It was only when I stood on the rim of the 2,829 meter (9280 ft) Pico do Fogo’s volcanic crater, sulphur fumes burning my nostrils, that I could truly appreciate a simple fact about the island of Fogo: it is an enormous, and very much active, volcano. The views from the top are, literally, awe inspiring. The intensity of the mid-Atlantic light and the thinness of the air make for a surreal experience, and as you take in the 360 degree view its hard not to believe you’re dreaming.
When you see what it looks like from an Airbus cockpit, its like a fantasy island…one that may well have dinosaurs or an ancient civilisation inhabiting it.
The base of the Pico do Fogo sits inside another gigantic volcano and, as you stand there in a landscape scarred and discoloured by centuries of volcanic activity, the sense of being in a post-apocalyptic world is overwhelming. The island of Fogo erupted out of the ocean several millennia ago and has witnessed numerous violent eruptions ever since, the most recent in 1995. The most violent, in the 1680s, lasted for several years and the majority of Fogo’s inhabitants had to be evacuated.
This poses a question, why would people choose live within the crater of an active volcano? Proving that humanity is not to be underestimated, the village of Chã das Caldeiras sits amidst this blackened and charred landscape, and is home to around 1000 people, who cultivate grapes and figs, and guide tourists around the crater. The village has no running water (water is collected in barrels during the rainy season) or mains electricity. It was in Chã das Caldeiras that I met my guide, another Paul, who was going to take me to the top of the volcano.
At his house, constructed out of volcanic rock, he introduced me to his wife, Luisa, and their young daughter. As we climbed the side of the conical Pico do Fogo, Paul pointed out a giant lava flow in the crater below which had destroyed a large part of the original village. The village had been rebuilt and most people had returned. I’d been biting my tongue, but finally asked him why he and Luisa had decided to live and raise a family inside the crater of an active volcano. One which could erupt at any time.
The simple answer was, “this is our home.” Plus, the volcano is constantly monitored for activity, so people in Chã das Caldeiras felt safe in the knowledge that, if the worst happened, they’d have plenty of time to evacuate the village. That’s alright then.
The panoramic views offered from the top of the Pico do Fogo highlight the giant caldera (the cauldron-like bowl) that the village sits in, and the enormous cliffs formed from the walls of the volcanic crater that tower over it. The caldera is 9km wide and the cliff walls are over 1km high. It is immense. To the west is a huge hole where the walls of the crater have collapsed, and the land runs all the way down to the ocean. Flows of lava cover the floor of the crater, their age detectable by their colour.
The fun wasn’t restricted to the views though. The 1km descent was a combination of extreme sports and idiocy. The ‘safest’, and certainly the quickest, route down was to literally run down a near vertical slope of volcanic scree. As I was explaining my inherent fear of death to Paul, he simply plunged downwards with an encouraging smile. Within seconds, he was barrelling down the mountainside obscured by a cloud of volcanic dust.
Left with little option but to get on with it, I set off downwards and found myself picking up an alarming amount of speed, even though I was sinking up to my knees in scree. Life has taught me never to get too far ahead of myself, and just when I thought I was getting the hang of it I took an almighty tumble. Cartwheeling over and over down the hill, I finally came to an ignominious stop covered from head to foot in grey volcanic dust. Thousands of bits of scree were now inside my clothes and boots. We’d taken nearly three hours to climb up the volcano, it took about twenty minutes to descend.
I eventually made it to the bottom, more or less in one piece, and celebrated my survival with lunch in the crater and a couple of glasses of Fogo wine, the grapes of which were growing all around the crater floor. No long terraces of vines here, just single vines dotted around the crater producing about 160,000 litres of wine per year. This makes Cape Verde one of the world’s smallest wine producers, but the uniqueness of its wines born from fire brand makes the volume meaningless. Where else can you drink a wine cultivated in the middle of a lava field.
The community in the crater has an unusual history. Many of the inhabitants of Chã das Caldeiras have light coloured skin and blonde hair. Legend has it that these are the descendants of a French aristocrat, the Count of Montrond, who settled on the island in 1870 while en route to Brazil. He is alleged to have had numerous sexual relationships with women on the island, hence the number of blonde-haired descendants. As well as an overactive libido, he is also credited with bringing grape vines and viticulture to the island. On reflection, those two things may go hand-in-hand.