A volcano within a volcano, climbing the Pico do Fogo

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.

Pico do Fogo, taken from an Airbus cockpit by Aldo Bien (Wikimedia Commons)

Pico do Fogo, taken from an Airbus cockpit by Aldo Bien (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Pico do Fogo with lava flows, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Pico do Fogo with lava flows, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Crater wall and village, Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Crater wall and village, Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Paul my guide on the crater at the top of the Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Paul my guide on the crater at the top of the Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Crater at the top of the Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Crater at the top of the Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Lava flows in the crater, Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Lava flows in the crater, Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Lava flows drop to the Atlantic Ocean, Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Lava flows drop to the Atlantic Ocean, Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Descending from Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Descending from Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Descending from Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Descending from Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Descending from Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Descending from Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Descending from Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Descending from Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Descending from Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Descending from Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Grape vine in the crater, Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Grape vine in the crater, Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Fogo, the island of fire and wine

From the ocean, the island of Fogo presents one of the most dramatic sights I’ve ever seen. Rising 2,829 meters into the mid-Atlantic air, the Pico do Fogo, a vast black volcanic cone, towers over the island and dominates the imagination. Dramatic as entry by sea into Fogo’s tiny and chaotic port is, it is impossible to truly visualise the island without seeing it from above. I didn’t have the opportunity to fly over it, so I hope this photograph, taken from the International Space Station by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, gives some indication of island’s extraordinary geography.

Fogo seen from the International Space Station, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Fogo seen from the International Space Station, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

The catamaran ferry between Santiago and Fogo islands, Cape Verde, Africa

The catamaran ferry between Santiago and Fogo islands, Cape Verde, Africa

Fogo is a giant, and still active, volcano. Perhaps more precisely, it is a giant volcano with another really big volcano on the top. The island literally erupted out of the ocean several millennia ago, and pushed upwards to a height of around 3.5km. Today the highest point is lower than this thanks to the top part of the volcano collapsing (visible at the bottom left of the photo from space). It last erupted in 1995 and evidence of previous eruptions are everywhere on the island. One massive eruption in 1680 literally blew Fogo’s top off, causing most of the inhabitants to evacuate to the nearby island of Brava.

Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Pico do Fogo, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

The eruption lasted for several years, and was so large and the lava so bright that 17th Century sailors used the tower of smoke and ash to navigate by during the day, and the bright lava fires on its peak to navigate at night. It was from this eruption that Fogo got its name. Fogo is Portuguese for ‘fire’.

I only had two days on Fogo, and almost from the moment I arrived I wished I had more time to explore this unique island and its culture. I was staying in the island’s relaxed and picturesque capital, São Filipe. Home to around 20,000 people and a host of old colonial buildings, São Filipe sits dramatically on top of cliffs overlooking Fogo’s iconic volcanic black-sand beaches and the Atlantic Ocean. There are plenty of good restaurants serving fresh fish and a friendly cafe and bar nightlife where you can taste one of the islands more unusual products – Fogo wine made from grapes cultivated in rich volcanic soil.

The view over São Filipe to the ocean, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

The view over São Filipe to the ocean, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Fogo is blessed with a higher than average rainfall than most of Cape Verde’s other islands. Coupled with the nutrient rich volcanic soil in the west of the island, this allows for a surprising level of agriculture. When Fogo was first settled by the Portuguese, slaves were used to grow cotton here; with the collapse of that industry regular agriculture took its place. In the volcanic soil it is possible to cultivate grapes, coffee beans and figs, and there is a small but flourishing wine industry. Fogo wine is unlike any I’ve tasted before and, while French wine makers are unlikely to be quaking in their boots, the wine is good.

Boats of the black sand beach below São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Boats of the black sand beach below São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Cliffs and the black sand beach below São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Cliffs and the black sand beach below São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

The black sand beach below São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

The black sand beach below São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Cemetery and black sand beach below São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Cemetery and black sand beach below São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Even close to São Filipe, strolling along the beach on a week day is to find yourself alone – a recurring theme on my visit to Cape Verde. The black volcanic beaches of Fogo are an entirely different experience to the white sand beaches of Maio, with steep cliffs rising dramatically directly behind the beach. Walking on Fogo’s beaches is oddly counterintuitive, so hardwired is the idea that the perfect beach has golden sand. For the record, as it squeezes between your toes, lava sand feels exactly the same.

