Friday, 11 February 2011

NOT THE ROQUE AGAIN??


Well, "Yes", here we are again, looking at the enchanting "sugar loaf" of Gran Canaria. How come I happened to climb up to this outpost for a second time within a week?

Yesterday I was hiking with my good old friend José Vanderveken from Happy Hiking/Biking, with whom I have been criss-crossing the island many a time in the past eight years. This time, the plan was to hike in the higher reaches. However, the weather gods did not fully comply with the plan, since it had snowed heavily up there all of the preceding night. When our bus reached the usual staging station in Ayacata yesterday morning, it was not certain that it could proceed to the starting point of José's planned route. 

As an aside, snow in the upper reaches, although not unknown, is not precisely common. The residents on the coast of course love snowing and consider this to be a treat to be savoured with abandon. As soon as the roads are opened again, after a heavy snowing, you can witness a caravan of cars queueing their way up to the uppermost parking lot, which happens to be located just below Pico de las Nueves. Rushing out of the cars, the children frolic in the white blanket, throwing snowballs at each other; the grown-ups play their own favorite snow game: each family father, worth his name, is carefully placing a snow man on top of the engine hood just before leaving for back home. Why? Well, there is a competition among the drivers on who manages to keep his snowman the longest, before it is melting completely away, on the way back down to the coast!

A rare treat: snow on Pico de las Nieves (left) and Pico de Campanario (right)

But back to our hike! Despite the sordid road conditions, the weather was clearing up rapidly whilst we considered alternatives to the hike José had envisaged. Finally he decided to approach the mountains through a lower road, unencumbered by snow, and have us reach the heights from there. The starting point happened to be the same as the one we already know from Tuesday's hike, and so did the end point. However, this being José, a spritely young fellow, the route we chose was the HARD WAY up to Roque Nublo. Even if this route partly coincided with the Thursday route, I did not complain at all. In fact, for a photographer, there is nothing more proficient than taking a trodden path once again, since it means that you are better prepared for the scenery to catch in your machine. In addition, light conditions are ever changing in those mountains and exactly the same scenery can give rise to completely different pictures, even taken with only a few days in between.

For instance, you may wish to compare the picture above with the corresponding view I presented in my earlier blog post Rocking Roque. Even if looking at the same motive, you tend to be inspired by different angles and contrasts, due to the difference in light conditions; the outcome, in terms of a picture, will be far from identical.

This day I was hiking in splendid company. All members of the group but me were dedicated walkers, who had booked, from Germany, a week full of exercise in this memorable island's interior, rather than wasting their time on the beach. With pleasant chatter and in good humour, up we trampled on narrow paths already described before. One fellow distinguished himself through his never ending tales, which kept us invigorated and encouraged all the way up to the top and down again. Unfortunately, his name escapes me now, but I hope he will make himself known in a comment to this post. You can see him on the picture below, standing just behind José.


This picture was taken about halfway to the top, at one of the many stops used by José to explain to us the various intricacies of Canarian nature. At this occasion, since we were standing in a pleasant grove of native Canarian pine trees, his explanations centered on their miraculous properties. We of course are already familiar with the way, in which the pines are getting water through "milking" of the clouds. But you may yet wish to hear that they are also very resistant to forest fires. But why should I attempt to explain this to you, if we have José to do it for us, just for the clicking on the video icon below?


At our picnic spot, almost the same as last time, I got again some moments to put my act together to present a panorama for your benefit. As you can see, the clouds had already dispersed after the snowing and a wide view opened up towards the Western coast.


You are complaining again that you cannot see Teide, the by now well known landmark of Teneriffa and the highest mountain of Spain? Well, I cannot help you with that, unfortunately; Teide happens to be hidden behind a cloud, just up from and to the right of the village of Saint Nicholas, which you can glance (barely) on the upper right (just look at the white area close to the sea).

But never fear. The mandatory picture of Teide can be admired yet. José pointed out to me that there was a better spot for viewing it some hundred meters up from our picnic site and I hastened to follow his advice. When I arrived at the outlined location, Teide had chosen to get rid of hiding veils and reappear in royal splendour. You may notice that His Highness' dress looks considerably more snowy than hitherto; I doubt one will ever again be seeing that much white covering on his coat.


But let's not tally at far away vistas! By now we were already on the narrow path, leading directly to the platform on which Roque is throning, huffing and puffing our way up towards the desired goal. And it turned out that the end result was well worth the effort. Having arrived at the upper plane we could take a deep breath of crystal clear air, still slightly chilly after the night's downpour. But none of the snow that certainly must have blanketed both Roque and his underpinnings was still left for us to frolic in. Only spread-out puddles of water here and there witnessed of a snowfall, all but forgotten in these majestic surroundings.


