Where life's a beach, whether sandy or not

Otago Daily Times sports writer Alistair McMurran visited Cape Verde Islands this year and has now been to 195 countries and/or territories on the Los Angeles-based Travellers Century Club list. His travelling companion, David Horne, who has been to more countries and/or territories than any other New Zealander, has now been to 258 of the 321 destinations on the club's list.

Cape Verde Islands are a tale of two beaches: one sandy, the other rocky.

The locals enjoy the sandy beach, which has become the centre of their social life, and are angry with their fellow countrymen who have stripped the other beach of sand, leaving only rocks.

Cape Verde consists of 10 small islands in the Central Atlantic Ocean, some 570km off the west coast of Africa.

The uninhabited islands were colonised by the Portuguese in the 15th century and used for the slave trade.

The main island of Santiago is where the story about the two types of beaches is told.

We stay at the Palm Beach Resort in the city of Pedro Padejo, which has a population of 30,000.

It has a black sandy beach in front of the resort and it is the feature of the town. I wake to the sound of waves crashing on to it.

It is used after daybreak by keen locals who come down from the town to swim in the ocean or run along the beach and do exercises before breakfast and work.

There are people camped in tents, children and adults swimming, people digging in the sand and a few lazy dogs walking on the beach or resting.

Looking up at the town, we can see a lot of houses built of concrete. Several are partially built. It looks as though the money ran out in the recession.

There is a red Coca-Cola shelter on the beach and a few fishing boats in various stages of repair.

The beach is crowded after 3pm with locals swimming, playing football or volleyball, or throwing frisbees. A few sail rickety boats.

It is the social part of the day and there is a spark in their eyes and a sound of joy as they walk back up the hill to their homes at dusk.

Soldiers live in tents on a hill overlooking the resort, stationed there to stop locals taking sand from the beach to build houses.

We see the reason for this the next day when we visit the village of Ribeirqa de Aguas Belas on the other side of the island.

The once pristine black sand beach there lost its sand five years ago after villagers used it to make concrete for buildings.

The recreational and fun area of the village has been lost.

It is a fishing village with a lot of small boats on the shore. As in most villages on the island, there is a lot of rubbish lying around and pigs and dogs wander the streets.

It is an old-style village with women washing clothes on a washer board, while men sit around playing a board game or talking.

Despite the focus on two contrasting beaches, Santiago also has many other sandy beaches and we swim at some of them as we travel round the island in our small black Aveo rental car with the registrar of the resort, Emilia Wojciechowska, as our guide. She has taken time out from her law practice in Poland to travel the world.

We have lunch at the north end of the island at the delightful village of Tarrafal. It has a white sandy beach and we join locals in the water for a swim.

The manager of the Palm Beach Resort is Mohammed, who grew up in Zanzibar and almost represented Tanzania in badminton at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane.

''My sister was the No1 woman in the country and went,'' he said.

''I was the No2 man and didn't. I was very disappointed.''

Mohammed, who has managed Palm Beach for the past five years, picked us up at the airport when we arrived on Santiago for the one-hour drive back to the resort.

He tells us ''this is Africa and not everything is perfect''.

We find this to be true at the resort when a rod in the bathroom crashes to the floor, the door will not lock, there is no water to flush the toilet in the morning and the power goes off at 5am each day.

Santiago is a volcanic island and the green belt in this tropical island is the Serra Malagueta mountain range.

We walk up a trail and the cloud breaks in time for us to get a view of the landscape to the east, west and north.

In the distance, we see a small mountain village where people are sowing and harvesting crops on the steep mountain slopes.

It is a popular track and we meet a Greek from Crete, a French couple bird-watching and a large group who are attending a Roman Catholic retreat.

Emilia tries to walk the trails every two weeks.

''It is refreshing getting away up the mountains,'' she says.

It is the end of August when we walk down a trail back to the car.

''A month ago, it was dry and barren. The vegetation is now about 15cm high. By December, it will be chest high,'' Emilia says.

While driving in the mountain area we meet some boys and a 9-year-old girl named Jasmine who give us contrasting views of the Cape Verde people.

The boys on the hill demand money and when they don't get it, they bang angrily on the back of the car and, worse, try to open the door.

''Too many tourists give them money and they expect it,'' Emilia said.

''I'm strongly against giving them money unless they do something for it.''

Jasmine and her 6-year-old friend are friendly and give us a bunch of flowers.

We also visit the old Portuguese fort of Cuidado Valti, which has been rebuilt as a tourist attraction. It was built in the 15th century and was raided frequently by pirates such as Sir Francis Drake.

The Portuguese eventually gave up the centre and shifted the capital to Praia, which the pirates found harder to ransack. It has a population of 125,000 today.

The most noted sportsman to be born and grow up on the Cape Verde Islands is football star Cristiano Ronaldo, who has played for Portugal, Sporting Lisbon and Real Madrid. He honed his football skills on the Cape Verde beaches.


Cape Verde Islands
Capital: Praia
Currency: Cape Verde escudo
Population: 500,585
President: Jorge Carlos Fonseca
Official language: Portuguese
Government: Parliamentary republic
Most noted sportsman: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Sporting Lisbon, Real Madrid)