9 mins

In August, the African nation of São Tomé and Príncipe comes to life

These off-beat Central African islands are known to few visitors, but the streets and culture come alive during August, as Paul Bloomfield discovers…

Why visit Sao Tome and Principe in August (Paul Bloomfield)

You see, bad is cool. Fearsome warriors enveloped in hellfire yellow and Hades red stomp and swagger to pounding drums and ear-piercing whistles. They sport Stygian shades and swarthy beards, and shake lances and rattle sabres with chin-jutting brio.

There’s Feiticeiro, the Sorcerer. There’s Rei Diablo, Rei Burlante and Rei Tempeste – the Devil King, the Swindler King and the Storm King. Gigante, the Giant, overshadows all.

God’s army is a tepid bunch in comparison, clad in wan white and blue, plodding and staid. No wonder the crowd cheers the other side: today, the Devil has the good music.

One thing is certain, though: ‘good’ will triumph – it always does in the Auto de Floripes, Príncipe’s annual street-theatre clash between fiery Moors and cool Christians in which I’d been caught up – and, like most around me, I rue the inevitable.

But then things are often a bit mixed up on the more-petite partner in Africa’s second-smallest nation, São Tomé and Príncipe.

Moros warriors (Paul Bloomfield)

Moros warriors (Paul Bloomfield)

To say that this former Portuguese colony is off the tourist trail would be a monumental understatement. Fewer than 30,000 visitors annually come to São Tomé, nudging the equator in the Gulf of Guinea; only a fraction of those add the 150km hop north-east to Príncipe. Why? Well, accommodation and inter-island transport are limited, but mostly, I suspect, few travellers visit because few travellers have visited.

Sure, things don’t always go as you might like – and not just the outcome of the Auto de Floripes. Poverty is widespread, tourist services uneven, and the leve-leve (slooooow) pace occasionally frustrating. Yet with its emerald forests, volcanic crags and turquoise waters, delectable seafood, warm smiles, a fascinating (if not untroubled) history and rich biodiversity – the archipelago has been dubbed the ‘Galápagos of Africa’ – Príncipe boasts an A-grade travel CV. I ventured here to check its cultural and natural credentials, timing my visit for mid-August when the island’s pocket-sized capital, Santo António, stages this epic medieval battle re-enactment.

Seeds of history

Fishing boats in Agua Ize, Sao Tome (Paul Bloomfield)

Fishing boats in Agua Ize, Sao Tome (Paul Bloomfield)

Stopping on São Tomé en route, I took the opportunity to explore the larger island’s natural and cultural heritage with local guide Jeremiah, who provided a potted history as we chugged along the east coast road. “According to tradition, Portuguese sailors landed here on 21 December 1470, at that time the feast of St Thomas – hence the island’s name – reaching Príncipe the following month,” he began. “Enslaved people from mainland Africa were shipped in to work sugar-cane plantations; coffee and then cacao were introduced a couple of centuries later.” After slavery was abolished in 1869, plantation owners recruited contract workers (serviçais) – essentially slaves in all but name – from Angola, Mozambique and, particularly, Cape Verde; many were stranded here after promised tickets home failed to materialise. Their communities lined our route into the rural south.

Cacao drying on the street (Paul Bloomfield)

Cacao drying on the street (Paul Bloomfield)

Yellow minibuses buzzed past us as we drove beneath blazing flame trees, dodging young girls lugging bottles of palm wine and boys riding homemade wooden scooters. Black kites wheeled above the shoreline, scouting for fish and rats, while pigs snuffled free-range through the roadside scrub.

Just beyond the Abade River, where women spread a kaleidoscopic patchwork of drying laundry on the rocks, we arrived at Roça Água Izé. One of the islands’ largest cacao plantations (roças), spanning around 2,600 sq km, by the early 20th century it was worked by some 2,500 serviçais overseen by a handful of Europeans. At its peak, the country was the world’s largest exporter of cacao, but after independence from the Portuguese in 1975, the industry withered. Perhaps 1,000 descendants of those workers still live in the crumbling buildings at Água Izé.

The crumbling plantation hospital, once the best in West Africa (Paul Bloomfield)

The crumbling plantation hospital, once the best in West Africa (Paul Bloomfield)

This plantation is a far cry from visions of Scarlett O’Hara-style Deep South glamour, though it’s a vibrant community with corner shops, bars, a school and church. We trundled along broken stone roads past vestigial railway tracks – the remains of a 50km network – to park under a breadfruit tree outside a building that exuded a rueful air of eroded grandeur: the plantation hospital, once among the best in West Africa.

From there we roamed the residential district, among giggling children, chickens scratching in the dust and snoozing dogs. Tired, paint-peeling homes stand in tight-packed rows like back-to-backs in a northern mill town, albeit one steaming in 27°C heat, with cacao beans and fish drying on the cobbles.

Continuing down to the beach below, we strolled among dongo dugout canoes hauled out on the sand after pre-dawn fishing missions by Angolares, descendants – according to legend – of Angolan slaves who escaped a 16th-century shipwreck and founded quilombos (Maroon settlements) in the jungly south.

