Travel Cape Verde, The Canary Islands and Morocco

Sea to Sahara: Cape Verde, Canary Islands and Morocco

Tom Sharpe|June 1, 2018|Field Report

Sunday, April 8, 2018
Praia, São Tiago Island, Cape Verde / Embark Island Sky

Our Sea to Sahara adventure began on a warm and sunny day in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde Islands. We enjoyed an excellent lunch of traditional Cabo Verdean dishes in the cozy Quintal da Musica, accompanied by the lively music of a local band before setting out for the old town of Cidade Velha, the former capital, now a World Heritage Site. The massive fortifications of Forte Real do São Filipe on the hill above the town gave us an aerial view of the layout of the old town below with its ruined cathedral. In town, we drank hibiscus juice and sampled local snacks while watching local women perform a traditional batuku dance accompanied by singing and the rhythm of pounding txabeta (cloth pillows held between the knees).

In the town square, an elaborate marble whipping post reminded us of the harsh history of these islands and the slavery of the people brought here from the African mainland. A stroll along the narrow Rua Banana, the oldest European street in Sub-Saharan Africa, with its straw-roofed, whitewashed houses brought us to the oldest surviving building in the town, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário. Dating from 1495, this church was visited by explorers Vasca da Gama and Christopher Columbus who stopped here soon after its construction.

Soon it was time to make our way back to the modern city of Praia where our ship, the Island Sky, awaited us.

Monday & Tuesday, April 9 & 10
Fogo Island / Brava Island

An overnight sail brought us to the most southwesterly islands of the archipelago, Fogo and Brava, which we spent two days exploring. On Fogo we came ashore by Zodiac at the port of São Filipe where our local guides led us around the busy cobbled streets of this colorful Portuguese colonial town. The lively, noisy market bustled with stallholders selling all manner of exotic fruits and vegetables, while upstairs the morning’s fish catch was being sorted and cut up for sale.

A short walk then took us to the Museu Municipal de São Filipe with its reconstruction of a funco
(a traditional house with walls of black lava) and a film showing the dramatic 2014 eruption of the island’s volcano. We finished our town trail at Dona Maria’s bakery on the edge of a cliff above a black-sand beach where we sampled a tasty range of local cakes and cookies. Suitably fortified, we set off for the climb—by bus—towards Fogo’s most spectacular landscape, Chã das Caldeiras.

Once out of the city, the cobbled streets gave way to a beautifully engineered paved road which rose through steep hairpin bends higher and higher towards the entrance to the Parque Natural do Fogo. Here we saw the rubbly black basalt lava from a 1951 eruption tumbling down the steep slope while above it rose the classic stratovolcano cone of Pico do Fogo; at 9,281 feet above sea level, it is the highest point in the Cape Verde Islands. As we drove into the caldera, the wall rose thousands of feet above us. It formed when the volcano’s summit collapsed about 80,000 years ago, and the whole eastern side of the volcano fell into the sea. The caldera floor was filled with recent lava flows—1951, 1995, and perhaps most impressive of all, lava just three years old from the eruption of 2014-15. With the old cobbled road now blocked by the lava, we turned onto a new dirt road which weaved its way along the front of the lava flow and its ropey pahoehoe surface or rubbly aa

The road led us to a new hotel—the proprietor’s third hotel as her other two were swallowed up by the lava flow. Here we sampled some of the excellent Fogo wines produced in the caldera before sitting down to a lovely lunch in the hotel restaurant. Built on top of the new lava flow, the restaurant’s tiled floor was still hot to the touch from the volcanic rock beneath. Afterwards, we walked through the remains of one of the two settlements consumed by the lava flow. It was sobering to see only the roofs of houses sticking up through the black basalt. Around us, though, new homes were being rebuilt as the locals reclaim their community from the lava.

On Brava, the strong NE trade winds proved too much for our planned landing site, so we relocated from the island’s east coast to a more sheltered bay on the west, Fajã de Água. From here a steep road led us up through a barren and rugged landscape to the quaint colonial town of Vila Nova Sintra where we visited the former home of writer and composer Eugénio Tavares (1867-1930). We learned Brava’s long association with the whaling industry and its links to America and enjoyed scenic viewpoints overlooking the town.

Sailing between Fogo and Brava, the birders were pleased to see brown boobies and red-billed tropic birds, and on the islands themselves, three endemics—the Cape Verde swift, sparrow, and shearwater.