You do not find Roque very impressive, standing, as it does, far in the background? Well, this misconception is easily corrected. In the clear air, the least detail is clearly outlined for the photographer to document and you to appreciate. Does Roque look sufficiently impressive now?


Whilst you are still standing agape before the portentous shape of this prominence, our little group of hikers was already on its way down to the lower plane. And splendid indeed was the descent! Clouds had started to darken the lower platform, but the sun was still blazing on the huge pine forest located on the saddle joining the two calderas. Far in the distance, the two most prominent outgrowths of the Caldera de Tirajana (Pico de las Nuebles and Pico de Campanero) could be glanced in clear detail, their heads shrouded in snow.


Our heads full of admiration for the amazing vistas we had been confronted with, we continued our descent on the easy way down to the parking lot. After the earlier exercises this appeared to us a "piece of cake". Let me illustrate this by the "letting off steam" shown, by two of our group members, on a small arena just above the parking lot.


However, it turned out that we had relaxed to soon. José had another treat in store for us. Instead of letting us enter the bus at the parking lot, he suggested, and we followed his advice, that we descend on foot all the way down to Ayacata and its by now well known staging café. This decision led us down a rather steep foot path and treading it became a somewhat laborious exercise, far worse than covering the same slope in the other direction. In fact, I can compare both directions, since I had mounted exactly the same path the week before, that time with Manfred (also from Happy Hiking/Biking) as guide. What appeared then as an easygoing uphill stride, now was a sharp down-hill adventure, demanding every ounce of remaining stamina. 


But all's well that ends well! Soon we arrived at our café and could relax and review this marvelous day. Why don't you join us in our review by having a look at the video I have included here for your benefit? In case you are missing the icon I put in here for your convenience (for reasons that escape me, some readers do not receive them) I have also included a traditional link to Youtube, through which you can access the same video.


Thursday, 10 February 2011

HIKING THE THREE HAMLETS


You may be led to believe that this picture shows paintings by the aborigines of Gran Canaria, the Guanches. This would not be far fetched, since similar paintings have been found in caves on most of the Canaries, above all on La Palma. However, these red spirals and symbols are of more recent origin, painted as they were by an interesting artist living in an isolated, self constructed, compound deep down in the clefts of Barranco de Tirajana.

Since the issue of the Guanches has come up by itself, so to speak, let me briefly present to you these intriguing people. They lived on the Canaries for thousands of years (although not continuously, they seemed to have died out and come back intermittently) and had colonised the islands out of Northern Africa. Genetic research shows them being closely related to the Berbers still living in the Atlas area.

The saying on the Canaries nowadays is that these aborigines are sorely extinct. This is not exactly true, as more recent genetic research has shown. Intriguingly, a majority of the population (not counting the many immigrants that have arrived during the past 50 years) has its female tracer gene (mDNA) in common with their counterpart found in mummified remains of the Guanches. In contrast, this is not the case for the male tracer gene (Y Chromosome)! This tends to corroborate what has been hinted at, but never openly told, about the colonizing behaviour of the Spanish Conquistatores: that they used to kill off male adversaries, whilst keeping women as slaves, servants and, sometimes, living partners. So we have a lot of "Guanches" still living on the Canaries, directly descended, in female lineage, from the aborigines.

Now to the topic of today's posting! Yesterday, I participated in a charming hike through the bucolic lower reaches of the Southern inland, organized by Free Motion and again led by valiant Dieter, well known by now from our earlier exploits. The tour started a bit upstreams in Barranco de Fataga and went from there steeply uphill towards a pass on the mountain ridge dividing it from its brother, the Barranco de Tirajana. From there we had a stupendous descent all the way down to the deepest clefts of that huge canyon. Up again we trudged, through oases lush with vegetation, until finally arriving in Santa Lucia, the regional capital. As if this was not enough, we continued our hike on a steep ascent towards another regional capital, San Bartolomé de Tirajana (also known by its Guanche name of Tunte).

Small potato farm, halfway down Barranco de Tirajana. The Oasis of Ingenio lies way up on the upper left, across from a deep gorge all the way down, hidden behind the brushes starting in the lower left corner.
This hike brought a pleasant change of pace and altitude, after two mountain hikes in the upper reaches. It provided an interesting insight into how people used to live, and partly still live, on this island. The South is getting increasingly humid, the higher up you tread and the reaches of between 500 and 1000 meters' altitude have always been the most proficient for sustaining a small, but still sizable, rural population. The limiting factor for sustenance in those parts is water, as always. As soon as a small brook, a well, or even the run-off from pine groves higher up the slopes, provides a sustainable supply of water, peasants on the island will always find ways to hook on to ground for cultivation, be it very small plots among cliffs, sustained by walls keeping the scarce earth in place, larger systems of terraces, or, in rare cases, more extended stretches of reasonably straight ground.

