Damien Enright: Worrying lack of rain as La Gomera struggles in dead heat

In contrast to floods in Ireland, this island of La Gomera in the Canaries now suffers a worrying deprivation of rain and an increasing occurrence of ‘calimas'

Damien Enright: Worrying lack of rain as La Gomera struggles in dead heat

In contrast to floods in Ireland, this island of La Gomera in the Canaries now suffers a worrying deprivation of rain and an increasing occurrence of ‘calimas’, with dead heat, still air, and opaque skies, phenomena rarely experienced when we lived here or during almost annual visits since 1981.

But for the cloud forests, the island would be dry as the Cape Verde Islands, farther south and farther from the coast of Africa.

Here in the Valle Gran Rey, we escape the dead heat in the Charco del Conde, a shallow, acre-large sea pool as natural and unchanged as it was when, in the 1450s, the first count of Gomera regularly bathed there, and gave it its name. The sea water is so clear you could read a book at the bottom.

Perhaps his wife bathed with him, but a pool, less comfortable, farther along the shore, is named the Charco de La Condesa, The (Bathing) Pool of the Countess. She may, of course, have been a marine biologist, for in that pool, small fish, shellfish, urchins and junior octopi abound.

I see elderly Gomero men with light-gauge, iron reinforcing rods and plastic buckets, visiting there at low tides almost daily.

By waving the rod, with a rag at the end, in front of submerged crannies in the rocks, the ‘fisherman’ entices the occupant, a young octopus, to emerge to defend its newly-acquired territory and to grab the rag mistaking it for an invader. Lifted quickly, grabbed off the rag and belted against the rocks to disable it — unfortunate creature — it is dropped into the bucket before the next favoured hole is explored.

How can the ‘occies’ be so plentiful as to sustain almost daily capture in the same small cavelets and holes occupied by their predecessors the day before?

In spite of their being the most intelligent molluscs on earth and brighter than any fish species, they, apparently, haven’t yet figured it out.

As soon as a cavelet becomes vacant, it is, overnight, reoccupied. And this, it seems, supplies the aging fishermen, with their rods and buckets and plastic sandals, although some have feet so horny that they can walk over the rocks with no footwear at all.

Friends at home tell me that our part of West Cork was spared the extensive battering of Storm Dennis on other areas. Where there were green acres the evening before, the view next morning was over a lake of shallow water with swans already floating on it. How fortunate we were!

High seas at Garrettstown, Co Cork, during Storm Dennis. In stark contrast, La Gomera’s waterways have not been filled since 2013. Picture Denis Minihane
High seas at Garrettstown, Co Cork, during Storm Dennis. In stark contrast, La Gomera’s waterways have not been filled since 2013. Picture Denis Minihane

Gomera is still green where it always was. The mountain forests of giant heather, laurels, and maples are in no danger, and, happily, water captured by them finds its way underground into the valleys, the soaring walls of which are bone dry slopes, as are the bare mountain tops stretching as far as the eye can see from some aspects of the uplands.

But the waterways haven’t been filled since 2013 and the roaring rivers that, almost overnight, came rushing down them haven’t been witnessed for some years now.

I recall sheltering, with others, inside the door of a down-valley bar one afternoon, watching boulders half the size of a car rolling down a cliff 1,000m high opposite us into a torrent coming down the valley, and these rocks being rolled, clashing and crashing against one another and the rocks already rolling downstream in the overnight river carrying all before it down to the sea.

On this island, precipitation is always welcome. When it comes, it begins — like Shakespeare’s quality of mercy — dropping “as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath...” and is twice blest.

In the last 20 years, the natural waterway that first created the barranco, and still flows down it when it rains (the ‘barranco’ being the valley itself, with its sheer or sloping sides rising to 1,000m) had been corridored into a deep, reinforced-concrete channel and bridged at the cost of millions of European funding.

Back in the days I spoke of, the sudden river dividing the valley one side from the other would often lead to the unavailability of bread on one side of the river and a superfluity on the other where the baker baked away as usual, not being privy to the Cloud God’s plans or informed before the event.

The children on the side on which the junior school lay had no problem attending classes, while those on the other side had a high old time being carried across the raging river in the bucket of a caterpillar-tracked construction-site digger which went back and forth conveying half a dozen at a time.

While the floods inconvenienced business people, they were greeted by local children as our children in Ireland greeted snow.

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