From The Madeira Island Web Site

Levada Walking
The start of the great levada walking odyssey!
By Jorge Barbosa
Jun 16, 2008 - 4:52:43 PM

The start of the great levada walking odyssey!

One Saturday morning I decided to join the craze that so many tourists to the island were flocking in droves to do. It would be my first levada walk in about ten years. The previous two or three jaunts I had had before being merely exercises to acquiesce some social obligation or the other at the time. This was my first serious walk for the walk itself. I had grabbed John and Pat Underwood's standard setting walks guide - "Landscapes of Madeira", 7th Edition, 2002, London (one of the first and still one of the best levada walking guides on the market) to help start the adventure. I wanted to find a walk that had great photographic possibilities too - I was armed with a new Nikon D300 and wanted to test drive the much vaunted camera. After a quick flip through their book I found walk number 16 - the one Pat Underwood called "utter bliss" (page 84, idem). It seemed to be the one that hit the bull's eye for me: firstly, as a necessary walk to captivate my interest in this field of touristic activity and then, secondly, to acquire some desperately needed photos for this site.

The levada as it passes through some thick cover
I jumped into my car taking along a rucksack fitted with the above mentioned camera and an older backup Nikon D100 with a longer lens, a 500ml water bottle, one yogurt covered flapjack, a mobile phone and said levada walking book. At the time of day I set off the sky was marvellous over Funchal; indeed it was clear everywhere, even over Palheiro Golf where I would have expected some cloud formations by midday already. That there was blue sky boded well for my excursion. But, alas, as I soon discovered, I was a real amateur at this walking thing.... That is, after I had driven all the way from Funchal, past the airport, past Machico city to the starting point of walk nr. 16, at "Cruz" in the village of "Porto da Cruz", on the north-east of the island, the weather was miserable - overcast and muggy, just the worst type of weather to take photos in. Had I been more experienced with this type of adventure I might have taken a look at the webcams on or on first - to check what the weather was like in Porto da Cruz (there is a webcam on those sites with a view over the village and skies of Porto da Cruz). As is not unusual in Madeira, it is possible to have glorious blue skies in Funchal and overcast grey weather in another part of the island.

I found that I was forced to halt at the point of entry to the village of Porto da Cruz and, feeling flustered with my frustrated expectations, found myself indecisive as to what I should do. I thought I would do the next best thing for my deflated excitement: instead of losing calories on a long walk I would pound them on at the nearest coffee shop I could find.... Still, before all that, I felt I had to return to the sunnier side of the island first. I headed back into Machico going through the tunnel that separates the Machico and Santana municipalities and re-emerged to all that was peachy creamy again. I found a bakery just off the motorway and availed myself to the lesser prize of the day: a fat greasy cake with some stretchy custard sauce and an equally fatty creamy "chinesa" cup of coffee. Accompanying that sweet excursion down the wrong path of gluttony was John and Pat's book (some vain attempt to counterbalance the sin I was committing in the bakery). Fortunately for me I was positive enough to try another attempt at finding an appropriate levada walk in their guide.

I decided to find a walk as near as possible to the location I was at and this time round took some time to study John and Pat Underwood's book closer. I still needed a walk that would guarantee good weather and have some decent eye-candy along the way. Since the village of Santo António da Serra was close by and the temperature there would be more amenable than the hotter climates in Machico I was glad to find walk number 9: " Santo da Serra - Levada Nova - Quatro Caminhos". Even more fortunate was the mention in the book that I would be "in for a surprise" (page 68, idem). I was intrigued! That seemed to be the one!

However, since I had lost some forty or fifty minutes from my initial attempt to do the first levada walk I decided to make up for lost time by starting the latest walk, as per the book, at a landmark chapel on the route, shaving off some forty minutes from the described four hour walk. It was two o'clock in the afternoon and I thought that if I had finished by six o'clock everything should turn out fine for me.

