Soul of Africa

Rob Crossan heads into the unknown to explore one of Africa's smallest countries - a place that might be transformed by the discovery of oil
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The Independent Travel

The hospital is full of pigs. The jittery patter of trotters echoes around the marble floor of the operating theatre. A mother hen scurries past the door of the imposing entrance hall, a score of chicks forming a haphazard line behind her. On the first-floor balcony two children bait each other with sticks, diving through empty window frames with ear-piercing yelps. This hospital was once the second largest in São Tomé. Now, like almost all of the ornate colonial buildings built by the Portuguese during their long and often brutal reign of this tiny equatorial island, it lies forlorn and long abandoned - a playground for children and a nest for animals.

The hospital is full of pigs. The jittery patter of trotters echoes around the marble floor of the operating theatre. A mother hen scurries past the door of the imposing entrance hall, a score of chicks forming a haphazard line behind her. On the first-floor balcony two children bait each other with sticks, diving through empty window frames with ear-piercing yelps. This hospital was once the second largest in São Tomé. Now, like almost all of the ornate colonial buildings built by the Portuguese during their long and often brutal reign of this tiny equatorial island, it lies forlorn and long abandoned - a playground for children and a nest for animals.

"There's a lot of poverty here - but not much misery," says Luis, one half of the husband-and-wife team that make up Navetur - one of only two tour companies that comprise São Tomé's tourism industry. "The island has such incredible natural resources - you only have to walk 10 paces in the jungle and you'll be able to find enough bananas, custard apples and pineapples to fill you up. There isn't always a huge variety to most people's diets, but it's impossible to starve here."

Going hungry on São Tomé is one thing. Getting there in the first place is another, and goes some way to explaining why almost nobody has ever heard of São Tomé and its even smaller neighbouring island, Principe. Only one flight a week departs from Lisbon to the island's minuscule, weed-encrusted airport. When you combine this with the fact that, until recently, São Tomé was ruled by a Marxist government which deliberately isolated itself from all Western countries, it is hardly surprising to discover that the island attracted precisely 20 British tourists last year. Never mind heading off the tourist trail, for years most São Toméans weren't even aware that there was any kind of trail to start with.

São Tomé's obscurity is an obvious part of its charm. Take one of the innumerable battered yellow taxis that clatter around the peeling colonial buildings in the island's tiny capital on to the coast road or into the interior. It becomes apparent that this is a country that has yet to even begin to feel the weight of the tourist dollar. The silence is disquieting at first. It is rare, even in Africa, to be in a location where you can't hear the hum of electricity wires or the distant growl of traffic. Roads twist through staggeringly dense native bush which sporadically clears to make space for bijou fishing villages, all with the obligatory whitewashed Portuguese-built church. Local fisherman pray in these chapels before going out to sea. Judging by the mountains of fish that pour out of the nets when the men return each lunchtime, to a huge impromptu beach market, their prayers are unequivocally answered.

As the rest of the world continues to furrow its brow at the issues surrounding deforestation, São Tomé has the opposite problem. The soil and vegetation here increase at a rate that could only be described as rampant. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the remains of what was once the country's lifeblood - the magnificent coffee and coca plantations or rocas, the dilapidated ruins of which are strewn throughout the island.

As part of the embryonic eco-tourism industry, pioneered by Bibi and Navetur, visitors are now able to take tours to the colonial mansions, botanical gardens and farms of these former plantations. One of the largest is Agostinho Neto roca (named after the revolutionary who helped liberate fellow ex-Portuguese colony Angola). The dimensions of the place are astonishing and speak volumes for the hubris of the Portuguese imperialists who ruled this country until independence came in 1975.

A wide, regal paved boulevard runs to the distant plantation building which looks like a minor Inca fortress. This is where the families of former plantation workers now eke out an existence, living in the empty rooms and outhouses of this vast structure. Children and adults alike wander towards us, curious about why we are there. Requests for money and sweets are rare. Convivial attempts to cross the language barrier (the official language is Portuguese but many in more rural areas speak the Creole-influenced tongue of forro) are far more common.

Sitting down to lunch in the sparse dining-room of the plantation owner's veranda, the fruits of São Tomé are spread before us. Breadfruit, fish, plantain, an incredible indigenous stew called calulu. The marinated fish and spices speak of a heritage stretching from Angola to Cape Verde, countries whose slaves were sent here by the Portuguese to work on the plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries in appalling conditions.

The visible state of dereliction of these beautiful rocas is a testament to the basket-case economy of São Tomé. Things, however, could be about to change drastically. Oil has been discovered off the coast, and the government is currently embroiled in lengthy and convoluted business dealings with Nigeria and the US to carve up the potentially mammoth windfall between them. São Tomé is awash with rumours, though there is an absence of a real gold-rush atmosphere. Luis explained this perhaps surprising reticence to me. "A lot of people are looking at other countries in Africa where there is oil, such as Angola, and are worried that our country is going to become as corrupt and unstable as them. We have already had one coup here." (There was a bloodless coup by the army that lasted less than a week in 2002). "A lot of people are uneducated here in São Tomé and many think that the discovery of oil means that they will be able to fill up their own oil drums every morning for free. The country desperately needs money but there are fears among many people that the oil is going to bring an influx of Americans, Nigerians and tourists to the island that we just cannot cope with at the moment."

It's conjecture right now as to whether São Tomé town's ramshackle charm is going to be gentrified by business hotels and Texans in stetsons in the next few years. Drinking a cup of the wonderful locally produced coffee on the steps of one of the island's decaying old buildings before heading for a solitary swim in the tepid still waters of one of the many lagoons and waterfall pools, it is hard to imagine that São Tomé will ever wake from its seemingly permanent state of slumber.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly to São Tomé on Air Luxor (0870 7505 747; www.airluxor.com) via Lisbon. Prices start at just over £500 return. Alternatively Air France (0845 359 1000; www.airfrance.co.uk) flies to Libreville in Gabon via Paris from regional airports in the UK. Air São Tomé e Principe (00 239 22 11 60) connects Libreville with São Tomé.

GETTING AROUND

Navetur (00 239 22 21 22; www.navetur-equatour.st) organises a variety of day trips and overnight stays in rocas and to all the other attractions of São Tomé. The company can also organise trips to Principe Island. A seven-day trip to São Tomé and Principe with flights from London, bed and breakfast accommodation and transfers costs €1,023(£730).

FURTHER INFORMATION

São Tomé and Principe Tourist Office (00 239 22 15 42; www.saotome.st)

Bradt has published an informative travel guide to Gabon, São Tomé and Principe (£13.95), by Sophie Warne.

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