By crossing Barranco de Tirajana from flank to flank, and from top to bottom, you get an amazing overview of nature and its interaction with human cultivation, as it has persisted for ages, probably already since the time of the Guanches.

But let's get on with the march. We started our tour in Fataga, which is located in the Barranco that bears its name and dominates vast stretches of citrus and mango(a) plantations. What used to be a small peasant community, with church and basic services, has now become a tourist spot with many an artist's shop and ateliers. Still, well-kept as it is, it has preserved the basic appearance of yore. Maybe we will come back to this nice place at a future blog posting, time and perseverance permitting.


Whilst trekking slowly upwards, on a narrow path, along the flank of the ridge dividing Barranco de Fataga from Barranco de Tirajana, the air got increasingly dimmer and it looked like rain may be coming soon, which would have been a disaster for my photographic ambitions. I hastened to take some pictures of the village, while the sky was still reasonably clear, but had scant hopes of good vistas, once the pass would be reached and we would gain the overview of Barranco de Tirajana.


As we continued upwards, the sky started to change into darker grey, which did not exactly lift my spirits. Still - I tried to console myself - it is not the weather that makes the photographer, it is his eyes and the motives he chooses. And indeed, there were still pictures to be had even in these dreading surroundings. I hope you agree with me on this, when looking at my companions striding steadfastly towards the pass.



On we went, rather stolidly, determined to face any adversity in store for us, once arriving at the pass and looking down Barranco de Tirajana. The weather gods must have looked benignly at our dedication, since - "surprise, surprise!" - the clouds dispersed and the sun came in full swing as soon as we were on top of the ridge. Below our feet a wondrous vista spread its wings, allowing us to savour the sweep of the barranco, from its lofty heights at the caldera rim opposite us  down to the village of Santa Lucia and, onwards from there, the vast oasis of Ingenio.


A warning to you readers: the eyes are tricking you. You are not seeing a broad valley floor, flanked by moderate hills on the horizon. In fact, Santa Lucia, with its typical domed church, is hovering at the foot of a steep precipice, stretching close to 1000 meters straight upwards. And, what looks like a  green valley floor beneath the village is in fact a further declining slope, ending in another steep precipice (hidden in the picture), which leads down to a final narrow gorge, through which a small brook is spluttering contentedly, after having carved out these deep cliffs through erosion during the past million years or so. The greenery you see at the lower right is not a dense pine forest; rather, it represents groves of the indigenous palm tree, Phoenix Canariensis, which tend to accumulate in oases wherever run-off from the Caldera rim resurfaces as springs further down in the barrancos. We are seeing here the oasis of Ingenio, located below Santa Lucia.

Where I was taking this picture, I was standing at about the same altitude as Santa Lucia and we had a steep descent ahead of us, having to trace our steps carefully down the beginning of the traditional, stony and narrow path between the two villages. And if that was not enough, after groping our way down some 300 meters in altitude, and having forded the small brook at the bottom of the final precipice, the exercise had to be reversed on the other side, lifting our weighty bodies up these same 300 meters all over again.

Goat farm on the brink of the final gorge
Do I sound like I was complaining? Far from it! The continuing change in scenery made the exercise seem feather-light. From vineyards to potato farms, from goat farms to artist's hideout, from cactus plantations to almond trees, we saw it all and admired it along the way! Not to speak about the stupendous nature surrounding all these human endeavours.

The most spectacular scenery was savoured when approaching the final gorge and carefully climbing down the narrow cliffs leading down to the brook at its bottom. Here we are standing at the brink of this final gorge, contemplating the narrow path leading all the way down. I have stood on that same spot two times before in earlier years, but not seen the cliffs all GREEN, as this time. They usually have a yellow-gray flavour to them, with the brushes being in their ordinary dried out stage after long periods of drought.


But let's get on with our tour! At the bottom of the gorge, when fording the purpling brook, a strange animal cast its wondering eyes upon us, with an almost scary intensity of color and shape. But never fear! We had arrived at the artist's lair - recall the image at the top of this Chapter! The originator of these paintings on the gorge's stone walls is a very original hermit who chose to establish his abode smack down in the gorge, just beside the small brook that is so conveniently providing him with freshwater year round.


This picture of his lodging was taken from the opposite cliff, on our way down, and it shows how diligently and intelligently he has used native materials to construct a cosy combined atelier, villa and museum, all for the benefits of a few knowledgeable friends who know their way down the gorge and have stamina enough to make it back up.