I left the bakery and headed straight to the starting point of my new adventure: the " Capela dos Cardiais" (Chapel of the Cardinals), which, I thought, would be quite appropriate as it would symbolise an initiation, a baptism of fire if you will, into this latest saga of mine - that of attempting to publish volumes of walking itineraries that I had planned for the web site for a quite a while now. I could not wait to see the ecclesiastical structure that, by its name at least, inferred some glorious architecture since it had something to do with the upper echelon of the Catholic Church. I fantasized trumpets blaring and organ music wafting the environs upon my pilgrimage to its hallowed grounds. Instead, when I arrived, the chapel was bone-dry sad, forlorn, desperately impoverished looking and with an almost abandoned feel about it. This was a bit of a downer for me. I had expected something charming and quaint to bless me on my way down the path of levada enlightenment. What I found was a glorified white box made out of poor breeze blocks sitting juxtaposed to an equally unattractive water tank right next to it - all quite out of proportion to what anyone might expect for a chapel that had some link to the revered cardinals of Catholicism.

I reminded myself that I was here not to evaluate churches and chapels. I returned to my guide book to find out where the start of the levada route was. On closer inspection of the property I noticed a hand painted placard with the word " lEvaDa" (sic) inscribed on it. It is precisely between the water tank and the chapel itself where it is posted. It is there that some rather discreet and short steps are found that veer to the left - suddenly, then to the right - suddenly, and then to the left again, and then to the right again, and where with a hop and another skip I arrived at a small plateau. I spotted a canal that looked like a levada channel and felt positively thrilled. After all, this is where I was about to start the incredible literary odyssey that I was about to embark upon.... But, lo-and-behold, instead, right there in most inglorious fashion I was put at a jolted halt: a few metres beyond where I stood the levada canal just disappeared before my eyes, replaced by an horrendous obstacle: a road that rose some two metres off the vanished canal! What a less than auspicious start to the great levada travelogue library! But, fortunately (oh, so very fortunately - I am superstitious at heart) my initial dismay was soon given over to relief when I found some recent but inconspicuous steps to the left of where I was standing. These steps, hidden by the reeds, rise up to the street level of the levada monster (yes, "monster"..., it swallowed the levada!). You need to go up the steps to cross the narrow road. A road, interestingly enough, that leads into some structure that was being built at the time and, dare I say, another woeful and ill-considered blight on the natural beauty of Madeira (it looked like a silo for gravel and other sand like materials for building construction). At any rate, we cross to the other extremity of the narrow road and find another set of steps leading back down to the original path that continues along the interrupted levada water course - here the water from the levada, visible now, was being routed clearly through a pipe and under the road to join, probably, the original water carriage I had found moments earlier. I was grateful to have found the original levada, as described in the guide book, and with my rucksack firm on my shoulders set forth on my grand maiden voyage of the levadas of Madeira.

The first ten minutes or so was one full of expectation; I was finally on a proper levada walk, after all these years! But, yet again, quickly, over another short period of time, I had come to feel disappointed and frustrated with what transpired. This time it was over the levada itself. It seemed to be quite overgrown with no sign of frequent use by any walkers. It looked forgotten and abandoned - just like the chapel that preceded this trail. Moreover, the construction site, mentioned earlier, seemed to continue along the levada route itself for quite a bit. The noise from the moving machinery was annoying, not to mention the sight of it all too. Maybe, since I was following the guide, and since the guide does not mention this, I was less than impressed with this crashing introduction into the world of levada walking. But, of-course, John and Pat Underwood's book was published in 2002 and this was 2008. How could they have predicted the construction site I saw to my left!

Levada near "Capela do Cardiais"
The overgrown levada near the "Capela dos Reis"
I thought to myself, was I to be forsaken again that day? Was I to rethink my plans - desist then and save myself a lot more disappointment later perhaps? Find another levada on another day? Desist or persist, fight or quit, desist or persist? Questions like that had been going through my mind like a poker player on the small stack playing the dying rounds of his tournament.... In the end I decided to persist. After all, it was a walk that was meant to be "surprising" according to John and Pat's book. I still had the courage to want to be surprised. After another fifteen minutes of plodding along things started to look better. The levada walk had become quiet and felt very remote and, with the construction site way behind me, I had entered into some thickening forest. I was able to appreciate some of the charms mentioned in the guide: falcons wafting in the sky and squawking at each other, a miscellany of small different types of birds twittering and warbling in fabulous profusion around me, small lizards scampering out of my way - darting across the levada water with such speed that it tingled the optic nerves, the rustle of quail and the scratching of other small fry in the bushes where hundreds and hundreds of butterflies fluttered along in dappled shade off age old trees, and so on, and so on. All that was missing was a fairy or an elf to transform it into the enchanting. This was a very romantic experience and it prevailed how pleased I was that this was a relatively unused levada. I could have it all to myself! I saw lots of photographic opportunities and started taking snaps. It had started to look like the traditional levada walk - the type seen in pictures and in many guide books. Things were looking so much the rosier!