São Filipe is one of the most attractive towns in Cape Verde, with a wealth of brightly painted Portuguese colonial buildings and a relaxed small town vibe. As a special treat, and because I was only staying for a couple of nights, I stayed in the converted Colonial House B&B with lovely wooden floors and a veranda. Although I was the only person staying there (and one of the few tourists in São Filipe), it was a wonderfully atmospheric choice with genuinely friendly staff.

Hotel in old colonial house, São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Hotel in old colonial house, São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Hotel in old colonial house, São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Hotel in old colonial house, São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Hotel in old colonial house, São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Hotel in old colonial house, São Filipe, Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

WIth so little time available, I wasn’t going to be able to explore much of the island, but I had arranged to visit the small village of Chã das Caldeiras, which sits in the giant volcanic crater, from where it would be possible to climb the Pico do Fogo. The next time I come to Fogo, I will definitely spend more time in the surrounding villages and make a trip to the small island of Brava a short boat ride away.

Into the interior, a trip through Maio

There is only one fully paved road on Maio linking the island’s villages. Branching off the road are sandy dirt tracks that take you to hidden bays, tiny hamlets and big sand dunes. Technically, it isn’t possible to get lost driving around the island, but since a hire car was the same price with or without a driver, I decided a guide showing me around and explaining the history would be wise. It would also prevent me from getting stuck down some dusty track, because I needed to be back in Vila do Maio to get the boat to Praia.

Cargo boat and public transport, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Cargo boat and public transport, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Cargo boat and public transport, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Cargo boat and public transport, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

A cargo boat had arrived in Maio’s harbour the previous evening and, after a few enquiries, I discovered it was sailing for Praia the following afternoon. I decided it might be fun to get the boat back rather than the plane, especially as the plane was regularly cancelled. I had limited time and didn’t want to miss visiting the island of Fogo. The harbour security guard, who had spent most of his life working on ships around the world, told me the boat would be sailing after it finished loading. No need for a ticket, just turn up.

With my onward transport sorted out, I set off to explore the island. First stop, the legendary salt flats which had been vital to trans-Atlantic shipping, and Maio’s economic lifeline for three hundred years. Given the history, its easy to be underwhelmed by the sight of the salt flats, but these were critical in both the settlement of the islands and the flourishing of the slave trade. Even with the end of the slave trade, Maio’s salt pans survived by exporting salt to Brazil, when this ended in the 20th Century the island went into economic decline.

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt is still extracted today and sold commercially, but only on an artisanal scale. Although the salt pan is relatively small – compared to the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, for instance – but it is an endlessly renewable resource. High tides sweep sea water into the pan and then the intense sun evaporates the water leaving a crust of white salt. This process is repeated over and over. Salt was so important to humans, and one of the commodities that drove world trade, that its unsurprising Europeans developed Maio as a major salt production centre.

When the salt is harvested, workers build a conical pile that sets into a solid lump. Often this remains there for a while, getting coated in sand and dirt, before being processed in a small building close to the pan. I bought a kilo of Maio salt from the women’s cooperative which runs production, only later regretting it when I came to pack my bag for the flight home.

Landscape, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Landscape, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Landscape, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Landscape, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

We drove around the island and found ourselves walking to a beautiful and secluded bay where, during the season, turtles nest. The bay sits at the base of the island’s largest sand dunes. It is beautiful, and as we sat eating lunch it was almost possible to imagine never leaving. Walking back to the car, the views inland from the top of the sand dunes were wonderful, but only served to highlight the scrubby and inhospitable interior of the island. People kept telling me there was a forest on the island, but I never saw it.

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The view inland from sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The view inland from sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

It was only when we came to leave that we realised we’d managed to get the car stuck in deep sand. Despite our best efforts, the car wheels just kept digging a deeper and deeper hole until we eventually admitted defeat. It was official, we were stuck and I had a boat to catch.

