THE sea is scary because it’s deep and stretches for ever. No one has been to the bottom and returned alive. No one knows just what exactly is lurking down there. The sea sinks ships, crashes against the land and eats it away, then when the sun comes out we spread towels on the beach and sit by it. But today there are no beaches – just cliffs plunging straight into the foaming Atlantic and a crazy path skirting along the crest like a rollercoaster that’s taking us into the east . . .
Coastal walks are strange things. They have no summit cairn to crouch behind while clutching a map that’s quickly turning to pulp. But they do have their attractions, and no one has been more impressed than me by the coastal section of the Cleveland Way, which is an absolute delight, not to mention the final day’s march of the Cape Wrath Trail to the most north-westerly tip of the British mainland. Still, it’s going to take a bit more than that to convert me to coastal paths and lure me away from the mountains.
Today’s venture is a coastal walk in cliff-girdled Madeira, an island paradise discovered by Portuguese seafarers in the early 15th Century. There’s no summit cairn, no threat of low cloud, and no midges. But there are lizards everywhere, and if you sit down on the rocks they shoot up the leg of your shorts. No kidding. That keeps you on your toes, I’ll tell you.
We’re walking to the easterly tip of the Ponta São Lourenço, a long, narrow rib of serrated rock that juts out into the Atlantic like a notched scimitar slicing towards Morocco. Paddy Dillon says all that needs to be said about the topography in one stark sentence in his guidebook, Walking in Madeira:
The Ponta São Lourenço is the shattered, battered easternmost point of Madeira, a place of sheer cliffs, rocky coves and jagged edges.
And that’s what this place is – shattered and battered by the raging winds and waves of the Atlantic. On its northern side, its cliffs and stacks rise vertically from the ocean in red and brown and grey. These volcanic rocks are geology at its rawest. They are the basic building blocks of our world and are laid out before us like a gigantic text book to plod across and read at will.
I stand on the very edge of this peninsula and look down between my feet into the rolling white waves and the inky blue gulfs between them and think: Jesus – this cliff is actually part of the upper slopes of a volcano that has its roots six kilometres down on the bed of the Atlantic. There’s a lot of scary sea down there. Best keep to the path.
My wife’s come with me today – for the first time in years. In fact, it’s the first time since we fell out on Croagh Patrick in 1999 and she waltzed off with the sandwiches, leaving me surrounded by startled nuns. So I’ve got my work cut out trying to keep her entertained.
I’ve told her this walk is “flat”, which in walking terms it is. But she’s taken me literally, glanced at the undulating clifftops, and said something that couldn’t possibly be translated into Portuguese, even with the help of one of those dodgy internet sites (according to Paddy boy, there’s a total of 1,475ft of ascent on this walk. That’s flat. Well . . . flattish).
So I try to humour her with some basic geology as we shuffle up a rocky hill that is absolutely crisscrossed with basalt dykes that stand out in places like stone walls on a fellside. It’s hard work. This is my third attempt:
“Right. Imagine Madeira is a cake.”
I realise the absurdity of these words as they are leaving my mouth.
“Five eggs,” she mutters from twenty paces behind me. “And butter. You need lots of eggs in a Madeira cake.”
I can tell she’s just being awkward. But she won’t push it too far because today I’m carrying the sandwiches.
“Imagine lava building up from volcanic action on the seabed over millions of years until a land mass slowly rises from the ocean. Well that’s Madeira. But at some point in the geologically recent past, the crust of the cake cracked like some cakes do (I’m on dodgy ground here because it might be construed I’m suggesting some of her cakes crack) and that’s what these dykes are. They are cracks that were forced open by pressure from below and up which igneous matter flowed to fill the void – leaving these big stripy things in the rock that look like buttercream oozing out.”
She is silent for the remainder of the walk while she digests this information. I don’t know whether this is a good thing or not. And to tell you the truth, I feel a bit guilty because I’m not sure that a single word of what I have just said has any basis in scientific fact.
So we walk along dusty paths to a knobbly red hill at the end of the peninsula, gaze in awe at the islands beyond, and walk all the way back in gusting wind and searing heat, surrounded by what must surely be some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in the world.
On the long drive to our holiday cottage in Prazeres we stop at a seaside restaurant in Ribeira Brava for fish soup, barbecued scabbard fish on skewers and pasta with yet more fish, while the Atlantic rolls against black volcanic rocks only a few feet from our table.
There is something extremely satisfying about sitting in the shade of palm trees and eating a meal composed almost entirely of fish after an afternoon spent walking above the crashing waves of a mighty ocean. It possesses a certain symmetry. It feels right. It’s that hunter-gatherer thing surfacing again. When by the sea, eat fish. Fish good.
And as the sun goes down and the moon rises to shimmer on the waves, I am tempted to revise my opinion of coastal walks. Perhaps they are something that needs more attention. Perhaps I am missing out on experiences that would bring me a richer and more fulfilled life. Perhaps I’ll look into it when I get home.
Do they have palm trees on the Solway Firth?