I did feel a bit alarmed the further I went on though - that is, despite the rush of natural beauty surrounding the levada, it still looked too forlorn and forgotten with few signs of recent activity on the levada. The only real recent activity I did find were the many fallen tree trunks and huge branches that had tumbled off from loftier perches above - probably during wetter and wilder weather during the previous months of winter. In some parts the trunks and branches trapped the path along the levada. It was trying circumstances at different positions on the trail. In parts I thought I was being subjected to what could be an obstacle course similar to those I had endured in my army training camps back in the wildest South African bush. Here and there I had to go on all knees, for example, and, in some cases, nearly in a cat-walking position to get past under a fallen behemoth of a tree trunk. At other points I had to jump over the levada to its other side and squeeze past a jutting sword of a branch. This element of constant obstacle had become a worrisome part of the journey for me - especially since I was carrying some €4000 Euros worth of camera equipment. But, staying steadfast to my earlier decision and determined to maintain my resolve, I persisted on with the trail.

The walk, albeit flat for the most part, was pretty time consuming and it was a little bit difficult to adhere to the schedule proposed in John and Pat's book - not nearly always because of the unexpected obstacles, but also due to my constant clicking of the camera. It dawned on me that I would have needed much more time than I had anticipated for the photographic work and it seemed I would have to sacrifice my quest for those "one-of-kind-a-la-National-Geographic" shots I was hoping to achieve. For the most part the walk was accurately described and routed correctly in John and Pat's book - including the smelly piggery at about forty minutes into the walk. This was at least one of the few things going right that day. Good on John and Pat Underwood, I had thought, that they had managed to signpost the walk correctly in the book up until then. I was unfortunate in not choosing the right month (June) to find the flowering agapanthus and hydrangeas in full bloom for my photographs as promised by them (I should have done the walk in July or August, perhaps). The two concrete roads that you traverse to get to the last stretch of the first levada were also described with precision and their timing, (discounting camera clicking and unexpected obstacles of-course) of the walk seemed spot-on too.

However, all was not entirely without confusion with their guide in the end though. I suspect they got tired at the end of their walk which preceded the publication: they got careless with the instructions for the end of the stretch along the first levada (the " Levada Nova"). For example, I think it should clearly state that you should not walk all the way up to the water station as described in the guide (this is the water cabin that acts as a catchment station for the levada and is the start or "birth" of the levada itself). You could walk all the way to the water catchment station if only for some touristic value but it does not expedite the walk in any way! I lost some twenty minutes there trying to find the next step of the described journey as per their guide! Instead, as I discovered, you need to walk down some steps (the only ones before the water station) which lead down to the stream - this is some 30 metres before the water catchment station. This detail is important: they don't mention "steps", they just mention "path". They should also have mentioned clearly too that you need to go "across the stream" - whether it is by washed-away-remnants of an old bridge or stepping on the boulders in the stream itself to get over to the other side!