The driver set off on foot to get help. I couldn’t remember passing a village and hadn’t seen a single person all morning, this could take a while. Over an hour later the driver returned with another vehicle to pull us out of the sand. By this time two young men had joined us, proving that misfortune attracts bystanders even in the middle of nowhere. Much to the amusement of everyone, it took less than five minutes to free the car and then we were on our way again.

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Secluded bay on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Secluded bay on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Car stuck in deep sand on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Car stuck in deep sand on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

I made it to the boat in time, and chatted to the security guard about his adventures around the world when he was a sailor, while the crew finished loading it. The journey was smooth and fairly relaxing. As with all journeys, it started in an almost carnival mood, people chatting and having fun, a wave of collective excitement for the shared adventure ahead.

This all changed about 20 minutes into the voyage. Despite being world renowned seafarers, Cape Verdeans are notorious for their susceptibility to seasickness. There were probably 40 or 50 passengers on the boat and, before long, everywhere I looked people were being sick. The ship’s crew were running around with mops and buckets, but the rising smell of illness sent me to the front of the boat where the breeze was freshest. No photos of that, just a last view of Vila do Maio as we sailed away.

Vila do Maio from the cargo boat, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Vila do Maio from the cargo boat, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Vila do Maio from the cargo boat, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Vila do Maio from the cargo boat, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

A beachcomber’s paradise, the vast and empty beaches of Maio

I’d heard Maio’s beaches were spectacular, but I wasn’t prepared for just how wonderful – and how wonderfully empty – they would be. During two days of beachcombing I saw a fishermen, two goats and a number of jellyfish. Nothing more, nothing less. No beachside restaurants, no sun loungers or stripy umbrellas, and not another tourist in sight. It was a little dreamlike walking alone on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, Robinson Crusoe fantasies playing out in my head as I went.

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

If you enjoy strolling for hours on end, down a seemingly endless stretch of white sand, with nothing but the waves of the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean for company, Maio is the place for you. The water was lovely, but after I’d seen a couple of dozen jellyfish, I decided too much swimming might be hazardous to my health. Apparently, too many jellyfish is a sign that there aren’t enough turtles around to eat them. Yet another reason for supporting turtle conservation efforts in Cape Verde.

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

With the exception of a small range of hills in the interior, Maio is pretty flat. The sand of the beach seems to merge with the hot, dry sandy terrain inland, giving the impression of an aqua marine fringed desert. In part, the goats that I met on my walk north, from Vila do Maio to the village of Calheta, are responsible for some of the desertification. During the colonial period, Maio was heavily used to graze goats, which were loaded alive onto ships for the crossing of the Atlantic. The goats made short work of the vegetation the island provided, although areas of woodland do still exist.

Goat on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Goat on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

As you look at the landscape, it comes as no surprise that Maio was badly affected by the droughts that have plagued Cape Verde throughout its history. Yet, the coastline is pristine and the peace and tranquility almost absolute. Its hard to imagine that this beautiful island was also a major hub for the transportation of slaves; being in English hands its not surprising that many slaves left from here to be transported to Barbados and other English possessions in the Caribbean.

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The village of Calheta, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The village of Calheta, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Just before I reached Calheta, the small and sleepy village that was the end of my northerly walk, I came across the remains of a tourist village. It had once been a set of cabanas with a bar and restaurant, all with palm leaf roofs. There clearly hadn’t been any tourists in a long time, every building was dilapidated and most of the roofs had collapsed. Judging by the number of plots of land for sale though, this wasn’t going to be the only attempt at mass tourism on Maio. I hope those vast empty beaches won’t be packed full of sun loungers the next time I visit.

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Public transport on Maio is limited. My options were to walk back to Vila do Maio during the heat of the day, or wait in the shade of a lone tree and hope a passing car would pick me up. In the end a pickup arrived and gave me a lift to town for a small fee. I celebrated my walk with a night in Vila do Maio’s grog bars, where I met an unlikely set of expatriates and heard some of their back stories. My guides for this were two Brits, who had left for a fresh start in Cape Verde, hoping for a tourism boom that may never arrive, and who didn’t speak a word of Portuguese. It was a strange night.

