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The Madeiran archipelago, together with those of the Canaries, Azores, and Cape Verde, comprise Macaronesia, "the Fortunate Isles", to which the gods of Greek mythology brought the heroes when their adventurous lives were over. They are volcanic in origin, their hard, basalt mountains rising above Atlantic deeps, unconnected to the European or African continental shelves.
Madeira’s mountains provide a spectacular backdrop to the airborne approach to the island. The runway at capital Funchal's airport juts on pillars toward the sea, so that landing feels like coming down onto the deck of an aircraft carrier. It was once regarded as the world’s most dangerous airport.
UNESCO World Heritage Forest
Portuguese sailors first settled the Ilha da Madeira (Isle of Timber) in the 15th century. Though they cleared much of the primeval forest, large areas remain. This laurissilva (laurel forest) once covered most of the Mediterranean region, but more than 50 percnt of the world’s diminishing total is now confined to Madeira. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, and is home to more than 700 densely packed plant species, which clothe the precipitous valley walls in a largely impenetrable jungle. Within this are hundreds of varieties of mosses, lichens, ferns, fungi and flowering plants and more than 500 species of invertebrate.
Trees & Flowers
The climate of Madeira is such that almost any plants can flourish here, including North European pines, Australian eucalypts and shrubs from Asia, Africa and the Americas. Madeira is famous for its flowers, which bloom throughout the year. These include native variants of common European flowers and introduced begonias, bougainvilleas, oleanders, wisterias and the spectacular Bird of Paradise flower.
Mammals & Birds
Isolation has meant that endemic mammals are represented only by three species of bat, while the sole reptile is a small lizard, confined mainly to the coast, but sometimes found in the forests or darting across sun-warmed mountain rocks.
Birds have occupied Madeira long enough for many to have evolved into distinct sub-species of their European relatives. There are Madeiran varieties of chaffinch, linnet, sparrow, blackbird, kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard. Berthellot’s pipit lives only on the Madeiran and Canary islands, while the large, blue-grey Trocaz pigeon is found only in the lower reaches of Madeira’s laurissilva. Zino’s petrel is among the rarest birds in the world. Despite being a seabird, around 60-75 breeding pairs have been recorded on the least accessible crags of the central mountains.
Water that precipitates onto the laurel forest from Atlantic mists and rains is transported around the island by a system of levadas (channels) of almost imperceptible gradient, which snake along contours, through tunnels and across the steepest of valley walls. They were built originally by slave labour, and their maintenance pathways provide often the only ways a walker can penetrate the forests. Their total length is more than double that of all Madeira’s roads.
Many of the mountains here are covered by the dense forest. Others present bare faces of vivid red, from which rise shark-fins of black basalt. The third highest summit, Pico do Arieiro, can be reached by coach or car. Vehicles can approach to within two miles of the highest mountain, Pico Ruivo. The 1,861-metre-high summit can be reached from there in an hour by means of a relatively easy walk. In contrast, the three-mile track that links the two summits, while well-constructed and easy to follow, takes in some very steep drops and arduous ascents, and crosses some of the most spectacular mountain faces on the island.