A Brush with the Laurisilva and Levadas

Having survived our leg loosening walk on day one and stayed overnight in Santana on the northern side of Madeira, today was to to be a walk from Queimadas via a waterfall at Caldeira Verde to Ilha which would introduce us to the esteemed levadas.

Madeira was once completely covered in woodland. Indeed, madeira means wood in Portuguese. The ancient woodland, the laurisilva [laurel forest], is more of a cloud forest in places and acts like a giant sponge soaking up water which filters through the ground and vegetation. The levadas are small manmade drainage channels – mini canals – designed to catch the water as it seeps through and to channel it into reservoirs/tanks where it is used to irrigate the crops. The network of levadas which criss-crosses and winds around Madeira is huge; there are 2500kms/1500mls of the things.

Madeira_day2_levada1Having seen La Rigole, the canal that feeds water into the Canal di Midi in France, I was expecting canals on a similar scale but the levadas are narrow, only about 45cms/1½ft wide. Here’s our first view of one flowing beside a sizeable track. The gradient is very carefully controlled such that the water flows very gently and, we noted, almost completely silently. Small they may be but, even like this, constructing 2500kms of them manually would have been a huge task.

Madeira_day2_levada2That first sight of a levada is very deceiving though; the levadas do not always look that tame. In fact, they rarely do. More often, the levadas look as though they are clinging to the side of a near vertical mountain face which, in some cases, they are. Walking along them can cause the ol’ teeth to be gritted just a tad, particularly if there is no hand rail. Fortunately, in the more precipitous places, there are hand rails. Check out the drop beside the levada in the picture here. Given that the walkway shown did not exist before this levada was built, one wonders how they actually built it. To me, that turns the construction effort into something quite staggering. In some places, construction workers were lowered in baskets, apparently.

Madeira_day2_levada3Madeira_day2_levada4So, we have a channel with a consistently gentle fall winding its way around and occasionally going through mountains; there are tunnels which also had to be manually built. We were told we’d need decent torches and now we could clearly see why. [That’s a flash picture, BTW, not daylight.] Sadly our CSI-style Maglite torches didn’t quite seem up to the task so we didn’t see clearly. Poor choice! [Ed: How do those CSI guys get a decent beam in broad Las Vegas daylight, I wonder?] Anyway, walking along some stretches of the levadas is most like being a child again walking along the top of a brick wall but with a bigger drop on one side. Get the picture? You get used to it, though.

Now imagine trying to pass streams of other tourists tromping towards you from the opposite direction. This is where the hand rail really comes into play: one turns sideways ensuring that their rucksack is hanging over the fence into space rather than obstructing the narrow path whilst the other turns sideways with their rucksack to the mountain, and shuffle sideways past each other. Simples! 😉

Madeira_day2_viewThe laurisilva is often quite dense though there are breaks which offer you a decent view down the valley.

Madeira_day2_waterfallWe stopped at a waterfall at the head of a there-and-back valley for lunch but didn’t hang about too long because the altitude was making stationary life a little cool. We retraced our steps before hanging a left and descending to Ilha where our transport took us for a reviving coffee before ferrying us to our next hotel at Porto Moniz.

[Here’s a link to a Google Earth plot of this walk. You’ll need to save it to your computer before double-clicking it to up in Google Earth.]

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