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Exploring Madeira’s hidden levadas

The scene could have been Andean. Our minibus followed zig-zags up an improbably steep hillside, above a valley that dropped for more than a kilometre. Every slope around us that was not vertical was covered in dense jungle. Tall pillars rose out of the valley sides, suggesting that, on turning the next corner, we might see a Machu Picchu sheltering in one of the forested shadows. But this was not South America, but Madeira, a volcanic mountain tip, rising above Atlantic deeps, 600 kilometres from the African coast.

Above the clouds

Measuring 57 km by 22 km, it feels, in every sense, very much bigger. There are places here that have never felt a human footprint, villages that, until very recently, were virtually cut off from the rest of the island, a forest that has grown undisturbed for millions of years, and birds that are found nowhere else.

We drove up past basalt cliffs that threatened to collapse, as they sometimes did elsewhere on the island, and out onto Paul do Serra, the high plateau that occupies most of the western half of Madeira. In contrast with the lower surrounding regions, this is covered largely with heather and gorse. The plateau was once suggested as a possible airport site for Madeira, but the frequent mists and unstable winds precluded the idea. Instead, the airport at Funchal, once regarded as the world’s most dangerous, was extended on pillars over the sea’s edge, so that landing there now feels like coming down onto an aircraft carrier.

As we drove across the plateau, through a thin mist, the sun remained just strong enough to cast a fuzzy shadow, around which glowed a faint halo of colour. We left the minibus at Fanal, and walked downhill through tree-high heather and bilberry, and into the laurel forest.

Madeira’s Laurissilva is a relic of the Tertiary geological era, which began some 65 million years ago. As the Earth’s climate cooled into the Ice Ages of the last two million years, the laurels that once covered most of southern Europe and North Africa survived only on the Atlantic archipelagos. Human activity has since led to further destruction, so that nearly all of what remains is confined to the northern half of Madeira. So important is this ecosystem that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

After a short descent, we reached the start of the Levada dos Cedros. The Madeiran forest attracts moist air from the Atlantic and condenses the waters into a sodden soil. Since the 17th century, this water has been transported around the island by a network of shallow channels called levadas. Originally constructed by slave labour, these now extend to a total length of more than 2000 kilometres, which is twice that of all of Madeira’s roads. The maintenance pathways alongside the levadas provide the only means of reaching some of the less accessible parts of the island.

Levada dos Cedros

The track followed the channel, which ran at such a minimal gradient that the water flowed at an almost inaudible trickle. Sometimes, the lie of the slope gave the illusion that it flowed uphill. The valley side was nearly vertical, and the forest density created a primordial gloom, enhanced by ferns that grew metres tall. At a few places, the levada crossed a bare patch of wall, with the path protected by a thick wire rail. Here, the view opened out onto a valley enclosed by mountains that were covered by a jungle that appeared impenetrable other than by our track. The walls above and below were clothed in an unbroken layer of mosses, lichens, liverworts and small flowering plants. Even the trees were draped with lichens that hung like shaggy beards.

Through one gap, we saw a small flock of laurel pigeons, a species found only in the Madeiran forests and an important player in the ecology of the laurissilva. Elewhere, we caught fleeting glimpses of Madeiran firecrests and chaffinches, which, like those observed by Darwin in the Galapagos, had evolved in their island isolation into a distinct variant of the mainland species.

Our levada gently traced across the contour, around ridges and into gullies, falling a total of 150 metres over a distance of around four kilometres, and eventually brought us to a road, where our minibus awaited.

Three days later, after two more levada walks, we stood in brilliant sunshine on the summit of Pico do Arieiro, at 1818 metres, Madeira’s third highest mountain. Our guilt feelings at having driven here were mitigated by the prospect of a very tough walk ahead of us, to the highest point, Pico Ruivo. Again, the Andean impression was evoked by the sea of cloud that hung below us, and the South American musician, in highly coloured dress, who entertained us on his Panpipes. This time, however, there was little vegetation, only bare red rock and a tortuous succession of craggy peaks and chasms that separated us from our objective.

We set off easily enough, down a gentle gradient on a paved track. This track would lead us all the way, but would not make the walk easy. It would just make it possible. Without it, we would have been involved in some serious climbing.

Very soon, after passing a couple of spectacularly perched viewpoints, we began a steep descent of around 200 metres to a col beneath Pico das Torres. A tunnel through the mountain had been blocked by a rock fall, so we had to regain much of the lost height by means of a climb as steep as our descent, up the side of the cliff. This was hot work, as we were trapped in a concavity of the mountain, in the full glare of the sun.

Musicians at the Pico do Arieiro

From another belvedere at the top, we descended again to an overhung ledge that tracked round the mountain to another col and a first view of Pico Ruivo. The precipitous crags around us are home to another of Madeira’s rare avians. Despite its being a sea bird, Zino’s petrel nests on these inaccessible mountain reaches. As few as 60-70 breeding pairs have been recorded, making it one of the world’s rarest birds. A programme of eradication of the main predators, rats and feral cats, has led to a slow increase in numbers.

Our route up Pico Ruivo took us through heathers, some of which were of tree size, and probably several hundred years old. Others still hugged the ground, but would grow as tall now that animals no longer grazed these slopes.

We paused at a mountain refuge that stood on a promontory overlooking the laurel-wooded valley of Calderao Verde, then continued on the final short ascent of Madeira’s highest peak. Here we could look back the way we had come. Though the route had occupied us for little more than three hours, the terrain was so rugged that it proved almost impossible to pick out its details.

From Pico Ruivo

On our short descent to the car park at Achada do Teixeira, where our minibus awaited, I watched two of my companions disappear over a downturn in the track, as if they were sinking into the sea of cloud that still covered the coast. In a moment of idle speculation, I wondered what these mountains would be like in winter. Then I realised that this was winter, mid-January, yet I had stood on the highest summit in a tee shirt. I had also acquired more than the beginnings of a suntan.

Madeira Islands Walking Festival. 13th-17th January 2009 – for an excellent introduction to walking on Madeira and its neighbouring island, Porto Santo.
Anthony Toole is a freelance travel, science and outdoor writer with specialist interests in mountaineering, Nature and conservation. Website:

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