15 Jan 2018

48. The Garoé

Water, water everywhere, 
Nor any drop to drink …
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge)

Or so it must have seemed to the garrison of soldiers entrusted with conquering the island. Until a native princess besotted by one of the officers told them the secret of the Garoé, the tree that miraculously distilled water. That is, according to the romantic legend (see my post 33. History part 2 ). The original tree was destroyed many years ago but it’s well worth a visit to the site and its replacement.

The dutiful visitor will leave the hired car at the crossroads near San Andrés and undertake the two and a half kilometre walk along the windswept heights on a dusty or muddy 4X4 track. Once out of the pine forest (definitely not Canary pine) there is a bird’s-eye view of the ruins of La Albarada, the first colonial settlement on the island and, further along on the left, magnificent views of the foothills and valleys to the west. The site of the Garoé is surrounded by a high wall. Once through the wrought-iron gate you listen to a touristic sales pitch and pay your modest toll before emerging into a different, magical world, a green Avalon of swirling mists, vertiginous slopes and shaddowless forms at a thousand metres above the Atlantic.

It is a pity that whoever designed the awful little informative signs was not so bewitched by the surroundings. One tells us the path is slippery: “slippery floor” – oops! Others give us architect’s plans of the half-dozen cisterns dug into the ground to collect runoff from under the tree (and presumably water seeping down through the rock) and then ask us not to throw coins into them. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid events like that of the over-enthusiastic young unofficial guide who jumped into one of the cisterns only to find it was deeper, colder and darker than she had anticipated.

The Garoé tree itself grows in a cleft in the side of the mountain facing the Trade Winds coming in from the northeast. The winds cool as they rise and form clouds which are funneled into the cleft. The humidity becomes so high that the water vapour condenses on every surface it encounters, particularly on the leaves of vegetation. This phenomenon, called horizontal rainfall, is not exclusive to the Garoé and occurs all over the island, especially in the north. On misty days you will no doubt notice wet patches on the roads and hear drops banging on the roof of your car as you pass under an overhanging pine or evergreen.

From the back of the cleft looking past the moss-covered trunk of the Garoé towards the mist coming in from the north.

However, the Garoé was, as the legend suggests, an important source of water for the population before the advent of deep wells, desalination plants and municipal distribution. In 1948 there was a terrible drought that was directly responsible for the emigration of thousands of islanders. The true story goes that a certain Tadeo Casañas, simple agriculturist and bee-keeper from San Andrés, observed what happened at and around the Garoé. I don’t know if he made use of a naturally occurring screen of heath-trees or constructed some other sort of screen, but he was soon capturing the water distilled from the horizontal rainfall and channeling it in hollowed-out flower spikes of sisal plants to where it could be collected by the villagers for consumption or for watering their animals. This relief in such distressing times, at least for a few of the islanders, is a perfect example of the ingenuity, resilience and self-reliance of the true islander. It is a pity that the engineers in our institutions cannot boast of similar initiative. Since then no-one has thought of improving on Tadeo’s idea. In fact, most people have never even heard of it.

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