Thursday, 12 January 2012

Cape Verde


It was a desperate and sneaky attempt by Simon to prevent me from dragging him off on yet another cold, wet, snowy new year trip. I was hauled, unprepared and unsuspecting, into a travel agents shop and before I knew it I was booked into an all inclusive luxury hotel on a tropical desert island with miles of pure white sandy beaches and warm seas. At least that’s what the brochure said. Anyway, we nearly didn’t get there as he lost his passport in Gatwick airport moments before we were due to get on the plane.


Passport located, disaster averted and after a Thomsons flight which made EasyJet look like business class we arrived on the island of Boa Vista, one of the Islands making up the Cape Verde Archipelago some 500km west off the coast of Senegal. The 5 minute bus journey from the airport was an eye opener for me as the tour rep, Traceeeee from Liverpool, shrieked “Are you all having fun” to which everyone was supposed to cheer and my initial inspection of the hotel did little to alleviate my fears as I saw row upon row of bodies on sunbeds ranging from pasty white to lobster red depending on how long they had been staying.
It was beginning to smack of Brits abroad holiday hell.

                                                   The RIU KARAMBOA hotel with Sal Rei in the distance

                                                               The top of the hotel, just beyond the sand dunes
                                                                                            Chaves Beach
                                                                           

My escape strategy was formed early the next day and so Simon was hauled off on a long walk firstly along the glorious white beach to the island’s main town of Sal Rei and then beyond Sal Rei to the north of the island. The beaches for which Boa Vista are famed are worth a trip alone to see them, miles and miles of white sand stretching as far as the eye can see are beginning to lure tourists here. Cape Verde is classed as a developing country and it is poor, very poor, so we made sure we weren’t carrying mobile phones or flash cameras and I wore no jewellery partly out of being cautious as it is not unknown for tourists to be mugged here and partly out of respect for the local people. 20% of the country’s GDP comes from remittances and Boa Vista has little home grown income other than its growing tourist industry.


                                                           Outside the fish market in Sal Rei

                                                                      Sal Rei


The first settlers in Cape Verde when it was “discovered” in about 1460 were Portuguese and so the official language, religion and brightly coloured colonial style houses all show this influence and ,although slightly run down and very derelict in places, Sal Rei is a clean and friendly town of about 4000 people. We saw fishermen landing their catch of impressive sized tuna, did some people watching while sat in a cafĂ© in the town square and relaxed at the bar by the harbour watching the boats come and go.


Cape Verde has been independent since 1973 but uses the Euro as well as the Escudo as currency.



Given that there are 5 large all inclusive hotels on the island I was concerned that the place would be over run by tourists but I needn’t have worried as most never leave the luxury of their hotels. Shame, they don’t know what they are missing. I do appreciate that many people’s idea of a holiday is precisely this but my inability to keep still for long or to switch my brain off meant that I was on a mission to discover as much about the island as I could.

Boa Vista has little in the way of the wow factor tourist attractions and it is not always easy to find out about what there is to see unless doing a wee bit of research before going as there are some gems to be found and it certainly pays to ask as many questions as you can of the locals who can tell you about the culture, history and wildlife. Communication was mostly through a mixture of French, very poor Spanish,  non existent Portuguese and my attempt at the islands traditional language of Creole which fell flat but all of the Cape Verdean people that we spoke to were more than happy to answer questions. They are a friendly bunch particularly our host on the sightseeing boat trip who tried to teach me African dancing but I was a lost cause, no rhythm at all.

 The Jewish Cemetery - Many Jews had been deported to Cape Verde over the years as "undesirables" by their own countries. They were allowed to work in Sal Rei so long as it was in a trade or job that a non jewish person didn't want.

Simon learning from a local how to play Oril whilst sampling the local tipple, grogue, which is made from sugarcane

Water and energy are an issue on Boa Vista. All water comes from desalination plants and the town of Povocao Velha in the south of the island doesn’t have its own water supply and can only generate enough electricity for 10 hours a day. To get to most places on Boa Vista a landrover or 4 wheel drive is needed, the roads are either cobbled or dirt track for the most part and those on the north coast of the island that looked on the map as though they may be passable turned out to be over sand dunes. 


                                         Povocao Velha is the oldest settlement on the island


Nothing grows on Boa Vista other than desert scrub plants and in a few areas palm trees. It is a fascinating desert ecosystem and this desert is gradually growing as sands blow in from the Sahara, encroaching the island and everything on it, as could be seen from the ruins of an old brick factory near the hotel which is slowly being reclaimed by the sands.

                                                     The tower of the old brick factory

                                               The Deserto de Viana, a 7km stretch of white sand dunes

                                         Palm trees blowing in the wind with the extinct volcano of Santo Antonio beyond


A strong wind blows over this arid landscape almost constantly but paradoxically Boa Vista has one of the worlds most important wetlands as when the rains come in late summer they come with vengeance and on areas of the west coast of the island, Rabil lagoon and in the gorge or wadi and an abundance of plant and birdlife appears for a short period of time.

