On a wonderful pine forest trail in La Palma

Canary Island Hopping

December 27th 2006 to January 2nd 2007 El Jesús, La Palma to El Mocanal, El Hierro

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Day 50 December 27th El Jesús, La Palma

This big adventure enters another week and takes us into the new year. The management was really looking forward to today. He had planned a very interesting ride and was keen to get going. Being a real hour west of the UK here the sun does not get going until around 10am, the stoker likewise.

Before we were properly up Maxima who lives next door turned up with clean towels and a present of some sweets. It is all a little embarrassing, the locals get up very early but take a siesta. Much as the management in particular would like to get into this rhythm it would make long cycle rides impossible.

Before we could go the stoker needed another blood test. At yesterday's dangerous level doctors just knock off all medication. This can then upset things for many days if not weeks so she prefers to try to take controlled doses to bring it down. It was significantly better but still too high.

We went off along our 'main' road but very soon took a minor road right and up the mountain. Our objective was the Torre del Time at about 1200 metres. The climb was steep and as such not as enjoyable as a better graded road. On the other hand we had taken every conceivable extra off the tandem making it much easier to pedal.

The route was very interesting. Unlike much of the UK, habitation here is based on agricultural smallholdings. People lived in the countryside and built houses on the less fertile land. Many of these houses are now holiday homes but there is little new build. So the steep country road wound its way up, past houses well spread out between small terraced fields. Many of the houses had nicely kept gardens full of flowers, cacti and plants with variegated leaves. There were also people to pass the time of day with.

As we climbed higher both the crops and the countryside changed. Orange trees were plentiful at the lower level together with neat vegetable patches. We were already too high for bananas. Vines became more common at the higher level and made us think of the excellent La Palma wine. Here the houses were fewer and more ethnic. It was already too far from the shops on the twisting mountain roads for holiday homes.

The last house had real not elephant grass and was surrounded by pine trees. The already narrow road became steeper and the surface changed from tarmac to concrete. Parts were too steep even for the management to ride and the stoker walked some of this.

The concrete finally stopped and the road forked. We followed the right fork on unmade track through the pine forest. The mountain peaks, called Roques here, were still above us but much nearer. The path levelled and wound itself around the mountain. The management enjoys this sort of thing being something of a mountain biker at heart. The stoker on the other hand has moments of fear, particularly when he forgets he is on the tandem. He is usually constrained by pedals scraping the ground before any real harm is done. The long wheel base of the tandem makes very rough terrain difficult.

We arrived at the Torre del Time and were greeted by cloud blowing up from below. The place itself was deserted. There was a locked shack and a tall viewing tower from which the public are excluded. It was a very uninspiring place and we were not surprised to be the only people there.

We parked the bike and went to the wooden rail to look over. We were greeted by a sight the like of which we have never seen before. The chilly cloud was blowing over our heads and the drop appeared to be sheer to the valley some 1100 metres below. It was so high that any thought of vertigo was lost. It was like being in an aeroplane. Directly below us we could see fields and tiny houses. Vehicles were moving dots on the road. We could plot the routes into the caldera, for that was what we were looking down on. And down there there appeared to be sunshine even though we were in cloud. Very soon it was time to do something about that.

Picnic lunch over we made our way back to the fork at the top of the concrete road. Here a rare thing took place. It took the form of a management stoker consultation. The management, being of the old school, normally avoids such niceties if he can get away with it. We could return the way we had come. The alternative was a long and very winding unmade road through the mountains.

Management pressure was brought but not much was needed and off we went along the winding road. The stoker does like a bit of adventure now and again. It proved to be reasonably well graded for this neck of the woods. Also at this height, still over 1000 metres, though it was pleasantly warm and sunny it was not excessively hot. It reminded us of cycling through pine forests in the peak of the English summer in northern England. It brought back childhood memories and smells for the management. As a child allowed to roam he sometimes lay on his back in Cathedral Woods in Headley Down, Hampshire watching the pines swaying in the wind.

