On Top of the World, and Star-Gazing, in Tenerife

By William J. Furney

Why are observatories painted white? Wouldn’t a natural shade of green be better, so they’d blend in with the environment and not stick out like an unsightly pubescent pimple? After visiting CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, on the Swiss-French border in November and getting a glimpse at the subatomic goings on as revealed by the Large Hadron Collider particle collider, two months later I found myself on top of a tall volcano and amid blindingly white observatories staring at a very large celestial body, the sun, through a solar telescope.

I was the embodiment of superstring theory, manifesting myself as the the bridge between Einstein’s general relativity and quantum mechanics, where life in the universe and the laws that govern it entirely break down and bizarre things start to happen.

Way up at 2,390 metres and peering at the heavens as great, billowing patches of cloud float past way down below is also a strange place. It’s Teide Observatory on the Spanish island of Tenerife off the west coast of Africa and that’s part of a seven-island archipelago that make up the Canary Islands so popular with tourists for their year-round brilliant weather said to be the best in the world. (Native English-speakers pronounce the island TEN-ER-IF while the Spanish say TEN-ER-IF-EH; and “Canary” has nothing to do with the small, colorful and chirpy bird often kept in cages — but either dogs or big lizards.)

The highest point on Teide is at 3,718 metres — also the highest point in all of Spain — and a cable car ferries tourists from near the base of the summit right up to the top of it. While I’ve climbed to the summit of active volcanoes in Indonesia and rode a cable car in Singapore, from the mainland to Sentosa Island, I did not have the stomach to hop aboard a mechanical contraption so high up.

Teide Observatory is reached by driving through a Martian-like environment and a taking a series of fairly hair-raising high-altitude roads to a barrier that will not readily open to admit just about anyone. You have to sit and wait to be admitted. This is one special star-gazing place.

That’s because due to incredibly clear skies and ones that are largely free of light and chemical pollution, the Canary Islands are among the best places in the world — along with Chile and Hawaii — for astronomy. The Canarian island of La Palma is where you’ll find the world’s largest optical telescope, and it’s also high up on a volcanic mountain.

I had traveled to this lofty place of bold scientific discovery with George, a Hungarian now resident in Tenerife with his wife, and his luxury BMW vehicle he had shipped in from Germany and had brought over himself. Also along for the ride was my silent French friend Michel, whose only real utterance during the day-long trip was shortly after we set off and almost slammed into a black dog on the motorway.

Mountain Drive: Setting off in Tenerife for the high observatory on Teide Volcano, with Hungarian George at the wheel.

Michel and I had arrived from the neigbouring island of Gran Canaria, via buses and a crazily listing catamaran. I had blagged our way into first class, as it was at the bow of the vessel, and we were enjoying the rollercoaster ride created by strong currents, and a couple of beers that turned out to be complimentary, when an official asked for our first class tickets and when we didn’t have them we were swiftly booted into economy at the stern. At least it was calmer back there.

Driver George was also our Airbnb host. At least his daughter was. If she had been there in the south of Tenerife when we arrived late in the evening. She was, he said, a bank employee and was away at some conference on the European mainland. And there was no apartment, it turned out. Well, there was, and I had booked it for three nights, but it was already booked on this first night, George explained. What a cosmic conundrum.

The affable and rotund George nonetheless was full of optimism and said there was another, “much nicer and bigger” apartment nearby that we could have instead. Only it turned out to be his apartment, and other guests would be turning up later in the night. I didn’t discover that unfortunate fact until after we had arrived at the place and a woman there with dogs who turned out to be his wife left, and George didn’t, and one look at my tiny bedroom with hospital-style bed was all I needed to get right out of there.

To be fair to George, after I told him this accommodation situation was ridiculous and I couldn’t accept it, he went straight online, to booking.com, and found an available apartment nearby, paid for it and then drove us there. The next day he turned up and took us to the now-vacant apartment that I had booked — a lovely place with a great balcony overlooking the sea and arriving ferries.

At the multi-facility observatory atop Teide Volcano, I invited George to come in, and paid for him to join our tour. He devoured it like a child gobbling an ice-cream on a hot day, and both he and his absent daughter thanked me. The observatory, operated remotely from universities and science centres around the world and only with a skeleton staff on-site to carry out essential maintenance, is a heady place. So high up and with such lofty goals to explore the origin of the universe, it’s not hard to feel dizzy from the sheer altitude and ambition.

One image that will remain with me from that incredible New Year trip was an electronic eye peering up into cosmos, silently and desperately seeking answers in a cold and unexplained world.

And as to why observatories are always white? It’s because, I was told high up on the volcano, that white reflects light, not absorbs various spectra of it the way other colours do, and this reduces heat and other vibrations and makes the pictures rendered by the telescopes within all the clearer. Picture-perfect.

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