Into the jungle

Pico Cão Grande is the most prominent of the volcanic peaks on the islands (Paul Bloomfield

Pico Cão Grande is the most prominent of the volcanic peaks on the islands (Paul Bloomfield

Continuing south, the road became increasingly winding, the trees denser, the mountains spikier as we traversed the rainforest of Obô National Park. A vast, phallic outcrop loomed from the mist known locally as leite de voador (flying fish milk); the 386m-tall phonolitic tower of Pico Cão Grande, the most prominent of the volcanic pinnacles that scrape the sky in the south of both islands.

Tsetse flies dive-bombed me mercilessly as I gazed in awe – at both the primeval landscape and the resilience of those labourers forced to hack out plantations from this stifling jungle.

The sentiment recurred that night as I savoured a trio of traditional Santomean stews: molho do fôgo (spicy fish), herby calalú and feijoada (bean stew). Across the restaurant, a dapper septuagenarian guitarist plucked the unmistakable melody of Sodade (Longing), made famous by Cape Verdean morna queen Cesária Évora.

Kem mostra bo es kaminj long, es kaminj pa São Tomé?” he crooned dolefully: “Who showed you this faraway path, this path to São Tomé?”

Riberia Ize ruins (Paul Bloomfield)

Riberia Ize ruins (Paul Bloomfield)

Over the first seven decades of the 20th century, perhaps 80,000 Cape Verdeans were coerced across to these islands; today, their descendants comprise about half of the 8,000-strong population of Príncipe, where I headed next day on the 35-minute aerial hop from São Tomé.

The flight was thrilling; the landing was nerve-jangling: I feared the little prop plane’s wings would clip the canopy cloaking Príncipe’s rugged hillsides like a blanket of broccoli. Its forest is impenetrably dense, even compared with lush São Tomé and between them, the islands host over 25 endemic bird species – more than the Galápagos, in one-eighth of the land area – plus perhaps 150 endemic plants. Wild is everywhere; unchecked, nature overtakes all.

The point was reinforced during a coastal stroll to Ribeira Izé, an abandoned plantation established in the early 19th century by iron-willed Maria Correia, a Príncipe-born woman determined to defy gender conventions by ruling her own domain. The yellowed stone ruins of her once-impressive church are clutched in a verdant embrace by liana tendrils and buttress-rooted oká (silk cotton) trees, like the root-strangled temples of Angkor.

Peaking Pico

A woman sewing at Casa Morabeza, a community initiative run by the NGO Príncipe Trust (Paul Bloomfield)

A woman sewing at Casa Morabeza, a community initiative run by the NGO Príncipe Trust (Paul Bloomfield)

Hungry for more nature immersion, next day I set out to summit Pico Papagaio – at 680m, a smidgen taller than Cão Grande, though mercifully less vertiginous. While I waited for my local guide I took a turn around Santo António, proclaimed the ‘world’s smallest capital’. The Vatican City might quibble that point, but it’s certainly diminutive. In five minutes I’d walked its half-dozen or so streets.

In Casa Morabeza, a community initiative supported by the social and conservation-focused NGO Príncipe Trust, I chatted with locals as they crouched over venerable sewing machines, creating appealing bags and clothes with discarded plastics and textiles. At the market I browsed stalls piled with vegetables familiar and less-so –mountains of bulbous gourds and roots alongside carrots and beans – plus homemade hot sauces and stupefying banana varieties.

The Obô National Park is marked with a charmingly rustic sign (Paul Bloomfield)

The Obô National Park is marked with a charmingly rustic sign (Paul Bloomfield)

Driving south with eco-guide Brankinho, tarmac soon morphed into dirt as the track snaked into the hills past wooden shacks and rusty, vine-tangled tractors. The entrance to Príncipe’s share of Obô National Park is marked with a charmingly rustic sign adorned with a turtle, a reminder of the island’s charismatic marine denizens.

From September to April four turtle species nest on its beaches, and I’d watched humpbacks, which cruise past from August to October, breach and lobtail off-shore.

Plunging into the emerald murk, our trek started gently enough, to a soundtrack of trills and squawks. Flashes of red feathers betrayed a mob of grey parrots – ubiquitous island emblems – while a characteristic ‘pip-pip-pip’ above heralded the dazzling endemic Príncipe kingfisher.

Brandishing his rusty panga, Brankinho showcased the park’s bounty: furry izaquente, African breadfruit; red and green peppercorns and chilli plants, introduced by colonists, and yuca, a source of makeshift soap.

The Pico Papagaio hike (Paul Bloomfield)

The Pico Papagaio hike (Paul Bloomfield)

The real hike began at the abandoned plantation house of Quintal do Pico, its overgrown garden yielding wild coriander and thyme-like micocô.

Grappling tree roots, we hauled ourselves up the steep, slippery trail between huge oká and tree ferns, over moss-lubricated rocks and rotting logs sprouting fungi in curious shapes and hues: blood-red globes, egg-yolk buttons, crinkled papery bracts. After three hours we emerged onto the peak to be rewarded with views across the island and down to Santo António, besieged by green.

