Saturday, 12 February 2011

VAGABONDRUNNING GRAN CANARIA. PART ONE:Arrival


The seed for this particular vagabond adventure was sown in March last year.I had just returned from running The Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in Mexico,and,as is usually the case after a holiday,had developed a touch of wanderlust and a wetted thirst for further adventure.The timing was significant,as I had just taken the decision to cut down my working week to four days throughout the summer,traditionally the time when extra hours could be worked and extra money earnt.Due to this decision I realized that any future adventures would have to be done ' on the cheap.'I was searching for a winter running adventure with two simple prerequisites:
(i) It had to be somewhere hot.
(ii)It had to be somewhere cheap.

There are plenty of places where it is possible to live cheaply in a hot climate,places such as Indonesia,Asia,Africa and Central and Southern America.However the cost of flying to such places normally involve significant expense.There are also plenty of places where one is able to fly cheaply,predominantly in Europe,but where the climate in the winter months is not too dissimilar to the U.K.I eventually found a location which fit the criteria on both counts-the Canary Islands.I found it was possible to obtain a return flight to one of the numerous islands in the winter months for less than £100,and that the climate was consistently hot throughout the year.

The next issue was trying to identify a way of staying on one of the islands without spending much money.I instantly thought of camping.If the climate was hot throughout the year,camping in the winter months shouldn't be an issue.Upon investigation,however,I discovered that campsites in the Canaries were generally few and far between.Additionally those that existed usually closed during the winter months.A little more research,however,unveiled an intriguing article from the archives of The Guardian newspapers travel section.The brief article mentioned the existence of 'free state run campsites.'These were all situated within the mountainous interior of the island,the majority of which is a protected environment,and were an attempt to encourage the locals to appreciate the natural beauty bestowed upon the area.With permission granted by the Government offices in the capital city,Las Palmas,these were available to be used by all.A quick search on the Government website revealed the existence of 14 free campsites,some small,some large.Some provided basic amenities,such as toilets ,a water supply and BBQ areas,some provided nothing.They all,however,shared two things in common:
(i) They were all hidden in remote areas.
(ii)They were all in the mountains, which I knew made for exquisite trail running locations.


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I landed at Gran Canaria International Airport mid January.The previous few months had caused myself the normal problems associated with the decrease in daylight hours-an increase in my dark moods and in my underlying anxieties.The weather had also been consistently bad,with weeks of snow before Christmas.I was looking forward to getting somewhere warm and running, clad only in shorts and my battered waffle racers,enjoying the wind in my hair and the sun on my back.My financial circumstances had altered somewhat.Over the Christmas vacation I had negotiated the sale of my share of the family business to my brother and ,subsequently ,now had spare cash.The trip didn't need to be carried out on a shoestring budget.The change in my attitudes to the concept of working,however,had also influenced my views to prosperity.If I wanted a life free from excessive work,and I did,I had to be comfortable with a lifestyle free from excessive materialism,ownership and expense,and I was.The trip would still be carried out ' on the cheap.'

As is my usual style,the research and my preparation for the trip was minimal and,to be honest,rather haphazard.I knew I could cope with a basic knowledge of the native tongue,and as the entire island only measured 50 odd kms in diameter,it wouldn't be as if I would ever totally be out on a limb.I had marked the campsites approximate locations on my basic tourist map,done a little reading on the web.I was ready!

I had decided to take my old Raleigh racing bike with me.I'd got the idea that it would come in handy to transport me to the campsites and I visualized jumping on it every few days to scoot down to the nearest towns to buy provisions.It was equipped with two relatively new tires and I'd had the bottom bracket replaced a few days previous.The only fault which now persisted was a worn spring on the derailleur.Whenever I changed gear this resulted in the chain developing excessive slack and I had to flick the mechanism back with my foot to stop the chain coming off.This didn't concern me.Years previous,on a year long stay in Australia,I'd bought an old VW Combi van.The spring on the accelerator pedal had perished,meaning everytime you pressed the pedal down ,it stayed down.To decrease the revs the driver had to put his foot under the pedal,and with a deft movement,give it a flick back up.The repair would have cost peanuts,but I drove the van ,in that condition ,for a full year!

I had bought the bike from a workmate several months earlier for £20.It had idled in his garage for years.Out of the 12 gears it was equipped with,I could get ten,and I'd bulked at suggestions to buy racks and panniers.I wouldn't be using it often and they seemed like an unnecessary expense.I'd purchased a clear plastic bag for £10 from The Cycle Touring Club to transport the bike on the plane journey and that would do.Most people recommended a cushioned bike bag for this purpose,but this necessitated dismantling the bike.If I covered the entire bike in plastic all I had to do was take off the pedals,lower and twist the handlebars and lower the seat.Additionally it was obvious to any baggage handlers that it was a bike,so maybe they would go easy on it.This idea bore fruit.The bike was the first item on the baggage carousel upon arrival in Gran Canaria and it looked in perfect shape.I'd developed a good feeling about this trip.I adjusted the handlebars and the seat and headed out of the arrivals lounge and into the sunshine.

