Touching the equator in São Tomé

São Tomé & Principe consist of a group of islands, located in the Gulf of Guinea off the African coast, on the equator. It was a Portuguese colony until july 12, 1975 when São Tomé declared independency. The main island bears the name São Tomé, as does the capital. The island of Principe is located about 140 km north. Off the south coast is the small island of Rolas, which has a small settlement of about 70 people. The only way to get to Rolas is on a small motor launch and takes approx. 30 minutes.

Rotterdam, march 27, 2014

Time for the annual trip to lesser known places on the globe. Since I never actually touched the equator it seemed like a good opportunity to go there and find myself in two hemispheres. São Tomé also meets the criterium of being a former Portuguese colony.

The trip started with a regular flight from Amsterdam to Lisbon to meet my travelling companion, a 9-hour lay-over and then on the weekly 6-hour flight from Lisbon to São Tomé.
Though Lisbon is known territory it would be nice to at least have dinner downtown in the dock area but unfortunately it was pouring. Dinner we had, but spent most of the evening in Lisbon airport. The flight was scheduled to take off at midnight but was already announced with an "unknown" delay. Though TAP is the designated carrier, the plane and crew is leased from White Airways. And "White" it was: except for the registration CS-TQV on the fuselage the plane turned out to be an entirely white Airbus A310-304 (built 1989), the one and only White Airways owns.
Finally we boarded at 2am and were set for our little game: when the "Boarding Complete"-message came over the PA we immediately annexed the empty rows-of-three around us, creating two comfortable sleeping spaces for ourselves. Being alert pays off: we managed to sleep horizontal the entire flight.

São Tomé International Airport is... eco-friendly Southbound on the EN2

São Tomé, march 28

Touchdown at 8.40am and welcomed by the tropical humid heat. Spent about an hour clearing immigration and Customs and found ourselves in the parking lot, looking for our connecting transfer to Ilheu das Rolas where we would spend four days.
The airport is located on the northernmost part of the island, the island of Rolas off the south coast. This involved a two-hour minibus shuttle to cover the 55 kms on the one and only north to south road. Via the capital São Tomé and then onwards through a scenery that does not quite resemble ours. Let the pictures do the talking....

Friday: laundry day. Seen in every river.

The end of the road.. to be continued over water

The road literally terminates on a small dock. Our group of 10 was ordered to don a life jacket after which we were invited to board a small cutter. (our luggage would be transferred separately on a local wooden longboat, called a "piroga").
The crossing took half an hour on rough water. Upon arrival on Rolas we were welcomed with a local drink: a coconut with a straw. The island is covered with palmtrees and one of the first signs you encounter is a warning for falling coconuts...

A "rola" is a small kind of pigeon that has a distinct rolling sound when they are cooeing. The island was bestowed with this name because apparently it were these birds that charmed the Portuguese explorers.

The resort is called the Pestana Equador and is the only resource that keeps this island going. A bit controversial though: the Pestana consortium wanted to "own" the island entirely. Though the government does not sell the territory, the few locals residing on the island were encouraged to leave (with a modest pay-off) and about half the people took the money and left. The remaining population now either works in the resort or tries to make a buck by guiding the resorts' visitors around the island. Most visitors decline the locals' efforts though, probably because of the language barrier, and prefer to stay within the safety of the resort.

Ilhéu das Rolas

Ilheu das Rolas covers 4 sq. km and offers wildlife, scenic beaches, palm trees, peace and quietness, a lot of birds AND the monument on the equator. There are no motorized vehicles, no hotels, no shops. Electric power supplied by one modest diesel generator. One WIFI-spot in the lobby. For many people this is beyond the end of the world, but for some a blessing after a year in busy West Europe...

The first day was just spent on the beach and catching up some sleep. Dinner in the resorts' Sete Pedras restaurant, located on a scenic hilltop overlooking the ocean. Since it is actually the only "decent" restaurant on the Rolas, one can imagine what effect this has on the price. People who do not want to mingle with the locals are entirely depending on the monopoly of the Pestana...

Ilhéu das Rolas The local main street

One thing that I did not see for a long time is absolute darkness at night. We tend to forget what this looks like in our overlit Western world. Here power just cuts out at around 10pm in most areas and the island is pitch black. Só many stars overhead!

The second day we decided to circle the island and try to find this equator monument. The moment we left the premises we were approached by several local young men, offering their services as a guide or making suggestions for lunch and dinner. Even if you are clear and state that you would prefer to make the walk by yourself, they will not let go and just join. It is not like the hawking we experienced in São Tomé, but it is a very understandable attitude in the circumstances. We let Pedro have his way and admitted: he showed us his village which probably would have been a challenge without a local. Later on we got an offer to have dinner in their local restaurant. Though a bit reluctant we accepted. Mostly out of curiosity. And frankly: there are many ways to die here. If you are not struck by a falling coconut, you might contract Ebola, yellow fever or malaria. So why not try the local cuisine...

