The experience of climbing the volcano was dwarfed by the hardship of a village that had been all but buried in a recent eruption.
02.06.2016 - 04.06.2016 27 °C
It came as a complete shock. No-one had told me. Sure, they had explained that the price of the minibus had more than doubled because a recent eruption had taken out the road, but that as the only mention of an eruption that I've heard of. Maybe they feared I wouldn’t go up there if I knew that most of the village that used to house more than a thousand people had also been levelled by the lava flow.
I’d taken the ferry from the main island of Santiago to the smaller Fogo – fittingly meaning ‘fire’ – to climb Pico de Fogo. A perfectly cone-shaped volcano, peaking out at 2829 metres above sea-level, making its summit Cape Verde’s highest point. It had last erupted in 1995. Or so I thought. An eruption in late 2014 meant that the villagers were evacuated for three months while the lava cooled. Vulcanologists are constantly keeping an eye on the volcano’s activities, and everybody was evacuated in due time, leaving only material damage behind as the result of the volcano’s rage. Thank science.
The Pico is hidden from the coast by an enormous collapsed crater (or caldera). 75.000 years ago the eastern half the caldera rim collapsed into the sea, leaving a semi-circle mountain range, more than eight kilometres long.
This half-bowl effectively makes the Pico a volcano inside a volcano. Inside the bowl, between the rim and the Pico lies Chã das Caldeiras (or the “Field of Boilers”). This 'field' is home to the village, plenty of wineries and a black lava landscape that looks like it’s been transferred here straight from the moon. Of this ‘moonscape’ one guidebook has written: “nothing can quite prepare you for the strange thrill of witnessing it for the first time.”
That can definitely be said of witnessing a village swallowed by a volcano for the first time too. The minibus driver did a good job explaining where the road had been taken out, probably to ensure me that the doubling of the price wasn’t a ‘tourist price’. Driving along the edge of the solidified lava, we came to a hut where the lava had, almost comically, reached the walls of the small house and then decided to stop – thus sparing the house.
Although it was nearly two years ago, many of the people living here have yet to return. The reason was rather apparent when I arrived where the village used to be… or rather, where the village still is.
Most of the raw concrete walls that the houses are made with were able to withstand the lava. Instead, the houses have simply been buried, with only the flat roofs visible. Houses on the edge of the flow are being dug out. But it is hard manual labour cutting through the volcanic rocks. The main street was completely swallowed, and it seems impossible that these houses will ever see their former inhabitants return. To me, it seems, these people will have to start over and build new lives elsewhere on the island.
Others were luckier. Like the house I passed when I entered, the community centre was only partly covered. Likewise, a few private homes.
One of which was the homestay that sheltered me during my nights here. It used to be a bar-restaurant, but the lava had made its way into the bar and dining areas. Volcanic rock still occupies one of the rooms and functions as an equally tragic and rather bad-ass deco in the spared dining room. Had this only been a more popular tourist destination, would they have made a fortune as ‘The Lava Restaurant’ or something similar. Unfortunately, this is one of the lesser visited Cape Verdean islands.
I made sure to use the bar, though. However, sitting on my host’s flat roof, reading and drinking rosé, while locals were still digging out the neighbouring house, inevitably recalled images of tourists sunning themselves between the rubble after the 2004 Asian tsunami.
There wasn’t much I could do to help. Nothing else than spending my money, helping the community with some hard needed cash. So that’s what I did. I took a guide for the climb, which I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. I stayed in the homestay and didn’t haggle about the price, which I probably would have done otherwise. And I bought an extra bottle of the locally produced wine from the community store, which I might have done anyway. This time, I made sure to enjoy it inside the house.
The climb itself started early morning in the volcano’s shadow, with the sun rising behind it. It was a rather steep two-and-a-half hour scramble to the top. Not technical, but clumsiness was better left at the foot. Something I found out not more than twenty metres from the summit when I gripped and pulled on a loose boulder, the size of a large fridge.
I had to jump out of the way not to be crushed as it tumbled down the mountainside. The view from the top was stunning, though still rather depressing with the roofs of the village still clearly visible. That, however, was forgotten quickly as we made our way down. My guide, Safé, taking the lead, the decent was mainly a matter of letting gravity doing what it does best. In the best one-leg-in-front-of-the-other-or-you-will-start-rolling, we were able to spring down the mountainside in a cloud of dust and volcanic ash. So fine was the gravel that we could probably have skied down.
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