, , , ,


How do you know when it’s time to go home?

When you find yourself standing on a lookout on the island of Madeira, with tears starting unbidden at the sight of cliffs rising from deep blue water, framed by pohutukawa trees.

Yes, pohutukawa on Madeira.  Alberto, our guide, had asked where I was from. At the “New Zealand” answer he said “I can show you metrosideros!”  And there they were, above Faial.  I don’t know how quickly they grow there … but if it’s a similar growth rate to NZ, they’d probably been there a good 50 years. And I felt a tug to my roots.

The pohutukawa seem to be a benign addition to the landscape, unlike our questionable Aussie cousins.  Parts of the island are covered in wilding gum-trees. They were (like the gorse and broom!) brought in with the best intentions.

Madeira’s name means ‘island of woods’. But it’s also a very steep land of volcanic rocks, so as the forests were felled for shipbuilding and burned for farming, the erosion started, and the floods raced unimpeded down the hillsides.

What to do?   Well, eucalypts have a very long tap-root, which would be good for holding the hills together, they thought.  Four varieties were brought in in the early 1900s, and liked it so much they stayed.  And took over.  And another unforeseen consequence:  Madeira had also been an island of birds – like New Zealand, the only mammals are introduced. Those birds, and their insect-foods, had developed with the Laurisilva – the original bay-tree forests.  The insects couldn’t abide the smell and taste of the eucalypts. No insects = no birds. They retreated into the residual bay-tree forests.

Bay tree forest.

You might have gathered by now that we were blessed with a guide who had wanted to be a biologist.

He even pointed out to me the euphorbia which is used to make Campari. Loved that man!


Loved Madeira too.

It’s dramatically rugged, with narrow roads engraved into the sides of the hills, and villages with houses perched like swallow-nests on ridges in deep valleys.

Looking down into the Valley of the Nuns. Short version: a convent-full walked the 17ks from Funchal to (successfully) hide from pirates.

Farming’s no easy thing…

Funchal, the capital, is on hills and gullies too, but with roading infrastructure which is a triumph of engineering. The highway even goes UNDER the end of the airport runway extension!

Funchal is charming – two sides to the old town: one narrow alleys with door and wall art; one more elegant with the monumental buildings, linked by a lively and lovely market.

Funchal has had its challenges since its founding in the mid-1400’s ..

sackings and burnings by pirates,

major earthquakes and floods,

shelling during WWI…

… what’s there now is an architectural time-series.

And the harbour is front and centre. We went out on a replica caravel, authentic down to the smells of pitch and rope, and constructed in the old fishing town the next bay along. (She had diesel motors though, so we weren’t called on to haul sails.)

Swimming off the Santa Maria de Colombo … safely certain the cannon’s a replica. (I’m furthest out, and Stefi’s powering toward me.)

Which had me thinking… Madeira in the 15th and 16th century must have functioned somewhat the way we imagine the moon or Mars functioning in the 22nd century, as a way-point, a coaching stop, a re-fuelling and repairs stop for explorers launching into the farthest reaches.

It was settled and developed quickly as part of the great Age of Discovery, and continued to be an important point on the trade routes throughout the 18th C.  James Cook and Charles Darwin both stopped over.  What lessons might linger there?

Plagues, pirates, slavery (once slavery was abolished, the slaves almost entirely decided to go home to Africa), booms and busts as exploration and trade patterns changed…  and now a place where plants from all over the world grow, and people from all over Europe go… Madeira feels like a microcosm of the past, and maybe a preview of the future.   And oh yes, they’re working on a eucalyptus oil extraction industry.

They have tree-ferns too – but these are an endemic version and my tears were safe.