We leave the natural pool of Buracona and the coast battered by the wind and waves of the northwest of the island of Sal.
We are faced with a flat, arid and dusty vastness. A sample of shallow, dry vegetation disguises the path we were supposed to follow.
The dry haze diffuses the horizon and even the rare shapes that stand out from that inhospitable meadow, swept by waves of refracted heat. Two or three lying trees dot it, submissive to the windy winds that the Sahara has been sending there for a long time.
Further away, we can still glimpse the silhouettes of capricious elevations of the island of Sal: Monte Grande – the supreme with 406 meters – and Monte Curral.
Conforming to such climatic and plant shortages, the people called this part of the island Terra Boa. So dictates a sign coming out of nowhere, as worn as the surrounding landscape, but which, even so, gives us a direction.
Discovering the Land (and People) Boa da Ilha do Sal
We advance along the outline of the trail, inland, Terra Boa. Soon, in sandy areas, we come across a real road, although asphalt, we don't even see it. A just-passed truck leaves a trail of dust that thickens the atmosphere.
Less than 1km later, a group of four natives installed next to a red van ask us to stop. “Friends, we ran out of gas. It's not even worth pushing. Do you just give us a ride to the foot of Asparagus? ” We were going in that direction.
Having received our approval, the four of them climb into the backseat. With their help, we cross the slum that stretches to the waist of the island's capital, Espargos.
Still on the threshold of Terra Boa, the tin homes coexist with small lush vegetable gardens. We do not hide our surprise from passengers. "So you hardly see a green bush and here all this is born?" "And want to know more?" answer us. “All of this is born and these gardens support a good part of the families that settled here.
It's much cheaper to hotels and resorts there from Santa Maria buy their products from them who pay others from afar. For us it has been a blessing. How was your ride. Look, we left here."
They say goodbye to us, grateful to the point of giving us one of their phone numbers and inviting us to a cachuca in Sal's fashion.
They promise it “much better than what they invent in hotels and restaurants in Portugal.” We said goodbye to them, moved. After which we continued the motorized ambulation we had been riding since lunchtime.
The Extraterrestrial Path to Pedra de Lume
We walked around the increasingly urban capital, which was named for the wild asparagus proliferating there during the short rainy season on the island of Sal. We passed between the southern edge of its houses and the northern end of the runway at the Amílcar Cabral International Airport.
There remains, in scale, a gigantic Antonov aircraft. From a distance (but far away) it looks like an An 225. Later, airport officials will try to forbid us to photograph it, “orders from the Russians”, still and always with a mania for secrets.
We take a long straight that takes us towards the east coast, Pedra de Lume and the main historical reason for the settlement and development of the island: the homonymous salt flats.
We continue to the north of the lunar immensity of Feijoal, soon, with the Atlantic once again in sight.
We advance side by side with an open cove and, finally, the end of the road leaves us facing the small local port.
A community of fishing boats dots it with bright colors that contrast with the teal blue of the sea. Towards the raised interior, a large warehouse and the semi-disintegrated skeleton of another structure that was once filled with pulleys give the place a mysterious aura between the Western and the extraterrestrial.
From the Atlantic Beira to the Inland Sea of Pedra de Lume
Blessing the place – and its residents and visitors – is a white and blue church, with tiles the same tone as the surrounding landscape.
It is the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Piedade, built in 1853 in honor of what is, even today, the Patron Saint of Pedra de Lume, celebrated with mass and procession every 15th of August.
We continue to ascend. Until a turnstile forces us to park once and for all. We went through a dark tunnel, always with the backlight in view, and crossed the hill's earthy slope.
As we leave the other side, we face a diffuse glow that, for a moment, blinds us. We take a few more steps. When we've recovered from the unexpected solar glow, the sight of a strange rounded scene dazzles us again.
We are inside an old boiler, one of the prehistoric remains of the volcanism which gave rise to the island of Sal and the Cape Verde archipelago.
Over time, seawater seeped into the base of the downed crater. At one time, much of this water evaporated under the permanent tropical heat. A vast bed of salt in syrup remained. It would be this gift of Nature to dictate the fate of Salt.
The Salt History of the Island of Sal
The second island of the Cape Verdean Barlavento was discovered on December 3, 1460. According to a charter by Afonso V, its discoverer was the navigator of Genoese origin, António da Noli.
Da Noli was in the service of Infante D. Henrique when, on his return from an expedition to the Gulf of Guinea, he detected it, following the island of Santiago where it would be founded Ribeira Grande, the first city in Cape Verde.
Da Noli was impressed by the smooth profile of the island, even more so when compared to the mountainous Santiago. He called her Llana.