The artist's name is José, his family name being unknown to me. That notwithstanding, I have known him for many years, although he usually does not remember me when I am passing by on my hikes across Barranco de Tirajana. How did I get to know him? On my very first hike into the interior, with José Vanderveken from Happy Hiking as guide, way back in 2003, we had approached the gorge from the opposite side, on a tour through the Oasis of Ingenio. At a midday picnic spot on the gorge's fringe, José had encouraged the most eager of us hikers to dare the descent, with the majority having been content with munching their sandwiches. I had been a lot younger then - as I see it know - and of course had rushed down the steep incline full of enthusiasm, arriving down there far ahead of the few others daring the deed.

The brook looked so inviting that I could but surge upstream, in the hope of getting a better picture of the beautiful scenery. None had followed me on this venture; probably I was the only serious photographer in the group. Suddenly, around a bend, a yellow construction had appeared to my unbelieving eyes, not unlike a crow's nest, located a bit up in the cliffs. How could that be, right in the middle of an enchanting wilderness?

Hardly had I articulated the thought that a man had popped up, like out of thin air,  looking at me with stern eyes, as if I was an unwelcome visitor to his manor. Smiling at him, I had fired off a quick shot and retreated, so as not to disturb his spiritual equilibrium.

You don't believe this tale? Have a look at the photo I have scanned in for you from the slide film I still held in use in those days. You can see the yellow edifice about two thirds up in the picture. In retrospect, I must have witnessed the very beginning of José's building activities and I can but admire the elaborate compound of artifacts he has managed to construct since then.

At subsequent crossings of the brook, down in the gorge (three times by now), we have always approached his housings with friendly greetings and have in return been graciously welcomed by this hermit among artists. I have sent him the picture that you are seeing here last year and was glad to hear that it had been well received. Let's wish him luck in his solitary paradise and let's get on with our journey!

Upwards we strived on the gorge's opposite wall until, heaving a sigh, we could settle down on its rim for a well earned picnic. Dieter had chosen the place with diligence. Just below our feet, as he explained to us with glee, was the ancient site of a male fertility cult. We could easily observe the reason for this cult, looking at a prominent stone pillar beckoned proudly to the sky, as if challenging the gods on who was the most masculine of them all. I hesitate to show you here a picture of this monument, common decency prevents me from doing so. But I can probably be excused for showing it in the slide show you can watch as a video, as usual, at the end of this blog.

Whilst we were gulping our sandwiches, Dieter regaled us with many a tale of Canarian customs, among them the story of the savory Canarian olive and its preparation. I don't have to tell the story myself, since we have our knowledgeable guide on record here:



But let us not dwell too long on this enchanted spot. Half of the tour still remained to be conquered. The next section held a more mildly rising slope in store for us, leading us through the fruitful landscape of Oasis of Ingenio. Among palm trees, Almond trees and cute little farms we slowly advanced upwards.


Soon we started to see intriguing cultivations of a special sort of cactus, which seemed a favorite for fencing in the small plots of cultivated land.

As Dieter could explain to us, this was nought else but the famous Prickly Pears Cactus (Opuntia); a cactus of Mexican origin, but imported to the Canaries in the eighteenhundreds. Contrary to its name, the main reason for cultivating this stranger was a small insect, called Cochineal, housing on the stickling leaves.

It can be discerned as living in small, white, lichen-like growths. When taken off the plant and crushed in your hands, an intense purple color will taint your hand. This color, originating from the insect's intestines, is among the few substances allowed in food nowadays, commonly used to enhance red colors. Cinzano anyone?

There used to be huge cactus plantations all over the island until the beginning of the nineteenhundreds. This stopped abruptly, ruining a pillar of livelihood for the poor inhabitants, when the aniline colors were invented. Since then, the cactus is slowly clawing back its raison d'être. The Canarians have always continued to keep the it as a house plant, since its fruit, tasting very much like fig, could be used in various ways, for instance, as fresh fruit on the table or as marmalade. Recently, it has made its comeback as basis for food coloring, in an age that is getting more knowledgeable about risks with chemical additives in food.

We got a chance of tasting the delicate flavor of this cactus fruit, when Dieter braved the prickles with a newly bought brush and collected some "figs" for us to savour. The taste is indeed delicious, just like figs, even fresher and not so sugary.

Time went fast with gaining these biological insights and we forgot to complain about the last steep steps to take before arriving at the second hamlet of this tour, Santa Lucia. It is as well preserved as Fataga (apparently all villages in the interior are being well maintained; no doubt due to the huge tax incomes stemming from the coast trade, as well as to EU money).

