Throughout time, and after many journeys, my wife and I realized that we have a soft spot for islands. The smaller, the better. There is something in the attitude and mentality of islanders that appeals to us. They seem so laid-back, relaxed and carefree, time passes in a totally different way for them.
Once, while talking to an islander, we asked him when they would open a bike rental center on the neighbouring island. “Well, soon, he said, maybe in 5 years time”. On seeing our baffled looks, he added: “Five years is rather short period of time on the island”.
Moreover, being a little more isolated from the rest of the world and sheltered from “globalisation”, to use a fashionable word, islands tend to have a stronger personality which manifests itself by better kept culture and traditions.
But if is an archipelago, things get even more interesting because it gives you the opportunity to see many different things in a relatively small space. An archipelago that aroused out interest were the Canary Islands – and as we have friends there, we decided to hit the road.
It was in 2016 that we made our first trip to the Canary Islands. We visited Gran Canaria and Tenerife, being the largest and most visited by tourists in the area. We enjoyed our trip, but found out from our friends that the neighbouring islands were wilder, greener and on one of them there was the best place in Europe for astronomical observation.
A place at high altitude but with good weather. An area where there are no cities around to interfere with light pollution in the darkness of night. Once at home, I started inquiring about the topic.
La Palma is deliberately avoided by air routes at night in order not to influence astronomic observations. There are 15 telescopes on the island at the Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory. They are all grouped on an area of 189 ha at a height of over 2300m. It ranks 2nd in the Northern Hemisphere after Mauna Kea in Hawaii for nocturnal observation.
I don’t see myself as an astronomy enthusiast but I am fascinated by serene nights. Our ancestors were attracted by the multitude of lights, think only of the scores of myths, stories and religions that are based on constellations. As for us, modern people, the starry sky has hypnotic effect as, in fact, we are looking at something that is beyond our comprehension and should remind us how small and insignificant we are.
But time flies and when the year was out it was time for us to go back to the Canary Islands, this time heading for La Palma and La Gomera. We also changed our travelling style, we decided to spend less, so we travelled on a shoestring budget, cutting out accomodation and transport on the island. We will be backpackers this time, sleep in the open, hitchhike and cook our own food. That sounds great for sure, but backpackers usually carry just the bare necessities, they are not likely to be travel photographers and probably own a small camera unless they take photos with their mobiles. Well, when you are a passionate photographer like myself, things tend to get complicated or to put it bluntly, they get heavier. I have often tried to give up certain things from my photo bag, but everything seemed to be useful and indispensable. I wanted to take night photos of the telescopes, so how could I leave without my tripod, without my wide and luminous lens ideal for such a job (2kg). We will do some trekking on the volcanoes, in the lush forest, so a tele and a normal focal is a must (1kg). The camera and batteries – 1kg.
Don’t forget that the telescopes are high up at over 2300m and at night the temperature drops to 0ºC in that period. I will need 2 summer sleeping bags and one down sleeping bag for my wife. But what are we going to do if it rains? We will take a tenda, as a tent is much too heavy. We also need warm clothes, raincoats, summer clothes, boots, sandals and a kit for cooking. And all these must go in our hand luggage.
Even if I break the rules of chronology, I’ll go on with the telescopes.
We didn’t plan the exact day to climb to the Roque de Los Muchachos, but instead kept an eye on the weather forecast. It wasn’t hard, as the forecast showed good, predictable weather, far from the weather we had had in Norway.
After a few days, when we got used to the island, by hiking at leisure, we decided to take a bus from the capital to the cross with the way that leads to the Observatory. It should have taken 10-15 min by bus. Great! But striking up a conversation with the natives, we learned that that side of the road was rarely circulated and chances to find a car, especially at that hour, were slim. The main road was on the other side of the mountain, therefore of the island, too. Luckily, the bus covered a good part of the way, and in a little town we could take a smaller bus or hitchhike. Gosh! What else could we do? We went on a thought that, at the worst, we could spend the night there and set off the next morning. Sometimes, when you let yourself swim with the tide, things might not come out the way you expect them to. We changed the bus and there comes a lady who had overheard our conversation and offered to give us a lift to the crossing, so we didn’t have to wait at all. Generally, people go there to see the sunset, something absolutely special being the highest point on the island. It was not long before we were picked up by a german couple.
Right at the top, there is the parking place for tourists, so we got there just in time for the sunset, even an hour earlier.
