Posted by: adorsk | October 4, 2008

Hiking the Ribeiras

I went hiking with J the steward on our third day in port. It was the best hike I have ever done.

We went to Sao Antao, the island across the channel from Mindelo. On Sao Antao there are the ribeiras (ribs), jagged mountains which traverse the length of the island. The ribeiras are what remains of a volcano after millenia of erosion. To me they looked like the backs of wrinkled dinosaurs.

Our day started with a ferry ride. We caught the 8:00 AM ferry from Mindelo to Porto Novo across the channel. The morning was cool and fresh. Dolphins followed in our wake. The aroma of cafe com leite floated out of the Ferry cafe while the PA system pumped out relaxing Cape Verdean music. It was sunny on the ferry, but the tops of the Ribeiras were out of sight in the clouds.

Our plan was to catch a taxi to Caldeira des Aguas, a village on top of the ribeiras. A guide book had suggested hiking from Caldeira des Aguas down to the town of Ribeira Grande on the opposite side of the island. The distance would be 14 km as the crow flies. Then we we would get a taxi back to Porto Novo in time for the final 5:00 ferry.

A Taxi To Mars

It was about 9:00 when we arrived in Porto Novo. We picked up water and vittles and soon found a taxi.

Somehow I managed to convey that we wanted to go to the top of the Ribeiras.

Me (in mispronounced Portuguese mingling with fragments of mispronounced Spanish): “Caldeira Des Aguas?”
Taxi Driver: (confused look)
Me: “Riberia Alta? Alto? Summito?”
Taxi Driver: (confused look)
Me: “Hmmm…” (points up to the clouds)
Taxi driver: Ah, Caldeira Des Aguas, Encima de! (points up to the clouds)
Me: “Sim, encima de!“.

And then the driver took us to Mars. Our taxi bumped out of town and into a scene that looked exactly like pictures from the Mars surveyor missions. There were dusty red plains and rocky hills. Floods from the mountains had cut deep gashes in the ground. I’m convinced that the Mars robots are all hooey. NASA has just been sending film crews to Cape Verde.

After about 10 km of Mars we arrived at the base of the ribeiras. The road assumed the appearance of an Incan highway and began to zig-zag up the side of the mountain. Patches of green started to appear and the temperature dropped. Mars dropped away behind us.

Everything seemed to be all right, except for one thing: our taxi driver was a suicidal maniac. How else could I explain the way he took hairpin turns at 40 km/hr? Or how he passed slower cars, sparing just inches for the sheer drop-offs on either side of the road? J and I wedged ourselves into our seats and hung on.

But the view was amazing. We could see all the way past Mars and down to the sea, even across to the other island. We were getting closer to the clouds. Soon I learned to stop worrying and love the taxi. We were having a great time.

Not only was the view amazing but so was the road itself. It was entirely constructed from stones. Instead of guard rails there were stone walls. Instead of pavement there were cobblestones. We passed a road crew at one point. They were placing the stones by hand. The entire road had been built by hand. I can’t imagine how much work it must have taken. Here let there be recorded

Cape Verdean Engineering Wonder the First: The Highways of Sao Antao

Eventually we reached the cloudline. Fog creeped across the road. It had become quite cool and damp by now. Everything was masked by a heavy whiteness. I began to wonder if we actually had died along the way and were now entering the netherworld.

We drove on for another twenty minutes above the cloudline, still going up. J & I silently waited and peered into the whiteness. Finally we saw the sign for Caldeira Des Aguas. We had reached the top.

New England in the Clouds

We stepped out of the taxi. The silhouettes of pine trees stood out against the whiteness. Cool wet air surrounded us. Were we really just West of Africa? It looked like we had stepped into an overexposed photo of woods in New England.

Woods near the start of the hike

J in the woods near the start of the hike

We found the start of the hiking path just past the village sign. A stone footpath went off the main road and into the pine trees. Two boys at the path entrance were loading up donkeys with burlap sacks and propane containers. They will feature again later in the hike. We didn’t speak any Kriole, they didn’t speak any Portuguese, so we exchanged boa tardes (good afternoon) and continued down the path.

Eventually we reached a look-out point. I inched up to the edge and looked down. A sheer cliff dropped down to whiteness and a steady current of fog streamed up. No bottom in sight. It was like looking into a infinitely deep humidifier.

Looking into the whiteness (photo by J)

Looking into the whiteness (photo by J)

At this point our descent started to get serious. The broad pine needle path turned into a wet gravelly lip that cut back and forth along the mountain side. It rained sporadically. Sometimes the gravel slipped out from under our feet. I remember almost slipping near one of the first turns. My arms waved in circles like a cartoon character as I felt myself toppling. I regained my balance about a foot before the edge and stood motionless for a few moments. As my adrenalin leveled off I realized that a bad slip would be it. Game over, that’s all folks. J had a similar slip a couple turns later.

