22 April 2012

From Pico das Pedras to Queimadas

A "levada walk for everybody". That's what it says in the sign, in the beginning of the path, close to the Rancho Madeirense bungalows, in Pico das Pedras.
And, in fact, it is. After leaving your car in the small parking area close to the hotel, you'll see in front of you the long levada that starts in Caldeirão do Inferno and goes as far away as Faial. However, if you are not feeling to athletic, if you are a newcomer to levadas, or if you are in those days in witch a short and peaceful walk might just be fine... then this short walk is the answer to your doubts.
The path along the levada is always wide enough and free from dangers. Just be careful with the muddy ground. Lots of people passing by together with the moist environment of the North coast makes the trail very slippery, to say the least. So, walk always looking to your feet, hence avoiding the typical levada walker pose (myself included!), which is walking around with your eyes looking at the air, trying to see the birds and the pretty flowers. That can cost you, at least, a sore arse. In extremes it can cost you your own life.

A Small Remark On Safety

Every year we face a few of these dramas in Madeira. A few persons that come to Madeira to enjoy this beautiful island end up by returning home in a coffin. It's a waste of life in a moment of it that should be all about enjoyment, fun and good memories to take home.
So, make no mistake. Madeira has a very steep orography. Which means that the levadas are, most of the times, carved in steep (sometimes plain vertical) rock walls. But this doesn't mean that they are dangerous. The danger is within us. You ever heard the saying "when in Rome, be roman"? That's exactly how you should behave in the levadas.
I'm living in Madeira for seven years. Not once I ever heard a story about a "levadeiro" (that's the name of the government professionals that take care of the levadas) killed from a fall in these water channels. Why? Easy: because they know what they are doing. Granted, probably during the construction of this magnificent engineering work of art there were a few fatalities. Those were different times, difficult ones. Safety procedures were not the most important things at that times. People just had to work... better... to sacrifice themselves to have a decent living. Nowadays things changed, thank God. And human life is very important. At least among us. So, why do people die in the levadas?
Easy: because they are not careful. You have only two main dangers in the levadas. Let's put this in mountaineering terms: one is objective (means that its generated by the surrounding environment), the other is subjective (meaning that is generated by you). The first one is the rock falls. And the second one is your fall. Rock falls are very uncommon in Madeira levadas. They normally happen in the Winter period. And during that season, if you are smart, you avoid the most dangerous and exposed ones. That leaves us with the subjective dangers.
And these are the ones that kill most people. You may be over-confident in your capabilities, you may lack the necessary technique to tackle a more difficult path, you may forgot the check the weather report before heading to the wilds, etc, etc, etc. Let's recognize one thing: people die in the mountains of Madeira mostly due to their faults. How to avoid this sad ending?
Easy! Watch your steps. Don't forget, levadas, by definition, are slippery. They pass by very wet areas and the paths along the water channels are, sometimes, very narrow and dangerous. Most of them don't have safety lines. So always look to where you are going to place you feet. If you want to take pictures of the birds keep on walking until you can find a place that is safe enough for you to rest a while, stop and then make your pictures.
Don't just walk around with your head on the air. If, by any chance, your are surprised along the way with a section of the levada that seems to much exposed for you, you'll have always two choices: give up and return back (sometimes, and more than once, this might just be the smartest move!) or prepare yourself to a wet pair of feet. That's right: jump on to the water channel... hiking boots and everything.
Why? Easy: in the Madeira levadas the water channels are almost always carved in the rock wall and the ground path that runs along with them (where you walk on) is always on the opposite side (the exposed one, facing the abyss). So, by walking in the water channel, with water in you knees, you are relatively secure by the protection of the nearby rock wall, instead of behaving like a rope-walker on the opposite side. Witch do you prefer? A wet pair of feet (they will dry out after an additional half'n hour of walking, anyway) and safety or an introduction to funambulism? Your answer. Just be safe. And never leave your mobile phone at home.
Contrary to many levadas in Madeira, this short walk between Pico das Pedras and Queimadas supposes no danger whatsoever, since the path is clear and wide. Just be careful with the muddy ground to avoid falling on your "arse".
Picture taken with Nikon D300 and Sigma EX 10-20mm f:4-5.6 DC HSM
Manfrotto tripod and geared 410 Junior head
Panoramic shot stitched together with Photoshop CS3

Anyway, this short walk, like I've said in the beginning, is quite safe. A pleasurable Sunday walk that you can do with everybody, from seven to seventy-seven years old.
And after a couple of kilometres and thirty minutes of walking you will find yourself in the Queimadas forest park, where you can relax by laying on the grass or just wandering around the several small forest roads that surrounds this park and leads you in an enchanted visit to the Laurissilva forest.
Before returning to the parking place of Pico das Pedras, by the same route, I advise you to stay awhile in the Queimadas forest park. Spend one hour there, walking around within the nearby forest paths. You'll be amazed with the enchanted forest within you are.
The wild flowers are always a constant presence in Madeira's many trails. This short one is no exception. Take your time. Stop and enjoy the views.
Photo taken with Nikon D300 and Sigma EX 18-50mm f:2.8 Macro DC HSM in macro mode.
Manfrotto tripod and 410 Junior geared head.