In Principe, the leaves are on the move. Almost every road on this island has been carved out of the jungle, and the jungle seems eager to reclaim the lost ground.
Trees and brush and vines press relentlessly against the dirt edges of the roads, their leaves pushing towards the road like dogs straining at a leash.
They quiver as a tropical breeze plays over them: the flat plates of banana trees and the fringed fronds of the jacaranda, latticed leaves and leaves that resemble propellers, shield-shaped leaves and heart-shaped leaves. There are leaves that grow from branches and leaves that sprout epiphytically from trunks; there are leafy vines that slither along the ground or drape like a veil from high branches or clamber their way eagerly up a tree trunk. There are leaves that can be pressed against your skin to leave a silvery tattoo, and leaves that will help treat malaria.
This is no ordinary jungle. The island of Principe – half of the West African nation of Sao Tome and Principe – is a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve, a place where vividly coloured kingfishers and raucous African parrots flit through the trees while turtles nest on the pristine beaches. Its natural landscapes are the major selling point for a country trying to kickstart a tourism industry. Its major drawback? That would be the fact that few people have ever heard of Sao Tome and Principe, let alone know where it is.
Fresh seafood is always on the menu in Principe.
Paradoxically, however, that drawback may be precisely what draws a particular breed of traveller. Well-heeled voyagers who have been there, done that, will be intrigued at the idea of exploring a place that no one can locate on a map. These two compact islands floating off the coast of West Africa – 300 kilometres from Gabon, 200 kilometres from each other – constitute one of the world’s smallest countries, with a population of about 200,000, only 7000 of whom live on Principe. The islands were uninhabited until the 1500s, when the Portuguese began using them as a watering spot for their trans-Atlantic slave ships. They later farmed cacao, coffee and sugar here; today’s inhabitants are the descendants of the plantation workers.
The country gained independence in 1975 when a newly democratic Portugal divested itself of its colonies. (Portugal’s national carrier, TAP, is the only European airline to offer direct flights to Sao Tome.) For decades, nothing much happened in the tiny nation – until Mark Shuttleworth came along and decided that a sustainable tourism industry was the country’s best hope for escaping poverty.
THE FIRST RESORT
For most countries, luring tourists is a slow process that usually starts with a group of trailblazers. In the up-and-coming destination of Nicaragua, for instance, the first on the scene were the surfers who came for the towering waves found along the country’s Pacific coast. In time, they also discovered, and spread word of, the country’s other attractions, including soaring volcanoes and picturesque colonial towns. As visitor interest grew, so did investment in infrastructure such as hotels. Nicaragua is now steadily increasing its visitor count, although it still has a long way to before catching up with better-known Central American countries such as Costa Rica.
For Sao Tome and Principe, that process has been a lot more precipitate, thanks to South African billionaire Mark Shuttleworth. The software developer, who also became the first African in space when he bought passage on a Soyuz rocket, has dedicated himself to helping the country develop in a sustainable manner. After consulting experts in design, forestry and agriculture, he bought one of Sao Tome’s few existing hotels and has recently opened three others on Principe.
Shuttleworth has also created his own supply chain, which starts with gardens and orchards to grow the produce used in the hotels’ restaurants and spas, and stretches all the way to recycling facilities to deal with the waste, including a craft studio that makes jewellery from trash. Shuttleworth’s investment has been estimated at between $US95 million and $US135 million. One local tells me that eight of out 10 jobs on Principe are thanks to Shuttleworth.
Each of Shuttleworth’s hotels is different. The Sao Tome property, Omali Lodge, provides an overnight stop for guests before their onward flight. On Principe, Bom Bom Resort, flanked on either side by beaches, is the entry-level option, with rooms that are comfortable rather than luxurious. There is a more sumptuous feel at the restored manor house called Roca Sundy, the heart of the Sundy plantation. Sundy was once home to almost 600 workers and the layout, with village houses still opening onto the square in front of the main house, offers a window into the past.