The descent was, if anything, tougher, and I soon ran short on water. Brankinho vanished into the trees, returning with a satisfied smile, a branch and a foraged jackfruit. “Pau agua,” he declared, holding the branch above my gaping mouth: “Tree water” – deliciously cool, with a hint of cucumber. I hefted the bulbous jackfruit to test its weight – and spent 20 minutes picking its viscous sap from my fingers.

I needed those fingers clean for lunch at Sheira’s ‘restaurant’ – really a lean-to shack – in Roça Sundy back up north. Like Água Izé, the once-grand Sundy plantation hosts a community descended from serviçais; here, though, many work in the newly opened hotel housed in two beautifully renovated colonial houses, where I was to spend my last nights.

Sheira, ladling banana chunks from oil bubbling on her alfresco stove, greeted me with an infectious grin; she’s 50, but looks half that (“My secret? Dance, smile, play football, stay young!”) I tucked into her spicy, soupy guisado do peixe (fish stew), then grilled fish with salad, fried banana and rice – a typically simple but tasty island classic – as we chatted with her grandson Benax.

Sheira is the community’s mouthpiece in negotiations over Terra Prometida (Promised Land), a new colony being built for the community’s 130-odd families, providing modern housing to replace cramped plantation quarters.

“Here we have only one room with two beds for three people,” she observed, showing me her home. “Our new house will have a kitchen, bathroom, separate rooms; we will have a kindergarten, schools, a church, a market.”

Sheira (Paul Bloomfield)

Sheira (Paul Bloomfield)

But while the community prepares to depart, old ways are being revived at Sundy, not just the elegant colonial houses. Cacao, introduced here in 1822, is once more being transformed into chocolate, albeit at an artisan scale, providing employment for plantation residents.

Such human heritage is as precious as natural treasures, reflected in the island’s designation as a UN Biosphere Reserve. Some aspects are under threat: Lung’iye, the Príncipe dialect, is spoken by just a handful of islanders. Others are thriving – not least the Auto de Floripes, a melange of pseudo- Christian legend and local folklore that draws pretty much the whole island to Santo António every August.

Good vs evil

The Christianos (Paul Bloomfield)

The Christianos (Paul Bloomfield)

Superficially it’s a medieval morality play, based on a chanson de geste (French epic poem), introduced to the island by the Portuguese. In brief, the army of Imperador Carlos Magno (Emperor Charlemagne) confronts that of the Saracen Almirante Balão (King Balan), who has stolen holy Christian relics.

The Moorish leader’s daughter, Floripes, falls in love with a Christian knight, Guy of Burgundy; a series of vocal battles and stylised skirmishes between Cristianos (Christians) and Moros (Moors) follow at locations across the town before, inevitably, the former triumph.

“It’s a story of passion and betrayal, good versus evil,” explained anthropologist Rita Alves, who I encountered at a serendipitous moment mid clash. “The script has changed little in two centuries.”

The Floripes (Paul Bloomfield)

The Floripes (Paul Bloomfield)

The Gigantes (Paul Bloomfield)

The Gigantes (Paul Bloomfield)

The Bobos (Paul Bloomfield)

The Bobos (Paul Bloomfield)

Today, though, it’s an all-day sensory spectacle, more carnival than performance, with subtle accents reflecting ambivalent attitudes towards former colonial masters.

By the time I arrived mid-morning, the action has been hotting up for several hours. I use that description advisedly: the actors, wearing multi-layered costumes, ties, false beards and hats since dawn, must have been sweltering.

Still, the fiery-hued Moors marched through the town to the beat of drums and ear-piercing whistles, character names painted on shields – helpful subtitles for onlookers – amassing a boisterous entourage. Meanwhile, the blue-and-white-clad Christians, more solemn but no less strident, loudly denounced the perfidy of the Saracens.

The battle takes place (Paul Bloomfield)

The battle takes place (Paul Bloomfield)

By mid-afternoon, children were buzzing with excitement – and sugar: vendors touted candyfloss, popcorn, octopus, sea snails and crabs. A phalanx of demonic, cane-wielding bobos (jesters) shepherded spectators out of the line of fire. Red shield clashed against blue, sword clattered sword. Soldiers fell, rose and fell again, while Floripes looked on from her ‘castle’ and the frenzied action climaxed in a succession of deafening crescendos.

The Floripes with his horn (Paul Bloomfield)

The Floripes with his horn (Paul Bloomfield)

At dusk I retreated. I’d miss the final hours of raging and rhetoric, but of course I knew the Christians would prevail. Though the show has evolved, the script is preserved – just like Príncipe.

Its precious heritage – rare wildlife, historic plantations and unique culture are protected by isolation and intent, to be discovered only by those few who venture to this curious, captivating jewel.

The trip 

The author travelled with Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1260) on a tailor-made trip.

An eight-night itinerary, including two nights at Omali Lodge in São Tomé, three nights at Roça Sundy and three at Sundy Praia on Príncipe; breakasts and dinners; flights; transfers and some activities costs from £3,550pp, based on two people sharing.

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