Saturday, 28 January 2017

Sao Lourenco, Madeira

Sao Lourenco Peninsular
This was my fourth visit to the island and, as yet, I haven’t quite managed to get it together enough to write any form of a blog post about this beautiful island so here goes....

Famed for its levadas which are man made water courses comprising the island’s irrigation system there are a wide variety of trails ranging from the flat and coastal to those taking in the high rugged mountains in the centre of the island. Many of the trails are described as “levada walks” and are on the narrow footpaths which follow these water channels. Many companies offer guided hikes and “levada walks” which can cut down on transport headaches particularly for point to point walks but we have found that often the local buses and taxis (and the odd cable car) are sufficient.
The bus wasn't too crowded
The various areas of the island have their own distinct microclimates and while it is often warm and sunny on the south side of the island and in the main town of Funchal, the high mountains in the centre can, like any mountain environment, be wet and cold. Although a rare occurrence snow is not unknown and I have walked on icy paths on the high mountains.

This new year the wind was the main weather feature. Although dry and for the most part sunny it was often quite windy and the small catamarans and the replica of Christopher Columbus’s wooden carrack the “Santa Maria” were confined to the harbour rather than carrying out their usual daytime occupation of ferrying tourists along the coastline. Some of the yacht charters on Hogmanay still sailed allowing people to view the fireworks from the sea but given many of the cruise ships had struggled through the winds and the high seas to make it on time for the fireworks I wasn’t particularly envious of those watching them from a small boat – particularly after having consumed copious amounts of wine.

It is possible to do this walk along the Sao Lourenco Peninsular as one long walk but we opted to do it as two shorter days out, one on a previous visit to Madeira last new year and one this new year. The walk starts in Machico on the east side of the island which is easily reached by local bus from Funchal. Machico is the site of Madeira’s first settlement where the Portuguese explorers first came ashore in 1419.
Pico do Facho with the town of Machico and the old fort.
Machico town centre
Starting the climb
Starting off from the centre of the town we passed church – the oldest in Madeira past the small beach and the ruined forts who in their heyday protected the town from pirate invaders. From there the climb starts, firstly on a stretch of quiet road winding its way out of the village and then on to a rough trail on the mountainside. After a sharp pull over a grassy slope another small road is reached which winds its way up to a viewpoint of Pico do Facho (complete with ice cream van) giving a stunning view over the busy airport and its seemly constant arrivals and departures. Pico do Facho loosely translates into “beacon hill” and it was here that beacons were lit to warn those on the town below of the approach of pirate invaders. We explored at Pico do Facho for a while before heading back down the quiet road for a few hundred meters and before turning a sharp right on to a grassy trail and starting the gradual descent along the coastline to the former whaling port of Canical. Initially the path is a gradual descent and is obvious but as you near Cancial the gradient becomes steeper and the path less distinct until reaching an old arched bridge which has to be crossed to reach the main tarmac road leading into the village.
The view from Pico do Facho
Looking down on the town, the fort and the harbour
Pico do Facho gives a great view of the airport runway below
Ice cream, It would be rude not too
Looking towards the peninsular
The wide grassy track.
Narrow goat tracks.
The old bridge on the outskirts of the village
After a cheeky G&T and a wee wander around the village it was time to get the bus back to Funchal, this time passing under the runway of the airport which is supported on huge concrete pillars.
The main road goes under the runway
To continue the walk to the Sao Lourenco peninsular there is quite a long stretch of road going past the impressive looking Quinta do Lourdes, a self-contained holiday complex complete with its own lighthouse (which is actually a restaurant) and its own Marina. It’s possible to bypass this road section by a short hop on the bus but the road itself isn’t particularly busy and the views are pleasant enough. Eventually the road ends up at a dead end and a car park (with another ice cream van) and an information board and from there the trail leads out over the peninsular. 
More ice cream!
The landscape of this peninsular is different to the rest of the island, this is a lunar landscape of volcanic rock. Huge cliffs and rock stacks rise from the crashing waves of the Atlantic ocean in a multitude of blacks, greys, browns and reds layered through the cliff face indicative of their volcanic birth. This part of the island is more reminiscent of the neighbouring and desert like Porto Santo rather than the wooded slopes of Madeira and it is a nature reserve with parts of it closed to the public and reserved for the scientists studying the flora, fauna and geology. The Ilheu do Farol lighthouse was built in 1870 and would only be accessible via a swim to the next section of rock and those rough seas did not make that an attractive proposition.
Rock stacks on the north side of the peninsular
Bands of coloured rock
A lunar landscape
Looking back towards the west.
 Although spectacular it isn’t a particularly challenging trail in itself and we saw other walkers clad in just shorts, t-shirts and sandals but given the vagaries of the weather and the exposure of the peninsular I would always recommend carry some waterproof clothing. Thats also due to an enbedded cautiousness developed from walking on the Scottish mountains! There were a group of runners out training and their “hardmoors” t-shirts did hint to them as being from the UK and I did feel mildly jealous of them, it would be a fantastic run. Next time...
The palm trees gave the whole landscape a pre-historic feel - watch out for pterodactyls!
It isnt possible to get right to the end of the peninsular.
The path doesn’t go right to the end of the peninsular but instead terminates at the viewpoint of Casa do Sardinha (no ice cream van) giving a stunning view of the long finger of rock pointing outwards into the azure ocean and the lighthouse standing guard over the rocks.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Devil's Burdens Relay

