The Early Bird Journey from São Filipe to Chã das Caldeiras
Alarm clocks go off at 5:15 am. Fifteen minutes later, still pitch-dark, we left São Filipe, in the taxi driven by Edilson, the same teenager who, a few days earlier, had brought us from the airport to the capital of Fire Island.
Gradually we ascend the southeast slope of the great cone at the heart of the island. We didn't catch a glimpse of a soul when we passed the large wooden sign that marks the entrance to the Fogo Natural Park. We entered the heart of the mountain. The expanse of solidified lava around and above only accentuates the blackness.
Edilson moves slowly forward, afraid that the rough and rough road will wreak havoc on his boss's car. It is, therefore, with the imminent dawn already reviving the caldera that we reach the inhabited area of Chã das Caldeiras.
There we met João Silva, the local guide with whom we would climb to the top of the volcano. John welcomes us. Don't waste words. He had already conquered the Fire countless times, ahead of outsiders from different parts. For him, that ascent would be just one more.
At the same time, a precious financial aid and an inconvenience in the construction work of the new and unobstructed inn that, despite the always latent threat of the volcano, his family was building.
The Painful Ascent to the Summit of the Fire volcano
In its last bad moods, Fogo had coated the eastern section of the caldera with fresh lava. The abrasive path we take begins by crossing a gentle slope and, shortly thereafter, points to the heights of the eastern slope and submits ourselves to an exasperating effort.
The more we go up, the better the circular and shallow bed of Chã is defined and the torrent of lava that filled it and had enveloped and razed most of the buildings in Portela, Bangaeira and Dje de Lorna, villages from which, from there or wherever whatever, there were only roofs in sight.
The distant vision of his misfortune has held us several times in a contemplative fascination.
We were touched by the fate of the lava that flowed, unstoppable, to the east, conditioned by the foot of the opposite slope of Bordeira, the high and steep edge of the vast and deep caldera measuring 9km in diameter bounded by cliffs 1km in height.
We were also intrigued by how and why, with so much of the island of Fogo at their disposal, two villages were installed there with arms and luggage, at the mercy of the natural whims of the largest of the mountains of Cape Verde, from its youngest, most majestic and intimidating volcano.
On the Roasted Top of Fire
Four hours later, with many photographic stops in between, we reached the summit. We recover energy with convenient snacks. At 2,829 meters from Pico do Fogo, on the highest point we could hope to reach in the entire Cape Verdean archipelago, we can admire the immensity of the caldera.
And that of the surrounding Atlantic, muffled by a blanket of much lower clouds that hid the sharp peaks of the neighboring island of Santiago and brought her a convenient sunscreen, at that wintery and still dry time of year, not even to think about rain.
We pass to the other side of the crater rim, with extra care to avoid stumbling blocks that could make us roll down there. Finally, an inner track takes us to a passage protected by the rock.
We took advantage of it to lean on and peek at the rounded bottom of the cone that supported us.
Its sides were also curved. Thus, it was explained that, reassured by the fact that the last eruption from there dates back to 1769, several of the visitors to Pico do Fogo descended there and left testimonies – mostly of identity and love – written with clear stones on the dark gray ground.
We go around a few additional meters of the interior of the cone. Soon, we return to the outside and the extraordinary view of the caldera. We reached a slab crammed with rocks poorly attached to the porous ground.
Once this obstacle has been overcome, we come across Pico Pequeno, one of the openings of the volcano that, in 2014, gave rise to the last of the eruptions and to slow but inexorable Hawaiian-style lava flows.
From the summit, in leaps, back to the foothills
The boulders are followed by a steep slope, covered with voluminous and dusty volcanic sand. João takes to her in a run alternating with long jumps. We follow suit. We arrived, thus, in three times, but with our boots full of debris, at the top of the secondary crater where it stank of sulfur and the heat was redoubled.
João stops to show us how active and energized the volcano was there. He gathers some branches, places them over a blackened crevice and looks at the work. Fifteen seconds later, the branches succumbed to the Fire's fire.
We follow the rest of the route along the foothills, between the vines and fig trees that preceded the houses. We arrived at the inn of one of his ten brothers, Alcindo.
There we rested in the company of a group of French students on a privileged school trip.
And from there we moved to the inn of neighbors Adriano and Filomena, she one of the many Montronds who, at one point, took over Chã.
The History and Prolific Descent of the Montronds
The Montronds didn't make it straight to those end-of-the-world parts, or anything like that. Its story begins with a French Count born in Grenoble.
