Today, São Tomé and Príncipe are still largely undiscovered but the buzz of change is unmistakable. One only hopes that the natural beauty of the islands will be preserved.
‘Amiiiiiiga!’ Friend! ‘Taxi?’ These bright yellow taxis are everywhere – so many zoom around the central market square of São Tomé, they show up on Google Earth. But isn’t life here supposed to be leve-leve, calm, easy-going, relaxed? Escaping from the clinch of yellow fenders into the maze of the market building leads you straight into the rich colours of São Tomé: neat piles of green limes, red chilli pepper, yellow turmeric, dark grey charcoal, herbs and plantains, and the metallic shimmer and glassy stare of a swordfish in a bucket.
Further afield, you’ll find more colours: the waxy pink of the porcelain rose, the turquoise of a coastal bay, the rainbow of clothesspread out to dry across the stones along one of the many rivers, and the luscious greens of the trees, plants and ferns of the rainforest that covers three quarters of the islands – nourished by rivers, waterfalls, and the tropical downpours of the rainy season.
The forest creeps down to sandy beaches, white, golden, graphite grey, where you are unlikely to meet a single tourist – but maybe a fisherman who’ll sell you a fish from his catch. Freshly grilled fish ‘belly’, the sides of the Atlantic sailfish, is only one of the taste sensations of the archipelago; the delicious stickiness of the jackfruit, the acidity of a coffee cherry and the aromatic bitterness of a toasted cocoa bean are others.
São Tomé and Príncipe is one of West Africa’s most important nesting sites for marine turtles and each winter they come to lay their eggs on the small strips of sand separating the Atlantic from the dense rainforest.
A hundred years ago, this archipelago was one of the world’s biggest producers of cocoa; today, the faded glory and tumbledown charm of the plantations tell the story of the decline of colonial rule and the monocrops that helped to sustain it. Rest your hiking feet on the creaking wraparound balcony of a restored plantation house, clutching a cold beer by candlelight, and you are in the middle of a living history lesson – on the story of West Africa, colonialism and the slave trade, and the crops that shaped these islands: sugarcane, coffee and, most of all, cocoa.
Chocolate from ‘the cocoa islands’ is starting to appear on the shelves of supermarkets abroad, however, only one gourmet brand is actually produced here. Most Santomeans, working for a monthly wage many expats spend on a night out, certainly can’t afford this luxury. In Africa’s second-smallest country, political power and business are concentrated around the capital and the northeast of main São Tomé island. In the poorer south, phallic phonolite outcrops, rising hundreds of metres above the surrounding oil and coconut palms, shrouded in mist, create a certain Lord of the Rings atmosphere. And really, this is Middle Earth: São Tomé and Príncipe is the closest land mass to the point in the Atlantic where the meridian, the line of zero longitude running through Greenwich in London, crosses the line of zero latitude, in other words, the Equator.
The equatorial archipelago’s diverse habitats include rocky reefs covered in sea fans, hiding places for colourful parrotfish and snappers, grumpy-looking moray eels and majestic barracudas – and five species of turtle. São Tomé and Príncipe is one of West Africa’s most important nesting sites for marine turtles and each winter they come to lay their eggs on the small strips of sand separating the Atlantic from the dense rainforest. Two dozen endemic bird species are starting to attract birdwatchers from all over the world, tick-lists in hand.
São Tomé and Príncipe is certainly not a tropical ‘all-included’ paradise, but you won’t be short of good stories to tell!
Over the centuries, the arrival of slaves and ‘contract workers’ from the Congo basin, Angola, Cape Verde and Mozambique created a unique ethnic and cultural blend of musical and dramatic traditions, and a deliciously varied cuisine. Today, more than half the population continue to live on US$1 a day, amid speculation about where exactly the millions of dollars that the government received for the oil discovered in Santomean territorial waters actually went. So far nobody has seen a drop of the black stuff, but if and when it starts flowing, petróleo is supposed to solve all the islands’ problems …
Some people will breezily tell you that you can see all of Príncipe in a day. You can of course, if you zoom along the island’s few kilometres of tarred road in a jeep. However, you can spend weeks here and not see every corner of this spectacular island. In the ‘city’ of Santo António, the rainforest keeps trying to impose its grip on the crumbling colonial houses; a handful are restored in pretty colours, of others, only their stark façades are left.
