In 1988, shortly after we met, Cally and I took our first overseas trip together – to East Africa: Zimbabwe (before it collapsed economically), Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania including Zanzibar. The only reading matter I took was Lonely Planet's Africa on a Shoestring. Over the next 6 weeks I read it from cover to cover. My enduring memory of this is that it left me with a strange desire to pledge to one day visit the small, obscure country of Sao Tome e Principe. At the time the guide described it as a closed, Socialist state with difficult visa requirements, so few Westerners could visit. It also described it as being a lush tropical island, with extinct volcanoes and great beaches. A ''tropical paradise” with few tourists sounded too good to resist so Sao Tome e Principe was placed firmly on the ''Must Visit” list.
Over the years of child rearing, mortgage payments and little overseas travel, Sao Tome remained a distant, but one day to be realised, dream. Web searches revealed that the government was now a little more relaxed but it was still a place that rarely made people's itineraries.
For those still wondering, Sao Tome e Principe is Africa's smallest independent state. It is an island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. It is an ex-Portuguese colony. Sao Tome is the main island with Principe being much smaller. Here's a map.
The opportunity to visit finally came in 2011 when planning a 2-month trip to Southern and Western Africa. The plan was to go via Gabon, where there were flights to Sao Tome 2 or 3 times a week. We were also keen to visit Loango National Park in Southern Gabon where Lonely Planet had described surfing hippos. We used local travel companies in Gabon and Sao Tome to organise the trip. We planned to have a week in each country.
All started well. We flew from Johannesburg to Libreville (Gabon) and were met by a rep from the local travel agency who took us to our hotel.
Next day we flew to Gamba, the closet town to the park with an airport, and then transferred to the small village of Sette Cama which involved a hour and a half speed boat trip up the vast Ndogo Lagoon.
When we arrived there were 3 other guests – a young Spanish woman and her middle aged parents. They left after one night and we were it. Our ''host'' was Erik, an ex-Parisian bank manager who told us that one day, he was sitting in his office going slowly mad, and decided that he'd had enough. He walked out on his job, his wife and family, and sailed off in his small yacht heading south, eventually down the coast of West Africa. That was 10 years earlier and he'd now washed up in Gabon and was the newly appointed concierge of Sette Cama Lodge.
We spent several very pleasant days with Erik and his local staff (still no other guests), exploring the coast line, viewing the local wildlife (hippos, buffaloes, lots of birdlife, and the occasional rainforest elephant) and fishing for the most enormous fish we’d ever seen in the vast lagoon.
The most disturbing thing was the huge amounts of rubbish along the coast. Monumental amounts of flotsam and jetsam. We asked Erik about it and he said it came in from the Atlantic, especially when there were storms. The few local people that lived here had tried to clean it up but it kept coming, so they'd given up and now just scavenged the useful things (eg water containers, and thongs, lots of thongs ie flip flops).
Eventually our time was up and we readied to fly back to Libreville and then, finally, to mythical Sao Tome. Well, at least, that was the plan. As we sat waiting at the Gamba Airport for the plane to arrive from Libreville that would return us to there and our connection to the flight to Sao Tome, Erik explained to us that the plane was very unreliable. For example, recently a high-ranking minister had commandeered it for an impromptu family picnic and it had not come at all. This was not good news.
As things, would have it, Erik's tale was timely. The plane did eventually arrive – 6 hours late, and well after the 4 hour gap we had to meet our plane connection for Sao Tome. We never did find out where it had been.
The upshot of this was that we now had a 4 day wait for the next flight to Sao Tome. If the ever reliable CEIBA, airline of Equatorial Guinea, kept to their schedule (they were the only carrier from Gabon to Sao Tome with their twice weekly flights) we would now arrive on Friday afternoon, having to leave Monday morning to connect with flights for the next leg of our trip, which was to take us to Ghana via Gabon and Togo. So, after over 20 years of anticipation it was to be ''A Weekend in Sao Tome”. That would have to do.
We whiled away the 4 days in Libreville exploring the capital, seeking out air conditioning wherever we could find it (it's a sweaty place) and counting down the time until Friday's flight.
Eventually the big day arrived. Our Gabonese travel agent got us to the airport and safely through customs. I couldn’t believe that it was finally happening. Yes, CEIBA delivered. We left an hour late, but we flew to Sao Tome. After a couple hours the island appeared through the cloud of the aircraft window. It was a magical moment.
Upon landing we progressed to customs. If you've ever tried to get a visa for Sao Tome from Australia you will find that it's not an easy exercise. The visa for Gabon required sending our passports to the Gabonese Embassy in London (twice – the embassy cocked it up the first time), and a Sao Tomean visa is an additional degree of difficulty. However, because we'd used a local travel agent they'd said that they would arrange our visas and that they'd be there on arrival.
Sure enough a chap from the local travel agency was waiting for us at Arrivals. But all was not well. The problem was that the officious immigration officer was not happy with the paperwork that local agent provided so he confiscated our passports, though indicating that we could enter the country, just not with our treasured passports, which were to be stored in town at the Ministry of Immigration until they sorted out our visa issue.
As every traveller knows, rule #1 is never let your passport out of your sight. Here we were, finally in Sao Tome, but that magical moment I'd dreamed of for over 20 years was now overshadowed by the loss of our passports. The complicating thing was – it was 4pm Friday afternoon, the immigration officer had indicated that we would need to come to the Ministry on Monday at 9am to resolve things, but our flight back to Libreville left at 9am Monday.
The immigration officer then left so we headed to our hotel in the hope that they could help sort this out. We tried to explain to the hotel manager on duty the problem, and while she spoke some English she either didn’t understand the gravity of the problem or didn’t care (we suspect the second). A hotel employee listening in on our desperate plea for assistance did grasp the problem and spoke English. He offered to take us to the Ministry to try to fix things.
We raced into town. It was 4.50 pm as we left the hotel. As we pulled up in front of the government building that housed the Ministry a smartly dressed woman was closing the door behind her signifying – closed for the weekend. Our saviour knew her and she was the senior bureaucrat who we soon found out had taken possession of our passports. He convinced her that our cause was worthy of reopening the office. And to her credit she agreed. She summoned an underling who was told to find the passports and associated suspect visa paperwork. She took a cursory look at it all and gestured that all was well and we could have our passports back, with the needed visa stamps. There was no suggestion that a ‘monetary exchange’ was needed, simply that the airport official had been overly cautious.
We left all smiles. We could now relax and enjoy our weekend in Sao Tome.
After thanking our new friend profusely, we headed for a local restaurant that sold well chilled beers. It had a deck with a view of the jungle covered volcanic mountains and tropical beaches that I’d imagined all those years ago. It was the best tasting beer I’d ever had.
PS: We spent the next 3 nights and 2 days packing in as much as possible to our stay.
We did a trip to a bizarre plant covered volcanic lake and the nearby Sao Tome Botanical Gardens.
We cruised the main town, Sao Tome Town checking out the sights.
We went to the local market.
And we hired a car for a day to explore the western side of the island and spent some time at a local beach.
We didn’t get to Principe – that’ll have to be another day. But we did have a fantastic weekend on Sao Tome.