Articles tagged with "canary islands"
After the meeting, the IAC had organised a trip to the Observatorio del Teide. We headed up there in a little minibus and it was a lot like the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma in that the driver drove too fast on the winding road and I got to the top feeling like I was going to die of carsickness.
It was a calm and warm day. One of the observatory technicians was looking at the Sun through one of the telescopes so we had a look too, and saw a group of sunspots. The sun had been unusually inactive for quite a while so we were quite lucky not to see just a blank surface.
Looking around I could see a couple of other islands across the sea in the hazy distance. Apparently, ancient island legends tell of a mysterious eighth island which can sometimes be seen across the waters but never reached. I could only see real islands today.
Back in La Laguna I thought I had an easy and relaxing journey home. But an hour and a half before my flight, I realised it was going not from nearby Tenerife North airport, but Tenerife South, 50 miles away at the other end of the island. I leapt into a taxi and sped off. I picked a good driver, we made excellent time and in the end I easily made the flight. Next time I’m here, though, I’ll check my bookings a bit more carefully.
I spent a few days in La Laguna. Last time I’d been here it had been cold, wet and misty, but this time it was sunny and quite warm. I stayed in the centre of town and walked each day down to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, where the meeting was being held. I liked the town and thought I’d probably quite like to live here one day.
I saw a sign one morning advertising a demonstration for independence for the Canary Islands. I was disappointed to find I’d missed it by a few days – I’d have loved to see what the independence movement was like. If they ever do secede from Spain it will be nice to have a new country to visit.
I reached the Roques de García in the middle of the afternoon. A small church amongst the yellow sands made it look like the set of a Western. The walk across had been quite quiet, but here there were busloads of tourists. I wandered around the huge rocks trying to avoid the crowds.
Eventually it was time for the bus back down to the south of the island. I headed down and flew home. Just a few hours after standing on top of a giant volcano off the coast of Africa, I was back in London, getting a night bus home.
I headed back down. I had some time before the bus down was coming, so I decided to walk from the cable car station to the Roques de Garcia, a lava formation a couple of miles away. It was January, I was a couple of thousand metres above sea level, but still it was hot walking weather in the midday sun. The walk wasn’t too exciting but the views back up to the peak of the volcano were impressive. The cone had an obvious bulge on one side, and I could see why geologists think it might collapse next time there’s an eruption here.
But the next day, the storm had passed, and the day dawned clear and fresh. My target was Teide: the highest point in the Atlantic, a mountain I’d flown over a few times, and many times seen from the top of La Palma 90 miles away. It’s claimed that it’s one of the most visited national parks in the world, but I found that hard to believe as I got on the one bus a day that goes over the island to the mountain.
In the warm January sunshine we chugged up the road to high altitude, and across a desert-like plain to get to the cable car station. I wanted to go to the top of the mountain; at 3,718m above sea level it was higher than anywhere I’d been since coming down from El Misti three years earlier. But I wasn’t planning to climb it. Time was limited so I took the easy route, getting the phenomenally expensive cable car to the summit area. I would have liked to go to the very top, but the bureaucracy involved in getting the necessary permit defeated me, and it turned out in any case that the trails were all closed due to ice.
So I was limited to the upper cable car station only. I breathed the cool thin air, and looked out over the caldera. Far below, a convoy of Hell’s Angels was going along the road.
By coincidence, a friend of mine was on holiday nearby, and we met up in Puerto de la Cruz, on the coast below La Orotava. Puerto de la Cruz was much more touristy than La Laguna or La Orotava had been. The weather was nicer, too, at first, and we got a meal on the main square. Here I had troubles, as I often do in Spain, as a result of being a vegetarian. As we looked at the menu, the waiter began to recommend dishes, all meaty. Wondering if they had anything good without flesh in it, I said “Soy vegetariano”. “Ah, Italiano!”, said the waiter, and brought me an Italian language menu.
As we ate, clouds were coming in. We walked down to the sea, watching legions of large dark crabs scuttling across the rocks on the foreshore. The waves rolled in off the Atlantic, and there was a mood of foreboding over Puerto de la Cruz. My friend had to drive back to the south coast of the island, so I said goodbye to her and caught a bus back to La Orotava. In the evening, rain battered down, the gutters filled with rushing streams, and the streets of La Orotava were empty.
On another grey misty morning in La Laguna, I walked to the bus station to go to warmer parts. I headed for La Orotava, on the west side of the island. The bus didn’t take long, and as we headed down the motorway the weather got a bit better. La Orotava is a hilly town, and the place I was staying was at the top of a very steep road. Once I’d recovered, I headed back down to have a look around. The views over the town to the sea were nicer than the views of La Laguna in the drizzle had been.
