Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Last Gua Gua Home

The island of Tenerife lies about 250 kilometres off the coast of Morocco.  It sits in the North Atlantic, way south of the latitude of Marrakech.  If one was to row due east to the coast of Africa and then keep walking you'd see nothing but the sands of the Sahara Desert until you reached the Red Sea.  The island is Spanish territory, yet it's about 1000 kilometres from Spain.  It is the most spectacular of the Canary Islands.  Essentially, being Spanish, the island is European.  Geographically it is African.  Scenically it is neither really.  Although many of it's best tourist beaches consist of millions of tons of sand shipped from the Sahara.  Tenerife's natural beaches are black volcanic sand thanks to the huge now extinct volcano - Pico del Teide.  At 3718 metres (12198 feet) it is the tallest mountain on Spanish Territory and it's snow capped peak can be seen from almost anywhere on the island.

Most Europeans know Tenerife as a package holiday destination; somewhere to escape the drudgery of the northern winter for a couple of blissful weeks.  However you may know it as the scene of what is still the world's worst air disaster if you don't count 9/11, which let's face it, was no accident.  On a foggy day in March 1977 two Boeing 747s, one from KLM and the other from Pan Am collided on the runway killing 583 passengers.  Only 61 survived.  The greatest tragedy is that neither planes were supposed to be there.  Both had been diverted from Las Palmas due to a bomb scare.  This happened at Los Rodeos airport and by the time I flew there in 1983 the main international airport had been moved to a less fog prone location.

Still, that night, as my plane bumped and jolted through a flashing thunderstorm on the final approach I couldn't help but be a little tense, and it was with rather sweaty palms that I finally undid my seatbelt  when the aircraft pulled up at the terminal. I walked and walked during my week in Tenerife.  I've always thought it the best way to get to know somewhere.  You meet people, you  see things that you'd miss flashing by in a vehicle, and you smell things too, and that for me is the most evocative sense of all.  A whiff of freshly baked bread can transport you to your favourite Parisienne patisserie in no time at all.  And so that first morning I walked from my accommodation in central Puerto de la Cruz to La Orotava a few kilometres away perched on a great green sloping plateau.  Initially there was a fine, soaking drizzle, but before I reached my destination this cleared away and was replaced by a watery blue sky and warm sunshine which made the wet road steam eerily.  There was mile after mile of banana plantations.  Each tree hung with it's heavy bunch of green unripened fruit, while fresh raindrops on the enormous leaves sparkled like diamonds. Giant palm trees grew along the roadside too, 20 or 25 metres tall, each with a great green explosion of fronds at the top, and each filled with a profusion of chirping, squabbling sparrows.  Back home in frigid Britain it was only two weeks before Christmas - hard to believe, surrounded as I was by the warmth and lush flora of the sub-tropics.

By the time I strolled into La Orotava it was siesta and everything was closed except the odd bar.  Scrawny dogs snoozed in patches of cool shade and leathery skinned old women swathed in shawls sat on faded balconies sewing, or simply staring out of the endless Atlantic Ocean.  The whole town snoozed while I explored its streets and charming parks.  It only woke when it was time for me to return to Puerto de la Cruz and it wasn't a gradual awakening.  Suddenly I was surrounded by jostling hoards of people and steady stream of traffic.  The shops reopened and the kids came out to play.  Siesta was emphatically over.

The next day I sampled the delights of the local public transport - privately owned mini-buses called "gua-guas."  Each gua gua driver is hand picked by the boss for his psychopathic tendencies and unbridled aggression.  It was in the company of one of these lunatics that I drove to the island's capital Santa Cruz.  The buttock clenching trip ended with in swooping glide down a steep hill amidst a forest of Hong Kong - like high rise, which I have to say was unexpected, but the town was a disappointment.  It was dirty and decaying and the fact that heavy grey clouds began to gather and sprinkle cold rain did not improve my impression of the place.  And so it was back on the dreaded gua gua for the nerve jangling ride back to the more pleasant Puerto de la Cruz.

A couple of days later I dragged myself from my bed at 4am determined to walk to the summit of Pico del Teide - a 100 kilometre round trip.  I was super fit in those days as well as super stupid.  I brewed some tea and went out onto my balcony and there in the distance peeping out from behind the dark foothills was the snow capped peak glowing in the moonlight.  It was the first time I'd seen the mountain.  The road took me once more through La Orotava.  The streets were as dark and silent as the banana plantations and nothing stirred as I left the town behind and started climbing towards the mountain.  I was well beyond La Orotava when dawn broke and every cockerel on the island seemed to be celebrating.  Dogs barked and each village was blessed with the aroma of baking bread.  Then suddenly I was stopped in my tracks.  There in front of me was Pico Teide.  It loomed from behind a jagged ridge as pink as a giant strawberry icecream in the sun's early glow.  It was stunning.  I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful. 

At three thousand feet it began to grow cold and everything was coated in a glistening layer of frost and my breath hung in the air.  At five thousand feet the road was covered in a layer of ice wherever the rising sun had not yet reached and I found myself in the midst of a heavily scented pine forest where the thinning air was fragrant and intoxicating.  Beyond the tree line was a moonscape of red and black rocks, and great orange volcanic crags bit huge lumps from the blue sky.  At 8000 feet the peak seemed close enough to touch, but clouds moved in rapidly and a stinging squall of sleet began to fall.  By the time I reached 11,000 feet I was in the midst of a full blown blizzard and I realised that any chance I had of reaching the summit had gone.  Disconsolately I walked back to the nearest village and warmed my hands on a mug of hot chocolate, fortified with a healthy slug of brandy.

It was almost dark as I staggered back into the straggling suburbs of Puerto de la Cruz.  I'd been walking for almost sixteen hours and had covered almost a hundred kilometres.  To say I was a little tired is like saying that Mount Everest is a little hill.  Three kilometres from home I gave up and risked what remained of my life in a gua gua.  I slept well that night.  I dreamed I'd reached the summit of Pico del Teide and could see Africa from her summit, the unforgiving sands of the Sahara stretched out in oceanic waves of dunes far to the east.  Impossible of course, but a pleasant dream anyway.  

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