Sweeping across much of the northern and central parts of Madeira island in the Atlantic, the world’s largest remaining expanse of primeval laurel forest not only dates back to the dinosaurs but has somehow survived almost six hundred years of human habitation.
Believed to consist of up to 90 per cent primary forest, the densely-wooded floresta laurissilva (as it is known in Portugal) covers 15,000 hectares and contains a unique collection of plants and animals, including many endemic species such as two very rare types of bat and the emblematic Madeiran long-toed pigeon.
Some forty million years ago, great swathes of lush, green Laurisilva forest covered much of southern Europe right up until the last Ice Age, but today it is mostly confined to the three Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira, Azores and the Canaries.
The large portion that blankets much of Madeira’s mountainous interior is a remnant of this ancient, strongly-scented woodland that forms such an integral part of the island’s natural landscape.
Extremely enchanting and freely open to visitors, it is a precious mass of fertile woodland that today fulfils an increasingly important role in maintaining the island’s hydrological balance and biological diversity.
Madeira itself is a rare natural phenomenon, bursting from the Atlantic in giant gushes of volcanic flame during the Miocene Epoch about twenty million years ago. After the lava cooled, erosion shaped the island with perpendicular cliffs, basalt rocks and an east-west backbone of sheer mountains.
At 1,862 metres (6,109 feet), Pico Ruivo (Purple Peak) is the highest point and the distance to Madeira’s submerged base at the bottom of the Atlantic is just over 6,000 metres (about 20,000 feet).
History records that the Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco arrived at a point later to become known as Machico on the eastern edge of the island in 1419 and promptly claimed it on behalf of Prince Henry the Navigator, although a medical textbook published in Florence in 1351 had already mentioned the existence of both the Madeiran and Azorean archipelagos.
Protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1999, it is widely assumed that most of Madeira’s picturesque Laurisilva forest has never been felled and features some massive old trees estimated to be over eight hundred years old.
Much of the forest is criss-crossed by a network of irrigation channels known as levadas which carry water from the fertile north to the more arid regions on the south side of the island.
Laboriously cut from the sturdy mountain rock to transport water to the island’s plantations and hydro-electric power stations, the levadas date right back to the island’s very first settlers in the early 15th century.
Today, the levadas still play an essential role in the cultivation of a variety of crops, including bananas, grapes (used for making the popular Madeira wine), sugar cane and passion fruit, that grow in abundance all over the island.