|How it should be. A view from our balcony on the first day|
A text from Alasdair, my eldest son, mentioned he was spending his 45th birthday walking in the Derbyshire Peak District and intimated he was looking forward to languishing in a hot tub at the end of a cold day in the hills. The thought struck me we could maybe have appreciated such a commodity at times in far off Santa Cruz de la Palma where the lazy old sun decided to go on strike for twelve of our fourteen days holiday. It shone bountifully on the first day, raising our hopes, allowing us to sunbathe and swim in the pool, but never another peep until the very last day when we were due to fly out at lunchtime anyway. It was all far different from the last occasion we visited when we'd wall to wall sunshine and temperatures in the mid 30's. But that was in May.
This year the sea was a seething mass, wave after wave thundering onto black rocks flinging spray and spume rooftop high, drenching unwary walkers (and runners) along the promenade. It never let up for one moment around Cancajos, our holiday resort, for all of fourteen days. I'll admit, it was all very spectacular and we took more pictures of this hydrological maelstrom than anything else, but it would have been lovely to have a break. Red flags were flying on all three beaches warning swimmers to keep the hell out of it, though we did see one brave soul playing the macho man. Our swimming, if you could call it that, was confined to a swift dip in the hotel pool on that first sunny day before the weather turned cold - and wet. From then on the pool area was deserted, the sunbeds and brollies remaining unused in regimented straight lines.
Running was one way of keeping warm but, truth be known, we didn't do very much of that either, mainly because on the fourth day I went down with the daddy of all colds which I suspect I caught on the plane while sat in front of a lady who coughed and sneezed for England. Or maybe she was an International. It was a shame because on our second day we'd met up with a runner from Norwich, a few years younger than me, who really stretched me the following day when I ran with him. It would have done me a power of good to have had two or three more sessions with him. He'd pushed me enough to reduce the time for my hilly 3½ mile route from an average of 37 minutes to 31.25 - and that after he'd had several weeks off running recovering from pneumonia! Two days later my dreaded cold struck, with a vengeance, so I spent an awful lot of time filling and washing handkerchiefs - and feeling somewhat sorry for myself.
Unfortunately, while doing that fast run with the youthful Mike, it seems I still had sufficient breath for talking and had suggested he might like to share a taxi with us to El Pilar, the starting point for the renowned Volcano Route that undulates for 19 Kms over seven of the islands umpteen volcanic heaps which the guidebook refers to as 'The big one'. It's officially given the highest grade of 'Strenuous' though there's only 500m of ascent as against 1500m of descent which I'd regard as well within the capabilities of an average walker. Wind and mist can be a problem, the book says, and we certainly got our mega share of that, not to mention rain, but the route is well waymarked and sign-posted so it's almost impossible to lose the way. Mike, who'd never been to the island before, regarded the walk as a 'must' and was glad to join us.
My wonderful partner set off at a cracking pace up the steep initial stages of the GR 131 with Mike in close pursuit and the old man sweating, struggling and snuffling along behind trying to keep them within sight through steamed up specs as thick, cold mist swirled around reducing visibility to 20 - 25 metres in places. Mike had full body cover and carried a sack with an apparently endless supply of food and water which he regularly availed himself of. We wore our usual shorts, trail shoes, thermal tops and lightweight running jackets, a lightweight approach that enabled us to move fast - when I eventually got my ancient legs into gear! I carried 500ml of water and a minimum of food but, flaunting the usual recommendations, they remained untouched for the duration of our walk/jog/run.
Amazingly, 2,000 miles south of Yorkshire, much nearer the equator, we found chunks of ice littering the path on higher parts of the route. We were mostly traversing picon, dark volcanic grit that necessitated a controlled skid on steeper parts whilst allowing us something akin to fast scree running in other places where it was deep enough. I took full advantage of the latter, revelling in the comparative luxury compared with the horrendous conditions over Pico Deseada, the highest point of the route where it was almost impossible to stand up or walk straight in gale force wind, clag and rain. The mist cleared on the lower slopes, the wind dropped too and the sun came out as we strolled into Fuencalliente to wait for our bus. It had been something of an epic and I silently questioned whether Mike would ever join us again on any of our walks. He didn't!
