Following Humboldt

Friday 17 April: La Graciosa

After yesterday’s pre-dawn start I was awake almost equally early, and gradually got in gear for the day ahead. It was rather overcast and cold, since the sun was barely up when I got the 8am ferry from the little harbour at Órzola. There really weren’t many people on the first boat of the day, and maybe only a couple of other tourists. One woman may well have been a teacher at the primary school on La Graciosa since I saw her arrive there once we’d landed.

Picture of La Graciosa

Arriving at La Graciosa

The little village where the boat ends its journey is Caleta de Sebo, and has a population of about 600. It looks out on the great cliffs at the northern end of Lanzarote, and on the landward side rises a little and is surrounded by scrubby desert with several smaller volcanic peaks. Despite its diminutive size, the route out of the village proved particularly confusing. Still, the volcanoes were a good guide (when you could see them from within the narrow streets), so heading between the two main peaks I eventually hit the main track.

La Graciosa is part of the Chinijo Archipelago Nature Reserve, also including the other, even smaller, islands in the chain as well as the cliffs of the north west of Lanzarote itself (see tomorrow’s walk).

As a consequence of its protected status, La Graciosa only has dirt tracks, though many of them take a small number of 4x4s which operate as taxis across the island. Other tracks are cycle routes, and the remaining ones are only for walkers. This means that, especially early in the season, you barely see anyone, particularly once you get onto the tiny tracks.

Once I was on my way there were loads of Berthelot’s Pipits to see again (they are clearly the commonest bird here), as well as the local subspecies of the Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis koenigi) perching on the low scrub.

Picture of Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis koenigi)

Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis koenigi)

I was heading for the north of the island, so focussed on a speedy walk for an hour or so, enjoying the spectacle of walking between (admittedly small) volcanoes. There was barely anyone else about: a single 4×4 passed me at one point, and one of the locals was parked up and doing some work on his small plantation of Opuntia. These were apparently introduced from the Americas and cultivated as food for cochineal lice, as a source of red dye. Nice.

Picture of La Graciosa

The north looked interesting because I was looking for some of endemic sea lavenders and other species, and because it was apparently the spot where German natural philosopher Alexander von Humboldt had landed two hundred years ago. Humboldt is one of the greats in the history of biology, geography and the natural sciences, recording data on his travels with considerable precision, and developing notions of the inter-relatedness of phenomena. He is credited with formulating ideas of what we now conceptualise as ‘biogeography’, and is cited by many modern disciplines as a founding thinker.

Humboldt’s brief visit to La Graciosa and then Tenerife was the first stage of his important journey to South and Central America. His account of the voyage was slowly published over subsequent decades and Darwin knew it well, and could quote extensive passages of it,[1] so it felt particularly important to follow Humboldt’s footsteps.

Picture of La Graciosa

Humboldt and his travelling companion, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, left La Coruna in Spain on 5 June 1799 aboard the Pizarro and moored off La Graciosa on 17 June 1799. He described the circumstances of their arrival:

From some notions which the captain of the Pizarro had collected in an old Portugueze itinerary, he thought himself opposite a small fort, situate at the north of Teguisa, the capital of the island of Lanzerota. Mistaking a rock of basalt for a castle, he saluted it by hoisting the Spanish flag, and sent a boat with an officer to inquire of the commander if the English vessels were cruizing in the roads. We were not a little surprised to learn, that the land, which we had considered as a prolongation of the coasts of Lanzerota, was the small island of Graciosa, and that for several leagues there was not an inhabited place.[2]

Picture of Montaña Clara

Montaña Clara from La Graciosa

He continued the description, and his reaction to seeing the island was not dissimilar to mine:

We took advantage of the boat to survey the land, which enclosed a large bay. No language can express the emotion, which a naturalist feels, when he touches for the first time a land that is not European. The attention is fixed on so great a number of objects, that he can scarcely define the impression he receives. At every step he thinks he discovers some new production; and in this tumultuous state of mind he does not recollect those which are most common in our botanical gardens, and collections of natural history.

It was not quite deserted, though:

At two hundred yards from the coast, we saw a man fishing with a line. We steered towards him, but he took fright, and hid himself behind a rock. The sailors brought him back with difficulty. The sight of the sloop, the fire of the cannon in so solitary a place, though sometimes visited by Barbary corsairs, and the landing of the crew, had frightened this poor man. He informed us, that the small island of Graciosa, on which we had just landed, was separated from Lanzerota by a narrow channel called El Rio.

Picture of Playa de las Conchas

Playa de las Conchas

Arriving at Playa de las Conchas on the north-west shore of La Graciosa nearly 216 years later there wasn’t a single other person present, and the view across to Montaña Clara in the archipelago with the small volcanic peak of Montaña Bermeja behind me was completely magical. However, various groups of cyclists gradually turned up, and that encouraged me to move on to the part of the island where only walkers could go.

Picture of the north-west corner of La Graciosa

The north-west corner of La Graciosa

Picture of Launaea arborescens

Launaea arborescens

There, large parts of the surface were again covered in the redness of Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum, and more Launaea arborescens and Frankenia capitata like yesterday. There was also a beetle, which was so fast moving that I couldn’t get a clear picture of it, and I didn’t have any pots with me. Even so, I doubt I’d have been able to identify it since about a quarter of the island’s invertebrates are endemic. However, other delights were occasionally to be found in this sandy, windy desert, the first being one of the sea lavenders, Limonium papillatum, found only here, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura.

Picture of Limonium papillatum

Limonium papillatum

Even the plantain was decidedly odd-looking:

Picture of Plantago aschersonii/Plantago coronopus

Plantago aschersonii/Plantago coronopus

After sitting on the northern beach and watching the waves I slowly headed back, finding Heliotropium ramosissimum and other striking plants overlooking Playa de las Conchas. Another small sandy beach a little way down the coast was completely deserted, with the waves washing over a recently dead Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris borealis).

Picture of Heliotropium ramosissimum

Heliotropium ramosissimum

The track then took me back the way I had raced along earlier in the morning, though this time I paused a bit more to identify things, including more common species such as Aizoon canariense (obviously, a Canarian endemic) and the halophyte Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, which I recognised from the south of France.

Picture of Aizoon canariense

Aizoon canariense

Picture of Mesembryanthemum crystallinum

Mesembryanthemum crystallinum

Reading the Kosmos Kanarenflora made me realise how diverse and varied the Echiums have become on the Canaries, so I was keen to find those that occur on these islands. As it happened, there was some Echium decaisnei planted in the little village ‘square’ in Caleta de Sebo, though I never did see any growing in the wild on my trip.

Picture of Echium decaisnei

Echium decaisnei

The blog posts on the Lanzarote trip

  1. Sand and lava
  2. Following Humboldt [this current post]
  3. A long walk to the cliffs
  4. Shrubs, birds and aeroplanes
  5. A Lanzarote album

[1] For example, see the letter to Henslow 18 May 1832: Charles Darwin. The Beagle Letters. Ed. Frederick Burkhardt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 126.

[2] de Humboldt, Alexander and Aimé Bonpland. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, during the years 1799–1804. Vols 1 and 2. London: Longman, 1822. 89–96. Darwin Online. Web. 20 May 2015. <http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?pageseq=1&itemID=A597.1&viewtype=text>

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