A light at the end of the tunnel

Day 1: We arrived at our very niftily positioned hotel in the heart of town, well away from the tourist strip. It had a resident blind accordion player outside, and a veranda overlooking a bar. We took a walk uphill, towards the Botanical Gardens, got lost, and returned after dark.


Day 2: We took a bus due West, got off at a small beach resort, resisted the impulse to swim as it was pouring with rain, walked about 20km on the most ludicrously uphill roads I’ve ever seen to find our Levada, got repeatedly lost, and finally wound up catching the last bus back to Funchal.

Day3: We took another bus, due East this time, getting out at a town called Capicha. Again, it was raining steadily. We found our Levada, which was beautifully signposted, and began walking. Six or seven hours later we were still walking. The splendid wooden signposts had long since disappeared, leaving us totally dependant on the crappy map I had bought on Amazon. The more I looked at it, the more damning became the review I fantasised writing. At around 5pm, I started getting concerned dusk might fall before we had regained civilisation. It was then that we came to a fork in the path where we were confronted with a spindly rabbit track around a mountainside; or a tunnel entrance into that same mountain.

Naturally, prior to entering a tunnel of any sort, it is reassuring to see a small pinprick of light at the far end. It is also welcoming to have an entrance big enough to step into. As, for example, in this picture:


However, our entrance was more like this:


We crouched down, and entered the wet, dank passage. I had my wind up torch whirring away, and we set off. There was a light in the far distance, but by the time we got to it, it had moved as far away again. After this had happened three or four times, I realised that the builders of these water colons must have set fragments of luminous rock every hundred metres or so to give them an idea of which direction to go in. By now, I was half frantic with multiple concerns. Where was this tunnel going? How long could it possibly go on for? Would it be dark by the time we emerged? Even half crouched, taking care not to slither into the flowing water channel by our side, trying to avoid the sharp outcrops of rock above us, I couldn’t go fast enough; which meant I was going too fast for my companion, who was holding on to the back of my anorak, and couldn’t see anything for my shadow. We switched places. Following along behind, I could see my way, but I couldn’t see the jutting roof fragments, and after lacerating my skull several times, we switched places again. By now, my temper was close to breaking. I wanted to get out of this hellish place; but should we be going on or going back? I checked my watch; we had been scurrying underground for twenty minutes, now; and there was still no sign of the tunnel’s end. I was beginning to have unhealthy fantasies about the entrance collapsing behind us – part of me assumed without question that the exit had long since become sealed up.

We resolved to go on for ten more minutes, and then another ten, and another. Finally, a piece of luminous rock seemed to get fractionally bigger. Excitement mounted. The end – was it in sight? As we got near it, I was stricken with horror at its tiny size. Would I be able to squeeze through? As it turned out, it was at least as large as the entrance. What was left of the daylight was blindingly fierce, and it took us a few moments to gather our wits. When we did, my heart sank again. Our path wended its way out of the tunnel, and along a cliff edge. The water channel was next to the cliff, with a twelve inch crevice alongside it, for us to walk on, with no handhold of any sort. Below this ledge was a several hundred foot sheer drop. To make matters worse, in the near distance, a vigorous waterfall was dropping the full force of its flow directly onto this ledge. There was no conceivable way we could get though alive. I searched around for alternative options. Behind us was the tunnel; we might get back through it without me losing my mind, but would it be light enough to see our way on the other side? Clearly not. Below us, there was a bridge, a true Bridge of Doom, made of cobbles, rain smeared and windswept, maybe a metre wide, with no railings, crossing a ravine. I could see a metal gate on its far side, with a notice in it saying ‘No Passar’. To our left, was another rabbit track, similar to the one at the original entrance to the tunnel, that my companion was now gently suggesting it might have been more prudent to take, as she had intimated at the time …

I took an executive decision – or else I took leave of my senses – and plunged down towards the Bridge of Doom. Slithering across its glistening cobbles in my mud smeared yellow Crocs, I carefully sidled around the ‘No Passar’ gate, risking certain death had I slipped, and beckoned my companion on. She crossed the bridge, opened the gate – the gate opened! – and followed me along a path that more or less ran in tandem with the levada a hundred foot above us. We laboured along this path in fading daylight while I contemplated the possibility of having to spend the night in the open. We had no food. There was no shortage of water, of course; and although it was wet, it was warm enough. It looked as though our bed for the night would have to be the tunnel entrance, if this path wasn’t the right one. At this point, we were brought up short at a turn that revealed our predicament. Below us, an endless valley, stretching into the distance. Above us, a mountain. Ahead of us, the ribbon like Levada with its attendant path snaking along the cliff edge until it disappeared into another tunnel. There seemed no conceivable way of getting from where we were to that new tunnel entrance, even if we had wanted to.

It was then that my companion mentioned noticing that the ‘rabbit path’ near the first tunnel exit had appeared to her to be cobbled, which suggested it might once have been used by vehicles, or at least pack animals. Which meant, she reasoned, it should lead to human habitation. The light went on in my head. Of course! So back we went across the Bridge of Doom, spurning the loathsome tunnel option, and off we scampered down the rabbit path that did, indeed, eventually lead to a house, and then a lighted alley, and then a street, and a bus shelter, and finally a bus.

One noteworthy event occurred prior to our knowing for sure that the cobbled path would lead anywhere useful. We came across a passion fruit plant, with a single ripe fruit on it. My companion stopped to pick this fruit, and then began to carefully open it, and eat it. She offered me some, as if she hadn’t a care in the world. I was incandescent with disbelief. There we were, totally lost, only taking this benighted path because the other options – the never ending tunnel, the ludicrously thin ledge, the Bridge of Doom – were so sublimely awful; with daylight close to being extinguished, the prospect of a night in the open gnawing at our vitals; and she thought she could afford the time and space to stop walking and eat fruit!

Day 4: We had a rest, walking around Funchal and reading our books while overlooking the harbour.

Day 5: We were going to go to Santana, in the north of the Island, but I thought we might do better to get out at Ribeira Frio and walk along another Levada. The Levada turned out to be shut, due to a landslide. Ribeira Frio was cold and wet, there was nowhere to shelter, and to add insult to injury, there was only one bus out of the place, seven hours later. After cursing everything I could find to curse, including the creator of our map, which showed, by portraying what was little more than a minuscule tourist outlet selling woollen hats at inflated prices as a vibrant, bustling town, yet again, how little attention its creator had paid to detail, I bit on the bullet. A whiskery cove who had sidled up to us on our arrival in this festering hole and suggested we might like to avail ourselves of his taxi cab to get out of it, agreed to a minor cut in his rate and we drove unceremoniously back the way we had come.

Day 6: A lovely Levada walk, with stunning scenery. Flowers everywhere. Even so, we still got lost a few times.

Day 7: On a bus to the only sand beach on the Island, where we swam. Another lovely day, with entrancing walks through flower engulfed lanes.

Day 8: To the airport, a last Bica, into the Easyjet Scrumage, and back home.

Recommendations: take a good map and consider hiring a car.

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