129. Tenerife – 1: the light at the end of the world

Seven human lifetimes ago, the mountain behind me was alive.

Smoke, fire and brimstone poured into the blue Atlantic sky, day and night.

129_santa-maria.jpgThe crews of three small sailing boats watched the terrifying spectacle from the safety of the next island, fearful of such a bad omen whilst their epic journey had hardly commenced. The captain of their little fleet had no choice then but to portray it calmly, or maybe not quite so calmly, as a certain sign of heavenly goodwill instead.

129_1492_vangelis.jpgTwo weeks later, in September 1492, the three tiny vessels left the safety of the Canary Islands, slipped their moorings in San Sebastián on La Gomera, and bravely sailed off the edge of the world. The first voyage of Christopher Columbus and the Santa Maria had begun.

This island, Tenerife, was still wild then, in every sense – inhabited by the native Guanche people and still unconquered by Spain, whilst its volcano, the third largest on the entire planet, was in the throes of its most active and violent eruption in the whole of recorded history.

And then El Teide slept. For three human lifetimes.


The peak was quiet, its 3,718 m high summit looking down impassively as Spanish colonial towns sprang up on its northern slopes, nestling in the valleys left behind where a huge chunk of the caldera’s 80 km walls had fallen into the Atlantic just 170,000 years before.

The mountain waited undisturbed as European adventurers and traders spread westwards over the edge of the old world, founding settlements all along America’s eastern coasts from Canada to Argentina.

129_garachico.jpgIn 1705 the mountain briefly awoke, and the following year a small subsidiary vent sent out new lava flows rolling northwards to the sea at Garachico where I stand today.

That much smaller eruption not only destroyed half the town but dammed up its prosperity for ever, too. The lava sizzled red as it met the sea, filling in the harbour and freezing the port’s pumping lifeblood into smoulderingly immovable black stone. And it’s been quiet here, ever since.

The sun is shining, and the wind has dropped, but even now the ocean swells are crashing over the rocks, expending the energy of three thousand miles against the shore. Somewhere far beyond the horizon, it’s hurricane season in an unglimpsed new world across the sea.

In geology, seven lifetimes are almost nothing. The Atlantic has grown just a metre wider through all those years. And yet in human terms it’s humbling. Because this island, born so recently of fire and ocean, once stood raging witness to the greatest voyage of discovery which man has ever made.

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130. Tenerife – 2: the world at the end of the light
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