The Cape Escape: Discovering the volcanic islands of Cabo Verde
by Roger Lean-Vercoe
Off the northwest coast of Africa, the volcanic archipelago of Cape Verde could easily be overlooked as just a stop-off before an Atlantic crossing. But, says Cape crusader Roger Lean-Vercoe, it’s worth lingering a little longer
“How inappropriate to call this planet ‘Earth’, when it is clearly ‘Ocean’,” undersea explorer and author Arthur C Clarke once said. There are few destinations in the world that resemble this sentiment more clearly than the 10 volcanic islands of the Cape Verde (or, more correctly, Cabo Verde) archipelago. Their position, secluded 350 miles off the African coast within the winter trade winds, sees windsurfers and kitesurfers flock to the nation’s azure waters.
It is also the ocean, or more correctly the plight of the world’s oceans, that has brought me to the rocky island of São Vicente. Its harbour is to be the starting point for an Atlantic crossing on a chartered Volvo 70 for the Mirpuri Foundation. The voyage of the Foundation’s prospective entry in the 2020 Volvo Ocean Race is aimed at publicising the poor state of our oceans. “To be on board a racing yacht – small and fragile when compared to the vastness of the ocean – helps us to become aware that it is truly possible to fulfil our dream of making this world better for future generations,” says skipper Paulo Mirpuri.
Like the Mirpuri Foundation’s crossing, Cabo Verde is also a destination of extraordinary contradictions. Lying some 1,000 miles north of the equator, its islands offer a stunning range of scenery from barren moonscapes to lush, fertile mountains. The heart of boating activities on the islands is Porto Grande Bay. Overlooked by bare rugged mountains, its turquoise waters are dotted with ships and yachts of all sizes. Back in the 15th century, this haven was a magnet or the Portuguese who, in 1460, used this then-uninhabited archipelago for their ongoing voyages of discovery. Almost three centuries later, in the era of steamships, this safe harbour served as a coaling station and eventually became the settlement of Mindelo, which has since grown into an attractive town with some fine colonial buildings. As steam was replaced by diesel the port fell into severe decline but its later reincarnation as a terminal for submarine cables, and more latterly as a tourist destination, has returned it to limited wealth.
Yachting interest is focused in the smart new marina complete with 150 berhts, whose floating jetties reach out into the harbour from a beautifully restored pier. Just 10 years ago this had been a disused coaling facility. High season is November an December, when the annual migration to the Caribbean is in full swing. But in January, when I visit, only 50 or so berths are filled by latecomers and those who have chosen to winter here. I soon discover the latter option is not a bad choice in view of the blissful winter climate and untapped cruising potential of these scenic islands.
During my initial wander through the streets of this recently created yachting hub, I am struck by the cleanliness of the town. House-proud locals keep the colourful streets tidy and attractively decorated, and I am always greeted with a friendly smile. I stroll past a proliferation of cafés, clubs, restaurants and bars, many advertising live music, while vegetable, meat and souvenir markets are bustling with shoppers. The waterfront, littered with colourful wooden fishing boats is overlooked by a replica of Lisbon’s Belem Tower and has a fish market at its centre.
While Mindelo is charming you only start to get a sense of the diversity of São Vicente by venturing further afield. Setting out with a local guide I first visit São Pedro, the island’s boatbuilding village, set in a sand-fringed bay on the southwest coast. Sheltered from Atlantic swells, it’s ideal for windsurfing, diving and other watersports. Here, craftsmen build small wooden boats in the dusty village streets, surrounded by washing lines and ongoing village life. Despite a minimum of tools, their products are well-constructed, seaworthy craft.
With 95 per cent of the population concentrated in Mindelo, the arid inland areas to the west of the island are sparsely populated. There are few signs of agriculture until we approach Topim, where small farms dot the valley floor. Topim is a “would be” town occupied by a few active fishermen, while several European holiday home developments and a small restaurant ring the beautiful coastline. Heading north west, the mountain-fringed coastal road takes us to Baia das Gatas (the Bay of Cats) – where the long sweep of the sandy beach is hammered by seas driven onshore by the northeast trades. At its northern extremity is the town of the same name, renowned on the island for its annual carnival in February and summer music festival in August.
