Whilst staying for five nights on the small, little-known African island of Sāo Tomé, we enjoyed a series of excursions organised by a local agency, Navetur.
For our third trip, we visited the northern part of the island.
Until independence from the Portuguese in 1975, Sāo Tomé had a thriving cocoa and coffee industry, which for various political reasons, declined. However, it left a legacy of many large roças, or plantation estates and our first visit of the day was to Boa Entrada which grew up around the plantation complex Roça Boa Entrada, established in 1870 to cultivate cocoa, bananas, breadfruit and copra. The former grand patron’s house was now derelict, with goats foraging amongst the rubbish in the ground floor rooms, and the remains of tiles on the walls and the entrance. In the square between the grand house and the simple workers’ houses, the workers would have lined up to be counted at both the beginning and end of the day. Now, it was a football pitch for the 700+ people now living in the derelict gable-roofed workers’ houses, who eke out an existence by growing bananas, corn and raising goats. On other sides of the square were a church and hospital (the larger roças all had their own hospital).
Our second stop was the village of Fernāo Dias. Here during an insurrection in 1953, the Portuguese established a labour camp where prisoners were shackled together and made to fetch sand from the beach or in a pointless exercise, had to ‘empty the sea’ which involved collecting seawater in a bucket on their heads and emptying it onto the beach. Those who died or were murdered had their bodies dumped into the sea from a jetty. These events are commemorated on 3 February, and as our visit was a few days beforehand, the monument was being painted and spruced up, with scaffolding being erected ready for the formal ceremony. The memorial had names engraved and the monument resembled waves and had albeit faded murals telling the tale.
Roça Agostinho Neto was named after the founding father of Angola, Agostinho Neto. According to Lonely Planet, ‘this was once the grandest plantation, but now the grandest symbol of its decline’. Here a local guide opened locked gates which led to the botanical gardens which now houses government offices. The overgrown garden now had little of interest, and returning through the accessible part of the house, was a small room with some leftover artefacts from its heyday, although the best pieces are said to be in the National Museum in the capital. We were invited to take a photograph of an elegant chandelier through a broken windowpane: it wasn’t clear whether it had been broken for this purpose.
The larger roças had hospitals, and we had the option of walking or driving up a wide boulevard to the hospital, and as it was not as hot or as far as the previous day, we stretched our legs. On one side we saw the bust of Agostinho Neto with some carvings for sale, and we could still see the railway tracks which connected the main plantation with the satellites. At the top, we found the hospital, which we were told had been the best in Africa, although this was said of the hospital at Roça Água Izé the previous day. It had been depicted in its perfect condition on the 5,000 Dobra bank note. Despite the fact it is slowly collapsing, it is inhabited by around 5,000 people yet does not have a decent water supply. The two wings would have housed 75 beds for women on one side and 75 for men on the other, with the consultations taking place in the middle.
We drove through sleepy fishing villages heading for what our guidebook described as ‘one of Sāo Tomé’s most iconic viewpoints, the postcard perfect Tünel de Santa Catarina’. However, having arrived, we didn’t think it lived up to its reputation, although we could just see in the distance the village of Santa Catarina, the last one on the west coast.
The town of Neves is famous for being the home of the Rosema Brewery where the Nacional beer is produced and put into unlabelled bottles: it is not exported, and everyone knows what it is.
We stopped frequently for photographs and from a high vantage point we spotted Lugua Azul or the Blue Lagoon, said to be a popular spot for snorkelling due to the clear turquoise water and shallow gradient.
The finale to our outing was a late lunch at Roça Monte Forte, which has been converted into accommodation with the first-floor restaurant providing great views of the surrounding area. There was interesting art on the walls but the loo in the tiny bathroom of one of the bedrooms, was poor as the door wouldn’t lock or stay shut and there was no seat. However, this did not detract from a traditional Santomean lunch of smoked tuna fish, rice, stir fried vegetables, and roasted breadfruit and plantain, with jackfruit and pineapple for pudding.