Sao Tome, a tiny dot in the Atlantic


Publishing: February 4th 2024

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Chocolate podsChocolate podsChocolate pods

Today few have heard of Sao Tome, a tiny island country off the West African Coast but a hundred years ago rich Europeans would have associated it with just one thing – chocolate. This is where all the big manufacturers of the time, including Cadburys, Rowntree and Nestle, bought their beans.

Sao Tome feels part African and part Caribbean, there is even Bob Marley playing in the bars. Every beer is served with banana crisps, every restaurant serves fresh fish accompanied by fried plantain, sweet potato and ‘long beans’.

There are beaches on all sides. Sao Tome town has yellow sand but on the west side of the island, facing the Atlantic, the beaches are rocky and the sand is fine black basalt. Out at sea ridiculously flimsy one-man boats, some with sack cloth sails and outriggers, are fishing for their dinner. The fishermen, too, look part Caribbean and part African, hardly surprising as this is where many Caribbeans came from. Portuguese slave ships used Sao Tome as a stop-off, before taking their chained human cargo across the Atlantic.

The main fort in Sao Tome town, indeed on the whole island, was

Ruined 1928 roca hospitalRuined 1928 roca hospitalRuined 1928 roca hospital

built by the Portuguese to protect themselves from Dutch pirates. It is now the National Museum and we are lucky enough to be guided round by a young lady who not only brought the island’s to life but was also happy to give her views on the shortcomings of the current people in power. Sao Tome is one of the least developed countries in the world and one of the poorest too.

Sao Tome and Principe gained independence in 1975, at which time there were still over 100 active cocoa plantations, or ‘roca’, each with its own workers’ housing, church, hospital, manufacturing sheds, acres of drying racks and a grand mansion for the Portuguese owner and his family. The largest rocas were really small towns with populations of over 8,000 people but, just 50 years later, every roca is virtually derelict; roofs of the once grand mansions have fallen in, clock towers have lost their clocks. Walking around this mix of faded grandeur and poverty is very strange; dusty paths lead to wide cobbled roads to nowhere, overgrown railway tracks disappear into the sides of warehouses that are now homes. Sao Tomeans have moved into the crumbling

Today's catchToday's catchToday’s catch

buildings and now live by foraging, fishing and a little subsistence farming on what was once the plantation.

A few small roca are back in production, growing high-quality, ‘artisan’ cocoa for chocolate made on the island. We are taken around a small cocao plantation run by Sao Tomeans and they explain the process ‘from bean to bar’. They tell us the cocoa varieties they grow are less productive but the cocoa tastes better. We try two single variety chocolates, both melt in the mouth, both are truly wonderful. We buy more bars to continue testing back on our cabin verandah, over looking the sea. You can never do too much research.

Our cabin on the west coast at Mucumbli has been built in an old plantation. The gardens are full of coffee, cocoa and banana plants amongst which flowering tropical bushes have been planted. There are little lizards everywhere and small birds flit about, just out if sight. Our favourite bird, the pretty African cordon bleu, is happy to be seen and impatiently watches for us to finish eating breakfast so that he can start on our spare toast. Always overhead are black kites

Our cabin above the wavesOur cabin above the wavesOur cabin above the waves

riding the thermals along the sea’s edge; we can’t work out what they eat as they seem to be forever soaring.

We explore the west coast in an ancient Honda HR-V rental car. The odometer shows that it has driven over 300,000km on an island where nowhere is more than 70km from the capital. It does have an interesting hollow ‘clang’ coming from somewhere underneath every time we hit a bump, which is all the time on Sao Tome’s pot holed roads. After three days, a driver comes to swap the Honda for the Suzuki Jimmy that we had booked – much newer with just 102,000km on the clock.

We drive on to Sao Tome’s east coast, a succession of black basalt cliffs and headlands between which are bays of golden sand backed by palms and mango trees. Our new cabin is a wooden framed glass box, precariously hanging off one of those cliffs. Below us and to every side the Atlantic crashes against rocks; all the glass walls slide open and the only sounds are wind and sea. When a storm passes we’re not quite sure whether we are on land or at

Wash dayWash dayWash day


The interior of the island is mountainous and a large area is now protected by a national park. Around its edges in the misty hills we find lots of agriculture – from weird gourds to boring carrots. Many rivers flow down from the mountains and whenever we cross a river bridge there are always lots of people around. Above and below the bridge, the river is full of ladies doing their laundry which is then left on rocks, in trees or even on the hot road to dry. The amount of laundry being done is staggering. Men sit on their motorcycles and watch; they don’t even assist in getting the clean laundry home, the ladies carry it in bowls on their heads.

We leave the beautiful island of Sao Tome having had a wonderful, rather hot, couple of weeks here. The island has a fascinating history and a few lovely new ecolodges bode well for the future.

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