Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Dispatches from Africa, Part 3: São Tomé

Monday March 7, 2011. São Tomé

We arrived in São Tomé around 6:00 and with an early rain. Several dolphins welcomed the ship and a beautiful mist and clouds covered the island. The archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe comprises the two main islands and dozens of tiny islets scattered about 180 miles off the west coast of Gabon. The islet of Rolas straddles the Equator. After disembarking via Zodiacs, we traveled through the densely vegetated slopes of the island’s mountain. The volcanic island has a very fertile soil and altitudinal gradient that makes it very favorable to all kind of tropical plants including coffee and cocoa. The steep slopes have extensive coffee plantations shaded with very tall trees. The São Nicolao waterfall is a beautiful sight surrounded with a large variety of ferns, mosses and many other plant species thriving in the humid environment. Buffet lunch at the “Pestana Hotel” was excellent with a variety of tropical fruits.

At the Mote Café plantation, once a prolific colonial agricultural state, we visited the complex building and machinery to transport, dry and grind the coffee beans. Several local people performed colorful local dances with music from traditional instruments. In the afternoon we visited the cathedral while a musical funeral drove by.

The national museum has a wealth of colonial artifacts from the colonial times including European furniture and weapons used during that time. The fort that hosts the museum has a magnificent view of the bay and contains several old cannons. From the museum we continued our visit to the fishing village of Panfuto where dozens of large dugout canoes in all conditions filled the shore line. Many fishermen were preparing the nets for the night fishing and others played cards while waiting for the right time for departure. On the way back from the fishing village we enjoyed the “Danza Congo” at the “Plaza of Independence.” Men and women dressed with masks and colorful costumes performed an artistic and complex carnival dance.

Tuesday March 8, 2011. Príncipe

Príncipe is the smaller of the two major islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. It has an area of 136 square kilometers and a population of around 5000 people. Its highest peak is the Pico de Príncipe that rises to 948m in a dense forest area that is part of the Obo National Park. The northern and center part of the island were formerly coffee and cocoa plantations and have now reverted to forest. The town of Santo Antonio is the capital of Príncipe with an estimated population of 1500 people.

We arrived in Príncipe very early in the morning and soon after several fishing dugout canoes began to arrive after night fishing. Several of the villagers installed their canoes by the M/V Corinthian IIwith loads of fresh fish, coconuts, bananas, and many other fruits.  Disembarkation was by Zodiacs and we had the opportunity to observe all different lava formations partially eroded over years from the ocean. We arrived at the beautiful Bom Bom island resort and large beach to drive to Santo Antonio. The town has colorful houses from the colonial times and a lively market with fresh fish and vegetables. This day was the last day of carnival and also International Women’s Day  and celebrated with colorful dances, food and drinks. We also visited the once magnificent colonial housing and coffee processing building that supported the economy of that time. The buildings have been abandoned and overgrown by vegetation.

In the evening I presented the lecture on “Smithsonian’s Ten Years of Biodiversity Research and Conservation Program in Gabon”.

 Wednesday March 9, 2011. Libreville, Gabon

We arrived in Libreville very early in the morning alongside of the Owendo Port and delays in the arrival of the authorities limited our time in the city. Lisa Korte from our Smithsonian office in Gabon  and a representative from the Wildlife Conservation Society joined the guests for the site visits and discussions.

Gabon shares borders with the Gulf of Guinea to the West, Equatorial Guinea to the northwest, Cameroon to the North, and with the Republic of the Congo curving around the south and east. Libreville is the largest city of Gabon and also its capital. The name of Libreville is French for “Free Town” and it was given the name by the French Lieutenant Boeuet-Willaumez, inspired by Freetown in Sierra Leon. By 1860 Libreville consisted of the village of free slaves, a trading post and several missionaries. After World War II the city started to grow and the real change started around 1960 with independence and the discovery of petroleum in the 1970’s that attracted many immigrants from neighboring countries.

During the short day in Libreville, we spent a great part of the time in the heavy traffic. The city is vibrant with commerce and new developments. We visited the Leon Mba Memorial which is dedicated to the first president who led the country from 1961-1967. The nicely built memorial has a library and we were surprised to see our Smithsonian “Edge of Africa” book there. We had a delicious buffet lunch at the Le Maisha Hotel that had a variety of products from the sea including large barracuda fish carefully decorated. The US Ambassador to Gabon, Eric Benjaminson, his wife Paula and several other Embassy officials accompanied us at the lunch. Ambassador Benjaminson gave a lecture to the visitors about the past, present and future of Gabon and explained with some detail the importance of the Smithsonian program in Gabon.

On the way to visit the Mondah Forest, we observed the construction of the national soccer stadium for the African games in 2012. The Akanda Forest is a legally protected coastal forest in Gabon closer to Libreville. It is one of 13 national parks created to protect the natural environment and increase tourism. Akanda Forest is a 54,000 hectare coastal park crossed by the Ntsini River and the Moka River, around Mondah Bay, part of Corsico Bay. In 1951 the area was classified as a protected area, and since then the forest has recovered immensely from the intense hunting that previously occurred. The Alep trees are some of the largest in the country. The local Myene people have many myths and legends related to the forest. There are many different wildlife species in the forest including duikers, sitatungas, genets, mongooses and civets. There are also monkeys like the white-collared mangabey that can be seen running along the shoreline or climbing around the mangroves.  This forest represents the once common forest that existed along the coast of Gabon with representative areas that flood during the rainy season and important species of commercial trees such as “oukoume” that is a symbol of Gabonese forests. The resin from this tree is used for native torches used traditionally as part of ancient Bwiti traditional ceremonies.

Thursday March 10, 2011. Kribi, Cameroon

Cameroon has often been described as the “melting pot” of Africa because it encompasses people from many parts of the continent and multiple landscapes. Mount Cameroon, an old and occasionally active volcano, is the highest mountain in West Africa and many fine dark lava beaches line the foot of the mountain. Cameroon’s capital is Yaoundé.

We arrived in Kribi, the second largest port in Cameroon after Douala, late morning. Kribi is a shallow port built by the Germans and its name comes from the word ‘kiridi’ which translate as ‘small men’ referring to the original inhabitants of this region the ‘pygmies.’  The local population speaks the local language Bantu and one of the main attractions of Kribi are its white sandy beaches that contrast with the volcanic black beaches of Limbe.

After disembarkation by Zodiacs, we drove through the small town of Kribi on our way to the Lobe Waterfalls. The waterfalls are formed by a big river coming from the forest and of dark water abruptly ending in a rocky wall near the shore line. The dark brown color of the water is the result of tannins from the leaves and other organic material that falls into the river. The contrast of the dark water entering the salt water is obvious and the pools of water surrounded by sandy beaches provide an excellent habitat for fishes adapted to the fresh-ocean water transition.

The Museum of the Grand Baganda has an impressive collection of masks and other ceremonial artifacts, large ebony wood carvings, tools, musical instruments, whales, turtles and other marine life and tapestries. The collection represents cultural elements of the local population including the pigmy communities.

Under the sunny and hot afternoon we enjoyed the dance performance of the Grand Batanga Village with mostly men and drums. Later local performers from the local pygmy community, mainly women danced to the rhythm of bamboo drums played by men. The dances were very energizing and often children joined the parents.

That evening, the MV Corinthian II sailed for Limbe, Cameroon.

Today’s lecture by Vincent Resh was on “An African Success Story: How Control of River Blindness Resulted in Food for 17 Million People.”

 There’s more to come – watch our blog for more on the last days of this journey.

What do you think of our dispatches from the field? Please let us know.