Condé Nast Traveller - Brave New Worlds
Here’s the story of a man who made a billion bucks: first he launched himself into space, then he looked on Google Maps to find an island where he could be alone. But instead, he tells Michelle Jana Chan, he fell in love with a wonky lost land full of witch doctors and spider scientists. He’s now among a group of visionaries changing the way we travel.
They call him ‘homem da lua’, the man of the moon, and with good reason. A self-made tech billionaire, Mark Shuttleworth used his windfall to become one of the first commercial astronauts in space. South African by birth, he now lives on the Isle of Man, and half-way between the two is a speck of an island -- cast out in the Atlantic off the coast of Gabon -- where he is putting down some new roots.
“I went through that phase of wanting an island,” Shuttleworth says to me, as if I might personally know what he means. “I was looking for a place to decompress, somewhere small and perfect to completely get away from everything.”
Shuttleworth checked out islands off Brazil, the Seychelles and Indonesia. “Then I found São Tomé e Príncipe on Google Maps. It looked perfect, and the more I read about it the more fascinated I became. A tropical island in GMT. No jet lag. Half-way between Cape Town and England. Flying into São Tomé, I was like ‘wow’. Then when Príncipe emerged, I fell in love.” Just like that. Shuttleworth moved away from the idea of buying an island and decided to invest in Principe instead.
From the aeroplane window I see the glinting green rainforest, the sapphire seas and astonishing finger-like mountain peaks swirling in mist. It’s Palawan meets St Lucia meets the Lost World.
The pilot nails a squeak of a landing. A lonely air traffic control tower presides. The windsock is ragged. There is an old twin-prop in the car park; on closer inspection, I see it is the wreck of an air crash.
Shuttleworth’s hotel, Bom Bom, is on the northern tip of the island. We drive there on muddy roads, deep red like those in East Africa. There is no other traffic. Everyone’s walking. Slowly. Leve-leve, as they say here: laidback, light of step, unhurried. Toddlers carry baby brothers and sisters on their hips. Straight-backed women balance buckets or precarious bundles of chopped firewood on their heads. An aquamarine kingfisher beats past in flight, a silver fish in its beak.
We curve around hairpin bends. The tops of the trees are at eye level; the bases of their trunks too far below in the gullies to be seen. I think of my favourite passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: ‘(it) was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were king. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.’ Perhaps my thought processes are not surprising. I am on the same longitude as the Congo River, where Heart of Darkness is set. These islands are, after all, part of the Equatorial belt of Africa, with the same sultry climate and brooding forests but also golden. granular beaches many would fly half-way around the world to lie upon.
Which is just as well, because, jeez, it’s a schlepp to get here. London to Lisbon. Change. An overnight flight to São Tomé on an airline called ‘White, coloured by you’, no kidding. A night in a hotel in São Tomé (both ways). Finally a 30-minute hop to Príncipe. It is hardly convenient but “you can’t help who you fall in love with.” as Shuttleworth says. The remoteness is what makes it so special, of course.
Bom Bom (meaning ‘good, good’) is aptly-named. There is a string of bungalows with a bleached wooden jetty-bridge leading to a tiny islet where a restaurant serves sashimi and crisp South African wines. I do not see another guest. The sea laps. This place ticks Shuttleworth’s boxes for a small, perfect getaway. Or perhaps not.
“Originally I wanted to be away from people,” he tells me, “but the funny thing is now I find it’s the people (here) I love the most. That private island idea was shallow and soulless. Having a Neverland and retreating is nothing to be proud of. I’d rather put my time and money and energy into Príncipe.”
On paper, the island nation of São Tomé e Príncipe is one of the poorest patches on the planet, almost entirely funded by aid. But somehow its people have managed to stay positive, with a unique perspective, perhaps because of the isolation. This is a place where if you drive through a puddle and splash someone in the street, you go to court. Ditto if your car hits a chicken, no matter what the chicken’s reason for crossing the road. Life is slower here, and kinder. At an old plantation called Sundy, I walk among the old slave quarters where people still live. A woman Gervasia -- who bakes bread for the kindergarten -- comes out of her one-room home carrying rolls from her makeshift oven. “Have one,” she says, pushing it into my hands.
Today the grand plantation houses -- called rocas -- are crumbling. Yet the signs of old money can still be seen, from the elegant-but-chipped floor tiles to the fine-but-rotting furniture. The people here still talk about the old Portuguese landlords as patrons. “There were no good bosses during colonial times,” one old man called João tells me. “They would whip us if they thought we were not working hard enough.”
Herein lies a very dark, very cruel, very bloody colonial history. Almost the entire population is a mix of descendants of slaves or indentured workers. Most of the labour was shipped here from other Portuguese colonies, particularly Angola and the Cape Verde Islands. Few ever made it home.
The big cash crop was cacao. At one time the archipelago was the world’s biggest producer of this key ingredient of chocolate. Even today, the expression ‘Tens cacau?’ (‘Have you got cacao?’) -- is used to ask if you have any money.
