Gorgeous Sao Nicolao

In the few days that we’ve been anchored in the bay of Tarrafal (Sao Nicolao’s main port), we’ve absolutely fallen in love with this green and mountainous island. Tarrafal isn’t a pretty town, but the bay is fairly well protected, the boats are anchored in 5 to 15 m depth where the holding in black sand is good and there’s a jetty where it’s easy to land and leave the dinghy. Under these conditions we can leave the boat without feeling overly worried and are free to explore the island.

The green volcanic slopes of Sao Nicolao are a wonderful sight after all the desert islands we’ve been to since leaving the Med. While Sal and Boa Vista have some tourism (souvenir shops, street vendors, organised tours for the tourists who stay in the few fenced off holiday resorts) Sao Nicolao doesn’t even show traces of a beginning tourism industry. There’s only a small air strip up in the mountains, no elaborate ferry system, so the only visitors come from the about 20 yachts anchored off Tarrafal. Nevertheless it’s very easy to get around as only few people have private cars. The public transport here works with “Aluguer”—minibuses or pick-up trucks circle around with the drivers shouting out their destinations until they’ve got enough passengers (or cargo) and then set out. Once you’ve found out which truck goes to which village you just hop on the bench in the back, even though it’s wise to ask for the price beforehand.

This morning we set out to see more of the interior of Sao Nicolao. We found a pick-up truck and the driver was willing to take us around the island for 40 euros, which seemed o.k. divided by three (Steve, a British singlehander was with us). The truck started going up into the mountains and we soon wished that we had brought jackets, because the spectacular winding road went up to the slopes of Monte Gordo (1312 m). Even though it’s less than half an hour’s drive from the coast where we’ve got used to daily 30 degrees the climate up there is completely different: the volcano is usually hiding in thick clouds, it’s surprisingly chilly, very humid, rain is quite frequent and in combination with the fertile volcanic soil this leads to a lush vegetation. The views from the road are just stunning, at a point high up it’s possible to see the southern and the northern Coast of the island from a viewpoint next to the road. After reaching the pass between Monte Gordo and the ragged peak next to it the view suddenly opens up to the fertile Faja Valley with small villages and isolated farmhouses on the slopes. Bananas, potatoes, papayas, tomatoes and sugar cane are grown on steep terraces—sometimes organised into separate fields but usually just growing next to and over each other. Even though we could already see our destination—the old colonial capital Ribeira Brava far down in the valley—we had another 15 km to go, because the slopes are just too steep for a road and so it heads first to the northern coast with it’s ragged black cliffs, before approaching Ribeira Brava from the North.

Ribeira Brava’s old centre with the formerly biggest church in West Africa dates back to the 19th century, but most of the buildings in this laid-back, charming town are new, colourfully painted concrete constructions. We took a walk around the town, peeked into the small shops and workshops. The population quite mixed, there are old ladies sitting in the doorways, but also plenty of young people around, rural migration doesn’t seem to be an issue here. We found a restaurant that was still closed (lunch isn’t served before 1.30), but the cook opened the kitchen for us and a charming granny soon served delicious fried fish with more veggies and rice than we could handle. When we asked for a glass of the local Schnaps called grogue after the elaborate meal she giggled and said that a restaurant didn’t serve that only to show up with a bottle minutes later and still giggling.

In the afternoon we headed down to the former Portuguese main harbour Preguica on the southwestern coast. It’s lost its importance a long time ago, because it doesn’t offer sheltered anchorages and Tarrafal with its breakwater and shallow beach took over the role as main harbour. Nowadays most buildings are just ruins and only a few people live in the stone houses above the small quay.

We told the driver that we wanted to see more of the northcoast and the journey took us back to Ribeira Brava, where some more passengers joined us on the wooden benches in the back of the truck. We went again up through the mountains but towards the west the land gets flatter and when we finally reached our destination—the village Belem—we were suprised to see that it consisted only of a few concrete shacks scattered in the wide grassland. We wandered around the village and were soon joined by freeroaming goats, dogs, but only a few children. We soon found that most of them were still sitting at school. We looked into the one big classroom and the kids were a lot more interested in us than in mathematics.

While the road from Tarrafal to Ribeira Brava is asphalted and in good shape the rest of the road system still consists of the old, cobbled roads built during colonial times and meant to be used by pedestrians and donkeys. On the way back we vowed that on the next trip we would bring jackets, but also cushions…

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