Las Palmas

Another short flight and we were descending toward Gran Canaria. From here the picture was not at all what we were expecting. A green tropical paradise it most definitely was not. It is a brown, dry, harsh, rocky Island, generally peaked at the centre and tapering down in all directions. Our primary reason, however, was not for a tropical holiday, or in fact to explore the island at all. We were staying in Las Palmas with the intention of hitch hiking on a boat across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.

Most people think that this sounds like a pretty crazy idea. I tend to agree with them. But then I thought, what’s the worst that can happen – we get stuck in a hurricane, become shipwrecked on a desert island and I get to be Gilligan. We arrived in early November, about 2 weeks before a massive rally of 250 boats known as ARC would be leaving destined for St Lucia. The method was to put up an advertisement on notice boards and hang out at the Sailor’s Bar and try to talk to as many Captains as possible, to find out if they needed crew to assist them in their crossing. Unfortunately we were far from the only people with this idea. We found it much much easier to meet fellow hitch hikers than captains, particularly captains with space on board. This was because most of the boats had already organised their crew 2 months earlier with the aid of internet sites. The hostel we stayed in, Alcaravaneras, although fairly disorganised, were very friendly, relaxed, accommodating and helpful. But most importantly it had a fantastic roof top terrace adjacent to the kitchen, where we met and made good friends with many other hitch hikers. It was amazing hearing everyone’s different stories as to how and why they had come. It also made the pain of hanging around doing nothing productive, whilst trying to look for a boat a lot more enjoyable. We must have made friends with about 30 of the possibly 100 hitch hikers. Some were lucky and found boats leaving prior to the arc. A smaller group of fortunate people found space on the arc. The rest were left to find other options after the arc departed. We were in the last group. This didn’t turn out too badly for us though. We found a captain, with a boat, looking for 5 people, for a relatively small contribution to all costs. With our extensive networking previously undertaken we assembled our crew and went for it. Our departure was set for about 24/25th November.

But more about that shortly. For now I’ll talk about our 3 weeks on the Island. We only managed to get out of the city for one day. We hired an 8 seater van and filled it with friends from the hostel. We drove to the South of the island to Maspalomas and Playa del Ingles. It was far from my kind of paradise, but a must see nonetheless. We walked past all of the touristy shops and cafes to the beach and it was rammed. We looked left and could see people for kilometres. We looked right and again people as far as you could see. There was no point walking anywhere, so we dropped our things and went straight in. The water was beautiful, warm and clear. Yet for some reason, out of the 5000 or so people on the beach, there was never more than a handful of people in the water. Most of the people here were tourists of the retirement age, who come from the colder parts of Europe to spend a few months of doing nothing other than sun bathing. Not an attractive beach on a couple of levels. The other thing that this place did have, which was pretty cool, was sand dunes that stretched maybe 2 km by 1.5 km. They weren’t as awesome as our Mongolian ones, but were still very cool and created interesting ever-changing formations.

Lunch was surprisingly too cheap to pass up (1/2 chicken, chips and salad for $6), and then we headed for the top of the mountain. The drive up was brilliant, working our way up the rocky faced valley covered in caves. I would love to go exploring around there properly. You could tell that these would have been residences at some stage and possible still get infrequent use today. A little bit further along the dry nothingness and deep down in a gorge was a proper tropical paradise. Although only a couple of hundred metres long, this place had some sort of unique micro-climate, or soil type, or perhaps water supply that made it very different to the rest of the surrounding area, smothered densely with lush green big leaved plants. We made it to the top, to the start of the walking track to Roku Noblu, or Knob Rock as I prefer, just in time to catch the end of the sunset. Watching the golden-orange colours slowly fade from above the clouds, with jagged mountains poking through, is arguably the best sunset so far. I went for a run along the track to the peak where the view was very similar, but struggling for oxygen in the high altitude (well, 2000m is high for me) makes it feel more rewarding. The two Polish guys went off exploring further in the dark, not very smart, even by my standards. They returned after half an hour and that was pretty much the end of a successful day.

I’ll take this opportunity to mention the abnormality in the time space continuum that exists in this area. There really is something strange about this island that makes it difficult to achieve much in a day. A typical achievement for a day may be taking your washing to the laundry, going to the beach, moving to a different hostel, or simply cutting your toenails. Sometimes these tasks can take up to 3 days. Of course 4 hours of siesta doesn’t help and makes life very frustrating.

