WHO has not sat down on a rock at the end of the day, wiped the sweat and streaky suntan lotion from their brow with the back of a hand, and gazed out across a hazy ridge of noble mountains and whispered to no one in particular: “That truly was the most memorable of days”?
Days like this don’t come around often. They cannot be planned. They just occur. Mine has just occurred and I wasn’t expecting it. To be quite candid, I’m not sure what I was expecting – disappointment; terror; an undignified retreat; a thin and barely discernible streak of blood down a 2,000ft crag where an unfortunate Englishman fell unnoticed to his death. All these things passed through my mind last night as I packed my rucksack. What I got was an incredible journey. So let me start at the beginning. That’s as good a place as any.
I’m standing at the starting point of Madeira’s most celebrated mountain walk – the high-level traverse of the unbelievably formidable ridge that links Pico do Arieiro (1,818m or 5,965ft), the island’s third-highest mountain, and Pico Ruivo (1,862m or 6,107ft), the highest. The island’s second-highest mountain, Pico das Torres (1,853m or 6,079ft), lurks in the centre of the ridge but its summit, so far as walkers are concerned, is completely unattainable and is gratefully bypassed. That’s one I don’t have to worry about.
It’s exactly 9am and a cold wind is rasping from the north. The sun is rising through a cloud belt several thousand feet below where I stand on the summit of Pico do Arieiro. There is no one else up here. Besides my own hire car, there are only two others in the parking area and both are empty.
A few words of explanation here. You can actually drive to the summit of Pico do Arieiro (or Areeiro, as it is sometimes spelt). Do not, as I did, assume this detracts from the experience that is to follow. It doesn’t. In fact, there is an argument in favour of the arrangement for the traverse would otherwise be beyond the capabilities of the ordinary walker.
There is, in all the ups and downs between the two peaks, 4,300ft of ascent. That’s the equivalent of Ben Nevis in the blazing sun and with stupendous drops on all sides. And when I say “between the two peaks”, I mean there and back again. That’s how it works. You set off along this airy arête from Pico do Arieiro, clump precariously to Pico Ruivo, and return by a slightly different route. And in doing so you’ve scaled the Ben on an island in the Atlantic off the coast of Morocco.
I’m following Paddy Dillon’s route in his book Walking in Madeira (Cicerone), and so far as descriptions go, he more or less says it all. Paddy boy has prepared me for the exposed paths hacked into cliff faces, the tunnels that penetrate great towers of rock, the flights of steps cut into sheer crags up which I must slog while clinging to knobbly bits of volcanic rock and wire rails.
What he hasn’t prepared me for is the divine experience of traversing a necklace of soaring pinnacles, while far beneath my feet waterfalls plummet and forests stretch to the ocean. Because this is a trail that elevates walking to another league. This is soaring with boots on.
But I must admit there is an immediate sense of exposure – certainly for someone like me whose ambition as a child was to reach the top of Black Combe, which I could see from the kitchen window. Even though safety wires run along the exposed sections, there is a tendency – initially, at least – to tread with extreme caution. So not being used to this sort of thing, I set myself some rules:
- Always keep one hand on the wire
- Remain motionless while admiring the view
- Never move while fiddling with camera
- One hand for the boat while having a pee
I must digress here. Sorry about this, but that final point reminds me of a reporter I once had the pleasure of working with at the North-West Evening Mail, in Barrow, called David Scholefield. David was exactly one day older than me, but that’s nothing to do with what I’m talking about. He was into yachting in a big way and once told me about a coastguard he interviewed who stated that most male bodies washed up on the beach or dragged from the water had their willies sticking out.
Apparently, this is because a bloke is most vulnerable on a boat when he is having a pee over the side. It’s a case of all hands to the willie, regardless of the circumstances. You can picture the scenario – your zip gets stuck; you fiddle about a bit; then finally you stand there and utter a relieved “Ahhhhh . . .” And if a wave hits you at this point, you’re over the side with your willie hanging out. And don’t think that those big fish won’t bite it off, because they will. That’s another statistic.
So this is a rule I set myself, having had the good sense to adapt the advice. When having a pee over a 2,000ft drop – which is one of the few things men can do much better than women – keep one hand for the boat.
Paddy boy does an accurate job of his route description, though I can add an update which will be useful for anyone attempting the trip. In the middle section of the ridge the route splits into two, the eastern route climbing and then descending exposed paths on cliff faces, the western route remaining relatively level through a series of tunnels before both paths rejoin to make the final ascent of Pico Ruivo. When Paddy published his most recent edition, the western path was blocked by a rockfall. This has now been cleared. So I went out by the eastern and harder and longer route and returned by the western. Both paths are breathtaking in themselves for their incredible feats of engineering as well as the views.
There is little left to say, other than I spent some time on the eastern route with four delightful French people from Poitiers who were visiting Madeira on a sailing trip from La Rochelle to Brazil, and advised them to keep one hand for the boat at all times. I think this lost something in the translation. Certainly the women didn’t seem to understand.
So now I’m sitting on my rock at the end of the day and staring back at the ridge from Madeira’s third-highest peak. And I can truly say that this is the most exhilarating and awe-inspiring route I have trodden in my life. It must be up there among the great walks of the world.
Quite how it came into existence, I know not. The course has been designed by engineers, the paths and tunnels hacked and blasted through the volcanic rocks, the stairways constructed by craftsmen. I have heard it originally formed part of a packhorse route from one side of the island to the other, but who would take goods over the torturous peaks of the highest mountains when so many lower routes are available?
Thankfully, someone in the distant past possessed the vision to engineer this route. If he hadn’t, this mighty backbone of Madeira would have remained inaccessible, even to the hardiest of adventurers.