Category Archives: Mountains & Volcanoes

Biodiversity in the Cabo Verde Islands

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May I suggest a trip to the Cabo Verde Islands, one day?

The Cabo Verde Islands (approx. 16 00 N 24 00 W) are situated about 600 km off the coast of Cap Vert, in Senegal, West Africa. If you are tired of the well trodden destinations of Greece, Thailand, the Caribbean islands, et al., why not pop down to São Vicente, for instance, for the discovery of an intriguing mixture of the African with the Portuguese and the Brazilian?

Many of us know Cabo Verde only through the haunting ‘mornas’ of Cesaria Evora, the ‘barefoot diva’. A visit to her homeland – a volcanic archipelago – helps us to understand the strange, bittersweet chemistry of West African rhythms and mournful Portuguese melodies that shape Evora’s music.

The Cabo Verde Islands (also often called Cape Verde) were discovered and colonized by the Portuguese in the middle of the 15th century; the islands belonged to Portugal until 1975 when the Republica de Cabo Verde gained independence. There are ten islands and five islets, but their total area is not much greater than the size of Mallorca, Spain, let’s say, or Rhode Island, USA, for instance. The islands are of volcanic origin, most of them being made up of high mountains covered with lava. Some of the islands are all rock; others have patches of rice, corn, and tobacco; cotton and indigo grow wild in the woods.

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The Cabo Verde Islands were turned into a major hub for the transatlantic slave trade during the 16th to 18th centuries. Most Cabo Verdeans have both African and Portuguese antecedents as a consequence of this ominous historic period.

 

The islands fall into two main groups – the Barlavento, or Windward, islands in the north, which include Santo Antão, São Vicente, Santa Luzia, São Nicolau, Boa Vista, and Sal, and the Sotavento, or Leeward, islands in the south, which include São Tiago (approx. 1,550 sq km, the largest island), Fogo, Maio, and Brava.

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The climate is generally temperate and comparable to the weather conditions of the Canary Islands, with warm, dry summers; any precipitation is meager and very erratic.

The archipelago’s beaches increasingly attract the package-tour crowd, but still, Cabo Verde seems to remain a destination for the connoisseur: the intrepid hiker, the die-hard windsurfer, the deep-sea angler and the ‘morna’ devotee.

 

Cabo Verde’s biodiversity is of global importance as it includes many endemic species of plants, birds, insects, as well as marine species. Its beaches provide important nesting sites and feeding grounds for endangered marine turtles, and breeding humpback whales that are frequently seen around Boa Vista and Sal, Boa Vista’s northern neighbour. Approximately 3,000 loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) nest in Boa Vista and Sal annually making these areas the second most important nesting site in the entire Atlantic Ocean.

 

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Although the islands are mountainous and of volcanic origin, the only active volcano is at the archipelago’s highest point, Cano (ca. 2,830 m), which is located on Fogo island. Cano was regularly active until the 18th century, and the volcano’s most recent eruptions were in 1951 and 1995. The area is sometimes subject to severe droughts and the fierce Harmattan, a dry and dusty West African trade wind.

Most Cabo Verdeans are of Roman Catholic faith; their religion is often mixed with the indigenous beliefs of their African ancestors.

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Portuguese and Crioulo, a blend of Portuguese and West African languages, are widely spoken. English and Spanish help if you speak neither.

 

Enjoy your trip if you do go, one day.

 

The Beauty of the Pyrenees Mountains

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Welcome to the Autumn season.

 

Autumn is a perfect time to travel, in my opinion, and that is certainly true for a country like Spain. Today, I do not attempt to lure you into Spain, if not lure you to the threshold that marks the boundaries between Europe and Spain – the Pyrenees.

 

The best way, in my mind, to travel to Spain from Europe is by land. Whilst I am not adverse to air travel (I travel by air quite frequently) I often prefer to make an exception in the case of Spain. There is no better welcome to the Iberian Peninsula than across the mountain range that separates Hispaña from the rest of Europe.