Wherever you go on the island the 750 metre peak of Monte Verde – the Green Mountain – is always in sight and is readily accessible by a road as well as several hiking paths. It is a long climb flanked by sheer drops, sparse fields of maize and the occasional vegetable garden, but I am rewarded with stunning 360 degree views of São Vicente and the neighbouring islands of Santo Antão and Santa Luzia.
After a day of exploring, the floating bar at Mindelo Marina seems the ideal place for a sundowner shared with Lutz Meyer-Scheel, the marina owner and visionary behind its construction. The conversation soon gets round to yachting, and the archipelago’s cruising possibilities. “A yacht is the best mode of transport for sightseeing,” he says. “While there are few safe harbours other than Mindelo, all the main islands in both the northern (Barlovento) and southern (Sotavento) group have anchorages that are tenable in the right weather.”
Mindelo may be the undeniable hub for yachtsmen but it is its location as well as its facilities that attract passing vessels. “It lies at the centre of the most beautiful and interesting islands to visit,” adds Meyer-Scheel.
One of the most easily accessible islands is Santa Luzia, which is just a short stretch across the water to the south east. The smallest of the islands in the archipelago, it has a barren and rugged coast to the north while the south has rippling dunes and pale yellow sandy beaches. There was previously a small community that raised livestock on the island but since the 1990s only a handful of adventurous tourists visit its otherworldly landscapes.
Just a further 15 nautical miles on, the pretty island of São Nicolau has an entirely different feel with fertile mountains, colonial style painted houses and black sand beaches. Follow the lead of the locals and bury yourself under the dark grains that contain titanium and iodine, which supposedly bring relief to joint diseases and rheumatism. Alternatively, the landscapes are ideal for exploring by horseback – look out for the indigenous blue-green flat topped dragon tree Dracaena draco.
The delights of this enchanting archipelago reach further than the islands closest to Mindelo. Just over 120 nautical miles to the south of Mindelo lie the Sotavento Islands, also known as the Leeward Islands, which are equally diverse. Visit the Island of Flowers, officially known as Brava, which just after the rainy season is carpeted with flora including vibrant oleander bushes, colourful hibiscus and fuchsia bougainvillea. It is thought that Brava was once part of the neighbouring island of Fogo, which lies just 10 nautical miles across a channel that is only a couple of hundred metres deep.
The Sotavento Islands are also home to Santiago. The largest island in the archipelago, it is the seat of the country’s government and offers another safe port. Two volcanic mountain ranges dominate the island, which is now home to more than half of Cape Verdeans. As well as its mountainous landscape it has fine sandy beaches and a kapok tree that is thought to be more than 500 years old. Directly to Santiago’s east lies Maio. Low and dry it is a haven for birds and turtles, and also provides some of the best diving in Cabo Verde.
While I don’t have time to visit all that this diverse archipelago has to offer, MeyerScheel is adamant that I should make the crossing to Santo Antão, which lies directly the countryside seems to replicate São Vicente’s scrubland but as we climb the scenic Rua de Corda into the mountains it becomes steadily greener – occasional trees became whole groves of acacia, eucalyptus, fig and then pine forests. Suddenly the most amazing panorama opens across the north of the island with razorback ridges, steep green valleys and volcanic cones stretching beneath me as far as the distant sea. Onwards, the road continues through spectacular scenery, edging a dormant volcanic caldera to bring me to the goat’s cheese-making centre of Corda village. Despite having plentiful water and thriving agriculture, this island remains one of the poorest of the archipelago. However, as was exemplified in a village without electricity or household water, its people lack neither dignity nor happiness. Wide-eyed at the scenery, I eventually reach the coast and divert up the lush Ribeira Grande valley, where crops of bananas, plantains and maize flourish.
Returning to São Vicente, I am swept up in the departure of the Mirpuri Foundation’s Volvo 70 as its skipper prepares the yacht for its crossing to Barbados. Most departures from Mindelo are quiet affairs but today’s embodies the true spirit of Cape Verdean carnival, enlivened by a Brazilian-style drum band, scantily clad dancers and soulful morna music. No wonder the crew seem reluctant to leave – these islands of such remarkable contrast are worthy of a much longer visit.