Wednesday, April 11
Santo Antão Island

In strong winds this morning, our captain skillfully maneuvered the Island Sky alongside in the little port of Porto Novo on Santo Antão, the most northwesterly of the Cape Verde Islands. Here we climbed into a fleet of a dozen minibuses for our exploration of the island. This took us north into steep mountainous terrain cut by deep rocky ravines and up into an attractively forested landscape, the greenest we had so far encountered. We stopped to view the beautiful flat-floored Cova de Paúl, an old volcanic caldera, the trade winds spilling cloud over with steep wooded crater wall. The road continued north, running along the crest of a narrow fin of rock barely wide enough to contain the highway, with precipitous cliffs dropping away on either side. Stunning views of steep terraced mountains lay to both sides.

The road soon descended into the little town of Ribeira Grande where we turned west along the coast to Ponta do Sol and inland on what must be one of the world’s most spectacular highways. Perched on a narrow ledge just wide enough for one vehicle, the cobbled road climbed and twisted above vertiginous drops, offering the most incredible views of the island’s north coast plunging steeply into the ocean. Our skilled local drivers brought us safely to the picturesque little village of Fontainhas, clinging to a narrow rib of rock and almost suspended in space, but soon it was time to turn around and experience that road again as we headed into the little fishing village of Ponta do Sol for lunch. Here in the harbor the birders had a view of migrating ruddy turnstones on their way to Greenland and Canada, as well as their first sighting of an osprey.

The afternoon began with a drive and walk in the verdant, lush farming valley of Ribeira do Paúl. Breadfruit, bananas, papaya, and sugar cane grew in profusion on the valley floor and lower slopes. Back down on the coast we had a chance to taste the end product of the sugar cane—grogue, the islands’ national drink, produced here in an artisanal way with an oxen-driven press or trapiche.

We returned to Porto Nova on a new road around the north coast, the barren, uninhabited landscape here a stark contrast to the green valleys on the interior. Back on board the Island Sky, it was time to don our glad rags for the captain’s welcome reception and dinner hosted by Captain Håkan Admarker.

Thursday & Friday, April 12 & 13
At Sea

Two days at sea gave us an opportunity to download our Cape Verde pictures, catch up on sleep and laundry, and be entertained by our expedition staff. Cultural geographer Ron Wixman introduced us to the peoples and cultures of the Atlantic islands, geologist Tom Sharpe told us about the origin of the volcanic islands of Cape Verde and the Canaries, and marine biologist Merel Dalebout spoke on the oceanography of the eastern tropical Atlantic Ocean in which we were sailing. The following day ornithologist Jim Wilson described the birds of Macaronesia, this grouping of Atlantic islands we were visiting; Ron explained agro-colonialism in our changing world; and Rich Pagen led us through the remarkable sex lives of marine organisms.

Out on deck, the wildlife was elusive, but our naturalists did spot three fin whales, the second largest animal on the planet, as well as northern gannets who form large colonies around Britain and Ireland.

Saturday, April 14
Dakhla, Western Sahara (Morocco)

The sunrise this morning was spectacular. The dust from the trade winds was so thick that it actually shaded the light from the sun making it appear as a white orb. A fleet of twenty 4x4 vehicles awaited us in the port of Dakhla for our excursion into the Sahara. We set off in a convoy through the town and out into the desert around the head of Dakhla Lagoon. Soon we abandoned the paved highway and struck out south across the sandy desert plain to a tented camp of the Saharaoui people. Black-robed women sang traditional songs while we enjoyed tea in the shade of their khaïma. Around us, the landscape was wide and open, with flat coastal plains covered with a thin dusting of sand and distant low, eroding plateaus.

A short distance to the south lay a single, solitary, white-sand dune which was our next destination. The White Dune is a textbook example of a barchan and arcuate sand dune and a classic desert landform. It sits on the shore of Dakhla Lagoon and is isolated at high tide. From its crest we had a wonderful view across this coast where the Sahara meets the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, Jim had taken the birders off in their vehicles to search the shores of the lagoon for shorebirds and transient migrants working their way back to their northern, and perhaps Arctic, breeding grounds. Visiting a market garden in the city suburbs, they had great views of European bee-eaters and black-crowned night heron and, along the shore of the lagoon, the rare Audouin’s gull as well as Caspian and royal terns, flocks of greater flamingos, and migrating bar-tailed godwits and whimbrel.

We all returned to the Island Sky in time for a late lunch. Later, we enjoyed a presentation by our geologist on desert landscapes and the geology of Morocco while we set sail for our next Saharan destination.

