A ride through lava land


IN a recent column I described shamefacedly how I drove into a Lancashire ravine while drunk, and that brought back memories of a hair-raising yet oft-repeated trip to the Timanfaya National Park on the Canary isle of Lanzarote.

This involves a large coach full of tourists negotiating narrow roads through a sea of volcanic clinker with a sheer drop on both sides. Several times we have been lucky to get the same tour guide, a humorous and charming island native named Michael.

As the vehicle crawls round a series of terrifying hairpin bends, Michael delights in introducing the driver to us and saying that his colleague is very depressed, indeed suicidal, after his wife left him. With passengers reaching for the sick bags, he adds: ‘If you look down there, upside-down at the bottom of the mountain, you can see the wreck of the coach he was driving last week.’

We always give Michael a hefty tip which he shares with the driver, who is of course consummately in control. Others, however, particularly those covered in vomit, keep their money to themselves.

For those unfamiliar with Lanzarote, it was the scene of devastating volcanic eruptions from 1730 to 1736. These were chronicled by Don Andrés Lorenzo Curbelo, parish priest in the village of Yaiza.

He wrote: ‘On the 1st of September between nine and ten o’clock at night the earth suddenly opened up near Timanfaya, two leagues from Yaiza. On the first night a huge mountain rose from the bosom of the earth and from the apex flames escaped which continued to burn for 19 days.

‘A few days later a new abyss was formed and a torrent of lava rushed over Timanfaya, over Rodeo and over part of Mancha Blanca.

‘The mass of lava arrived and destroyed in an instant the places of Maretas and Santa Catalina, located in the valley. On 11 September the eruption was renewed with greater force, and the lava began to flow. From Santa Catalina it rushed over Mazo, set fire to and covered the whole of this village and continued on its way to the sea, running for six days in succession with a dreadful noise and forming veritable cataracts. A large number of dead fish were lying on the surface of the sea.’

There were sporadic eruptions for the next six years. According to scientists these produced a billion cubic metres of lava, transforming the island landscape for ever. For three months in 1824 there was fresh activity but since then no volcanoes have gone off.

Evidence of the cataclysm remains in the huge lava fields, still barren after almost 300 years. And the visitor centre at Timanfaya provides some spectacular sights.

There are workmen whose job is to fork dried vegetation into a hole in the ground where it produces roaring flames.

Another bloke pours water down a pipe, quickly retreats and seconds later it blasts a geyser of steam high into the air.

And in the centre’s restaurant is a grill on which chickens are roasted by the heat of the earth.

This short film shows these phenomena while also, sadly, dwelling on the camel rides which my wife and I would never dream of taking. The poor creatures look utterly miserable, although I shouldn’t think camels ever seem full of the joys of spring.

Another destination on the island is the cactus garden at Guatiza, designed by the local artist César Manrique, although many of the plants were looking pretty dilapidated when we visited last. Also among Manrique’s creations is Jameos del Agua, a culture and tourist centre centred on a series of lava caves. These include a subterranean lake which is home to a unique blind lobster less than half an inch long.

Beside it is an auditorium whose superb acoustics attracted the British musician Brian Eno to give a concert there in January 1987, when I happened to be on holiday. I saw posters in shop windows advertising the show but they did not give a date. Finally I called the island’s English newspaper only to be told that Eno had played the night before and had now departed.

One recording from the concert, called simply Lanzarote, appeared on the album The Shutov AssemblyHere it is accompanied by some views of the island.

On one of our early trips to Lanners, while we were taking a taxi to Manchester Airport the driver glumly informed us that ‘my wife calls it Lanzagrotty’.

True enough, there are some highly commercialised parts with amusement arcades and a preponderance of Irish bars, many of which offer live racing broadcasts and boast their own in-house bookies.

However there are some delightful spots and excellent restaurants. Our favourite, La Lonja in the old town of Puerto del Carmen, is said to be ‘temporarily closed’ so let’s hope it gets going again soon. One of my favourite moments there was when I asked a sparky young waitress if she spoke English and she replied, with gusto, ‘Nah!!’

The dry white wine of the island, from the Malvasia grape, is so good that the locals keep it all for themselves. And then, of course, there is the unforgettable Timanfaya.

In the years before woke . . .

A SCHOOL friend of mine named Dave who eventually became a dentist took a series of degrees at universities around the country. While in Birmingham in the late 1970s, he found a front seat on the top deck of a bus and looked round to find himself entirely surrounded by black people. At the next stop a huge skinhead in ripped clothes and bovver boots boarded the vehicle and climbed the stairs. He clomped his way to the front, sat next to Dave and said: ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume.’

This is another true story. In a greengrocer’s shop, Dave was queueing behind an obvious Leftie who could have been the prototype for Rik Mayall’s character in The Young Ones. ‘I’ll have five oranges, please,’ he told the old dear behind the counter. As she put them in a bag, he spluttered: ‘Wait a minute, I’m not having those – they are from South Africa!’ ‘Oh, I know what you mean, love,’ she replied. ‘All them darkies handling ’em.’

Old jokes’ home

A woman in labour suddenly shouts: ‘Wouldn’t! Couldn’t! Didn’t! Shouldn’t! Can’t!’

‘Don’t worry, dear,’ says the midwife. ‘Those are just contractions.’

A PS from PG

Aunt Agatha is like an elephant – not so much to look at, for in appearance she resembles more a well-bred vulture, but because she never forgets.

PG Wodehouse: Joy in the Morning

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