17 February 2012

From Boca da Encumeada to Curral Jangão

A few days ago, with a full morning to spare, I decided to hike for the first time this small trail. Located at the top North end of the Ribeira Brava valley, this easy path connects Boca da Encumeada to Curral Jangão by a well marked and straight forward track. Regardless of the fact that the trail itself is far from being dangerous or even strenuous, the magic of it is quite present from the beginning. Stopping the car in a small parking area on the right side of the main road, a couple hundred meters before arriving to the Encumeada pass, you'll soon see the sign pointing your destination: the hanging valley of Curral Jangão. The first 500 or so meters are in a well marked forest road, accessible only for all-terrain vehicles. But as soon as you arrive near the large pipe conduct that leads the water from the Levada do Norte, high above, to the Power Plant of Serra de Água located in the valley below, the road ends and you make a detour to the right. You descend a few stony steps, pass under the conduct, and the mountain trail is in front of your eyes.

Map source: Instituto Geográfico do Exército, Chart nº5 (Ilha da Madeira - Curral das Freiras) Scale: 1/25.000

The first kilometre is, actually, quite boring. We walk in a forest of eucalyptus; not the most endemic flora if you know what I mean. However, as soon as we reach open ground things change and we are once again surrounded by the magnificent Madeira mountain landscape.

When we reach open ground, on the "grass floor", the trail opens to the beautiful mountain landscape that characterizes Madeira.

At this point we are already surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the island. Curral Jangão is, itself, a natural amphitheatre. The birth place of Ribeiro do Poço and a perfect and cosy hanging valley, Curral Jangão, at a high of roughly 850 meters, is surrounded by peaks that rise to almost 1600 meters high. So, a dramatic landscape and orography is something that we can expect when arriving there.

Curral Jangão, with its dramatic orography, seen from afar.

After the "grass floor", the path becomes more intimate and we find ourselves surrounded by native forest and vegetation. Sometimes we cross a few "green tunnels", where vegetation completely embraces the trail, and on others we cross some small streams with improvised wooden bridges.

Sometimes, small streams are crossed with wooden bridges...

...other times we cross them with stone ones, like this one, already in the Curral.

One hour, since departure, is more or less the time to reach Curral Jangão. Pacing ourselves, stopping a few times to take some pictures, and the full hike should take us about three hours from Boca da Encumeada and back. For the ones of us that love stronger emotions the path continues, from Curral Jangão, and at an additional 10 kilometres, to Boca da Corrida, passing close to Pico Grande. In fact, Curral Jangão is located in the old path that used to connect Boca da Corrida to Encumeada and also Serra de Água. So it comes as no surprise that we find, in the middle of nowhere, the perfect architecture of the stone bridge above.
The trails that we use nowadays for fun, were, for centuries, the only way possible for the Madeira inhabitants to travel within it.
Upon arrival to Curral Jangão, I meditated for awhile about that. Here, in this peaceful and sheltered high valley, while eating a few chestnuts that I've picked up from the trees, I cannot feel less than amazed for the centuries of efforts taken to vanquish Madeira's violent orography. Without anything more than manual tools and muscle power, these people built a net of water channels (the "levadas"), hundreds of kilometres long, to bring water from the moistly North coast to the sunnier and agricultural-friendly fields on the South. For this hydraulic effort, they vanquished the natural barriers with tunnels and suspended aqueducts, many of them in vertiginous places.
Then the connection between the several human settlements in the island. The net of trails (or "veredas" like they call them in Portuguese) is, certainly, older than the "levadas". But not less difficult to achieve, as we can see in so many parts of the island. Not all of them are so easy to build like this one where I'm standing. There are so many others where nature was uncooperative. Even today, after a more rough Winter, we still face difficulties in returning to the mountain paths. A rock fall here, a mud slide there and some paths become impractical for months. And today we have mechanical tools. How it would be like, in the fifteen century? I think about those ancient construction workers. If their spirits are somewhere, in a nice balcony with a view to their works of art, they must be glad to see their legacy still being used by the new generations.
I know I would.
And with this comforting thought on my mind I return home.

Terraced agricultural fields on the South face of Pico da Encumeada, Curral Jangão.

02 February 2012

Bye, bye Armas

Well, it's a fact. The ferry "Volcan de Tijarafe" made her last call in Funchal on the past 30th of January, coming from Portimão and heading to Canary islands, thus ending a commercial operation of nearly four years and her contribution in approaching the populations of Madeira, continental Portugal and Canary islands to each other.
Madeira and Azores remain, therefore, two of the few ultra peripheral European regions without a ferry connection to the European mainland. I don't now about you, but to me it sounds as a regression in time... back to the medieval age. I had the pleasure of being a customer once. And since I'm in an island where when you think travel you think flying, I loved the very refreshing idea of driving my car from Funchal to Portimão and all the way to Singapore and back if I wanted. And so I did it. Not to Singapore, granted. Just to my hometown, in the continental mainland. To me the experience was worth the (comparatively low) cost. And I dare to bet that if you ask that same question to each and one of the thousands of passengers and tourists transported in the past four years, they will give you the same positive answer.
Some carried goods were also arriving to the market shelves with lesser prices than before, namely fruit and fresh vegetables.
And thanks to that ferry line, Madeira got acquainted with a new type of tourist. New, at least, in the island history:  the camper van tourist.
Motor biker expeditions became also common, with several motard clubs in the three vertices of the triangle Madeira-Portuguese mainland-Canary organizing trips within it.
All that is, at least for the near future, gone. And strangely as it may seem, people were not convinced about the reasons. Some say it was due to commercial reasons. The line simply could not be profitable. Others will give the politics answer, eventually colouring it with a few words that we cannot say, for the sake of decency, in front of children. Well I don't know about that. I'm not versed enough in shipping economics to know if the line had the slightest chance to survive since the beginning.
And the politics. Oh, yes... the politics. Well, I couldn't care less about the low level of the regional politics that surrounds us (the same statement is valid to the national one also, by the way!) and it's eventual intervention - or lack of it - in all the process.
However, as a common citizen, living in the "Atlantic Pearl", I'm worried. I'm worried about our increasingly narrow quality of life. And with the reductions in alternatives. With the disappearing of this shipping line we are today one step further away from Europe, when yesterday we were one step closer.
The Armas farewell is only a symptom of the difficulties and solitude that lay ahead. Maybe I'm exaggerating, seeing a black canvas. Maybe they'll return in Summer time, bringing the nice weather and more peaceful voyages. I can only hope so. However, until that day comes, my last memory of that visionary enterprise is a peaceful Winter evening in the bay of Funchal and a departing ship greeting her for the last time. On that evening of January, we all felt a little bit poorer.