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Dispatches from Atlantis- Part 1

Dispatches from Atlantis: An Exploration of Madeira and Porto Santo Islands through Time and Space.

While Atlantis does not exist as a travel destination, as a myth it has exerted a huge influence on the human imagination’s yearning for the exotic and mysterious to somehow or somewhere be real and tangible. 

Attempts to discover and explore the lost continent of Atlantis will always be limited to our imagination, but there are instead very real islands within the North Atlantic Ocean that occupy the area alluded to by Plato in his stories about Atlantis. These are the islands of Macaronesia, more commonly known as the Azores, the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands, and the archipelago of Madeira. They have come into existence relatively recently, in geological terms, provoked by mantle hotspots located beneath the northeast Atlantic Oceanic Plate. As the oceanic crust gradually moved eastward above this hotspot within the mantle, Madeira literally erupted into existence.

If Plato could have visited Madeira, which seems implausible as he placed Atlantis to the west of his known World of Ancient Greece, then he may have been delighted to find his chosen location for Atlantis partly occupied by Madeira. The sublime and otherworldly landscape of Madeira presents you with an exaggerated green confusion of scenery … somewhat like taking a holiday to the Jurassic Period. Madeira is an island that provokes the imagination, conjuring up thoughts of lost Worlds or forgotten lands.

To begin this exploration of Madeira it is probably a good step to start at the beginning and for Madeira this was some 5.4 million years ago when it first emerged from the Atlantic Ocean. Madeira is a volcanic island, and although no-longer a site of active volcanism this island building activity continued until as recently as 25,000 years ago. Consequently, the island retains much of its altitude and geographic extent despite the erosional depredation of Atlantic Storms, heavy rainfall, and continual marine erosion.

Dispatches from Atlantis Part 2: Exploring Madeira without the Car

Dispatches from Atlantis Part 3: Escape to Porto Santo.

With so many different landscapes Madeira is a menagerie of Planet Earth’s scenery. In this land, where the vertical is as prominent as the horizontal, the landscapes can seem to be European … but like nowhere else in Europe. Some of the scenery in Madeira could be described as Alpine, with steep and dramatic vistas within a green landscape accommodating narrow and condensed terrace fields far below. There is however an undercurrent of tropical verdance straining to erupt all around you. Travelling through the east of Madeira will take you through evergreen Laurisilva Forests, tree lines, and tangled banks of vines and shrubs that lead us away from the Mediterranean and towards tropical Africa. On the western side of Madeira, the scenery changes, with a more wild and sparse landscape shaped by the incoming weather besetting this part of the island. 

…There is however an undercurrent of tropical verdance straining to erupt all around you.

For nature enthusiasts, numerous natural wonders are available and easily accessible when visiting Madeira. The two most high-profile examples are the famous Levada Walks, and the ancient evergreen Laurisilva or Laurel Forests. Conveniently these two can often be experienced at the same time as many Levada walks pass through Laurisilva Forest for part or most of their duration. This is especially the case when hiking around the northern side of Madeira where the greatest remaining extent of Laurisilva Forest remains after five centuries of forest clearance by human occupation. The Levadas are man-made channels taking water for irrigation and domestic use away from the wetter northern areas of Madeira, such as the Paul de Serra, and delivering it to the southern coasts where the climate is drier and the soil more fertile for agriculture. The need to deliver water on long distances around a rugged and mountainous terrain necessitates a gentle gradient to get the water supply to its intended destination. This has the benefit of providing Levada hiking trails with long stretches of level or mild gradients for walking through the mountains of Madeira. It should be noted that many Levadas wind around mountainsides with precipitous drops, and this can be both awe-inspiring and alarming depending on your comfort with being exposed to such huge heights.

Dispatches from Atlantis Part 2: Exploring Madeira without the Car

Dispatches from Atlantis Part 3: Escape to Porto Santo.

The Laurisilva Forests of Madeira are a relic of an ancient evergreen Laurel Forest that covered much of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin for most of the Tertiary Period, starting around 66 million years ago. Later in this Tertiary Period, there was a climatic change, that saw a decrease in temperature and rainfall. This led to the decline of the European Laurisilva Forests, and their replacement by the now more familiar deciduous trees that were better able to withstand the periods of cold and drought inflicted by the deteriorating climate. These replacement deciduous forests were themselves periodically vanquished by the multiple ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch, beginning 2.6 million years ago and continuing up to the end of the last ice age 11,700 years ago. Because of its volcanic creation back in the Tertiary Period, and a mild humid stable maritime climate, Madeira has also offered the Laurisilva Forest a lifeboat to survive these Pleistocene Ice Ages.

While you won’t discover the last city of Atlantis within these ancient forests, you will experience the pre-glacial World of Europe from many millions of years ago. Many people who walk through these UNESCO Natural Heritage Site forests leave none the wiser that they have experienced a unique time capsule from this ancient long-lost World.

There is also a misconception that it is necessary to hire a car instead of using public transport to access Madeira’s Levadas and Laurisilva Forests. This is not the case, and for some useful advice on how to access Madeira’s many hiking trails by bus, you should read Part 2 of this travel guide.

Dispatches from Atlantis Part 2: Exploring Madeira without the Car

Dispatches from Atlantis Part 3: Escape to Porto Santo.

Writing: Robert Moss, YouTube ChannelVimeo ChannelPhoto Blog

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