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only rocks

Sao Tome + Principe

A couple of years ago I found the report of a well known German photo journalist Herbert Frei , who nearly got caught in a trawlers fishing net, in a dive magazine. I wondered where the hell these guys had been diving – the answer was Sao Tome. Big question, where is that place? I feel I know many many tempting dive destinations especially islands all over the world, most of which I already have visited … Islands however off the west coast of Africa, deeper down than the Cape Verts, I just couldn´t believe exist. Checked it on a good map and googled and sure enough, there were two tiny spots in the Gulf of Guinea, right on the Equator west of Gabun.

These two belonged to the Portugese but nowadays are independent but somehow still connected and attached to it. Today around 90.000 people of very mixed culture live on the islands. Cocoa and banana are one of the main exports article, tourism is still in baby shoes and needs to slowly grow. You rarely see any ads in magazines or brochures. There are some medium and high priced hotels on the island, beautiful beaches and a lovely countryside are waiting for you.

I couldn´t get a package deal from home, so I did most of my booking online directly with airline and resorts. Malaria is still a problem on Sao Tome, it´s falciparum, so please come prepared. I didn´t take any prophylaxis but to be on the safe side had a good insect repellent (no bite) with me. In the evening I sprayed and wore long sleeved shirts and trousers. The night I spent under a mosquito net. Principe however is supposed to be free of it already.

Sao Tome does not want to be thrown in the general Africa basket with all it´s prejudices “dirt, poverty, thieves, garbage, sickness etc. They try to keep away immigrants of the other African countries and even tourists need a visa when staying longer than 15 days.

I chose Pestana Equadore on Ilha de Rolas for my stay and diving and some grand finale with 4 days on Principe Bom Bom resort. Flight went with TAP from Lisbon via Accra to S.T. With TAP I had picked my seats on all flights already at home on their website. In reality however, I got none of the chosen seats, however was lucky on one flight to get the last empty row for myself. Beneath us the wide and endless plain of the Sahara looked a bit terrifying to me. Flight time to Acrra was 5.5 another 1.5 reached our destination.

Due to a late arrival at S. T, I had to overnight at the Pestana Sao Tome cause only two times a day a ferry takes you to Rolas. It´s a two hour ride with the bus to the ferry, a good chance for first impressions and sightseeing. We passed women washing their laundry in the river, carrying their stuff home in a bucket on their head. We went through small villages where pigs run across the street, skinny pets always looking sick, covered with rashes, full of fleas and flies hang around looking for eatable things. A horrible sight you get used to in poor countries. Boys on handmade wooden bicycles rushed down the hilly street. I wonder if brakes are included in their handicraft, reminds me of the Flintstones.

The day started cloudy with a bit of rain, the sun appeared when we reached the crossing. The so called ferry turned out to be a small boat for about 20 people, the trip across took 15 min. Temperature ran around 28 C but with a high humidity you soon got sweaty all over. Africa I feel is still all slow motion. A check out or a Pina colada order took 20 minutes, nobody was really busy but they take their time. As Westerner you either get used to it or start crazy tantrums.

I had pre booked and paid a 10 dive package from home to be on the safe side and get my diving done. Costa Norte charge 380 € and the dive 11 is free. Paulo the owner of the dive center greeted me with: “we only have rocks here”, which turned out to be true. The first dive and I thought the Mediterraneum has more to offer.
There was a big turtle sleeping under some rocks, fish life was a bit low. Rocks are all around which form some canyons, windows, overhangs, arches. Fish life in nearly all places was definitely not eye filling. Vis around 15 m water temperature 28. We found some snappers, schools of small fish, little patches of coral, lobster, octopus, different moray eels, parrot fish, surgeons, puffer, few jacks and barracudas. For five consecutive days I was their only customer, even though they took me out with Zodiac sometimes 3 times a day. Nelson my guide was fun to dive with, however I had no Portugese, he no English so our communication was friendly but difficult. There are around 10 spots all around Rolas, average depth was around 24 m. Some good diving I found the day we crossed over to S. T. and went to a huge rock with large overhangs, there was some better coral in white covering whole areas.
The surface break we spent in a small bay with black rock formations, looking like beams stowed upon on each other, must be volcanic. Palm trees all around us and a small waterfall cascading down into the sea would have made a lovely picture with sun out. October the rainy season starts. Most days were cloudy with short periods of rain. The moment the sun came out it soon got excruciatingly hot and humid, where you either jump into the pool or sea or find some AC. Pestana Equadore is a stunning place in a beautiful setting. Bungalows on the beach or in the garden, a monstrous pool with bar, the restaurant elevated with superb view across the whole place and the cloud covered island S.T. Pristine beaches, hiking trails across the island offer tranquility and pure nature. Meals were a good choice of everything, breakfast with a lovely mixture of Portugese bakery, cereals, pancakes, fresh fruits, eggs etc. , lunch and dinner buffet style with beef pork fish chicken and a lot of new vegies like fried banana or coconut slices, some Portugese specialties like Bakalaou, which is mashed potatoes mixed with dried salted fish, polenta, pasta, desserts a never ending temptation.
Paulo mentioned the Tinhosa Islands which are supposed to offer excellent diving, however are far from Rolas close to Principe and they only go in good conditions and a couple of bookings. Same as everywhere I guess.