Dave Francis and his team of Marshals at the Strathmiglo Changeover
This fantastic relay race for teams of 6 always feels like the hill racing season “opener” and over the years it has grown in popularity to such an extent it is hard to see how more teams could possibly be catered for. A brief glance at the results shows that there were 147 teams each with 6 runners (give or take) so that’s about 880 runners out on the hills on a cold January winter day – and who can blame them. It’s a great event (apart from the car parking!) and thanks must go to the organisers for the mammoth effort of organising this monster of a race.
Leg 1-2 Changeover
Waiting for their team mates to finish
John and Mark

Leg 2 "navigation leg" map
It had the makings of a chilly, grey, misty January day on the hill as I reluctantly handed team mate John my nice warm duvet jacket and wandered up to the leg 1-2 changeover point. As it turned out we got there pretty much just in time as Debbie came flying down the muddy slope to handover to myself and Elaine and we started on the long gradual ascent of West Lomond. We clambered over the grass and tussocks getting fleeting glimpses of other runners through the mist but couldn’t even see as far as the dark cliffs above. I was guessing that for once this was really going to be a navigation leg and not just “follow the crowd”. The next checkpoint was located in its gulley and, happy to have located it without mishap, we carried on upwards. As we neared the top of the gulley we were amazed to have climbed out of the mist into a gloriously sunny day with the tops of the hills poking up above the thick cloud below. This was so unexpected. Even the summits of Stuc a Chroin and Ben Vorlich were visible in the distance and I trotted along behind Elaine hoping she wasn’t getting too annoyed with me taking so many photos. In my defence there did seem to be an awful lot of runners who were also stopping to take photos and who could blame them, it was spectacular. 
Off into the mist
Heading up the gulley towards West Lomond
Above the clouds
Stuc a Chroin and Ben Vorlich in the distance

The next checkpoint was at the summit of West Lomond so generally there is no difficulty in locating that one then from west Lomond we started the descent into Glen Vale, possibly heading off a little too far to our right (South West I think?), but found the right path quickly enough. By now I was actually feeling a little as though I was going to overheat, something I had not in any way anticipated and was contemplating removing my hat and gloves but as soon as we descended into the misty valley I was quickly chilled again so the hat and gloves remained on. We followed the line of runners along the wet muddy path to the next checkpoint at the gate and then towards the Bishop Hill. It was quite a contrast once you were out of the sun. On the north facing slopes that the winter sun had not yet reached the blades of grass had a frosty white coating and the ground was frozen solid and slippery, the coolness in complete contrast to the almost blinding sunshine straight in your eyes as you crested the hill to head south. The route had been changed so that this time the runners on leg 2 heading to the leg 2-3 changeover didn’t meet the leg 3 runners coming the other way so by now it was impossible to see where everyone was, all that you could see were figures running along the skyline in the distance.
Looking across to East Lomond from the summit of West Lomond
Mist in Glen Vale
The descent from West Lomond
Heading towards Bishop Hill
West Lomond in the mist
Next there was a slight descent and then the final short sharp pull up to the final checkpoint on White Craigs. By now Elaine was so impressed with the view her camera came out too! 
Punching the card at the final checkpoint
Figures on the skyline
Fife is covered in cloud!
Finally there was the bit of the course neither of us was desperately keen on, the long steep descent to the finish at Kinnesswood. Fortunately it wasn’t particularly icy and as we were in the earlier 9.30am start not enough people had yet run down it to churn it up properly into a mud bath so it could have been worse. A lot worse. Even so I still picked my way down carefully. It’s usually at this point I remember that I really need to get new hill running shoes as the grips on mine are worn away to nothing but this time it was Elaine’s turn to have this issue.

The punch card was handed over to Richard and Mark and they were sent on their way as we made our way back round the event centre in Falkland. John was on leg 4 taking in East Lomond but sadly I was unable to stay to watch the finish but as we seem to appear in the results I think I can assume we managed to get the punch card around the course without incident. Initial results have us finishing 68th out of the 147 teams in a time of 4.05.16. Well done team!

It was an amazing day out on the hills which given the cold claggy conditions everywhere else in Fife was completely unexpected.