Friday, December 30, 2011

Walking In Lanzarote

I'll be away for the next few days doing some walking in the island of La Palma, my first time there. So I leave with an account of last year's trip to Lanzarote, done at the same time of year. Lanzarote may not be as famous for trekking as islands with higher peaks or forests like Tenerife, La Gomera, El Hierro and La Palma, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time there and did much better walks than we had expected.

Day 1 began with not much walking going on. In the national park of Timanfaya you have to leave your car in the parking area and then get on a bus to be taken on a route around the area of the extensive volcanic eruptions that took place in the 18th Century. It's still a volcanic desert, but a spectacular sight. 

A short distance down the road from the Timanfaya interpretation centre there is an area of the park where you can do some walking. The Caldera Blanca is a beautiful, and reasonably easy, route to do. Once you find the path from the parking area it's hard to wander off it, at least whilst you are walking through a sea of jagged lava. Despite the path it's still a good idea to wear boots or strong shoes. The Caldera Blanca is the one at the back in the photo below.

There is some climbing involved to get up to the crater, and if you want to make the route a bit more difficult, as we did, then you can descend down into the crater itself. I wanted to check out the stone rings in the centre. I suspect they are not very ancient.

We did a full circuit of the crater with fantastic views along the coast and into the interior of the island. It's a route that can be done comfortably in 2-3 hours and was a great introduction to the volcanic landscape of Lanzarote.

On the second day we moved to another island. La Graciosa isn't very big, has only two villages and a few hundred inhabitants, and is just a short boat trip away from the the northern part of Lanzarote. This is the capital!

We set off into the interior of the island without worrying too much about following a path or even having a fixed objective. Others hire bikes or even Land Rovers to take them around the island, but we just went over the low hills in the centre. Once again, the views were spectacular and the weather was perfect.

On the other side there is a wild Atlantic beach, with waves to match. Although conditions were calm this is not a very safe place to go in too deep, there is a strong undertow. But the day, and the walk to get there, made it hot enough to go into the water. 

We walked back using the road that cuts across the centre of the island, much quicker but with poorer views. La Graciosa has a low key charm, and is a place where I could happily spend 2-3 days. 

On our third day we went to a part of Lanzarote known as Los Ajaches. Nowhere on the island goes much higher than 600 metres, but in this area we did a relatively tough circular walk taking us from the hills higher up down to the coast and then back up again.

The reward for the effort was another day of fantastic weather and excellent views of the island. The landscape, as with much of the island, is fairly barren. Nobody comes to Lanzarote for the Atlantic cloud forest. But we could see the coast on two sides, including views of neighbouring Fuerteventura.

We were based for the trip in the beach resort of Playa Blanca. It's always entertaining to stay in a place like this on walking holidays, people preparing for a day by the beach stare in wonder at the Martians who eat their breakfast wearing full trekking gear. It was a good place to stay, a beer by the sea after a day's walking always gives things a different perspective. La Palma I expect to be a bit different. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Things Have To Get Worse Before They Get Really Bad

It seems we were far too optimistic in believing that Mariano Rajoy would finally reveal the details of his economic programme in the parliamentary debate which led to him being formally elected as Spanish prime minister. Instead what we got is a carefully presented misrepresentation of what awaits us, with all the painful details still unrevealed. Supporters of the government will claim this is not true, with the announcement having been made of 16000 million euros in cuts in government spending. But this figure, with the nature of the cuts to be made still unspecified, is simply an unsustainable fraud.

It's true that the cuts figure represents the amount needed for Spain to hit the budget deficit target for 2012. But Rajoy's speech was littered with fiscal presents that make it impossible for Spain to hit the deficit target without making further huge cuts. Unnecessary reductions in corporation tax were promised together with the crazy reintroduction of tax deductions for mortgage holders. The tax on companies is only paid if they are profitable in the first place, and tax officials in Spain have estimated that the real average rate at which this tax is paid is only 10% anyway given that there are so many ways in which to reduce the burden. The mortgage tax deduction is widely credited with having been one of the factors behind the disastrous housing price bubble. If Rajoy sticks to these tax commitments, together with his promise to increase pensions, then most of the promised cuts in spending are already cancelled out by reductions in government income or increased spending elsewhere.

