In the heat of the tropical night, after a dinner of excellent fish and too much wine, I decided to commune with the local heavens. A few feet from my beach hut, the surf was sighing softly while the rainforest brooded. Not a soul was in sight. Selecting a spot on the arc of pristine sand between sea and jungle, I lay down, arms outstretched, and contemplated the star-spangled sky.
Odd, you might think. Dumb, perhaps, given the nocturnal wildlife scuttling around. But I was on Príncipe, an isolated speck in the equatorial Atlantic where normality vanishes and space-time curves in curious ways.
North, south, east and west lay restless ocean. Deep beneath me were ancient volcanic plumes. And somewhere about 80 miles above me the South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth had re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in 2002 after becoming the second tourist in space.
That trip cost Shuttleworth $20m and opened his eyes to how far human development blazes across the night-time world. With a software fortune estimated at $500m, he went in search of a haven, eventually alighting upon Príncipe. His love affair with the island – for which he has bold plans admirable to some, controversial to others – is going to cost a lot more than a ride on a Soyuz rocket.
“Tens of millions,” he tells me. About $95m over 15 years, says one of his aides. More than $135m, says another knowledgeable source.
It is easy to see why Shuttleworth is enchanted: Príncipe is a planet in miniature. As you approach in an old twin-prop 18-seat Dornier, it emerges from the clouds like a Caribbean Treasure Island, a patch of green in the endless blue with white waves breaking in numerous bays. Forest covers virtually everything, running right down to the shore, a jumble of palms, oka, and many other species.
But then you look south and see sheer volcanic peaks, their summits wreathed in cloud: this is more Lost World, like a scene from South America. Then, beyond the airstrip, the asphalt gives way to dirt tracks of deep red soil where simple wooden houses built on stilts dot the way. This is rural Africa, where women carry water on their heads and children stare out of curiosity before breaking into smiles.
Príncipe is 20km long and 12km wide. About 6,000 people live there, and last year 500 visitors stayed at its idyllic main hotel, Bom Bom Island Resort, with a few hundred more staying elsewhere. Its capital, Santa António, consists of a handful of streets with a market, a government building where flip-flops are banned, and a bank with the island’s sole cash machine, which works only with a local card, and then sporadically.
There are no tourist shops and nothing much to buy. The main attractions in the market when I visited were brightly-coloured vegetables and half a shark. Though the island’s wildlife is unique, it is of modest scale: the big beasts are out at sea where whales and marlin roam.
Instead, what Príncipe has to offer is far harder to buy than any souvenir or safari-park snap. It’s the ability to make you think about life differently.
There aren’t many machines on the island: some 4x4 vehicles, motorcycles and outboard motors, and some generators. It’s quiet. People walk. They cook on open fires. Canoes are often still driven by paddle power.
It is easy, of course, for the visitor to romanticise such places. Príncipe has its problems: girls have children as young as 12, a sociologist tells me, and men may have two, three or four wives. In a small community, that can be a recipe for confusion. Fondness for a local brew called cacharamba is also problematic, as I discovered when a lady with a gap-toothed smile and infant strapped to her back embraced me with more passion than was strictly necessary two minutes after we had first met at 11 one morning.
Nevertheless, this is not the desperate poverty of shanty towns and sewer slums. It’s clean; the simple wooden houses have space. The sea provides fish, the forest supplies food and much else. Local lore has it that a few years ago a six-year-old girl got lost in dense forest in the south and was found alive nine months later. People mostly look fit, well and happy.
At the northern tip of Príncipe, a dirt road winds through empty forest to Bom Bom Island Resort, a cluster of beach huts set in gardens carved out among palms. Two long sandy beaches curve either side of a rocky promontory from which a wooden bridge leads to an islet where the resort has its small bar and restaurant.
The rooms are comfortable rather than luxurious, and the electricity goes off at midnight. But the food is delicious and the setting sublime. To dine by candlelight on fresh fish and local fruit, then stroll back across the bridge, waves splashing below and stars overhead, was dangerously intoxicating. Enough to make you want to pack in everything and stay for ever.
