Sao Tome: a lost world
by Laura Gelder | 04 March 2019
There’s a story being acted out in front of me which no one seems able to explain but it involves a cowboy riding a ragged pantomime horse made from a white sheet, a creepy doll with a hole in it, the devil, some big coconuts and a man having a retro telephone pulled out of his backside. In terms of making an impression, Sao Tome is really nailing it – and I haven’t left the airport yet.
We flew via a grey November Lisbon and stopped at a steamy Accra before arriving as the sun set. The island’s coast looked wild and wicked from above, with black rocks dashed by white waves; the interior mercilessly green with thick jungle and velveteen hills.
The airport was cramped and basic and the fresh air outside a relief but the heat is settling around me like a blanket now, and the frenzied drumbeat and shrieking whistles ring in my ears. There are about 30 masked dancers and musicians, some in green and white silk costumes with colourful carnival-esque headdresses; some just wearing ragged shorts and shirts with freaky masks – one man has improvised by strapping a ripped up beer box to his face. The story unexplained, we just take it as 'welcome to Sao Tome'.
The following morning I awake in my hotel to sunshine, palm trees and a tempting strip of sand under my balcony and it all seems like a dream. Sao Tome and Principe is my first foray into West Africa and all I know is that it’s nicknamed the Galapagos of Africa.
The twin island nation is an ex-Portuguese colony sprouting out of the Atlantic 450 miles off Gabon. After being discovered in the late 1400s it became a major exporter of sugar cane, worked by slaves shipped in from the rest of Africa. After a decline in production and brief Dutch rule, the Portuguese re-took the islands and introduced cash crops of coffee and cocoa. STP became independent in 1975 and it still produces these.
The plantations will have to wait - we’re starting in the island’s eponymous capital, visiting the weather- beaten Fort Sao Sebastiao which is fronted by rusted mooring posts which look like rotten teeth bared to the sea.
Archeological decay is evident everywhere, in the faded grandeur of the pastel pink Town Hall with its peeling green shutters and moulded balustrades, and in the dark confines of the city’s market. Here, I pick my way over a wet concrete floor. Damp is creeping up the walls, the electricity is dead and only shafts of daylight cracking through the roof light the room, giving it a jaundiced look. My male friends hover protectively but it’s safe and we get a warm welcome in a knock off t-shirt shop.
Outside is like 4D technicolour in comparison – shouting, beeping cars, a whistling policeman, fish blood running in the gutters, flies buzzing over meat, the smell of warm, ripe fruit and dazzling colour – from the produce and from the women selling it in their bright African prints, shaded by vivid umbrellas.
Heading north, we whizz past numerous roadside villages with tin-roofed shacks and bare shops displaying single bunches of bananas and palm wine in recycled plastic bottles.
Our guide surprises us with two more musical performances - dancing school girls in a school playground, grinding their hips like Rihanna with a nonchalant air, and then singing women of Cape Verde descent, who surprise us at the side of a once grand, poker-straight road on former plantation Augustinho Neto. Afterwards, we follow the broken road to a derelict hospital where squatters’ washing flutters from the gutted windows and drapes over the once elegant curved staircase.
A wild coast
The next day we head south and happen on the wild coast I spied from the plane. Boca de Inferno, or Hell’s Mouth, is the first stop for a windy photo above the black rock promontory which curls into the ocean like a comma, its circular bulk surrounded by a boiling sea and occupied by a lone fisherman in a red t-shirt.
We stop for lunch in Sao Joao Anglares, a village at the centre of Sao Tome’s distinct Angolares community, a group of fishing people who speak their own language and are descended from runaway slaves. Restaurant Mionga overlooks the mangroves, the black sand flats of the river and the ashen beach and sea beyond. The only sounds are the faint shouts of fishermen and the wind in the palms.
As we head further south the villages are sparser and the roads increasingly potholed. Then the palm oil plantations begin, at first blending insidiously with the indigenous vegetation until I notice how perfectly planted they are, like soldiers lined up between the mountains and the road.
We round a bend and, like a giant finger, Pico Cao Grande pokes the heavens defiantly. The 386-metre volcanic plug peak is apparently treacherous – slippery with moss, more often than not veiled in mist, surrounded by thick ferns and vines and ‘an abundance of snakes’, some of which inhabit the dark tower itself. Although climbers have been known to scale it.
Journey to the centre of the earth
We catch an overcrowded boat to Ilheu das Rolas and its four-star Pestana resort, feeling like we’re on holiday instantly thanks to cold towels on arrival, wood chalets and a huge pool – the largest in West Africa we're told – where we watch the sun sink into the sea bang on 6pm.
The island lies directly on the equator and in the morning we take a walk through the jungle, past sleeping pigs, to the centre of the earth, posing on a tiled world map which is laid out on the forest floor for tourists but slowly being reclaimed by it.
Guests are free to walk beyond the hotel and I have a banana-shaped beach to myself another morning and spend an afternoon on another watching men load their boat with coconuts under moody skies.
On our last day and back on the main island we pass more abandoned plantations. It’s like the decline has been lead by an angry mother nature who’s now painting the walls in moss, snaking her arms treacherously through roofs and sprouting green tresses defiantly out of glassless window panes.
It’s this sense of inevitable but atmospheric decline - nature taking its revenge on the colonists - along with the glimpses of colourful washing laid out to dry by the rivers, which will be my abiding memories of Sao Tome.
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