Taking a brief detour up to the village church, I could not help noticing an intriguing statue in front of the it. Could this represent the patron saint of the town? "Yes", but with a twist. Instead of the appropriate representation, as seen in respectable catholic churches (for instance in the Cathedral in Syracusa, Sicily), this statue had a distinctly Nordic flair, with candles in the saint's hair and with her being partnered by Staffan (Stephen), the little "Stjärngosse" (Starboy).

As far as I know, this combination of Santa Lucia (13 December) with St. Stephen (25 December) is uniquely Nordic. In more knowledgeable countries (as religion is concerned), the Starboy(s) would appear (with or without the Three Kings) in processions starting at Christmas and ending with Three Kings' Day (6 January). So why this Nordic statue in the interior of Gran Canaria? I honestly don't know. Hopefully one of you readers knows the story behind it and can convey it to us as a comment to this blog post?

By now you may feel that this was a loong hike through Canarian fields. And you have a point there. We were already a bit tired when leaving Santa Lucia, but had nonetheless to collect all our remaining stamina to conquer THE STEEPEST ASCENT of the hike, which now lay yet before us! We decided to collect our wits for a group picture before starting (and before getting too exhausted to be seen on  photos).


Take another look at this picture, that is, at the signs, not at the spritely hikers! Do you recognize the name on top? "Yes", indeed, we have regained our old friend of mountain climing lore ("To the Top!!"), the old pilgrims' trail! This time we had to take it in the right direction, from South to North, as the islanders use to do, when hiking the long way to Santiago de Compostella. Let us not dwell too long on the story of how we made that last painful stretch of upwards trekking. Suffice it to say, that we were helped greatly by Dieter's instructions and encouragements, as can be seen in the video below.


And finally, we had arrived, at the lovely hamlet of Tunte (the Spanish name being too long to be repeated all the time). This village is not only the regional capital of the lower reaches hereabouts, its régime extends all the way down to the coast. Indeed, Tunte is the regional capital also of the major tourist region of Spain, Maspalomas. No wonder that its buildings are spitting clean and preserved, as the final picture of this blog post demonstrates, showing the fine church of Tunte.


This has been a loong blog post, I know, filled to the brim with informative texts and pictures. But don't give up, dear readers. It would be a mistake to leave it now. You won't regret playing the video here at the end, guiding you through the hike in a very amenable manner.

Double click here to see the video!



Wednesday, 9 February 2011

ROCKING ROQUE



Before we start today's theme, a small announcement is in order:

Some of my friends have been asking questions about the plant adorning the lead picture in the last blog post. Good questions! This is indeed a spectacular specimen of the Canarian flora. Its flower, if straightened out, must measure almost 2 meters, I gather. This plant stems originally from the arid highlands of Mexico but is thriving splendidly in the heights of Gran Canaria. It is called Agave attenuata ("Swan's Neck Agave"). Given the pondus of its flower, you may understand that flowering is a one time event, occurring only after 8-10 years of the plant's life. After this glorious outburst the agave dies, but its drying skeleton will keep standing another year or two.

The flower in the picture is flourishing at the entrance to Café La Candelilla, located at about 1000 meters' altitude in the village of Ayacata. This café is the provisioning station for most hike and bike tours on the heights. Thus, the Swan's Neck has been wishing me well in the morning before, and welcoming me back after, many a strenuous day in the mountains. And this for the many years and hikes I have undertaken up there!

But did I not just say that the plant dies off after having flowered? "Yes", indeed, but the plant is too clever to let itself perish without a trace. During its long life, it is spinning off small brethren without interruption and a successor is ready to flower as soon as its forerunner is drying up. So there, all your questions have been answered, I hope.

After this it's time for the hike of the day, which deals with the impressive Roque Nublo. This is without question the most imposing top of Gran Canaria. It is placed on a badly eroded part of the Caldera de Tejeda, looking like a ship on the high see, standing as it is on an elevated plateau, with its utmost top  as chimney or lookout, or, if you prefer, looking like a fleshy red middle finger pointed by mankind at the Almighty in the sky.

Comparing the Roque to a ship on the high sea is not as far-fetched as you may believe. The trade winds are continuously chasing clouds over the island's crater rims and Roque is exposed to their strongest onslaught. If weather conditions permit, and you are standing on the right view-point, you can actually see the clouds crashing on its cliffs as if they were waves showering a large vessel. I have a picture here to prove my point, taken about two years ago.


Just like in the case of the Campanario, there a two ways to ascend this monument, the EASY way and the HARD way. The easy way is easy indeed, starting from a parking lot on the saddle between the two calderas, with a broad path winding up the hilly front. You want to locate the starting point on the picture above? You divide the photo into horizontal and vertical thirds, and the start lies where the lower and left dividing lines cross. People have been seen walking up that path in sandals or even barefoot.  THIS IS NOT RECOMMENDED! (speaking as a former sandal wearer, in my younger days of course).