The real draw, however, is the luxurious Praia Sundy, a group of elegant tented villas nestled into the forest overlooking the beach. During my stay, the only other guests are some well-to-do expatriates stationed in Africa enjoying a short break and a Portuguese couple escaping the winter.
Praia Sundy’s staff are excellent guides to the island. Daily activities include walks to waterfalls and hikes to nearby beaches, or you can join a boat trip and go beach hopping. The beaches are simply spectacular, their edges shaded by magnificent Indian almond trees and their sands washed by green waters so clear that when you swim out, you can see sea urchins on the ocean floor. The most remarkable thing about them, however, is that you are unlikely to ever encounter another person. We spend relaxing mornings picnicking on deserted shores, watching hawks skim low over the water and flying fish porpoising through the waves.
One morning we head out to the island’s sleepy bayside capital, Santo Antonio. A history of Principe in my room informs that around 1900, Santo Antonio consisted of seven streets lined with wooden shacks. It has grown since then, but not by much. The shopping options are limited to one poky outlet selling Chinese tat and a tiny market where a handful of people are selling goods, mainly second-hand clothes. There is also a lot of washing spread out on the road; apparently, the hot tarmac speeds up the drying process. The locals carefully drive around it.
Fresh-caught wahoo teamed with papaya and passionfruit.
LUNCH WITH A LOCAL
That is not to say that Santo Antonio doesn’t have its charms. Its gaily painted houses, done in licorice allsorts shades of pink and blue and green, may be decaying in the tropical climate, but they are doing so picturesquely. Only one building is exempt from the unkemptness: a chic dove grey bungalow with glossy white shutters. My guide tells me it belongs to the country’s president and is kept ready for visiting dignitaries. I ask him whether it gets a lot of use. He thinks for a moment.
“The president of Gabon came to visit,” he finally remembers. And thinks a bit more. “And the president of Cape Verde.”
One thing Santo Antonio does have is restaurants. Four, to be precise. Without any signage, they are indistinguishable from the neighbouring houses. Rosina’s restaurant, where we have lunch, is on the covered verandah of Rosina’s house, where she has set out a couple of plastic tables with assorted chairs. There is a view over Rosina’s neat garden across to the neighbouring house, where a car is rusting in the yard.
Just as Rosina doesn’t do signs, Rosina also doesn’t do menus. After we sit down, she sends out a succession of dishes. First to appear is a stew filled with potatoes and several kinds of meat. When we ask what it’s called, our grandmotherly host shrugs. “Doesn’t have a name,” she says. It’s something she’s just whipped up.
That is followed by octopus – a local delicacy – and a sensational fish fried with ginger. Less appetising is obobo, a rather flavourless mash made with cassava and manioc flour that is another local favourite. The piece de resistance, however, is a bowl heaped high with perfectly fluffy grains of white rice.
This is more than just a bowl of rice. It is a declaration of intent, a statement of ambition, a proclamation that this is one classy joint. Rice, you see, is a big deal in Principe. While the island is rich in tropical fruits, it is low on grains and cereals. Rice, originally brought in as part of foreign aid shipments, has become something of a fetish for the younger Principe residents, as one disapproving local tells me.
Principe is a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve.
“At first, they handed out rice for free, but then they began to charge for it,” he tells me. “I think it was a plot to get us addicted.” He has no patience with locals who complain about the cost of rice. “We have so many other things to eat; all you have to do is go out into the forest.”
THE FORAGING CHEF
Much of the forest’s bounty can be sampled at Praia Sundy, where Angelo Rosso, the resort’s launch chef, has put together an exquisite menu featuring everything from crab consomme with lemongrass and coconut to fish tartare with papaya and ginger. Although Rosso’s CV includes a stint at Heston Blumenthal’s world-famous Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, he says that working on Principe has transformed him as a chef. “There is not much here, so you need to be really creative to come up with something unique.”