After a good long while we were overtaken by the sole outdoor person of the day. He was a German mountain biker naturally making much quicker progress than us. Twenty minutes later he came back, somewhat lost. He was making for a mountain refuge, a rudimentary hut in the mountains to spend the night. With our very accurate Spanish military map and GPS track we knew exactly where we were. We sent him on his way and watched him descend the trail at great speed.

By mid afternoon we came to a junction with a concrete road and a sign indicating the way home. The management would have liked to continue on the winding unmade road but it made no sense. The concrete road descended so steeply that we walked some of the way. Better that than further explosions from overheated tyres.

Part way down the stoker photographed a couple of kids riding a motorbike. It was funny to watch the machine, already stressed to its limit, suddenly turn in the narrow road and take off down the hill. When we got to the edge of the village we found them waiting. They remonstrated with the stoker. She must delete the picture. Being photographed riding two up, no helmets, underage without permission, had worried them a little. After showing it to them, lying the stoker said she would delete it.

Nearly back we stopped at the shop for supplies and chores. The sun was already down on this memorable day.

 Based on what he had seen on Google Earth the management thought he could ride down this donkey trail

Day 51 December 28th El Jesús, La Palma

It is moving on day tomorrow and chores need to be done. A rest after yesterday is also called for. The management still had a little time in the afternoon for a short walk. He went down to the long distance path GR130 which passes just below us towards the village of Tijarafe.

On the way he came across some iron gates leading to a tunnel entrance. They were unlocked and he could see a circle of light about as big as a pound coin at the other end. Foolishly, or so the stoker thinks, he went in. It was a good deal longer and darker than he expected with a puddle in the middle. He had serious misgivings but made it to the end. It emerged onto a small flat area overlooking the vast Barranco del Jorado. He could go no further and had to retrace the 300 or so metres back to the path.

Back at the casa the literature we had indicated that it was a tunnel carrying the local water main. The management thought that very boring as he carefully washed his feet and sandals. And suffered 'if anything had happened to you we would not have had any chance of finding you'. Adventures that don't go wrong are always the best.

Days 52 and 53 December 29th and 30th El Jesús, La Palma to El Mocanal, El Hierro

We now have a couple of transit days. This idea of staying in one place and going out without luggage makes one lazy. It is not easy leaving a comfortable casa and hoping the next will be just as nice. Not only that but we are not as good at packing as we are when we pack every day.

The management particularly felt this as the short stretch up to the main road is very steep indeed. After that we had a long stretch downhill almost to sea level. This sounds wonderful but requires great care not to upset the stoker nor puncture the tyres. These are not one and the same thing because the cooling effect of going fast can reduce the risk of punctures.

As it was we made it down without mishap before climbing back up to Los Llanos bus station. We again needed to put the bike on the bus to go through the tunnel. This time the bus was smaller. The management took the front off the tandem watched by several bus drivers and a couple of loafers.

We got off the bus at the tunnel exit. We were cross, we could easily have ridden quite safely if permitted. We now had a long descent down to Santa Cruz de La Palma. We had our picnic lunch on the way down at a lovely spot overlooking the town. We enjoyed watching paragliders take off and circle high above our heads on the thermals created by the warm sunshine.

We were here a couple of years ago, having cycled up on our Bromptons. That time we arrived by cruise ship. This time we descended to the local hotel. Furthermore, unlike last time the descent was not without incident. We had yet another brake endured puncture, this time in the stoker's wheel.

With a 6.30am ferry to catch we just had time to ramblas and get something quick to eat. The town was very lively and packed with people which made this more difficult. Nevertheless we did get an early night and the 5.30am alarm call came all too soon.

We are now old hands at boarding Fred Olsen Ferries. We quickly put the tandem in its place and then enjoyed the breakfast picnic prepared by the hotel.