The hard way consists of climbing the mountain from the inside of the Caldera de Tejeda, striving ever upwards, broadly with the gradient. This means treading narrow paths along often rather steep inclines but provides, on the other hand, sweeping vistas over the western part of the island and, weather permitting, Teide reigning over the coastal foot ranges. This time, Dieter, our guide from Free Motion, of Campanario ascent fame, chose the hard way, albeit with a twist, to be revealed later on.


Weather conditions were close to optimal yesterday, with hardly a cloud to be seen on the deeply blue sky watching over the heights. The first hour of the exercise was demanding, forcing us to build up stamina for the continued hike. We really had to catch our breath after this climb! The picture above shows us getting our strength back, whilst looking back at the task accomplished.

The reward came when we had ascended a more slightly rising slope, or rather plateau, abounding with greenery and flowers. Below us a small lake could be glanced and small brooks were ever present with clear water purpling its way downward within the greenery. It is difficult to convey these marvelous impressions in two dimensional pictures, but let me at least give it a try and present to you a panorama of the lake, as it folded out before my eyes this splendid morning. 


After another hour's hike we reached more elevated and open slopes showing the promised vistas of the western barrancos of the Caldera de Tejeda, together with its flanking lower ranges. In the upper right quadrant of the panorama below you can glance the village of San Nicolas and, further out at sea, the Teide. Why not click on the picture to get its larger version, the better to admire the details in the view? 


I deliberately took the panorama so you could look at nature as the naked eye would see it. You are disappointed at the tiny size of Teide above? Well this is how it appears if the eye is sweeping across the horizon, taking it all in at once. But let me not keep you frustrated. As we continued climbing upwards, Dieter chose a beautiful picnic spot for us, with Teide in plain sight, so let me present to you this sovereign among mountains (it is Spain's highest mountain, after all) in a setting more appropriate to his serene highness.


Fortified by this interlude in splendid surroundings, we felt ready to face the final challenge, accosting and climbing the "ship" itself, as it appeared more and more luring in between the pine trees. 


But when we finally arrived at the "ship's" foot, Dieter had a surprise waiting for us. Instead of climbing straight up to the major plateau, along the path that a decaying sign in the forest indicated, he led us towards the left and enticed us to circle the promontory on a cosy shaded path within dense pine groves. This certainly prolonged the hike by an hour or so, but showed me a trail that I had never trodden before, as many times as I had striven upwards towards Roque. Dieter's grand plan was to lead us around the promontory to its "back" and let us mount the final slope on the EASY road that was awaiting us there. So now we can safely state that there also is a MIDDLE way up the Roque!


At the altitude we were walking now, around 1600 meters or so, it became rather cool in the shadows. Even ice became apparent here and there, causing us to be careful when placing our feet. But this did not detain us from treading steadily onward, helped by Dieter's never-ending comments and jokes that led us to forget our impending exhaustion. But why do I bother writing about Dieter's encouragements, when you can see and hear them yourselves, simply by clicking on the video below?


Fired on by Dieter and by now eager to come to the end of the ascent, we finally made it to the important crossing, where all the paths join and lead to the narrow passage giving access to THE PLATEAU, on which the red final outcrop is squatting so prominently. Just another 10 minutes of strenuous climbing and we would be grasping the full majesty of the surroundings. To celebrate our pleasurable anticipations, a round-up of our group of "serious" hikers seemed in order.


And now on to the fulfillment of our expectations! Having burnished the last narrow steps, there we were, standing on the island's flat roof, if not its top, beholding the majesty of an enourmos red "boulder", placed so pronouncedly on the red expanse bowing to its prominence. The Roque is striving only some 100 meters up in the air, but it looks like many more; an impressive sight indeed! Have a closer look at the Roque by clicking on it and identifying the red hikers at its root, to get a better impression of its scale.


Looking at the Roque in its solitary majesty is helping to bring piece to your soul, inviting its union with the universe. You think this is a notion fetched too far? By no means; traditional island sources indicate that this was the foremost place of worship for the indigenous population, the guanches;  this was where the island population had its strategic meetings and important religious ceremonies were being performed. This is easy to understand. Were I king of the island, I would not hesitate to designate the Roque as the site of my coronation, for egging on my subjects in times of war, as as well as for performing my religious rites as pontifex maximus. This would most surely succeed in manifesting the authority and credibility of my régime. But enough of this daydreaming! Even to this day, whenever heavily weighing decisions are to be taken by the islanders, they tend to congregate here to make their strategic deliberations. 