The Pyrenees are a range of mountains in southwest Europe that form a natural border between France and Spain. They separate the Iberian Peninsula from France, and extent for about 450 km from the Atlantic Ocean (Bay of Biscay) to the Mediterranean Sea (Golf de Lyon). The highest Pyrenean summit is said to be the Pico d’Aneto with 3,404 m, even though Mont Perdu with 3,355 m might be slightly better known. The Pyrenees seem to be older than the Alps with about 100 to 150 million years since their formation, but that is neither here nor there. They are both intriguing; I personally prefer the Pyrenees.

I have crossed the Pyrenees mountains by car on at least a half a dozen occasions, each time choosing a different route, and always being amazed about the sheer beauty of the mountainous landscape, the warmth of the Pyreneans, be they French, Basque, Andorran, Aquitanian or Spanish, and by the stark contrast between the Europe that one leaves behind and the Iberian otherness that one enters.

 

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Of course I have crossed the Pyrenees by aeroplane as well, dozens of times, and whilst I prefer to travel by land I must admit that the beauty from above the clouds is unbeatable, especially in the snowy season.

If you travel to the Pyrenees instead of through them you are a very lucky person. The Pyrenees have now in a sense been discovered by hikers and backpackers, outdoor activists and walkers, skiers and mountaineers, Camino pilgrims and individualist travellers, and that has led to an increase in popularity to such an extend that the Pyrenees are becoming an alternative to the much better explored Alps.

I can only recommend a trip to and a journey through the Pyrenees. If you do not live in Spain as I do, but come from the north and thus, France, you could make your entry into the Pyrenean wonderland from Bordeaux, possibly via Pau and Lourdes. Or you could come down from Biarritz and make your way to Donostia (San Sebastián) via Irún. In both cases your voyage might continue to Pamplona, depending on your final destination.

Further east, you could make your way right up to the Principality of Andorra, one of the smallest European countries which shares its money, its stamps and its defense with both, France and Spain, without belonging to either. In this case you might well have come down from Toulouse, passing the charming French provincial town of Foix before you ascend to Andorra. 

 

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If you have come down the Autoroutes du Sud de la France and Perpignan, I would urge you to leave the motorway and make your way up into the Pyrénées Orientales, heading for Prades and Puigcerdà. From there you could continue to Vic and eventually Barcelona.

 

Do not fail to allow for plenty of time whilst in the Pyrenees, either for some walking or some outdoor activities, and some sampling of the gastronomic delights, food and beverage wise, that this region has to offer. 

 

I would be very surprised if you would ever regret a visit. 

 

A Word About Spain (or Two)

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What a beautiful country Spain is.

I travelled a bit in northern Spain just recently, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, mainly. And the Basque country. I did the ‘Camino de Santiago’, as you might already have discovered yourself, given my recent musings.

The Atlantic coast in the North and in the West of Spain are so markedly different from the Mediterranean shores where I normally live. The Atlantic side of Spain feels as if in a different country. It seems appropriate that one speaks a different language there as well, in some parts anyway, or so it would appear.

The food is different too. No Sobrassada, no Frito, no Butifarron. No Ensaïmada, either. Suckling Pig, yes, sometimes, and the omnipresent Paella. And the good quality Vino Tinto is also ever present. At 60 cent a copa, sometimes even at 40 cent.

What you will find along this Camino, or – in my opinion – on any walk and any journey really, is the amazing beauty and diversity of this vast country. This is a country contrary to the image that Spain has from the outside in.

Spain is often seen as a hot, blistering country. Go to the North of Spain, however, such as the Atlantic coast, and you will find the opposite: rain, quite a bit of snow, much more so than in Britain which is much further to the North, and a soothing lushness of green, wherever you look. Or in the South, in the Sierra Nevada, in Andalucía: snow on mountain tops, virtually all year round.

Go to the Picos de Europa, and you might feel as if in Norwegian mountain ranges, or in the Alps, rather than the heartland of Spain.

