Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Madeira through the eyes of Sue Roebuck

Where do writers go to recharge their batteries? If your name is Sue Roebuck and you live in Portugal, you go to the magical island of Madeira. Scroll down for Sue's post.

The Island of Madeira

Planning a trip to Madeira? The travel guides tell you to take a look at the Botanical Gardens, go on a levada hike, take in a couple of rounds of golf, visit Camara de Lobos where Winston Churchill painted and, without fail, take the toboggan-ride down the steep hill from Monte. If you survive this last activity, bearing in mind that the toboggan has no brakes and relies totally on the well worn soles of two men dressed in white and wearing boaters, you should feel fairly satisfied at the end of your week or so on Madeira. You and thousands of other tourists. 

But picture this scenario instead: there’s no-one about in this verdant landscape. The only sounds are a trickle of running water, the rumble of a waterfall in the distance, and the bisbis chirp of a little bird that’s been accompanying you along this forest dirt track which is partially obscured by ferns as tall as you. Fog swirls through the thick canopy of bright green, fleshy leaves and branches of the hardwoods way above you, some reaching as high as forty meters. Moisture plops down onto the giant heather bushes and the fragrant Lily of the Valley tree beside you, shaking its pretty white flowers which in turn sprinkle moisture down onto yet another endemic species, a purple-flowering orchid. You wonder if you could starve out here, but there is an abundance of edible fruit especially the uveira da serra with its blue-black berries. This Madeira bilberry or blueberry is revered by the local people for its medical properties. In fact, the natural medicines in this forest could fill a pharmacy and you’ll find a range of cures from healing wounds to purifying blood (by using oil made from the fleshy bay tree fruits)

Suddenly a large bird breaks from the laurel foliage above. It makes you jump, although it’s more afraid of you. It looks like a pigeon but it’s bigger and has a white tail. You’re right – it is a pigeon, the long toed-pigeon, and this is the only place you’ll find it. Just like that little brown and orange butterfly settling on a yellow foxglove. And just duck for a moment, otherwise you’ll become entangled in the old-man’s beard lichen and moss that hangs from the foggy canopy of the Madeiran mahogany trees and Canarian laurels, indigenous species from the Lauraceae family.

You’ve read about this place in Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”. Apparently, when he studied the species he received from Madeira he found the flora and fauna here as fascinating as that of the Galapagos.

So where are you? You’re in the ancient Laurissilva Forest, declared in 1999 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once, Laurissilva forests covered much of southern Europe but glacial activity lowered temperatures and wiped the forests out. Now, remnants only survive on the Canary Islands, the Azores and Madeira Island. There are important areas in Tenerife, Gomera and La Palma but it’s in Madeira where the largest still exists. Here the forest covers 21% of the island, 16,000 hectares and it’s a veritable paradise for its abundance of species.

Yet, despite its beauty, the forest has its enemies and Man tops the list. Over the centuries we have constantly cut into the forest, taking the valuable hardwoods for export, for firewood, or for making excellent furniture, for

building. Non-indigenous species have been introduced, such as mimosas and eucalyptus, which are infiltrating and stifling the flora, and consequently, the fauna. The forest in the Azores, for example, was almost dissipated thanks to the Pittosporum undulatum (sweet pittosporum) and cryptomerias which grew like weeds. And as for the forest fires in Madeira, well…

So how does this unique forest repay us for our treatment of it? By capturing the much-needed moisture, absorbing it and channeling it to the streams and rivers, thus preventing flooding.

But do the Madeirenses (as the people of Madeira are called) appreciate just what a jewel they have on their island? They certainly do. After all, they say, Man is part of nature too and therefore we should be able to relate with the natural world.

Dr. Raimundo Quintal, Chairman of the Friends of the Ecological Park of Funchal Association (Associação dos Amigos do Parque Ecológico do Funchal) is just one of the people who firmly believes in this. He assured me that with properly trained forest guides, anyone can follow the specially formed trails and enjoy what is rightfully theirs without damaging it. It’s just a question of attitude, that’s all.

If you’re interested (as I am) in this natural phenomenon, take a look at the Park’s blog: . I know it’s in Portuguese but you’ll get an idea of how they’re trying to preserve Madeira’s nature just from the fantastic pictures.

My thanks to Mr. Quintal for his time and for allowing me to use his photographs on this page.

If this hasn’t convinced you to visit the Laurissilva in the hills, then by all means take the toboggan-ride. I just hope you won’t be inspecting too closely the remarkable scarlet flowers cascading over the wall at the third blind, slippery bend.


  1. Madeira sounds like no other place on earth. One more destination to add to my bucket list. Thanks so much for the post, Sue.

  2. Pleasure - it does help that my husband's from the Island, so we know how to get away from the touristy areas. :) But Madeira is doing a lot to preserve its precious forest, as well as other ecological endeavours - such as saving its rare monk seals.