I’d passed through Tenerife a couple of times on my way to and from La Palma, and I’d seen the peak of Teide from 90 miles away at the Roque. I finally got to stay on the island when there was a scientific meeting there that I needed to attend. I made my way to La Laguna, in the north of the island, and spent three days there. Most of the time it was misty and cold. It had been 23°C in the south but La Laguna was uphill and inland.
Fearsomely early the next morning we headed to the port of Santa Cruz to get a boat back to Los Cristianos. Sunbeams lit the town as we approached.
At the airport we found that Thomas Cook could also be added to the Canary Islands transport blacklist, as they were running an extortionate excess luggage scam. Somehow their scales suggested that we’d acquired more than ten kilos of luggage since we had left London, and we had to pay some ridiculous fee. Next time I come to La Palma I’m getting the boat from Cádiz.
We drove up to the Roque de los Muchachos. It seemed strange to come up here and not check in at the Residencia. We walked out onto the rocky ridge which juts out into the caldera, and I took the same photos I take every time I’m up there. I think I’ve photographed every possible view, but it wouldn’t seem right to leave without some new versions of them.
We headed back down the road to Santa Cruz. We’d both been victims of the legendary Lionel, who drove astronomers to the top for many years, knew the roads far too well and raced around forest curves in a way guaranteed to induce extreme car sickness. One time after a ride to the top, I felt sick for five days. So I drove down at a sedate pace and got to the bottom feeling great.
We drove north. Our plans were vague but involved following the coast road around the north end of the island, so we were quite surprised when the road swung far inland. We presumed we were still on the main road so we carried on, but it got narrower and narrower, and higher and higher. When we started to pass through tunnels which were just hewn from the bare rock, we decided we must have taken a wrong turning somewhere.
We guessed that if we carried on, we’d get back to the main road. After an hour or so we began descending again, and eventually we did reach the right road. As we rounded a turn to look south, we could suddenly see the Isaac Newton Telescope perched on the mountain top high above us. We decided to head up there.
As we ate lunch in San Andrés, the sun came out, and the clouds quickly disappeared to leave behind a blazing hot day. We headed on to Los Tilos, which is claimed to be a rainforest. I don’t think it is, really, but it was still pretty otherworldly, and very different from the rest of the island. We hiked up a trail to Los Brecitos, and in the heat of the afternoon it was a pretty tough hike.
We kicked off the second day of our island tour with a drive up the east coast to San Andrés. Heavy skies threatened, but it stayed dry. San Andrés has a lot of colonial architecture, and is also amazingly full of lizards. They were everywhere, and whenever I stopped to look around I could see ten or fifteen of them.
From Tazacorte we headed inland, planning just to head back to Santa Cruz. But we passed a sign to ‘La Cumbrecita’ and thought we’d investigate. The road led us through the forests in the centre of the island, and eventually became a single-track dirt road. We were not sure if we would be coming to anything worth seeing, but La Cumbrecita turned out to be pretty awesome. When we reached a small car park at the end of the road, we found ourselves on the south side of the caldera, with a view across to the northern side. Mist was pooling in the caldera, and clouds were flowing over its walls, evaporating as they tumbled down.
We drove up the west coast of the island. It feels pretty remote out that way. We stopped for a fantastic coffee in an empty bar in the desolate hamlet of San Nicolás, then drove on to Tazacorte. The island is dominated by the vast Caldera de Taburiente, a giant crater whose walls rise two kilometres above its centre, and Tazacorte is perfectly situated for amazing views into the crater.
Tazacorte’s main claim to fame is that it was the last port of call for some of the conquistadores who were on their way to colonise Latin America. Today it betrays no hint that it would ever be worthwhile for any ship to call in. While observing on the mountain top on previous trips I’d seen the lights of Tazacorte shining far below, but from here I couldn’t spot the telescopes on the crater rim.
A week of conference passed largely uneventfully, except that I was ambushed by an astronomer who didn’t like the results I’d presented in my talk. We had a chat in which he outlined his objections, which I mostly disagreed with, but which was nevertheless useful, because it meant that when I wrote the paper I could make sure we covered the points he raised, and avoid a referee asking the same things.
Along with Nick, another UCL astronomer, I was staying on the island for the weekend after the conference. We hired a car early on the Saturday morning and headed south, with the plan of driving around the whole island over the two days. Our first stop was the volcanoes at the southern end of the island. On my last visit to the island eight months previously I’d driven from Santa Cruz to the volcanic end in thick mist and heavy rain. This time, the weather was much better. So much so, in fact, that I got horribly sunburnt within about twenty minutes of arriving at Volcán San Antonio.
Astronomers often need to go to La Palma, because it’s the nearest world class observatory to the UK. This was my fourth trip, but for once it was not to use the telescope. There was a conference being held and I was going to give a talk.
