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Friday, June 14, 2024

The Island of Principe is Africa’s Eden

Discovered in 1471 by Portuguese explorers, Principe is an untouched ecological paradise of the world

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

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: The island of Principe is the smaller and more stunning of the two islands that make up the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe. Discovered in 1471 by Portuguese explorers, Principe is an untouched ecological paradise of the world.

As the vintage twin-prop 18-seat Dornier plane completed its ponderous descent, swaths of virgin woodland went by on either side, evoking scenes from the Jurassic Park film. I could see Principe’s magnificent white sandy beaches behind these immense expanses of green vegetation.

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I was taken aback by the place’s eerie silence when I landed. It was as if time and space had not intervened. The airport was quiet, as the few guests who arrived with me were shortly on their way to their resorts through pre-arranged transportation.

The tiny island is divided into two distinct segments from one. The northern section of the island has flat land, and it is home to 7000 people. The UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is located on the island’s southern tip.

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Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

A 10-kilometer asphalt road connects the airport to San Antonio, the island’s capital and lone settlement. San Antonio is a jumble of old government offices housed in charming colonial structures from the Portuguese era, age-stained colonial edifices, untidy utility shops, saloons, and modest wayside motels. There is a typical raucous market where residents sell their wares in an open area.

The Palhota River winds through the city, bisecting beachside streets as it weaves along the shore through palm gardens and filthy wetlands.

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Beyond the city centre, the tarred road meanders into several muddy trails leading to cute little houses and hamlets. The walk continues to the famed old plantations and the islet of Bom Bom, and then on to the sandy, gorgeous beaches.

The island is full of green vegetation, virgin forests, and old, neglected plantation areas. The best way to navigate is by using a four-wheel jeep, although a boat ride could be equally rewarding to appreciate the beauty of the shoreline, especially the areas that are hard to access by road.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

There are four expensive resorts on the island, and all of them are converted from colonial plantation building complexes. Santo Antonio offers some motels, but the island is dominated by plush resorts, which are so expensive that it deters tourists and backpackers who are on a medium budget.

So, in that sense, it can be said that Principe is not tourist-friendly because there are no budget accommodations available.

The Southern part of Principe is a unique world in itself. It is so remote and exclusive that the only tourists who come here are those who are driven by a keen interest in ecology and eco-tourism.

It captures the heart of every visiting tourist. Lofty mountain peaks and staggering rock towers, carpeted in dense tropical rainforest, can be seen from the city center. These virgin forests contain a wealth of rare and endemic species of flora and fauna.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The island is closeted by beautiful golden beaches fringed with elegantly tall palm trees lapped by the turquoise waters of the Atlantic.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The most famous beach on the island is Banana Beach, the luxurious Belo Monte Resort. This beach became famous after a Bacardi Rum commercial was shot there. The Bom Bom Isle is the island’s heart and major tourist hub. The other wonderful beaches are the Macaco, Grande, and Boi, which are exclusive areas for the spawning of rare turtles.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

It is a magical sight to see some of the most impressive verdant volcanic peaks of the island, all arranged orderly. The Mountain Pai, Mountain Filho, Peak Fanado, Peak Mesa, Barriga Branca, Brito Barriga, Monte Papagaio and Fundão and the Peak of Principe are the most exceptional ones.

The Peak of Principe is the highest peak on the island, touching 948 meters. The spectacular Bay of Spires is not just Príncipe’s top attraction but of Sao Tome as well. The best view can be seen from a water body where the island’s mountain skyline. stands majestically in a line

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Before independence, Principe had many plantations which produced cocoa and sugar. But after 1975, many of them got neglected and fell into disuse. Consequently, they were either converted into opulent resorts by private entrepreneurs or transformed into secondary forests.

The Sundy plantation, which today houses a beautiful resort, is an iconic place in Principe. In 1919 the famous English astrophysicist Arthur Stanley Eddington proved that gravity is a function of the curvature of space and time, a significant aspect of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Mark Shuttleworth, a South African millionaire, is an important personality in Principe. He currently owns about half of the land on the island of Príncipe, where he is developing an ambitious ecological tourism project.
Apart from its obvious unparalleled beauty, Principe is also known for high-quality chocolates and rare leatherback turtles.

Several endemic species of plants and animals have been identified inside the bio reserve. There are no ATMs or money changers in sight, and one has to pay through cash. But big resorts offer payment facilities through e-commerce platforms like PayPal.

Another interesting aspect is that the locals recycle everything from organic trash to plastics. There is a “Zero Plastic on Principe” campaign on the island. The locals take pride in the fact that they are supporting a sustainable economy in this biosphere reserve. The local government encourages hiking.

In 2012, UNESCO established Principe and its surrounding uninhabited islets as a Biosphere Reserve. This recognition was crucial for the island, as it has enabled the local authorities to promote conservation and sustainable development actively.

The islanders are proud of their biosphere status, and it’s something that unites locals and visitors. My short visit to Principe gave me a genuine sense of escape from civilization and the pace of modern life.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Also Read: Porcelain Rose: The Flower That Symbolizes Sao Tome and Principe

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