Shuttleworth, whom locals call the Man in the Moon, liked Bom Bom so much he bought it. He has also either bought or acquired rights to three other beaches that are such perfect vistas you begin to wonder who’s been Photoshopping reality. They were all deserted on the days I visited.
On these sites, Shuttleworth envisages a series of resorts, one with beach huts, one with luxury tents, one as yet undetermined. He is well aware such development – or “areas of intervention” as his company likes to say – poses risks to a small island.
But like it or not, change is coming to Príncipe, he says. You could see it in the village of Abade, where I found fishermen making two new boats: dugout canoes, hacked from the trunks of trees as they have been for centuries. Yet just beyond the canoes was a shack with a satellite TV dish on the roof: last year electricity arrived in the village, bringing an endless stream of the outside world with it.
If change is coming, better that someone sensitive handles it. “You can’t will people [to stay in] poverty: that is a dangerous thing westerners try to do,” Shuttleworth says. “You have to try and figure out a way to improve people’s quality of life and their ability to participate in the world, while still protecting what they may not realise is very special about their environment.”
In fact, Príncipe knows all about social upheaval. Behind the beaches and under the forest lies a lost civilisation. I glimpsed it first as we drove through Porto Real, a modest collection of homes with a small school. On a hill above the village lies a massive stone staircase, overgrown with vegetation, leading up to the ruined shell of a large building. It is straight out of Indiana Jones. There are more ruins round the corner and, rusting in the undergrowth, a steam engine.
These are the remains of a plantation that once exported coffee and cacao on a grand scale. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, plantations created by Portuguese colonialists deploying slave or cheap labour dominated the north of the island, transforming the landscape. The Europeans even built miniature railways to run the coffee and cacao from the hilltops to the beaches.
But rival producers in other countries, coupled with the island winning independence in 1975, destroyed the industry. Plantation houses fell derelict; the forest reclaimed the land. And the inhabitants of Príncipe? They reverted to a different way of living.
That transformation is encapsulated at Roca Sundy, once the jewel of the plantations. Behind the cavernous house stands a plaque recording the 1919 visit of British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, who came to “the palace” to witness a solar eclipse. His photographs of stars helped to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity.
It’s hard to picture that now. Eddington’s plaque stands forlorn on a scrubby patch behind the empty house, and many of Sundy’s ancillary buildings are roofless and weed-grown.
Shuttleworth also has plans for Sundy and a second plantation. There’s talk of restoration, visitor centres, botanical gardens and museums. On the other side of the island, another developer is already converting a ruined plantation, Belo Monte, into a boutique hotel.
Shuttleworth’s company HBD (Here Be Dragons) has drafted on to the island experts in design, forestry and agriculture to pursue his visions. It is setting up office right next to the no-flip-flop parliament. HBD is expecting, it says, to hire 700 people.
How much will the Man in the Moon bend the space-time of planet Príncipe? It’s hard to tell as yet but bend it he will.
A key factor will be access. At the moment it is not easy getting to Príncipe. From Europe, you have to go to Lisbon, catch the one flight a week to the island of São Tomé, stay the night (the Omali Lodge Hotel there is an oasis of soft towels and air conditioning) and then take the 18-seat Dornier to Príncipe, weather permitting.
But Príncipe’s little aerodrome, with its windsock full of holes, also faces change: a broad scar of red earth now marks where forest has been cleared to build a new runway. One day, possibly next year, bigger aircraft will come. Shuttleworth appreciates the implications, and HBD says the new runway is being limited so that only aircraft carrying a maximum of 50 passengers will be able to land.
“If you are going to get involved somewhere like Príncipe,” Shuttleworth tells me, “one goal is to ensure that if you fly into Príncipe in 20 years’ time, it is as beautiful as it is today … that it will seem extraordinarily protected.”
Let’s hope so. Because, as he puts it: “When you fly in today you feel like you have gone somewhere ethereal.”
Richard Whistler was a guest of Original Travel, which offers an eight-day trip to São Tomé and Príncipe from £2,350, including two nights at Omali Lodge on São Tomé and five nights at Bom Bom Island Resort on a full-board basis, plus international and domestic flights from London