Tuesday, May 31, 2011

El Hierro

Originally, the final exam for the Starlight course was going to be the 26th of May, and that was when the project had to be handed in. So I booked flights to visit my friend in El Hierro for the long weekend afterwards, on the basis that I'd have earned a break by then.

Then the course teachers found that it suited them better to move the exam to the 2nd of June, and decided we could hand the project in then, too. Of course nobody objected.

Well, the flight was booked anyway, and I knew that my friend would understand if I spent some of the time putting finishing touches to my project, and/or studying for the exam.

And then my friend found that she had to move house while I was there.

So the relaxing long weekend largely consisted of lugging things out of one house into another, and cleaning the old house. Quite a lot of the rest was spent working on my project. My digestion started acting up again.

And you know what? I still had fun.

Mostly it was being with my friend. In spite of high stress levels on both sides, we had some good laughs. And I love El Hierro. She's moved to a particularly lovely part, near the Parador.

I woke very early one morning and went for a walk and saw the crescent moon rising near Venus and (I think) Mars.

We went down to the Parador for delicious (if pricey) sandwiches and to use the Wi-Fi, where we met an albino pigeon who obligingly posed on the roof for quite a while.

And once we were in the new house, we also heard weird noises in the night, which sounded something between a furious tom cat and a duck, like this . I wasn't exactly scared, but I was rather glad that I was inside the house and the whatever-it-was outside. I think I'd have felt decidedly uncomfortable about it if I'd been camping.

I can see why people have mistaken them for witches or even the devil, but actually it's a nocturnal seagull called Cory's Shearwater, or in Spanish a Pardela Cenicienta.

And with all that, I still made considerable progress on my project.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bunking off

Yesterday afternoon I should have bashed on with the Starlight Guide project and housework. Instead I took a couple of hours off and met my friend in Los Tilos. The bar there is popular with small birds (a kind of chaffinch, I think) and I couldn't resist trying to get a photo.

There was a catch, of course. Flexible though my new compact is, there's a short delay between pressing the button and the shutter firing. It's less than the previous compact - maybe half a second instead of a full second -- but it's good for lots of shots of a bird that just flew away.

Luckily persistence and patience eventually paid off, and I got a shot I'm fairly happy with. But I still plan to go back with the DSLR and try again, in better light.

And then we had a nice little walk in the drizzle, down to the water channel. This time the compact came up trumps. The trick with flowing water is usually to set a slow shutter speed, which makes the water look wetter. This was shot at half a second, and I couldn't have done that with the old camera.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Night on the Mountain

The last practical activity on the Starlight Guide course was a trip to the observatory at the Roque de los Muchachos. The bus left Santa Cruz at 2:30 pm, and when we arrived we left our stuff in the dormitories that I didn't even know they had up there (they converted one of the houses some time ago for groups like ours, four bunks to a room, bathroom shared between four rooms). We had the head of the observatory show us round the Newton and Herschel telescopes, and the Swedish solar tower (the best solar telescope in the world). After dinner we watched the sunset, then had a class on astrophotography with Daniel Lopez (very cool). That was followed by stargazing with two amateur telescopes, and a visit to the control rooms of Grantecan and the Herschel while they were working. Of course I took tons of photos plus videos of the talks. We collapsed into bed at 3 am. I was really pleased that I'd brought along a spare camera battery.

I didn't sleep too well. The room had an emergency light in the ceiling which was too bright for poor, delicate little me. So I got up early and went for a walk, where I took yet more photos.

After breakfast we had a class on infrarred and spectroscopy, followed by observations of the sun. (NEVER do this unless you know what you're doing. You can go blind instantly.) There was only one sunspot, but it was fun. Then we went around Grantecan, including the places they never normally show the public. Including places I've never managed to get into before, like the aluminizing room.

And I ran out of space on my camera card. It's a 16 Gb card, and I filled it.

So I deleted obvious duds and hunted through the menus and worked out how to drop the picture quality. And I took quite a few more before the second battery died of overwork.

I haven't managed to edit my way through 16 Gb of photos yet, which is why there's no photos in this post. I have ten days to revise for the exam and write a 4,000-word project in Spanish, and I won't have lot of time for very much else. It doesn't help that I already booked a long weekend with my friend in El Hierro, thinking that I'd have finished by then.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Really cool time lapse

Astronomy Picture of the Day is a great site. And yesterday they had a fantastic time lapse shot in the Teide national park in Tenerife.
But the coolest bit of all is that Daniel Lopez, who shot this video, will be giving a talk to us trainee Starlight Guides on Friday night.

Sickening, aren't I?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Oh well.

I was supposed to do the volcanoes walk on Saturday night as part of my Starlight Guide course. I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it's 20 km, and starts with a 500m climb, which is obviously not ideal for a podgy writer with a bad case of Writer's Bottom. On the other hand, it's a famously beautiful walk, and I've always wanted to do it someday.

So I decided to make the deadline work for me and get fit. As I've said here before, I walked up Montaña de la Breña several times, slithered around half the Breña springs walk, and went to Mazo market and back by shank's pony. that didn't look like it was going to be enough, so I swore off caffeine and sugar on Monday. The withdrawal symptoms were tough, but I reasoned that after five days' abstinence, an energy drink like Red Bull or Burn ought to have the same effect as petrol on a barbecue, and get me up that first mountain.

And after all that, I got gastroenteritis on Saturday, and had to cancel.

I was pretty hacked off, but I did recover enough to join the group at Fuencaliente for breakfast, and the final class at the San Antonio volcano visitor's centre.

Oh well.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The best laid plans...

