The Madeiran Toboggan Ride Without Snow

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The sub-tropical island of Madeira is a frequent port of call for the many luxury cruise liners that criss-cross the Atlantic.  It is also a popular destination for young newly weds. However, for many people, it is a holiday destination that often goes overlooked.

Unfortunately, Madeira is often considered to be a dull island with nothing much happening to attract the holidaying visitor.

Nothing could be more untrue.

The toboggans of Monte are just one example of the unrivalled attractions that the Madeiran Archipelago has to offer.

Traditionally, transport in Funchal, Madeira's capital, did not include wheeled carriages. The uneven cobbled roadways, steep hills and sharp bends, meant that horse drawn carriages and, later, motorised vehicles were regarded as unsuitable.  Rather, the locals opted for various other, more original, forms of conveyance.

Crude wooden carts, mounted on wooden runners, lubricated with grease and pulled at a sedate pace by oxen were a favourite.  These "carros de bois" were reported to have been introduced to the island by a British Army Officer who required a means of conveying his invalid wife about town.

Whilst riding in the carros de bois was adequate on the flat, it was, of course, an extremely slow way to climb the steep inclines that dominate the landscape as soon as you leave the narrow coastal plain.

Another, solely Madeiran, means of transport was the transporting hammock.  Here, a length of cloth resembling a hammock was slung between two, long wooden poles. Two men, one at the front and one to the rear, would lift the assemblage in a mode rather akin to that of a sedan chair.  The passenger reclining in the hammock, usually a woman, was thus carried in what must have been a rather uncomfortable fashion.

The transporting hammock was particularly popular with British society women who were resident on the island in the 1600s.  Often, to the delight of their fare, the hammock bearers would sing in their native Portuguese tongue as they made their progress.  A gratuity for this additional service was invariably given.  What the passenger did not realise was that sometimes the songs were extremely disparaging of their customer.  It is reported that on one occasion the bearers of a rather overweight passenger were singing to the effect: "The fare we are allowed to charge is fixed, but just look at the size of this load!"

The mountainous village of Monte was no exception when it came to the modes of transport employed.  Cumbersome oxen drawn carts and hammocks were the normal way to convey both people and goods.

Progress, in more than one sense of the word, was slow.  The three mile journey down from Monte into Funchal could take anything up to three hours.

However, the run from Monte into Funchal was one long, steep, downward slope.  Accordingly, it was little surprise that one day, some 160 years ago, one of the locals decided to explore a more radical means of conveyance.  By mounting a flimsy wicker basket on two ski-like wooden runners it was discovered that you could glide headlong down the hill and reach the city centre in a mere 10 minutes.

The logistics were simple.  All that was needed was one hefty push to get going and someone to stand on the rear to steer.  In no time at all, you would soon reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

Suddenly, there was a fast, and cheap, means of transport from the outlying mountain village into the commercial centre of the island - the snow less, Monte toboggan sled was thus invented.

Further, the local inhabitants soon discovered that rich Europeans and Americans would take the journey just for fun - hence, the original Madeira tourist attraction was created.  Indeed, Ernest Hemingway famously described his Monte toboggan wicker basket sled ride as the "most exhilarating experience" of his life.

Today, the toboggans persist, but they are for tourists only.  Two carreiros guides, dressed in traditional white with straw hats, will propel you down a shortened route from Monte.

There are no seat belts and the only brake you can rely on is the rubber sole of your driver's shoe.  The views can be stunning, if short-lived and the usual souvenir photo awaits you at the end of the ride.

The ride is priced rather expensively by Madeiran standards. But, if you want to treat yourself to an experience that you are unlikely to find anywhere else, then give the Monte toboggans a go.
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