Monument on the Equator Straddling the equator... really IS a line...!

The monument on the equator is situated on the slope of a hill. This could not be done otherways since the equator just happens to be there... Though a bit in neglect it still has a nice touch to it, with all the mosaics. Besides that the view over the bay is spectacular from this vantage point.

The island has a lighthouse on the highest hill, but there was no view from the base of the lighthouse since the palm trees obscure the view in all directions. The lighthouse was not accessible.

A boat in the making, São Tomé-style marvellous spiders Farol das Rolas Coffee Beach

Humidity and high temperature wear you out faster than up north. Mosquitoes in abundance. Time to head back and grab some lunch, but not after agreeing on a boat trip in a local 'piroga' around the island for the next morning.

Beach and (seawater)pool are a good place to spend the afternoon at leisure. No need for animation by the staff since the beach itself is a spectacle. As the tide recedes every little black speck which I thought were pebbles, started to move: hermit crabs. Sand crabs started digging new homes. Lizards scurrying for food. Dozens of falcons overhead preying.

Restaurante Equador

Left for the local restaurant at 7.30 pm, already pitch dark. No menu, no frills. Just fresh fish from the grill (peixe de sopa/soup fish) with fried "breadtree fruit"-slices, and a cold beer to assist. I prefer to help out the locals make a buck instead of lining the pockets of the Pestana resort.

Bring a torch. You are going to need it when you make your way back to the resort. No street lights. No pavement. No sidewalks. Just sliding downhill while avoiding stray dogs and the family pig...

March 30

Woke up in the middle of the night because of the deafening tropical storm, hitting the corrugated roof. Got back to sleep eventually, but we should wake up early because we set the boat trip at 9am. And then confusion started: is it 7am now or 8am? In Europe daylight saving went in effect this night but does São Tomé use DS? No way to tell since we have no Internet and no GSM network in the room.

Rolas is excellent for
diving and snorkeling

Set out for breakfast early just in case. The sky cleared completely and the light was magnificent. Met our guide Pedro and our "comandante" Ligio for the piroga-cruise around the island. No life jackets this time, no insurance. No worries, we trust these guys know the waters.

Ilhéu das Rolas covers 4 sq. km and can be circled in about 90 minutes at this speed. The scenery as seen from the water is amazing, and the waters are absolutely clear. Halfway the outboard engine had to be refuelled, which was done from a soda bottle. Not sure what they put in but apparently it was fuel all right since the engine kicked in again. Our luck...

After all this excitement we decided to spend the rest of the day as one is supposed to be in a place like this: on the beach. Dinner: in the Restaurante Equador again of course! The chef promised a different kind of fish for tonight which turned out to be "peixe das grandes olhas / big eye fish". Delicious and spicy. And the eyes indeed are huge...

March 31

This is going to be our last day on Ilhéu das Rolas. We decided to explore the more hidden beaches and natural pools we saw from the boat yesterday. Though difficult to reach it was worth all the balancing over the slippery rocks. Still water pools in the volcanic rocks, heated up during low tide. Colorful fish and black crabs darting around your feet. But best of all: nobody else around. Just the sound of breaking waves and the occasional plunge of a falling coconut in the water.

Be sure to bring good quality waterproof sandals (rocks and needles of seas urchins) and plenty of sun protector. The sun is really strong on the equator.

It is becoming our daily routine: dinner again at the locals in the Equador BBQ and Grill. Chef promised to get some "marisco" for us tonight: lobster.

Sea urchins and fish Natural jacuzzi with unexpected waves

April 1

Back on the launch for the crossing to the main island. In our itinerary a minibus-transfer back to the capital São Tomé was foreseen, but on Rolas we had arranged for a private "excursion" with a local and his 4x4 which would drop us at the hotel at the end of the day. So far so good. On Rolas we made acquaintance with two fellow travellers from Porto, whom joined the excursion. The more the merrier... The 4x4 turned out to be a somewhat dated Honda CR-V and came with driver included. Quick maths: two front seats, one back bench that seats three: room for 5 pax. Reality: one driver, one guide and four participants = 6. On top of that 5 suitcases and some handluggage. And all this for roughly 7 hours and 60+ kilometers. In Europe this would not fit. Don't worry, in São Tomé with its strong African influences it DID fit, although our guide "Jekson" shared the booth with a pile of cases.

6 pax, 5 suitcases... Porto Alegre Porto Alegre

Off we went on our excursion in the southern part of the island, which would include visits to some roça's. A "roça" is a plantation. São Tomé has several plantations which either produce coffee or cacao and were built and run by the Portuguese. Neither coffee nor cacao was present in São Tomé but was brought from Brasil and introduced here since the climate was favorable for cultivating coffee and cacao.