As the sun came up we first had views of the island of La Gomera and then of Mount Teide and Tenerife. It was a warm clear day and we enjoyed the sunrise and views, mainly of places to which we have been.

We found Los Cristianos as we had left it, in its own slime. Our most important job was to get supplies. Being Saturday there is every likelihood that the shops on El Hierro will be closed by the time we arrive. This achieved we were lucky to find a secluded spot on the rocks to wait out the morning.

At 1pm precisely we were pleased to leave on the wave piercing catamaran ferry. After the two hour crossing we were in a different world. We were far away from popular tourism in the rather remote port on El Hierro. It is the only one of the Canary Islands where the main town is inland.

At 3.30 in the afternoon after a 5.30am alarm we now had to climb up to just under 600 metres. Fortunately the sun was shining, mainly on our backs and it was not windy which was surprising. We expected this island to be misty and windy.

The management had as usual programmed all this into his eta. He had even taken into account our likely fatigue. In this respect he was wrong and we arrived at the village of El Mocanal half an hour early. Mind you we had no idea where our new casa rural was.

Avoiding the inevitable loafers who have the average mental ability of a Weymouth wino we asked a granny. At this moment her family arrived. We had three lovely generations helping us. The kids gave us bubble gum bought with pocket money and showed off their English. Dad made phone calls and granny and granddad were not far out with their directions. As we said, a million miles from Los Cristianos.

Ten minutes later the lady who owns the house arrived. We followed her to the casa and were not long in settling in.

 This is the view over El Golfo on El Hierro. We are not allowed to use the tunnel to get there and the alternative route is too far by tandem.

Day 54 New Year's Eve December 31st at El Mocanal, El Hierro

First impressions of El Hierro are of a completely different island from any of the others we have visited. Even compared with Gomera there is very little traffic. The roads we have used are however fully if not even exceeding EC standard subsidised. There appears to be very little tourist infrastructure and all the better for it. Having been recently to very green islands it is a little like the dramatic volcanic environment of Lanzarote. But this is an exaggeration, it is nothing like as harsh.

We had a slow start and not just the stoker. Two long days in transit and a new island takes its toll on our stamina. After breakfast we walked up to the shops. We do mean up, the first thing the management saw was a man walking a donkey. And that is what these village streets were designed for. Our village has two largish food shops and we needed supplies to see us into the new year.

By the time we were fully sorted out there seemed little point in further exploration before lunch. Because we are so far west and on GMT the afternoon is the nicest time of day.

In the absence of the management getting on with it the stoker planned a ride. The authorities here have built a 2km tunnel to shorten the route to the north west of the island and we wanted to see if we could use it.

Cycling off on the unladen tandem was good. Following a long descent we found the tunnel entrance. Here, with no previous warning, cycling was banned. This seemed completely unreasonable. The thing was only built to boost the economy by providing employment. Only one vehicle passed through every ten minutes and it is fully lit. It has to be a hundred times more dangerous and unpleasant to cycle on the busy roads of Tenerife.

As it was we had no intention of going further today and we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the little villages higher up the mountain.

The stoker is half Scottish. Even so the management's southern way of seeing the new year in usually prevails in our household. That is, we tend to do very little and don't always stay awake long enough to welcome the new year.

This year we had another very nice meal and some local wine. Having been TV free on La Palma we now have one with a satellite dish. Even so all we can get is BBC World and Sky News. They are both equally dreadful in different ways. However, not only did we see the new year in but also the fireworks from around the world. The whole thing was much improved by some goodly measures of Johnny Walkers.

Day 55 New Year's Day January 1st at El Mocanal, El Hierro

Our whole family on both sides sent us texts wishing us happy new year. It was lovely to get them.

After a latish breakfast in keeping with the day the management went to have a go at the tandem. Ever since the blow out front wheel braking has been seriously juddery. Having tried everything else he decided to put a new tyre on. There was a remote possibility that the tyre was damaged by the heat. We now know that this was not the case. He also took the opportunity to tighten the chains stretched by the last eight weeks of mountains.