They pointed out an Italian who, it was alleged, was a notorious criminal and wanted man in his home country. According to local sources, he had bribed local police to leave him alone. There was a New Zealand family, who had stopped in Maio while sailing from Europe to Brazil with their two small children, and never left. A German woman who seemed to be in a relationship with Maio’s one hardened criminal and local drug dealer. To cap it all, I ate at a lovely French restaurant, run by an expatriate French chef who never talked to anyone else in the expatriate community. By the end of the night I’d started to understand why.

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

After a late start the next day, I walked south and east from the town along another vast stretch of pristine beach. On my return the sun was starting to set, illuminating the island of Santiago which loomed large across the ocean between the two islands.

Clouds and light with Isla de Santiago from Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Clouds and light with Isla de Santiago from Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Clouds and light with Isla de Santiago from Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Clouds and light with Isla de Santiago from Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Maio, island of salt and endless beaches

Shivering in the cold, early morning air at Praia airport waiting for my delayed (by fog) TACV flight to the island of Maio, I watched the sun rise and wished for the fabled golden beaches of Maio. Finally in the air, twenty minutes later I could see the turquoise waters of a peaceful-looking Atlantic lapping onto the white sand beaches surrounding the island’s capital, Vila do Maio.

I’d been given contradictory advice about Maio from people in Praia. This ranged from, “Why go to Maio? There’s nothing to do there”, to “Go now before tourism destroys the peace and quiet.” The irony of the latter wasn’t lost on this tourist. Its true that there is little to do on the island, but that was part of the allure. I’d decided to stay for four days, and explore its beaches and grog bars at leisure – it was so hot that exploring at leisure was the only option.

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

The island is home to about 8000 people and suffers from water shortages, a landscape denuded of trees and chronic under- and unemployment. Tourism is of the low-key, independent traveller variety (I only met a handful of other tourists), but lack of water and potential environmental devastation, hasn’t prevented permission for a giant resort hotel being granted. Raise the issue of how the resort got permission, local people simply make the international sign for money changing hands.

This is particularly important as Maio has a largely pristine environment and a high level of biodiversity, but is extremely vulnerable to habitat and environmental degradation. Loggerhead Turtles nest on its beaches, Humpback Whales frolic in its waters, the sea off its shores teems with life and it is an important habitat for migratory birds. All of this would be threatened by badly managed mass tourism, not to mention the impact on the water table.

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Although people are keen to have the employment, the benefits of mass tourism are dubious. Two Cape Verde islands – Sal and Boa Vista – have embraced mass package tourism and have found it a double edged sword. Extensive environmental impact has been coupled with increased crime, while local communities gain little from tourists on all inclusive package holidays who rarely venture out of their gated compounds. That model of tourism doesn’t work for communities, even if the resorts employ some local people.

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde (photo from Maio Facebook page)

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

I also wanted to visit Maio for its history. It is one of the Cape Verde islands which has a salt pan, created by a natural tidal lagoon. This natural ‘wonder’ attracted sailors and pirates for three hundred years. Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd and Blackbeard were just some of the famous pirates to stop here. Legend has it that Captain Kid buried his treasure on a remote island he named Skeleton Island; even today many people believe Maio is Skeleton Island. Whether true or not, the treasure hasn’t been found yet, and I did look.

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Eventually the English took control of Maio. The main town, Vila do Maio, became known as Porto Inglês, or English Port, because of the number of English ships that called here. Using their superior military strength, the English traders had the cheek to sell Maio’s salt to the other, Portuguese controlled, islands. This also explains the number of grog bars on the island. Grog, a very English naval term for hard liquor, is the tipple of choice on Maio, and there are plenty of home made varieties from which to choose. I can vouch for the fact that a night in the grog bars can be pretty wild, the morning of the following day less so.

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde (photo from Maio Facebook page)

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Lunch, Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Lunch, Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

I spent my first day in the main town, Vila do Maio, strolling on the beaches and having some delicious fresh fish for lunch. I sat at a beach side restaurant and watched life pass by, it was just too hot to do anything else. The comings and goings of fishermen provided the entertainment. Things were very relaxed in the town, the heat of the day was severe, and it was only in the evening that people really came out onto the streets.