“I’ve never tasted chocolate,” Juka told me. He was leaning on his rake standing beside a vast hotplate the size of an aircraft hangar, covered in drying cacao beans. His job was to turn over the beans. “I hear it is good. Is it? It is too expensive for us.”
I am luckier. Not far from here, I spend an evening with Claudio Corallo, an Italian agronomist who came to São Tomé e Príncipe nearly twenty years ago wanting to improve the quality of cacao here. Now he makes the best chocolate in the world. Or so he says.
“I don’t respect any other chocolate,” Corallo tells me. “Saying Belgian chocolate is like saying Alaskan wine.” I take a bite out of his ‘soft 73½% with nibs of cocoa’. It is strong and nutty but not bitter.
“Of course it is not bitter,” he says. “Because I grow the cacao right.”
Another bite -- this time from a block of ‘Ubric 1’, with raisins and distilled cacao pulp. The chocolate disappears in my mouth like a puff of dandelion.
The highlight is a chocolate tapenade made with anchovies, capers and garlic. I find myself grinning with pleasure. He is right. It is the best chocolate in the world. No question.
These islands are rich in other ways, too, bristling with endemic species found nowhere else on the planet. Príncipe popped out of the Atlantic over 30 million years ago -- it’s five times older than the Galapagos -- granting a massive window of time for creatures to fly or float here, and then to evolve in a unique way. As a result the place is crawling with life scientists. Bob Drewes, a US biologist has been coming here for decades and tells me he still finds something new every time. I meet a bryologist who has documented over a hundred new mosses in three seasons. The world’s smallest and largest begonias are found here, a botanist tells me. And Tomasz, the jumping spider specialist from Western Hungary, shows me a photograph of an elegant, iridescent arachnid. “Put Africa and spiders together and there will always be mysteries,” he says.
The country also has the highest concentration-by-area of endemic birds including the world's smallest ibis, the world's largest sunbird and the curious Saõ Tomé Scops Owl. Last year the UN declared Príncipe a Biosphere Reserve.
But Shuttleworth is right. It is the people -- colourful, eccentric -- who make the islands so seductive. People like the woman with hooped golden earrings dangling from drooping earlobes who calls herself God Pochi. “I give business advice to women in the market,” she says, wagging her finger at her grown-up daughter who is on the beach chopping off a marlin’s nose with a machete. “I learnt about money from the white people; I used to cook for the Governor.”
Horacio the traditional healer is a ‘fertility man’. “Half my clients are women wanting to get pregnant,” he says, turning to point at his coccyx. “I realign their backs so the sperm stays in.” I furrow my brow. “I have 19 kids,” he says insistently.
Manuel the witch-doctor, or jumby-man, takes me into his private outhouse. I squat beside an altar with a dead chicken on the floor by my left foot. Atop a crucifix is a boiled egg. “All my work is a secret,” he whispers. “But I can treat anyone. Locals. VIPs. Even long-distance for people living in other countries. ” He gives me his mobile number.
It gets wackier and more wonderful. At the Cacau arts centre, I watch a traditional Creole play called Tchiloli incongruously about the Emperor Charlemagne. There is a macabre masked funeral scene, clowns in brocade knickerbockers and a Michael Jackson-style moonwalker. I’m mesmerised.
At a bar called Arranca Sola (‘dance till the soles of your shoes are worn out’) I meet the DJ José Ramos, who also sells vinegar in old beer bottles and aspirin two tablets at a time. He directs me next door to meet Benvinda Veiga, the woman he calls the best dancer on the island. Bemvinda is bubbling up a strong pineapple liquor called caxaranba. “My husband could drink for eight days without eating,” she says. “He died of liver problems.” She laughs like a rooster. “I only drink coffee.”
“I hope you meet a few memorable characters,” Shuttleworth had said to me. Indeed.
“You choose the opportunities in life that move you,” he had said, “where you can truly make a difference. This is mine.”
Shuttleworth has leased six land concessions on Principe -- about 10 percent of the island -- and is hatching his plans. A decaying plantation house will become a colonial-style hotel. There’ll be a tented camp on a beach. Farms will be restored, and crops -- cacao, coffee, pepper and vanilla -- grown organically. An eco-resort will use local produce. Another hotel will be a hub of the arts: 54 rooms decorated to represent the 54 African countries, with an international artist-in-residence programme. Two more beachfront hotels are planned. Properties will be petite and architecture constrained. “In ten years, I want to be circling in a plane and see nothing different below,” Shuttleworth says.
Príncipe President José Cassandra happens to be on my flight here from São Tomé. After we land, I ask him for an interview. Easy. Wednesday 3 o’clock. He forgets to tell me to wear closed-toe shoes to enter the presidential house, a leftover rule from colonial days, so we do the interview on a park bench in the main square. A couple of languorous gardeners are weeding. The President waves at a friend freewheeling past on a bicycle. It’s siesta-sleepy. The clock on the tower is stopped at 12:25.
Cassandra tells me his promise of island-wide drinkable water and free compulsory education beyond ninth grade. We also discuss the future of tourism: a longer runway (“but not too long”), better roads (“but no asphalt”) and preserving heritage properties (“the old fish market might become a visitors’ centre”).
