Trip Report – São Tomé & Príncipe

Sao Tome & Principe with Dayne Braine 03-15 June 2018

First of all, let us orientate ourselves a little bit. These two volcanic islands lie in the Gulf of Guinea of Africa. They are referred to as “the Galapagos of Africa” for a very good reason! What makes it a little bit more unique, they are about three times older than the Galapagos, Principe being the older of the two islands at 30 odd million years old. So naturally, as on most islands in the world, evolution led creatures down many different paths leading to many endemic species of vegetation, birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles and very few smaller mammals.

It was colonized by the Portuguese. They started farming with cocoa and coffee among other things. This led to a lot of slaves being brought to the islands mainly from Cape Verde, Angola, Congo and a few other African countries. Once the Portuguese colonials pulled out, there was no war. This has led to a very diverse culture and some of the most peaceful people I have met in Africa.

It is a biodiversity hot spot in the world.  Five species of turtle breed here. Whales pass by in season and a few dolphin species call this home. For those with an interest in diving or snorkeling, this is a must. Birdwatchers will be very entertained with the 29 endemic species between the two islands and a host of subspecies. For photographers, this is a playground. The old plantation houses and huge old hospitals alone are fascinating subjects. The waters around Principe have landed seven International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world records from the early 1990s. They catch Marlin, Sailfish and Swordfish with a catch and release policy. The joint population is under 200,000 of which 7000 live on Principe.

Day 1

We landed in the capital Sao Tome at midnight. Our driver took us to our accommodation in town to rest. Our camping journey would start in the morning.

Early rise had Newton’s Sunbird ringing the alarm and with that we had our first endemic under the belt.

After payments and formalities we were whisked off by our driver to Morro Peixe, where we were to meet Jose our guide and Ashish our porter for the next three days of camping wild. En route we managed to catch up with some familiar candidates such as Blue and Common Waxbills, plenty of Yellow-billed Kites, Little Swifts, African Palm Swifts, Village Weavers and Laughing Doves. New comers to the list included Western Reef Heron and another endemic, the Sao Tome Prinia.

We repacked our bags at Morro Peixe to lighten the load as we would have to carry our personal belongings for the next three days. We headed out on a motorized pirogue to the Xufe-Xufe river. This would be our home for the next two nights. The journey there was a test on the nerves on its own! A bit of water splashing made the heart race in worry about the photographic equipment which I secured. The birding front was rather quiet, the only notable birds flying around were White-tailed Tropic birds, but these never get old. Another notable sighting was watching the Yellow-billed Kites fishing like Fish-eagles.

Upon arriving at a small rocky cove just past Sao Miguel we made a landing with the assistance of some hunters and fishermen. Hunting in Sao Tome means Mona Monkey (an introduced species specifically for bush meat) and unfortunately the Sao Tome Ibis as well as any Pigeons or Doves. We watched at the beach as they made quick work of skinning six monkeys. This was not for the weak stomach. I asked Jose if he indulges in monkey to which the response was “only people from forest eat macaco, not in city”.

From the landing we grabbed all we could carry and scarpered up a pathway on the edge of a cliff through lowland forest to the next beach, through the Queija river and set up base at the Xufe- Xufe. We were busy setting up camp when Ashish called for my attention. He had spotted a Sao Tome Green Snake.

The next awesome endemic was a Sao Tome day-flying Bat. Not having any birds of prey (except for Kites) have allowed these critters to utilize day hours to hunt. It really is a lovely start and end to a day seeing an endemic which is a lifer. The end of day endemic was the Sao Tome Thrush. All this excitement called for an early dinner and an early night.

Day 2

Today’s targets included the Sao Tome Fiscal, Grosbeak and Ibis. Unfortunately they were not all sighted. Ibis being the only ones to put in a performance,  but that surely did not dampen the moods. The first new endemic for the day arrived in the early hours of the morning, a party of Sao Tome Speirops.

Coffee down and boots strapped we headed into the mountains. We met our local guide after breakfast and continued on a strenuous trek. The most difficult thing to cope with was the humidity. After heading up for about 20 minutes we struck our first sighting of Sao Tome Weaver. What a stunning bird! A party of four birds kept us entertained.