Cidade Velha, oldest European town in the tropics and epicentre of the slave trade

Flying to Cape Verde’s capital city, Praia, you can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to stumble across the Cape Verde islands as a Portuguese sailor in the 15th Century. Seen from the air – rocky, barren outcrops surrounded by the foaming Atlantic Ocean – they personify isolation. The nearest landmass, the coast of modern-day Senegal in West Africa, lies 570km away, and the waters in-between can be ferocious and perilous.

If that wasn’t inauspicious enough, the islands have few resources and are prone to drought, making agriculture unpredictable and hazardous. Yet they could support sufficient agriculture to sustain the first Portuguese settlers, who arrived in 1462 and founded Cidade Velha, the first permanent European city in the tropics. Situated at a point where a river tumbled down the mountains into the ocean, the town boasts the oldest colonial church in the world, Nossa Senhora do Rosário, completed in 1495.

View of Cidade Velha with Fort Real de São Filipe (top right), Cape Verde, Africa

View of Cidade Velha with Fort Real de São Filipe (top right), Cape Verde, Africa

Nossa Senhora do Rosário, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Nossa Senhora do Rosário, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

The founding of Cidade Velha was a fateful event for the future course of the islands’ history: the only way the settlers could make a profit was to import free labour in the form of slaves from the African mainland. Within a hundred years of the first settlement, over 14,000 slaves were living on Cape Verde’s islands, many thousands more had been shipped there over the preceding 100 years.

The terrible economic model which made settlement in Cape Verde profitable, was being replicated across the Americas and Caribbean. European nations, in a scramble for overseas possessions, were crossing the Atlantic in ever larger numbers and competing to establish colonies in the New World. The colonies needed settlers and settlers needed slave labour to grow sugar cane, cotton and provide replacement labour for all the indigenous peoples of the Americas who died from war and European diseases.

Boats on the beach in Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Boats on the beach in Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

African slaves even found their way into the diabolical conditions of the silver mines in Potosi, Bolivia, as replacements for dwindling indigenous slave labour from across the Andes. Here, in the frozen highlands of Spanish Bolivia, at altitudes of over 4000m, they died in their tens of thousands. We think of ourselves living in a connected world, yet for over 300 years the tentacles of the slave trade snaked their way around the globe, the human lubricant which greased the wheels of global trade.

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Cannon detail, Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Cannon detail, Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Suddenly, Cape Verde’s location on the shipping lanes between Africa and the Americas gave it global importance: water, salt, meat and other foods were loaded onto ships, already crowded with their human cargo, before sailing to the Americas. The islands isolated location became a centre of global trade, albeit a terrible trade in human suffering.

Cidade Velha became the fulcrum of the Portuguese slave trade, and became central to Portuguese explorations around the world. Vasco de Gama restocked his supplies here en route to India in 1497; Christopher Columbus visited in 1498 on his third voyage to the Americas. Over the next 300 years, hundreds of thousands of Africans were shipped as slaves to Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, the United States and the Caribbean.

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

The city grew rich, so rich that it became an attractive target for pirates from other European countries. One famous attack came in 1585, when Sir Francis Drake attacked the islands and sacked Cidade Velha. In 1590, the Portuguese responded by building the imposing Fort Real de São Filipe on a hillside above the town. The fort makes for a fascinating visit today and offers spectacular views over the town and ocean.

(English interest in the islands persisted for another 350 years. The main town on the nearby island of Maio is known as Porto Inglês, English Port, thanks to English ships regularly stopping to collect salt.)

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Before long English (French, Spanish and Dutch) competition usurped Portugal’s slave trade monopoly, and with this came a change in the way the slave trade operated. Instead of ships going to the African coast for slaves – a coast where disease was rampant and hostile tribes not uncommon – they turned Cape Verde into a massive clearing house for slaves. Ships would bring slaves to Cidade Velha, and those who survived were sold onwards and shipped to overseas colonies. It was a singularly efficient business.

