SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: The lonely and beautiful island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, located off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, has been named one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots.
The stark insularity of these islands has enabled the evolution of endemic species to thrive, creating unique species of flora and fauna. They also have a variety of animals that people have unintentionally or purposely introduced. Several species have become the focus of scientific investigation and conservation efforts due to their high endemism.
Out of over 850 species of plants, 140 are classified endemic. The fascination and the unrelenting focus on forest conservation by international researchers led to the creation of the Ôbo National Park (Parque Natural Ôbo) in 2006. The park is located about 3 hours away from the city centre.
Bom Sucesso’s botanical garden serves as the entrance to the Obô National Park. While a lot has been published about Obo National Park, the herbarium has mostly been overlooked.
My visit to the herbarium was eye-opening. A surprising diversity of wild herbs, unusual plants, and exotic flowers abound in the herbal forest. The park guide gave me an impromptu botany course as we walked the two kilometers towards Obo National Park. According to her, the herbarium is home to over a thousand plant species, including indigenous species.
I could smell the strong perfume of the wildflowers as I strolled through the floral wonderland, particularly the red-orange rose, spurs, and giant begonia. However, the bright Porcelain Rose was the most appealing flower (Etlingera Elatior).
According to the guide, the Porcelain Rose, like the ginger, belonged to the Zingiberaceae family. I discovered six-foot-tall Porcelain Rose plants flourishing exuberantly over the herbarium as we navigated the dense undergrowth.
Long, bright green leaves are supported by robust stems securely fixed to the ground, making it a unique plant. According to the book, the conical-shaped flower acquires an orange-red color with yellow borders as it grows, and when it opens, it erupts into beautiful pink petals.
Only sunny open terraced environments with plenty of sunlight and water are suitable for growing the plant. The Porcelain Rose is the official flower of the Republic of So Tomé and Principe, and it represents the unusual aspect of the interesting twin islands.
However, this bloom is not unique to this region; I believe it also thrives in regions of Indonesia, where the plant’s stem is used in local cuisine. Purifying, antibacterial, antifungal, and deodorant characteristics make it popular in local traditional pharmacopeia.
The guide immediately identified 17 types of Orchids among the 129 species that thrive on the islands.
During the peak summer months of June to August, the entire herbal garden put on a dazzling show of vibrant and intensely coloured blooms.
I spotted a few run-down houses with residents caring for their vegetable gardens.
The forest’s serenity was only broken by the occasional calls of birds and insects and our own footsteps as we inspected the foliage, as there were no businesses or tourists in sight.
It took us around 2 hours to walk from the herbarium to Obo National Park. This iconic park is magnificent in and of itself.
The lush green woods, mangroves, and Savannah grasslands cover an area of around 235 square kilometres, accounting for about 30% of the island’s total area.
As we progressed farther into the park, we came across numerous waterfalls, the pristine waters that could be seen pouring down the mountain slopes to the beaches.
The Bom Sucesso, the island’s highest natural mountain, was only a few metres away, overlooking the lovely settlement of Bombay.
The Pico Co Grande (Great Dog Peak), a towering needle-shaped volcanic peak, was probably the trip’s highlight.
This extinct volcanic mountain, which reaches a height of over 663 metres and is surrounded by lush green forest, rises like an urban skyscraper.
Scientists and researchers have been drawn to the lush area surrounding the volcanic peak because of the high concentration of indigenous species. This location is also a birdwatcher’s heaven, with over 100 distinct kinds of unique orchids and 600 varieties of plants.
The trip to Obo National Park was both enjoyable and energising.
The park is undoubtedly one of Sao Tome’s jewels, and it must be appreciated, treasured, and preserved.