Damien Enright: No first light on island as dust storm rages over Canaries

Damien Enright: No first light on island as dust storm rages over Canaries
Exhibition piece of a typical five-metres long, one-man La Gomera fishing boat lifted from its plinth and overturned by the ferocious Calima wind from Africa which hit the Canary Islands in recent weeks.

ON SUNDAY morning two weeks ago, while I read reports in newspapers from all over the world of the ‘Calima’ of dust storms from Africa then obscuring images of the Canary Island in photographs taken from outer space, those very storms were happening outside my first-floor window.

I had intended, this week, to write about the scandal of supertrawlers with nets as big as football pitches operating from our Irish ports and raping the oceans of the world. However, finding myself at the epicentre of a Canarian dust storm of an intensity which, according to headlines in Spain’s newspaper of record, El Pais, has never been seen before, I felt I should report the effects ‘on the ground’ and leave the supertrawlers for another day.

On Sunday afternoon, as the winds rampaged through the streets of the coastal and mountain villages of the Valle Gran Rey on La Gomera, I dusted off the screen of my laptop and began to try to describe the world I found myself living in from first light that day.

One could hardly have called the break of dawn ‘first light’; there was scarcely any light in the morning sun. Instead of a golden globe rising in a clear blue sky above the island of El Hierro, 90km to the south west, it was a dead, silver ball in a dead, brown sky and, beneath it, on that February 23 morning, El Hierro wasn’t visible.

All day, a storm raged around us, and every bush and tree was cruelly tortured, or tortured to death, by the gusts which, every few minutes, lifted anything that wasn’t nailed down into the sky or carried palm tree branches whizzing along the streets and over the houses.

It was no time to go out. When the split cane curtain lending privacy to our balcony was ripped off, we saw occasional hardy souls plugging along the street, many with scarves wrapped around their faces or, indeed, entirely enfolded in what they wore, like women of the Sahara. One or two couples, clearly foreign visitors, had children with them — I suppose they had missions that couldn’t wait. In one case, I saw a tiny, blonde child lifted off its feet behind its father and, I believe, it would have been airborne had not the father held a strong grip on its small hand. God help the newly arrived holidaymakers. It was midterm break in mainland Europe. This visit from winter in Europe should have been the consummation of a dream.

On the night before, February 22, the ferry from Tenerife to La Gomera had been full to capacity, more than 1,200 passengers. Some 200 of these had taken the onward local ferry to Valle Gran Rey. They woke next morning to a scene of apocalypse. All that was missing from the potpourri of airborne debris was flying plastic bags and household garbage, a testament to the energy and organisation of the local council and the awareness of the local people — a combination which better manages garbage than anywhere else I’ve ever been. There is always a litter bin close to hand when you need one, and mini-car size street-side garbage vats at reachable distances all over the villages and valley.

The motes of dust from Africa, so miniscule that they pervaded every crack and cranny, gathered in drifts and painted all they settled upon pale pink or yellow. This is the colour of Saharan sand. Minerals in the sand help make fertile the islands’ volcanic soils and are integral in their diverse and fruitful ecology. Half a dozen Calimas could be expected each year. Now, however, they come too often and, this time, with a ferocity never seen before.

La Gomera, with its 1,500m plateau of cloud forest (believed to have been in existence for millions of years) is far more fortunate than the northern islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, bone dry and only 100km from the African coast.

With the wind, came African dragonflies by the hundred, zipping and hawking over the streets and the gardens of mango and avocado trees behind our apartment. Multitudes could not have locally matured from larvae to death-defying flying machines overnight. I’ve looked for roadside causalities, hoping to identify the species (Africa holds 800), but they are too fast for cars. Locusts arrive on Calimas, but not this time.

At last, the dust settled and on Tuesday night, we again saw the evening star and, then, the constellations. Perhaps tomorrow morning we’d see Hierro and, tomorrow evening, the sun going down into the sea to one side of it. It’s a very isolated island. Perhaps not a bad place, in the present human crisis, to be.

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