Tenerife: Eccentricity of Nature
A 2,000-square-kilometre island of volcanic hills, ablaze with flowers in perpetual springtime
The final stretch of single track back to the Tenerife village of La Guancha plunged down steeply over loose rocks. It was a hurtling, stomach-lurching, twisting, arm-jarring descent through the pine trees.
Tall flowers lined the path and through the larger gaps between the trees, there were glimpses of the deep blue Atlantic Ocean.
My friend Sissi was bravely leading the way, but I lost her on the tight curves of the helter-skelter ride that dived into the dark shade of the woods and then out again into the incredible brightness of the afternoon.
Emerging from undergrowth that was tight against the track, a yellow butterfly fluttered nonchalantly in front of my nose.
Finally we reached the relative safety of a mule track and around a sweeping curve lay the village, scattered over a terraced mountainside in pastel colours of pistachio, lemon and ochre.
This was winter escapism at its best.
When the autumn gloom descends over central Europe, it is good to know there is a bolt-hole within the European Union where it is always springtime.
The Canary Islands, the Spanish-owned fire-forged archipelago off the coast of West Africa, offer average highs of over 20 degrees and spectacular volcanic mountain scenery which is perfect for hiking and biking.
So, before settling down for the traditional pre-Christmas Glühwein-fuelled fug, why not have one last bask in the sunshine?
Martian mountain landscapes
When my adventure buddy Sissi suggested Tenerife, I’d had visions of lazy, beery days on the sun-scorched beaches in concrete colonies of the south that have given the Canaries an unjustly tacky reputation.
To be honest, as I was recovering from a bout of glandular fever, "lazy" was an appealing prospect.
I should have known better: Sissi is an ultra-fit Bavarian who grew up in the mountains where "relaxation" means scaling an Alpine peak.
Each morning, shortly after sunrise, I found myself smearing on sun cream in the passenger seat, as she steered us away from our sun-kissed base in the northern town of Puerto de la Cruz and headed for another day in the hills.
The most spectacular was a trip up to the Mars-like landscape of the Parque Nacional de las Cañada, the wide fields of ochre rock and scree below the peak of Mount Teide, which at 3,718m is Spain’s highest mountain.
In this unearthly atmosphere, tongues of black lava loll down the side of the cone licking into the scattered rocks on the lower slopes.
The park is dotted with "huevos": giant, black egg-shaped rocks formed by boulders rolling down the still-hot magma and clumping on layers like a snowball.
The rest of the landscape, evocative of Arizona, was mostly bare, just rock and dust and, lower down, a hardy broom called etama, but this only served to highlight the clumps of yellow and purple flowers that were illuminated by the sun, and on autumn mornings sugar-coated in frost.
Teide, which dominates the island from all sides, also explains the island’s lush climate. It`s the barrier where the winds that come from the north meet with cold currents around the islands. So after clear mornings, the peak is usually shrouded in mysterious clouds by afternoon.
The resultant moisture runs down into natural reservoirs that feed this haven of biodiversity. Tenerife hosts two thousand species of flora, many rare or endangered, and 520 which are unique to the island.
It’s the colour that makes it such a joy to ride a bike in the forests that creep high up the southern flanks of the Teide.
Clumps of flowers line an expansive network of gravelly fire-roads and the thin pine trees spout off a boulder landscape of previous lava slicks.
In places the soil is as black as coal and the dust kicked back by Sissi’s rear tire stuck to my sun cream plastered legs making me look like a hardened miner.
When the track curved to the edge of the forest, we could peer through the curtain of trees and see the white clusters of the colonial towns of Icod and Garachico far below.
Mostly the gradients are relatively gentle, which encourages pedalling uphill and smooth, flowing descents on the winding tracks.
We’d borrowed the bikes, spanking new hard-tails with 29-inch wagon-wheels, at the La Guancha Finca, or farm, of Tina Richter, a socially engaged German-expat.
Tina rescues stray dogs and neglected horses, offers equine therapy to local disabled children and still has the energy to run a charity called Harambee for disabled children in the Kenyan slum Kibeira.
Her pastel blue house overlooking the ocean is ruled by the dozen wagging tails of the temporary residents and a parrot called Pablo.
As we caught our breath, Tina and her husband Bodo, who moved to the island 19 years ago, dished out the Canary staple of grilled goats’ cheese in spicy traditional mojo sauces, made up of oil, garlic, paprika and cumin and offered tips on how to get the most out of our visit.
Fog, sun and gooey cakes
First, the world famous Masca Gorge on an eight-kilometre hike from the isolated mountain village of Masca. We headed down on steep goat tracks through a vertical walled canyon which finally spat us out on a pirate’s beach in an Atlantic inlet.
You have to hop over boulders and squeeze through natural tunnels with your words repeated in ghostly echoes. It’s fabulous, but inevitably, even on a quiet day, you are rarely alone.
So Tina had a more hidden gem up her sleeve: "You have to see the Anaga mountains in the far northeast," she advised.
"They will make you believe you are back in the Alps!" Well, not quite – the spiky peaks, steep couloirs and rock buttresses are certainly as dramatic as the mountains of central Europe, but the island paths are lined with cacti and lizards, which slip away from in front of your feet. Because of a quirk of the Atlantic trade winds, the range is regularly doused in fog and drizzle, meaning that when you visit on a sunny day they are exploding with life and colour and the narrow valleys at the foot of the slopes are teaming with bees.
Century-old terraces climb back up the mountainside in narrow steps, and in the nooks and crannies of this compressed landscape, you can still find traditional cave-houses. These dwellings, which are mostly still inhabited, burrow into the rock: From outside all you see is a neat garden and a front door. It’s Hobbit Land.
In a hamlet that clung to the slopes, we entered a cool dark taverna with a low ceiling. There we sat among men in workmen’s overalls, drinking the cheap local Dorado beer and trying to follow their strange dialect of Spanish.
It seemed a world away from the madding crowds of the south. So we ordered beer and then followed with cream-topped coffees and gooey cakes.
Well, after all, we were on holiday.