Speeding along the tarmac road, I wonder how long it’s been since I last took a normal breath. The road drops away from me on either side, descending into black fields of boulders, frozen bubbles that stretch into the distance.
Not that I care. In the rear view mirror I catch glimpses of burned orange peaks, directly ahead a wall of rust and ochre, but to the left I see the unmistakeable silhouette of a volcano. Finally I know where I am, El Teide National Park.
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My journey to the world’s third largest volcano began this morning in the former port of Garachico, an atmospheric village on the north coast of Tenerife. I’m embarrassed to admit that I succumbed to the danger of 21st century travel: overreliance on technology. As my small car crawled towards the highest point in the Atlantic Ocean, first the SatNav and then my trusty iphone abandoned me. All that remained was the tourist board’s schematic map, brimming with details of where I could buy genuine pearls, but rather short on topographic detail.
There’s little comfort in realising that your handbrake can’t handle it, your petrol tank is almost empty, daylight is fading – and it’s all your own fault.
I’m no stranger to sharing mountain roads with drivers less inclined to grow old than me, but Tenerife’s unnamed streets made me shudder. Speeding, overtaking on blind corners and an unhealthy disregard for the concept of driving on the right. Perhaps living in the shadow of one of the planet’s most destructive volcanoes changes people’s approach to risk.
As it turns out, the closer you get to El Teide, the more tranquil the world becomes. Roads empty and flatten, while shaded forests replace the sloping street scenes, cedars and pine packing together like soldiers in formation. The horizon blends the ocean into the clouds, the peaks of the neighbouring islands piercing the haze like a shark’s fin.
Over 100 years have passed since El Teide last erupted in 1909 and three centuries have elapsed since its deadliest assault in 1706. That year marked the end of an era for the successful port of Garachico, the lava destroying both lives and livelihoods. Today’s sculptures still mourn the dead, as well as those who left the island in search of a better life.
Right now, luckily, El Teide stands immobile and impassive.
I’m driving through the deserted landscape beyond the trees, where stratified rock in shades of amber and coffee, twist themselves into the sky. The ancient people of Tenerife, the Guanches, considered El Teide as a god. More modern communities have labelled it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Me, I’m happy with two words: dangerous and beautiful.
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