Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Volcanic holiday

Volcanic landscape
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Lanzarote is a strange place. In fact I'd had no idea how strange - when I told people we were having a winter break in Playa Blanca they said "Oh, it's lovely" and left it at that, so when we arrived and I saw the black land everywhere and the low-rise white cubes of the houses and the pointed black and red hills I was aware that had I been there only to sunbathe and walk up and down the pleasant promenade of the town I'd have been depressed long before my week was up.

However, once I'd grasped some of the history of the landscape, I began to see things differently. Between 1730 and 1736, and again in 1824, huge volcanic eruptions, in one of the most spectacular eruptive processes in the Earth's volcanic history, drastically changed the shape of the island and left a quarter of it almost completely buried under a thick layer of lava and ash - 174 sq. kilometers of it. If you're interested in such things, the lava is of two types - the jagged "aa" lava, and corded "pahoe-hoe" lava, is completely impassable, and has been marked by very little human impact.

I was moved by a contemporary account of the first eruption - for this was happening when people in mainland Europe were listening to Bach, dressing in silk hose and full-bottomed wigs, even more recognisable as our forefathers than was Pliny when he wrote about Vesuvius, and somehow that made it all the more vivid. Don Andrés Lorenzo Curbelo, the priest in Yaiza, wrote this:

On the first of September 1730, between 9 and 10 o'clock at night, the earth suddenly opened at close to Timanfaya, two leagues from Yaiza. On that first night, and enormous mountain rose up from the heart of the earth, and from its summit there escaped flames that continued to burn for nineteen days ... They were accompanied by a great quantity of lapilli, dust and ash that spread over the surrounding areas and from all sides drops of water fell as rain. The thunderclaps and explosions that accompanied those phenomena, the darkness caused by the mass of ash and smoke that covered the island, forced the inhabitants to flee more than once...

Today the volcanoes are silent, but their power is still apparent. I shall return to Timanfaya in another post.

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