I had made no set plans for my first night on the island.The flight landed at midday,but the government office in Las Palmas closed at 2p.m.There was no way that I would have the time to get a camping permit on my first day,so had resolved to head in the direction of Las Palmas,find a beach somewhere and sleep under the stars.The island is surrounded with a good road network,dual carriage ways and motorways circle it,but I wasn't sure if bikes were allowed on them.I certainly couldn't see any,and so got out my map and plotted a route that would take me initially inland on quieter roads,before turning towards Las Palmas.I removed my tent from my backpack and attached it to the bikes cross frame with a couple of bungee straps,and then ,with pack on my back and sleeping bag in my hand/on the handlebars,commenced my adventure.

After, approximately 10 minutes,I knew I had once again bowed down to The Great God of Naivety.The first hill wasn't even all that steep,but in my lowest gear I was struggling big time.My backpack was too heavy,my shoulders were aching,I was sweating profusely,and was wobbling all over the road.In the face of adversity I did as I always do...carried on.The summit of the second hill threw up another problem,a puncture.I had specifically purchased two new tubes filled with some sort of green goo,which,supposedly,were puncture proof.They were not.I changed the tube,remaining upbeat.It was only 15-20 kms to Las Palmas and some had to be downhill.

The next few kms were downhill-steep downhill.As I wobbled at speed down the hill,passing a local police car,I was exhilarated.I pedalled like fury,trying to boost momentum for the up coming climb.I changed down gears at the bottom,stood up on my pedals ready for the push,and that's when it happened.The chain jammed,the pedals stopped and the derailleur shattered.I came to an abrupt halt,just as the police car sailed past.I disembarked,surveyed the reckage,and sat down.I was half an hour into the trip and already things were going pearshaped.I walked up the hill.I would have to get to Las Palmas,find a bike shop,and get it fixed.At the summit of the hill I entered a small residential area.At the side of the houses were a row of dustbins.I walked past them,stopped,and then returned.In those few seconds I had made a decision.My trusted iron steed would not be up to the task in hand.I rested it against the bins and walked on,refusing to look back.I hoped that some enterprising Spanish youngster would stumble upon it,recognize the quality of the Reynolds 531 tubing and take it on as a pet project.Realistically I knew it would be consigned to the scrap heat.

Despite my shaky start,I was still upbeat.I knew the island was small and that the approximate vicinities of the campsites could be reached by public transport.I glanced down at myself.I'd taken a pair of shorts with me,my favourite 10 year old 'Animals',forgetting that ,by the end of the previous summer,they had developed rather big holes on the front and back.They were now covered in oil.My hands and finger nails were covered in oil,my legs were covered in oil,and my face,complete with my newly grown month old beard were,no doubt,also covered in oil.As I walked into the nearby shop the assistants face said it all.She examined my 20 euro notes for an age,as I bought a consoling Coke.I looked a mess.I'd been in Gran Canaria for an hour.

After consulting my map once again,I decided to locate the nearest beach and call it a day.I headed towards a development named La Garita.On the way down to the coast I was fortunate to pass a large retail park,with major supermarket attached.I bought batteries for my radio,water,a lighter and a bottle with 'alcohol' written on it in the decorating section.I'd bought a Trangia camping stove in the U.K,never used one before,but knew it ran on methylated spirits.I presumed any substance that was alcohol based would work as a fuel source.I walked towards the beach as the sun was setting,and once there,made my way to the cliffs at the back,protecting me from view of the road and apartments above.The alcohol worked and I cooked and ate some pasta,laid out my sleeping mat,jumped in my sleeping bag and stared at the stars as I listened to the sound of the waves.I thought of one of my heroes,Chongo Tucker.Chongo lived rough for several years evading the Park Rangers in Yosemite National Park,while climbing full time.I remembered a comment of his when he said he refused to think of himself as homeless-wherever he choose to sleep on any particular night was his home.I was living it like Chongo.I thought of the package holiday makers who shared my flight over.They'd be at their hotels by now,having a meal or,perhaps,a few drinks.They'd be doing the usual holiday maker thing,at a considerable cost.I was truly living it,it was free,and so easy.As I drifted to sleep the last thought that entered my head was it would be really scary if I awoke in the night and someone was there.

I fell asleep shortly after the onset of darkness,at about 7 p.m.As I awoke ,I heard voices.I looked at my watch-10 p.m.I rose my head and in an alcove,perhaps 30 m away saw the end of a lighted cigarette.Someone was there.I lowered my head again,curiously not scared or freaked out.I knew it wasn't the police and it was doubtful that I would be unlucky enough to get mugged and murdered on my first night.I closed my eyes and tried to make out the voices.There were two,one male,one female and they both sounded young.I saw the man,in the darkness stand up and unfold a blanket.More talking continued,then silence.Soon enough I heard the unmistakable sounds of a couple making love.They obviously hadn't seen me,perhaps mistaking me for a lump of drift wood or something similar.By this time I was bursting for a pee,but knew any movement I made would scare the living daylights out of the young lovers.I eventually fell back to sleep and when I woke again the coast was clear.I had a pee,got back in the sack and thought , 'Now that is a classic first day to a Vagabond adventure!'

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