In 1730 the Montanas del Fuego (The Fire Mountains) of Timanfaya on Lanzarote finally erupted. There had been warning signs for some months, and most of the inhabitants in the surrounding area had already evacuated. For the next six years the volcano continued to throw out showers of stone, gravel & ash, and to slowly ooze successive waves of burning molten lava across the landscape. By 1736 one fifth of the island was covered by barren lava flow, eleven villages had been engulfed, most of the regions fertile farming land was buried beneath ash, and the island’s coastline had increased by 1km. To the inhabitants of this tiny hardly self-sustaining island, a Spanish colony 100km off the coast of Saharan Africa, the environmental, social & economic devastation wrought by Timanfaya was enormous.
Tinajo, a village about 10km north east of Timanfaya’s crater, narrowly escaped the lava flow that was wiping away nearby villages through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. According to the story, when they saw the lava heading their way, the village priest & villagers undertook to carry an icon of the Virgin Mary to the top of their local mountain, Montana de Los Dolores, itself an extinct volcano, and to plant a wooden cross at the peak. As this act was accomplished the eruptions stopped and the lava flow cooled and solidified in its tracks, at the foot of Los Dolores. It must have felt like a miracle. Tinajo was spared.
A cross can still been seen atop the old crater of Montana de los Dolores, which stands between the villages of Tinajo and Mancha Blanca. Just outside Mancha Blanca is the church dedicated to Nuestra Senora de Los Volcanes – Our Lady of the Volcanoes, where the veneration of this volcano-plugging Christian Goddess has found its centre. Each September people still walk the pilgrimage from Arrecife, the capital some 19km away, to the this small unassuming rural church.
From the outside the church is pretty indistinguishable from all the other churches we’d seen on this island. Plain white-washed walls, simply decorated at the corners with unadorned red volcanic stone. Two bells swing from the ridge of the high barrelled roof. Perhaps Los Volcanes is slightly larger than most parish churches we’d seen, but it looked tiny, meek & vulnerable against its backdrop of huge rounded hills, all of them volcano craters.
Inside we light some candles and sit in the cool peace to meditate. The white interior of the church is surprisingly busy with gilded icons and bejewelled painted statues. A glazed octagonal turret lets the natural sunlight in from directly above the altar. To the right a statue of a crucified Jesus. To the left of the altar, a tableau shows Mary grievingly embracing corpse of her son.
Nuestra Senora to whom the church is dedicated stands in an alcove in the centre of the wall behind the altar, she is a life-sized exquisitely realistic manikin draped in blue velvet finery, clasping her hands around a delicate lace hanky, sporting a silver sacred heart, pierced by 7 swords, and with a cascade of crystal tears scintillating on her cheeks. She reminds me of the candle-lit statues they carry around the streets in Andalusia during Semana Santa, Easter holy week.
Later outside, eating our picnic, I realise that this big blue Mary is not the actual icon they carried to Los Dolores. Originally they carried just a painting of the virgin Mary and a wooden cross, the remnants of which are in a glass-fronted case in the car park outside the church. Nor did the original pilgrims set out for Los Dolores from this actual church. This church was built in the nineteenth century, after a poor shepherd girl had a vision of Nuestra Senora de Los Volcanes, who instructed her where to build the church. Incidentally, there were also volcanic eruptions from Timanfaya in the nineteenth century, but this time the damage was comparatively minimal and the perturbations abated in a matter of days.
From the church it is a short walk past fields down a hillside into the village of Mancha Blanca. As we descend into the village we can see the dark expanse of the malpais – the Badlands, the shocking extent of the still-barren lava-flow, smearing out before us. I imagine it at twilight, imagine the malpais as a still glowing, rolling mass of molten stone inching towards me. In such circumstances I think I could easily be coaxed up a mountain at midnight carrying a picture of god’s mother, if I believed it would stop the lava. As it is we were aiming for two different volcanoes, Caldera Blanca – white crater – and her smaller companion La Calderetta – a diminutive of crater. The two volcanoes have been dormant for thousands of years, their craters lie close together at the edge of the Timanfaya National Park, on a small island or islote of vegetation in a sea of malpais, surrounded on all sides by lava yet untouched by it. Almost all of the National Park is restricted access, it is a site of important geological interest and casual hiking is forbidden. The islote in which Caldera Blanca & La Calderetta lie is just outside the park and so is accessible to walkers, via a solitary path that weaves across the malpais.