After that we were very careful. We leaned away from the edge and always had a hand on the wall. We stayed low. When there were big steps we crab-stepped down them.

But we were having a great time. Occasionally the fog would thin and we could catch glimpses of the ribeiras.

I catch a glimpse through the fog

I catch a glimpse through the fog (photo by J)

After about an hour I heard voices in the fog above us. Then J said “there’s a donkey coming.” What?! How could a donkey fit on a path that we were just crab-stepping down? But I looked around and saw two donkeys sauntering along. The boys we had seen at the top were goading them on. They were all striding down the path like it was broadway.

The boys & the donkeys

The boys & the donkeys

We watched them come down a section that had just taken us ten or fifteen minutes. I think they did it in about a minute. Soon they passed us.

Boa Tarde
Boa Tarde

J & I watched them disappear into the fog below us. We shook our heads and laughed. It’s not everyday you get to see natural geniuses of hiking stride past.

Gradually the path broadened and turned into a stone path. The fog became thinner. We rounded a bend and could see tiny white squares below. A village! At this point we began to realize how high we were.

The village is in the right

The village is to the right

We passed terrace gardens as we got closer. They went all along the mountainsides before us. A vertical farm. Incredible.

J looks over the village & terraces

J looks over the village & terraces

Here let there be recorded

Cape Verdean Engineering Wonder the Second: The Terraces of Ribeira Grande

There was a puzzling sight just before the village: two cows were grazing on top of a terrace with no apparent path up. How did the cows get there?! How?!

The mountain cows of Ribeira Grande

How did the cows get up there?

Here let there be recorded

Cape Verdean Engineering Wonder the Third: The Mountain Cows of Ribeira Grande

The Village and the Valley

We reached the village. Everything was made from stone, streets, houses, the soles of people’s feet. At one point a group of children with no shoes raced by us down the rough stones. There were banana trees and orange trees. A waterfall fed the village cistern. We passed people with hoes and shovels on their way to the terraces. “Boa Tarde”. “Boa Tarde”. I have tremendous respect for the people who live on the ribeiras. I don’t think it is an easy life.

The village cistern (photo by J)

The village cistern (photo by J)

J walking through the village

J walking through the village

I began to wonder what it would be like to live your whole life on a mountain. Would you think of distance in terms of altitude? ‘Up the road’ would literally be ‘up’. Would mountains and heights still amaze you? Would you be astounded by flatness, say, Kansas?

We passed through the village and reached the valley floor. The path turned into a dried-out riverbed, and then into an actual riverbed. By now the clouds had cleared and we could see where we had come from. It’s a good think we had decided to hike down instead of up. We wouldn’t have stood a chance.

One of the wet riverbed bits

One of the wet riverbed bits

One of the dry riverbed bits

One of the dry riverbed bits

See the pine trees at the top?  That's where we started from.

See the pine trees at the top? That's where we started from (photo by j)

I thought we were getting close to the end. We were seeing more people, some carrying shopping bags. But it turned out we still had another hour and a half to go. We continued down the alternately wet and dry path. By now it looked like a full tropical jungle. The walls of the ribeiras loomed around us. Sometimes I though I had a whiff of the sea, but Ribeira Grande seemed to be forever around the next bend.

The End

Finally we reached Ribeira Grande. It was about 3:45 We had been hiking for about six hours straight. We could see the sea again.

We found a taxi back. Another thrilling ride. This time we could see everything. It was beautiful. We wound around the tops of the Ribeiras passing more terraced fields and villages on the summit. Then we were coming back down the other side, down through Mars, and back to Porto Novo.

View from the taxi

View from the taxi

View from the taxi

View from the taxi

We boarded the ferry at 4:45 with 15 minutes to spare. It had been an excellent hike.

More Pictures

J coming down mountain

J coming down mountain

J rounding a bend

J rounding a bend

The fog lifts briefly near the top

The fog lifts briefly near the top

J is amazed by the village

J is amazed by the village

I look out over the jungle (photo by J)

I look out over the jungle (photo by J)

The terraces stretching along the ribeiras

The terraces stretching along the ribeiras (photo by J)

The fog lifts over the valley (photo by J)

The fog lifts over the valley (photo by J)

The village waterfall

The village waterfall

The gnarliest goat in the world

The gnarliest goat in the world

J descending to the valley

J descending to the valley

"One hand, two hand, three hand, bunch!  Daylight come and me want to go home..."

"Day-o, Day-ay-ay-o...."

J walking through the valley

J walking through the valley

From the ferry, the ribeiras in the distance

From the ferry, the ribeiras in the distance

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