Madeira Island – Day 2 – Walking along the Levada

Warning – vertigo and tunnels!

Nature Meetings’ mini busI strolled into the elegant breakfast room of our hotel feeling slightly self-conscious in my sturdy walking boots and Craghopper gear, but also excited about my 12 km Levada walk with Nature Meetings. As I fuelled up on fruit and muesli, I re-read the delightful description: “Explore the evergreen and luxuriant Rabaçal valley located within the Madeira Natural Park. Discover the concealed treasures of the indigenous Laurissilva forest with its abundance of mosses, lichens and ferns. As you stroll along the Levada to Risco and the 25 Fountains you’ll be bewitched by the cascading waterfalls, singing fountains and the tiny translucent lakes.” I then made the fateful error of scrolling down to read: “Warning: vertigo and tunnels”.

My mind raced through a dozen “what ifs”. I’m not good with heights – what if I freeze on a mountain ledge? What if I have to turn back? I’m claustrophobic – what if I have a panic attack in the tunnel? 

Abandoning my breakfast, I grabbed my rucksack and stumbled outside walking up and down the garden paths in an attempt to still my beating heart. I thought of how proud my sons would be; I thought of Silver Travel Advisor’s Debbie Marshall climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and, a few calming yogic breaths later, decided I would enjoy this experience. The minibus arrived and we were off!

The starting point for our descentMy ten fellow walkers were young to middle-aged German, French, Portuguese and Spanish and our tour guide was the very capable Antonio who slipped between languages with ease. As we drove up steep, windy paths with sheer drops to the side and through long tunnels I started to relax. Obviously this was what they meant by vertigo and tunnels!  

High above the clouds, we dismounted from the minibus. Our walk would take us downwards, following the levadas as they wound their way around the mountainside to the reservoirs below.  Levadas are aqueducts and mini-canals built to provide irrigation systems distributing water from the rainfall heavy and wet regions in the north of Madeira to the drier sun-parched regions of the south and to hydro-electric power stations dotted around the island. They criss-cross the mountains covering a total distance of 2500 km, and date back as far as the early 16th century.  Maintenance paths alongside the levadas are used by workers and walkers alike.

Before we set off, our knowledgeable and experienced tour guide distributed the flashlights. Hmm! It seemed that tunnels were still on the agenda! We followed a fairly easy, wide path through the mountains as our guide chatted about the wildlife we might see. 

Raised levada with narrow path and tree roots to navigateThere is not a huge variety of birdlife in the mountains, but we would see buzzards and kestrels, and also chaffinches that had adapted their colouring to their environment. We would also hear, but would be unlikely to see, the tiny Firecrest with its bright orange “Mohican” headfeathers. I felt truly blessed when a chaffinch posed for me on a levada wall, illustrating perfectly how he blended into his background. Then a few minutes later a Firecrest settled briefly on a nearby branch but vanished the moment I raised my camera.

As the walk progressed, the pathway narrowed to single file, and we found ourselves leaping up to balance on the levada walls to allow approaching walkers to inch past. Somehow the sheer drops were less fearsome as they were covered with plenty of branches and bushes. However, it was crucial to concentrate on where you were walking as tree roots carpeted some of the paths, waiting to trip the unwary.

The spectacular 25 FountainsAs we rounded a bend, water was cascading down the mountain from every ledge.  

Although several of us wanted to stop to take photos, our guide urged us onwards as he wanted us to experience the final waterfalls before they became “like Piccadilly Circus”! He was right. When we arrived, it was relatively peaceful, and we were able to clamber about on the rocks trying to find the optimal position for photographs – tricky as we were shooting into the sun. The pathways were rapidly filling up as we left and, after a brief stop for our picnic, we were pleased to continue along a mostly peaceful route that took us away from the “traffic”.

Carole beneath a dandelion treeOur guide kept us informed about the trees and how they had adapted to life on a mountainous island. Dandelions grew tall as trees – a gardener’s nightmare! – as did lily of the valley and heathers.

As we neared the end of our walk, the entrance to the dreaded tunnel loomed. 800 metres long! It looked OK at first but I soon discovered it shrank to head height and narrowed single file. It would also “rain” on us regularly. I took a blurry picture, packed away my camera, switched on the flashlight and plunged into the black hole behind a delightful French couple with whom I had been conversing in my best Franglaise.

Our combined flashlights helped illuminate our passage and Francois took the lead, maintaining a constant commentary which I found extremely comforting.  “Attention a gauche – les rochers! … Attendez en haut – les tetes!  Regardez – une flaque d’eau!”

Fellow walkers Nellie and Francois (front left) listening to our guide Antonio (far right.)I felt relieved when we saw the first pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel and exhilarated as we eventually emerged blinking into the bright sunlight.  I had made it without embarrassing myself! The rest of the pathway provided a pleasant stroll. I asked our guide about the age range of people who came on his walks. He felt age was fairly irrelevant – it was attitude and fitness that counted.  He had 20-year-olds who had given up and turned back after a kilometre or so! His youngest walker was about 5. The oldest was a 79-year-old woman who had completed all of his walks including the challenging Pilgrims Path to Pico Ruivo, the highest peak on the island: one to add to my “to do” list, I decided. Walking in the company of a knowledgeable local is a great way to discover a country, its people and its wildlife.

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