Madeira 2 - Is a Jeep Tour worth it?
“A sustainable jeep tour … isn’t that a contradiction in itself?”
I ask myself … but in the end I agree to the idea. Because basically the thought of guide showing us all the highlights of the island on the first day, and supposedly also places that we would never ever find on our own, is very charming.
Rui Silva, our guide, is definitely charming, too. As soon as he smiles mischievously at us for the first time, he comes across as very likeable. He actually wanted to become a rally driver, but unfortunately only made it to a rickety R4 privately. But at least with his employer True Spirit he is allowed to drive a Land Rover … we consider ourselves forewarned and buckle up extra tightly as a precaution.
Our tour starts in the mountains, which are just touched by the first light of the rising sun. Somewhere just beyond the Miradouro da Encumeada he turns right onto a country road. A private journey would come to an end here, because the gate is locked and Roche da Silva himself (the property owner) only appears after a short phone call. Of course we don't even know at this point how lucky we are to meet this grey-haired, friendly gentleman. Only when we follow his car does Rui tell us that Senor da Silva was the head of IFCN (Institute for Forests and Nature Conservation) before he retired. "You know … when we were allowed to go on excursions with people like him during our studies, it was really a highlight and always a great honour for me to learn something from Senor da Silva." We will later discover that these words, grand as they first sounded, are no exaggeration – the man is an institution and all the island’s guides look up to him. "Here in the middle of the ancient laurel forest was originally my parents' farm", Roche da Silva tells us,
"The living conditions were still very poor in the 60s. Can you imagine that people crouched down in tiny huts to sleep, because there wasn't enough space to lie down?”
So it's no wonder that people migrated to Funchal, the island’s capital. About 75% of the population now lives in the city, even though the EU-subsidized tunnels have cut travel times dramatically. “In the past, the farmers were on the move for days to get from here to Funchal. But to be honest, most of them never left their valley.” Together we walk into the thickly overgrown forest. Laurel trees, ferns and mushrooms draped with thick lichen grow along the way. “Even as a little boy I was determined to later get a job somehow involving the forest.“ He laughs. “ My mother was against it, she said you can't earn any money with it.” After about 15 minutes the sound of rushing water that has accompanied us since the beginning of the hike becomes louder and louder. In front of us a waterfall of about 30 meters rushes down into a pool at our feet. And ... we are completely alone. Our first waterfall in Madeira and with such interesting company! That really is a highlight. We shower Mr. da Silva with questions (which he all patiently answers) and so we spend several hours with him in the jungle. This jungle, which originally covered all of Europe, now only exists here, on the Canary Islands and in the Azores Islands.
The name Madeira is Portuguese and means wood, a very suitable name for the island since before the first settlers arrived, it was covered by forests completely.
These settlers set fire to this dense laurel forest to create arable land - the island is said to have burned for 7 years.
The thought almost brings tears to my eyes - only 15ha of the original forest remain on Madeira and have Unesco protection since 1999. “What makes this original forest so important?” we want to know. A hughe amount of the water is not stored in the soil, but in lichens, leaves, moss and the heather - making the forest a crucial water reservoir. In fact, thousands of tiny water droplets glitter in the plants like diamonds. After several hours, and certainly with a heavy heart, we leave Mr. da Silva.
Rui has now adjusted his plan - we are "somewhat" behind schedule:;)
Next stop is a limestone factory. Here he wants to show us how difficult work used to be on the island. We continue along a few off-road pistes. A large puddle is the perfect photo motif and Rui doesn't need to be asked twice before hurtling through it in true rally driver style. My friend looking out of the open-top roof is now soaking wet ...
Madeira is famously known for Madeira wine. The Quinta do Barbusano is, however, the largest winery for table wine. Antonio Freitao and Orlando Silva (the third man with this last name) lead us through the vineyards. A special feature is that the rain and wind are particularly strong here on the north coast, which is why extra wind breakers were planted in some places (or simply constructed from old trunks). The earth is full of minerals, which we can clearly taste during the subsequent wine tasting with a view over the vineyards to the church tower, which, by the way, is immortalized on the wine labels. Not a bad place to be, but by now we're starving!
Rui gives us the choice: we can go and have a proper meal, or we stop at a bakery for some snacks and use the saved time for more sightseeing. We make the obvious choice and make a brief stop at Padaria do Calhau. This little cafe is located directly on the seafront in São Vicente. Coffee, pastries and sandwiches are so cheap that I repeat to the nice cashier everything we ate and drank to make sure she hasn’t overlooked anything. Suitably fortified we drive along the north coast to the west. The landscape is awesome: bizarre rock formations protrude into the roaring surf, the cliffs drop steeply into the sea and every bend in the road opens up new grandiose views. Rui stays calm and relaxed even when I shout "Stop, photo!" every few seconds. We drive through several of the aforementioned tunnels. Our guide grins.
“Madeira is as riddled with holes as a Swiss cheese - supposedly there are over 200 tunnels”.
Seems a little overblown, but after our 10 day trip we have turned from doubters into believers.
The highlight in Porto Moniz, at the extreme northwestern tip of the island, is the natural sea swimming pools. Even in December, the water is pleasantly warm. Big breakers roll in from the sea and the water in the pools is exchanged with the waves. Great, but unfortunately we don't have any swimwear with us - what a stupid beginner's mistake!
We are really excited about our trip so far, but Rui still has a trump up his sleeve: the Posto Florestal Fanal. As soon as we leave the coast on the ER209, thick fog covers the mountains. Visibility of less than 50 metres is my guess. We stop at a parking lot on the side of the road- the german Google Maps calls it “Feenwald” (in english “Fairy Forest”) I notice. A very fitting name - after just a few meters away from the road we really have the feeling of having wandered through a magical gate and ended up in another world.
Fanal - A true Alice in Wonderland moment.
Centuries-old laurel trees stretch their crooked branches out and into the fog. The world looks almost black and white and we feel like we are wrapped in cotton wool - everything sounds subdued. “Unbelievable” I whisper to Rui. It would seem inappropriate to speak at normal volume. “All that's missing is a unicorn.” Rui looks around. “Mhm, have a look over there”, and indeed an animal with horns appears out of the fog ... it takes us a second or two to recognize the cow. Classic case of "same, same, but different". I would love to stay in this enchanting place, with the landscape constantly changing through the swirling fog. A photographer standing nearby obviously feels the same. He doesn't even know where to start taking photos. His less impressed 6-year old daughter whines "Daddy, can we go now?". Torn out of his dream, he grumbles at her "Oh, go to Mc Donalds!" We giggle and have a new catchphrase!
Our way back to the normal world leads us over the 24 km² and 1,640 m high Paul da Serra plateau. The airport was originally supposed to be built here, but the fog was too thick for regular air traffic. But the current location on a route above the sea is not bad either ... It’s after sunset, and Rui drops us off at our accommodation. "I would have liked to also show you the Cabo Girão Skywalk, but you can't see anything anymore."
You can find my tips on flying, sleeping and eating in my first Madeira blog.
Here are two more tips for the excursion described: Tour operator True Spirit Funchal - Madeira - Portugal Tel: +351 91 88 288 01 https://adventuremadeira.com/en/ If you want to live in the middle of the forest, you can stay in the huts of Roche da Silva. Be aware they are really quite off the beaten track and remotely located in the mountains, and especially in winter the fog lasts longer than on the coast. Casinhas da Laurissilva ER228 Rosário-Encomeada Sitio da Ribeira Grande, 9240-220 São Vicente, for example booking.com, or airbnb Self-catering hut from € 60