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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Ilhéu das Rolas: The Equator Island of Sao Tome

The island lies on the Equator, off the southern tip of São Tomé Island, separated by Canal das Rolas

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: The charming island nation of Sao Tome and Principe is one of the few places in the world where the Equator passes.

The other 12 countries are Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia and Indonesia. In Maldives and Kiribati, it passes through their territorial waters.

Equator Island

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In Sao Tome, the Equator runs right through the Islet of Ilhéu das Rolas, located a few miles from its southern tip, before proceeding eastward to the continent of Africa. Also known as ‘Equator Island’ or the ‘Island of Turtledoves’, it is located at an elevation of over 300 feet above sea level.

The Portuguese cartographer proved this, and navigator Gago Coutinho visited São Tomé somewhere between 1915 to 1918. During his scientific expedition to map the island, he proved that latitude zero indeed crossed Ilhéu das Rolas instead of passing between the islet and São Tomé, as had been previously supposed.

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The island is just two square kilometres and is a mere 6 degrees longitude of the Prime Meridian line. It is also the nearest land mass to the coordinates 00N 00E.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The main symbolic attraction of the island is a small monument erected in 1936 that marks the geodesic point on the Equator. A beautiful marker in the form of a stone structure and a tile mosaic map of the world on the ground underneath the monument signifies the location of the equatorial line crossing. Between April and August, the monument’s shadow points South West, implying the sun is several degrees North.

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I experienced the sensation of being at the centre of the earth while standing on the imaginary line 0, with one foot in the Northern and the other in the Southern hemisphere. A body’s weight is said to be reduced by less than a kilo on the northern side due to the gravitational inflexion at that location. I didn’t have a way to check this.

From a purely geologically standpoint, Sao Tomeans are proud of their geothermal heritage and consider their country the centre of the world. But living in this acutely insulated, albeit beautiful, island nation, I could hardly feel that centrality in a broader sense. 

Typical of all the places touched by the Equator elsewhere, locals say that, here too, both sunrises and sunsets happen in a matter of minutes. 

Apart from the thrill of standing in different hemispheres, a belvedere provides stunning and panoramic 360-degree views of the Lama-Porco and Francisco volcanic peaks, surrounding pristine beaches, fishing villages and the lush Sao Tome island at a near distance.

A lighthouse on the islet, built in 1929 and measuring 100 feet, serves as a vantage viewing point for passing vessels and, occasionally, dolphins. The Pestana Equador resort on the island is a monopolistic business entity and, therefore, the largest employer.

This satellite resort islet is populated by less than 150 residents whose lives are linked to foreign tourists. Some, though, depend on subsistence farming and fishing. 

The only way to reach this islet is through a ferry from the fishing village of Port Alegre on the southernmost tip of mainland Sao Tome. The ride is just 20 minutes and is best remembered for the magical views of the mighty Atlantic, the cool volcanic cones at a distance and sandy, windswept beaches awaiting the destination. 

Although its distance to land might be near, the short boat ride is an adventure. The 20-minute boat ride feels longer and sometimes risky due to massive, deep waves, especially when the sea gets choppy, challenging the rickety canoes. These waters are sometimes home to humpback whales which circle the island between July and October. 

A popular walking trail in the village leads to a lush green forest that holds the equator point, a botanical garden, a fishing village, a banana plantation and rows of almond tree clusters. 

As a rare geological landmark, the journey to this centre of the world has become a mandatory stop for most visitors. At least, its symbolism is undoubtedly an instagrammable place to be.

Also Read: The Stunning Blue Lagoon of Sao Tome


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