They say “all good things must come to an end” and as much as we’ve enjoyed our time in the Mediterranean we can’t stay forever. The final chapter for this season has seen us depart the Med and turn south into the Atlantic. Our friend Tim N. joined us in Gibraltar before we headed off. Luckily the weather Gods smiled upon us for our trip down to the Canary Islands and we had good conditions with solid nor’ easterly trade winds of around 15-20 knots, settling in at 20-25kts, and at times a bit more. We ended up not venturing into Morocco, so three and a half days later we arrived at Lanzarote.
Six years of volcanic eruptions, from 1730-1736, wiped out many of the local subsistence farmers, creating an interesting lunar-like landscape with hundreds of volcanoes dotted throughout the massive lava fields on the island. About a third of the productive farming land was wiped out, but the Canarians are a hardy lot and it didn’t take them long to work out that the volcanic soil was perfect for growing grapes. They constructed curved dry-stone walls around each vine, to protect them from the prevailing northerly winds. We’re told each vine yields about one and a half to two bottles of wine per year. Something else that grows well in these islands is the rather weird-looking native dragon tree, the oldest of which is estimated to be 800 years old. Since medieval times the sap of this plant has been used for medicinal remedies and dyes, lacquers and varnishes. It is rumoured that Stradivari used “dragon’s blood” to varnish his famous violins.
Before we left the Med we’d been doing a bit of research on the Canaries and were surprised to hear how hard it can be to get a berth at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the biggest town on the largest island of the group. Each year this island hosts the start of “the ARC” (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers). About 300 yachts turn up to cruise in company across the Atlantic every November, the theory being safety in numbers. But how could a marina with 1250 berths (huge!) possibly be full three months beforehand? As soon as we arrived it readily became apparent. A large part of the marina is occupied by very small motorboats but there are also many, many sailing vessels that looked like they couldn’t sail outta sight on a dark night. There is a whole pontoon full of yachts that have been seized and impounded. Perhaps because they haven’t paid their marina bills? They certainly didn’t look very seaworthy! The expression “boat graveyard” comes to mind. Dreamers who had the big plan, but hadn’t quite got it together. When you’re talking to people around the marina the first question they ask is “when are you planning to cross?” Once you’ve travelled the 600 nautical miles down here you quickly realise there’s no going back, unless you want a total head butt against the prevailing trade winds. You’re committed.
These islands have a strong link with Columbus, as this was where he stopped before heading west, into the great unknown. Remember, in 1492 many people still believed the earth was flat! There’s a good museum at the old Governor’s house where Columbus is believed to have stayed, with lots of info about the three trips he made to the Americas. They’ve re-created a below-deck replica of his cabin, but I wonder if it was this homely in reality. Sadly, Columbus died alone and dejected still believing he had discovered the western route to Asia. Another interesting museum is the Museo Canario with its section about the indigenous “Guanche” people. Before the 15th century these islands were populated by people thought to have been Berbers from North Africa, who were pretty much obliterated by the Spanish conquest. There are assorted exhibits of mummified remains complete with hairy skulls, which are curious, if not a little gruesome.
Approaching Santa Cruz de Tenerife you see a massive white structure guiding you towards the harbour entrance. It’s not until you’re on land that you can appreciate the enormous white wave of the Auditorium. Can’t help but wonder if they didn’t draw some inspiration from the Sydney Opera House. Tenerife is also famous for great trekking in the lush mountains of the north, the majestic volcano of El Teide and the lovely hill towns of La Laguna & Orotava. I had the delight of hiking from Cruz del Carmen to the hamlet of El Batan in the rugged Anaga Rural Park. Quite spectacular scenery through one of the oldest laurel forests on the planet. In the old days they used to grow flax to produce linen here, using the large amounts of water that flowed through the ravine to power the mills. It seems amazing that today anyone stills ekes out a living in this beautiful but isolated environment.
Further south, standing at over 3,700 metres, Mount Teide is the highest mountain in Spain. Apparently about 4 million people come to visit El Teide every year, and it is a popular place for cyclists doing high altitude training. Unfortunately the day that we visited the cable car wasn’t running as it was too windy, (have I mentioned they get quite a bit of wind around these parts?) but the scenery driving through the National Park made the trip worthwhile. Also love the distinctive Canarian architecture in the small towns featuring ornately carved wooden balconies and doorways with colourful exteriors. Intriguing to see the water filter of yesteryear featured in some of the old houses. Just drip water through volcanic rock & voila, pure filtered water! They’ve been doing this for centuries. So why do we persist with the waste that is bottled water?