Here's what was supposed to happen:
I was supposed to meet a group of 52 kids plus some adults at the observatory heliport at 9:45, give them a quick general talk about the observatory there, then take them up to the Isaac Newton Telescope, split the group in two, and take 26 kids+a few adults into the telescope at a time, and finish by 12:00

Here's what actually happened:
The kids' bus broke down. Not broken-down dead, but broken-down good-for-a-few-hundred-yards-before-it-stops-again. The driver nursed it as far as the residencia (the observatory's private hotel for astronomers) by 10:05. Obviously it wasn't going to make it up to the Newton. And the bus company didn't have a spare bus, although they did send a couple of repairmen with clean filters.

Obviously, I couldn't take 58 people up to the telescope in my car. It's at least ten minutes each way.

Right: first things first, give the kids chance to use the bathroom in the residencia. They'd been in the bus for 90 minutes, so someone was going to be desperate.

Next: phone my boss, tell him what was happening, and suggest the MAGIC telescope. It's not the best telescope to show to 10-year-olds, and I wasn't about to start explaining Cherenkov radiation, but it is within walking distance of the residencia.

So up we went up to the helipad beside the MAGIC, and I talked for almost an hour. By that time, I could see quite a few of them beginning to fidget. I didn't blame them - that's a long time for kids that age without any breaks or pictures or anything.

And then the bus driver came with good news - another bus was about to drop a group of walkers off at the Roque, and would be free for a couple of hours until it had to pick them up. We'd have transport up to the Newton for a quick visit.

And then Carmelo the raven dropped in for a visit. I think that was the high point of the day for most people. He managed to greed most of a sandwich off the trip's organizer before he flew off.

And then the second bus arrived, and we went up to the Isaac Newton Telescope, where I waltzed them through at high speed, so they'd have time to visit the Roque viewpoint before they had to give the second bus back.

I really hope they got to the airport in time!

Monday, May 09, 2011


It's only a week until the volcanoes walk on the night of the 14th.


Of course that means more training.

So this morning I walked to Mazo market, which is about 5 km. Then I bought lots of veggies, plus bread, cheese and eggs and filled my rucksack. I deliberately didn't buy potatoes, but the rucksack was so full that I stuffed a courgette down one side pocket, and a sweet potato down the other. Then I set off for home, wondering how far I'd get before I collapsed and had to phone my husband.

Well, I was clearly going to get home too late to cook lunch, so I phoned the roast chicken shop in San Antonio (the village just down the hill from home) and reserved a chicken. I reasoned that once my husband had picked me up from collapse-point, we could collect the chicken on the way home.

Good golly miss Molly, I made it to the chicken shop, another 5 km, and with a heavy rucksack, too.

I couldn't face the walk back up the steep hill to get home, though. So I wimped out and got my husband to drive me the last half kilometre.

I felt less of a wimp when I weighed the rucksack: 11.6 kg.

Maybe I'll manage the volcanoes route after all.


Saturday, May 07, 2011

Slithering around the Springs

On Thursday I took my get-fit-for-the-volcanoes-route programme up a notch. Instead of walking up to Montaña de la Breña, I had a go at the Breña Springs route, above San Pedro.

Most of the path is through laurel forest, which I love. It provides a great workout, since it's steep, and that day at least, rather slippery. I was glad of my new walking poles.

As the name suggests, it goes past several springs. First there's the Lavaderos de Fuente Grande, where housewives used to take the family laundry. It's rather like the Fuentiña at Puntallana, with stone washbasins still there,although not as well preserved. Then there's a little detour to Fuente Nueva, which I missed because it wasn't labelled (at least not that I could see) and on to Fuente Espinel, where the spring is surrounded by lots of little twig crosses. I don't know it this is there all year, or just an Easter thing that hasn't collapsed yet.

And then the path popped out of the forest onto a hillside. Since I was running late, I took a track down to the road, and left the other half of the route for another day. I think I did about 4km with a 300m main climb. Not bad, but I'll have to do better than that if I do the volcanoes route.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Into the Caldera

No writing, but I did survive the Caldera trip.

It didn't help that it was raining when we set off on Saturday morning. We held a discussion in Los Llanos bus station, and decided to go anyway, even though obviously we wouldn't be stargazing or leaving via the river bed as planned.

The mini buses had no trouble driving over the ford, and dropping us off at Los Brecitos.

Then we had a 5.8 km walk in the rain, with overnight supplies weighing down our backpacks.
After the first half-hour or so, I found that my waterproof wasn't. So did several other people, and by the time we arrived at the hostel, many people were soaked to the skin. Luckily, the hostel has a fireplace. Unluckily, the wood was soaking wet. We could have kippered herrings in there, if we'd had herrings.

And then things got better. The fire got going, we changed into dry(ish) clothes. One of the guy who works in the Caldera gave us a couple of bottles of home-made wine, and someone else had bought a couple of bottles of shop wine, which cheered things up no end. We had a shared dinner (my coffee and walnut cake went down well) and several classes, and a pretty good night's sleep.

And in the morning we woke to that the rain had stopped, and there was snow on the peaks, all around the Caldera rim.

After a visit to a pre-hispanic rock carving, we set off back up the hill to Los Brecitos. I was glad that my back pack was lighter without the food, but it still felt like a long way.

My camera batteries died. Then my mobile batteries died, probably because I was taking lots of photos with it. And then my batteries died, and my ankle started swelling up, and I just had to stop. Someone kindly volunteered to take my backpack, and I staggered up to the Los Brecitos at least 20 minutes after everyone else, except the people who stayed back to keep me company.

And instead of being annoyed that I kept everyone waiting, they cheered. They were all really supportive, and seem keen for me to try the volcanoes walk in two weeks time.

Gee. I'm really not sure about that.