Not surprisingly, I spent the whole of the next day filling and washing handkerchiefs again. To add to my sorrows I'd woken up with a painful stiff neck and persistent cough which in turn produced a sore throat full of razor blades. Frequent double doses of Paracetamol became the order of the day while slouched on the settee absorbed in Zane Grey novels about gunmen, gallants and beautiful young ladies in the pioneering days of the wonderful wild west. It was far more preferable to conditions in the disgusting wild west of La Palma where we just happened to be. More rain, a constantly roaring sea, hills shrouded in thick cloud and wind moaning through every crack it could find in the building's architecture gave us no incentive to venture out. We didn't. Not until the next day when we forced ourselves up to the Mirador Concepcion, an incredible viewpoint overlooking the main town and harbour, for a sunless look around. After all, we were on holiday, for goodness sake. We had to do something!
We lounged around the beautiful, but locked, church before a steep enjoyable descent from the Mirador to Santa Cruz, down narrow alleyways that intersected the main road, where friendly women leaned from upper floor windows of brightly coloured houses to converse with passers by (don't ask me what they were on about); where not so friendly guard dogs, given the chance, would have torn us to shreds; where exotic flowers and tropical trees, butterflies, bees and Canary Island kestrels all enlightened and helped shorten our journey to the busy shopping centre of the island's capital. We found a wonderful patisserie full of mouth-watering delights where I could really have made myself ill, but we restricted ourselves to just one calorie filled carbohydrate confection that amazingly survived a bus ride all the way back to accompany our lunchtime coffee at the hotel.
That very same night something went wrong with the plumbing. Mike had taken off into the hills to bivvy out under the stars leaving his cuddly partner, Liz, to dine with us in the evening. We talked into the night before going our separate ways, but we didn't sleep. A low hum gradually increased in volume until it became a louder vibration that culminated in a higher pitched whine. After an hour it stopped - for five minutes. Then it began again and the process was repeated. I got up, made a cup of tea and finished yet another Zane Grey novel (there are 18 of them on my iPad) before storming down to reception to report the matter after another high pitched crescendo at 3.45am. An armed security guard was on duty who didn't speak a word of English, but from his various words and gestures I figured his colleague would be along in 10 minutes. He was, and he spoke English. The source of the problem was quickly located in a box under our balcony that appeared to contain little more than a fire hose. After a bit of poking around the cover was slammed shut and the noise ceased - at 4.15am. I reckoned this must have happened before because the guy knew exactly where to look.
In the eventuality of it happening again I took the precaution of visiting the local Pharmacy and purchasing ear plugs. While there I discovered I could buy Ibuprofen in 400mg tablets which I don't think are available over the counter in Britain, only 200mg tablets. My wonderful partner had informed me, on the basis of something she'd heard on the radio, that taking a combined dose of Ibuprofen and Paracetamol was far more effective than taking just one or the other on its own. I spent the rest of the day, and all next day, testing out this theory until, after around 4,000mg of one and 5,000mg of the other, my various aches and pains seemed vastly diminished so I was able to leave my virtual sick bed and go for short walks again.
Meanwhile, down in the harbour a major catastrophe had occurred. A Thomson cruise liner, the Thomson Majesty, had docked there for its 1,500 passengers to witness the Los Indianos carnival in Santa Cruz before setting sail for Madeira. At each port of call compulsory lifeboat drills are carried out to determine all is in working order in case of emergency. On this occasion a rope snapped as the lifeboat was being lowered. The boat hung vertical until the other rope snapped under the strain plunging the vessel 65ft intro the sea where it landed upside down. Miraculously, three crewmen leapt clear as they fell but five others were trapped under the boat and died. The ship remained in dock for some days afterwards, presumably whilst an inquiry was carried out and repairs were made. Thomsons sent out seven of their planes to fly the marooned passengers back home.
In spite of this tragedy in the island's capital the Los Indianos carnival went ahead as planned. I never did find out exactly what they were celebrating though I'm led to believe it began after Palmerian exiles returned from Cuba. Some paint their faces black, representing slavery, but all of them, men and women, dress in their best white finery and straw hats of Cuban tradition. Thousands upon thousands gathered in the streets from all over the Canary Islands, the main focus point being the large square in front of the Church with its impressive bell tower. There were musicians, street vendors and a lady rolling cigars that are said to rival top rated Havanas. Whole families turned out together, sometimes with elderly patriarchs marching ahead of the group. I recall a gentleman with his two very attractive daughters receiving particular attention from itinerant photographers - including me!