Back on the main island I had to overnight at Omali Lodge, before my flight to Principe. You fly with STP Airlines where you better double check everything. Due to schedule change and cancellation I lost two days and had to overnight before and after my Principe adventure, a real disgrace. There is a baggage allowance of only 15 kg so I rented a dive bag and left my suitcase at Omali. This is a luxurious place in a beautiful garden, rooms are huge with balcony, tub and shower, separate living and bed room. It´s just 5 minutes from the airport, beach is right across the street. With twin engine Saab 340 B we went to Principe and with us the sunshine.

Bom Bom is awesome, stunning, supercalifragilistic. There are two pristine beaches on each side where you can easily find a private spot for yourself. Bungalows are heaven either close to the beach or elevated in the garden. A long wooden bridge takes you to the restaurant close to the jetty on a nearby island. This idea and view alone is worth 6 stars. Meals are superb mouthwatering creations in a fascinating surrounding. The staff is unbelievable good, they read wishes from your mind before you even express them. If ever there is a honeymoon for me, this would be the place. Dreams come true here but it´s not cheap.

A dive center is 20 minutes away at Roca Belo Monte, another high end accommodation. To get there you ride along jungle, coca plantation, banana, jack fruit, will see monkeys, pass by smaller villages, you will fill your eyes with wonders. Sao Tome is blacklisted so all resorts which do not have accounts in Europe ask for cash only. So make sure you bring enough with you if you plan to eat out or do things away from your resort. This concerns Belo Monte too, they charge 80 € for a deep dive 60 for a shallow one, with 80 being a bit steep on the ladder. I was rather short on cash and could only do 2 deep ones.
They took me to a small island “Gale”, near Bom Bom where we went down to 25 m. Vis was better here, more fish life around, small schools of barracuda, jacks, bigger groups of surgeon and other small stuff. Again it was a huge rock formation we cruised along. Altogether these were not really satisfying dives. A really huge school of dolphins on our way back improved things a bit. We jumped in and for some short moments these guys cruised below us, awesome to watch – bad luck for me, the Hero 3 was still in my BC pocket. Wonderful things mostly happen, when you forgot to bring your camera with you.
I offered to jump off the boat close to Bom Bom to keep them from having to pick me up from the resort again by car. This they should introduce on their own, when they want you to believe in their environmental efforts. I still wonder how deep the shallow dive would have been, maybe lucky for me I did not go.

The 4 days on Principe were the only days I had with real sunshine, On my way back to Sao Tome I decided to try my luck once more with diving. Near Omali Lodge I found Tropic Venture which had a two tank afternoon dive scheduled. We went to Lagoa Azul. Strong current hit us as soon as we dropped in the water. Above sandy ground in 15 m we had to grab kick our way to the reef. Greenish stuff maybe algae floated onto our masks. But a reef was there and a beautiful one. Good fish life, life all around us, lovely coral growth, lots of sea urchins, but a place you could honestly call reef not boulder rock. It was a bit of wild dive, rushing down to 39 m, running into 3 m deco, but it was worth it. Vis was not that good, but we found plenty of nice things. The guide pointed out an electrifying guitar ray only 3 cm big, he found a slug (?) which spat bluish ink when he played around with it, several times he showed me sea horses (8 cm) a divers delight. A short surface break brought us closer to shore where we watched some predator birds trying to catch fish.

Gigantic Baobab trees stood along the shore, trees I truly love. Second dive again took us down to 29 m, good coral around, even some Gorgonia and soft coral. For these two dives I would give Sao Tome 3 stars, for the rest only 2.

My last day there I rented a bicycle and went to the place with the Baobab trees which I find very special. In this climate running up and down hills for two hours is a really hard job. Bring plenty of water and plan a dive into the refreshing ocean, but the countryside is really worth visiting. Sao Tome is not a divers heaven but a lovely paradise for sure.

Divers Compass:
flights TAP- 831 €
flights STP – 170 €
9 nights Pestana Equadore – 1062 €
3 nights Bom Bom Resort – 980 €