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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.