Having the Arc in town is a fair bit of a fiesta in itself, but if you haven’t realised already, when Dasha and Curly are in town there has to be a real party. Las Palmas chase WOMAD – World of Music, Art and Dance, from Thursday until Sunday. We have been to WOMADelaide and it was brilliant, held in the botanical gardens. Unfortunately, Spain doesn’t have such greenery, so it was held across a couple of Plazas. This was a much smaller version than the Adelaide one, but we still managed to catch some good bands. Highlights were ‘The Creole choir of Cuba’, ‘Hanggai’, a Chinese rock band using traditional instruments and throat singing, Muntu Valdo, a one man band, who by recording live and playing back riffs, beats and vocals sounds like half a dozen people on stage, and An Eastern European gypsy rock band ‘Balkatalan experience’, with lyrics like ‘Hir ai kam, hir ai go!’ and ‘Disco disco partizani!’ The best thing about a Spanish fiesta is that you don’t get the exorbitant beer prices, stalls selling cans for $2, or you can grab take aways from 100m away for $1.40. Many groups of friends opt to buy a bottle of spirits and mixers to share and this is also perfectly acceptable.

The Arc held an official opening, which consisted of a dodgy marching band accompanied by jugglers and stilt walkers (interestingly, the closing ceremony held one week later consisted of a dodgy marching band accompanied by jugglers and stilt walkers) followed by a dinghy race. We missed the dinghy race, but two of our friends entered on a raft which they built from a broken pallet and as many plastic bottles as they could find in bins. They came flat last. At the end of the race, which happened to be in a petrol station, there was a party! It was pretty funny – everyone dancing around to bad disco music in the middle of the day, buckets of water being thrown around everywhere and beers being consumed. When siesta time came, the music stopped, metal roller doors came down and everyone dispersed within 5 minutes. Mark, an Aussie skipper, suggested that we go to his boat to keep the flow rate continuous. Matt, a Pome skipper, upped the ante and we all agreed to go drink-sailing on his 50 foot catamaran, for our first Atlantic sailing experience. We sailed out for about 40 mins, saw Lanzerote from 100 km away, turned around and sailed back in. We drank some more beer in the port then went back to the petrol station for the dinghy trophy presentation (Mark, Matt and Glyn won) and of course more beer.

We made it to the beach a couple of times. It’s not the nicest, particularly the Northern end which is packed with hotels on top of hotels. The beach in this area is protected by a reef, meaning no waves, no fun. Right the way along the 2 or 3 km of beach front has been built up with a concrete wall to form a boulevard, leaving very little dry sand on a high tide. The sand itself is partly yellow partly black, making it not the most beautiful beach in the world. To the South end is where the waves are, the locals are and the run down and derelict buildings for the squatter are – much nicer. We saw some good surfing and got in some excellent body surfing ourselves. Sam and I also had one night out in the area which was pretty cool. We were walking along the almost desired boulevard at about 2ma, when a random guy from Chile befriended us and showed us where the action was. Just 100m around the corner was a massive Plaza, with 2 bars pumping out music, one each side. Both bars were busy, but so was the square itself, with people from the squat selling cheap icy cold beers as their only source of income. It really is possible to live for free in our current society. Squatting, dumpster diving, a few hours socialising on weekends and the rest of your time is free to go surfing, juggling or do whatever you want.

The rest of our time we spent either on the roof top of the hostel chatting or at the sailors bar chatting. Yes we chatted with lovely people, but we suffered severely form Jellyfish Syndrom, the feeling of floating around doing nothing, achieving nothing.

It was fantastic when we finally agreed to cross with Captain Morgan, mainly because it meant 5 of us who were already friends  would be together for the 3 weeks. Our first step for the preparations was, of course, to go sailing. We went out for a couple of hours to watch the start of the Arc. The coast guards kept chasing us and yelling at us in Spanish to get out of the way of the race. Good to see our captain knows whats going on. On the way back in he went to start the engine to navigate our way through the scores of boats in the harbour and it failed. This meant that while the two most experienced sailors were truing to fix the engine I was left at the helm to sail backwards and forwards, telling the others to pull ropes when we had to change tack and avoiding both yachts and commercial ships! Pretty sweet. The next most important item to prepare was our provisioning. It’s pretty crazy trying to figure out what 6 people are going to eat and drink for 3 weeks (minimum) with no corner stores if you run out of anything, not even a neighbour for a spoonful of sugar. An $850 trip to the supermarket and we hope we have everything.

The last thing to prepare is the weather. This is a little more difficult. In fact, all we could do was look at the forecasts and choose our departure date. The whole reason that the Arc leaves at this time is because it’s the start of the trade winds, that is, the wind typically blows from East to West, with very little chance of low pressure systems, more commonly known as storms, developing. However, as our preparations were underway, a low was on its way. We had to delay for about a week. As the system was about to clear, there was a second on it’s way, with a small opening of opportunity for departure. With what looked like a third system developing across form America, we decided to risk the chance of some undesirable winds and go for it. With Christmas just around the corner, we left on the 1st of December at 14.00…..