We managed to find our first couple of Sao Tome Ibis. By the end of the day we had seen a total of seven. We were thrilled as the Ibis is one of the rarest birds in the world. The biggest frustration for the entire tour was hearing Sao Tome Grosbeak in the canopy above us and not being able to lay eyes on a single one. We encountered the Sao Tome race of Malachite Kingfisher on our way back to camp. The juvenile makes it look like a definite different species.

Back in camp we once again took an early meal and rested our well worked legs after our death march!

Day 3

Today saw us pack up camp to move to another spot to camp for our last night, as to cut the journey a bit for our final leg. After coffee ritual and breakfast we headed in  southerly direction along the coastal cliffs.  More Sao Tome Speirops came by for another photo session. The tide was quite a bit higher than when we had arrived so crossing the two rivers this time was a bit more off a challenge. There was no way to stay dry, so the boots came off, back packs were carried on our heads and we waded through chest depth water, hoping that a wave would not come and unearth you to let your camera flood into the ocean! I had to lug about 15kg of my silly hobby. I managed break my dry pack which was housing my camera and big lens. The camera took the weight of the fall (thank goodness not the lens!) and the auto focus went on the blink. This is why it is almost a necessity to have a second camera body when traveling. We proceeded with caution.

We flushed a Striated Heron from its feeding patch along a trickle of a stream.  Yellow-billed Kites played their usual daily routine circling the skies above. Elation came in the form of a Sao Tome Oriole! What a strange colored bird, not used to seeing an Oriole without bright yellows involved. What a lovely call though. Nothing prepared me for the male Sao Tome Paradise Flycatcher. Book illustrations do not justify this bird.  A pair was hawking insects from low perches not far from us. One of the stars of the trip was a Giant Weaver male in all its glory. I would really have loved to have seen a nest as these are apparently quite large.

As we missioned through the Guinea forest, Jose walked straight past a Sao Tome Cobra. It was previously thought to be an introduced species from mainland Africa to help eradicate rats. I managed to get a photo or two much to Jose’s dismay. A very fluid melodic call piqued interest. Scanning the surrounding foliage from where the call had come we picked up a pair of our first of many Principe Seedeaters. Not a very relevant name given that they are more common on Sao Tome. It is the smaller sister species of Sao Tome Grosbeak. It is far more common and easier to locate though.

We started our descent from the forested cliffs down towards the beach. Another stream had to be crossed, this time not as brutal as the first crossing. We headed along the beach and found our camp for the night, the old ruins of Santo Antonio. This must have been quite a remarkable place in its time. We set up tents next to a very rickety bridge crossing a stream which looked like it would collapse any day now. Many Yellow-billed Kites circled the area. A scan of the General area yielded a Sao Tome Prinia which was on the case of a Common Waxbill. The Prinia chased the Waxbill around for about five minutes expressing great discomfort in typical Prinia grates. A Sao Tome Kingfisher was fishing along the stream while Western Reef Herons fished off the rocks closer to the coastal side. The last endemic lifer for the day came in the form of Sao Tome Spinetail. As the sun was setting Straw-coloured Fuitbats started stirring. After slogging away all day, another early evening was had and boots were dried off at the fire.

Day 4

This morning after breakfast we broke up camp for the last time, we were to meet a driver at Santa Josefina by lunchtime. After some Sao Tome brew and breakfast we headed out for our last stretch in the south-west. The Sao Tome Spinetails bode us farewell as we made our way over the rickety bridge. The moss and lichen covered tangles of branches received a curious visitor which was a male Giant Weaver. There will never be a another Weaver that can top this one in my books!

Not long after crossing the bridge we heard some flapping in the canopy which gave away a Sao Tome Green Pigeon, another beautiful bird. Unfortunately that was the only endemic seen that evaded the lens. We got the Sao Tome race of Lemon Dove a few minutes later for good measure. One of the endemics that was seen on a daily basis was the Sao Tome Thrush, I really enjoy this family of birds wherever I go in Africa, this one was no disappointment and it did not get old during our stay. Sao Tome Sunbirds were also in all habitat. In some secondary growth the calls of the Sao Tome race of Chestnut-winged Starlings gave away their presence. These are very heavy-billed birds.