Another intriguing aspect of this place is that the geographical center of the island (don't ask me how it has been calculated) is situated just under Roque's feet. A small circle, drawn in white, indicates its location, as can be seen below. When developing the picture to the left, I suddenly recalled that I had taken another one on the same location a bit more than a year ago. That hike was far more usual than the one done yesterday. The Roque (Rock) is not called Nublo (in the clouds) in vain. The ordinary condition, when standing on the plateau, is to see essentially nothing. Only occasionally, and if you are lucky, will Roque then mystically step forward from out of the clouds, only to exit out of sight again within minutes. So Manfred Ritsch, our Styrian guide from last year, had to lead us on a blind chase of the rock and its attractions, whereas Dieter, this year, could let us loose to discover the sights on our own, in a splendid sunshine not to be had on ordinary climbing days. 


Whilst we were off, exploring the surroundings, Dieter had his own errands to carry out. He is an accomplished amateur mineralogist, ever looking for precious stones among the prevalent reddish pebbles covering the grounds of this volcanic island. Within a period of 15 minutes he had quite a collection of black precious stones to show for his travails, as you can see in the picture. These were  obsidians he had found, a stone valued as highly for jewelry nowadays as it was as material for instruments in the stone age. When splintered, they have an extremely thin and sharp edge, rendering them eminently useable as arrow heads or knives. Did I say "stone age"? Don't be mistaken, the foremost chirurgical knives made nowadays have their edges made in obsidian.


After all this excitement on the roof of the world, I am quite at a loss of words to describe what followed. Suffice it to show two pictures from our (cosy) descent, which led us to the parking lot, where the easy path to the top begins. This route is as easy to descend as it is to ascend, which suited us well, after the morning's strenuous trecking uphill. The first picture shows the way back down to the cross, where we had taken our group picture. 


This final picture shows us on the broad path down to the parking lot, just a minute or two before getting all the way down. This spot provided us with a wonderful vista towards Ayacata, as well as the lower mountain ranges flanking Lake Soria and the Barranco leading to Aguineguin.


"Wow!", what a marvelous day that was! Can it get any better? "Yes", it can, if you care to click on the web address below, for a full picture show of this beautiful hike.









Sunday, 6 February 2011

TO THE TOP!!!


I guess it is the child in me, but every time I see or hear of a mountain, I immediately feel the urge to climb and get on top of it. No wonder, therefore, that I have a particularly strong feeling of satisfaction when reporting about yesterday's exercises. This blog, as well as the next one, is about mountains and how to ascend them.

The mountains on Gran Canaria are not exactly ordinary (but what is ordinary on this enchanted island?). They are not mountains as we usually see them, even if they have the altitude.  To get you to understand what I mean, let’s digress a bit and talk about geology.

The island, as it stands before us now, is formed by and consists essentially of two massive volcanic craters, the Caldera de Tejeda in the Northwest and its southern sibling, the Caldera de Tirajana. Their respective rims are prominent in the island’s center, but their outer parts, towards the Atlantic, are but eroded away. In between the two central rims lies a highland, formed like a saddle and heavily forested by the indigenous Canarian pine. The pine forest is a delight to penetrate and pure pleasure to behold from above.

Here I am, standing on top of the world or, rather, on top of Pico de Campanario

The Caldera de Tirajana is the younger of the two; but does it matter, speaking in terms of millions of year of age? Consider instead that this crater from the outset was a huge mountain, formed like a volcanic cone and reaching more than 6000 meters into the sky; a bit like the Teide on Teneriffa (the highest mountain in Spain) or the Fujijama, just considerably higher. This massive cone blew up some millions of year ago and left behind it a gigantic crater, the remains of which now still can be beheld as the rim of the Caldera. In a similar manner, the Caldera de Tejeda was formed, albeit millions of year earlier.

The highest mountains in Gran Canaria are really just promontories on the respective inner rims. Roque Nublo dominates the Caldera de Tejeda, whereas the Caldera de Tirajana contains two prominent outcrops, the Pico de Campanario and the Pico de las Nieves. The three have an altitude of, in that order, some 1800, 1980 and 2000 meters. To my regret, only Roque and Campanario are accessible to the public, whereas Las Nieves is off limits, with military establishments close to the peak.

Campanario to the left and Las Nieves, flanked by a radar antenna, to the right
Yesterday’s challenge was to climb the highest accessible mountain among the three, the Campanario. Only one operator in Playa del Inglès is organizing hikes up to its top and that is Free Motion. Our trusted guide was, as before, “Der olle Dieter” who despite his almost 70 years never hesitates to put his foot down on even the most difficult of terrains.