Maybe it has some religious significance for I saw men with hands together and eyes closed as if in prayer. Or maybe it's a time of final indulgences before the period of self denial in Lent. Eat, drink and be merry was certainly the order of the day, everyone being noisily good humoured and jolly while cute smartly dressed children were having a whale of a time. But their strangest habit was the throwing of talcum powder over all and sundry until the whole street was enveloped in a white haze. Anyone (particularly tourists) dressed in dark colours got extra dustings of talc to make them white. Our friend Mike, who'd dressed in black, was almost unrecognizable in his transformed state! We left as the party was getting into full swing, leaving it to the Palmerians, and walked the couple of miles back to our hotel. As we passed the harbour the cruise ship's stricken lifeboat had just been hauled from the water and police were much in evidence. Not everyone was celebrating.
After a few thousand more mgms of painkiller and anti-inflammatory I was able to start some more serious walking - and running - again. After all the cold sunless days on our side of the island we ventured over to the east, through what I refer to as the magic tunnel. The road cuts under the volcanic spine of the island, the Cumbre Nueva, and invariably emerges into glorious sunshine at the other side. And so it happened again - twice. The warmth on my body was a real tonic as we strolled past flower decked gardens and crowing cockerels up the long hill from Los Llanos towards the Caldera Taburiente, the vast crater for which the island is famous.
We turned near a roadside shrine where the road dropped 1,600ft to the floor of the Caldera and returned by a circuitous route to Los Llanos where dragonflies danced across the green waters, a classy restaurant balanced precariously on stilts above the Caldera and a pair of discarded walking boots dangled from a power line. We lunched in the sun and took a short walk down the Camino Real - an old donkey route linking Tazacorte in the east to Santa Cruz in the west - before catching the bus back into the gloom.
The Volcano Route may be 'the big one' for most walkers, but the ascent of Pico Bejenado is more appealing to us and we'd noticed its tree lined slopes towering into glorious blue sky on our way to Los Llanos. We returned the following day for an enjoyable ascent. It was raining when we set off with wind gusting through the trees. A German gentleman sat by the roadside was waiting for more tranquil weather before risking going higher. Fortuitously, both rain and wind ceased in the next ½ mile so there was absolutely no danger involved at more exposed parts of the route. My various pills had done their job and I was moving easily again at a fairly fast pace, up the rough trail to El Rodeo, then up endless zig-zags to the sign posted summit at 1,854m. The ascent took 2¼ hours - five minutes longer than the guide book said, so I must be getting old! A raven greeted us and perched in a nearby tree to have its photograph taken. The umpteen lizards of yester year were conspicuous by their absence. Maybe the raven had devoured them, or the kestrels. Whatever, we missed them sharing our lunch and scuttering around our feet. We left our names in the Visitor's Book before a rapid descent, passing hoards of people toiling upwards in big boots, wielding their trekking poles. We felt rather smug in our lightweight gear. In a couple of hours we were back onto a tarmac road where a German couple gave us a lift in their hire car for the last 4½ km to our bus stop. Then, again, it was back through the magic tunnel to the wild west weather and the raging sea.
The ascent of Pico Bejenado had been the highlight of our holiday, not least because the air was fresh and clear, we'd enjoyed panoramic views, blue sky and warm sunshine on this most remarkable of miradors. If you threw a stone from its breath-taking height it would travel more than a mile before it hit the bottom. So deep is the Caldera. When you look down from such heights you feel you've really achieved something. The rest, for me, was anti-climax. I managed a couple more runs, struggled with the first but enjoyed the second on our very last morning when the sun deigned to show its face again. We love La Palma, it's mountains and trails to run or walk, it's colourful flora and fauna, it's Guancho history and curious traditions, but on this occasion we were glad to climb onto that plane and head for home. I've no doubt we'll be back again next year - God willing - but maybe not in February.
|The sea was a bit rough for swimming....|
|The youthful Mike|
|Setting the pace from El Pilar along the Volcano Route in wild weather...|
|By the Trig point on the cloud draped summit of Pico Deseada...|
|Volcanic landscape approaching Fuencalliente...|
|My wonderful partner, out running the hills while I suffered in silence..|
|Santa Cruz from the Mirador Concepcion....|
|Beautiful Church at Mirador Concepcion...|
|One of the many desirable residences....|
|The stricken cruise ship, Thomson Majesty, minus one lifeboat..|
|All dressed up for the Los Indianos carnival...|
|Throwing the talcum powder|
|Flower decked walls en route to the Caldera...|
|Happy to be aloft again. Note raven in tree on right...|