Travel: A holiday rescued by another man: Ruth Picardie made all the arrangements, but idyllic Fuerteventura was turning into a disaster until she was rescued by an old-fashioned knight with a taste for adventure

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The Independent Travel
I was feeling nervous about this holiday. Two weeks on Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands for pounds 250, including flight and accommodation, sounded simple. Idyllic, even, judging by the brochure photographs of white sands and turquoise lagoons. The problem was that this was the first holiday for which I'd taken responsibility. For a variety of reasons, I'd always tagged along with family or friends. Unliberated as it sounds, choosing the location and booking the holiday seemed hugely onerous. What if nobody liked it? What if it rained? All my fault.

As a result, despite nine years of conjugal bliss, I'd only twice been on holiday a deux with Matt, my other half. Neither trip had been a wild success. The first time, a few days' camping on the Gower peninsula, had been a disaster. We were waiting for the results of our university finals; it was like a giant dose of PMT.

I hadn't been camping since childhood, and had forgotten about portable toilets and condensation. The night we got there it rained solidly and I had to creep outside every couple of hours to relieve my cystitis. The following day the sun blazed; we both got sunburn, I got heatstroke. We drove to my parents' house that night, in search of milk of magnesia.

The other holiday was a week's package in Tunisia, which Matt's father won in a competition and donated to us. Luckily for him, as it turned out: we were trapped in a huge hotel in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do but eyeball other tourists. So, being a couple abroad had bad associations for us. But everything was paid for and there was no going back.

The first couple of days fulfilled every nightmare. I chastised myself for stinting on a small, nerdy hire car instead of a big, macho off-roader that could have been used to explore the dunes. Inevitably, we got lost on our way from the airport to the apartment, finding ourselves in a giant sandpit. My fault, all my fault.

And so it went on. Our apartment seemed to be located, not amid white sands and palm trees, but on the moon: no beach, no trees, no bushes, just fields of black, volcanic rock. It was so off the beaten track that it had its own cesspit, which emitted an even more unalluring odour, often carried by the wind in our direction. The roar of the ocean was drowned by the hum of the electricity generator. So much for peace and quiet.

The following morning introduced a new sound: the shriek of hungry cats. Matt, who is allergic to cats, argued strongly against feeding them, reminding me of the heavy emotional price I had paid after becoming involved with a family of starving strays in Greece. Distraught, I began moaning about the bed (squishy, too short), the sheets (poly-cotton), the blankets (too few), though I cheered up slightly when I realised I hadn't been attacked by mosquitoes, my usual holiday fate.

Finally, the weather joined the conspiracy against me. Although it was November, the brochure had predicted six hours' sunshine a day and an average temperature of 75F - enough to bake us into the required state of bliss. Accordingly, I packed a couple of flimsy dresses and a pair of shorts. Alas, the weather remained cool and windy.

On our recce northwards from the apartment we didn't see the sun; we saw litter, banks of smelly seaweed, and wind shelters constructed by communal- minded hippies and now full of naked middle-aged Germans (possibly the same people a few years on). Social order appeared to have broken down, with fully clothed Brits trudging between enclaves of nudity. Never again, I muttered, thinking longingly of Greece.

And so the bickering began. Why was I being so negative? Why had he brought his bike when we were supposed to be holidaying together? Why didn't I just go and buy some tinned fish and stop going on about the cats?

Rescue came in the form of another man - one Noel Rochford. Noel is not (as far as I know) a handsome local; but he is the author of the Sunflower Countryside Guide Landscapes of Fuerteventura.

His tone was rather stern and forbidding. 'The path is rocky and stony,' he was fond of saying. And, 'This walk is only recommended for sure-footed experienced hikers with a head for heights.' We chortled at the 'warm cardigan', 'stout shoes with ankle support' and other fogeyish items he advised walkers to bring. We scoffed at his anxiety about where it was 'safe' to leave the car. We imagined him middle-aged, bald, and proud of it, a confirmed bachelor.

However, with no alternative but bickering indoors, we took Noel as our guide. We quickly found that his instructions were clear and his routes excellent - and that Fuerteventura wasn't the moon with rainy beaches but an island of beautiful valleys, stunning mountain passes and hidden chapels. We came to regard him, childishly but fondly, as 'Know-all', the old-fashioned and decent schoolteacher ever by our side. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that we grew to love him, boasts and all. 'Note: I am a very fit, very fast walker]' he warned - in bold type. 'A walk may take you more than twice as long]'

Noel was right. I had to be pulled up the final ascent of Pico de la Zarza on the southern tip of the island - at 807m Fuerteventura's highest peak. My spirits sank early on in the walk, when the wild donkeys (burros salvajes, said Noel) refused to eat my packed lunch. Then a migraine slowed me to a snail's pace. But I rallied at the strange cacti and other flora identified by Noel that grew high in the dew. ('Botanists will want to tarry here on the summit for quite some time to discover more of the island's floral treasures.') And, of course, the view at the top was spectacular: a sheer, dizzying drop, a strip of sand, and then more sea.

I was feeling stronger the day we walked across the southern tip, breathing like a swimmer (much to Matt's mirth) to keep the pace. The donkeys were even wilder here, but the ubiquitous goats ate from our hands. ('Some nannies are able to give as many as eight litres of milk over a 24-hour period]' said Noel.)

Farther on, we became obsessed with what Noel described as a 'mysterious European-style mansion with a turret (which) sits back off the flat in the shadows of the cliffs. . . Stories abound about this amazing house, and it still remains shrouded in mystery. It belonged until recently to a Sr Winter, a German who has since died.' Noel, of course, was too correct for tittle-tattle. But surely, we argued, it served as the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca?

Donkey contact was finally achieved on Lobos, a tiny island which lies a short, overpriced boat journey north of the pleasant resort of Corralejo. With only a few kilometres to roam over, they had been reduced to aggressive begging from tourists at the quay. I sacrificed an orange, and then flopped down to watch windsurfers in the cove.

In the afternoon, we followed the path around the island to the lighthouse at the northern tip, pointing out hornitos ('These small mounds,' advised Noel, 'are caused by phreatic eruptions.') to each other every few minutes. On the way back, we became excited about the series of rainbows that appeared to be following us to the boat. Noel didn't get them on his walk.

By this stage we were beginning to catch up with Noel's brisk walking pace, which gave us a lot of pleasure. He climbed Tindaya (220m) in half an hour - and so did we. But we knew we couldn't really compete when we saw three teenage boys shooting cacti with a shotgun; Noel would have told them off. Noel would have known the full Latin name for the yellow butterflies fluttering about the lower rock face. And Noel was able to locate the ancient rock markings at the summit: 'A number of important relics from the Guanche epoch have been found on the mountain . . .'

The next day, more obedient now, we took the mountain road, a hair-raising series of hairpin bends, on the way to the old capital, Betancuria. Noel had primed us for the lovely 17th-century cathedral and a couple of museums. I had a jolly time reading the badly translated local history guide.

We won't be going on holiday a deux again. Next year, three of us are going to Lanzarote: Matt and I, and Noel.

FACTFILE

Ruth Picardie flew from Gatwick to Fuerteventura by Monarch Airlines. Landscapes of Fuerteventura is published by Sunflower Books at pounds 5.99. Other titles by Noel Rochford include Gran Canaria ( pounds 8.99); Tenerife ( pounds 8.99); Southern Tenerife and La Gomera ( pounds 8.99) and Lanzarote ( pounds 5.99).

(Photographs omitted)

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