According to rules regarding the Observatory, cars are banned at night, not to interfere with scientific activity.
But they never took pedestrians into account as there’s a long way and people are not supposed to walk. As it wasn’t long before dark, we started to look for a place to lie down without being seen by the guard. The area is barren and rocky, unwelcoming for resting. Finally, we came across something that looked like a natural bench at the foot of a huge rock, right next to the tourist trail. It was nice and flat, but rather narrow and there was no room for me to lie on my back. We waited quietly for darkness to fall and people to leave. There was a flash of a torch in the parking place and then nothing. We waited a little longer and then we groped our way without a torch for about 300m to the parking place. I crept to the guard’s cabin and found it closed. No soul in the parking place. Lucky us, we were alone at the top of the island! From there we had a bird’s eye view of the surroundings and could see the telescopes in all their splendour!
As big as several storey buildings, they looked rather like giant robots. Now and again we could hear metallic sounds, hissing and rattles and when one of them turned its head, a siren wailing. There were long distances between them, as they were scattered on a longish plateau. I had in mind to draw near to each of them and take pictures but that was out of the question. I came for my backpack with my photography kit. But when I reached the camping place, there appeared a greenish line in the sky – it seemed endless.
Imagine, it was a laser!
We tried to make out where it started. It started from a smaller telescope.
In the meantime, the stars became more visible against the perfectly clear sky. Till I got ready it was pitch dark. So I headed for the first beast. Despite being a moonless night, I could make out the trail. Once on the pavement, it was a peace of cake. The first subject was the Nordic telescope, built by Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Island.
I approached timidly, I had to cross a barrier and walk past some sheds with lights on and voices barely audible – they seem not to have any dogs, they would have picked my scent. I was about 10m away from the shed, I could hear their voices clearly. My camera in hand, I thought what I might say to them if caught. Well, the truth seemed the easiest way out: “Look, I mean no harm, I’m a photographer and just want to take some photos of the giant”. But I had better remain invisible, I started to hatch a plan in my mind, something like a game: I am a galactic spy and I have to take photos of the giants robots of the La Palma planet. By no means should I wake them up or be seen by their guards.
I do not have a vivid imagination, but the place looked nothing like the Earth, a boulder-covered plateau, with pointed rocks in the distance, star-lit, and somewhere, long way down there was the sea enveloped in a milky mist. My heart throbbing, walking on tip toe, I was about to walk past the first shed, when from somewhere quite near by I could hear a sound that seemed to me quite loud at that moment. Oh, it was the sensor on the barrier. It was my walking in the middle of the road that had turned it on. The voices inside didn’t seem to be disturbed so I sneaked to the telescope. The hardest part was right at the end where I had to walk on gravel. My steps seemed to make a deafening noise. I found a good place for my tripod and I got down to work. Suddenly, the upper part of the telescope starts to open clattering. Oh my God, they might have seen me. I could see some green and red lights inside. From where I was standing, it looked like a giant R2D2 with the lights as eyes. I stood motionless, my head bend, my back hunched like a soldier ready to surrender, except for the white flag.
Nothing happened. So I started taking pictures. The one I had in mind was a panorama from 36 exposures, each with 30s exposure time – it was to take just 15 min. I could see nothing through the view finder, so I just framed instinctively.
I cast a glance at the photos only after I was quite far away from the R2D2 and the shed, they seemed to be ok. So I went to the next one.
Galileo looked quite different from an ordinary telescope, it lacked that rounded shape and looked rather like a launching pad. I couldn’t get too close because there was a locked gate, but still I placed my tripod inside to take a good one.
Then I walked for about 1km along the road to the most outstanding one, the father of all robots, twice the size of the others. GTC (Gran Telescopio Canarias) is the largest optic telescope in the world. With a mirror 10.4m in diameter, it looked like the father of all giants. That super giant has a building at its base where there was a lot going on, so I couldn’t get too close. As it was so big, I didn’t even need to.
I decided to go back, I rejoined my wife, after about 45min at a swift pace. It was long past 2AM but it felt as if I have been missing just for 1h.
Mission accomplished! I had succeeded in taking photos of the robots without being caught. I crawled in the first sleeping bag, then into the second with all my clothes on, which took a little bit of time and skill. I think I must have fallen asleep, just for 1h, but it was the cold that woke me up. Looking at my phone, I saw it was 5ºC. I tossed and turned looking at the moon, which had just risen.
I was forward to the crack of dawn, to be able to take some photos of the risen sun.