La Gomera’s lush green valleys have risen from the ashes

TO SEE green shoots rise from blackened branches in the vast swathes of forest destroyed by wildfires in La Gomera in the Canary Islands in August 2012 was at once a joy and a reassurance. 

La Gomera’s lush green valleys have risen from the ashes

The fires had made world news. Doomsayers had predicted that 30% of the ancient woodland that had once blanketed the islands and the Mediterranean shores was gone forever. La Gomera, a World Heritage Site, was its last redoubt.

But our hopes in the resilience of nature were slowly coming to pass. The giant heathers and laurels that grow 15m tall in the cloud-forests of the central plateau had not been irrevocably damaged, even by the salt water which the fire-fighter planes had to use when supplies of fresh water were exhausted and villages were imperilled.

To our joy, treetop-high clumps of wispy heather and shining wax laurel here and there interrupted the view between us and the charnel-house hills, cemeteries not of bones but of skeletal trees, all the more poignant for the secondary growth of wildflowers beneath them and the China-blue sky above.

I’m not sure that the overseas wedding guests that joined us on an expedition to the National Park two days after my son’s La Gomera nuptials fully followed my excited babbling, so entranced were they with the pathways of light and shade, the lichened trees, the ferns, the flowers, the exotic butterflies, the silence and green beauty of the seventy per cent of woodland that remained in good health and heart, untouched by the fire, uncultivated by man, an ecology that is its unique own.

The roof of the island is a long- extinct, forested volcano called for a pair of legendary lovers, Gara and Jonay, pre-Spanish Guanche people, mountain Berbers from North Africa who settled the islands, leaving many legends but little history.

Garajonay is a romantic place. It was there that my son and his ‘novia’, a lovely girl from Bedfordshire, made their marriage bond.

That they should wed on the island, at a small, white chapel perched on a terrace on the slopes opposite the tiny hamlet which was always been our family’s Gomera home, was an inspired decision. The stone-laid paths the guests would walk to reach it passed beneath tall palm trees, past flower-laden walls, under mango and guava trees, past papayas and passion fruit shining in sunlight, to the 109 stone steps, which they, the guests, all tricked out in wedding finery, climbed with no difficulty at all.

The ceremony took place inside the chapel decked with flowers by the village women and celebrated by a shy but smiling priest just a little older than bride and groom. After the ceremony, the readings, the signings and witnessings — and the fine singing of ‘She Walks through the Fair’ by Kate Finn, accompanied on guitar by groomsman, Richard Milner, both of west Cork — the congregation trooped out into the sun, warm but not blinding at seven in the evening.

There, on the high terrace, Irish, English, Czech, German, Spanish and Gomero, we swanned about and drank bubbly cava under the shade of a spreading tree, or posed for photos against the backdrop of the hills, the sea, and the first hints of sunset spreading over the ocean where the valley opened below us to the west.

Needless to say, the women and girls were all stunningly beautiful in the sunlight, suntans and diaphanous dresses, and the men paragons of elegance, dressed for the day and the job.

I leant on the churchyard wall and looked down at the valley floor. How green it was, how fecund, fruit orchards and market gardens. And how glorious were the stately Canarian palms, their heads tousled by a light breeze, their leaves glistening in the sun.

Sad, had been the sight when we drove over the escarpment the year after the great fire, and looked down from 3,000ft onto a cemetery of scorched earth and black trunks, the landscape of a nuclear holocaust. Emblems of the Canary islands, pride of the Valle Gran Rey, they stood stripped and leafless, like tall, burnt gravestones marking where the fires had passed.

But last week, coming down into the valley after six months away, no such devastation greeted us. The valley seemed as it had always been.

Now, from the church, I noticed neat, chain-saw cut slices of palmera trunk on the valley floor. The dead had been downed, but so numerous were the survivors that the fallen were not missed.

If, after looking down on the valley for 34 years, I didn’t notice the absence, visitors surely wouldn’t. Valley Gran Rey had lost none of its magic; it is still one of the loveliest places I have ever been.

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