What this all means is cuts in spending way beyond the headline figure, or backtracking on Rajoy's few concrete commitments. A few short weeks ago it was education and health that were untouchable alongside pensions. You won't hear that any more. Despite all the talk of cutting wasteful spending, the reality is that the axe is going to fall on essential services and the employees who work in those services. All the money ripped off in those mega projects of the boom years has been safely stashed away. Usually where the taxman is unlikely to find it should the government surprise us and start to do something about the manifest injustice that leads to so many of those who have the money not being asked to make any contribution towards the cost of the crisis.

The bad news doesn't stop here. Nobody seems very confident about Spain hitting the deficit target for 2011, mostly because of the still unconfirmed deficits in the regional governments. Each 1% of variance above the target is more or less equivalent to another 10000 million euros in cutbacks. Lets assume that 1% variation and a generous estimate of a similar amount on the tax cuts; that's a not very trivial additional 20000 million euros of cuts on top of what Rajoy has already promised. In total well over twice as much as those cuts already made by Zapatero's government, which of course the PP opposed so vehemently when in opposition. Whatever happened to the Madrid PP's petition against the rise in VAT?

The reasons why the PP will not reveal the true scale of the cuts are more to do with political strategy, rather than the economy. Andalucia holds regional elections in March, and the PP has high hopes of winning control of the region after decades of PSOE control. So the full reality of the cuts the PP intend to make has been put back until after these crucial elections, when suddenly we can expect the veil to be lifted and reality will bite hard. The outlook for Spain in 2012 is tremendously grim, unemployment is going to continue to rise well beyond the symbolic figure of 5 million and there is no prospect of economic recovery.

It's wake-up time, particularly for those PP voters who were seduced by the comfortable but cynical illusion that all it would take was a change of government for Spain's economic situation to improve. The recognition yesterday by the new economy minister, Luis de Guindos, that Spain is heading back into recession just makes all this pain for no gain seem even more absurd. This is no natural "business cycle" recession. It's a deliberately provoked recession which will only be made worse by the spending cuts. There are those who will argue that it's a sovereign debt crisis, or even those who still prefer the morality fairy tale of spendthrift Mediterraneans punished for their years of high living. But the Christmas gift of huge amounts of cheap money the other day from the European Central Bank to the banks tells the real story. Those who warned that failure to deal with the causes of the financial crisis would lead to it continuing were right. Those who scoffed at them were disastrously and stupidly wrong. 

There is possibly somewhere a lunatic, safely locked up and restrained, who regards the bombing of Hiroshima as an example of progressive town planning and slum clearance. Those who insist on regarding the deliberate destruction of productive economic capacity as a process of "structural reform" are still walking the streets. You need to have a truly impressive resistance to reality to still believe this kind of interpretation with everything that has happened in the last few years. But then the faith based economics which are so dominant these days accept no examination of the evidence. The coming economic miracle is just kicked repeatedly further into the future. Any other economic model which produced such dismal results would have been binned long ago. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ghost Train

With all the publicity concerning airports in Spain where no planes land any more, or where no planes have ever landed, here is a reminder of some failed projects from an earlier age. We did a weekend trip to Jaca in August to do some walking and had some time to take a look at the international railway station of Canfranc. A very fine looking building it is too, but a bridge accident in 1970 on the French side has meant that international traffic has been a bit sparse for the last 40 years. Not that there are no trains at all in Canfranc, a graffiti covered two coach service from Zaragoza arrived whilst I was taking photos of the station. But it goes no further towards France than this.

It seems that the most successful period for the Canfranc line was during the second world war, with busy trade between Franco's Spain and Nazi occupied France. The sort of thing that the revisionists who play down the fascism of Franco's dictatorship tend not to like very much.

Over in Cantabria there is a significantly less successful line. The station at Yera has never seen any trains at all as the Santander-Mediterranean rail link was never completed. We did want to take a look at the nearby tunnel of La Engaña which cuts through the mountainside separating Cantabria from Castilla-León for almost 7 kilometres, but we didn't have the right footwear for the day we were there in November. In any case the tunnel is not recommended for visits, having collapsed in places. Instead we went off to eat cabrito asado.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mariano, Pan Y Vino

The shroud of secrecy that normally covers one of the most mysterious regimes in the world was lifted briefly yesterday. The accession to power of Kim Jong Rajoy in Spain and his announcement of the new Politburo have excited foreign observers who were not expecting the man now known as the "Dear Leader At Last" to make any public pronouncements. He normally doesn't.