Sunday, April 15
El Marsa / Laayoune Western Sahara (Morocco)

At sea this morning as we sailed north along the coast of Western Sahara, Jim introduced us to the birds we were likely to see in Morocco, and Rich gave us a presentation on marine mammals and their conservation. Soon after lunch we arrived in the busy fishing port of El Marsa. As we approached the dock the huge port facilities of the Bou Craa phosphate mine, which lies about 60 miles inland, dominated the view. We boarded buses for a journey into the desert to the oasis city of Laayoune on Wadi Sagia el-Hamra. There we toured the busy daily livestock market where goats, sheep, and camels were being bought and sold. Our guides explained how the dromedary is adapted to desert life and the important role it plays in the lives of the Saharan people. We were amazed to learn that camel prices can reach US$1000-2000 and are often given as a dowry.

In the main square of Place El Mechouar we saw the large Moulay Abdul Aziz Mosque and nearby shops selling fine silver jewelry before we made a stop for some refreshments, including camel milk, dates, and mint tea. The city dates from the time of Spanish colonization, and we visited one of the typical domed houses of that period and the Catholic church, Iglesia San Francisco de Asis, where we were fortunate to meet the priest and hear about the peaceful co-existence of the various religious groups here in Laayoune. However, the presence of United Nations vehicles in the streets hinted at the fragile political relationship between the Moroccan authorities and the local Saharaoui people.

Returning towards El Marsa, we made a stop for some further refreshments, some local musical entertainment, and a wonderful view north across a sea of sand dunes—the Sahara as we imagined it.

Monday, April 16
Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

We awoke this morning to a beautiful sunny day as the Island Sky approached the busy port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Our little expedition ship seemed dwarfed by the ferries and cruise ship behemoths with which we shared the dock, but undaunted we set off on a range of Tenerife Island tours. Some headed for Parque National del Teide, the road climbing steeply through pine forest and up into the caldera of Las Cañadas with stunning views of the volcanic peak of Teide; at 12,188 feet, it is the highest point in all of Spain. We enjoyed walks amongst the remarkable volcanic formations of Los Roques de García before pausing for a pleasant lunch of Canarian specialties. We descended through the ‘sea of clouds,’ moist air brought by the trade winds against the high mountain of Teide, to explore the well-preserved old towns of La Orotava and La Laguna. Others took a relaxed tour of the pretty colonial town of La Laguna with its mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and Genoese architecture and visited its colorful and prosperous market.

A birding group went off into the pine and laurel forests in search of Canarian endemics and met with success in the form of the laurel pigeon, Berthelot’s pipit, and the blue chaffinch.

Tuesday, April 17
La Palma

The peace and quiet of today’s Canary island, La Palma, the most northwesterly of the archipelago, was in striking contrast to the busy tourist bustle of Tenerife. The little capital city of Santa Cruz de la Palma on the east coast is a place of narrow alleys defensible against pirates, and houses adorned with handsome traditional wooden balconies often brightened with potted plants and flowers.

Buses took some of us up the island’s steep slopes to La Cumbrecita at 5,500 feet in Parque National de Caldera de Taburiente. We strolled through a beautiful forest of Canarian pines with views to the vertical volcanic rock walls across the caldera, a huge natural amphitheater formed when part of the island collapsed into the sea some half million years ago. We continued down the island’s west coast, past banana and avocado plantations and vineyards to the southern part of La Palma, the site of 20th-century volcanic activity, and back along the east coast to Santa Cruz and our ship.

Some opted to visit the northern part of the island and hike in the lush landscape of the evergreen forest at Los Tilos, a UNESCO biosphere reserve indicative of the damper climate of the western Canaries. There they saw the two endemic pigeons, the laurel and Bolle’s pigeon, with good views of chaffinches and a surprise sighting of a peregrine falcon.

Returning to our ship, we enjoyed lunch in the sunshine on the Lido Deck and watched La Palma fade into the distance as we sailed for our next destination. In the afternoon, Merel told us more about the fish and fisheries of Macaronesia, and after a Filipino dinner we enjoyed a show put on by our friendly crew.

