The fossils are clear – just a few million years ago Europe was covered in broad-leaved, evergreen forest. There were palm trees and numerous other trees that are now only found in the tropics. Under almost any definition, this would be called ‘rainforest’. The climate then cooled and dried and the evergreen forests were mostly replaced by deciduous ones. Europe has plenty of evergreen pines now, but evergreen broad-leaves are few (holly is one). On these criteria, the rainforest has vanished. However, there is a place that is sometimes advertised as ‘The last rainforest in Europe’ – high in the mountains of one of the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands lie a little to the west of the African coast. They sit adjacent Morocco and Western Sahara, so it’s a bit of stretch to include them in Europe. This claim may have more to do with travel agents than geographers. That they have rainforest is less questionable.
I can generally trace many of my stuff-ups back to the precise moment where I made an Assumption. There was some point, generally early on in what ever happened, that my brain unquestionably took me down a certain path. For the Canary Islands, it was flicking through a Merian journal in Frankfurt airport. The journal happened to be written in German, but the photographs of ‘The last rainforest in Europe’, were stunning. I resolved there and then to go there and took a casual mental note of a couple of place names. These were, I assumed, enough to get me going to the island of La Gomera, where the best rainforest remains.
In Madrid I popped into a travel agent and asked for tickets to La Palma. Or something like that. In retrospect the agent may have tried to clarify something with me, but with a language barrier, I probably just nodded dumbly and said ‘fly me’. I had been in the Canary Islands for a few days before I found out that I was in Las Palmas, not La Palma. Ironically this was by sharing a bunk room with a Spanish school teacher, with German as our only common language. The city of Las Palmas is on the island of Gran Canaria, to the east of La Gomera. The island of La Palma is to its west. Just to add to the mix, the main city of the island of Tenerife, is Santa Cruz, while the main city of La Palma, is … Santa Cruz. As it turned out, I was about as far away from La Gomera as I could possibly be. The location of the Canary Islands is not one where the word ‘rainforest’ springs to mind. They are a group of volcanic peaks, sitting just west of the Sahara – and the environsof Las Palmas emphasises this. The Canary Islands are mostly known as haven for sun-seeking tourists. Plant cover is practically absent, though the ‘Canary Island Palm’, now spread throughout the world’s cities and presumably the culprit behind my fiasco with names, seemed to thrive almost anywhere. Unfortunately, with the virtual lack of greenery and dry climate, rubbish just remained in full view wherever it was dumped or had blown. The locals seemed rather indifferent, no doubt over-dosed on tourists, though helpful in a matter of fact way when I asked for local directions.
Having finally oriented myself, I took two ferries – one to Tenerife, then another to La Gomera. In the town of San Sebastian I got a room in the house of a little old lady, and the next day got a bus into Garajonay National Park, in the highlands. I learned there was a single bus back to the town at about 5 pm and I had to wait at a certain roundabout.
Finally, I was in the ‘last European rainforest’. It’s what the Spanish call the ‘Laurasilva’. The situation of having dry vegetation in the lowlands and moist uplands with rain, or ‘cloud forest’ is frequently found around the world. While I was there, the forest was in perpetual cloud or mist. Cloud drip, rather than actual rain (La Gomera has a pronounced rainfall dry-season each year), is a key factor in keeping the area wet, mossy, and looking like a rainforest.
I went for a relaxing walk along a path, beneath the canopy of moss-laden forest. The trees are not large and the biodiversity is low – there are some heath trees and just four species of the evergreen laurel family. It’s the presence of these laurels that really get botanists excited. Laurels were common and diverse in the original European rainforest, as they are in many warm rainforests today. Even if the Canary Islands are not Europe, they are still the nearest place with a forest that includes laurels. So not only does the forest have the ‘look’ of a rainforest – it fits some floristic criteria too.
Despite the low biodiversity, this tiny spot is a refuge from what was once wall-to wall across Europe (well before humans arrived on the scene). With the exception of a young couple with a small child, I had the place to myself, and there was plenty of time to explore and then wander back to the roundabout in time for the bus.
As the rainforest lay in a pass, I could walk even higher – and this is where things got surprising. I’m used to the wet forest forming the highest forest on a mountain – anything higher is typically shrubland, where trees are limited by cooler temperatures. But here – the cloud-shrouded wet forest passed upwards into sunny, dry pine forests. The reason for this is that the clouds all form where trade winds from the sea blew through the narrow pass by lower down. Higher than that they did not form – but the temperature was plenty warm-enough for trees. I was happy to have learnt something new and wandered back down to the still cloud-enveloped pass and waited at the roundabout for the bus.
When the bus came, it shot past so quickly and without any hint of even slowing that I started to doubt I saw it at all. But it had, and the only option now was to start walking – the 17 km back to San Sebastian. I tried hitching but the car drivers seemed as indifferent as whoever had been driving the bus. Eventually it was dark and any chances of hitching had likely evaporated and I gave up. It was pitch black except for the lights of San Sebastian far below. As the hours passed and I plodded on down the hair-pin bends, by some curious optical illusion, the lights of the town rose, like some galaxy, until they appeared to be above me. Then a car pulled over, unbidden. The driver, who spoke just enough English to bellow “Hah, others think you are Bandido – but not me!” That was all he ever said, and he dropped me in San Sebastian without a further comment or wave.
All that was left of the day was to negotiate with the little old lady to let me in at 0100, and finally get some sleep.
Juan, C., Emerson, B. C., Oromí, P. & Hewitt, G. M. (2000). Colonization and diversification: towards a phylogeographic synthesis for the Canary Islands. Tree 15, 104-109.