Sightseeing. We have been out and about around the island, not just sitting beside the sea sipping on cocktails. (Sadly, very little of this activity so far.) We came here for hiking (mostly) and hiking we have done.
Hike 1: Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo. Our guidebook to walking on Madeira offers three classes of walks: blue – easy enough; red – tough but OK for experienced hikers; and black – do not attempt this alone unless you know what you’re doing. Our first walk of the holiday was a black walk – but we did not attempt it alone, we went with a group.
I knew it would be a tough walk but I thought that all the hiking we have done in England would have prepared me for this. (Our guide for the day laughed at me when I told him this.) To put things in perspective – my proposed hike on Ben Nevis will go from 0 to 1300 metres (4250 ft) and back down again. This walk started at 1800 metres (5900 ft), went along, then down and then up (steeply up, we were basically climbing ladders nailed into the side of the mountain) and then along before a final up to to the top of Pico Ruivo. I did not make it to the top of Pico Ruivo. I made it to the mountain refuge hut but had nothing left in me to do the last 15 minute scramble to the top so I just sat on a ledge and let my body rest after its torment.
Yes, I was the slowest in the group, slower even than the man who spent most of the day walking with his phone on a selfie stick held out in front of him, so he could capture lots of pictures of himself looking good. (I need to add here, he was on his honeymoon and his wife was struggling almost as much as me, but not as much as me.) As the fog came down when we were about 2/3 of the way through the hike, the guide stayed back with me and let the (stronger and fitter) rest of the group go on ahead instead of looking at me with pity and disdain.
I don’t even know where my exhaustion came from – was it my legs, my lungs my heart? I was pulling on everything I had but there was just nothing left to pull from. The guide asked if I’d had Covid, perhaps thinking I had a lung condition. I did admit to having a lung infection two years ago I had never quite recovered from (I did have whooping cough, you may remember) although I have been working on my cardio fitness since then. But I completed the walk, exhausted as I was by it. And I knew that it was the hardest walk we would have to do on this trip. Everything would be easier from here on in, right?
Hike 2: Ponta da Sao Lourenco. Two days after Pico Ruivo, and we set out for another walk. In between times we had a day of rest, where I went swimming and got sunburnt. We also were suffering severe muscle pain in our legs from the strain of that first walk – pain that meant we could not walk up or down stairs without grunting – and the apartment we’re staying in is on the 2nd floor, so stairs are a daily feature of our lives.
Sao Lourenco looked spectacular, at the pointy end of the island, a walk along a peninsula with the sea on both sides. We did the walk on a Sunday, when most locals were also heading out to this area to swim in the sea (the hiking guidebook was unhappily silent on the many swimming options along this peninsula). We knew this hiking trail would be a lot of up and down, and in fact it wasn’t too bad. It was certainly easier than the previous walk and we were congratulating ourselves on how great we were doing.
But it was a hot day. A very hot day. And this end of the island is desert like and barren, not a tree to be had anywhere outside of the random café at the end of the walk (which really should be called the Oasis Café, seeing as it had the only trees and shade for miles around). It was when we paused here I started to feel a bit wrong. Hot sun, beating down on my head, even with a hat on I could feel my head heating up. But the walk wasn’t over quite yet.
Behind the cafe was another hill, this one with warning signs, “Path ends. Do not go any further.” However no-one was paying this sign any mind and were continuing up the hill. So we did as well. The reason for the warning was this path was badly eroded. In some places the steps were still there, in other places they were washed away, leading to steep up/down steps. But we made it to the top and the view was spectacular, looking out to the islands off the end of the peninsula.
But of course once you have the instagram pictures, you have to turn around and go back. Steep and wobbly downhill steps on uneven and unsteady ground, and although we’d had something to eat at the top of the climb, that bit of food was turning rank in my stomach and I wondered if I might throw up.
The walk back to the start, across a sunblasted path, in the middle of a summer afternoon, was awful. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge we had to be back for the bus at 15:30, or we would be stuck out here until the next bus at 17:00.
