São Tomé and Príncipe - Blood and Chocolate in the Atlantic Ocean

In the Gulf of Guinea in central Africa, there are two island in a chain of volcanic islands on the equator in the Atlantic Ocean known as São Tomé and Príncipe.

In the Gulf of Guinea in central Africa, there are two islands in a chain of volcanic islands on the equator in the Atlantic Ocean known as São Tomé and Príncipe.

São Tomé and Príncipe are tropical islands on the equator in the Gulf of Guinea

These lush tropical islands were recorded as uninhabited at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in 1470 and were subsequently used for large-scale plantation agriculture.

Woman waiting for her friend to go to church on Sunday morning in São Tomé town

Land was cleared of dense tropical forest and thousands of slaves imported for labor, many of them from the Portuguese colony of Angola on the African mainland.

São Tomé is famous through West Africa for having beautiful women

With slave labour, sugar and coffee were successfully grown and exported from the islands to Portugal and the rest of Europe. In the 1870’s another tropical crop was introduced which would make the islands world famous.

The islands are a tropical paradise, but see very few visitors

Cocoa plants are native to southern Mexico, but were introduced to São Tomé during a slump in the price of sugar and the crop did very well in the rich volcanic soil and warm, wet climate. The cocoa industry in São Tomé grew quickly, with strong demand in Europe for the Criollo variety of beans that produced a rich and velvety chocolate, soon giving the islands the nickname “The Chocolate Islands”.

Cocoa pods containing cocoa beans, the raw material for making chocolate. The quality of the cocoa beans from São Tomé is world famous.

The social history of São Tomé and Príncipe had always been turbulent, with harsh and brutal working conditions for the slaves growing the cash crops for export, incuding the famous cocoa beans.
There were many slave revolts and episodes of cruelty and extreme violence to maintain the plantation economy and although slavery was banned in Portugal and all Portuguese colonies in 1876, slavery continued in distant locales like São Tomé and Príncipe well into the 20th century.

Randy Rarick, one of the world's best travelled surfers, in São Tomé

When the Portuguese departed their African colonies en masse in 1975 after more than 500 years, the remaining coffee, sugar and cocoa plantations were largely abandoned and São Tomé and Príncipe sank into deep poverty and obscurity. Virtually all the white Portuguese colonialist settlers left the islands and the remaining residents returned to subsistence agriculture and fishing to survive.

Californian Sam George entertains a group of children with his juggling skills

One of the features of our surfEXPLORE project in São Tomé were the many empty houses on the outskirts of São Tomé town, vacated with the departure of the Portuguese and never reoccupied, slowly dissolving in the tropical climate.

Street vendor selling barbequed fish in the village of Santa Catarina

Plantations were in the same condition, with unattended coffee and cocoa bushes growing wild, now more like trees than bushes, with a fortune in both coffee beans and cocoa pods falling to the ground, uncollected and left to decompose.

Local fisherman with a nice snapper at Lagoa Azul

We started our search for waves at the properly named “Praia das Sete Ondas” where locals in town told us there were “big waves for surfing”. As the name means “Beach of Seven Waves” in Portuguese, it seemed like a good place to start.
The Beach of Seven Waves had surf, but it was a standard closeout beachbreak on black sand, not what we were looking for but fun to visit and because it was a popular beach within driving distance of town, there were a few places to have lunch under the coconut palms.

São Tomé island beach near Lagoa Azul on the north side of the island

We soon learned another one of the things that had been abandoned with the departure of the Portuguese was the concept of road maintenance, as all the roads in São Tomé had not been maintained in decades, with several stretches of the main road from São Tomé town to Port Alegre down the east coast all but impassable in the rainy season to vehicles other than off-road motorcycles.

Near Santa Catarina on the rainy west coast of São Tomé island, the road ends soon after this village

We pulled over to check the surf at one area, near the easternmost point on São Tomé island and with the binoculars, we could clearly see waves at a right point break. We searched for a road to the beach and were confronted with a five-metre fence with barbed wire, with signs in Portuguese warning of an electric shock for anyone who touched the fence along with a graphic of someone being electrocuted, for those who are illiterate and cannot read, which is not uncommon in São Tomé.

Waves at the Voice of America station, the easternmost point of São Tomé island

We soon learned from some local people that this was a facility of the Voice of America, broadcasting a powerful signal with an American-funded message of freedom and democracy across the African continent from Cairo to Cape Town. After trying to get in from both sides, an effort that took several hours of driving and walking, Sam George finally suggested, “Let’s just drive up to the gate. We are American taxpayers; we are funding this facility, they should let us in”.

First time the wave at the Voice of America station had ever been surfed. Randy Rarick surveys the lineup.

So we did, and the security guard was surprised to see any visitors, as American visitors speaking English are rare in São Tomé. He phoned the manager, who said to let us in and told us to drive to the end of the road and meet him in his office.

Randy Rarick finding the tube section at the Voice of America

Driving the short distance to the beach, it was obvious we were in a US facility and not in São Tomé itself as the road was straight, smooth and pothole-free, the buildings looked new and were painted and there were no groups of little kids playing football in the road with a ball made of clothing rags.

The Voice of America, Randy leaving the water after three hours of new waves in the Atlantic Ocean

“Tony”, the VOA manager, turned out to be a very interesting fellow who had spent fifteen years in the United States in Massachusetts as a radio engineer, after arriving in the US as a teenager from São Tomé to live with relatives.

Randy Rarick, putting in his fin and drawing a crowd in Porto Alegre.

