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Jo'Burg Days: The Fire Islands

Barbara Durlacher writes alluringly of of the Fire Islands - a chain of seven islands resembling a heap of scattered coals, ninety miles off the North African coast.

Ninety miles off the North Africa coast lie a chain of seven islands resembling a heap of scattered coals. In the late 1700’s a volcanic explosion devastated the once fertile island chain, destroying parts of two of the largest, Lanzerote and Fuertoventura. They are known as the “Fire Islands’’.

Wind-blown Saharan sand forms the beaches, black volcanic pumice the hills, and petrified lava, terra firma. Hardy local farmers have gradually re-created areas of fertility and adapted their homes to make the most of the savage environment. Now, year-round sunny skies, a mild climate and a unique lifestyle make this a popular holiday resort for over two million visitors annually.

Luckily, due to the timely influence of well-travelled prominent local artist, César Manrique, whose wise advice was heeded by the Island Council, tourism has been confined to the beach area. Here a substantial development of holiday apartments, pubs and hotels has risen close to Arrecife, the commercial centre. Manrique recognised the perils of over-development and persuaded council members to impose strict controls. These, together with minimum rainfall, lack of fresh water and the challenging environment, saved the island’s unique culture and architecture. In recognition of this, in 1993, UNESCO granted the island the status of a World Biosphere Reserve.

White-washed villages dot the empty landscape, but only part of the island is cultivated. The dry climate, lack of rainfall and year-round sunshine make this a hazardous undertaking. However, the islanders have learnt to work with the prevailing conditions, by spreading porous volcanic grains over the fields to trap all condensation and prevent the prevailing winds dessicating the crops. Careful cultivation produces large export crops of tomatoes, onions and grapes, and ‘Madeira’ wine is still popular. Shakespeare’s Falstaff enjoyed a draft of Malvasia; the plays mention the Duke of Clarence drowning in a butt of Malmsey. Same wine, different names.

Encircling white walls shelter sugar-cube houses where palm trees and bougainvillas throw shadows over roughly plastered surfaces. The only colour in the villages are the green painted shutters and doors, a wonderfully unifying factor. No traffic rush; only camels softly treading the streets. Exotic aliens in their environment, they serve a double purpose, working in the fields in the mornings, transporting tourists up the hills in the afternoons. The hillsides change as the wind blows the grains from purple to dark mauve, navy to grey. It takes an artist’s eye to appreciate the subtleties.

The National Park lies in the south-west of the island, the site of the worst devastation. It is here that the term “Fire Islands” comes into its own, as the tourists are able to see in that while the dragon sleeps, it still breathes.

A guide empties a bucket of water into a crack in the ground, says “Stand back,” and tells everyone to “Keep an eye on your watch.” Within fifteen seconds, a spurt of steam erupts heavenwards, to cries of surprise and delight. Later, they visit ‘El Diablo’ restaurant, designed by Manrique and built entirely from local stone. It blends perfectly with the landscape. Here they enjoy a meal cooked on a grill over a deep shaft dropping away to a crack in the earth’s crust. Volcanic heat is used for cooking.

A highpoint is a visit to the nightclub in the ‘Jameos del Agua’ to enjoy an evening in a vast subterranean cavern formed by seven interlinking volcanic bubbles. After the eruption, the magma flowed towards the sea, and as it cooled it left bubble-shaped caverns which filled with sea-water and marine life. Magma sealed them from the ocean, and gradually the water evaporated and the creatures died, leaving only the crabs. A blind sub-species evolved in the deep lake in the biggest cave where one can view these translucent creatures, seeking food by touch alone. In another cave is a fresh water lake with a gradually sloping floor which partly opens to the sky where visitors walk from the deep cavern into the sunlight. César Manrique recognised the caves’ unique qualities and converted them into a 600 seat auditorium with a stage, excellent acoustics, a dance floor and restaurant. Interesting decorative features are the doors, floors and bar counters constructed from timbers from sunken ships found while dredging the harbour, as well as old tools and farming implements.

Manrique built his home in another series of volcanic bubbles in the petrified lava. Cool in summer and warm in winter, it is now the headquarters of the César Manrique Foundation, which works tirelessly to protect every aspect of the island.

Swim in Atlantic breakers off a black volcanic beach in sparkling champagne water devoid of suspended sand particles; hire a Velocipede and pedal gently around the island; it’s only 36 miles by 12. Give yourself time to absorb its unique beauty: it’s an unforgettable experience.


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