Lobito would show me the way. The fudge-coloured mutt with a question mark tail had been my companion, on and off, for much of my day’s hike. He first padded up to me out on the Nisdafe plateau while, to a backdrop of exploded volcano craters, I sat munching my midday sandwich of smoky morcilla sausage. I later learned his name from a shepherdess who yelled at him to keep away from her sheep-dog bitch. Lobito (which means ‘little wolf’) was, she divulged to me in Spanish, hands on hips, “…a Don Juan… forever on amorous adventures, if you understand me. Just like my nephew in Mocanal, his owner.”
I next met Lobito when he emerged from the undergrowth while I was looking for the trail through pine woods to Mocanal village, just west of the island’s capital’ Valverde. Calculating that he must be making his gratified way home, I followed the question mark down a lava-paved mule track. Sure enough Libido (as I could not help re-christening him) showed me the way. In truth, orientation on the island of El Hierro is fairly simple. One thing that had lured me to the smallest, furthest-south, furthest-west, often-forgotten and least-visited of the seven Canaries, was the Red de Senderos – a new network of themed hiking trails. These have been waymarked and well-mapped over the past couple of years by local tourism authorities.
El Hierro has no beaches (unless you count a couple of stony black crescents), no resorts or hotels with more than a handful of rooms, negligible nightlife and a general dearth of other mainstream holiday enticements, so the idea is to attract low-volume niche markets such as walkers and nature lovers. The fact that the island is not particularly easy to reach is put forward as a plus point. There are two ways of getting here: a three-hour ferry ride from Tenerife’s lager-and-chips-infested Los Cristianos; or a propeller-plane hop from Tenerife North airport near Santa Cruz (an hour by bus from the larger Tenerife South, where international flights arrive). I went for the latter option, finding even before we landed that the island packs a dramatic punch.
Virgin territory – It was lava at first sight. Through my plane window the lonely chunk of serrated grey, draped with a ragged green shawl, appeared adrift in the white-capped Atlantic Ocean. Smaller than the Isle of Wight with a population of just II,000 , El Hierro soars to a volcanic cone higher than Ben Nevis. In the days when the world was flat, this was the westernmost speck you could sail to without spilling over the edge. Columbus weighed anchor from here before discovering America, and as long ago as AD150 Greek sage Ptolemy declared it the cartographic prime meridian. Amazingly, it remained so until 1884 when, at a convention in Washington, Greenwich grabbed the honour of being zero degrees longitude.