For some reason – it is speculated that political and ideological discontent, the need to flee due to debt or even both, among other possible reasons – François Louis Armand de Montrond left France for the Brazil. In 1872, it landed in São Vicente. He was soon enchanted by the proximity to the land and the affable warmth of Cape Verde.
Explored other islands. But he ended up settling in Fogo. There he indulged in successive novels. It is known that he fell in love with Clementina, Camila, Demitília, Josefa, Antónia, Guelhermina and Jesuína. All of them mothers of their many children. Each partner earned him the construction of a two-story house – in Achada Maurício, Baluarte, Mosteiros, São Filipe and other places.
Some of them were built with materials that he ordered in France and were at the origin of new villages on the island, such as Geneva (today Luzia Nunes), which he himself baptized, inspired by a hill near Grenoble.
Cultured, endowed with aristocratic training, philanthropist, Armand Montrond employed his knowledge (including physicians) and influence in the service of the natives.
He planted vines with vines also brought from his homeland, and produced enough coffee to export to Portugal. Montrond gained the respect and affection of the natives. In such a way that the people of D'jar Fogo began to call him Nho Erman di França.
Montrond's genes quickly spread across the island. Later, via whaling emigration but not only, also by the United States and other parts of the world.
But what most interests Chã das Caldeiras is that, despite the recent and recurrent eruptions of 1847, 1852 and 1857, Armand Montrond's sons, Manuel da Cruz and Miguel, moved there with their families.
This short migration still justifies that, today, in no other part of the island of Fogo or of Cape Verde let the French-speaking genes and visuals be so obvious and plentiful.
The Resilient People of Chã das Caldeiras
We installed ourselves in the room that Adriano and Filomena had reserved for us. We had lunch. Then we sailed through the sea of solid lava, among the wreckage of homes that it swallowed. We explored what was left of Portela and Bangaeira.
Both villages were inhabited until the lava released by the dramatic eruption of November 2014 advanced in the fateful direction, in the most feared, but also the most logical of senses: the one that descends from the foot of Pico do Fogo towards the huge eastern opening of the caldera .
We are following the rebuilding efforts of some of the families then expelled by the eruption, but who decided to persist. We see them piling together cement blocks and bricks. Fixing roof slabs and window frames, all done by them, only in rare cases, with the help of one or two hired workers in the lower lands of the island.
Some have handicraft stalls by the side of the road and rush to try to sell it whenever they sense the passing of visitors. “Take some souvenirs, gentlemen. It's all made here by us!" tells us a girl with a determined tone.
We admire the lava, thatch and seed houses that the natives create in less than five minutes with material at hand, but which, even so, perfectly emulate the real ones, so many of them filled with lava by the most recent eruptions.
Some are basic cabins; others larger and more complex, still others set atop sharp cliffs. We had already decided to bring gifts from Cape Verde. There we found something that pleased us and that, at the same time, allowed us to contribute to the natives' reconstruction effort.
A Prolific Crater But That Lava Does Not Spare
We say goodbye and return to the walk. We found what was left of the orchards that supplied the natives and visitors.
And with the fig trees and vines that are believed to have been introduced by Count Montrond, the origin of the manecom wine produced there by hand, it is said that, later renovated, with “Jacquez” vines imported from the United States by Néné Fontes, a native of Cova Figueira.
Despite the inhospitable aspect of the landscape, the Fogo wine in general and the caldera in particular was so improved that it is about to conquer its own designation of origin “Chã das Caldeiras Wine”.
We found the exotic children from Chã, with long blond hair. And teenagers and adults with light skin and eyes, unlikely in Cape Verde, were it not for the genetic contribution of the Montronds.
Darkens. Until it fades, the setting sunlight hits and heats Pico do Fogo. When it's gone for good, we return to Adriano and Filomena's shelter. Devastated by the morning's long rise, we fell asleep much faster than we wished.
We woke up early to match and peeked at the couple's property, surrounded by the lava flow that almost destroyed everything there. From the terrace in front of the dining room, we see Adriano and Filomena pass by the sunken backyard of the home they used to use.
We went downstairs and interrupted the work of Filomena who was laying out clothes in front of doors and windows from which perked out bold lava tips. Without wanting to force the drama they lived through, we approach the always curious theme of the Montrond genesis.
We inquired about Filomena's pale skin and aqua-green eyes. Adriano doesn't shy away from clarifying: “I could also be part of it, but my wife has the nickname and everything.
Until a while ago, this was Casa Tito Montrond, her father who died in 2011.
Montrond (s) here in Chã and out of this fire, they will never be absent!”
TAP flies directly from Lisbon to Praia, Cape Verde. From Praia, you can fly to São Filipe, on the island of Fogo.