Until, at least, 1720, the local population remained minimal, inaugurated by slaves arrived from other islands of the archipelago, in little more than the fishing village of Palmeira.
A few years later, a Dutch geographer named Dapper described finding a hamlet with 72 sailors. Another passing stranger, an English adventurer named Dampier, testified that he came across half a dozen inhabitants there, living in miserable conditions.
That, even so, they survived using the abundant salt with which they salted goat meat and the turtles that spawned there in large numbers. These pioneer residents often exchanged goat skins and sacks of salt for other goods that other sailors who docked there brought on board.
The Times of Pioneer Extraction and Export
Strangely enough, this was the origin of the tourist fulcrum of Santa Maria, today, full of sophisticated hotels that house almost half of the tourist-visitors of Cape Verde.
In 1796, Manuel António Martins, millionaire merchant, Portuguese governor of the archipelago, meanwhile nicknamed Napoleon de Cape Verde, replied what had been done for some time on the island of Boavista.
He installed some families and slaves brought from the west coast in the vicinity of Pedra de Lume and began the local exploitation of salt.
It started to sell and exchange the raw material for other goods. Massive and hyper-profit exports to the Brazil – about 30 thousand tons per year – lasted until 1887. In that year, the Brazil banned the use of foreign salt. Extraction has been suspended.
It was only resumed in 1919 when a businessman from Santa Maria and a company from Bordeaux acquired the salt pans from the descendants of Manuel António Martins and reinvested in an innovative transport system that transported twenty-five tons of salt per hour to the port.
From that small port, they returned to exporting salt in huge quantities to countries in West and Central Africa. This was until 1985, when the activity once again ceased to be viable.
O Dead Sea Cape Verdean
Today, the extracted salt is not even enough for the needs of the many homes, hotels, restaurants and other businesses on the island of Sal. The salt pans have, however, other unusual uses.
We approached the flooded bottom of the boiler. There, dozens of visitors socialize and relax. They float in a small marine flap with a high concentration of salt, similar to Dead Sea Cape Verdean. Several more arrive from the access tunnel, eager to join these privileged.
We had recently experienced such fluctuation in the original dead sea. As such, we enjoyed your delight for a few minutes and continued to explore the salt flats. We admire the differences in the texture of the salt in the different partitions including large crystallized stones.
We inspect the strange processing and transport structures left there by recent investors and the solidified piles of salt, waiting for the work of the excavators parked there.
When we are satisfied, we go back through the tunnel in the opposite direction. Then we ascend to the edge of the boiler.
From this top, we contemplated the surreal 360º panorama, while to the west, the sun began to hide behind the white veil formed by the alliance of its light with the dry mist.
Expedited Trip to Asparagus
Aware that, at that latitude, night fell early and quickly, we returned to the car and accelerated towards Espargos. Espargos developed around the airport that Benito Mussolini had built there in 1939, with permission from the Portuguese authorities, and which the Portuguese bought from the Italians, soon after their capitulation, in World War II.
By mid-afternoon passage, we had already noticed how Monte Curral rose from the middle of the village. We looked for the path that would take us to the top of the hill and found it relatively easily.
As we went up the ramp, we passed a young resident engaged in a repeated up-and-down. We parked at the top, half-walled with the fence of the air control tower used by the international airport. A few soldiers of the same generation as the athlete keep it.
Upon reaching the summit, it catches its breath and stretches its struggling legs and back. To the delight of the military, fed up with the punishment of the semi-solitary detachment at the top of the hill, nostalgic for the feminine forms and – it is more than certain – the company of Cape Verdean maidens.
One of the soldiers doesn't resist. He approaches the girl and opens a conversation with a violin tone that extends as far as he can.
End of day at the heights of Ilha do Sal
We, we realized that the sun was about to leave. We took a path that went around the big tower. As happened on the Pedra de Lume caldera, we are once again dazzled by the equally or more unlikely scenery around, especially in the north.
A concrete house, here and there painted in bright colors, appeared nestled in the arid and ocher vastness. Beyond these humble houses rose other jagged hills subsumed in the dry mist.
The eccentric contrast between the geological and the human world bewitched us. We are left to enjoy it until the night presents itself for its shift.
When we return to the car, we no longer see the young woman from Espargos. Nor with the soldiers who had already taken refuge in the comfort of the barracks.
Back at the bottom of the ramp, we did notice a showy graffiti painted on a wall. There was the face of Amílcar Cabral. It had a 75 in front of it, under a red, yellow and green threshold decorated with three minions puzzled.
The mural also included a “I love salt” graphic and exuberant. We had nothing to add.
TAP – www.flytap.pt flies every day, except Tuesday, from Lisbon to Amílcar Cabral International Airport, on the island of Sal.