I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get to La Palma. I now boycott Iberia, who provide the most convenient flights but who charge for food and drinks and apparently find it difficult to imagine that there’d be more than one vegetarian on board. For this trip I decided to fly to Tenerife with someone called Globespan Airlines, and get a boat from there to La Palma. My flight was delayed six hours and now Globespan Airlines are also on the list of airlines I’ll never fly with if I can possibly help it, but the boat was a fantastic journey. The sun was setting as we left the port of Los Cristianos in southern Tenerife. We watched the sun set and the moon rise, with Tenerife receding behind us, La Palma approaching, and the smaller islands of La Gomera and El Hierro to the left. I stood on deck listening to Hand Across the Ocean by the Mission and it was a great soundtrack.
I had a weekend to spare after my observing run, and I had thought I might drive around the island. But I hadn’t got to Santa Cruz until late on the Saturday afternoon, so that just left Sunday. I set off south and thought I would see how far I got.
It was sunny when I left Santa Cruz, and for the first twenty minutes the drive was great. But then suddenly I was in thick cloud and more or less zero visibility. I had to drive at about 15 miles an hour for a lot of the way to Fuencaliente at the south end of the island.
I parked up near Volcán San Antonio, one of the two recently active volcanoes at this end of the island. For half an hour I could do nothing but sit in the car as the rain lashed down. It stopped, eventually, and I rushed out to do a quick walk around the crater. Then I drove on to the other volcano, Teneguía, and climbed over scenery that emerged from the ground in 1971. Through brief breaks in the cloud, I looked up the west coast of La Palma.
Driving down the mountain was much less fun than driving up it had been. There was thick cloud most of the way down, and when I got to Santa Cruz it was raining. It kept on raining for the whole of the evening, and I decided that La Palma in October was not as nice as La Palma in August had been.
During the fourth night, all was going smoothly. The air was dry, the skies were clear, and I was running as quickly through my observing programme as I could. Suddenly, after a couple of hours, the telescope control system started beeping – the humidity was higher than the telescope could take and I had to close everything down quickly. A few minutes later it had dropped right back down. I opened up again and carried on.
It did this a couple more times during the night. At 5.45am I closed up and I couldn’t open again. By dawn, the mountain was in thick cloud. The visibility was about ten metres, and the NOT quickly disappeared from sight as I drove back to the Residencia.
The next night was also lost. I spent a miserable twelve hours in the telescope control room, thinking how ridiculous it was that I’d travelled two thousand miles just to sit in a small room on top of a mountain in thick cloud and do nothing. But on the third night, as I drove up to the telescope, the cloud level was dropping and there was an incredible sunset. As I got to the lip of the caldera, I could see towns lighting up far below. It was wildly windy and the car was rocking but before long it was calm enough to open the dome, and I started actually observing.
The next day when I rolled up the shutters in my room, I was a bit shocked to see that the perfect conditions had gone, and rain was whipping past my window. Conditions stayed appalling throughout the day. At 4pm I was supposed to meet my support astronomer at the Nordic Optical Telescope, so I could learn how to use it. I set off, but the rain was utterly torrential, and after a few minutes of driving at walking pace and not being able to see beyond the end of the bonnet, I turned back.
The first night looked like being completely lost, but I decided to stay up until dawn anyway. A few people on other telescopes also optimistically stayed up; most went to bed. I kept an eye on the weather station data from within the comfort of the Residencia.
At 5am there was drama. Conditions were suddenly dramatically improving, and observers were hurrying to their cars to get to the telescope. I stayed where I was: the NOT is the highest telescope on the island, and its weather sensors were still telling me it was too humid and too windy to open the dome. About twenty minutes later everyone who had rushed out was forlornly heading back anyway. It had just been a very temporary reprieve, and the monsoon was back.
After two and a half years out of astronomy, I returned to the field in September 2006. Shortly after that, I got an opportunity to go observing again, and my third trip to La Palma was fantastic. When I left astronomy, I didn’t know whether I would ever try to get back into it, and I thought that in all likelihood my two trips to La Palma would be my lot.
On both of those two trips, the taxi to the mountain top had been a nightmare. This time, I was observing at a telescope which didn’t have cars on the mountain top for the observer’s use, so I needed to drive myself up. This was massively more fun than getting the taxi, and I was laughing like a fool as I swept around the hairpins. If I’d had a passenger, they would have been chundering within seconds.
At the top, conditions were perfect. The humidity was so low that I got violent electric shocks off everything I touched, the skies were deep blue, and the stars shone brightly. Unfortunately I was not observing until the next night. I watched the sun set over a sea of clouds, then stayed up until the small hours preparing my observations and getting into the night routine.
After my second night at the telescope, I drove up to the top of the mountain in the early morning sun. Like last time, the views were incredible and there was no-one else up there but me. To the north was a sea of clouds; to the south, I could see the chain of volcanic cones which runs down the spine of La Palma. In the distance I could see Tenerife, almost a hundred miles away but quite clear.
