Sunrise over the Azores

Being in quarantine has many disadvantages but also many advantages. I have travelled through time and visited so many places, people and memories over the last few weeks that I might almost be sad when it’s all over. Mountains have featured a fair amount in my last posts so this time it’s back to the sea.

“Never before have I been so aware of the roundness of our planet. As I scan the horizon turning myself through a full 360º the contrast between the earth and sky is bowed like the rim of a shallow plate seen from the perspective of the table top. Each piece, each segment of my horizon is woven with the next.

Big seas on the last leg after 5,300km. of sailing

In 1988, the same year I decided to move to Spain I sailed on board ‘Roc’ a 13m. racing yacht from Rhode Island (USA) to Dartmouth (England) via the Azores archipelago. The first leg (almost 4,000km. of open Atlantic, whale sightings, stargazing, endless fishing and frankly a fair bit of boredom in the doldrums) took us to the the remote Azores islands where vast whaling stations sat crumbling in to the sea, happily not tinged with heavy dark blood as they were for centuries past. Pico is a volcanic island, an almost perfect cone rising to 2351m. above sea level. Not only was I happy to see land, I could also see a proper mountain. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon unaware that the evening would bring on the ‘Fiesta do Espiritu Santo’ in honour of the protectorate of the island frequently ransacked by the brutality of its live volcano. To the west of the island as we approached from the sea we could see dark trails of solid lava worming their way through vineyards and the terracota roof of a house poking up through the heavy still mass.

Taken from my journal of 16 July 1988 – 38°28’07’’ N 28°23’58’’ W

Sailing in to Pico – ‘an almost perfect cone rising to 2351m. above sea level.’

After a pleasant evening of good cheer in a dusty Praça lined with trestle tables with the locals in a language none of us spoke we were herded into a cattle truck and driven from Madalena to the foot of the volcano. It was a lucky night for us that coincided with the tradition of the youngest men of the island climbing to the summit to pay homage to the Espiritu Santo. The trail was narrow and treacherous with pockets of jagged rock covered by scrub. If you stepped off the track your leg was sure to snap like a brittle twig we were told. The mountain was alive with the swing of kerosene lamps glittering in the dark, the walk was hard and we were fortified by the Azoreans with swigs of tangy red wine. We reached the sub-summit by 0500 and immediately crashed for a sleep on what was undoubtedly the worst terrain I have ever had,  a mattress of spiky, sharp volcanic rock. 

The remains of dead volcanos whose interiors are filled with lush vegetation where one can imagine primitive creatures living in remote peace.

We woke before sunset and climbed for another hour to the peak where we were greeted by the most spectacular sunrise. We stood on a perfect cone almost 2,500m. immediately above sea level. The eight other islands that make up the Azores were below us, the vastness of the Atlantic stretched out in a radius too glorious to describe. As the sun came up we were standing on bare rock with gushes of warm air rising from the volcano and a crimson golden line of sun circling the earth below us. 

In a valley, in a rocky desert or standing on a heather bound hill one can always believe that, maybe, the earth is flat. A huge plane from which obstacles appear, protrude, poke the sky or kiss the earth but goes on for ever and ever. But not here. Not surrounded by an ocean of almost limitless depth and a horizon never interrupted by land. One can see the roundness, the curvature, and really believe that to be sitting here is to sit on top of the earth on a little point on a spinning sphere.

Dawn on the summit of Pico – not only a great view but a bizarre experience in the cold of the morning as hot air rushed up from the depths of the earth. This is a live volcano the locals kept reminding us – if it blows be prepared to run!

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