28 August 2010 - The Daily Mail - Jenny Coad
Bounding across the bleak desert in a truck with heavy metal music blaring from the cabin is not quite how I imagined a holiday in Cape Verde. That the band is called Cradle of Filth doesn't immediately endear me to these curious islands off the west coast of Africa that have been dubbed the new Caribbean. But after a day exploring the island of Boa Vista, I realise that the searing beaches could give Barbados a run for its money and that almost everyone drives macho trucks with blacked out windows and fur-lined dashboards.
Our heavy metal-loving driver is called Dada. He's a sociable chap and is quick to tell us that we have chosen the wrong itinerary. My sister Felicity and I are spending four nights here and three on Sal, which have similarly stark climates. There are ten islands in this archipelago sitting in the middle of the Atlantic, hundreds of miles west of Senegal. The more northerly Santo Antao and Sao Vicente, for example, are verdant with lush, fertile landscape, without the awesome beaches, but with mountains, canyons and ravines instead.
The Parque Das Dunas hotel on Boa Vista is deserted, save for a couple of Italians, us and our new equally bewildered friends from Norwich. But we are perfectly placed for the beach, which stretches long into the distance in both directions. Looking north, our view is broken by a red brick funnel, the remains of what used to be a brick-making factory. The heavy machinery is still in place, half-buried by the encroaching dunes.
Half-finished and in some cases simply abandoned buildings are something of a theme.
Not so the cars, which gleam. Dada seems to know most people on the island (the population is only 6,000) and waves at everyone we pass on our tour of the interior and west and south coasts.
There are thousands of holidaymakers on the island - 70,000 British arrive each year - but we see few of them around and about.
The large hotels cater for package tourists and provide every amenity imaginable to keep customers happy and in situ. This is a shame because the viewing spots range between the starkly beautiful to the unusual. Rabil, the old capital of Boa Vista, overlooks an expanse of island and tired palm trees on one side, the town's rubbish dump on the other. Children kick about an empty water bottle in the street and ask us for 'agua'. Fresh water is scarce. There's a de-salination plant and water is transported by road to the smaller villages. The goats settle for the well. The interior is sparse with reddish earth, scrub and twisters whipping up a fuss. We rock about in the back, getting coated in orange dust (which takes three showers to shake off) through softly coloured landscape. A huddle of palm trees signifies the island oasis. It's a plot of land where maize and courgettes are teased into life and a cattle market is in full swing.
But the real relief comes with the sea. We pass a ruined fishing village, emptied 70 years ago, and crunch across coral before reaching the shore. Waves crash and roll on to empty sand. It's bleached a blistering white - after all, these islands are a marine extension of the Sahara desert battered by wind, wave and sand.
Further south, the loggerhead turtles nest. Such is their importance, they are guarded by a uniformed army who patrol the beaches by night. They used to be killed for meat. Fishing is a traditional craft, the mainstay of a good meal and the life and soul of the capital Sal Rei. On a morning visit there, we watch brilliantly clad women chatting over buckets full of fish. It's a welcome splash of colour in an otherwise rubbly and unloved town. There aren't many tourist attractions, but there is a tiny museum with a relaxed policy towards the island's treasures. You can touch or pick up whatever you fancy.
Santa Maria beach, a short drive away, is an off-road trip and well worth the jarring journey. The beach is blinding. The rocks are sharp and the sea splashes and froths against the black, rusting ribs of a ship wrecked here in the Sixties. Except for the crabs, there is no one else on the beach. The coastline is littered with similar carcasses. The rock contains iron ore, which sends ship's compasses spinning and leaves them stranded on coral frustratingly close to land. Much of the diving off the island takes in the wrecks.
Watersports are more established on Sal, the island of salt and the second element to our trip. It's only an 11-minute flight from Boa Vista, but you can't see one from the other. Despite Dada's disapproval, we find Sal a pleasing contrast. It has several wonderful ice cream parlours for a start. Sal was the first Cape Verdian island to have an airport and during World War II, Mussolini was granted landing rights. Some Italians stayed, so authentic pizza and ice cream are easy to come by, particularly in Santa Maria, the attractive beachside town where we are staying. Most of Sal's 25,000-strong population live here or in Espargus, the capital.
Like Boa Vista, the island is dry and undergoing development. But there is more life on the beach and far more people in our hotel, the Morabeza. The jetty throngs with tourists and fisherman, and the sand is a platform for islanders practising back-flips and somersaults. Pretty boats bob on the water and jetskis skid out among them.
Sal is better set up for socialising. The Morabeza has an excellent bar with punchy caipirinhas in happy hour. It's smart casual and the British guests - a tribe of teenage girls en famille - are scrubbed up and rosy for the occasion. A short walk away are enough restaurants and bars to satisfy anyone fed up with a fish diet. Unlike Boa Vista, where wildlife is a draw, on Sal it's nonexistent. Exploring the island, our guide tells us we're on a 'Sal-fari' where you are guaranteed to see no animals - not even a snake. The only things to survive quite happily here are tennis ball-sized yellow melons. And the dogs.
Sal used to produce salt - 13,000 tonnes a year in the mid-1900s. Pedra De Lume, a 19th-century refinery, remains open only for tourists. The mine equipment is rusting gracefully and you can float peacefully in the salty and somewhat smelly lake.
Tourism is big business on both islands and Cape Verdeans welcome visitors with open arms. As Dada tells us: 'Before, we had nothing to do.' The British journalist Archibald Lyall noted the same problem when he wrote of Santa Maria in 1936: 'There is no vegetation and nothing to do but steel oneself against the unceasing wind which blows the sand into food and throat and clothes.
'At night, when the red-eyed people retire to their shuttered, oil-lit houses, the great white crabs come out of the sea and march through the streets like a regiment of soldiers.'
I see no crabs patrolling the streets - but they continue to man the beaches. The islands of Sal and Boa Vista are developing apace. Let's hope they can do so without compromising their natural attraction.
Travel FactsCape Verde Experience has seven nights B&B at the Parque das Dunas Hotel in Boa Vista from £699 pp. Seven nights at the Hotel Morabeza on Sal (with breakfast and three evening meals) starts from £918pp. Prices include flights, taxes (including visas) and transfers. There is a choice of island-hopping itineraries (0845 330 2071, www.capeverdeexperience.co.uk).
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