After that I headed home. I spent one night at sea level in Santa Cruz, and I had a little bit of time to look around. I wandered the cobbled streets, feeling a bit like I was jetlagged after two nights at the telescope. During my first trip I was still recovering from my African travels, and what with missing the flight on the way to La Palma, and then feeling wrecked by five nights of observing, I hadn’t really noticed what a beautiful island La Palma is. Now I could see that it was rugged and wild, but I didn’t have time to go and explore. I decided that if I ever got another chance to come back here, I’d see much more of the island than just Santa Cruz and the mountain top.
My two nights of observing went well. The skies stayed completely clear, there were no technical hitches, and I had time to observe something I hadn’t even planned to, which turned out to be only the fourth known star of a certain type in our entire galaxy of 200 billion stars.
I was doing some long exposures of my objects, so I had time to get out and appreciate the night sky. Mars was at the time closer to the Earth than it had been for tens of thousands of years, and it shone brightly and redly.
The first time I’d been to La Palma, I didn’t know too much about it until I was on the plane to Madrid. My boss had done all the hard work while I was off getting lost on African mountains. Two years later, the situation was very different: I was now the Principal Investigator on a proposal, and so it was much more under my own steam that I returned to the Canary Islands.
By coincidence, I was observing on exactly the same dates I’d observed on in 2001. Then, the moon had been full, and Saharan dust had clogged the air. This time, there was no Kalima, and it was new moon, so the skies were properly dark. But just like last time, the taxi to the mountain top made me horribly car sick. I spent my first night on the mountain top recovering from that.
At the end of our final night’s observing, the sea of clouds around the islands was blazing orange in the dawn light. It marked the end of a successful run, with only a couple of hours lost due to clouds. I grabbed a couple of hours sleep before our taxi arrived to take us back to sea level, and luckily this meant I was so tired I almost didn’t notice how carsick I felt as we twisted and turned back down.
The journey home was uneventful but long. We flew to Tenerife, then to Barcelona, then to London, and so we spent all day in airports. By the time we got back I felt pretty shattered. I didn’t know where I’d be travelling next, I hoped it would be somewhere exciting but I also hoped I’d get to stay at home for more than a week before I was off again.
We were observing at full moon. Observing with no moon in the sky is normally preferable, but for our purposes it didn’t matter too much. It meant that I didn’t really see the sky particularly well, but it also made the landscape look interesting and weird at night. Our observations consisted of a never-ending succession of half-hour exposures, so I had plenty of time to go outside and set up night shots.
The end of a night’s observing is always weird. You normally feel pretty tired, and after you’ve packed up in the control room you’re ready to crash. But then you walk outside and it’s a bright sunny day, and suddenly you’re not tired at all any more. It was pretty disorientating to then go back to the residencia, pull down the light-tight shutters and try to go to sleep.
After our second night’s observing, I decided to go up to the very top of the mountain to appreciate the views. The Kalima was blowing hard, and dust and gravel were whipping about. In the distance I could see Tenerife, poking up out of the sea of clouds that covered everything. I was the only person on the mountain top.
It had been incredibly dry and clear when I’d arrived at the mountain top, but while we were familiarising ourselves with the telescope during the afternoon before our run started, the weather sensors were showing that the humidity was steadily rising. Outside, the clear blue skies were turning grey. The cause was the Kalima, a hot wind carrying dust across from the Sahara. By the time the sun set, the atmosphere was so dusty that you couldn’t tell where the horizon was.
I thought this would ruin our observations, particularly as it was full moon. But we could still find our objects, and at the huge magnification of the 2.5m telescope, the bright background wasn’t really a problem. So we observed. I went out during the night to see what I could see, but only bright stars were shining through the murk.
In the morning I got a coffee on Gran Via, and then headed back out to Barajas. The flight had been booked so late that I’d had to go business class, which was a whole new experience for me. I got seat A1, and sat back and enjoyed the flight.
Once we’d landed in La Palma I jumped in a taxi and headed straight for the mountain top. We passed through Santa Cruz, the island’s capital, took a sharp left and then wound our way upwards. The views over the Atlantic were impressive but pretty soon I wasn’t looking anywhere but straight ahead, in a futile attempt to stave off car sickness. The road was twisty but the driver was not into going slowly. We swung left, we swung right, we swung left and right, again and again and again, and I thought that I was going to throw up. I barely held it together, and when we arrived at the observatory after an hour, I staggered out and began to dread the journey back down in five days time.
It was a fantastically clear day. We had an evening spare before our telescope time started, so I went for a walk around the observatory site. At 2400m above sea level, it was cool and fresh, and the altitude was just about noticeable. The moon rose over the barren rocks of the peak, and I was looking forward to doing some proper observing.