Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Island Infrastructure


A unique part of the island of Madeira is the water infrastructure they have in place, unlike anything I've seen to date. Levadas are channels cut into the side of the mountains, usually about four inches wide that carry water for irrigation from the foggy peaks to many of the outlying farms and villages. They have been in place since the 15th century and are an extremely intricate and extensive system that is still in use today. I hiked up to the peak the other day and most of the old footpaths on the island still follow said irrigation channels. In many ways they are better than a compass and a map since you know you’re on an island, and as long as you go uphill and follow the water you’ll eventually get to something interesting. Since the waterways are so narrow they function as an elementary form of a high pressure system, with fast moving water always flowing through, even when in relatively flat places. Cutbacks, chutes, and some serious banking maneuvers on the part of the levadas criss-cross the entire island. Most of the time the water channels are constructed of non-porous stone [looks like slate instead of the commonly used volcanic basalt], with mortar holding the flat, blueish gray rocks in place. The chutes are really shallow as well, maybe only about as deep as they are wide. And the footpaths that now function as hiking trails also double as accessible maintenance paths wherever the levadas travel to. Levadas are open to the air and as such are only fit for irriagation as far as I was able to figure out, though the amount of filtering they go through would probably be very similar to a mountain stream. The levadas are rarely seen in the city centers, but in my mind are some of the more beautiful pieces of the island. Sometimes the paths next to channels are only wide enough to get one foot in front of the other but serve as an incredibly functional and integral landscape component to many of the citizens of Madeira. How long will these bringers of farm life last under the level of development currently in place?

Living with the Land

Hugo in Paulo David’s office told me that maybe 20 percent of the island was actually occupiable, which now seems to be a pretty accurate statement. A lot of the coast is built up to take advantage of the available sun and views to the ocean where it is relatively flat, but going deeper into the heart of the island is another story. The island was made, more or less, by about four large volcanoes erupting during similar times 1.7 million years ago and creating the mountains seen today. There is one central valley that cuts in between the peaks, roughly splitting the island in half, and if you can imagine the elevation goes from sea level at the coast to upwards of 1600m in little over 10km. In the interior the location of houses are determined by whatever shred of non-erodable surface they can find to build on. Which many times ends up being along the ridges, sometimes in the valleys but they are more prone to flooding. You can trace the houses as if they were sitting on the spine of the mountain themselves, with the steeper parts used as farmland by an extensive terracing system. Almost the entire island is terraced where it is near villages to provide food for the people living all year round on the island. There seems to be a very delicate truce made between the still constantly changing island and its inhabitants. Mud slides, eroding cliff faces and the fickle weather many times try to displace the settlers, but by actively seeking a co-existence with the landscape, most buildings remain perched as if looking over their shoulder to make sure they didn't upset the island. And as a side note about the steepness, it is deeply damaging to one's ego to be honked at by a 75 year old lady b/c you're going down a mountain too slow.

Thoughts on Travel #1 : Never buy unsliced bacon, its completely more trouble than it is worth.


juliana said...
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Hank Freid said...

Yes it is really a unique water infrastructure. I love to travel to islands & have visited many islands in Asia. However it is really a nice post having decent information