Pillory Post, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Pillory Post, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

People swim in the ocean, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

People swim in the ocean, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

The history of Cidade Velha is the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and the modern nation of Cape Verde the result of European settlement and slave owning and trading. It is an incredibly important place, and rightly an UNESCO World Heritage Site. As well as the fort and churches, the narrow streets of the original town still exist. As does the disturbing Pillory of Justice, a stone pillar topped with a Christian cross where escaped slaves would be whipped if they were caught. This is located in the old town square, where much of the trade in slaves was conducted.

What is perhaps surprising, but very cheering, on the Sunday I was in Cidade Velha lots of families and couples from Praia were visiting the town to swim, eat at beach-side restaurants and have a lovely day out. That seems like a good way to overcome the terrible history of this place.

Cape Verde, an improbable island nation in the middle of the Atlantic

I doubt there is a nation with a more peculiar history than Cape Verde or, to give it it’s official Portuguese name, Republica de Cabo Verde. Until the mid-15th Century, the archipelago of ten islands which form the modern African nation, were uninhabited volcanic lumps of rock. Unknown and undiscovered, some 570km (350 miles) off the coast of West Africa, they stood in grand isolation, bleached by a vicious sun and battered by the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean.

Although its possible that Arab traders visited the islands before Europeans, its only in 1456, when Portuguese sailors arrived off the islands, that we have written records of their discovery. Prone to drought and with few natural resources, the islands still had some advantages: there was fresh water and, on two of the islands, salt pans. Vital commodities for European sailors, who were starting to explore down the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic to the Americas.

The waterfront in Praia, capital of Cape Verde, Africa

The waterfront in Praia, capital of Cape Verde, Africa

In 1462, the Portuguese, recognising the importance of the islands, claimed them for themselves and founded the first permanent European city in the tropics, Cidade Velha. A massive fort was built on the southern coast of the island of Santiago, overlooking the town and port of Cidade Velha, to protect growing Portuguese trade. European settlement remained low-key, but in the early 16th Century everything changed dramatically thanks to one the most powerful economic drivers of the next three centuries: the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

The view from the Portuguese fort, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

The view from the Portuguese fort, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Boats on the beach in Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Boats on the beach in Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Between the 1520s and 1860s, approximately twelve and a half million African men, women and children were shipped across the Atlantic and sold into slavery. The history of slavery in Cape Verde is in two parts: initially, the Portuguese used slaves as free labour on the islands; but with the establishment of European colonies in the Americas, Cape Verde became an enormous marketplace and transit hub for the Trans-Altantic slave trade. Slave ships from every European nation used these islands to conduct the trade in slaves.

The duel role of the slave trade on the islands was reinforcing. Slaves were used to grow food and provide labour to provision slave ships for their journey across the Atlantic; but over time, slaves were brought to Cape Verde and European ships would buy them here rather than on the coast of Africa. By 1594 there were 14,000 slaves working on the island, and by the 1860s hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of slaves had passed through Cape Verde en route to South America, the Caribbean and the United States.

The beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The church in Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The church in Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

After the slave trade ended, the islands became important refuelling ports for trans-Atlantic shipping, and thrived until the Second World War, when the industry went into a rapid decline. A series of droughts which hit the islands in the second half of the 20th Century had an equally devastating impact, including one in the 1990s – over 200,000 people died during the droughts. There was mass emigration from the islands, and today the number of Cape Verdeans living in New England is greater than the population of the country.

Despite the tragic human history of the islands, its mixed African and European population has given rise to one of the most stable and democratic countries in Africa. It has also spawned a rich culture, perhaps best reflected in the truly extraordinary music of the islands. This is the home of Cesária Évora, the ‘Barefoot Diva’, and morna, the island’s haunting folk music full of loss and longing. This musical heritage hit the world music scene in the 1980s and 90s, and is one of the main reasons I wanted to visit the islands.