                                                                           The gorge

                                                      Rabil lagoon (no idea what the yellow flower is)

                                          A very large cricket....good job the little critter was friendly!


To the consternation of some we spoke to the strong winds between December and March are not something the Thomsons brochure mentions in any great detail nor are the fierce rip tides, waves and under tows which mean that a red flag is flown at the hotel beach, sometimes for a week at a time, indicating it is too dangerous to go in for a dip. Fortunately we went to another beach the day the flag was flying at our hotel beach and enjoyed our exhilarating swim, ignorance is bliss, although I did wonder why no one else was going in. Like the Hebrides, maybe the weather will be Boa Vista’s saviour from it becoming Africa’s equivalent of Benidorm. Can you imagine the hotels that would be on Luskintyre beach if it wasn’t for the cold, the rain, the wind, the cold water, the midges…..

I was beginning to like the place more and more.






The beaches are nesting grounds for turtles but we had come at the wrong time of year for turtle watching. Unfortunately many turtles had been slaughtered last year by locals for their eggs and meat and there are little resources that can be invested in their protection in country that is not wealthy and has other priorities.

                                        A wall built to keep the sand from spreading - it wasn't very successful!

                                                     The eerie wreck of the Santa Maria

My last 3 holidays have been running related and so unusually for me this trip wasn’t for a race but I did keep my eye out for any possible races should a future trip here be on the cards. All that was available was a 150km ultra marathon across the shifting sands and arid deserts. Having found my morning runs along the beach and over the dunes hard enough and having sustained a few blisters in the process I wasn’t in a big hurry to send off my race entry for this one!.



The 9 inhabited islands of the 10 islands making up the Cape Verde archipelago each are very different in character and so we decided to investigate another island. Whereas Boa Vista is a desert island with its extinct volcanoes rising from the sands appearing a lot higher than they are, Fogo is a green, mountainous, fertile island. Fogo is also a dormant Volcano.

The arrival to Fogo by air is breath taking




After a quick breakfast and tour round the capital, Sao Filipe, the bus started the long ascent up to the volcano crater which took us through fertile agricultural land where maize, cabbages, bananas, mangoes and cashew nuts were growing. 



                                                                           Bananas!
There is a village in the volcano crater where the villagers live amongst scientists monitoring seismic activity, the last eruption of Fogo being in 1995 and although living here doesn’t seem like such a great idea at first, the slopes of the volcano offer fertile farm lands where coffee and vines are grown although water has to be transported from several hundred metres down the slopes of the island as there is no supply in the crater. Fogo produces its own wine with the Italian owned winery also located in this village in the crater and at 5 Euros a bottle along with a kilo bag of beans and peppercorns with which to make Cachupa, an African stew, my suitcase was almost bursting on the way home and I only narrowly made my flight luggage allowance.

                                                               The road to the crater

                                           A lone vine struggles for survival in the volcanic ash

                                                      The village in the volcano crater, the Cha das Caldeiras

                                                            The peak of the volcano Pico doFogo


                                                                Children selling souvenirs made from volcanic rock. On an island where    unemployment is running at nearly 30% this income is much needed.


After the relative peace and quiet of Fogo it was back to the hotel on Boa Vista. I had no complaints at all about the hotel, it was spectacular and luxurious, rooms were lovely, food was amazing but something didn’t feel right when on an island where all water comes from the environmentally unfriendly desalination process and nothing grows they are watering the flowers in the hotel grounds for the guests delight. I also don't understand why the hotel doesn't offer more information on the history and wildlife of the islands, maybe some displays or talks instead of the Butlins style "entertainment" which seemed to be on offer every night but I guess popular choice will always win through.

The swimming pool. This photo was taken at 7.30 am as i headed out for a run. By 8.30 am the sun worshippers were already out putting towels over the sunbeds to reserve them......


                                                             The view from the balcony


Cape Verde has a sad history of use and abandonment firstly as a port in the supply and trade routes pre Suez and pre oil power for ships, in whaling, in the horrific slave trade and in salt exporting with each of these trades coming, flourishing for a while and then fading. Cape Verde was renowned for the quality of its slaves as only the strongest made it through the voyage from Africa and having stayed in Cape Verde for a while under Portuguese masters they spoke some Portuguese and understood the Catholic religion. Then
came the years of famine and drought reaching a peak in the early 20th Century when many died.

The latest business boom is tourism. Admittedly tourism in the style of all inclusive resorts does bring jobs albeit low paid menial jobs but this does not feel like true investment in the islands and does not really seem to help local businesses. Cape Verde traditionally doesn’t have a hospitality industry as European countries recognise it but there are bars and restaurants and guest houses in Sal Rei and had I been more travel savvy and done more research these would have been options. On Fogo, its even possible to stay in the volcano crater which is what I will be doing when I return to these beautiful islands.


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