El Hierro once was the edge of the known world. The most western point of the Old World remained the meridian of zero longitude for many centuries – as defined by the Greek geographers Marinos of Tyre and Claudius Ptolemy in the first and second century. Only in 1482, Portuguese Diogo Cão was the first European to sail beyond the Canary Islands and the West African Cape Bojador.
Today, El Hierro still has the feeling of an edge. The runway of its small airport borders the waves of the rough sea on the right and clouded dark volcanic rockfaces on the left. In contrast to the other Canary islands, few tourists visit El Hierro as there are no direct flights from Mainland Europe. To the eyes of the traveller, The Isles of the Blessed, as the Canaries were named by the ancient Greeks, still seem to be the paradise inhabited by the heroes of Greek mythology. For many of the ten thousand people living on El Hierro however, economic conditions are difficult, emigration being the result.
Only a million years old, El Hierro is the geologically youngest of the volcanic archipelago of the Canaries, and still moving. In 2011, an underwater volcano erupted a few kilometres off the coast, and the fishing village La Restinga on the southern tip had to be evacuated. The earth trembled, a fountain erupted from the ocean, and the underwater volcano spewed smoke and steaming lava rocks temporarily swimming on the sea surface: bombas, bigger rocks, and smaller restingolitas – named after the nearby village. After the volcano eruption, underwater life quickly regenerated and exploded in huge growth of the food chain.
Although the volcanic rock is constantly moving, there is a sense of constancy on the island. The trees on the northern flank of the mountain ridge are shaped by centuries of trade winds. The Phoenicean juniper trees in El Sabinar were perhaps already gnarly and askew when Christopher Columbus fueled up his supplies on his second sailing to the Americas in 1493.
The island is inhabited for a relatively short time: The first North African settlers, Berber people, arrived late on El Hierro – about five hundred years BC. When Portuguese explorers landed in 1341, they still found a stone age culture that had ended several thousand years earlier on the continents. In 1405, Jean de Béthencourt conquered the island for Spain and captured the native Bimbaches making false promises to their king. The Bimbaches were sold as slaves, and the island was repopulated with European settlers. Legend has it that the garoé tree provided water to the Bimbaches during siege by the Castilians: water from the clouds constantly condensates in the treetop and accumulates in a pit at its roots.