Salt flats, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Salt flats, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The islands are geographically spread out, and transport is rarely straight forward – there are irregular cargo boats between islands, the occasional scheduled ferry service and flights on small planes that book up quickly. While this sounds promising, all forms of transport are regularly cancelled due to bad weather, and, stuck in the middle of the Atlantic, bad weather is a regular occurrence. Give yourself a few days leeway when it comes to transport.

Volcanic landscape of the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Volcanic landscape of the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Volcanic landscape of the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Volcanic landscape of the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Flying in from Portugal, I decided to spend my ten days exploring the islands of Santiago (home to the capital city, Praia), Maio and Fogo. These three islands, while relatively close together, couldn’t be more different, and made for a fascinating introduction to Cape Verde.

Africa revisited, past wanderings through the beautiful continent

Travelling for work and for pleasure, I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to visit several African countries: north, south, east and west. Some of the most extraordinary cultures, peoples, landscapes and animals anywhere on this planet are on the African Continent. Back in London after a year and a quarter in Latin America, and looking over old photos, I thought it would be fun to explore those adventures again in this blog. It is a travel blog, after all.

A young girl laughs, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

A young girl laughs, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Football shirt sellers, Yaounde, Cameroon, Africa

Football shirt sellers, Yaounde, Cameroon, Africa

Africa is not a place for preconceptions. If there is one truism, it is that a visit to any country in Africa will quickly disabuse you of most, if not all, your pre-existing views about the continent. This isn’t the place to go into it, but Western media coverage of Africa has been, and is, often negative, if not downright neo-colonial. While conflicts and dehumanising human rights abuses rage on in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, to name two, its unlikely that the mainstream media is going to improve.

As with everything else in life, there are many other Africa’s which don’t make it onto the news agenda. For a start, the continent is vast, and the nations and peoples who populate them are as diverse as is humanly possible. Undoubtably, African countries face a range of problems – environmental degradation, corruption and a lack of political accountability, poverty, ethnic tensions and rampant inequality amongst others – but it also possesses the resources, intellectual capital and desire to overcome these issues. For the visitor, exploring the countries of Africa is a vast adventure.

A Tuareg sits on his camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A Tuareg sits on his camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

The King in his jungle, mountain gorilla, Rwanda, Africa

The King in his jungle, mountain gorilla, Rwanda, Africa

It is almost impossible to comprehend the scale and artistry of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia, or the devotion of the priests and pilgrims who come here to observe a unique form of Orthodox Christianity. Yet, Lalibela seems a million miles away when you’re clambering up the side of a volcano with a AK-47 wielding park guard, only to push back the foliage to discover a troop of magnificent mountain gorillas, in the Parc National des Volcan in north-western Rwanda. The AK-47 is for the gorillas’ protection, incidentally.

Women fish in the shallows, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Women fish in the shallows, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Is it time to run yet? A lion approaches in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Is it time to run yet? A lion approaches in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Descending from the volcanoes onto the plains of East Africa, Kenya’s Maasai Mara seems to extend forever and is home to some of the most incredible animals and beautiful people anywhere in the world. Off to the west, the truly extraordinary cultures that inhabit Mali – a country currently beset by problems – are worth travelling the globe to encounter. It is almost impossible to put into words, but the experience of waking in the Sahara Desert to the sight of hundreds of brightly turbaned Tuareg, racing past on camels, is simply spectacular.

A fish seller in Kampala's central market, Uganda, Africa

A fish seller in Kampala’s central market, Uganda, Africa

That doesn’t even touch upon the thrill of tracking chimpanzees through the Kibale National Forest in Uganda; or swimming in the aquamarine ocean off the coast of Mozambique; or sharing a beer or seven with a group of Zambian football fans in a bar in upmarket Nairobi; or exploring an old Portuguese slaving fort one morning, and climbing a vertiginous volcano the next, while stranded on the isolated mid-Atlantic islands of Cape Verde. On second thoughts, this could be quite a lot of work…

Fishing boats line the shore in the former Portuguese slave port of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fishing boats line the shore in the former Portuguese slave port of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

…for the next few weeks I’ll be writing about my African wanderings and sharing some of my favourite photos, interspersed occasionally with more ‘news from nowhere’ here in the UK.