October 24, 1998
Madeira Grande, Portugal
Joel Rowland, Nephew extraordinaire
Hope you all have V-chips 'cause here comes Joel's adventures on Madeira (ma darlin')- No, no, you can uncover the kids eyes, the only dirty stuff in this entry are my feet, which you should count yourself lucky are on the other side of the Atlantic.
Anyhow, I just finished a couple day stint tromping around this island, pack on my back, boots on my feet, eyes wide open and a song on my lips (for the scary parts). I started from a mountain pass called Encumeada, it gave me a head start of 3000 vertical feet, and on this island the bus ride up is half the adventure. The busses themselves are ultra modern, no old school busses with chickens and pigs in your lap here. But the roads, now paved smooth, were built for horse carts, and Madeira probably has a bus system in the first place because the horses refused to work on such roads.
Anyway, if there have been any horse/bus tragedies in the past they're keeping them quiet, though that would make a great museum.... So I hopped off the bus at Encumeada, and bounded the 40 feet to the cafe at the top of the pass. There is no shortage of places to spend money on Madeira, and this particular place had really good empanadas. So three empanadas and a Coke later, I started up my trail, contemplating the concept of 'independence'. That didn't last too long though as I had also bought a pack of malted milk balls at the cafe, trail food ya know, and as the trail got steeper and hotter I became engrossed in how quickly they disintegrated in my cheek, and how much further I had to go before I could have another one. A pack of malt balls will only last for so long under such strenuous circumstances and eventually I was forced to concentrate on the task at hand. This trail was intense, flight after flight of stairs either carved into the rock or built onto it, there were sections that had been built outward from a sheer rock cliff, I stood back and tried to figure out how it had been done but the only thing that I could come up with was, "Damn, whoever built this was crazy.". They must have gotten a special deal from the malt ball factory, too.
Eventually the stairs ran out and the trail became a normal dirt and gravel path. Slowly but surely I gained altitude, stopping often to take in the beauty of the mountains around me and the valley way, way below me. I groaned a little when the trail would descend to traverse a ravine or skirt some impassable terrain, but it always continued back up. Up and up, switching back and forth, sometimes looking over the dry, hot South side of the island, and sometimes over the green and lush North, always with the sea in the distance, a reminder that I was a little guy in the middle of a small island that's in the middle of a big ocean (at the end of a long sentence, ed.). It was on this walk that I perfected my Ba-aa-aaa. The computer really doesn't do it justice, ask me next time you see me. There were lots of sheep along the trail, some of them quite conversational, of course, I had no idea what I was saying, and it scared most of them away.
That's funny, that pretty much sums up the majority of my conversations with the people on this island, too.
Anyway, as I am, after all, the hero of this entry, I eventually found my way to the top of Madeira's tallest mountain, Pico Ruivo at 6200 feet. The climb was well worth it, from the top I had a 360 degree view of the island. Clouds as far as I could see had surrounded its perimeter and from my elevated vantage point it looked as if Madeira was floating in a sea of clouds. And then, as the sun sank lower, and the land cooled, the clouds swirled below me and engulfed the island, cutting the tops of the tallest peaks adrift, including the one on which I stood. The sun began to set, and that settled it, I was sleeping right there. I set up my tent and lay with my head outside for awhile and watched the stars come out, sipping wine (trail juice) and eating olives.... It was a good night, not too cold up there, just enough to make me feel that much more snug inside my sleeping bag. I woke up and once again the island was clear of clouds. I soaked up the morning sunshine and marveled at the scenery while I ate breakfast. Packed up and started down the hill towards Caldeirao Verde, the Green Cauldron!
It took me a little while to find the right trail down into the valley- Yeah, so there was a big, huge carved sign pointing to the trail, but sometimes you have to look just a bit deeper than the obvious, to go out on a limb, to explore the unexplored,to seek out new life and new civilizations....to get lost. I found a trail. I wasn't sure if it was the trail I was looking for, but beggars can't be choosers (I think that's the moral of this entry), so I followed it. This time it went down, down, down. It practically plunged into a valley of ferns and laurel trees. Oh man, the air down there was so cool and fragrant. I half hoped a giant butterfly would come land on my shoulder. I had left all my sheep friends far behind though, so I decided that I had a perfect opportunity to try talking to myself. We, I and I, that is, talked about all sorts of incredibly boring stuff, in the end I decided it would be best if I just shut up and enjoy the walk down. It was quite nice, like I said, thick with plants, and such a nice change to be going down. After an hour of continuously walking downhill I started thinking about how much quicker it would be if I could roll down, Joel Rowland, nephew extraordinaire and pioneer of the sport of rolling down steep hills with a big pack. Everybody follow me!!! In the end I decided not to risk breaking my precious bottle of trail juice and I rode the slow train down.