Step step step step. Water bottles all empty. I’m still not sure if I’m going to throw up or not. I just feel so hot. So very, very hot and unwell. That beautiful scenery that had me stopping in amazement on the way out is now just so many piles of rocks. I don’t care. I just want to get back and get on a bus and go back to the apartment and lie in a bath of cold water. Of course the last part of the path is uphill. I could weep, if only I had water left in my body to spare.
But we make it back, and there is a small but blessed patch of shade where everyone waiting for the bus has gathered. I collapse there in a little heap, lying in the dust, I don’t care. Husband, concerned, fetches me some water from one of the refreshment vans serving this car park / bus stop area. I sip some water, I eat some more sandwich, I sip some more water. The bus comes and we get on and – bless this bus! – it has air-conditioning. I point the vent at my head and sit back for the hour or so journey back to Funchal.
Back in the apartment I climb into the bath of cold water as I promised. I’ve had heat stroke like this before. I just need to get my head cool and eventually everything else will cool down as well. The cold of the water is almost painful but I lie there until I start to feel cold. I feel cold! At last! Then I drink a litre of water and I start to feel human again.
Hike 3: Ribeiro Frio to Portela. Now this will be an easy and pleasant walk. Four hours, downhill, through a forest, alongside a local water course called a levada. The complete opposite of everything we went through yesterday. I’m looking forward to this walk. This walk I won’t fail on; this walk I will do well.
Ribeiro Frio is 860m (2800ft) above sea level. My ears pop as we take the winding mountain road to get there. When we arrive, it’s cool and cloudy, when it was hot and sunny at sea level in Funchal. We do the short walk to Balcoes, which is a viewpoint to the ridge we walked along on Friday – Pico do Arieiro, etc. – except there is some low cloud and the ridge is hidden from us. We feel glad we didn’t do that walk today. Exhausting as it was, at least we had some clear weather to enjoy those spectacular views.
Back from Balcoes, we start our walk beside the levada, relishing the quiet green-ness, the gushing water sound-ness, the coolness. We pause for a snack after an hour and small birds appear by our feet, picking up crumbs. It feels like we’re in some kind of enchanted story. We are at around two hours in to the walk when the path starts to pass through rocks. This is kind of cool and we know the most spectacular part of the walk is coming up soon.
Except it’s not.
There’s a man on the path in uniform who explains the path is closed ahead due to an accident. A man was helping his wife across a narrow part of the path when he slipped and fell. He is dead. A rescue team has been called out to retrieve his body.
Everything nice about this day evaporates in seconds. We turn around to take the path back to where we started, speculating gloomily on how the wife must be feeling, on what would be involved if you die on holiday, on the paperwork involved in bringing someone back. I’m thinking, life can be unexpectedly short, why do we waste so much time?
We get our four hour walk but we don’t end up where we were supposed to be. Instead we’re back in Ribeiro Frio at 16:25, having walked the last hour in steady drizzle, and the next bus to Funchal is not until 18:12. We go sit in the restaurant and order some hot food to warm ourselves up, and some cold beers to lift our spirits. There’s sport on the TV so we watch two women playing tennis at the US Open while outside the restaurant we can see various emergency vehicles arriving and men in jumpsuits with backpacks full of equipment heading for the hiking trail.
The restaurant closes at 5pm so we go across the road to John’s Poncha House (poncha being the Madeirense cocktail of choice) but we have a coffee here instead. That fills 20 more minutes but this place is closing too so we are back to standing out in the rain, waiting for the bus. Which is late, of course, but eventually it comes and we are headed off this cold wet mountain of sorrow back down to Funchal which is hot and humid and bathed in sunshine.
We go online when we get home and discover that people dying on hiking trails in Madeira is not uncommon. This was not mentioned in any of our guidebooks. When our guide on Pico Arieiro said he had a 100% record of getting everyone on his groups back, this was not an idle boast.
We have three more hikes planned. I wasn’t worried before. Should I be worried now?