We arrived at night and woke next morning to hear the familiar music of the fish van passing up the valley, soulful Latin American music issuing from speakers on the roof.
It was a nostalgic awakening, as the van wound its way up to the village where we are enjoying the hospitality of an old friend. Soon, the voice of the fish-vendor, grown a little hoarser over the years, called out the familiar refrain, “Hay pescado fresco! Hay calamares, hay pargo, hay moreno!” His recital still carries conviction, as if it was the first time fish had ever been brought up from the sea.
Some things haven’t changed since we first arrived and spent a year on this small Canary island of La Gomera in 1981. We have visited it every year since and have enjoyed many lengthy stays.
Our favourite venue and second home is the Valle Gran Rey, the Valley of the Great King, named for the last Guanche chieftain to rule this enormous green ‘barranco’ before the Spaniards came and conquered in the 1400s. After the all-but-total annihilation of the indigent Guanches, pale-skinned Berber people from North Africa, Spanish peasant farmers colonised the valley slopes, building stone-walled terraces, back-filled with rich, volcanic soil, step-by-step down to the black-sand beaches and the fecund sea. The terraces remain, but many on the higher slopes have been abandoned. To even reach them would take half a day and, besides, the water table changed and they dried out for want of rain.
Now, this winter — or at least since we arrived — there has been rain every day, and some deluges, a fine irony for ourselves, hoping for relief from the sodden months that passed for summer in Ireland.
The irony for the islanders must indeed be cruel although they don’t say so. Over the course of our Irish monsoon summer, La Gomera dried to tinder and, in August > fires broke out in many places, sweeping through the highland forests and, after 15 miles of relentless burning, reached the rim of the escarpment above us where, via a dried out watercourse dense with bamboo, it raced headlong down into the island’s pride, the magnificent Valle Gran Rey.
Now, after the downpours, the barranco floor, where the fire galloped through the dry bamboo, is become a fast-flowing river. From where I sit, I see a wide brown stain where it meets the crystal sea.
The wildfire laid bare 30% of the unique World Heritage forest in the highlands. I’ve seen the blackened hillsides, stretching for miles, an apocalyptic sight. But one needn’t see it; the forests along the dorsal road across the island were largely untouched. 70% of Gomera retains its awesome beauty. The cup is three-quarters full; the rain now greens the dark land. Grass and wildflowers return; there is a warm sun and a wealth of nature to enjoy.
I’ve already heard stories and prognosis about the fires, how they started, why they weren’t better contained and if the forest will recover. I will comment on that next week, when I am better informed.
In the valley, the holocaust burnt palms trees, plantations and houses before a wind from the sea, sucked into the valley by the heat, drove it back. The lower half of the valley was saved by nature where no fire-fighting aircraft or engines could save it.
The population of the valley is still small, the houses low-level and set on terraces amongst greenery. There are no disco, nightclubs, Irish or John Bull pubs. A thriving German community caters for the German holidaymakers, who far outnumber other nationalities. Germans take their holidays seriously, muesli for breakfast, a swim, and then a guided trek into the mountains. More often than not, they are independent travellers, often young families, seeking to escape city stresses, to get in touch with nature and themselves.
Frau Angela Merkel comes here and she, too, perhaps takes to the hills. Should our finance minister seek informal liaison, perhaps they should hike into the Gomera mountains, yodelling optimistic valderees-vaderahs as they go.
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