The Salt Mine at Pedra de Lume
Matt Smith has vivid memories of the moonscape appearance of the salt mine located in Sal's parched centre, a stark contrast to the stunning beaches found throughout the islands.
Matt Smith journeys to the salt flats at Pedra da Lume on the Cape Verdean Island of Sal and wonders at the future of the island.
Sal is an odd prospect as a tourist destination. On the face of it, it is a dry husk of an island; a floating desert created by the same weather patterns that scoured the Sahara out of mainland Africa. Yet, of course, its edges are blessed with some genuinely jaw-dropping beaches – arguably among the finest in the world. And these beaches are the reason, despite a still creaking infrastructure that the island has become so popular, and so quickly. To me though, it’s the arid centre that provides the real allure...
The parched interior of Sal summons up extra-planetary descriptions: moonscape, Martian. After a couple of hours of flying across the yawning mass of the Atlantic Ocean, the very rawness of Sal’s scorched low blown surface is a shock - all low hills sculpted by parched gullies with the occasional tufting of acacias, gnarled and crouched, safely out of reach of the winds. Starved of stimuli, the eyes invent content: birds appear on the periphery - black against the smoky sky - disappearing at a turn of the head, lush coppices fill the horizon only to vanish with eye contact, phantoms created by a brain bewitched by so much emptiness.
Sal got its name from its only product, salt, which used to be exported by the ton out to Brazil and the west coast of Africa - Senegal, the Belgian Congo. At Pedra de Lume, within the cragged walls of the remains of an extinct volcanic crater, lies the rotting evidence of this once burgeoning industry - a skeletal but still semi-functioning salt mine.
The journey to the mine took us through Espargos, Sal’s capital, which looked a little forlorn under a sheet-grey sky, and the people gazing at us from open doorways seemed lost for something to do. The road out was rutted and uneven, the land falling away to the coast; we saw the occasional goat pawing at the drifting topsoil. Pedra de Lume village itself was unremarkable – a small settlement at the foot of the crater, a remnant of headier times. At the edges of the village stood the first of a long line of wooden mine workings: like ancient torture devices these creaking engineering marvels stretched up the slope of the volcano, inside of which lay the fabled salt lake. In the early to mid twentieth century this pulley-driven system was able to transport up to 25 tons of salt per hour, but due to falling demand this had all but ceased by 1985. Now despite a drive to get the process moving again, these strange constructions stand dry and useless, coated in a fine layer of salt and sand, moaning in the damp sea wind.
The inside of the crater itself is a remarkable prospect. You climb the outside of the volcano and enter through a narrow tunnel, the land dropping sharply away before shelving onto a wide plateau segmented into artificial salt paddies. From afar the whole thing looks almost achromatic but as you get closer extraordinary ranges of colour become apparent from deep blues to incandescent reds and pinks. There is also a stark difference in the levels of water, which in places - noticeably the lake in the centre of the crater - is black and unfathomable, in others almost altogether absent, the ground a hard crust of crystallising salt. It is thought that the water here comes from deep in the earth as opposed to infiltrating laterally from the ocean, and from stepping into the crater lake this is wholly believable as beyond knee deep the water becomes bath-warm, the rapidly disappearing lake floor like a bed of hot coals; and because of its huge salt content, up to 40 times more than the nearby ocean, the buoyancy of the water is remarkable, forcing you to simply lie back and be borne aloft, gazing at the sky.
Afloat on this salt lake, miles from anywhere, it is impossible not to feel cut off and isolated - both in the sense of being adrift in the middle of an extinct volcano some 500km away from the nearest landmass, but also distanced from the colonial centres of Praia and Mindelo. As the last of the Cape Verde Islands to be inhabited, and only then purely because of its salt industry, Sal could (and probably would) have been a forgotten place. From here, afloat and sun-drunk, it does feel a little like that. And yet, because of the international airport and its relative proximity to Europe - and of course its dazzling beaches and renowned accommodation - Sal is slowly coming to life and becoming a vital hub for Cape Verde’s mushrooming tourism industry. There is talk of the village at Pedra de Lume being turned into a golf resort – which sounds bonkers when you look at it, but is yet more evidence of Sal’s likely future. Here’s hoping that future is well thought out and well managed – these curious corners of the earth are worth preserving.
If any more evidence of this recasting as a playground for the rich of Europe was needed outside the massive and still growing construction industry on Sal (Praimar is like a ghost town in reverse with the sound of car engines and footfalls a future memory on its as yet unbuilt streets) and the ubiquitous cranes and the distant rumble of heavy machinery, the very fact that Pedra de Lume is currently being redeveloped as a golf resort is a stark pointer to Sal’s probable evolution.
From here, the vantage point of a year later, Sal - like the rest of the Cape Verde islands to a large degree - still feels like a bit of a secret. The beaches are one thing for sure, but that obscure corner with its hidden flashes of colour and endof- the-world feel has become one of those indelible memories that only travel provides.