What’s the last thing you’d expect to find on a tiny archipelago 140 miles out in the Gulf of Guinea? A pair of Victorian traction engines? Turquoise sparrows? West Africa’s biggest swimming pool?
Weirdly, you can find all of them on STP, or São Tomé and Príncipe. During our fortnight there, we were always stumbling on oddities. Once, we came across a little Russian tank, now covered in children and moss. Another time, it was an old shipping container, halfway up a mountain.
How had people been so careless with their things? Or had the islands simply been forgotten? A few months earlier, I’d put this to the STP man at Rainbow Tours. Few operators go there, and the country gets only 13,000 tourists a year. “It’s not forgotten,” he said. “It’s never been discovered.”
It’s easy to see how you might overlook it. When I first spotted it on a relief map of the Atlantic, it looked like two needles rising off the ocean floor, each with a tiny island perched on top. São Tomé is roughly the size of Anglesey, while Príncipe compares to the Isle of Wight. Separated by 99 miles of ocean, they are, in cartological terms, a pair of free-floating full-stops.
Closer up, they’re harder to ignore. From the air, they look improbably dramatic. Having risen 3,000m (9,840ft) off the seabed, parts of them carry on rising another 2,000m (6,560ft). There’s nothing undulating about these mountains. They’re like great blue fangs, covered in a rich velvet of forest and cloud. One of these peaks – on Príncipe – is so sheer that, until recently, it was thought it had only ever been climbed twice in 31 million years. It’s ridiculous to describe anywhere as a Lost World now, but this one got seriously mislaid.
We began in the capital, São Tomé city. There can be few places as charming and decrepit. This is Africa’s own miniature Havana, with its little pink palaces and colonial churches. The fountains may be dry but the town remains defiantly cheery. Life is lived under the almond trees, and, in the general store, time had stopped in about 1952.
Meanwhile, in the old railway sheds (now known as CACAU), we found an unforgettable exhibition. The sculptures weren’t of hero soldiers, but the city’s stray dogs. Everywhere there were traces of the Portuguese – in the language, the colours, and the NGOs. During the colonial era (1470-1975), São Tomé was first a slaving port and then the centre of a chocolate empire. Portugal’s pretty, cream-painted fort, São Sebastião, is still there. Inside, the country’s entire history is told in five small rooms, beginning with shackles and Madonnas, and ending with a faith-healer’s cures and his lucky skull.
The Santomeans we met were unhurried people, friendly by default. Students would cluster around our hotel’s Wi-Fi, and I remember a vendor with an oil drum on his head, another balancing a fish. Sometimes we ran into the president himself, who was often weaving through the crowd in his cavalcade of ancient Toyotas. Our driver, Lance, seemed to know everyone, even the pedlars with their great yokes of octopus. Perhaps that’s not surprising. At 196,000, the entire population of the country is slightly smaller than that of York.
From the city, we set off in all directions. Almost immediately we’d be enveloped in forest. Trees cover almost 90 per cent of the archipelago, and often the only way through is the new road provided by Brussels. Every now and then we’d cross a magnificent river. Usually, its black lava banks were laid out with washing, and they looked like long, thin quilts, wriggling off into the mist. For most Santomeans, it’s a simple life. There are no buses, no cinema and no daily papers. It’s a good day when there’s pork, and the washing dries.
Around us, a beautiful world unfolded. We drove to the west coast first. The forest thinned, and baobabs appeared, like cartoon trees. Near the end of the road, we reached Mucumbli, our tiny eco-lodge, high above the bay. Overnight, hundreds of dugouts would assemble in the water below, and, at dawn, they’d all be there, like a Spithead review. One morning a boatman took us out through the fleet, and on the other side was a school of dolphins.
Mucumbli’s owners also had 19 donkeys (“our lawnmowers”), and a dozen bicycles for hire. I opted for wheels, and pedalled off down the shore. In Neves, some canoeists had landed a gigantic marlin, and the fishwives were cackling out orders. Most villagers were Angolares, the descendants of runaway slaves. Famously unruly, many still worship spirits and refuse to work the land. “And that,” said Lance, “is why they fish.”
Back in the car, he drove us south. The great roças, or plantations, were always a feature of these mini-adventures. In 1908, STP was the world’s biggest producer of cocoa, and there were 800 of these places. Now, they’re magnificently crumbly, some with grand old churches or the outlines of a railway system. Água Izé had once operated more than 30 miles of track, and there are still traces of it, snaking through the ferns. Meanwhile, at Agostinho Neto, we clambered up through its hospital’s glorious ruins. Once one of the best in Africa, most of its roof is missing now, and a village has appeared among the wards.
Further south, the jungle opened out, and we were on the ocean again. Here were some of the finest beaches; Micondó, Inhamé and Jalé. Usually, there was no one around except the kingfishers and the giant crabs, but the sea was mountainous and blue. For calmer swimming there was Piscina, where the lava has created natural infinity pools, lined with white sand. Beyond was Ilhéu das Rolas, an island of beaches. Not only does it straddle the equator, it’s also the nearest land mass to 0°N 0°E. With its own resort (and the giant pool), it’s a paddler’s heaven at the centre of the earth.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get better, we flew to Príncipe. It was like São Tomé, only wilder, greener and more forgotten. Everything has sought refuge here, including birds like manakins and drongos, whales, turtles and the traction engines. Mountains looked as if they’d been melted and poured upwards into the sky. In the tiny city of Santo António (population 1,200), the supermercado sells almost nothing but fish hooks and beer.
Our last days were the best of all, at Bom Bom. With its gentle forest and long blond beaches, this is exactly how I’ve always imagined my desert island. The resort itself was so unobtrusive and subtle that we hardly seemed to notice it – until we needed prawns or a snorkel. One day, it’s said, Bom Bom will be Príncipe’s salvation: a roost for the super-elite, charging thousands per night. But, for now, it’s ours to ponder and enjoy. My favourite walk was over the headland to Ribeira Izé, the ruins of a slaving station built in the 15th century.
How to get there
John Gimlette travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1266; rainbowtours.co.uk ), which offers an 11-day tailor-made tour to São Tomé and Príncipe from £2,745pp based on two sharing. Includes flights from London, four nights’ B&B at Omali Lodge, six nights’ half-board at Bom Bom on Príncipe, transfers and domestic flights.On our last morning, we went whale-watching. For a while we saw nothing but flying fish, but then there was one last great Santomean surprise. Just ahead of us, a humpback burst out of the water and, in mid-air, it turned and seemed to give us a flippery wave. Then it was gone again, disappearing deep into the volcanic roots of this remarkable land.
TAP Portugal ( flytap.com ) flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to São Tomé (via Lisbon) three times a week. From £770 return including all taxes and surcharges.
Where to stay
Omali Lodge: Offers 30 cheery, modern suites arranged around a pool – and the only tennis court in the country. Across the road is a beach (00239 222 2350; omalilodge.com ; doubles from €135).
Pestana Equador, Ilhéu das Rolas: Small resort with 70 cabins, lovely gardens and a fine promontory setting (00239 226 1195; pestana.com ; doubles from €134).
Mucumbli Ecolodge, Neves: Five delightful clifftop chalets, with a beach of black basaltic sand 10 minutes’ walk away. The food is excellent (00239 990 8736; mucumbli.wordpress.com ; doubles from €60).
Bom Bom Island Resort, Príncipe: With 20 bungalows, it’s a perfect balance between subtlety and luxury. A walkway links it to a tiny island; the restaurant and views are idyllic (00239 225 1114/1141; bom bomprincipe.com ; doubles from €330).