The official party organ, PPravda, has greeted the new leadership with enthusiasm and furiously condemned the legacy of Kim Jong Rajoy's predecessor. Little is known about Kim Jong Rajoy's rise to power, he is believed to worked his way up through the ranks largely by being extremely difficult to remove from any position that he has been given and by being absolutely loyal to the Greatest Leader Kim Jong Aznar.

The task facing the new leader is a formidable one, his country faces potential bankruptcy as a result of the ruinous and semi-clandestine programme of banking fusion pursued by the regime. Information about the programme is strictly controlled but it is believed to involve smaller banks being hurled together inside a collision chamber, the fusion being achieved thanks to lubrication involving vast amounts of public money and the combustion of essential public services.

Far away from Madrid's special diplomatic shops with their showy displays of expensive imported consumer goods, there are reports of deep economic crisis from around the country. Kim Jong Rajoy, in his first speech to the Central Committee as leader, promised the nation that he would now be calling bread "bread", and wine "wine". This cryptic remark is interpreted to mean possible significant price hikes for these important Spanish staples.

Economic policy is in the hands of a group of dogmatic hardliners who refuse to accept responsibility for the crisis. They don't get out much and therefore make no attempt to assess whether their policies are working. Much of the blame for the crisis has instead been apportioned to those few groups of workers who still have jobs. It is said that some of these still enjoy clearly outmoded privileges such as time off at weekends, a limit on working hours and even the occasional holiday. It is expected that the new leadership will move swiftly to ensure that such inefficient practices are eliminated. A long, cold winter is expected.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Lombok....Mount Rinjani

I'm off to Malawi for 18 days for the traditional South of Watford winter break. So in the meantime I leave you with a long overdue post from last year's September trip to Indonesia. Mount Rinjani, on the island of Lombok, is without doubt one of the most impressive treks I've done and one of the most special places that I have ever been to.

There seem to be plenty of people offering Rinjani treks these days, of varying difficulty and duration. We opted for what seems to be the 'full' trek that goes to the summit of the volcanic crater rim; three days trekking and two nights spent camping on the mountain. We arranged it in advance and were picked up on arrival in Lombok, having travelled by fast boat across from Bali the morning after arrival leaving our jet lag behind us. The first night in the village of Senaru was also included in the package that we had contracted. Rinjani was hidden by clouds when we arrived in Senaru, but the surroundings were not. Later on that day the weather would get significantly worse.
It rained hard for most of the afternoon and evening, even though this was supposed to be still the dry season. Now where have I heard that before? We didn't feel too optimistic about the weather conditions on the big mountain above us, given what was falling down below, and we had to make some tough decisions on what to take with us on the trek, to avoid being overloaded on the climb. Our guide splashed his way to the hotel to come and give us a basic briefing for the next day.

The first day of the trek dawned quite bright and sunny. Even so, the mountain above still seemed to be covered in thick clouds. Knowing how cold it could be up at 3000 metres if it continued to rain we ended up taking a bit too much stuff with us. The trek begins at the national park office a bit above the village and we immediately started climbing through the forest, hot work even with the shade provided by the trees. Above us we would get occasional glimpses of groups of monkeys. The path is occasionally steep and it's best to have boots with a reasonable grip. The route is easy enough to follow, there are few alternatives and the surrounding forest is thick enough to make wandering off in the wrong direction difficult.

