São Tomé e Principe consists of two archipelagos around the two main islands: São Tomé and Príncipe, located about 140 kilometres (87 miles) apart. They are nestled in the arm pit of West Africa. São Tomé Island, at 854 square kilometres, is the largest island and is home to about 96% of the nation’s population. It is tiny: about 30 miles long (North-South) by 20 miles wide and is a typical tropical island.
The islands were reportedly uninhabited at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese sometime between 1469 and 1471. The Portuguese brought Jews to settle first but most of them died. Gradually colonised and settled by the Portuguese throughout the 16th century, the islands collectively served as a vital commercial and trade centre for the Atlantic slave trade. Cycles of social unrest and economic instability throughout the 19th and 20th centuries culminated in peaceful independence in 1975.
São Tomé is a surprise. It's well geared up for tourists and there are some very nice hotels and restaurants. Crime rates are low.
There are beaches, fishing villages, colonial buildings waterfalls and national parks to explore, as well as a Jurassic Park style Volcanic plug tower. There's some surprisingly good accommodation, converted Plantation Houses and modern hotels and some very up market food. And chocolate...
There's also a five star resort on Principe that has good reviews - next time.....
I flew in from Luanda. I'm flying to Gabon this afternoon on Afrijet. No visa required. In his inimitable style guide Agostinho has told me that their planes are old, only hold about 20 people and are often overbooked. In the event it’s an ATR that is nowhere near full and has capacity for 66. Perhaps I should take everything else he has told me about São Tomé with a pinch of salt.
We’ve almost done a Round the Island of São Tomé Tour, from the far side of the south west to the far side of the south east and reached São João des Angolenes (there’s no linking road through the south). The islanders believe there were indigenous people here (the Angolenes), when the Portuguese appeared, though the Portuguese claim the island was uninhabited - they arrived in the north.
Driver Wagner has dressed up for the day, military style, in his old army beret, which attracts much attention from the children who come running to meet us at each stop. They gather round staring into the car and then sycophantically hand me flowers, smile and pose for photos. I fall for this scam the first time, when we visit the old cocoa plantation at Roca Agostinho Neto (named after the first president of Angola) and I buy them all lollipops. (I’m being a very bad tourist this trip.) They all lose interest the second they’ve laid hands on the goodies. Two boys are enterprisingly playing draughts with bottle tops, turned up or not turned to denote the two colours.
The old plantation is huge. It was once the the grandest plantation on the island. The Portuguese word for plantation or farm is roca and these rocas were often grand affairs containing whole villages and a hospital. The pink and decaying hospital here is huge (there's a museum inside now) with a grand entrance. It now leads to a squatter village of nearly 5000 people including the adroitly begging children. As Lonely Planet says, 'Agostinho Neto is now the grandest symbol of its decline' and is typical of many of the old plantations.
Agostinho has plenty of tales about the bad behaviour of the Portuguese owners of the various plantations and their cruelty; they’ve been immortalised in place names such as Wicked Person Bay. An alternative name for Sao Tome e Principe itself is The Chocolate Islands. They boast that this is the best chocolate in the world. The good news is that the industry is now being revived via several ecotourism projects.
The old roca mansions scattered over the countryside are fascinating, with their shabby chic peeling cement arches. The most interesting halt is at Agua Eize, where there is a whole village of at least a century old and still charming (through probably very uncomfortable) painted wooden workers' houses, still inhabited by the locals. The cobbled streets lead up to the remains of another once very magnificent hospital. This one is complete with ornate staircase entrance; the smaller hospital for the local population is still to be found on the hillside behind it.
I’m staying in a converted sugar plantation house at São João dos Angolares. It’s not quite as grand as those in the USA or St Kitts, (hot water is elusive) but it’s been very nicely done out with wooden floors and periwinkle louvred doors and plenty of nick-knacks. And the dining room certainly has pretensions with its open kitchen and views across the bay. There are Philip Jackson style sculptured figures in the gardens and a gallery stuffed with modern art.
I’m eating lunch with an African tasting menu that has so many courses I’ve lost count. It’s all blobs of tuna and mango and baked banana with bacon. As well as chocolate, of course. The dishes are so tiny I fear I may still be hungry by the end, but the waiters keep on coming and I’m almost replete when they're done. And then, as guide Agostinho explains, we get proper lunch – beans, rice and more fish. And two more desserts. I think I’ve already had four, but I’m not sure what counts as which.
I escaped the worst of the rain today, but it’s poured down all afternoon and shows no sign of ceasing in the evening. It could have been worse. It’s the end of the wet season (Agostinho says the rainy season lasts until the end of May and he seems to be expecting it to cease entirely on June 1st) and the forecast said it was going to rain every day. Agostinho also says it rains a lot more in this area. The veranda that serves as the restaurant would be gloomy if it wasn’t atmospherically lit by candles. The bats have followed me. They’re swooping overhead as I eat my dinner.
Agostinho turns up at eleven this morning. He says that’s plenty of time for the tour of the capital I still haven’t had. Admittedly I hijack the tour at that point by asking if I can see the Pico Cão Grande. I’ve seen pictures which suggest it shouldn’t be missed. It’s a 30 minute detour further south but Agostinho says that’s no problem. It’s worth the trip, a landmark needle-shaped volcanic plug peak that erupts from the jungle, rising dramatically over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, and is crowned with cloud, like something in a science fiction film.
Wagner drives back to São Tomé town at leisurely speed and then it’s time for our fish restaurant looking over the bay lunch. Again, they both take their time eating and enjoying themselves until I tap my watch. I finally get a whistle stop tour of the capital’s crumbling charms. The Portuguese founded the city in 1485, and São Tomé still retains much of its original flavour.
