There is the scrapping sound of small rocks falling. I lie still, and wait for another sound, holding my breath, then, Austin’s voice from the darkness;
“Was that you?”
“Nope, it wasn’t you either then?”
“What was it then?”
“Just some stones falling. Rocks fall.”
The same sound again, as stone dislodges from the rock face, perhaps disturbed by a small animal. I know already that we are sharing this cave with a mouse and two spiders, any of which might have dislodged small stones to make the noise we heard. I wrap my arms around my body to fend off the 1º below temperature, and relax again. My nest in this cave is really quite comfortable, and apparently I drift off to sleep.
This day began sunny and bright in El Médano. We drove up the twisting road from Granadilla de Abona, on Tenerife’s south east coast, through Spain’s highest village, Vilaflor de Chasna, and into the Teide National Park to the familiar sight of the bizarre and preternatural landscape that is the caldera at the Park’s center. Along the way, the atmosphere had changed from sunny to chill as we passed Granadilla, then to shifting mists as we drove through the pine forest above Vilaflor, to emerge into the sunshine again as we entered the crater.
The landscape had alternated from parched near the coast, where we have had little rain over the last year; to verdant in the forests, where the mists, captured by the trees, are fed to the earth below; and back again to arid as we neared the National Park. The flora had reflected the climate, the pines and eucalyptus on the roadsides lower down were wilting and dusty, and at the top were only dry skeletons of the broom, tajinaste and rosalillo that had flowered last summer, but in between almond blossom flourished, we saw trees were laden with lemons and oranges, and the first California poppies were hiding in sheltered spots.
We had donned light jackets quickly on arriving – although the sun was bright there was a wind chill factor bringing down the temperature. Austin had promised me this hike for my birthday, but we hadn’t been able to do it at the time, and I was looking forward to it tremendously, especially after the theft of my Blackberry (see previous post) which had upset me more than I liked to admit. It had been a bleak kind of week up to Thursday, but it was all set to change beyond my expectations.
Austin hoisted his heavy pack onto his back. He was carrying everything except for my sleeping bag, and other than that, I had only my extra clothes (though plenty of them), camera equipment and some odds and ends, like binoculars, in my own pack. Still, it was heavier than I am used to carrying when hiking.
We set off along the trail known as Siete Cañadas which is a hikers’ favorite, being well- laid and easy. It begins by the Parador and emerges at the crossroads of El Portillo, on the other side of the crater, from where roads descend to La Orotava, or along the backbone of the island to La Laguna, either way a stunning drive. The air was so clear that the colors of the landscape seemed almost unbelievable, they were so bright and vibrant, and turning back to look at this mighty mountain, El Teide, which dominates the vista on just about every inch of the island, I was already beginning to get a sense of the surreal.
We had only been walking for about twenty minutes or so, when Austin veered off the path and motioned me to follow. Two minutes later we were inside the heart of the rock formation you can see below, which had been making my imagination work overtime as we approached it. Even after living close to this landscape for so long, its eccentricities never fail to amaze me. These rocks look far more like something from a science fiction movie than anything which belongs on this earth.
Inside the formation was even more like being in another world. We perched on rocks and ate lunch, the spiralling, volcanic pikes rising around us like guardians, protecting us from the fierce sunlight. We could only wonder at the forces which had created these shapes, as Nature threw them up from her soul millions of years ago, crenated, twisted, their layers reflecting the origins of the planet.
Collecting all our rubbish, we set out once more. For me this was destination unknown, a birthday surprise, but it turned out to be surprise upon surprise. As we blinked again in the sunlight Austin gestured upwards with his hiking pole:
“That’s where we’re going,” he grinned.
I swear I caught my breath. Behind the rocks rose Alto de Guajara, at 8,917 ft (2,718 meters) one of the highest peaks in the National Park. I’ve seen it described as the third highest, but a marker along the route seemed to indicate otherwise, it might be fourth or even fifth, still, it was high and craggy and, well, er, very high, no matter its credentials in comparison to the surrounding mountains.
