l’île de Madeira

The Levada

are watercourses, which bring the water from the rainy north of the island to the fertile but dryer south. The island’s irrigation system now comprises an impressive 2150 km (1350 miles) of channels, including 40 km (25 miles) of tunnels – and the work started centuries ago. The earliest settlers on Madeira began cultivating the lower slopes in the south of the island, cutting out terraces (poios). Working with contractors (sometimes using mourish slaves or convictors), they built the first small levadas, which carried water from springs higher up the mountainsides to irrigate their lands. You need only venture a little way off the main roads to begin to appreciate Madeira’s myriad aqueducts – for their beauty, ingenuity of design, and for the courage and determination needed to bring the concept to its present glory, their banks are often festooned with wild flowers.


Clouds driven

to the island by the prevailing northerly winds are caught by the central mountain chain, and as much as 2m (80 inches) of rain may fall in the north in a year, while the south coast may be relatively dry for up to six months. In effect the island is a huge self-regulating reservoir. Rain seeps down into the porous volcanic ash but, on meeting impervious layers of rock, it wells up again in springs. Unless this rainwater is channelled, it just runs down ravines and into the sea. In 1939 the Portuguese government sent a mission to the island to study a combined irrigation / hydroelectric scheme. The ‘new’ levadas created from its plans – wide mini-canals – contour through the valleys; their flow is stately and serene, and their banks are lovingly planted with agapanthus lilies and hydrangeas.

These wide

waterways are first channelled out at an altitude of about 1000m/3300ft, where the concentration of rainfall, dew and springs is greatest. The water is then piped down to the power stations Iying just at the outer edge of the arable land (about 600m/2000ft), from where it flows on to the irrigated zones. Here, distribution is carried out by the levadeiro, who diverts the flow to each proprietor. Most of the mission’s development plans were implemented by 1970. Among the most important projects were the Levada do Norte and the Levada dos Tornos, both of which you will discover as you tour, walk or picnic.

Their incredible length

considering the terrain, is best gauged on the fold-out touring map. The work took only 25 years to complete, although it was all done by hand. How were the tunnels cut through the solid basalt? How did the workers channel out the levadas beneath the icy waterfalls, halfway between earth and sky? Often, as during the construction of the corniche road between São Vicente and Porto Moniz, they were suspended from above in wicker baskets, while they fought the unyielding stone with picks. Many lost their lives to bring water and electricity to the islanders and unending joy to walkers.