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The Geographical Features Of The Madeira Islands

Copyright (c) 2011 Robert James

The Madeira Archipelago has been known to civilisation for near on 600 years. 

Whereas the initial settlers counted themselves in tens, today’s visitors to this outcrop of islands in the Atlantic Ocean number more than 2 million every year.  Most are Europeans in search of a holiday – the island is largely disregarded by vacationing families from the American continent. A few are professionals venturing here to attend international events held in the world famous conference centre of Funchal, the capital city.  The remainder are a mix of sports people, business associates and individuals retracing their heritage and seeking distant relatives.

Nearly all visitors soon realised the need to possess a detailed map of Madeira as the island’s transport system and tangle of narrow winding roads can be intimidating.

One wonders what proportion of those 2,000,000 visitors have any idea of the geologically violent events that lead to the archipelago’s formation? Indeed, the Madeira Archipelago has an interesting heritage that helps explain its unique diversity of flora and fauna.

The Madeira Archipelago, is a volcanic outcrop, some 20 million years old and situated in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. It is part of a small archipelago.

The principal islands of the archipelago consist of Madeira – the main island – Porto Santo and Ilhas Desertas. The distant Selvagens Archipelago, that is actually nearer to the Canary Islands than Madeira, also belongs to the same volcanic basin as the Madeira Archipelago. These islands are uninhabited and essentially barren, but they come under the administration of Funchal Municipality.

Identical origin does not always imply identical development, and so it has proved to be with the islands of this archipelago. As we will see, the geographic differences spawn a variety of climate conditions and ecological diversity.

The dominant island of the Portuguese archipelago is Madeira. This island is approximately one thousand kilometres from Lisbon, the capital city of mainland Portugal.

Measured from its outermost extremes, Madeira Island is some 54 kilometres wide by 23 kilometres high. This totals to an area of over seven hundred square kilometres. The figure of 741 square kilometres in itself belies an important truth. From this number, many presume that Madeira has little to offer in way of touring excursions. People assume that a single excursion could encompass the entire island. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Madeira’s volcanic birth has conspired to make the island rugged and mountainous. The topography is dramatic and spectacular. Even if one could tour everything in a day – which you cannot – it would be doing Mother Nature a disservice.

At 1,862m above sea level, Pico Ruivo is the island’s highest peak.

However, the Pico Ruivo is not an isolated height. Other peaks dominate the landscape, such as the eighteen hundred metre high Pico do Arieiro; Ruivo do Paul at 1,640m; and, Achada do Teixeira at 1,592m above sea level.

Given the number and height of these peaks on a relatively small island, it is not surprising to discover that Madeira is an island largely bereft of flat regions. There are two exceptions.

The central plateau that lies to the west of the valley that runs from Ribeira Brava on the south coast to Sao Vicente on the north coast is the greatest expanse of flat landscape on Madeira. The other important flat areas of the island are the narrow coastal plains.

Northern Madeira labors under the burden of stronger winds and harsher sea swells than southern Madeira. For this reason, the north is predominantly colder and wetter than the south. Surely Mother Nature made no conscious descision but Madeira, and its prevailing weather conditions, is divided in two by the volcanic heights that gave the island its birth.

There is an ancient system of levadas, a network of narrow irrigation channels carrying water from the north and the interior to the drier south. This results in the landscape being green with a profusion of plant life in all areas except for the highest and harshest volcanic tops.

Such is the steepness of the marine foundations of Madeira, that the island has encouraged a diversity of sea life in and around its home waters that has given rise to a variety of rare species.

The tasteful Espada fish, which is a serving much enjoyed by tourists, is found in the depths of the coastal waters off Madeira Island – there being few other places in the world that it finds as a suitable habitat.

The fish, that resembles an eel, is exclusively fished for at night from the small port of Câmara de Lobos on the southern coast. Anyone wishing to sample an espada fish meal is advised to do so before viewing the ungutted fish on supermarket counter displays – the sight may well put you off your meal…

The monk seal is also well suited to Madeira’s home waters and was once prolific in numbers. It is sad to relate that the monk seals suffered from frequent hunting and were driven to the edge of extinction when, in 1997, it is believed their population numbered just thirty-five.

The hub, and capital city, of Madeira is Funchal.

Although definitely a working city, Funchal still retains the languid charm of a bygone era. It is a highly recommended holiday destination. A map of Funchal is freely available.

The island of Porto Santo lies some 37km to the north east of, and is much smaller than, Madeira island. Porto Santo is some 11km (southwest to northeast) by 5.5km (northwest to southeast) wide at its broadest.

The island is less spectacular than Madeira with Pico do Facho defining its highest point at 517 metres above sea level. Other high peaks of interest are Pico do Castelo at 437m and Pico de Ana Ferreira at 283m above sea level.

That Porto Santo’s peaks are diminutive in comparison to those of Madeira Island’s, and given that the topography is generally smoother, rainfall here is greatly restricted. Here the rain clouds are not forced up to higher, cooler altitudes by the topography and can pass over the island without being forced to precipitate their water vapor. This is a defining feature of the island.

Wildlife finds the lack of water a major difficulty and therefore is not as diverse as on Madeira Island. The flora on Porto Santo is similarly limited for the same reason. Mother Nature, it seems, does not bestow her gifts evenly.

The omni-present Wall Lizard makes no exception for the Ilhas Desertas, being as common here as elsewhere in the Madeiran Archipelago.

The smoother terrain means that Porto Santo has little shelter from the sea breezes that continually buffet the island. The building of windmills was the inevitable response of the initial inhabitants. Basic in design and constructed of wood, these windmills played an economically important role in the development of the island. Nowadays, the few that remain give an inkling to a time since passed.

Porto Santo really has only one town of significance, and that is Vila Baleira. Here a small oasis of tended trees and shrubs give a welcome splash of greenery that sits behind the eastern end of a 9km long golden sand beach.

The Ilhas Desertas Рliterally meaning deserted islands Рoccupy a spot in the Atlantic just 20 nautical kilometres south of the Ponta de Ṣo Louren̤o, the south eastern tip of Madeira. This trailing ribbon of islands is starkly defined by its treeless, inhospitable solidified magma rocks.

The islands are long, narrow and rugged. Not surprisingly, they are uninhabited.

From 1990, the outcrop collection was declared a nature reserve and all future human visitation was only to be undertaken with the sanction of a permit. Such permits were to be limited to those performing scientific investigations. Indeed, because of the lack of human interference, they provide an important sanctuary for nesting birds. 15 species are prevalent here. Fea’s Petrel, Cory’s Shearwater, Little Shearwater, Bulwer’s Petrel, and the Madeiran Storm-petrel being the most noted.

As an aside, on Deserta Grande, the biggest Ilhas Desertas, is the only habitat where you will find the commonly called Wolf Spider. This is noteworthy since it is the only poisonous insect or reptile that can be found on the Madeira Archipelago. This poisonous arachnid, formally known as Lycosa ingens, grows to an impressive size – its leg span on maturity being approximately 8cm across. Although it is an extremely rare occurrence on the Ilhas Desertas, the last known incident being lost in the mists of history, its bite will kill a fully grown man.

Robert James is the author of many articles on Madeira.  He realises the importance of providing useful tourist information.  A detailed map of Madeira is available that gives all the major island routes. And, for those who wish to based their holiday in the capital city, there is a Funchal map detailing the attractions.