There have been few times over the years that I’ve lived in the Canary Islands that I’ve done what I did Tuesday night – rummage through my belongings to find the flannel, Winnie the Pooh nightshirt that I bought years ago in DisneyWorld, and on waking snuggle deeper under the duvet, enjoying its comfort. It’s really not that chilly. I guess it’s a deep-rooted memory of rain = cold. Growing up in northwest England will do that to you.
Storms are surprisingly rare here, given our location in the North Atlantic. The occasional hurricane bounces back east and clips us, and I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen thunder and lightening. This past couple of weeks was one of those times.
A major reason that I, like the hurricanes, bounce back here is that you can never take the islands for granted. They will always surprise you. Truth is that, most of the islands have their own mini climate, and monsoon-style rain in one place can be countered by bright sunshine over the other side of an island. Tourists were sunning themselves around hotel pools a few years back, unaware that in Santa Cruz, less than an hour away, folk were losing their lives in flash flooding.
The storm which has just passed has been unusual in that it hit just about everywhere to some degree. Schools are or have been closed throughout the islands, and public events are cancelled due to this massive bad weather front passing over us. This may sound overdramatic to some, sometimes it seems that way to me, brought up on the gale-wracked, British, northwest coast, but you have to remember that: a) many of those public events are outdoors, so kind is the weather normally, even in winter; and b) schoolkids in rural areas (and nowhere here is that far from rural) are bussed in, and (government liability for accidents at schools apart) may not be able to get home at night, because landslides often block roads when it gets this bad.
Those landslides are the major cause of damage, other than flash flooding. On an intended sortie around La Gomera last week with a friend, after negotiating several rockfalls successfully, our way along the road linking north and south of the island, (a route stunning in its beauty in good weather) was finally blocked by a rockfall too big to circumnavigate. Despite lack of mobile signal up there, we passed the guys going to shift it on our way back down.
The volcanic peaks which form the Canarian archipelago are geologically quite young, and the cycle of long, dry summers and low rainfall, means that when the really heavy rains do come, as they do, not every year, but most, they wash tons of loose rocks onto our nice, manmade roads. The year’s rain often descends within the space of a few days. The precipitations that feed the forests of Anaga in Tenerife or Garajonay in La Gomera year round are more in the nature of thick, ghostly mists, which infiltrate the landscape, leaving blessed moisture in their wake.
There are few storm drains here either, so that the rain, when it gushes off tiled roofs and through spouts in walls, takes its easiest route down to the ocean, these days that route is often a roadway, including, as Tenerife discovered yesterday, the main freeway. On the other hand, it may be a dry riverbed, where people are so accustomed to parking for 51 weeks of the year, that they forget that when the rains come their cars are right in the torrent’s path. Our TV screens often show cars being washed away.
After months and months without rain, the hard earth at first rejects it, and sends it cascading down hillsides.Parched tarmac allows water to seep through to road foundations, creating havoc. Deforestation, of course, doesn’t help. When we walked La Ruta de la Brea a couple of years back, our guide explained that when trees on the Arico hillsides were relentlessly destroyed, all of 500 years ago, for timber and tar, those responsible were well-aware of the consequences. Since reports from Arico this last week have been bad, perhaps today’s citizens are victims of history. A stirring example of how the consequences of what we do today continue hundreds or thousands of years on.
In my time here, I’ve been flooded four or five times, driven through puddles which were so deep they seeped into the car, had a tree fall on my car (happily when it was parked), and had to barricade a couple of times against forecast hurricanes. Plus I’ve been caught out up in the mountains a couple of times, wending my way down through peasoupers. Nowadays, they close the mountain roads well in advance of forecast problems.
When it began to rain, locals joyfully announced to TV reporters that the reservoirs, at worrisome post-Summer levels were filling up, and that it’s only good news for agriculture, only to change their tune as the crops continued to be pounded by wind and rain. Tourism might now be the lifeblood of this archipelago, but its heart lies in the soil.
The very best side of bad weather, particularly if you live on the western islands, and especially if you live on the island of Tenerife, is that it never fails to deposit snow on the peak of Mt Teide, which is, afterall, the highest point in Spain. I always found it odd, standing on the ski slopes of the Sierra Nevada, to look out over peak after frozen peak, and realize that I was not as high as on El Teide. A snow-covered Teide is a majestic and awesome sight. Seen from La Gomera, La Palma and Gran Canaria, he presents a pretty picture. But, close up, after heavy weather, those surreal, lunar-like surroundings hushed by the white, he is truly magnificent.
The front is moving away over to eastern islands now, and there is a lot of work to be done both publicly and privately. In all likelihood, by weekend the sun will be beaming again, and tourists will be sipping their martinis or their beers around pools. It may rain again before late Spring. It may not. This may happen again next year, or there may be no rain to speak of for the next three – like I said, you can’t generalize about the Canary Islands.