Located deep in the Gulf of Guinea, the twin-island state of São Tomé and Príncipe (STP) is a jurassic paradise where the portuguese speaking locals greet you with a disarming smile and a léve léve (easygoing) attitude to life. Forged in isolation, today STP has emerged from its dark history to tell a story. Maurice Schutgens finds out why you should go.
PHOTOGRAPHS: MAURICE SCHUTGENS
In order to understand STP, one has to understand chocolate (and eating the chocolate is only part of it). In 1822 the cocoa bean made its way from Brazil to the impenetrable shores of STP and thus the Chocolate Islands were born. In 1913 these isolated African islands became the world’s largest producer of cocoa, supplying Hershey’s and Cadbury. Fast forward to present day and while STP has long handed over its chocolate crown to Ivory Coast, the island is experiencing a resurgence of sorts and locals claim that the best quality beans still come from this tiny volcanic spec in the Atlantic. Thankfully one can still taste the deliciously complex and intense flavours of cocoa that have been perfected by individuals like Claudio Corallo (an Italian agronomist who has been celebrated as the creator of chocolate without bitterness). Following the journey from the spectacular cocoa plantations on Príncipe (Roça Terreiro Velho) to its transformation into a neatly packaged chocolate bar is a right of passage on STP. And yes – it’s good!
The roças (plantations) of STP were once a network of beating hearts, structures of aristocratic splendour, opulence and ingenious engineering built on the back of imported slave labour from Angola, Congo and further afield. Today the roças are crumbling facades, but a fading reminder of former glory and pain, that have been left to the island to be reclaimed and forgotten. Some, but not all. Most have been inhabited by local families, carving out a simple existence away from the modernity of life. Visiting the roças is an opportunity to immerse yourself into the very fabric of the island and hearing the stories of how each roça once fit into the history of STP is as fascinating as it is thought-provoking and disturbing. Roça Agua Izé, formerly one of the islands main plantations is a must-see, as are the well known roças of Sundy and Belo Monte on Príncipe but it is the less known roças that lie far off the beaten track on unmarked overgrown roads like Roça Ubu Buda and Roça Boa Entrada that are hauntingly authentic reminders of the past.
Beaches, Rum and Turtles
Ironically it was a Bacardi Rum Commercial, filmed in 1991 on Príncipe’s now famous Banana Beach, that briefly put STP on the map… though it was soon to be forgotten again. There are few places on the islands that can be described as crowded, for this tiny archipelago receives less than 30,000 visitors a year, but Banana Beach with its sweeping white sand beaches with lapping azure waters is one of the places that can get ‘busy’. As the saying goes, “three families is a crowd”. Further afield there are many more isolated, photogenic and unexplored beaches on the islands that offer seclusion and pure wilderness such as Praia Boi and Praia Macaco. Some however offer even more. Praia Jalé, located on the southernmost tip of São Tomé island, is a wild coast with golden sands, overhanging palm trees and large crashing waves that only truly comes alive at night during November and March. Under a waning moon tens of sea turtles heave themselves up onto the soft sands to nest, making STP one of West Africa’s most critical habitats for five species of sea turtles. During our night on Praia Jalé a large female green sea turtle dug her nest directly next to our tent. We watched in silence as she tried to secure a future for her species.
Hiking Pico Cão Grande
As the low hanging clouds slowly parted in the far south of São Tomé island, a prehistoric dark volcanic tower slowly came into focus, looming large on the horizon, drawing us near. Erupting from the Jurassic landscape of giant ferns below, this was Pico Cão Grande, a phonolite (ancient magma) tube. This was the Lost World. From the charmingly sleepy town of São João dos Angolares we headed for the nearby grounds of Agripalma (a palm oil concession) and drove through its maze of muddy rutted roads until our little suzuki could go no further. We abandoned our car and started walking towards our goal until we encountered Miguel, a plantation worker who knew the way (or so he claimed). Within one hour we were hopelessly lost, slipping and sliding through a bamboo jungle, no path in sight. Eventually we navigated our way back to the spire and stood at its base gazing up at its treacherous sheer cliffs overhead. Without maps.me we would probably still be lost somewhere in the forest!
Parque Natural Obô de São Tomé, established in 2006, straddles parts on both islands of STP and as a result of its incredible abundance of endemic species, is recognised as an ecological jewel of global significance. While catching a fleeting glimpse of the Congo Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) with its strikingly red plumage through the thick canopy was exhilarating we were on the hunt for something more stationary…waterfalls! And STP was bursting at the seams with them. While some are located right along the road (Cascata São Nicolau), others require a little more effort. Cascata Nazaré, hidden away beyond the village of Ponta Figo (just outside Neves), is one of them. After recruiting our nine year old guide, who demanded half payment in local dobras and half in, would you believe it, chocolate, we hiked up through a stunning patch of tropical forest littered with cocoa plants gone wild and random moss covered bridges. An hour long hike gave way to ancient Portuguese built aqueducts that pitched us into complete darkness only to emerge at the most spectacular waterfall on the island. Screaming into the thundering spray we knew we had found happiness.
The Ultimate Proposal
Find a secluded beach. Get down on one knee. Pop the question. Job done. You’ll thank me later.