First stop: Porto Alegre which was built around roça Bela Vista, not functioning any longer. It is a pity to see all this magnificent buildings and machinery falling into decay. And it was not the only example we were going to see. In fact it looks like many basic infrastructural items like streetlights and roads are decaying since the independence from Portugal in 1975.

"Dancing friendship"
disco in Porto Alegre
Doce Doce !! Local restaurant in
a very rustic setting

Onwards to a "praia" (=beach), another praia and yes: another praia. Apparently Jekson thought that tourists would like to see beaches. Well, we don't. When you have seen one, you have seen them all. It's sand and clear blue water here, no exception. We agreed to skip beaches from now on and concentrate on roça's and other interesting stuff.

Soon we learned that our driver "Argel" dreams of being a formula 1-driver and is already practising. Imposed speed limits in villages are an advice to him, not compulsory. Slowing down for sharp curves is a waste of time, and on his too-low-pressured and almost bare tyres quite dangerous... We think this has to do with a bit of African-style showing off.

Next (pit)stop: a waterfall in the middle of nowhere, hidden behind a small settlement. One thing that really caught our eye is the incredible number of kids you see everywhere, and not many old people. The kids seem to smell a tourist from a mile away and the moment the car comes to a halt it is swarmed by a colorful array of young ones. It took some time before I realized what it was they chanted: "Doce!! Doce !!". Doce is Portuguese for sweets or candy. It is hard for some people to resist the dark puppy eyes' request but it is better if you resist. The moment you hand out one "doce" to one of them, the whole flock will not rest until you lock yourself in the car again.

cacaobeans as they come
from the fruit shell
cacaobeans after roasting Ready for shipping

Almoço (lunch) at an inconspicuous little restaurant, hidden beside the road. The ambiance and the food was excellent though and we truly enjoyed this culinary break.

Roça Água Izé is a still operational cacao-plant which we visited and were demonstrated how the cacaobeans are processed for shipping. In the old days a roça was like an autonomous little town which included housing for the labour, a hospital, schools, churches. Nowadays most of the facilities like hospitals are gone and the buildings are crumbling down. The people still live on the premises but with much less sustenance than in the old colonial days. It is mainly with foreign help that on a small-scale base some roça's keep in business.

We made it to the Pestana São Tomé in São Tomé city in one piece, no damage, all items still present. Despite our doubts about the driver we decided to book Jekson again for the next day to explore the northern part of the island.
A shower and a cold local lager (called Rosema) on the veranda, overlooking the bay finished a well-spent day.

Roça Água Izé Public transport on São Tomé Pestana São Tomé Hotel

April 2

Jekson and driver Argel picked us up at 9am and today's excursion would take us into the northern part of the island with a promise of visiting several roças. Coastal road EN1 offers spectacular views and is not for the faint-hearted, especially with Argel at the wheel. Somehow it is contradictory: the island' credo is "Lève-lève" and is the São Tomésian equivalent of "take it slow", or "No worries, mate". Everyone has all the time in the world here, no stress. But in traffic this credo apparently does not apply.

roça Bela Vista Drying the cacaobeans.. ..over huge fireplaces

First stop was the roça Bela Vista which still produces cacao. The workers' families still live on the premises and the kids just had a short break from school. Tourists! Chance for a doce!

The next impressive roça is the former Rio do Ouro, nowadays called roça Agostinho Neto after its founder. This roça does not produce any longer and all the major edifices are in decay. Once there was a 17 kilometer long network of narrow gauge tracks around, indicating the scale of the roça. Now people are still living here, passing their time. Doing what...?

roça Agostinho Neto Former hospital Chapel

Roadside beauty parlor

Something eludes me: the vast number of beauty salons along the road while the women do no actually need them. The name of this one uses the acronym M.M.D, which translates into "Woman with straightened hair is more beautiful and desirable".

Some activity near the road: a huge turtle was captured by some men and was hauled towards a piroga. When they noticed our presence and us shooting pics, they scurried away, dragging the poor turtle out of sight. We learned that turtles are protected nowadays but the locals still crave the turtle meat and do not hesitate to capture one.

Cacaobeans in their shell

All of a sudden we veered off the road but this was part of the plan: we were taken to a local restaurant "Santola" that raised an eyebrow but which offered incredible tasty and freshly caught crab. A small wooden plate and mallet were supplied to crush the legs of the crabs to get to the meat. Since the crabs were probably still swimming one hour ago, there was still a lot of juices present which sprayed every which way while we were hammering away. One jet even hit Argel dead in the eye. Good shot, Maria Do Seu!

