When I was younger I spent a year on Réunion, a volcanic island out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I remember it as a place of mighty green mountain-faces and cloud columns, battered by ferocious waves and patrolled by Great White sharks; full of creole superstition. I was young back then and impetuous. I got myself in some trouble and left the island with a broken arm and a hostile crowd at my back, my name bandied around on local radio.
I am a respectable man now but there is something about the cliffs and mountains of Madeira that is very similar. It brings back memories of that wild year and makes my heart run faster. Last time I was here, in the grip of island madness and suffering from blood loss, I accidentally proposed to my girlfriend on a mountain pass. Now I am back with her once again and our two children.
Madeira gives us a typical island greeting. We land into a thick sea mist and drive blindly across the island in fog and darkness, late-night reggaeton playing on the car radio, kids sleeping in the back. Overnight the mist becomes a squall and we wake to drumming rain and the banshee howl of the wind. When we venture out for breakfast our car is nearly blown off the cliff road. ‘Come to me!’ the Atlantic shouts at us far below, pounding the rocks in anticipation, throwing up spray as our wheels skid on the roadside. We have other plans though and we drive on; we eat breakfast in a warm bakery on the mountain top, then return to our house to do some half-hearted schoolwork and pace out the day.
By nighttime the storm has passed and the next day is absolutely stunning. We are high on a cliff, with ocean below us and mountains behind. A series of vertical escarpments curve around the headland like folds of green corduroy, each ridge slightly more faded than the one before until they melt away into haze and shadow. Kestrels hover over the gorge.
Some way down below us the village of Paul do Mar is a series of pastel bricks tossed down at hazard behind the sea wall. It is only about three kilometres away as the crow flies, and so we decide to stroll down after lunch, using the rambler’s trails that zig-zag down through the vegetation. For the crow a 25% gradient is just wind and freefall, but we however are chained by gravity. We set off on the hike full of excited chatter, but soon we are blowing hard and conversing in grunts. The views are amazing, but our legs are properly shaking once we get to the bottom – and that was just the walk down. It requires a cool-off period, some beers, passionfruit mocktails and a serious pep talk before we are ready to attempt the return leg. We make it home though and Matilda doesn’t even moan once. Encouraged by this we drive off to a waterfall, then on to a lighthouse for sunset.
This sets the tone for our week in Madeira. There are too many beautiful things to see and it feels like we are racing against time, trying to capture the island in a week. We march to the rhythm of invisible drums. It is a novel way to travel after months of lazy meandering down the Portuguese coast. The frantic pace becomes a game. How much can we do in a day? How many sights can we see? Schoolwork becomes shouted quizzes that take place in the car as we traverse the island.
We spend a day in the capital, Funchal, bombing down vertiginous streets in strange sledges pulled by goat-like men in straw boaters. We go swimming off the quay and dress up for a colonial tea in Reid’s Hotel for a special Matilda treat. We do a 10km hike to a famous waterfall in the interior and try to swim under it, but it is too glacial to stay in that dark mountain pool for more than a few minutes. We spot the mighty Madeiran Buzzard. We take a cable car down to a deserted ghost town in the northern tip of the island and we eat a picnic on the rocks, then get drenched by huge waves as we try to paddle. We climb up the kind of cliff path that would give Indiana Jones second thoughts, scrambling over rockslides and slithering along wet ledges where all that lies between you and the abyss is wind and fear.
Arthur and I go rock-climbing in the cliffs in the south and Arthur astonishes our guides with his monkey abilities. I don’t astonish anyone, except perhaps by not injuring myself, but the challenge of man against rock speaks to something deep in my soul, and I resolve to do daily strength exercises in future and climb El Capitán with Arthur before he is eighteen. Straight afterwards, still soaked with sweat, we hike up the highest peak on the island and Matilda treats us to a glorious meltdown at the summit.
Amid all this motion I find some hours one morning to hide myself away and have a long chat with a lovely lady from BA. Then at lunch I am able to casually mention to the family that I have bought us one-way tickets to Costa Rica next week. It is a complete bombshell and it sends everyone into disbelief then squealing and dancing. I am puffed with triumph at my own largess, the modern day hunter-gatherer of airmiles and companion vouchers.
‘We are going to Costa-Coffee Rica-pica!’ the kids sing as we rattle over mountain passes and along cliff roads in our pathetically under-powered rental car.
They are distracted now, their heads far away, but as we drive along every curve brings a new wonder and I start to wish I had held back the news until later. I can’t help thinking that even the majestic Costa Rican cloud forests may not top this wild and beautiful island.