There are villas with peeling walls, four hundred year old churches, the pink president’s palace is a smaller version of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, no photos allowed I’m told - too late), the heavily renovated in the last century cathedral, a couple of Art Deco buildings and monuments and two bustling and adjacent markets, one colonial and jam packed, one of Taiwanese concrete construction ( the Taiwanese have now been ousted as a presence in the country by the Chinese ). There's even a sprinkling of Art Deco.
Finally, São Sebastião Fortaleza, a museum combined, at the entrance to the port. It contains both religious art and colonial-era artefacts and is decorated with those blue and white azulejos. We emerge to find married Wagner flirting shamelessly with an attractive lady on the street corner. Now I know why he sports the beret.
Next stop, Libreville and Gabon.
The sand is squishy and rock strewn, so my hike along a string of beaches is hard work, even though they are beautiful. They’re fringed with palm trees, fishermen in overcrowded boats are casting their nets in the small bays, pursuing shoals of sardines,and at least twenty falcons are wheeling, after the same prey. It hasn’t helped that it’s rained all night, so the humidity is super high, as you would expect - São Tomé straddles the Equator, and I didn’t get to bed till two in the morning after my late flight.
And I’m not prepared. I flew in from Luanda yesterday. The itinerary said exploration of the small capital, followed by a tour of the west coast. Nothing was said about walking, so I thought I’d aim for semi-elegance, for a change, and I wore a dress and flip flops. They’re not ideal for clambering over boulders. My guide, Agostinho says we’re visiting the city at the end of my trip. This is still Africa.
So the town of Guadalupe and then the beaches, most notably the stretch of sand at Morro Peixe Beach. Agostinho is relentlessly chirpy and a mine of inaccurate and irrelevant information. He doesn’t like to say if he can’t understand me, so he just says ‘Yes’ and carries on talking, at breakneck speed, so it’s hard to follow his broken and thickly accented English. Attempting to cover all bases he occasionally doubles his nouns. ‘That ship - boat sank delivering Chinese cargo’. ‘That’s a mosque - church over there. ‘
Wagner is driving and they’ve brought a picnic lunch, which we are eating by the tourist hot spot - the crystal clear Lagoa Azul (Blue Lagoon). I’ve been for a swim, which at least has cooled me down, and I’m drying off, sitting on a creaky old boat under a baobab. The ants have already found me. And my hair is a yellow ball of frizz.
Spoth west, past sixteenth century churches and ramshackle colonial houses on stilts to my lodge. My bungalow is beautifully appointed (as they say), has a view out to the sea in the west and I’m sharing it with some tiny crabs and more ants. Tiny blue birds flutter in the banana plants. The information booklet says there are snakes around, but not to worry. They’re harmless.
I’m sitting on a pile of sawn logs waiting for Agostinho and Wagner. There are flies buzzing all around me - I’ve tied my cagoule round my ankles to keep off the worst of the mosquitoes - and I’m muddy and wet. I was expecting a walk today, as the itinerary said I was hiking in the primary forest of the Obo National Park and visiting a pretty waterfall - Cascata Sao Nicolau. It didn’t say anything about slippy steep uphill paths or wading through six tunnels in water a metre deep, while bats dive bomb me. It’s an African assault course. It would be ideal for I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.
Agostinhoe’s idea of motivation is to maintain a constant distance of 20 metres in front, never stopping so I can catch up or rest. Though it’s probably safer to keep a distance, as he’s happily slashing away at the undergrowth with his machete. Occasionally he uses it to point at birds I can’t see, way up in the canopy, instead. Flycatchers and orioles and the odd distant monkey. Cloud sits on top of the trees Jurassic Park like. Piri piri is growing wild across the path and heaps of giant African snail shells line the way. The locals suck out the snails live and toss away the remains of their feast.
‘Many bats in this one, Agostinho says encouragingly, as we approach the fourth tunnel. We’re following the water channel down from the top of the mountain, after climbing up to the waterfall. It’s covered with old paving slabs between tunnels, many of them rickety booby traps. ‘Careful ‘, warns Agostinho unnecessarily, each time I approach a gap.
When we get to the top Agostinho offers me the choice of going on further and then returning via the way we came, or descending using the tunnels. ‘I will call the driver to meet us as we will arrive at a different point to where we left him,’ he says. He doesn’t tell me how long the tunnels are or how deep the water is. You can’t even see the light at the end of some of them. I’ve borrowed some plastic shoes from the lodge to wear while wading (Agostinho told me there would be a few metres of water) and I’m using my phone torch to light the way, trying not to think about what else might be lurking in the chilly depths.
I’m not wildly keen on sitting alone in the jungle - too many noises to feed the imagination. But I rebelled when we arrived at what I thought was the end of my overland trial and Agostinho said he couldn’t reach Wagner on the phone; he probably didn’t have a signal. He said it was another 30 minutes’ walk back to base camp, and I've learned to at least double Agostinho's time estimates, so I sent him off to find the car on his own.
The track up and back follows the old colonial road through the cocoa plantations. There are decrepit plantation houses and the way is still cobbled at times. At others it’s just a muddy track.
Back on the tarmac (of sorts) we drive as far south as the road goes this side of the island,. It's a scenic route by the sea and through a tunnel, to a winding fishing village hugging the shore. A long line of sacking sails flutter. The houses, all at sea level and perilously close to the water are a motley assortment of wooden shacks. Most of the villagers are on the streets and we’re getting a mixed welcome. They’re still unused to tourists.
Next, the East Coast of Sao Tome.
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