So, we spoke to other yachties and locals, and we knew a bit about the “acceleration zones” around the Canary Islands. To quote the pilot book: “when brisk northerly winds meet high volcanic peaks they have no option but to go up and over or divide and funnel around and between the islands, increasing in strength. These can push the wind force up by 25 knots in a matter of 200 metres”. Yup! Who’d have thought that round islands have corners? But when the wind hits the extremities of the island there is a very pronounced local effect. We’d seen a bit of it around Lanzarote, Fuerteventura & Tenerife, but our approach to La Gomera made for some exhilarating sailing! Fitzy later remarked that I should have taken a photo of the spume coming off the waves, but at the time taking photos wasn’t exactly front of mind. Especially with the local fast ferry arriving travelling at 31 knots! Nonetheless, La Gomera turned out to be one of the highlights of the season, so well worth the effort to get there.
This was the last place where Columbus loaded up with water and supplies before heading off to discover the New World. The church where Columbus and his men purportedly prayed before they sailed away can still be found amongst the small, quaint streets of San Sebastian. Apparently, after Columbus, La Gomera didn’t really have much ongoing contact with the modern world until the 1950s when they built a small pier opening up the way for a ferry service. Today this place is a Mecca for hikers and nature lovers. The ecological treasure that is the Garanjonay National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. It’s intensely green forests are due to a combination of the mist, high humidity and constant temperature all year round. Walking along the densely wooded trails of lichen-covered laurisilva trees you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported onto a set of “Lord of the Rings”. The forest is an absolute delight, but before you know it, you round a bend for another jaw-dropping view. The park is meticulously managed with even the fresh water supply appearing to sprout from a tree. As one of the local walkers remarked to me: “es muy especial y preciosas”. It is very special and precious indeed. Absolutely stunning scenery.
Our last stop for the season was Tazacorte, on the island of La Palma. This is the most western Canary Island from which you can clear Customs & Immigration before setting out across the Atlantic Ocean. Loki is now out of the water and securely tucked up behind two ginormous breakwater walls and we’ve really enjoyed having some time to explore what’s here. This is an island of giant telescopes, volcanoes, 850 kilometres of awesome walking trails and bananas. Plenty of bananas! Apparently about 40% of the island’s workforce depend on the banana crop. At the heart of La Palma is La Caldera de Taburiente, “the cauldron of Taburiente”. The Lonely Planet states that: “It was first given the moniker in 1825 by German geologist Leopold von Buch, who took it to be a massive volcanic crater. The word ‘caldera’ stuck, and was used as a standard term for such volcanic craters the world over.” It is in fact a semi-circular ravine, 8 km in diameter and over 2000 metres from top to bottom. Very impressive! The highest point of the island, Roques de Los Muchachos, is a great place to view the soaring craggy peaks and cavernous gorges. It’s also home to one of the world’s largest telescopes. Being so far from major cities has its advantages when studying the night sky. There are some parts of the National Park that are full of forests of Canary pines making it a an absolute delight to walk in.
The southern part of La Palma is a different story, dominated by Volcan San Antonio and Volcan Teneguia, last erupting in 1949 and 1971, respectively, adding a few hectares to the island’s size. There’s an easy walk to the edge of the San Antonio crater, but thankfully no visible activity going on these days. The island’s capital, Santa Cruz, boasts more of the colourful waterfront houses with traditional wooden balconies that we’ve seen all over the Canaries. In the corners of some balconies there is still an enclosed space that was once used for a toilet, from which sewage would then flow directly down onto the street. Yucko!
We’ve been watching intently as events have been unfolding in the Caribbean with four hurricanes so far this season. A number of the destinations we are planning to visit next year have been severely hit. “Decimated”, “annihilated” and “destroyed” are some of the adjectives we’ve been hearing. We can only imagine how devastating it must be for the people whose lives have been torn apart by the destruction. I think we’ll need to do a bit more research before finalising next year’s itinerary.
So, having sailed over 2,000 nautical miles in the Med and down to the Canaries, it’s now time to head back downunder. We are very much looking forward to catching up with everyone upon our return!