Maybe because of the splendid isolation of the island, experiences stay in your mind even more clearly: wonderful meals on the deck at the Bom Bom Island four-star resort, frugal picnics of biscuits and corn rolls atop an unknown waterfall, the shadowy silhouettes of a guide’s siblings dancing to kizomba tunes from a battery-powered stereo or an afternoon at the beautiful Banana Beach, perfectly curved around turquoise waters.
On Príncipe, the transition from beach paradise to rain-soaked misery can be quick. Retracing the steps of a scientist who had reported sand sharks feeding at the mouth of a particular river on an isolated beach in the southwest of the island involved a lot of walking, a lot of machete work to clear the path, a lot of aggressive mosquitoes, a lot of rain, more rain … so it was 18.00 and nearly dark when we finally stumbled down to the beach. We had barely finished wading through the river, water up to our hips, when we suddenly saw them: a pair of sand sharks, elegant fins slicing the water.
Escaping from the clinch of yellow fenders into the maze of the market building leads you straight into the rich colours of São Tomé: neat piles of green limes, red chilli pepper, yellow turmeric, dark grey charcoal, herbs and plantains, and the metallic shimmer and glassy stare of a swordfish in a bucket.
The evening’s entertainment consisted of flapping a sopping Gore-Tex jacket over the campfire in the rain, trying to dry-grill my legs at the same time. Minus my hammock, which got left behind, I snuggled up to the unconvincing fire, piling all the soaked wood within my reach on to it, too wet and cold to sleep. The next day, my walking socks had gone, quietly consumed by the fire in the night. Caca–ôôô! is, I think, the expression Santomeans use for this kind of thing.
A touch of mystery, farce even, also clung to my departure from the archipelago. Spending hours having my African braids rearranged, I managed to miss the plane from Príncipe back to São Tomé. But wait, the supply plane from São Tomé is due in, I can get that! But then no, a bird had wrecked the turbine, the plane couldn’t take off, leaving me stuck on the island for two more days. Funnily enough, I heard the ‘bird-in-turbine’ story again, not long afterwards, when I was due to travel home. This time though, it turned out to be the sound of my airline folding. Over 100 people were left stranded, amidst the constantly changing rumours that are so typically Santomean. (I did get off the island, only four days late.) So, São Tomé and Príncipe is certainly not a tropical ‘all-included’ paradise, but you won’t be short of good stories to tell!
These two African islands have so much more to offer than their tiny size would suggest, and this book is mainly for the adventurous traveller dabbling with the idea of exploring them.
To write the first edition of Bradt’s São Tomé and Príncipe guide I spent months hiking through dense rainforests, lounging on empty beaches, visiting crumbling colonial plantation houses, climbing extinct volcanoes (sweating for Britain, or Bradt, rather), and tasting roasted cocoa beans – as well as some of the best chocolate in the world.
Today, São Tomé and Príncipe are still largely undiscovered but the buzz of change is unmistakable: ecotourism and investment are beginning to take root, on Príncipe in particular. One only hopes that the natural beauty of the islands will be preserved. What I can say for sure, though, is that São Tomé and Príncipe changed my life, transporting me to Portugal where I have lived since 2006.
Working on the new edition of the guide introduced me to more new experiences, not least to diving and the beautiful underwater world of the islands. And the sensation of dancing on the veranda of the Bombaim plantation at Christmas, with bats flying around us, will stay with me for a long time. As I said, research was a huge amount of fun, but if the shy ossobó bird could finally show its face next time I visit, rather than just its bright green behind, that would be nice, thanks …