At any rate you must get over to the other side of the stream safely and find yourself at the correct part of the bank to find the start of the last portion of the walk - an uphill "struggle" as Pat Underwood puts it - up to another levada (the "Levada dos Tornos"). *(see note below)

Bewildered at the less than helpful instructions of the guide I grappled with several options that looked like the correct track. This side of the river bank was heavily covered in dark green forest too. I chose to follow what looked like a more trampled path to my left and after some thirty metres or so found myself wading though some heavy and virulent plants that slowed down my pursuit to a halt. I was forced into retreat, realising that the only reason the path I had chosen looked more trampled than the others was that, like all the other mere mortals before me, they had to reverse the same route, so erroneously chosen, to return to their starting position again. Finding the correct path was a bit of trial and error in the end. However, as it turns out, like it always does, the path to be taken is precisely the one you least want to attempt: the steepest one, the one that looks the most difficult to wind up along by, the one you wish was flatter to aid your already sore legs from such effort at getting to this point already.... But, alas, the alternative to not choosing this option was to return on the path one had come by. That was too forbiddingly time consuming and now too far to walk to complete before it got dark. At any rate, according to the map in the guidebook, I was close to the end of the trip anyway.

So up I went. It was a very hard 20 to 30 minutes going up those very steep and very curvy paths. I had to pause several times to catch my breath and reassess my determination to carry on up. The slope was just at a low enough gradient to not call this mountain climbing! Some parts of the stepping trail were laid with stones to assist the climber whilst in other parts some of the inlaid stones had been dislodged or damaged enough to allow you to slip (if the path was wet). This was a dangerous climb for dry weather already, but probably murderous in wet weather. Not recommended for the unfit, mark you! I do weight training three times a week at the gym, and I try to do three or four cardiovascular sessions, such as "spinning" on a stationary bike, a week too. So I did feel quite confident, albeit tired, to attempt the climb. But even for me this was very strenuous. I had run out of water and had been dehydrating fast too. What an amateurish mistake I had made in bringing insufficient quantities of water, I had thought to myself. Even with all the cool shade and amenable temperature I perspired profusely. I had thought to myself how such a climb would be for anybody else less fit - especially if they were the typical tourist to Madeira.

* ( Indeed, it is more than just a "struggle"! It is disconcertingly difficult and in parts confusing, misleading and dangerous. This is where I thought, once I finished the walk, I would contact John and Pat Underwood, and vent my disappointment at their lack of correct descriptive instructions on how to find the start of the last portion of the walk.)

When I finally arrived at the top of the hill, where the climb ends, and meets with another Levada (the " Levada dos Tornos"), I was fuming - because of the climb, for the interpretation of the "problems" I thought I had discovered in John and Pat's guide, and for so many other things: for example, I wasn't able to take any photos along the steep trail from whence I had come, and, by the time I got to the levada above, I wasn't in the mood for taking any more photos - the dehydration I was suffering from left me without any will to pull the camera out of the rucksack. Also, my shortened version of the walk, what should have been three hours and twenty minute long, had become a journey of more than five hours! I challenged John and Pat's rating of the walk as being deemed "Easy to Moderate" (page 68, idem). "Easy and moderate? My foot!", I said, adding some expletives after that too. This is a walk that, unless you decide to walk back the route you came by, is one that should not be attempted by a novice walker; at least not by novices like me. Being in a foul mood still I had to pick on another item in John and Pat's book, that is, for example, how aggravating it was to follow their instructions to the hilt for the last part of the top levada walk: they suggest you take a right turn at the point you reached at the top levada after the arduous uphill climb. "Now, why on earth, John and Pat, would you want to put us through that?" I had asked myself. All that this direction mongering does is take you on to the extreme of the " Levada dos Tornos" just so that you can witness where it ends over the top of the water catchment station you had just left (and wished to forget after the uphill terror). You find that you have to return back to where you had started at the end of the uphill struggle anyway. And, for somebody like myself, tired and exasperated, run out of water, food, and patience, I found myself spitting expletives as to why anyone should have followed the extra ten minutes to the end of the levada in the first place! Well, just for the record, dear reader, don't go right! Go left on the top levada if you want to save time and effort! Unless, of-course, if you were born with wings on your back and the uphill struggle was nought for you, well, then, by all means follow their guide to see more repeats of the same levada views you have witnessed the last several hours. So much for the "surprising" element of the walk.... Fortunately, the map included in the book was of great help. Had I followed that instead of the instructions of the book I would have been less upset. It took the short stretch of levada walking on the new levada to calm me down a bit.

