GOD, the recurring dream. The path disappearing over the edge of a cliff; the waves crashing against rocks; the circus clown training a seal on a strip of sand no bigger than a karimat; and I can’t move because I’ve lost my bush-hat. Over and over again. The same events . . .
Does this sort of thing happen to you – weird dreams? It happens to me when I venture somewhere new. In the Pyrenees a few years ago, during the first night in a tent, I climbed the Northern Echo building in Darlington while huge chunks of brick came away in my hands. In the Sierra Nevada, three accordion players chased me down an alley to the tune of Cielito Lindo. And now here I am in Madeira, and I can’t sleep because I’ve got a big day tomorrow with in-yer-face mountains and my head is full of waves crashing against cliffs and a circus clown with a seal. Oh, and there’s a chap from Kent clutching a golf ball. Please say this sort of thing happens to you. I can’t be the only one.
It’s my own fault for allowing my wife to talk me into a fortnight’s holiday in Madeira and then insisting I sit next to the window in the aeroplane. Staring through the glass as we approached Funchal, I spied this cliff-girdled peninsula stretching out into the Atlantic, with waves pounding it to pieces as if it was auditioning for a scene in Jason and the Argonauts. Jesus. And I’m sure I saw a clown on a beach.
And yesterday we went for a drive over the Paul de Serra, a plateau in the west of the island, to Boca da Encumeada, a mountain pass from where several of the high-level routes commence. In a pleasant bar we got talking to an elderly chap from Kent who had just abandoned an attempt to walk to the summit of Pico Casado because the track got too narrow with damned great drops on either side. Pico Casado, I shall tell you, is the walk I have planned as an introduction to Madeira.
“If I want to kill myself then I’ll do it with Gordon’s Gin,” the old chap says. “Besides, I don’t like walking alone. I wouldn’t play golf by myself either.” And with that he takes a golf ball from his pocket, bounces it on the tiles, catches it neatly and drops it back in his pocket.
I set the alarm for 6.30am but I’m awake before 5am, and I can’t eat breakfast because there’s nothing in the fridge except bananas and cheese. So I jump in the car and drive along very strange roads where every other vehicle is a white pick-up truck and arrive on the crest of Boca da Encumeada at 8.30am with the mountain ridges silhouetted by the rising sun.
Right. That’s where I am now. Let’s start walking. Just ignore everything that’s gone previously because they are the insecure ramblings of a man who missed the turn-off for Stansted airport on the M11 and then ran out of petrol. Okay – so we’ve all had holidays that got off to a bad start. It’s not my fault that Stansted’s at the wrong end of the bloody country. When EasyJet introduces flights to Madeira from Newcastle or Walney, no one will be happier than me.
Madeira – what can I say other than it’s a great lump of volcanic rock that raised its jagged spine out of the Atlantic about 2.7 million years ago and slowly cloaked itself in lush vegetation? Nothing much, other than since it was occupied by Portuguese adventurers in 1420, its thoughtful and energetic inhabitants have a carved an incredible network of mountain tracks that cling to the most impossible of ridges and have majestic flights of stone steps up the steep bits. And if knife-edge ridges aren’t your thing, the locals have created a fascinating alternative – levadas.
Levadas are to Madeira what acequias are to the Spanish Sierra Nevada – irrigation channels that gather water high in the mountains, offering endless miles of walking through magnificent scenery that never fails to astound and impress. But more about levadas later. At the moment they are very much a mystery. All I know is that besides offering effortless walking, some run through lengthy tunnels and others are carved across the faces of exposed cliffs.
This is the plan for today. My Cicerone guidebook, written by Paddy Dillon, describes a 15km high-level route from Boca da Encumeada to a road-head beyond Pico Ruivo, the island’s highest peak. But it involves getting to the start by public transport and getting back from the finish by public transport and probably a taxi thrown in. People with an aptitude for translating local bus timetables from Portuguese will no doubt relish the challenge this presents. But for me it’s just something else that can and will go wrong. So I’ve driven to Boca da Encumeada with the intention of walking to Pico Casado (height 1,725 metres or 5,659ft), which is about halfway, and walking back again. Whether I do the other half another day remains to be seen.
If, by any chance, you’re wondering why my wife doesn’t volunteer to drop me off at the start and pick me up at the other end, it’s because she won’t drive on the right-hand side of the road in a car that has a steering wheel on the left. She won’t iron or cook either. What she does do moderately well is edit these posts before I upload them. So if this paragraph makes it onto the internet it means Coronation Street came on before she got this far.
Steps. That’s what this walk is about. Steps made from huge slabs of stone; steps fashioned from jagged rocks bound together with concrete; steps hacked into the volcanic bones of Madeira’s mountains; steps built in buttressed flight; steps that cling to sheer faces; steps that climb into the wind and the fierce morning sunshine.
That chap from Kent said he climbed stone steps for an hour, reached a narrow ridge, didn’t like it and turned back.
Jesus Christ. I climb stone steps for an hour and my legs won’t stop. They just want to keep walking. I reach his narrow bit, which indeed offers a degree of exposure with gulfs plunging to valleys on both sides, and at the end of the ridge I spy a flight of steps rising even higher up the cliff-girdled Pico Ferreiro (1,580 metres, 5,183ft) and looking for all the world like they should have been on the cover of Led Zep IV (I’d sing the LP’s most famous song for you but I always get the words mixed up. Don’t know why. It always makes me wonder).
And like the song, the steps and the path and the great fins of mountain ridge go on for ever. This is a walk that is just utter, breathtaking pleasure. The route skirts beneath overhanging basalt cliffs with rock formations that resemble the piped columns of the Giant’s Causeway; it traverses windy arêtes; it cuts through shady woodland; it hovers on the edges of precarious drops – but it is never dangerous and is always easy to follow.
After about three hours I arrive at a crumbly pinnacle high above the valley of Curral das Freiras, up which I clamber rather ungracefully and perch on like a mediaeval steeplejack. I’ve passed the summits of Pico Ferreiro, Pico do Jorge (1,691 metres, 5,547ft) and Pico Casado – none of which are actually attainable because of their cliffs – and am feeling pretty damned pleased with myself. It’s time to turn around and retrace my steps. But the mountains in front of me – they rise from the valley in sheer walls of rock to incredible ridges that stretch into the east. Hell fire – bring them on. And bring them on soon.
And bring on the crashing waves and the circus clown with his bloody seal. Because I’m on a high. I’m winding down the road, my shadow taller than my soul. I’ve just climbed a stairway to heaven and I’m ready for anything.
MUSICAL NOTE: I contemplated including a YouTube click box to Stairway to Heaven here but you don’t need me if you want to listen to that. Far more interesting and entertaining, if you don’t mind risking bad dreams about Latin musicians chasing you down an alley, is Cielito Lindo, a Mexican folk song that people of a certain age might recognise from the rather sickly and Americanised version You, Me and Us (Alma Cogan, among others). Click here for guitarists Trio Los Panchos singing a very sympathetic version.