From The Madeira Island Web Site
Levadas: More Watery Thoughts
By Julian Balkin
Jun 5, 2008 - 10:46:26 PM
Levada is Portuguese for "that which has been carried" - in this case: water.
This is the element that springs to mind when you think about what makes The fast rush of water at Ribeiro Frio Madeira different from other islands.
Unlike the more southerly Canaries group, which suffers from a chronic shortage of water, Madeira gurgles, streams, gushes and flows wherever you look. If you need an illustration, take the 25 Fountains Walk from Rabaçal to the waterfall called the Risco; let nature hose down your car on that unbelievable north coast road, where water seeps from unseen clefts in the rock and cascades off the cliff; or, after winter rains, watch in awe as mountain waters roar into the sea at Ribeira Brava, literally "Wild Ravine".
A German scientist once calculated that the island was sitting on a natural cistern holding 8 billion cubic metres of water – enough to supply the needs of millions for years.
The problem, instantly recognised by the Portuguese settlers in the early 15th century, was, and still is, how to maintain a constant supply from the mountains and the wetter north to the drier south of the island. The vines and sugarcane that thrive in sunshine and volcanic soil needed a decent squirt every so often. The more recently introduced banana groves require gallons of water regularly.
The devisors and builders of the original levada system could not have known that centuries later, a strange breed of humans called tourists, dressed in Reeboks and Nikons, would marvel at their labours and trek for pleasure along the hundreds of miles of irrigation channels taking pictures as they went. The footpaths skirting the system were there for one simple purpose: maintenance. A clogged channel could mean the loss of a whole year’s crop.
To the 20th century visitor, a levada walk is one way to get back to nature, to see Madeira’s beauty from a new breathtaking angle. But take care not to let the views carry you away – forever. A slippery moss-covered path by a precipice is no place for the fainthearted. While many levada walks are on the flat or on gentle gradients, others are positively hair-raising and only to be attempted by experienced hikers properly clothed, booted and equipped.
There are a limited number of guidebooks which plot the walkable part of the levada system, grade the walks according to the level of difficulty and advise on transport to and from the start and end of an outing. Visit www.madeira-shopping.com , which stocks one of the best: Landscapes of Madeira, by J & S Underwood.
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