Wednesday, April 18
Lanzarote

We docked in the port of Arrecife on Lanzarote this morning under a sun made hazy by Saharan dust before boarding our buses for a tour of the north of the island to see some of the remarkable constructions of the Lanzarote-born artist and architect, César Manrique (1919-92). His influence on Lanzarote’s controlled development as a tourist destination makes the island unique amongst the Canary Islands. At Mirador del Rio, near Lanzarote’s northernmost and highest point, the viewpoint merged beautifully and seamlessly with the natural environment. Its clean white, bright, organic interior with its smooth, curved, and molded corners is typical Manrique style. Outside, the view was almost ethereal as low clouds gave us but glimpses of the steep cliffs of the mirador.

Our next stop was another Manrique creation, the lower reaches of a long lava tube extending over three miles from Montaña Corona to the sea. Here Manrique created a cafe and auditorium in a beautiful setting and provided a walkway above a marine pool containing tiny, white, blind lobsters, only found here.

At Jardin de Cactus, Manrique used a former basalt scoria quarry to house a garden containing over a thousand species of cactus in tribute to Lanzarote’s cochineal industry, producing a natural carmine dye from the carapaces of beetles living on the prickly pear cactus.

The birders, meanwhile, had a pleasant walk in the open countryside of Lanzarote with sightings of the houbara bustard, hoopoe, and trumpeter finch.

After lunch on board, we set out once more, this time to see the spectacular volcanic landscapes of the eruptions of 1730-36 which covered a quarter of the island. We viewed the lava flows from the rolling backs of camels before heading to Timanfaya, the center of the eruption and now a national park. Park rangers revealed the heat still rising from magma miles below us before we toured the lava flows and volcanic craters by bus. We finished off our afternoon with a visit to a local bodega where we could sample the wines made from grapes grown in the ash of the 18th-century eruptions.

Thursday, April 19
At Sea

Our lecture series continued during a relaxing day at sea, with Jim describing the magnificent migrations of birds, many of them passing through this area, and Ron on the Arabization and Islamization of Northwest Africa.

In the afternoon, we settled down in the lounge with popcorn to enjoy the classic Bogart and Bergman movie of 1943, Casablanca. Soon it was time to put on our finery for the captain’s farewell reception and dinner, which culminated in an entertaining review of our trip so far in a wonderful slideshow expertly put together by Rich.

Friday, April 20
Casablanca, Morocco / Disembark / Marrakech

This morning it was time to say goodbye to the Island Sky, our home for the last twelve days, and continue our expedition overland. Disembarking in Casablanca, Morocco’s main port, we first made the customary photo stop outside Rick’s Bar before driving to the huge Mosque of Hassan II with its minaret reaching a height of 690 feet. One of the few mosques open to non-Muslims, it can accommodate 25,000 worshippers. Our guides led us around the beautifully decorated interior of carved cedar wood, marble, and travertine.

Our tour continued past the attractive and varied Art Deco villas of the Anfa residential quarter, the district where Churchill and Roosevelt met in 1943 to decide the date of the Normandy landings. Then we continued on the coastal avenue of La Corniche and our lunch venue. 

In the afternoon we set out for Marrakech, first passing through Casablanca’s Quartier Habous, the new medina laid out by French town planners in the 1930s to accommodate the expanding urban population, on our way to the main highway south. This took us across the green, fertile agricultural lands of the coastal plain, the plateau landscapes of the Moroccan Meseta, and over the low hills of the Jebilet beyond which lay the rose-red city of Marrakech.

Saturday, April 21
Marrakech

The birders set off early this morning for a full and long day in the High Atlas Mountains south of Marrakech. As well as sightings of Moussier’s redstart, little owl, and the two species of European chough, the alpine and the red-billed, they enjoyed stunning views of Jebel Toubkhal, the highest mountain in north Africa.

Others took in the sights of the ancient Berber city of Marrakech: the beautiful cactus gardens of the villa built by the French artist Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) and later home to couturier Yves Saint-Laurent; the Koutoubia Mosque dating from 1147—its minaret is the highest building in the city; and the late 19th-century Bahia Palace, once home to powerful viziers.

Fortified by a very tasty Moroccan lunch, we ventured into the famous, busy, narrow and disorienting maze of the souks, full of shops brimming with spices, fruit, vegetables, clothes, shoes, and everything under the sun, and into the wide Djemaa El Fna Square with its food stalls, musicians, snake-charmers—Marrakech as we imagined it.

In the evening, we brought our Sea to Sahara journey to a close with a wonderful farewell dinner in the spectacular setting of the Palais Soleïman. We strolled down a red carpet lined with glowing candles and greeted by traditional musicians playing the gimbri and qraqeb as we were ushered into the magical courtyard where we dined to the sound of the oud and darbouka, a memorable end to a wonderful adventure.

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