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Friday, September 29, 2006

Cape Verde offers endless beauty, adventure

By Jeremy Jowell

The customs control officer flips frantically through my passport. "Where is your American visa?" she asks .

Although I'm about to board a flight heading for Atlanta, I explain that I'm not going to America, but am instead getting off at the Cape Verde Islands.

"Oh really!" she exclaims. "You's on the aeroplane who is stopping there?"

The night flight from Cape Town takes off in a north-west direction over the darkening Atlantic Ocean.

Nine hours later, we touch down at Sal, a flat dusty island with not much going for it except some luxury hotels at a coastal strip in the south.

Two o'clock in the morning is not a great time to arrive at any destination, particularly one as remote as Cape Verde, but I have no problem getting a taxi to a small hotel nearby.

Situated 460km off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verde is an archipelago of 10 islands, nine of which are inhabited.

The next morning, after three hours' sleep, I take the first flight for Mindelo, the main city on the island of Sao Vicente.

Mindelo is a laid-back town of crumbling buildings and cobbled streets. This is Cape Verde's music capital and the birthplace of the country's famous singer, Cesaria Evora.

Life in Mindelo is slow and relaxed and after lunch of tasty grilled chicken, I wander through the colourful streets. As the heat of the day subsides, the people awake from their afternoon siesta.

From Mindelo, it's a short ferry trip to the island of Santo Antao. As soon as we leave the shelter of the harbour, the ferry starts to rock '* roll. Although they are a nation of islanders, Cape Verdeans do not handle the ocean well and several people are soon leaning over the railings to get sick. One man has not taken the wind into account and ends up spraying some unhappy passengers.

After docking at Porto Novo, I catch a minibus taxi heading across the island to the ramshackle fishing village of Ponta Do Sol. The cobblestone road climbs and winds through sharp S-bends up the steep mountain. We pass fertile terraced fields and "disappear" into the mountain top covered in mist and cloud.

Santo Antao is a hiker's paradise. The rugged peaks and fertile ribeiras (valleys) offer spectacular walks to small settlements and villages, often with dramatic views down 1 000m cliff faces.

By the time we get to Ponta Do Sol, it's already midday, but I'm keen to still get in a hike today.

After buying some crackers and water, I set out in the stifling heat on a cobblestone path leading up the mountain towards the remote village of Fontainhas.

The path twists through soaring peaks and very soon I'm out of breath with sweat streaming down my back. Suddenly I round a corner and there is the tiny village of Fontainhas, perched precariously on a ledge between two valleys.

After a break for a cold Coke, I start heading back and trudge slowly along the path with trepidation, knowing the breathless climbs and knee-jarring descents to follow.

I meet a local man and ask how much it will cost for him to give me a lift on his back all the way to Ponta Do Sol. "One million Euros," he answers, laughing loudly.

I struggle on and just as I'm thinking that I can't continue much further, I see a truly inspirational sight. Coming towards me are three men, one of whom is a man on crutches with a deformed leg.

I watch him in amazement as he walks past smiling, his left leg dangling uselessly by his side.

I'm an able-bodied person sweating buckets and barely able to catch my breath while this man on crutches is swinging along the cobblestones with one working leg.

I set off up the hill with renewed vigour. Back in Ponta do Sol, everyone is out enjoying the late afternoon sunshine.

The older boys are immersed in a hectic game of soccer, while the young ones ride their bikes on the cobblestone roads or play marbles in the dust.

Life is peaceful here and every morning at dawn the fishermen arrive at the harbour with boat engines slung over their shoulders. They don their oilskins and load buckets of bait into their boats before setting out to sea. After several hours they return with their catch, which is scaled, cleaned and gutted on the slippery rocks before being sold to restaurants and hotels in town.

After several days of hiking up rugged peaks and into misty green valleys, I journey on for the next leg of my Cape Verdean adventure.

For most visitors to Cape Verde, one of the highlights is a visit to the volcanic island of Fogo. The Pico de Fogo, a 2 829m volcano that last erupted spectacularly in 1995, is an extremely difficult but intensely dramatic hike.

I check into a lodge in the small village of Portela, situated in the crater-top area of Chas das Calderas. At 6.42am, I set out with a small group and our guide Carlos Alves to climb the volcano.

Carlos is only 19 years old but he has been a guide for six years and has climbed the Pico nearly 600 times. Even though he was only 10 years old when the volcano erupted in 1995, Carlos remembers it well.

"It was very scary and first we saw the fire and rocks shooting up into the sky. Then the lava started flowing. We had to evacuate our homes and flee to the coastal towns of Mosteiros or Sao Filipe, where we stayed for six months until the lava flow had cooled."

The climb heads along a spine of huge rocks that zigzags upwards between vast plains of solidified lava. I've seen some incredible sights on my travels, but this eerie landscape is right up there at the top of the list.

Small pockets of mist rise from the crater floor and race up the mountain. Soon we are hiking in thick layers of cloud. We puff up the boulder-strewn path, carefully picking our way over jagged rocks. As we near the summit, the unmistakable pungent smell of sulphur reaches my nose.

Finally, after nearly four hours of climbing, we reach the summit and stop for a short break and tuna sandwiches with water.

We then continue down into the mouth of the volcano through a hazardous rocky valley, where one wrong step would send you hurtling hundreds of metres down the sheer volcano cliff.

The path continues over a ridge and across to the site of the 1995 eruption. Our journey is now one of pure pleasure as we run down a 2km slope of volcanic sand, taking giant steps and sinking up to our knees to brake.

With the mist swirling about, I slip and slide and surf down the lava dune in the most surreal ride of my life.

Down at the eruption site, the red and yellow sulphur-stained rocks are hot to the touch. In several places, steam rises from cracks leading deep into the earth.

We walk back to the lodge through a black landscape that looks like it's been hit by an atomic bomb.

My next destination is Tarrafal, a laid-back beach village on the north-western coast of Santiago, the biggest island in the Cape Verde archipelago.

I'm looking forward to spending some time chilling on the beach and offload my bags at Hotel Baia Verde, a set of pretty bungalows located under the shade of coconut palms.

After a good night's sleep, I wake before sunrise and walk down to the beach. The fishermen are busy launching their boats and I get chatting to José Sanchez, one of the few locals who can speak any English. José promises to take me out fishing with him the following day.

It's a hazy dawn and the sun rises as a white ball behind thin layers of cloud. I wander around town, stopping to photograph women at the market and one particularly photogenic little girl eating a big bowl of soup for breakfast.

There are several good day trips to take around Santiago, with Tarrafal providing a good base. One is a hike into the interior, through the hilly green countryside of the Gom Gom Valley.

The area is green and fertile and we walk past fields full of potatoes, sugarcane, maize and corn. The occasional breeze is a welcome relief from the oppressive heat.

We descend a steep hill until we reach three small stone-and-thatch huts where a family welcomes us inside their fly-infested home. They are shelling green beans and one woman is vigorously shaking a container of milk, adding water and sugar to produce butter.

My last few lazy days in Cape Verde drift by under a sultry sky. Life here is slow and relaxed and I've settled easily into Tarrafal time.

The afternoon sun dips low and casts silver streaks over the sea, silhouetting the children playing happily in the shallows. Reluctantly I pack my bags and start heading back to face the mundane realities of my everyday world.



The Cape Verde archipelago is situated 460 km off the coast of Senegal and consists of 10 islands, nine of which are inhabited.

The official language is Portuguese but Creole is commonly spoken. A ferry service exists between the islands but is infrequent, so the best way for travelling locally is by air.

Cape Verde is famous for its music and their biggest talent is singer Cesária Evora.

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