All is quiet as we walk through Mancha Blanca, which translates as White Stain. We see a donkey pulling a cart uphill. It is siesta time and the general store is closed till the evening. There is a café attached to it, a Bodega up the hill, a Village hall and then just a few houses strung along the road towards Timanfaya National Park. Although the buildings in Mancha Blanca seem fairly recent, the village backs right up cheek by jowl to the vast malpais, small drystone-walls enclosing agricultural fields end abruptly in the churned stone of the lava-fields. For some reason the people of Mancha Blanca have chosen to live slap bang up close to the badlands.
We entered the badlands quite suddenly. The rutted unmetalled road that weaved through the farm fields unaccountably reared up an apparent embankment where the small dry-stone walls stop, and then we were standing on the malpais. This is where the lava-flow stopped, this far and no further. I looked back for the cross on top of Montana de Los Dolores, but it was lost in the distance. The craters of Blanca & Calderetta seem equally as distant, their huge squatting bulks of the seaward horizon. The road became gravelly & narrower. All around was dry & hot, lifeless & plantless, apart from the occasional tufts of low spiny-leaved spurges that clung in the cracks of the rock. We stopped and I gazed around, trying to get a feel of the place. Aside from the distant barking of farm dogs, there was silence, a dry gusting wind billowed around us.
The lava fields were not how I’d expected them. They weren’t the shiny treacle-black toffee-sheets of lava we’d seen in swirls, ripples and bubbles around the village of Tahichi and the Cesar Manrique Foundation, thick & sludgey like enormous cow-pats. The lava here was grey & brown, sometimes reddish, churned into tumbling piles & ridges of loose rock. It looked like the mechanically ripped & piled up sub-soil around a motorway building site, except this wasn’t soil but great roiled chunks of lava-rock, comparatively light, crumbly and bubble-filled, but solid rock nevertheless. As I understand it, the black toffee-like lava is the result of a single rapidly moving flow of lava. The lava-fields at Mancha Blanca are formed by a long-term slow-moving succession of lava-flows, which creep over the ground burning up and melting everything in their path, from vegetation & buildings to previously laid lava. It felt like a truly desperate landscape. Dead & deeply buried.
Far off in the seaward distance as we walked, Caldera Blanca & La Calderetta hunch large, yellowy-green and rounded against the blue & fluffy cloud sky. Caldera Blanca’s crater is said to have a diameter of two and a quarter miles, I watch cloud shadows slowly ripple & roll across her sides, languid throbs of shifting shades of green wash over her. As we walked, we came across a huge rounded boulder planted in the middle of the road. According to the reliable walking guide, this marked the end of car access to the malpais. I had the feeling of being ‘beyond the pale’ at that point, beyond & outside civilisation, in a dark corner of humanity’s collective psyche. I wondered why anyone but us would bother to walk out here, although the broken bottles and ragged cellophane that fluttered in crevices proved that they did, if only to fly-tip. “TheBadlands” a 1970’s Bonny & Clyde-stylee murder-spree Road-Movie insinuated itself into my thoughts for the umpteenth time.
As we tramped, the path became narrower and less like gravel than rubble, with volcanic pebbles as big as my fist. They moved underfoot and the clattering noise our boots made against the big rounded stones was wearisome, each hard-won heavy step resounding rhythmically. The minor rubbing I’d noticed on my toe last night was beginning to chafe and I felt parched. The islote & the craters seemed no nearer.
We paused, drank some water and shared a sandwich. With the heavy clumping of our boots stilled the silence of the place flooded in. Silence without people. Silence without roads anywhere nearby. Silence without the buzz and hum of insects, without the chirp and twitter of birdsong. We couldn’t even hear the farm dogs anymore. I opened my mouth and let the silence pour into my ears and out of my open mouth again. I was stunned into utter, deep, dark, dead silence. And then we noticed a movement. Out of the corner of the eye. There again. Little lizards camouflaged grey like the lava rock scuttled under spurges, little lizards or grey geckos or were they salamanders? Those tiny, vulnerable, twitchy grey bodies were the first animal life that had made itself known to us.
As we sat, we talked about the route, we hadn’t seen a single other human being throughout the whole of the walk. We were steering by landmarks that were detailed in the walking guide; we’d passed the end of the village, straight on at the fork with the Timanfaya road, passed the end of the farms, around the boulder to stop the cars. It wasn’t much to go on, but there wasn’t really much to catch the eye in this dull plain of monotone rocks. As far as we knew, there was only one trackway through the Badlands at Mancha Blanca and it lead to La Calderetta and Caldera Blanca, which we could see huge against the horizon up ahead. There was one path, we’d neither seen nor made any deviations from it, so we couldn’t possibly fail. The only way I could quell my fears of wandering lost forever in this featureless wasteland was to see it as a stretched out labyrinth pattern, just one path to the centre. All I had to do was stay on this path and I would come out at La Calderetta; except that La Calderetta seemed a very long way off and the slight rubbing on my toe had become a weird blood-blister and painful.