Rosso admits he didn’t initially grasp just how big the challenge would be. “I knew I would have to rely on local ingredients, but when I went to the market, there were just five stalls, and all they had was tomato, carrots, cabbage.” He tried to set up an organic vegetable garden, only to find that in the tropical climate, fungus infestations ran rampant.
Ingredients weren’t the only challenge; other resources are also in short supply. “I can’t do anything that requires slow cooking,” he says. “Our gas comes from Gabon, and it’s very expensive.”
In the end, the forest came to the rescue. The islanders are practiced foragers, and Rosso has followed suit. Indicating a bowl of greens, he says, “I picked those in the morning on the way here”. Not long after he arrived, he spent several days wandering through the forest with a local, asking which plants were edible, and how they used them. “Some of the herbs were completely foreign to me, so I asked a lot of questions,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “If I really wasn’t sure, I made them eat it first.”
With shipments often not arriving as scheduled, Rosso has learnt to make everything he can inhouse. That includes not just simple things like preserves and bread – he bakes three different types every day – but also kitchen essentials such as fish sauce and soy sauce. The ingredients for his soy sauce include red beans, roast barley and yeast. “It took me a long, long time, but I finally got a blend that I was happy with.”
Rosso also had to form his own kitchen brigade, training up locals with no experience. He learnt to keep things simple, replacing the lectures on cross-contamination with practical steps. “We have colour-coded our chopping boards: we use the red boards for fish, the blue boards for meat, the white boards for chicken,” he says.
THE KING OF CACAO
One of Rosso’s most memorable meals is his weekly cacao degustation, which includes a sophisticated cacao gnocchi and an addictive cacao and olive tapenade. Rosso uses only Principe cacao, which he tells me is among the purest in the world. He suggests that I should meet the producer, Claudio Corallo. That same day, I get a text from a chef friend who has seen my Instagram posts from Principe. “Have you met Claudio Corallo yet?” she asks eagerly.
Corallo’s cacao and chocolate, it turns out, have an international following, and while his Sao Tome factory offers regular tours, the man himself lives on Principe. One phone call confirms that Signor Corallo is up for a chat, so I head to the far end of the island for one of my most memorable encounters.
On an island where picturesque decay is an art form, Corallo’s old plantation house is a masterpiece. The exterior walls looks like Jackson Pollock dropped by armed with a palette of moulds, but the sparsely furnished interiors are spotless, and the building is immediately appealing. Corallo loves his house the way it is and has no time for government officials who have suggested turning it into a tourist attraction.
“They want me to restore the building,” he says, a look of disbelief on his face. “Can you imagine?”
Corallo, one suspects, has a fondness for the lost, the forgotten and the neglected. Having previously owned coffee plantations in Zaire, he came to Principe on a quest for buried treasure, in search of the cacao world’s equivalent of the missing link.
Cacao is part of Principe’s colonial history, initially planted by in 1819. The trees flourished and by 1900, Sao Tome and Principe had become the world’s largest producer of cacao.
By the time Corallo arrived on the island in the 1990s, however, cacao production had declined drastically. That was precisely what drew him here. “Everywhere in the world today, cacao is grown from new hybrids engineered to be productive,” he explains. “Only in Principe, which was small enough to be forgotten, can you still find the stock of original cacao plants.”
Finding them was difficult; Principe’s restless forest had already reclaimed many of the plantations. Corallo searched through the jungle to locate the surviving cacao plants, and then cleared the surrounding area to give the trees room to grow. He carefully tends the plants to produce the finest quality cacao – cacao that lacks the bitterness normally associated with the bean.
“Sixty per cent of the quality of the chocolate is already set before you start roasting the bean,” he says, explaining that everything from the pruning of the trees and the harvesting, right through to the fermentation process, affects the flavour. Corallo says his chocolate tastes good because his beans are good.
“Being a planter is a career,” he says proudly. “Just because I buy a plantation does not make a planter, just as buying a Formula One car doesn’t make me Schumacher.”