The Levada do Caldeirao Verde in Madeira’s Queimadas natural park is one of the island’s most popular hikes. Surely I feel like a bird, whirling and twirling in the forest, as I follow its vertiginous path, eventually to progress through a series of dark tunnels. I must navigate with a flashlight in order to burrow deeper into the wild woods before reaching a waterfall.
Sao Jorge Brook
Exploring Levada do Caldeirao Verde in the back woods of Madeira is wild. At 980m elevation, the hike follows a long dirt pathway to reach the interior of the dark valley of the Sao Jorge brook on foot. The levada walkway is studded with rocks that penetrates the grey and foggy forest. In sections, the walkway contracts to a width less than two feet.
I walk parallel to the Levada do Caldeirao Verde. Built in the 18th century, this levada starts in the main stream bed of the Caldeirao Verde brook. It consists of a running stream of water that pass through cliffs and run straight down the mountain. Levadas are a critical component of how the island gets water. This levada will help irrigate the fields for farming in the parish of Faial.
It is lightly raining so I keep the hood of my green rain slicker pulled low over my forehead. Droplets of rain tumble on my eyelashes and roll down my nose. I keep wiping them away.
Time stops on this trek. I am acutely aware of sensations. Sniffing, I inhale the rich scent of the mossy soil beneath my hiking boot. I feel the spray of rainwater as I walk under a tree canopy. Island birds flit from branch to branch, watching me. The crunch of twigs and cones surrounds me as I briskly walk toward the waterfall. I love this sensation of diving into nature, feeling it envelop me like an ocean wave.
Ahead is one of the forest’s century-old trees. I think of her as the old woman of the woods who keeps the young ones near her skirts. Her branches stretch wide to embrace. Our guide Andre tells of dreaming about this tree and then proceeds to hug her stout trunk. We are warned not to even try to photograph him. As a lover of trees, I also know the power that bathing in the forest brings.
“It is the living spirit of the tree … with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.”—Henry David Thoreau
As my hiking group moves on, I walk toward this matriarch of the Madeira woods. Reaching out to hug her, I can barely wrap my arms around one side of her wet trunk. There is a pungent evergreen perfume to smell. I let my head rest against the tree’s rough hewn bark, marveling at her verdant crown. Imagine what it would be like to come on this walk during the summer and sit on the loamy lap at the feet of this tree. I would read passages of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and pray that no fire could destroy this tree or her home
But for now I must move on. Enroute I will see a panoply of trees including Japanese cedars, European beech, Canary Island junipers, laurel, broom heath, Pau Branco, Lily-of-the-valley and Madeira blueberry. In this city of trees, I find community.
“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.”—Alice Walker
But I must not dawdle. We have a 7-mile hike ahead. The weather might turn nasty again. I know trudging through rain is not relaxing. There is the ever-constant risk of slipping on a slick leaf or rock. But the sun is shining presently.
Walking along a levada is an act of meditation today for me because the fast-moving stream soothes and distracts. The rain ceases so I can raise my eyes to look into a tree’s canopy. Foliage is dense in the park, even during the cold days of January.
Four Tunnel Passage
Eventually I reach the first of four tunnels that will allow me to burrow deeper into the mountain. Andre tells us to turn on our torch. I use the flashlight app on my iPhone. Within seconds, I can barely see in front of me as I hesitantly plunge into the darkness.
Blackness descends. There is only a pinprick of light. Water seeps from the ceiling. I have to lean down and crouch when I hear “Watch your head!” One time I know my head … hard. Finally, far in the distance, I can see a keyhole where pale yellow light glimmers. It is electrifying to re-enter a green world after this blackness.
As I round a corner, I see fellow hikers pointing at the sky. A luminescent rainbow stretches across the sky. A blaze of neon colors—blue, yellow, pink and purple—curve in an arch across the grey sky. My heart aches with its beauty. This is how nature paints “en plain air” on its sky canvas, with sweeping broad strokes.
I ponder the quote which might seem glib but strikes me as so true in this instance:
“Everyone wants happiness. No one wants pain. But you can’t have a rainbow, without a little rain.”—Anonymous
Eventually the levada walkway leads to the waterfall which is the heart of Queimadas natural park. I strain my head to look straight up to the sky as the waterfall runs straight down in a long sylvan line past the cliffs. It will eventually fall to tumble in a spray of foaming water on a bed of boulders. I can only take a moment to contemplate its grandeur before I must walk back down the steps to allow others to stand on the platform.
My out-and-about trek halts for a wet lunch on a rock near the waterfall. Everyone is quiet as we gaze around us. This is why I hike—to enjoy these moments of transcendence—deep in a sylvan paradise surrounded by the old spirits. To paraphrase the naturalist John Muir, I have received far more than what I sought in my walk in nature.
Then I pack the remains of my lunch in my backpack and start the long trek through tunnels, across cliffs, by a stream, down a long curving path back to civilization.
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