above sea level, and you can miss it if you blink passing through, but from there up to Vilaflor, the highest village in Spain, the roadsides are strewn with California poppies. The first time I saw these vivid yellow flowers lining the wayside I thought of crocus. The poppies are the exact same shade of rich, golden yellow that I remember from England. The sense of renewal is just the same as the first sight of Spring crocus in England.
The poppies, though a magnificent site, especially where they cover entire fields, are not native to the Canaries. A quick search didn’t yield specific information about how or when they arrived here, but as the Islands were a stopping off place/trading post between the Old World and the New for many, many years, perhaps there is no specific data. Many plants and animals arrived that way, hopping, intentionally or not, from boats as they came and went between worlds.
The clag of the coast is left behind as I climb, and the air becomes sharper, fresher through the car’s open window. The mountains ahead become clearer, the purple shapes become defined, crags and hollows appear. At around 1,400 m, we skirt the village of Vilaflor, which marks the treeline, and leave the flowers behind. Now the landscape is populated by fir trees, and the ground is strewn with pine needles and fir cones. Still we climb. Many of the trees are blackened, witness to the last forest fire, which to the best of my memory was around ten years ago, but they flaunt their fate and rise into the blue with pride.
Now the trees begin to peter out, and the views on either side are breathtaking. To my right I see the island of Gran Canaria again, from behind which I had seen the sun rise some three hours ago. Now it rests majestically, a purple haze on an ocean of intense blue. It is a glimpse, and then gone, as the road turns and climbs, now revealing the western side of the island, and the islands of La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro shimmering on that same Atlantic blue. They seem to be hovering above the water, deep purple, with wisps and darts of silver-grey clouds melding so perfectly with their shapes you begin to wonder if the scene is real. It’s hard to watch the road and the traffic, especially being aware that other drivers must be marvelling at the view and not concentrating too.
A turn, the ascent is slower, and we are in a different landscape. It seems like a different planet. We drive through a huge, flat bed of rough rocks. There is no doubting that this is a lava field. It feels as if it was spewed out only yesterday. As we drive the rocks change color, shape, size, and monstrous shapes rise alongside the road. We are driving through the caldera, the bed of a volcano.
It is around 16 million years (depending on which theory you subscribe to) since Tenerife rose from the depths of the Atlantic, and 101 years since the last eruption, which was on the other side of the island from where we now are, but the sense of danger and strangeness, even to someone who has lived more than 20 years on this island is keen. UNESCO named the National Park area a World Heritage Site in 2007, and generally that distinction is respected by locals and tourists.
In parts the road still bears marks from rockfalls during the recent storms. Only a few short weeks ago this area was deep in snow, hard to imagine when the sun beats through the car windows. As we reach the heart of the crater, to the right there is a parador, one of the chain of quality hotels set up by the government years ago, and to the left the weird, twisted, phallic rock formation we see on so many postcards. Both areas swarm with tourists. It is the beginning of the Easter holidays, so we give both a miss and drive on, past the cable car station and the traffic lessens considerably. There are high winds today, and the cable car will certainly not be operating.
We are driving North now, and the road clings to the mountainside. It’s one of those roads where you don’t really want to think about the drop on the other side, which would hurl you into one of those vast, unwelcoming lava beds, but there are plenty of neat, well-managed vantage points, where you can pull over, admire the awesome views and snap one another against the dramatic background. The Canarian government is promoting the islands to film makers as a desirable location, and if you have seen the remake of “Clash of the Titans”, which released recently, you have seen samples of this barren landscape.
I pull into the least-busy layby and pull out my camera. In the distance I can see the domes and towers of the observatory adding to the outer-space feel of the landscape.
Here it is fine pumice, looking like sand dunes, and the chill, high winds whip it up so it stings arms and face. I let Trix out for a short walk and duck quickly back inside the hot car.
On to El Portillo, where the road branches, and you can meander down through forests to Puerto de la Cruz or take the right fork along the backbone of the island, over stark,
volcanic territory, past the observatory and down to La Laguna and Santa Cruz, or you can branch off of that road and drop into Güimar, the way Austin has run up today. I wait a while in El Portillo, let Trix sniff around a bit, but he doesn’t show, and since I am out of mobile range I deem it best to return to the Parador, where we had arranged to meet.
It’s a bit quieter when I return. I suppose the tourists went off for lunch somewhere, but I still have to wait for a parking space. We amble around the rocks, and I snap some delicate, little flowers which cling to life amidst the stones and dead bushes, and the padlocked chapel which stands beside the parador.
Austin turns up, sweaty, exhausted but exuberant. He’s run around 45 kilometers from Güimar up and down hill, and aches all over. He stretches, drinks a violently-pink-colored recovery drink and eats the appropriate amount of correctly balanced foods to restore energy levels and hydration. For someone who has just completed a run of this difficulty and length he amazes me. He is so calm, and he glows with health and well-being. His self-discipline is awesome.
We drive down, exchanging impressions of the landscapes and being thankful for the beauties and variety the day has brought. Leaving the harsh, bright Summer, we pass through banks of Spring flowers again, and arrive back to the impossibly blue ocean where foamy, white waves beat the beaches. It is only 4pm, but I feel as if I’ve had a trip around the world.