A green land mass under cloud cover loomed in front, towering high above Exodus. Madeira, a steep volcanic mountain rising up from the bottom of the sea into the clouds. Her highest peak measures 1 862 m. Her coast line drops steeply, plunging into abyssal depths. This island was rumored about as early as 1339 and claimed by Portuguese sailors in 1419.
In terms of geological time, Madeira is a spring chicken. The island sits at the very top of a massive shield volcano rising 6 km from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, on an underwater mountain range. The volcano protruded from a rift in the oceanic crust along the African Plate. It started erupting only 5 million years ago, continued a few million years, eroded for a couple 100 000 years, and later resumed activity. A few geological minutes ago, or 6 500 years in human calculations, were the most recent volcanic eruptions, creating 8 peaks on Madeira’s landscape.
Madeira measures 57 km by 22 km, with a coastline of 150 km. A mountain ridge runs along the center of the island, with sea cliffs, valleys and ravines extending from this central spine. This makes it almost impossible to access the interior and forces human settlement within villages at the mouths of the ravines. Surrounding the villages, all moderately steep slopes lie converted in terrace farm lands. A whole network of tunnels burrows through the mountains. And slithering narrow mountain roads attempt to connect these dots. The cloud cover keeps the moist locked in the soil, vital to support the lush vegetation. In autumn and winter the ravines receive a fair dose of rain. The first settlers dug levadas to conduct the water flow neatly down instead of eroding the fertile soil.
Our port of arrival was Machico, a small coastal town with a yellow fortress, charming small streets made out of pebbles and broken tiles, tiled roofs finished off with figurines, and doors decorated with paintings and art work.
Machico owes its name to a pair of legendary lovers. Robert Machim, a commoner and adventurer, had pledged his love to noblewoman Anna d’Arfet. Upon hearing of Anna’s growing affection way below her station, her father decided to marry her off to someone more suitable. Machim abducted his beloved just in time and they boarded a boat from England to France in the 1300s. A violent storm blew their ship substantially off course and grounded it supposedly along the coast of Madeira. What happened to them is a bit unclear. Some say they both died of fever, others believe Machim discovered Madeira but lost poor Anna to the sea, another tale goes that the lovers reached shore safely and explored Madeira together but their ship was taken off by the incoming tide and strong winds…
To the last we can certainly testify that anything that is not anchored or tied properly will be taken out straight across the ocean. We had our blow up kayak disappear like that, never to be seen again…
We anchored in the bay, with view on the mountains, the town and the marina entrance. Close to the marina was a small sand beach that always attracted visitors. Most beaches on Madeira are lava stone or pebbles, making the few sandy spots immensely popular. The sand is brought in from Morocco in order to boost tourism. These imported products are protected and sheltered from the rough conditions by several breakwaters.
In the bay there were some pinnacles that seemed promising for spearfishing. Arthur left early the next morning with the two boys. They enjoyed a great snorkel where they saw lots of small bait fish and moray eels. They observed sea snails fighting their way up the rocks, and the metallic glitter of big schools of fish beneath them. Arthur shot a barracuda that was turned into sashimi a few hours later.
Around the bend is the Cristiano Ronaldo airport. Ronaldo was born in Funchal and is considered one of Madeira’s strongest export products. He was the world’s best soccer player in 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2016. His pictures are found all over the island, campaigning for healthy food and active lives for children, promoting the fastest internet service, the best beer, the slickest car, … In Funchal he has a statue on the promenade as well as a hotel and museum named after him. But, back to the airport. What looked most interesting from the vantage point of the water was the runway that extended into the void, running on tall scaffolding over the ocean. The engineers must have had a few sleepless nights to come up with a design that would cater for more visitors and therefore larger planes and runways.
Our next stop was Funchal, the capital of Madeira. On the way we encountered a big Jesus statue on top of the mountain, overlooking the bay. A replica of the one in Rio de Janeiro.
Inside the marina there was no space for a boat our size so we moored onto one of the buoys outside. Just like Porto Santo, we could make use of the marina facilities by leaving a deposit in exchange for a shower and bathroom access card. We frequented the yacht shop to refill gas, buy a dinghy anchor and other bits and pieces. We also had our dinghy outboard overhauled by a mechanic as it was not firing properly.
The first thing that hit us when we got to land is how busy the streets are. Cars, buses, taxi’s driving around. Clearly we were no longer used to interacting with traffic. We crossed the streets as prudently as a 10 year old that has been sent to the baker and the butcher by himself for the first time. The summer festival that roared at full speed at night with live music and fireworks held little attraction to us. For too many years summer time equaled festivals in all shapes and sizes. We were looking for something different. Luckily, Madeira had plenty to offer.
Even though Funchal is the capital, it had a very nice feeling about it. The streets are quaint and there are many parks, lush botanical gardens and nicely renovated old buildings. We enjoyed strolling down the marginal, marveling at the replica of Christopher Columbus’ boat. It looked a lot smaller than we had imagined, made out of solid wood, towering over the sea. Some of the crew observed it must have been a nightmare to hoist all those sails. The Santa Maria de Columbus still sails out every day, taking tourists on sightseeing. Yet this time, she is propelled by a diesel motor Columbus could only have dreamt of. We pottered around the Mercado dos Lavradores where you can find fresh local produce, such as tropical fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, and fish. Plants and flowers that normally grow in a pot on your windowsill could be purchased here in magnified format. We were stunned by the variety of hybrids like maracuja-ananas, laranja-maracuja, limao-maracuja, banana-ananas, … Especially the fresh papayas and cooking bananas made us think of Mozambique. Hungry tummies are good at free association. Next minute we found ourselves in a local restaurant ordering a ‘prego no pao’ (steak served in bread) for all of us.