There are stopping points at intervals on the way up and by mid-morning we had reached the point where everyone seems to stop for lunch. We had already climbed some 900 metres up the forest path and I was grateful for a lengthy break. Our guide was also the cook, and the two porters who came with us were carrying the food, water and the tents that we would sleep in. Lunch took a while as the rain the day before meant that the available firewood didn't burn easily. After lunch the path continued to rise quite steeply through the forest for another hour or so, after which it levels off slightly and the forest gradually disappears. It was raining occasionally, but never heavily enough to make wearing a jacket seem like a good idea, I was already hot enough from the climb.
The next rest point is a good place to stop, because the last part of the climb to the crater rim - our objective for this first day - is steeper. I took this part very slowly, in total the day's climb was around 2000 metres and the last 2-300 were very hard work. There was a reward though. I hadn't expected to be able to see very much when we got to the rim, given the rain that had fallen further down and the clouds that were still swirling around. We were in luck though, and arrived at the crater at a perfect time to appreciate our surroundings. Several hundred metres below, inside the crater, we could see the lake and the young (in geological terms) and active volcano Gunung Barujari rising out from the waters. It's a beautiful place to be and the weather was on our side, although it soon feels cold after dark. Normally I hate camping, but there are places like this where there is simply no alternative if you want to be there.
The next morning the mountain was again very clear. Breakfast has to be watched closely, unless you want the scavenging monkeys to eat it for you. Day 2 of the trek involved a descent into the crater down to the lakeside, to be followed by the climb back up to the rim on the other side in preparation for the summit walk. Rinjani's crater is steep, wherever you look, and going down is not really easier than going up. We set off early, and I think we were the first people to make it down to the lake. From this position you get a close up of the volcano in the middle. But the main attraction down here is a short walk away from the lake itself. Hot springs gush out of the mountain and we spent the time before lunch enjoying the murky, but just hot enough to bear, water. 
Maybe it was the heat of the water, but in many ways I felt more tired after the springs than before, it produced a feeling of lethargy which lunch only seemed to make worse. This was a shame, because the afternoon activity was all upwards, ascending the crater path to our campsite for that night. I was happy for the clouds to move in and protect me from the sun as I made my slow way up the mountain. We'd been worried about the possibility of rain but in the end the weather was more or less perfect as the clouds just seemed to move in when we needed them. Our camp for the night was still around 1000 metres below the Rinjani summit point. It's not quite such a beautiful position as the first night, as the volcano in the lake is hidden from view. In any case, we were not intending to stay up late - there's not a lot to do after dinner and you get up in the middle of the night to go to the summit as the best time to be there is for sunrise.
Warm clothes on, head torch in position, and we were ready to start the climb in darkness but with some light from the moon. I was never very optimistic about my chances of making it to the top, I was really feeling the effects of the previous two days in my legs and we had already agreed with the guide that he would stay with me if I couldn't make it to the top. To be honest I don't think he relished the prospect of the climb either. I knew after about 5 minutes of walking that I wasn't going to go all the way. The path consisted mostly of volcanic grit and sand and we had already been warned about the effort this would involve as you try to go up without sliding backwards. My legs weren't strong enough, and I was going painfully slowly. After a while Silvia left us behind and sped off up the mountainside with some other trekkers. I continued slowly but steadily, but with no real intention of attempting the summit - in the end I think I got a little over half way.The path had got a little easier than the first part but would soon get steeper again We had to shelter from the wind for a while as we waited for daylight and the first faint rays from the sun.

It didn't matter too much about not reaching the top, the views from where I gave up were still fantastic. At first light the lake was still partially lit by moonlight. Then, as it became lighter, the shadow on the horizon would become recognisable as Bali's Mount Ugung; that was to be climbed later in our trip. The sunrise was spectacular and we could see all the way down the mountain to the coast and some of the smaller islands close to Lombok. With the sun high enough to make us feel a bit warmer we made our way back down to the campsite for breakfast. Silvia told me that the final part of the ascent is tremendously difficult as the volcanic sand and a steep path makes going up so hard and slow.
Back at the camp a war was in progress. When we arrived the previous afternoon there was no sign of monkeys hunting for food. But now they were out in force and were incredibly bold in their attempts to snatch anything edible. The porters and guides were being very vigilant in keeping them at bay but you couldn't put a plate on the ground. As if getting up in the middle of the night to climb wasn't enough, we now had the descent to deal with. We didn't go back the way we had come, that would have meant going back into the crater to climb out the other side. Instead we had a descent down to the village of Sembalun. The first couple of hours was difficult, a steep walk down a gritty path where it was very easy to slip. After that things get easier, but hotter, as we crossed grasslands with little shelter. The final section as we neared the village seemed to take forever and I was looking forward to a good rest. It's a fantastic trek to do, but it would take a couple of days for my legs to recover from the experience. We were picked up by the people from the agency who took us all the way around half of Lombok to our next destination on the coast, Senggigi.