Many of the ideas come from the research of an outside consulting firm paid for by Shuttleworth. He looks certain to bankroll some of the plans, too. It is not the worst time to be president of Príncipe and Cassandra admits he will run for re-election next year.
“Do you feel lucky?” I ask him.
He pauses. He laughs. “I am lucky.”
On a mission
Pedro Ibáñez, Chile
Back in the 1980s, the successful food-and-packaging Chilean entrepreneur decided to use some of his wealth to start Explora and share a passion for his homeland with other world travellers. At the time, the country was off the travel map. His concept was to combine high-exertion activities in the wilderness -- such as hiking or riding -- with an authentic local experience and very comfortable accommodation. "When I started in Patagonia, everybody thought I had gone mad," he says. "They said we were not going to have enough guests to pay for the initiative." Instead, the company did so well that Ibáñez opened another hotel in northern Chile, in the heart of the Atacama Desert, and then a third on Easter Island. Explora’s signature trips are overland journeys, called ‘travesías’, which take guests to ever more remote regions of South America. Two explore the Salar de Uyuni, the greatest salt pans on the planet. Another crosses the Andes to visit archeological remains of the Calchaquí valley. In Patagonia, guests trek in Los Glaciares and Torres del Paine national parks. "(Explora) keeps me busier than I thought,” Ibáñez says, “but the payback is more than I ever expected."
Svein Wilhemsen, Kenya, India & the Artic Circle
Fifteen years ago, this Norwegian financier was on holiday in Kenya when he met Ole Taek, an elderly Masai. They talked late into the night. Ole Taek aired his worries about the future, and proposed a partnership with Wilhemsen, aiming to safeguard the natural environment and his people’s culture. Six months later, inspired by the old man’s words, Wilhemsen launched an adventure travel company known today as Basecamp Explorer. “At first it was more like a hobby,” Wilhemsen tells me. No longer. He has since launched Basecamp operations across India, the Arctic Circle, and most recently in the French Pyrenees. All of them support local communities while giving guests opportunities to engage with the traditional way of life. That could living with the legendary hunters of Spitsbergen or learning more about Catalonian mountain culture. Back in Kenya, Basecamp now runs the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, where some 500 Masai lease Wilhemsen 50,000 acres of land flanking the Masai Mara National Reserve for conservation. Landowners receive a monthly rent, and there are job opportunities at the conservancy’s camps.
Sokoun Chanpreda, Cambodia
Chanpreda and his family fled Cambodia when the civil war broke out. When he returned in the 1990s, having worked in Bangkok’s bar and club scene, he opened a small hotel, the Shinta Mani, in Siem Reap. But Chanpreda wanted to do more than make money for himself, so he launched a hospitality institute with 10-month courses in cooking, finance, front-office administration, housekeeping, maintenance, restaurant service and spa therapy. Instruction is free of charge, as are meals, uniforms, materials, and bicycles. Students receive a stipend to support their families. Hundreds of students have since passed through its doors. Last year, Chanpreda relaunched the hotel after a complete ovdrhaul by the architect Bill Bensley. Now the room rate funds start-up loans for small businesses such as a chicken farm and a postcard business. Chanpreda plans to open three more hotels across South-east Asia.
José Koechlin von Stein, Peru
In 1975, art patron and film producer Koechlin von Stein opened a lodge for scientists wanting to study Peru’s Amazon rainforest. A few years later, he established the country’s first private natural reserve, the 30,000-acre Inkaterra Ecological Reserve, and also opened a lodge on the land, pulling together scientific research, conservation and tourism. Since then he has been committed to conservation-oriented tourism with four carbon-neutral properties across Peru. At the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, the company has restored 12 acres of cloud forest, triggering the return of hundreds of species of birds and butterflies. The site holds the record for the world's largest collection of native orchids found in their natural habitat. The hotel also has a rescue centre for the endangered spectacled bear. The non-profit arm, Inkaterra Associacion, continues to support scientific research in the Amazon Rainforest and the Andes, welcoming hundreds of researchers, as well as off-setting over three million tonnes of carbon dioxide across its reserves.
Otto Happel, Seychelles
For two centuries Frégate Island was a cinnamon and coconut plantation. German industrialist Happel bought it in the late 1970s, with the aim of returning the island to its natural state, as well as creating one of the world’s best pioneering eco hideaways. That has meant the eradication of foreign species, from rats to cockroaches to coconut trees. There has also been a rigorous reforestation project to improve the natural habitat for native wildlife, which includes the oh-so-pretty Fairy Tern. Happel may be about 80 percent of the way there. High notes so far have included the planting of more than 100,000 trees and nursing the Seychelles magpie robin, the world’s seventh rarest bird, up from 22 individuals to nearly 180 today. The population of Aldabra giant tortoises has increased tenfold on Happel’s watch, with about about 2,000 now roaming freely on the island. The hotel continues to forge a strong relationship with the Zoological Society of London, most recently creating an ‘Ecologist for a Day’ programme, which allows guests to join nighttime beach patrols and monitor coral reef.