One day at work, he saw an advertisement in a radio industry trade publication looking for a manager for the VOA facility in São Tomé and immediately applied. He was hired, being the only candidate actually from São Tomé, having a US passport after becoming an American citizen and being a native speaker of Portuguese. He told us in his casual American east coast english to go ahead and surf, that he didn’t know anything about surfing but had seen waves of two metres at the point some 100 metres from his office but he had never seen anyone surfing in the three years he had been in his position. “I don’t think anyone has ever surfed here before,” he said.“You guys are going to be the first!”

Local fishermen, sailing home with their catch for their families and the local market

We thanked Tony for his hospitality and walked to the beach immediately, where we had parked under some coconut trees. The surf was head-high and offshore, long rights bending around the easternmost point on São Tomé island.

The Voice of America facility is a fenced parcel that encompasses the easternmost point on the island of São Tomé and includes an excellent right point

We had a great surf and watched the time carefully, as Tony said we should be out of the water by 18:00 as that was when they turned the transmission up to full power for the evening Voice of America broadcast and it was a good idea not to be in the path of the radio waves reaching out across the African continent.

People and places on the island of São Tomé in the tropical Atlantic Ocean

After a few days, we made it all the way down the east coast on the terrible road to the small town of Porto Alegre, where we found one of the best waves in tropical Africa, the long right point break bending into the harbour.

Randy Rarick, looking over the lineup at Porto Alegre in the far south of São Tomé island

The wave is a gem, a long and fast right point open to southerly angled swell and peeling through a number of sections into the calm harbour at Porto Alegre. We learned from the locals that while there was nowhere to stay for a group of visitors in Porto Alegre, there was a new resort under construction on the Ilha das Rolas (Turtledove Island).

Randy Rarick, surfing in the Atlantic Ocean at Porto Alegre

Rolas is a small island crossed by the equator that had once been a privately owned coconut plantation, with the island a short distance from Porto Alegre, easily reached in a few minutes by boat.

Waikiki-style waves on the Ilha das Rolas or Turtledove Island, a small island crossed by the equator offshore from Porto Alegre

We hired a boat and went over to Rolas to see about staying there and met the manager, a friendly fellow from Portugal who discussed the resort project with us. He invited us to stay in the restored main house, he said due to unforeseen delays they were far from finished, but we were welcome to come over and stay as they had rooms and food available. He gave us a shopping list of things to get in town and some money in local Dobras to pay for supplies. We said we would bring our stuff over tomorrow and stay for a few days.

Randy Rarick and Tiago Oliveira, walking past a church building on Rolas Island

Rolas turned out to be great fun, a charming little island with a long history as a coconut plantation with tall coconut palms on every square metre of land. We visited the equator monument on the island and according to our GPS, it was slightly out of place as the actual line was some five metres to the side, where the screen display changes from N to S as you take one step into another hemisphere.

Locally made wooden surfboard on Rolas Island

There were definitely waves on Rolas. On the first morning, Sam had woken early and went down to the beach for a surf check, he came back all excited and said “there’s a bunch of little kids surfing out there”, then grabbed his longboard and left.
We went to the beach in front of the unfinished hotel and there were indeed at least ten kids on wooden boards out catching and riding waves, with Sam in the middle of the group of naked boys and having a great time.

The local surfers on Rolas were quite skilled on their wooden boards

The waves were Waikiki-style easy rolling surf, breaking over a sand and reef bottom, the result of swell from the open Atlantic on the other side of the island wrapping all the way around both sides of the island and converging in peaks. If the surf was big enough to wrap 180 degrees around the entirety of Rolas, how big was it on the other side?

Randy Rarick and Sam George, looking over the lineup of big lefts at Point Zero on Rolas Island

We found out soon as we took a short walk along the coastline, where there was a pathway through the coconut palms. Some of the child surfers from the village joined us and ran ahead, waving us to a clearing where thundering lefthanders broke down a reef point setup we named “Point Zero” on the spot, after the nearby equator, which was a few metres away.

We had a lot of fun surfing with the local waveriders at Rolas Island

The kids said in Portuguese that they never surfed there, it was far too big and powerful for them and their wooden boards nor had they ever seen any surfers at this wave. Randy and Sam studied it for a few sets, pronounced it rideable and started waxing up to go out.

Randy Rarick, applying his decades of shaping experience to a blank made of local wood on Rolas Island

Randy, Sam and Tiago rode the big lefthanders for the next couple of hours, coming into the sand beach looking tired from the constant paddling against the heavy current to stay in position.
The swell dropped significantly over the next few days, so we returned to a project we started when we had first arrived on Rolas, which was glueing up a blank of local wood to make a board for the kids. Randy had paid close attention when a local man had explained how they made the wooden boards, including where to get the wood in the interior forest.

Randy Rarick, surfing in the Atlantic Ocean at Port Alegre

There was a full woodworking shop on the island, part of the old plantation, with some beautiful century-old machine tools from Portugal and a few modern saws and drills, including a heavy Makita wood planer that Randy said would be hard to use but would do the job.
The glue on the blank had dried, so Randy set up the sawhorses and shaped the blank into a board in several hours of work with the heavy planer and various hand tools. We nailed a wooden fin onto the tail and the “Rolas Special”  was ready to go.

The Hospital Building at the former Roca Rio de Ouro, the largest plantation in São Tomé with a population of more than 3 000 slaves. The hospital was abandoned in 1975 and is now occupied by squatters.

All the local surfing kids followed us down to the beach with the new board, we launched it and they all took turns riding it, their first new board in quite a while. The manager of the resort said he was going to mount the “Rolas Special”  over the bar when the resort was finished.

Portuguese surfer Tiago Oliveira surfing at Porto Alegre

We heard several years later from a guest at the resort that is what happened, and the board is still there, in pride of place.
Text © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE
Images © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE

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