About an hour before we reached our extraction point we managed to pish in a family of five Sao Tome White-eyes. This was also the only show they put in during our entire trip. I was very chuffed to have seen them as they are clearly not common. I was surprised not to have found any geckos around but I did manage to see quite a few skinks.

We got to Santa Josefina where Jose and Ashish made us lunch one last time before parting ways. Our driver arrived just in time to join us for lunch. With him he had gifts from civilization in the form of soft drinks and beer in a cooler box, wow did that Superbok go down well! We packed all our gear into the bakkie and drove through an extensive African Palm-oil plantation. On the way out we saw our third and final Sao Tome Cobra. This made me think that the south-west has a larger population than previously thought. Our driver took us to Quinta Buala which is a self-catering  house on the edge of a coffee plantation. Secondary growth was the order of the day. Shade for the coffee plantation come in the form of the large indigenous trees to the island which makes it productive for certain bird species. On arrival we were greeted by Sao Tome Spinetails flying overhead, a family of Sao Tome Speirops, both adult and juvenile Sao Tome and Newtons Sunbirds. Last endemic for the day was a Sao Tome Bronze-naped Pigeon.

Day 5

This morning was set aside to climb up to the dry crater lake of Lagoa Amelia. Francisco, one of the Obo National Park staff based at the Bom Successo Botanical Gardens led the way. His English was more limited than my poor Portuguese, but we managed with hand gestures. After grabbing a few goods we headed through the gardens which had Newtons Sunbirds, Principe Seedeaters, Sao Tome Weavers and Common Waxbills. It wasn’t far up the pathway from there that we heard and then located the target of the day, Giant Sunbird. Wow what an intriguing bird! It not only plays the role of a Sunbird but also that of the absent Wood-hoopoe from mainland Africa. Sao Tome Spinetails were abundant in the cleared lands on the edge of the forest. Here were also good numbers of Common Waxbill and Bronze Mannikins. On the way up we found a handful of Sao Tome Thrushes, two pairs of Sao Tome Paradise Flycatchers and several Sao Tome Green-Pigeons. In the dry crater lake there is a two meter layer of mossy orchid like sponge. It is obviously very nutrient rich soil being a volcanic island. It supports a host of endemic vegetation but the Giant Begonia was a firm favorite. Climbing out of the crater we spotted yet some more Principe Seedeaters and a pair of Newtons Sunbirds. On our way out in the degraded farmland we saw Village Weavers. Once back at Quinta Buala the rest of the day was taken at ease.

Day 6

The day we have been waiting for – Principe here we come! Sao Tome is great but the charm and allure of the smaller, yet older island of Principe is far more enticing. It has a more wild feeling to it and with a much smaller population than Sao Tome it is quite clean of pollution. Seven endemic bird species call this island home. Throw in a few reptiles, amphibians and butterflies for good measure.

The first new bird to be added to the list was the African Grey Parrot flying over the aircraft as we were taxiing to the terminal. We found Common Waxbills and Bronze Mannikins on the lawn near the terminal. Yellow-billed Kites circled the apron.

We were met by a driver that took us to our home for the next four nights. Roca Belo Monte is owned by a Dutchman and run by a South African couple. This place is what dreams are made of. They even have their own museum in the making. There is a small cine where daily presentations are delivered before dinner. These include island bio-geography, oceanography, history and whatever else may interest you. The cuisine is locally inspired and delicious. Breakfasts are equally exciting.