At any rate, the discovery of the cobbled steps you need to watch out for, as described in John and Pat Underwood's book, is quite easy and not too far from the end of the ascent of the hill struggle from before. These steps lead all the way up until it flattens out into some harvested fields. There one finds electrical pylons running through a field (also as described per John and Pat's guide). Ignore the direction that the electrical wires take and follow on upwards on the same path underneath and past the electrical cables. Eventually, you will find a rocky wall - just before the first house you encounter in the vicinity - and bear left there. Follow the footpath until you get to a road that T-junctions with the footpath you have been following. The road is wide enough for a vehicle to drive on and is also cobbled. You bear left here again and walk the entirety (quite a long walk - about 300 metres) of this cobbled road until you arrive at an intersection of tarred roads. At the intersection you will see a road sign showing the lateral road being indicated as " Caminho da Pereira" (not to be confused with " Caminho da Pedreira" close by - which you may pass by when you walk further on). From this intersection the cobbled path you were following continues on ahead up the hill - but this time tarred too. It looks new - it was recently tarred - but it is still the old path that John and Pat Underwood refer to in their book. This is another slow and steady climb uphill along what seems to be a forgotten and desolate road to nowhere. But, hang on in there; it will arrive at another T-junction. This second T-junction intersects with a road called " Caminho Mary Jane Wilson" - importantly, don't confuse this road with " Estrada Mary Jane Wilson"* - which is also close by. Here you bear right into a road with a double carriageway (that is, a road with a white line painted in the middle of it - I mention this since the road you just left behind at the second T-junction was a single carriageway - leaving one to wonder what happens when a car going down meets one coming up...).

*( One wonders why the municipality puts similar road names in the same area to confuse people, we have "Pereira" similar to "Pedreira" and "Caminho Mary Jane Wilson" similar to" Estrada Mary Jane Wilson").

After another relatively confusing piece of describing in John and Pat's guide we finally arrive at the so-longed-for " Quatro Caminhos" intersection - the end of this walk! What John and Pat could have mentioned was to choose the bus shelter to the left and not the one to the right immediately after the intersection. The one on the left has a public fountain where you can top up on your water. There is also a, albeit dismal, snack shop next to the bus shelter. The other bus shelter has nothing next to it and feels like a remote and distant countryside shack. The one on the left has some activity - on the day I was there a farmer's wife was selling her home grown vegetables inside the bus shelter itself.

Unfortunately, the walk I had undertaken ended too late for me to catch the last bus into Santo da Serra. The last bus service passes the bus shelter at 18H00 on the weekends and at about 20H00 on week days. I had chosen a Saturday for my levada walk and it had approached 19H30 when I had arrived at the bus shelter. Welcome, then, was the salvation of the mobile phone - the wonder of modern civilization. I called the taxi telephone number in Santo da Serra (Tel.: 291 552 100) for a vehicle to pick me up and return me to the " Capela dos Cardias". This cost about €15 Euros, along with another €2 Euros worth of cabbage and fresh oregano leaves to repay the farmer's wife her kindness in supplying me with the taxi telephone number, which, after a gruelling and frustrated walk, was still a cheap price to soothe my sore legs and frustrated expectations.

I did regret not being able to take photos of the last part of the walk. That way I could have "sign posted" visual images to guide the next walker who may want to attempt this walk. Moreover, I didn't manage to get any of those once-in-a-lifetime photographic shots I was hoping for. You still need John and Pat Underwood's guide book though. More so even, as I discovered later, that they seemed to be the only guide that covered this route too. I have, however, included a map below to show the way from the top of the cobbled steps up from the " Levada Nova" to the bus stop at the "Quatro Caminhos" intersection.

Last, but not least, I would have to reiterate my disagreement with the "easy to moderate" classification of this walk in John and Pat Underwood's book. I think the route has evolved into a "moderate to difficult" classification since all the obstacles that hamper a quicker travel across the longer route exist, and that the uphill struggle at the end of the initial levada is really quite difficult to complete. The last part of the journey is still challenging, or, maybe it was so, since I had come ill prepared for the journey - both in rations and water, or in misguided spirits .... However, on the following day I did feel a sense of achievement and in so doing was inspired to write this article. At that moment I couldn't wait until the following weekend to try another walk.

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