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Africa - São Tomé and Príncipe - October 2004 by Marcus

First shells - Achatina marginata
Flying to São Tomé from Brazil is not exactly a short trip, from São Paulo to São Tomé directly is about 6,300 km - however, there is no direct flight... so we had to fly to Lisbon and from there to São Tomé. A visa is required and it was not clear whether we had to get it in Lisbon or on arrival at São Tomé. All travel agencies in Brazil told us that it would be issued at the airport, but I called the embassy in Lisbon and they told me I should go there first to get it. It would delay my trip since my plans were to stay just a few hours in Lisbon. So I contacted our new embassy in São Tome and asked if they could help me. Although it is not the usual procedure, they managed to have my visa issued at the airport in São Tomé. My feeling to request it ahead of time was right since several passengers from Brazil were not allowed to board the plane in Lisbon because they had no visa!

São Tomé and Principe used to be a Portuguese colony and consists of two small islands with about 100,000 inhabitants. Malaria is a big problem in the island - most people have the disease and they don't really care about it, treating as a regular flu... The language is Portuguese and Creole with its several variations (easy for us, since Brazilians speak Portuguese as well!). The currency is Dobra, 1 US$ is 10,000 Dobras.

Alfredo and I left Lisbon at midnight and arrived in São Tomé at 5:00 a.m. at a very tiny airport. As you can imagine, in such a small country an international flight is a special happening, so lots of people were outside waiting for the plane. We took a cab and asked the driver to take us to a hotel. After dropping our stuff at the hotel, we rented a 4 x 4 Suzuki Vitara from a local (no, neither Hertz or Avis at the airport) - the negotiation started at Euro 70 per day, then I said US$70, then I settled on US$320 for the whole week. The car was not exactly a brand new car, but since I expected to drive on really bad roads, I was not concerned about any dings on it. To my surprise the roads were in very good condition in most parts - and terrible in others. I soon found out that the brakes were not working 100%, but after a while I got used to it (the hand brake was working well, though)

We drove all the way to the southern part of the Island, Porto Alegre. There are not many places to stop and snorkel, but there were beautiful places on the way. We passed a few small villages and as many had told us, the natives are very cordial and nice. Kids always were waving hands and yelling "Doce, Doce!" (candy, candy!). At first, I thought this would be a way to ask for small change, but later I learned they really were asking for candy! Another thing that caught my attention was the number of amputees - the traffic was not so bad so, why? I'd rather not have asked: They have to enter the jungle to get fruits, vegetables, wash their clothes on rivers or even to get home, so all of them carry a giant knife. São Tomé is the home of a very poisonous snake, the Black Mamba. After it bites, you have just a few minutes to get help before you die, so when they get bitten, the only alternative is to cut off the place where the snake got them! Ouch! I don't have to tell you that this made me direct my efforts to marine shells!

We stopped at a small river and found some small nerites, Vitta afra. Very nice, but the larger ones seemed to be in deeper water. I told Alfredo to try not to swallow any water since it was possibly contaminated with Hepatitis B (yes, they also have problems with that...).

On the next day, we looked for a small boat to rent to get us to Cabras Island. We found it on a very poor village on North São Tomé City, full of children, goats, pigs, chickens and dogs on the streets. It was not the cleanest place I have been and the smell of all these animals' droppings, mixed with no sanitary facilities (their toilet was the rocks near the beach) was annoying at first. As usual, locals try to rip off tourists, so we had to bargain for reasonable prices again. It was not cheap anyway, we had to pay 40 Euros for a short trip to the island every day.

Cabras Island is a beautiful place and no one lives there. There were only two buildings, an old house built by Portuguese people decades ago and a lighthouse. Since the island was deserted, we left our equipment (clothes, diving bag, water, etc) on the beach while we were snorkeling around the island. After a few hours, I started going back when I saw about 30 people on the beach. We did not hide our stuff, simply left it on the rocks so while swimming back I thought "damn it, I will have to buy everything again in the city....". As I live in a place where I can't leave anything even locked inside my car in a shopping center parking lot, I imagined everything I left on the beach was gone. No one touched anything and they were very friendly.

On the rocks, we collected a few Cypraea, Columbellas, small Marginellas, Murex, bivalves and some other shells. It was not as rich as I imagined - the place is practically untouched by collectors, but the fauna is limited. It is a sea urchin paradise - billions of them. And very painful ones. On sand, we got some medium sized Conus pulcher, but very beautiful, bright red Harpa doris, Agaronia acuminata, Strombus latus, and some small bivalves. The water was not very clear most of the time. A week earlier they had had heavy rain which made the water very dirty in some places. On the island there was lots of loose algae and strong currents which made snorkeling quite difficult sometimes.

Later in the week, we did some diving with a local dive center. The water was much better in deeper places and we went down to 30 meters. I never saw so many moray eels in my life and also a kind of very aggressive sea snake . What was funny is that the shells we found in deeper water were the same kind found in shallow places. Many beaches were depleted of sand because people used most of it to build houses so the government allowed a Portuguese company to sell dredged sand from deeper waters. It sounded very appealing to me since I could take a look for micros or other shells. What a disappointment! Nothing except for old small Agaronia acuminata and a few bivalves. It seems to me they are dredging in the same spot which killed everything around.

Resuming, collecting was good, nothing really rare but some nice and rarely offered species. As you know we love to collect even common shells, not often seen on the market, which make our friends and customers very happy!

P.S. I checked the forecast for the week and, thank God, weather people know nothing. It was supposed to rain (thunderstorms) every day. We did not get a single drop of rain except on the last day.

Translated by John Wolff

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