In the gardens we picked up our first true endemic the Principe Golden Weaver. While it is quite large and heavy billed, it is not quite as big as the Giant Weaver and not too different looking to our Golden Weaver on mainland Africa. The next to show us its lung capacity was the Dohrn’s Warbler. This was by far the most vocal bird throughout our stay. A twenty minute walk down to the local swimming beach yielded a few more species. Chestnut-breasted Nigrita was a lovely little surprise, an African Grey Parrot was shrieking in the canopy not to be seen. Then it  happened! A party of Principe Speirops. Cloud nine folks, these little leaf gleamers gave me hours of entertainment throughout our stay. Also very common and confiding. The beach is rated as the top beach of the two islands. It is here at Banana Beach I got my only seabird lifer for the trip, Brown Booby. I was surprised to find a small kingfisher catching crabs on the beach, the Principe race of a Malachite Kingfisher. Having seen the White-bellied Kingfisher in Angola several years ago I can say with confidence, these are quite different, mostly behaviorally.

We headed back up to the viewpoint not too far from our room. White-tailed Tropicbirds flew below us alongside the cliffs. More Principe Speirops allowed me to get my fill of photographs. With beautiful views over forest,  Bombom island and beaches, this is a great sundowner location but the best spot is the deck below the bar and restaurant.

Dinner here is always a lovely surprise. The food here we found to be top notch. Fresh Portuguese bread served with butter and chilli sauce is standard, followed by a starter. Main is an option normally between fish or meat. I would recommend the fish here. A dessert follows mains and is never a disappointment. There is limited accommodation here which means you will have a smaller crowd than the most expensive resort on the island. The Management is smooth and the staff are a friendly and accommodating.

Day 7

Today was an orientation day. Walter, the manager at Roca Belo Monte took us to a waterfall and we managed to see a small flock of African Grey Parrots before they flushed. We crawled along the pathway looking at spiders, insects and every now and then a bird. I was so happy to connect with several juvenile Principe Snake-eyed Skinks.

We had a packed lunch at the waterfall. After lunch we slowly made our way back to the Park entrance. On our way down we got our first of many Blue-breasted Kingfishers. What a large and pretty bird.

After our hike we took the rest of the day at leisure, as one should on an island destination.

Day 8

After a hearty breakfast, Balo one of the best local guides on the island, took us on a reptile/forest/spider/critter finding excursion. We headed out on quad bikes winding along the loopy island roads. We went via  Roca Sundy (where Einstein’s theory of relativity was proven) which is an old cacao plantation. It must have been a very well oiled machine in its heyday, it is a small village of its own. South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth has invested into this place to restore the main plantation house to its former glory which is now an upmarket hotel.

From there we headed into Balo’s playground. He showed us various reptiles including a Many-scaled Feylinia which was a huge highlight being another endemic. He also managed to find a Principe Puddle Frog. The Highlight of the day however was in the form of a Tarantula! A huge beast that we photographed for the better part of an hour.

On our way back we got a few more African Grey Parrots, Common Waxbills, Bronze Mannikins, Principe Weavers, Dohrn’s Warblers and a new one for the list, the Splendid Glossy Starling. These birds have apparently only colonized the island in very recent times, adding confusion in the ID process between them and Principe Glossy Starlings.

Once back at the hotel we took a short stroll around which produced numerous African Green Pigeons, a pair of Blue-breasted Kingfishers, Principe Speirops and the cherry on top, Principe Glossy Starling. Sao Tome Bronze-naped Pigeons put in performance as well as the Principe form of Velvet-mantled Drongo with its very curious white streaks on the vent.

The diminutive Principe Sunbird played harder to get than its other island cousin. I eventually managed some decent shots after spending some time following one. On the trees around the hotel one can find Principe Day Geckos. The males getting a lovely green flash during breeding periods.

It was difficult to grasp the fact that we had to leave this paradise behind the next day as we headed back to Sao Tome.

Day 9 and 10

Today saw us heading back to Sao Tome. Derio our driver picked us up and taxied us to Praia Inhame in the south of the island for two nights of relaxation before heading back to reality.

We took an excursion to Isle de Rolas which is on the equator to do the tourist part our trip.

Praia Inhame is a peaceful Eco lodge on the beach. This is apparently the place to be in turtle egg laying and hatching seasons.

In the gardens here a few of the endemics can be seen such as Newton’s Sunbirds, Sao Tome Speirops, Principe Seedeater and Sao Tome Prinia. A bonus here was also African Emerald Cuckoo which are way more confiding than I am used to on mainland Africa.