The net result of the above was that we did not start much before lunch time. We visited a view point designed by César Manrique, having seen lots of his work on Lanzarote, his home island.

Not only is Manrique's architecture interesting but the view point is at a magnificent location. It overlooks the whole north west coastal plane of the island. It is also directly above the tunnel we are not allowed through. This part of the island was caused by a massive volcanic eruption and land slip. The result is a narrow flat plane isolated from the rest of the island by a high mountain range. That is prior to the tunnel. Mind you, judging by the very few vehicles creeping like ants along the road below us not many people feel the need to leave the area now.

As usual it was a big climb to get to the view point. Even though we had cloudless skies and we could not complain about the cold we had a very strong wind. The management had a job to keep the tandem on the road and the stoker was justifiably unhappy. The management had to concede that under stokers' union rules she had good grounds for complaint. After extensive negotiations over a lengthy picnic lunch it was agreed to cut the ride short and go back to the casa. Had the designer view point café been open as it should have been we could have spent much longer at this lovely spot.

As with most negotiated settlements all is not always what it seems. The shortest way back according to the management involved going on a short way then cutting across on a minor road. The grading of a road here does not indicate how much traffic it carries. There is very little traffic at all. What it does indicate is the gradient. Main roads are not quite as steep as minor roads.

Our way back certainly tested the brakes which were only slightly improved. From the top we could see the islands of La Gomera and La Palma and a plume of cloud over Tenerife. Views were however soon forgotten as we went into serious braking mode. Eventually the stoker very reasonably asked to walk and the management conceded without argument.

Once back at the casa he was soon fiddling with the brakes again. Only tomorrow will tell whether he has improved things.

Day 56 January 2nd at El Mocanal, El Hierro

Holidays over the stoker decided she would like to consult the tourist information centre. We made our wending way to the capital, Valverde. It is definitely bigger than a village, but only just.

We came across the TIC in the main drag where we were also confronted by loud piped music and loudspeaker announcements. This island may be 30 years behind the rest of Spain but it has certainly picked up on the worst 2007 has to offer.

Back to the old mañana, and the TIC had decided to take the day off without notice. After much conversation amongst the stoker and others at the door who can't live without TICs she went off to the island council. Certainly they are not a centre of wise council. What island which depends on ecotourists, walkers and cyclists, would build a tunnel not available to them? Furthermore wild camping is not allowed and there is only one camp site on the island.

They would do well to learn why people come to an island like this and provide for them accordingly. Mind you, the Dorset local authorities would do well to learn the same lesson. They plan to cut a major road through the very downs that the tourists come to see.

Anyhow she only managed to establish what we already knew about the tunnel, plus the fact that we could catch a bus but not return the same day. Disappointed we made our way up the hill to do a circular route in the mountains back to the casa. Despite the bureaucrats once we got going it was very pleasant.

El Hierro has a huge number of volcanoes which have eroded quite differently from elsewhere in the Canaries. The mountains are often rounded or sugar loaf and as we went higher there was more vegetation. The first viewpoint we stopped at overlooked a caldera full of little fields.

After a late lunch we were suddenly into real peasant farming country. For the first time in eight weeks we saw a few cows grazing the fields contained by stone walls. We saw sheep being herded along and goats in stalls. Animal husbandry here seemed to be sadly lacking with sheep hobbled and dogs cruelly kept. Even so the animals brought real life to the mountains.

The down hill back to the casa should have been a pleasure. It started well with us cycling through pine woods. At the edge of the woods we again had a view of La Palma which appeared out to sea but above the clouds. It looked like an island in the sky and was the stuff of picture postcards.

Here we had our fourth puncture, all of them having occurred on descents. It is difficult to decide whether the tandem is in a bad way or the descents are very difficult. Whichever, it is a real pain and is proving very difficult to sort out.

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