The variety of people is as unexpected as the multifaceted diversity of Spain’s landscape. You may have come across the difference between Madrileños and Barcelonian Cataláns already, noticing the elegant and businesslike attitude in the nation’s capital versus the sparkling creativity in Barcelona, but go to places like Extramadura, Cantabria, Galicia, Santander or Bilbao, and you will understand that there are different people living here with different backgrounds, different historical events and different tribal characteristics.

Yes, now it appears easier to see why in some parts of Spain different languages are spoken. Autonomous idioms, not variations of dialects.

The friendliness of some of the people in the regions, of which I had first hand experience, can be touching, even overwhelming. It may have to do with the fact that, deep down, Spain is a conservative country where close family ties have not been lost and where social patterns and peer influence appear in place, that other European nations seem to have phased out some 20 or 30 years ago.

 

It comes as no surprise to me then, that so many Mallorcans seem so adamant that they have little in common with the rest of Spain.

On the outside, the country seems united and unified, probably thanks to the iron hand of El Caudillo, but deep down there are differences and peculiarities that to me seem greater than perhaps in France or Britain or Germany. It may well be that the integration of Spain into the European Union has done more to Spanish unity and national appeasement than has the force and often brutality that ruled the country for forty years under the dictatorship, now history since thirty years.

If ever you have a chance to travel in mainland Spain, may I suggest that you grab the opportunity. It will be worth your while, believe me.

UNESCO Declares Spain’s Teide a World Heritage site

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The UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has just declared Spain’s Teide National Park a World Heritage site.

The 31st session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is currently meeting in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. The meetings, which run until 2 July, consider new site nominations, sites in danger, site management and protection. The committee will also draw up lists for possible future World Heritage sites.

The Teide National Park, on the Canarian island of Tenerife, covers 18,990 hectares and features Spain’s tallest volcano, 3,718 metres high and 7,500 metres above the ocean floor. The UNESCO committee said that Teide’s surrounding atmosphere, which casts the volcanic backdrop of clouds in different textures and tones, was very useful for understanding the geological processes that underpin the evolution of oceanic islands.

Spain already has the good fortune of having had its National Parks Doñana (in Andalucía) and Garajonay (on the Canarian island of La Gomera) previously declared as World Heritage sites.

Spain has quite a number of National Parks, most prominent of which are the Picos de Europa, the Sierra Nevada and, nearer to Mallorca, where I am based, the Archipelago de Cabrera. I’ve had the good fortune of having visited some Spanish National Parks in the past, such as the Teide, the Canarian island of La Gomera and the Doñana Park, and of course the Cabrera islands one. The then snowcapped Picos de Europa I could only admire from a distance when I recently walked my ‘Camino’ to Santiago de Compostela. I would recommend a closer visit to any of Spain’s natural treasures to anyone. Spain is such a beautiful place and not just at its coastline and beaches.

As far as the UNESCO is concerned, perhaps somebody should tell the UNESCO people that sooner or later, the whole of Spain ought to be considered a World Heritage site, as should indeed the whole of New Zealand. 

Come to think of it, the whole planet Earth might have to be declared as ‘World Heritage site in danger’ in the not too distant future.

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The map shows Spain’s National Parks, four on the Canary islands, one on the Balearic islands, and eight on the Spanish mainland. There is one more, on the lesser well known Atlantic islands of Galicia. Autumn would be a good time to visit any of these National Parks.

Ecuador is Waiting

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Our daughter, Kilina is about to embark on another journey of a lifetime. This time next week she will be on an Iberia plane from Madrid to Quito, Ecuador, where she will spend three months over the Summer, working as a volunteer at the National Park of the splendid Cotopaxi volcano at an altitude of 4,400 m. The invitation is courtesy of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.

Kilina’s employer will be Tierra del Volcán.

Here is some information from their website: “Tierra del Volcán functions in one of the most beautiful and privileged places in Ecuador, Cotopaxi, considered the highest active volcano in the world. Tierra del Volcán has three haciendas available in the foothills of different volcanoes that surround majestic Cotopaxi, each with its own magic, ecosystem and distinctive climate. With us you will be lodged in fascinating hacienda houses and experience the adrenaline rush of living an adventure with experts who will share unforgettable moments with you. A broad range of activities are available: Horseback riding, mountain biking, trekking, hiking, mountain climbing, rappelling, bird watching, camping, cultural experiences, and more.”