I have to tell you that I have climbed the Campanario already five times before.  However, those climbs were only a limited success. The trade winds regularly cover the Caldera rim with clouds and lucky is the climber who is able to get his reward in terms of sweeping vistas, from the top, of the island all the way to the coast, or even to Teneriffa, with Tejde reigning like a sovereign over the clouds . Only once before did Fortuna favour me, even only with limited views, and I was hoping for even better luck this time.

There is an easy way and a hard way to climb Campanario. Until recently, the guides have always chosen the hard way, which means climbing the peak from the inside of the Caldera. This involves daring a rather narrow path cut into steep slope and overcoming a difference of some 1000 meters in altitude. This year, Dieter decided otherwise; had age started to sneak up to him? Probably not, he is still spritely as a youngster and it takes some stamina to follow his strides. Maybe it is us customers that have become older and less willing to endure the hardship of the “narrow path”.

Be that as it may, the route we took this time started from the dense pine forest of the high inland plateau. From there, you only have to overcome a limited difference in altitude, some three hundred meters, and the slope is correspondingly milder.


Our hike started in a glade, where the Spaniards living on the island usually have their picnic in summertime, looking for a refreshing reprieve from the coastal heat.  From the start, an easy-going camaraderie developed among us fellow hikers, all eager to gain the top of the world and admire it from there. Let me single out one of those newly won friends: his name was Ehrling. The interesting thing about him was that he, although being a Swede, spoke Austrian almost as well as I speak Swedish (Let others judge how “well” that actually may be). This was a funny guy indeed, in a discrete Swedish manner; furthermore, he was as eager a photographer as myself.


Soon we happened upon a comfortable path with an intriguing sign that said “Camino de Santiago”. Could there be a connection to the many roads leading to Santiago de Compostella in Spain? Indeed there could and was, as explained by Dieter. This path is crossing the island from South to North, through barrancos and over the tops, its purpose being to lead pilgrims from the South to Las Palmas in the North, to be shipped onwards from there to the corresponding paths in mainland Spain. 

After an hour’s comfortable walk as pilgrims, so to speak, suddenly there came our first big surprise of the climb: a clearing opened up in the forest and allowed us an unhindered vista over the western part of the island; and, surprise, surprise, above it all, like a mirage, appeared the white capped crown of Teide.


With cameras clicking away and happy outbursts waking up the birds, we got new stamina necessary for the other half of the climb. We had now to leave the comfort of the pilgrim track and to continue upwards along a narrow, but still passable footpath.

As we proceeded towards the top, again and again vistas of the Tejde and, increasingly, of Roque Nublo opened up among the pines, keeping us content and eager to continue. At one nice spot, Dieter stopped us and pointed to his favourite view of Roque, framed by pine trees like by a window. You can see for yourself below if this view is worth looking at.


These pleasant interruptions were the more welcome than the air had become quite cool and the path was getting increasingly icy. But nothing could prevent us now from pressing ahead, all of us looking forward to experience a marvellous view from the top.

And finally, there we were, standing on top of the world, or at least the island!


What did it matter that cold winds were chilling our cheeks! Did they not help us keep the air clear from clouds and providing us with unhindered vistas, from looking down to the dunes of Maspalomas to looking up at the majestic serenity of Tejde, accompanied by its sibling, the reddish Nublo. All too short was the time spent on this marvellous look-out; eventually, we had to leave with regret, but the memory of these sunny views will linger on and comfort us in bleaker days to come.


Back down we strolled, through the pine forests, to the picnic site where our bus was already waiting for us. Following Dieter’s knowing instructions, it rushed us to the cafeteria La Candelilla, in Ayacata, the starting and finishing point of many a hiking trip. Refreshments were in order!

Whilst sitting at that café and sipping coffee, I suddenly remembered that Dieter always feels the urge to point out an intriguing mountain range just opposite the café and mention that it looks like a snoring giant. Have a look at the picture I took for your benefit and let me know, whether his interpretation makes sense to you.


Whilst you are pondering this important issue, I’d like to reacquaint you with Ehrling, who kept us awake, during the hardy hike, with and laughing at his funky stories. Please have a go at the web address below, to hear him tell the story of how he tried to convince his Austrian friends of the delicate taste of Surströmmning (Swedish style sour herring).



You could not follow his tale, because your German was getting rusty? Do not despair: just click on the next address here, to hear Erling invigorating us with a beautiful song in Swedish.




Are you disappointed with the scarcity of pictures I have put in this blog? Well, there is a remedy also for this sad feeling. Here comes now the usual rounding up of the story, in form of a full picture gallery, with music and all, depicting the full story of this marvellous day! As a special treat for you readers, the pictures are being accompanied by the most glorious trumpet solo ever played. It brings tears to the eyes even to the most scarred veterans among us. It is amazing that a 25 old artist could express so fully what us old-timers feel and fear. A most suitable companion to a unique hike to the top!