More interesting than the height is the legend. Guajara was a Guanche princess, daughter of Beneharo, ruler of one of the kingdoms into which the island was divided, and wife of Tinguaro, the brother (or possibly half-brother) of Benecomo, the ruler of another kingdom. The Guanches were the original inhabitants of Tenerife, a stone-age culture when the Spanish Conquistadors finally took the island for the crown of Spain after fierce fighting. The Guanches fought hard and long, andTenerife was the last island of the Canarian archipelago to fall. One of the heroes of the battles was Tinguaro, who was slain, after ferocious fighting, at the battle of Aguere (the present-day La Laguna) in 1495. Heartbroken, Guajara withdrew inland, and finally, in her despair, threw herself from the peak of the mountain which now bears her name. That she met her end in that way can never be confirmed, but the story is in keeping with others relating to the time following the Conquest. Were we, perhaps, about to meet the ghost of a Guanche princess?
We turned off the Siete Cañadas trail and began to hike upwards on what is designated as Hiking Route 15. It took us higher and higher along a narrow pathway marked by stones through scrubland dominated by broom. When we met a few walkers returning along the same path we had to stand to one side to allow them to pass. I began to slow down, constant climbing always takes its toll on me, and, as always, I vowed to get fitter before the next hike. Austin’s fitness level is amazing. He takes part in triathlons and trail running, and he forged way ahead at times, despite carrying most of our overnight gear.
Eventually, we reached a crossing of pathways, affording us a stunning view of mists creeping up a valley. Hemmed on each side by rock face and crags, the mists would advance, fingering their way along the mountainside, and then just as quickly withdraw as if stung by some unseen presence. We knew that below the mist and cloud lay the south east coast, Granadilla and El Médano. We stopped to put on warmer clothes. It wouldn’t be long until dusk, and already it was getting cooler. It was then that I cursed not bringing an extra camera battery. I’ve never needed to carry one for the amount of photos I expected to take on this trip, and I’d tried to keep baggage to a minimum, but the cold air was already having an effect, and I stopped snapping, aware that I would regret not having enough battery for the surprises which were promised ahead.
“We’re almost there,”Austinsaid cheerfully, and we moved on and upwards at a fairly leisurely pace. It wasn’t long before he darted off into the broom, and I assumed that he was answering a call of nature, and plodded on, but, from waist-high in bush, he called me over to follow him. We scrambled over rocks under an over-hang which formed a shallow cave, and onto a natural platform of rock. There two enormous rocks almost formed another, smaller cave, and the shelter had been extended by previous visitors with rocks, branches and dead grasses to roof it in and shield it from the biting winds which sweep across the hillside. It was a scene straight out of my childhood dreams. People had also strewn dried grasses on the stone to make a natural sleeping place. It was so perfect I wanted to cry (as you will see in the video which will be in the next post!).
Austin got busy right away, placing ground sheets over the dried grasses, and stowing our packs as we staked our claim to our resting place for the night. First, another treat in store, everything stowed, we donned yet more warm clothing, and walked on a bit further around the mountainside to catch the sunset. It was so much easier to walk without packs, and at one stage I actually ran to make sure I didn’t miss the scene.
As the sun dipped behind the mountain to our right, its last rays lingered on the hillside across the valley, and way around over the heart of the island it dappled the dark volcanic cones and sands. Cursing my lack of sense in not bringing a spare battery, I snapped what was, essentially, the reflection of the sunset, because we were facing south east, and the lavender hue was bleeding along the horizon above the mist and tinting the low cloud below us.
Returning to our cave (do you know how incredible it feels to say that?!), Austin produced vacuum-packed dinners, which he heated up with water boiled on a small burner. My first taste of real camping food! Better than I expected, plentiful and hot, it was good and warming as the temperature inside the cave fell to minus 1ºC. Followed by bananas and hot chocolate, I really wouldn’t have changed places with anyone in the swankiest restaurant in the world, as overhead the heavens began to shine with the achingly endless display of stars which the clear skies of the Canary Islands yield up at night. To make my night complete a bright shooting star crossed above us.
As we put on so many layers I now lost track, and zipped into our sleeping bags I felt like a child at Christmas, albeit a very chunky one! I’d dreamed of camping since I was a small child, and this kind of camping really was a dream come true, to be almost out in the open, to have only rock and dry grass between me and the night sky, and to experience not another sound in all the universe, just utter silence……. except for the soft rock fall, that is.
Not only all of this, but promise of something even more wonderful the next morning. Sleep didn’t come easily, but it seems at last that I did doze off, because, apparently I snored something rotten! For the rest, well, that’s enough writing for today, but soon, very soon, and, what’s more, with video!
Please note that camping, as such, is strictly forbidden in the National Park. What we did is bivvying – not using tents, nor driving anything into earth or rock, but simply sleeping under natural cover, and of course, we took all our rubbish home with us.