A thrilling slice of life in Madeira
GILL MARTIN HAS A WHALE OF A TIME ON MADEIRA BUT DRAWS THE LINE AT LEAPING OFF A WATERFALL AS TALL AS A HOTEL
ON A lung-busting hike to the 1,800m summit on the sub-tropical island of Madeira we discovered a landscape that could have been plucked from Scotland.
Under brilliant blue skies in mid-February, a warm sun shone down on heather bushes and trees as high as 10m, and as much as 600 years old.
Some had silvery stunted trunks from a devastating fire that swept the landscape in 2016. On this wooded green land, known as the Pearl of the Atlantic, fire is the only enemy of heather which by springtime carpets the volcanic island in flowers, just like the Bonnie Auld Scotland poem’s ‘fragrant hills of purple heather.’
With no native animals to gnaw away their branches and roots, heather and gorse grow taller than any in Scotland. The only indigenous wildlife on Madeira, which burst into existence when two continental plates collided beneath the ocean millions of years ago, are spiders, snails and lizards.
The reptiles are reluctant refugees from African storms, travelling thousands of miles across the seas on felled tree trunks.
Madeira was discovered thanks to the 15th century Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, , a land
560 miles away. It’s on the same latitude as Casablanca in Morocco so the lizards enjoy a temperate climate – as do tourists – with average temperatures between 16°C and 24°C year round.
This fertile island, with bananas the main export, is a mass of fragrant flowers, from mimosa and magnolia, hibiscus and orchids, geraniums and jacaranda, to Birds of Paradise and agapanthus. Hay fever sufferers beware.
Only the top third of the island is above the sea. The rest is under the Atlantic, at places 2,800m deep, and an ideal spot for whales and dolphins to breed, feed and play.
A whale-watching boat trip was the highlight of my trip, while others voted for canyoning and mountain biking. Despite only one day of snow a year, you can also go tobogganing... down streets rather than snowy hills.
This crazy toboggan ride is one of
Madeira’s most famous and quirky attractions, dating back to the 1850s.
It’s like a land-based gondola trip aboard a wicker sledge on two runners. Two pilots – or Carreiros – smartly dressed in white with straw hats, wear rubber-soled shoes to steer and brake their passengers on a white-knuckle 2km ride from Nossa Senhora do Monte Church to Livramento, a suburb of the capital, Funchal.
It’s cheaper than Venice at around €30 per couple, more bone-jarring and much, much speedier.
Our boat trip was even bumpier. We battled choppy seas the colour of molten lead for two hours into the teeth of a strong easterly wind.
“It’s very lumpy going,” agreed our skipper Nuno as he powered our RIB Zodiac uphill, into white horses, then slammed down into the troughs.
Sighting whales and dolphins was our goal. It was a chance to see these magnificent and social animals up close and personal in their natural habitat rather than one of those discredited and downright cruel man-made enclosures.
And what a habitat! Endless miles of Atlantic Ocean, 2,300m deep in the Sao Lournco area and inky black.
Our guide said there were 28 species of cetaceans out there, including bottlenose and spotted dolphins and pilot, sperm and fin whales. With life jackets buckled, we were warned to stay seated until the boat slowed for a sighting.
“Don’t touch, kiss or feed,” we were told. I think that was to protect the creatures of the deep rather than other passengers.
Two lookouts were positioned on headlands and armed with 12km range binoculars for our prey.
Giveaways are foaming seas, birds overhead, a glimpse of a fin or that show-off thwack of a whale tail fin before it dives. It won’t be seen for another 45 minutes thanks to its huge lungs.
After two disappointing hours of bumping and bouncing we were heading back to Funchal, whose port is a magnet for those vast floating, flashy ‘towns’ called cruise ships. A crackle of the two-way radio electrified the crew.
Sightings of whales, possibly fin whales, sent us and half a dozen other boats speeding towards the spot.
I couldn’t resist a ‘Thar she blows,’ as a jet of water rose up between us and the shore, and another, and a fin.
“Probably a mother and her calf from the size,” suggested our guide, Joao, “and they’ll be feeding.”
Each boat is allowed to remain just 10 minutes at any sighting to protect the cetaceans from too
Quirky: The toboggan ride dates back to the 1850s
Madeira’s capital, Funchal
Thrilling: Mountain biking