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The Lava Caves Of Lanzarote

Overcoming my puritanical instincts which dictated an Englishman should sit out an English winter, Angie and I took off for Lanzarote this January.   Lanzarote, the northernmost of the Canary Islands, lies roughly on the same latitude as the Bahamas and the Spanish Sahara and has a climate aptly described as eternal spring.  Apart from its climatic benefits the island also sports some extensive lava fields of varying vintage.  These are the consequence of volcanic eruptions in the recent geological past - so recent that the islands are still seismically active.  Although the last major eruption on Lanzarote was two hundred years ago the last eruption in the Canaries occurred within the last two decades. Lava fields often contain lava tubes i.e. caves.  Not long ago Caves and Caving contained an article on the lava tubes of Lanzarote and this helped to stimulate my interest.

The largest, and most recent lava field, can be found in the Timanfaya national park to the south-west of the island.  The problem about exploration here is that the park is out of bounds to the average tourist apart from guided coach tours through the dramatic landscape.  One of these tours is a must for any visitor to the island.  It is a bit like being in an above ground show cave if you can envisage such a thing! The tour starts at a discreetly and tastefully constructed restaurant overlooking the park - shades of Ailwee. Here the park guides demonstrate the proximity of hot rock by throwing furze into excavated pits, letting it burst into flame, and by tipping water into metal pipes let into the ground to create artificial geysers.  If this was not enough the restaurant grills its meat on a volcanic barbecue.

The coach drive, with appropriate good music, meanders through the genuinely lunar landscape - dunes of ash, frozen lava falls, panoramic views of craters, ash cones and collapsed lava tubes can all be seen.  At one point the coach goes through a collapsed tube on the walls of which can be seen lavatites.  The lava field extends to the sea on the west coast and this is accessible via rough tracks - probably worth looking at for new caves.

To the north of the island is the extinct Monte Corona and a lava field extending to the east coast. This field is much older and has become covered with vegetation, mostly succulents.  One of the world's longest lava tube complexes extends from the base of the volcano and can be entered at a number of points.  Beside the road to the coast is a huge collapse doline from which both the 'upstream' and 'downstream' sections of the tunnel can be entered.  They are spectacularly big and made me regret not having a torch with me.  I could walk into the downstream tunnel for 50 metres with daylight still penetrating.

Down the road a bit further and marked only by a car park is the show cave Cueva Los Verdes.  Here the doline has been planted cut with exotic plant life.  The ticket office is a cunningly concealed hole in the doline wall - easy to walk past until the hand shoots out!  An engineered descent through a boulder ruckle enters a large dry meandering tunnel with more discreet mood music (Brian Eno ambient style) and concealed lighting. There is a notable absence of the ferns one sees normally in limestone show caves.  The tunnel looking every inch like a vadose canyon debouches into a much larger hall containing a concert platform.  The cave can be seen to continue beyond a pile of boulders. The way back is along a high level passage with an absence of safety barriers which would make a HSE inspector blanch.  Joe feature here is an artificial pool which by reflecting the high roof above creates the optical illusion that one is peering down a deep pit.  Quite a few people were taken in by this despite the fact that they had just walked from that direction at a lower level.  One leaves the cave by a separate entrance in the doline past the biggest Swiss Cheese plants I have ever seen.

Right down near the coast is the Jameos del Agua - an entertainment complex in a cave.  One enters the Doline via a spiral staircase. A restaurant covers most of the middle level whilst ferns and cacti grow around the walls.  On the seaward side of the dance floor is a descending boulder slope to an illuminated sump pool which is tidal.  This is the start of the Atlantida tunnel extending 1.6 kilometres out under the sea to a depth of 64 metres.  On the other side the restaurant is another flight of steps down to a short tunnel almost completely filled by a deep blue tidal pool.  This pool contains thousands of tiny crabs (or squat lobsters) which are blind and white.  A path along one side of the pool leads to yet more steps up into another doline containing mere exotic plants and a swimming pool more appropriately coloured for a zoo's penguin enclosure.  The place was spotlessly clean - we were amused to see somebody vacuuming the stone steps of the doline.  If you visit Lanzarote try to get off the beaten track and take some walking boots, helmet and torch.  I am sure you will be rewarded.