If Irish walkers keep coming to La Gomera in the numbers that arrived with the Bishopstown Hillwalking Club this week, they’ll wear down the paths and stone-made steps climbing the mountains out of the fecund valleys, routes laid down hundreds of years ago.
Originally, they were made with great care and vernacular engineering skills for the use of mules and donkeys carrying produce from the green terraces and river basins to bigger tracks that would take it to the sea for shipment overseas.
The Bishopstown group numbers 43 and members can chose the routes that will best suit them during their five days of enjoyable and industrious trekking on this stunningly beautiful and spectacular island, with its forests, fields, hills, mountains and seashores. Local guides accompany them on graded itineraries.
Grade A walkers —but for the lack of a pair of extra legs — are the nearest thing to mountain goats. They swarm up steep slopes at a rate that would, I imagine, be the envy of elderly Gomeros who, until 1959, had no roads to get from one valley or mountain pasture to the next, and tell me that they could reach the village over the mountain faster than I could do so in a car.
These grade A hikers intend to climb Mountain Teide (3,718m) when they stop off on Tenerife on the way home. They will make a race of it. I am, frankly, gobsmacked. As a long-term Gomera walker, I see that many of the scheduled Grade B walks would stretch me to the limit.
Yesterday evening, I spoke to Maureen Ahern and Theresa Lynch from Cork; they had just completed a five-hour grade B walk, but looked fresh as Paris daisies (a Gomero daisy that grows in bright clumps in the mountain). They, and a bevy of enthusiastic companions, including an Irish Examiner staff member and, coincidentally, a friend from Courtmacsherry, were in excellent form after the outing, and wanting to know where they could enjoy local food, music and wine.
Even grade C walkers are no strollers. They hoof it at a lively rate up hills and down dales attempts of which I would be highly circumspect. The Bishopstown Club are adventurous outward-bounders indeed, making excursions to all parts of the globe and visiting the Canaries regularly. Good for them. The weather is perfect these days; hot on the beaches, fresher in the mountains. Sun —and no rain.
Gomero paths (called ‘senderos’) should not be rushed; they, and the flora around them, reward close study. Where a contour path of earth and bedrock ends at an abutment which had to rounded to continue the route, human intervention created tall, secure, drystone walls built up from a lower contour to support a ‘bridge’. Countless hours and great risks were involved, building by hand on sheer slopes with rocks split from the mountain.
Works of art, these paths have survived, leading along ledges and ridges with 1,000m drops below, and descending in hairpin bends to rough piers where produce could be loaded for export. Tomatoes, tobacco, silk, bananas, cochineal, all were produced and exported, but happily, there were no sugar mills on Gomera, so the forests, instead of being fed into furnaces to boil the sugar cane crops from cleared land, survived.
Not so on other islands, which were denuded of their forests and upon which the few substantial copses that remain are mainly Canarian pine, the unique, indigenous laura-silva woodland having been cleared and burnt for sugar production.
Gomera woodland survived because just as it was the next island destined to be stripped for plantations, it was discovered that cane could be more economically produced in the Spanish West Indies with a tropical climate and the labour of slaves from Africa and convict/slaves from Ireland. So, Garajonay World Heritage National Park forests remained largely intact until August 2012, when 30% was lost to wildfires. Happily, some is recovering.
The Bishopstown Hillwalkers will trek not only forest paths dark or dappled with sunlight, but paths across the deheasa, the wild grazing land already, in January, sprinkled with wild flowers. They will walk mountain trails edged by cactuses, spurges, and sisal clusters which shoot their thin flower spikes 4m tall with candelabra-like heads, pastel yellow against China blue skies.
Sisal was also a crop here, for rope and sail making. The leaves have dangerous needle-sharp tips, regularly chopped off by the seemingly invisible local-authority workforce that maintain the senderos as they always were.
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