Lo and behold, I had managed to find the right trail, a fork in just the right place with all the right landmarks, the world looked shiny and new. I even stashed my pack in the bushes to skip up the fork I didn't want, just to check out the view. Continuing on down MY path I came to the Levada do Caldeirao Verde- Canal of the Green Cauldron- which sounded pretty good, but what truly got me stoked (ha) was knowing that at the end of the Caldeirao Verde levada another levada began, which ended at the Caldeirao do Inferno- The Cauldron of Hell! Maybe I would never come back or wanna come back, but this I had to see. So I started stepping, and promptly came to a tunnel bobbing with flashlight beams, headed my way. I stepped off the path at my end of the tunnel and allowed the group to pass, they were Germans, led and caboosed by two obviously Madeiran guides with stout walking sticks, which no doubt could quickly become weapons if I didn't give way. It was plain to see that they had turned back before Caldeirao do Inferno, they didn't look the least bit tormented or charred. I hurried through the tunnel and carried on my way.
The levadas are not very demanding physically, for the most part they remain fairly level. The thing is that sometimes to obtain this nice level run, the builders had to remove sections of cliffs or dig through solid granite. So not only do they meander by some spectacular scenery, sometimes they are the spectacular scenery. There were many times along this walk that I would like to have stopped to scratch my head and say "How'd they do that?" but I was too occupied with putting one foot in front of the other. The times that I was able to look up and around I saw that I was in one of the lush ravines that I had feasted my eyes on at the top of Pico Ruivo that morning. I was looking down on a now dry, thanks to the levada, riverbed, maybe 700 feet down. The walls of the levada and the sides of the ravine were covered with vegetation and sometimes dripping with water and waterfalls. As I walked I passed another unsinged group, and was shooed off the path once again by a Madeiran with a big stick, fair enough, they were working, I was playing. In a few more minutes, walking along some particularly inspiring levada work I came to the Caldeirao Verde. A 300 ft waterfall with a series of pools at the base of a half-round shaped cliff that gives the impression that its surrounding you. The entire cliff face and the area around the pools is absolutely blanketed- carpeted- covered with ferns so thick that they look like scales. I was dazzled by green.
Perhaps influenced by faeries and despite the possibility of a thwacking by a stout stick I went swimming under the waterfall. It was cold but I got away with it, and being cold I felt even better prepared for my next stop at the Cauldron of Hell. On I went, at one point climbing a crumbling and heaving stone stairwell 350 ft.. I felt sort of funny ascending when I thought I should be descending, but who am I to question where Satan puts his crockpot, so I went with it.
When I got within a few minutes of the end (of the Levada), I ditched my pack in some bushes, confident that I would collect it upon my return. I came to a series of tunnels, a couple of them had sharp bends so that I couldn't see any light at the other end. One had a small waterfall at the entrance which left me no choice but to get wet in order to continue. I started to feel a little like a glutton between getting doused and the anxiety I felt in the bending tunnels. Finally I came to a particularly long tunnel, that had a strong breeze and a faint rumbling at the entrance, as I plunged deeper the rumble became louder and louder until I came round the final bend, and the tunnel opened up to a waterfall in a dark ravine, this was actually the head of the ravine I'd walked down into and had been walking along on all day. I stood on the edge of a spillway, collecting water from the falls and shunting it down the levada. The path carried on over a couple of sturdy wood and steel bridges, built not only to dodge the waterfall, but to cross the now dry gully 100 feet down. Man, you'd think I'd have been tired of all the crazy scenery and stuff, but no, there was more to see, I hadn't even reached my Ultimate Destination. But I was close, I could practically hear the water boiling. More tunnels, and I kept expecting to be blasted by steam at every bend, but alas, the anti-climax, which I will spare you all from.
All I'll say is that I've been to the Portuguese Cauldron of Hell, and it wasn't that bad. No flames, no horned beasts (besides me), no otherworldly maniacal laughter, all in all a fairly benign place. The coolest part was that I got to walk back along the same path that I walked earlier that day. Which had everything I could have asked for in a path. Adventures, ah yes.
This entry is long enough. Hope you all are good, as you can tell, I'm having all sorts of fun, and now we are on Gomera, a whole new island to explore. Quality, Mon. - Joel