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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.