Jo will be gutted and furious when we tell her who she nearly had as a neighbour.
Back in the 1990s Jo, Andy and I would lap up adventurer Benedict Allen’s exploits in dangerous, unforgiving places – being bullied by huskies in Alaska because he was too soft with them, losing his petulant camel in the Gobi. He was a hero because he wasn’t always as savvy as you’d expect from someone who was a modern-day explorer. To us he seemed an extraordinary ordinary bloke and a true traveller.
Jo will be gutted when I tell her Benedict Allen almost chose La Gomera as a place to lay his dusty, old wide-brimmed hat for a while. She’ll be furious when I tell her why he didn’t. La Gomera was discarded after a reconnaissance visit because of a lack of trees – “invigoratingly barren” was how he described it in an article in The Telegraph.
This will come as a surprise to our female, modern-day adventurer friend. I call her that because she lives on her own in a serenely idyllic spot; a valley beyond valleys right on the edge of the Garajonay National Park, an ancient laurisilva rainforest which is often shrouded in mist. Her house is like an outpost and she a frontierswoman fighting an army of saplings that constantly launch attacks, threatening to engulf her small slice of remote paradise. There are only about eight other inhabitants dotted around the forest-clad slopes of the valley. There is a road, but Jo walks when visiting friends on the opposing flank as, like many parts of La Gomera, it’s less hassle and quicker than driving anyway.
There is no road to her one-story longhouse. The closest tarmac is downhill, reached via a goat trail. I once made the mistake of trying to lug a bottle of butano up it in the rain. I’d carry it so far, dump it and go for a rest (i.e. cerveza) then return and lug it a bit more, and repeat until I finally carried it aloft, tired and triumphant into the house. “I am man, returning with my spoils. Now we can eat.” The alternative is easier. Park the car in the forest above the house and drag the heavy bottle downwards along another narrow goat trail on a hessian sack. This is how Jo normally does it. But there had been heavy rain and the forest track was a mire – a trap for cars which didn’t have tractor-sized wheels. If we wanted hot water and hot food, the gas bottle had to be carried up. It’s just one example of extreme living. Although, she’d shrug off any suggestion it was extreme. The rewards tend to help erase the hardness of life on the edge of Garajonay.
In the sunshine it is a glorious place; a special place; a unique place. The deep, shaggy carpet which spreads outwards from your feet when you dangle them over her tastefully ramshackle tiled terrace (mirror wind-chimes, silver Buddha, pyramids of lemons and oranges, walnuts in neat rows, a sign for Bass ale on draught, which confused the hell out of one particularly adventurous hiker) is jade; a bumpy forest canopy rolling to the horizon. How green is my valley? Heart-wrenchingly so. The only breaks are a few white spots, other lonely cottages. In the morning, as the sun burns off the bruma (low cloud) still hanging in the valley, spiralling wisps rise from the treetops below, they are like freed souls making their way to the heavens above. Sometimes a dog barks, sometime a chain-smoking cockerel croaks, sometimes there are voices from the tiny plaza in the centre (a term used very loosely) of the hamlet. Mostly it is silent, save for birdsong. Across the treetops, Mount Teide on Tenerife towers above the archipelago, reminding why the Guanche islanders once thought of it as a mystical place, the home of a devil. It is a mythical and hypnotic vista; one we have toasted on numerous occasions.
Benedict Allen was looking at La Gomera as an alternative the Amazon. He ended up in Prague. His instinct was right, La Gomera would have been a perfect halfway house, as he would have known if he had found his way to Jo’s valley. I’ve still no idea where it was he stayed which made him believe it was a ‘barren island’. Maybe he veered off course and accidentally ended up on Lanzarote or Fuerteventura. Thinking back to some of the reasons we enjoyed watching his travels so much, that is not beyond the realms of possibility.