We resumed walking, our eyes attuned to the darting lizard lope, we noticed that almost every spurge patch seemed to be sanctuary to a lizard. That’s when we noticed the tiny black grasshoppers who leapt ahead of the lizards into the crumpled grey-greenery. We were in glaring hot brightness, but the wind buffeted around us and I felt gloomy, depressed by the barren sameness of this devastated landscape. The unstable rubble path gave way to loose gravel again, walking became easier and I saw the sea off far in the distance, crashing in waves against the lava rock where it had flowed out beyond the land.
La Calderetta –the Little one – seemed suddenly nearer, bigger, huge. The path rose up again into an embankment, then dropped sharply down again. The Badlands stopped dead in a narrow fertile gully around the slopes of the enormous volcano. We sat down and ate a sandwich, drank some water, I felt like we were out in the sunlight again, as if the grey malpais had cast a shadow over us, not blocking out the heat or the light of the sun, just its healing life-force. We spotted bees, grasses, insects scurrying under clumps of weeds, a mugwort-like dark-green plant sprouted around us. Noise, colour, warmth and life seemed burst forth suddenly under the cliff of the lava. Colour, in particular, seemed supernatural, too vivid to be real. We wandered around the base of the towering hill. We saw a drystone wall and a well, presumably the ruins of a farm. We spoke of how the lava flowed around these craters, which had last erupted around 5000 years ago, how the waves of lava from Timanfaya 400 years ago had flowed around this volcano but not into it. We discussed why this Islote was fertile in such barrenness of the lava fields and what the word islote really meant. We seemed suddenly full of words and ideas, chatting and laughing, resting after the long slog across the badlands. We drank some water.
We walked around the base of La Calderetta until it dipped down and a vista opened up where the side of the crater dropped away, we peered through a pass no wider than 30feet into the huge curved interior of the crater. We gazed into vivid greenness, Dick saw it as a giants amphitheatre. I saw a football stadium full of delicate succulent flowers & grasses. It was an oasis in the midst of this grey desert, a hidden garden, a secret paradise, Shangri-la. Or even the so-called “Hollow Hills” of Celtic myth.
Suddenly, it is all too much & I fear we won’t find the cindery track back through the dark lava-land. My foot is hurting, & a black plume of dirty smoke unaccountably rises from nowhere off the path back in the directionless Badlands. We haven’t got a compass and our map is of the tourist variety that marks hotels, the airport, the hospital and some bus stops, but not villages or topographical features, and particularly not unmarked cinder trackways across the forbidden Badlands that surround us in every direction. And still, we’re gazing transfixed by this enormous great green life-bursting yawning blessed fecund cunt of a crater. And this is only La Calderetta – the diminuative. I shudder at the thought of the Blanca, 2¼ bloody miles across. I feel meek & horrified & small & human in the presence of something enormously wordless, unspeakable. So this is what Nuestra Senora De Los Volcanes was hiding in her flowing skirts of malpais. What an enormous great vulva you have, Madam Earth, I keep thinking. But its all too much and we gather ourselves together to leave. As we pass the ruined well we see a dragonfly hovering and swooping over the surface of the yellow water.
We walk up the slope of the lava’s edge and plunge back into the grey tumbled labyrinth of the malpais. I try not to think of the Lord of the Rings, but my foot is hurting, I’m stumbling, limping, feeling thirsty but knowing we’re short of water, I try not to think of anything Lovecraftian, and I try to retain the burning impression of the fertile crater instead, which is what we came for. I think.
I keep turning around to look back at the path to see if I can recognise any features, landmarks, but there’s nothing to catch the eye. Nothing except the bulky rounded sides of La Calderetta and behind her the even bigger Caldera Blanca. They seem unaffected by distance, looming large where ever I stand, too big, too much too much. My head is burning with unpronounceable concepts of volcanic magnitude, fire & earth, fire & earth. wow! Drink some water. Keep walking.
As is the way of walking trips, the return journey is always quicker than the journey out (I don’t know why, its just one of those quirks on the time/space continuum I believe), but it still felt like a very long time later that we were sitting outside the café in Mancha Blanca and I had begun to become coherent.
The café was dark and painted dark green. A big TV was suspended in one corner, shouting out the Noticias – murders in Valencia, an extension of the 2 year ban against the Basque Nationalist Party Batasuna, Avian Flu in Turkey…So we sat outside , under the shade of a corrugated iron canopy, drinking strong coffee, explaining to each other what we thought had happened today, out there, with The Sad-Eyed Lady of The Badlands.
Bella Basura 2008
first printed in Silver Wheel 1