We expect Kilina to start a new blog on her latest journey soon, telling us in detail about her South American adventure. Here is a link to her new blog.

 

By the way, a bank note like the one shown below of 10,000 Sucres won’t be enough to pay for Kilina’s bus fare from the airport to downtown Quito. 10,000 Sucres is the equivalent of approx. 0,40 USD. Imagine you wanted to buy a bus. That might set you back by 2,505,017,200 Sucres. Not many people have a pocket calculator big enough to convert that into Pounds or Euros. Okay, not many people actually want to buy a bus, either. At least not in Ecuador.

 

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P. S. After Kilina having arrived in Quito, it transpires – according to her – that Ecuador has given up its currency, the Sucres, and is using the US American greenbacks only. The transition between currencies obviously has been a difficult time for everybody and your average Quito person. The cost of living has apparently gone up phenomenally. I imagine that this is even more of a problem in the less affluent provinces. That makes buying your average bus even more expensive.

 

In Ecuador, that is.

 

Four Months of Alaska

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Our eldest daughter, Kilina, spent four months at UAF University of Alaska, Fairbanks (USA), from August to December of last year, participating in an exchange programme between universities. Check out her Alaskan blog here in case you should be interested. She became a bit of a Nanook whilst in Fairbanks. Kilina is now back at University of Sussex, Brighton (UK) where she has just finished her third year (out of four) as a Human Science student. Well done, Beans.

Fairbanks is just 300 kms south of the Arctic Circle, part of the Alaska Range at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies are part of the Western Cordillera, one of the largest mountain belts on earth. They stretch over 6,000 kms from Alaska along the western side of North America right through to Mexico. The mountains are relatively young, having been formed mostly in the last 15 million years, by an oceanic part of a tectonic plate converging with a continent. There is still volcanic activity (Cascade Range) within in the Western Cordillera, which gives an indication of the ‘young age’ of the range. The highest peaks within the Rockies are those of Mount McKinley in Alaska with 6,194 m. The Alaskans are very proud of their Mount McKinley. 

Kilina admired Mount McKinley from a safe distance (see photo above). Of course, Mount McKinley is White Man’s name for the big rock. Locally this mountain is known as Denali by the indigenous population, which means ‘the high one’ in the Athabaskan language. That’s a bit like Ayers Rock in Australia, called Uluru by the Australian Aboriginals. Perhaps it would be a sign of respect if we would use the locals’ name for things or rocks or places rather than the explorers’ or the colonialists’ names.

It seems that Global Warming has reached Alaska already. Whereas most years, temperatures in Alaskan Winters reach up to minus 50º C, Kilina only had to suffer up to minus 30º C. The Alaskans, Inuit, including the Iniupiat, known to us lesser mortals simply as Eskimos, complain that it is way too warm for the fish that they live off; whales do not come to this part of the world any longer at the habitual time, and everyone is worried about the livelihoods of the Indigenous population. Also, like its vast Arctic home, the polar bear is under unprecedented threat. Both are disappearing with alarming speed. Polar bears are at risk of becoming extinct due to the Bering Sea not freezing over enough any longer and subsequently the bears losing their hunting grounds. Thinning ice and longer summers are destroying the bears’ habitat, and as the ice floes shrink, the desperate animals are driven by starvation into human settlements, only to be shot. Stranded polar bears are drowning in large numbers as they try to swim hundreds of miles to find increasingly scarce ice floes. Local hunters find their corpses floating on seas once coated in a thick skin of ice. In 1981, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group agreed that the world population of polar bears was between 20,000 and 40,000. As of 1988 the most accepted estimate for the Alaska populations was 3,000 to 5,000. Now we are in 2007. Any guesses, anybody?

Perhaps somebody could tell Mrs. Bush to tell her husband?