Out here on the Atlantic, the weather can change in a snap. It was 9 in the morning, and the skies had opened up. Nevertheless, our guide, David, from Up Mountain Madeira, was at our hotel ready to show us more of the island.
Our jeep tour was to take place in an old military four-wheel drive from the previous century, called the ‘Umm’. Apparently the name’s a pun on the American Hummer. The jeep was very likely older than I am, as production had stopped in the 1980s. I quite liked the jeep, it had a cool design, reminding me a little of the ship designs from the early Star Wars movies.
Our first stop was a lookout point over the bay of wolves, so called because of the many sea wolves that once populated its black sandy beach. Today, there are no sea wolves basking under the sun here – they were almost hunted to extinction by the fishermen that lived in the area as the sea wolves’ preferred diet was the fishermen’s catch of the day. Fortunately, they are now a protected species, and there is a care center for them not too far away where sick and injured seals are nursed back to health before they are released into the wild.
The vista from the lookout point is stunning. Cliffs extend out both sides, their dark, steep faces plunging into the crashing waves of the Atlantic. David pointed out to us that there was a really steep cable car line leading to the beach below from the top of the cliff to our left. Apparently, there’s an isolated guesthouse right at the shore only accessible through this cable car.
We continued our tour through to the north of the island by going off road, up muddy dirt trails through the Eucalyptus forest. There’s lots of them here, which is a good thing for the island as their roots grow deep, preventing land degradation. Huge swathes of the forest were burnt in a recent fire – forest fires are a regular occurrence here, most of them started in the hot and dry summer by human carelessness or stupidity. Luckily, the Eucalyptus trees are full of water, and while all the other plants were turned to cinders, these trees still stand after the fire has died.
David told us that the fires can never go downhill, which is a good thing as Madeira does not have the capacity to fight fires of the size that it is regularly plagued with. The residents simply have to wait for it to run its course.
We stopped to take a Levada walk on Levada Bica Cana. It’s short, only taking about thirty minutes to complete, but it’s very pretty. There are also many adorable furry cows grazing along this walk. The view of the Atlantic on this levada is stunning. For a while, we had the whole trail to ourselves, and it was paradise. In the distance, you could see windmills and solar panels stuck onto the side of the mountains – some people say these artefacts uglify the land – I find them inspiring, a sign that something is being done, no matter how small, to reduce our impact on this Earth.
We drove up to Paul Serra, which means Swamp Mountain in English. We had been here the day before, but it was covered in fog, making it impossible to see what it was exactly. The visibility today was better, and I realized why it was called what it was. It’s rather odd – a flat plateau with a straight road going through it, filled with water that could get up to a meter high during really rainy periods. It was indeed a swamp on top of a mountain. Our guide told us that during the really rainy periods, the plateau was filled up to a meter high with water, and people came here to windsurf.
After driving through the plateau, we passed the area we had stopped at the previous day. From here, we could look down into the Levada of the 25 Fountains. The view was clearer today and we could see the stunning vista into the valley and the waterfalls that poured fourth from the mountain peaks.
We took a slippery dirt road down to Porto Moniz, which is on the north of the island. It was an exciting ride, as the road here is rather narrow at points and occasionally very steep. Nevertheless, we felt safe with our guide who handled the jeep really well. Part of the road went under some trees that grew sideways across a small gorge. I thought that was rather odd, but interesting.
On the other side of the island, we stopped at a viewpoint for a look down at Porto Moniz. Looking down, the city seemed like it was right out of Sim City, with its perfect roads winding intricately around orange roofed homes.
There are several interesting things to see in Porto Moniz. One of the things you should do is drive along the coast, to get a sense of the north side of Madeira. Over here, the landscape is steeper and harsher, with high cliffs and rocky outcrops.
One of the attractions around Porto Moniz are the natural pools that can be found on the eastern side of town.
During the summer months, they are usually full with swimmers taking a refreshing dip to cool off from the hot sun. It was a rather chilly fifteen degrees when we were there though, so we passed on swimming, although it did look like it would be fun.
I thought it was cool that the waves occasionally crash into the pools and that there was a mini tornado in the sky when we looked up.
On our way back, we stopped by the River’s Window, a rocky outcrop just off the coastal road. There are some steps leading up to the side of a really large rock in which a hole had been made. From here, you can see the River’s Window in all its glory.
We skirted the coast for a little on our way back to the south of the island. There was still quite a lot to see, and we made several stops by the road to take in all the beauty the island had to offer.
One thing Madeira has no shortage off are waterfalls. Perhaps it was simply the time of the year – the rainy season, when the island’s springs are overflowing and pouring fourth over the lips of its many mountain peaks.
Along the road back, we stopped to marvel at a few of them. One particular one had a beautiful and romantic name – the Bride’s Veil. It towered over an old ocean road, now abandoned, parts of it missing, likely lost in one of many landslides.
In any other place, any waterfall would have been a special attraction you would have to take time to drive and hike to. On Madeira, they are simply there, often right beside a well traveled road.
Our day ended with a stop at the famous Poncha bar. This place is so famous there’s a replica of it on wheels that is brought to parties and festivals all over the island. The poncha here is really something else alright – strong, sweet-sour and flavourful. It’s definitely a must do when you are on Madeira – the place has a real local vibe and stopping for a drink here feels like you are partaking in an age old Madeira tradition!