To cool down we visited the lava stone beach and scorched our feet on the black porous stone plane. The heat radiated off the basalt pebbles and rocks! The coastline dropped off steeply, guaranteeing a regular influx of cold water. The contrast of the cindering stone with the chilly ocean water was very refreshing indeed. The water was translucent. It offered great visibility, which made fish chasing easy for the kids who were trying out their underwater photography skills.
Exploring by road
The wind was pumping and would continue howling for a few days. Not a good idea to sail that. The inland of Madeira looked very promising for overland exploration as well as some of the coasts we would not sail to. Across the road from the marina was a good car rental place where we got a small car for one day. Early in the morning we set off for Madeira’s most Northwestern point, Porto Pargo. To get there you can follow the recently constructed tunnels, making a speedy voyage, but preventing proper sightseeing. Therefore the tunnels were often left for what they are and our preference went to letting our rental car do some mountaineering. Don’t all rental vehicles have an off road capability, anyway? From Porto Pargo we set course for the most Northeastern point, Porto Moniz. The narrow roads zigzagged up and down steep mountains. At times we were that high the cloud cover prevented us from looking down. Other times we enjoyed breath taking views: a stunning panoramic view of green ravines and mountains plunging into the deep blue ocean, lush terraces like movie shots of South America, … The road would narrow such leaving space for only one car, requiring backing up or down maneuvers of the most daring of the two. The locals do this blindfolded and if they see a tourist getting sweaty behind their rental car wheels they courteously reverse either way. The paths are laced with white marker stones as missing a turn slightly would send you and your car flying down the ravine. In between the white markers various wild flowers proliferate such as huge oleanders, hortenses, bird of paradise, and many more that we were unable to name given our very limited knowledge of botanics.
We strolled around in Porto Moniz and went for a swim & picnic in the natural pools. This is a set of tidal pools of different sizes and depths optimized for communal use, making it look a bit more like a type of swimming pool filled with seawater and small fish. The pools are protected by rocks, with view on and feel of the braking waves. The sea replenishes the pools with fresh seawater and fish.
We continued the trip over impressive mountain passes to Sao Vicente, Sao Jorge, Arco do Sao Jorge and Faial. Driving up and down over the hills, ravines, mountains we saw the landscape and vegetation change from typical South African Bo-Kaap (where they grow grapes, apples, oranges, tangerines) to Natal (with sugar cane and banana plantations, pawpaw, passionfruit and all sort of mixtures) to the rare forest woods and lush green foliage of Nature’s Valley. Madeira really has it all. In the 1400s the island was producer number one of sugar cane until it was shifted to Brazil in the 1700s. After that the Madeirans focused mainly on exporting wine made from their deliciously sweet red grapes. Banana plantations also used to be big business until the European Union imposed size rules. Madeiran bananas are typically shorter, tastier and firmer than required, making them less marketable on the mainland.
We turned land inwards straight through the nature reserve of Ribeiro Frio back to Funchal. Inland ferns and deep green forest Laurissilva survives intact on the steep northern slopes of the island. The last part of our trip was slightly disappointing as we drove through the barren area of a nature reserve that was destroyed by wildfire a few years ago. The road declined steeply, leaving our brakes red hot and smelly by the time we got to Funchal. We had made a round trip of only 160 km but felt absolutely spoilt by the diversity in landscapes and vegetation. A real feast for the eyes.
Camara de Lobos
A short sail took us from Funchal to Camara de Lobos. This place is known for the seal (lobo do mar) colony that lived there until humans killed them off. Winston Churchill had a house in town. We stayed clear of the town and found a stunning anchorage in a small bay, facing a rock wall of at least 100m with small crystal clear waterfalls tumbling down. We anchored on rocky bottom therefore our captain had to dive in and position the anchor properly just in case the wind decided to change direction and Exodus would be smashed against that beautiful rock wall. Madeira’s coast line is full of wrecks of captains that could not dive deep enough to verify if they were anchored securely. This was an ideal spot for snorkeling around the boat and swimming to the rocky shore to climb some boulders and explore the finds that drifted in on the tides. There was a complete collection of single torn up shoes, drift wood, a pig skull, and plastics assorted. Strange sounds entertained us at night, something that sounded like kids singing or women cackling. It seemed unlikely to come from the few houses on top of the cliff that did not have lights on. A mystery that was only resolved later…
As far as mobile internet connection goes Portugal and its islands had by far the best deal. We could get 30 Gb for 15 Euro. We even had credit left to stream a movie and watched it with the whole family.
After two nights our captain untangled our anchor chain and we set course for the Savage islands, a Portuguese nature reserve in between Madeira and the Canaries.
Madeira island made a deep impression on us. Not only can you find each plant, vegetable, herb, fruit, flower you could possibly hope for, or has it got boa vistas and miradouros all over the place, it seems to have found the right balance between nature and human inhabitation. Human settlements are localized. Outside there is a certain ruggedness. Humans shouldn’t doze off too much or nature will take over. Village life felt like a time warp. It made us envisage the bye gone splendor of the deserted or dilapidated Portuguese towns we know in Mozambique and Angola. The climate is mild throughout the year. Tourism is an important source of income, but kept within bounds, luckily lacking the mass tourism encountered in other places. The sheer drop offs with which the land slides to the ocean bottom several kilometers below make for interesting snorkeling and diving. If one had to live in Europe, this would be the better option.