Fresh crab at restaurant Santola View from the veranda of Santola

Since EN1 is the only road in the north we had to double back all the way to and through São Tomé to continue to the next stop: Roça Monte Café in the central part of the island. The name is a giveaway: indeed, this is where most of the coffee plantations are. A visit to the Museum of Coffee is worthwhile: it demonstrates how coffee was processed from raw material to the final product for shipping by using machinery, driven by hydro power. We were not allowed to make pictures.

That concluded the day excursion and brought us back to the Pestana São Tomé at 5pm sharp. We survived another day. I thanked them for the efforts they made and gave Argel the suggestion of adapting a more "tourist-friendly" way of driving. If it will have any effect I doubt. It is a cultural thing...

Should you consider booking an excursion: Jekson Moreno Adelino is available and can be reached either via the frontdesk of the Pestana São Tomé / Equador hotel or via cellphone +239-9947240. Portuguese language preferred but basic English is possible.

Microsuper under the restaurant Along EN1 Coffee berries

After a short dip in the pool we walked downtown for a nocturnal view of São Tomé and have dinner. The hotel offers a taxi round trip for € 10, the equivalent of an average Tomesian week salary, for a distance of about one mile. Walking is not dangerous as long as you bear in mind that everyone drives like mad and pedestrian crossings are non-existent...

Nightlife in São Tomé is non-existent, besides a bustling evening market. But at 9pm everything slows down and the streets become emtpy. We enjoyed a decent dinner at restaurant Chico (Xico in Satomese).

Mural on the Lyceum Street views the fortress

April 3

Last day in São Tomé and time for a city walk. The centre is quite compact and can easily be covered in one day. We set out for the fortress which houses the historic museum (and has a lighthouse which had to serve as my "high-rise" for this trip).
Passed the Sé Catédral and had an icecream (again..) at GeliDoxi: homemade icecream made from all fruits growing on São Tomé. Addictive!!

chapel of the fortress

Time to take the plunge in the hustle and bustle of the central market, next to the taxistand and the "busstation".
To my surprise I saw our national flag on a pink building, which turned out to be the consulate of the Netherlands. Still wondering why we need a consulate in São Tomé...

Dutch consulate... Minimercado Central market busstation

two little sisters leafing
through our guide

Crisscrossing downtown and spent one hour to obtain two postcards and ditto stamps: the perpetual obligation towards two relatives who count on my card from another "end of the world"...

Back in the hotel a good rest and some pre-packing because we have to get up at 3am for the trip back home.

April 4

Wake up at 3am, finished packing, breakfast at 3.30am, checking out and in the bus to the airport. Seemed a bit early to us since the flight is only leaving at 7am.
Before clearing customs a "departure tax" of 440.000 Dobra (€ 17) per head must be paid. Luggage is inspected thoroughly for illegal items to be taken out. On the other hand there is no European paranoia and you can just take your bottle of water with you.
A nice stamp in the passport, annulling the visa. At 6am our plane arrived: another completely white Airbus A310, but this time leased from HiFly. I had checked in very early and managed seats 2A and 2B which normally are business class seats and well before the wing. Good for picture making!

São Tomé International Airport The Sahara desert: Mali The Sahara desert: Morocco

Arrival in Lissabon with the usual TAP-delay. I don't know why, but I fly a lot and use TAP regularly and never ever had one flight of 'em that was punctual. Even Ryanair does better!
Connecting flight to Amsterdam scheduled at 19:55 but (of course..) pre-announced with a delay. Arrived at Amsterdam 00:15, suitcase at 00:40, managed to catch the 00:46 trainservice to Rotterdam. That is what I like about Schiphol airport: even though it is big, service is incredibly fast.

Made it home at 2:30am. Shower, tea, snack, sleep... Lève lève...

A 5000 Dobra-note (front) with roça Agostinho Neto (back) 5000 Dobra stamp

General information on São Tomé
  • Money 1: Currency is the São Tomé Dobra (STD). Exchange rate (apr.2014): €1 = STD 24.500. A few ATMs downtown at the national back and the airport. Changing at the hotel and charge to your creditcard gives a much better rate than cash conversion in the bank!
  • Money 2: Several travel guides recommend to take USD-notes for tipping and small purchases, but do NOT take USD. The people do not actually like them. The Euro is much more appreciated and common, because most visitors are from West-Europe. Bring € 0,50, €1 and €2 - coins.
  • Health: Contrary to some sources, no vaccinations are compulsory any longer since 2009. It is advised though to take a shot against malaria, yellow fever and tetanus.
  • Bring plenty of mosquito repellant and wear long sleeves / socks / long pants when dusk sets in...
  • Wear a cap and sun block if you have fair skin. The sun really is strong here!
  • Avoid tap water.
  • Bring a Portuguese dictionary / phrase book, as English does not get you far (outside the hotels).

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