Mike MacEacheran | Sal, Cape Verde, Thomas Cook Travel
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Sal, Cape Verde, Thomas Cook Travel

Captain Zelison weighs anchor, rocking the 20-ton catamaran up and down, to and fro. His three-man crew attack the billowing main and windward sails, as though they’re fighting off a kraken, and he props himself behind the wheel, part Captain Cook, part toothy pirate.

Once the catamaran gets going, as its speeding over an endless aquamarine sea away from the island of Sal, through salty air and the occasional spray of water, past ever-shifting sand dunes and resort hotels and a broken finger of a lighthouse and kite-surfers who launch themselves higher than the frigate birds, he turns to face me. “Tout fixe?” he says, in local Creole. “All OK, my friend?” Bobbing in the mid-Atlantic, for a moment surrounded by a mind-numbingly vast ocean, I feel like we’re about to sail off the end of the world.

Some 40 years before Christopher Colombus caught the Saharan trade winds and set sail for the New World, the Portuguese tied their flags to the mast and settled in Cape Verde. Seafarers, then slave traders, became the first Europeans to roll out their beach towels in the Tropics, paving the way for 15th century privateers and pirates and an illustrious Who’s Who crew of pin-up explorers. Sir Francis Drake was first (finding no treasure he stayed only long enough to raze the village of Cidade Velha on Santiago to the ground), then a 23-year-old Charles Darwin sailed in on The Beagle (he was rather seasick, according to his notebook), before the very last whaling ships took an entire generation of Cape Verdeans across the ocean to Boston. Now it’s my turn. Ahead of the islands’ 40th year of independence from Portugal in 2015, I’ve come to get a grip on the smallest island of the lot, Sal, still unchartered territory for even the most dedicated beach hunter.

The 10-strong chain of Cape Verde islands is a geography-bending, history-defying, time-leaping, cultural puzzle. Call it an archipelago of contradictions – part Portuguese, West African, Creole, a sweeping introduction to Atlantic life, or just a hell of a great place to surf and party until dawn. The island of Fogo is a volcanic jungle that defies the odds to have blossomed from the depths of the east Atlantic. Santo Antão, meanwhile, is a hodge-podge of jungle, desert plains, rolling green valleys and cloud-soaked mountains – if a five-year-old were to draw a fantasy island, this would be it. The island of São Vicente is West Africa’s answer to the Mediterranean Riviera, a crescent-moon shaped port that’s home to a raucous Latin Carnival every February, while Brava seems to reside firmly in the 19th century. Mules work the terraced hillsides and the only sign of modernity is the occasional car that bumps and grinds across the cobblestones of Nova Sintra, the tiny island capital.

What makes Sal different is what it lacks. There are no mountains, gorges, even trees. It exists in the Atlantic slipstream, one hour from Dakar in Senegal, yet only four hours from Fortaleza in northern Brazil. In stark contrast to the verdant gullies and ravines of its siblings, it’s a pancake-flat Frisbee, a tiny parcel of land and water, with a long stretch of dune-backed sand smeared to its southern tip.

“This is where the Americans made the movie when they went to the moon,” says Eder Rosario, one of the first islanders I meet. He’s a salgadinho – or what a Cape Verdean calls a ‘salty one’, one of the ancestors of the island’s original founding fathers. Rosario’s grandfather and great grandfather once made their fortune out of the vast volcanic craters and shimmering salt beds on the eastern coast that were mined for off-pink, brackish salt crystals. That history has long gone: the Wild West village of Pedra de Lume is now a ragbag collection of stilted wooden salt-extraction towers (some say dating back to 1805) that dominate the landscape like mammoth tombstones. Workers once exported some 300,000 tons of salt a year, a figure that now stands at 300 a month. “Our way of life now comes from out there,” says Eder, pointing beyond the harbor to the sea.

We climb down into the Salinas Pedra de Lume (entry £4), a crater floor of an extinct volcano now reclaimed as a series of salt evaporation ponds and refashioned as a natural spa amphitheatre. Rustic treatment huts dot the waterways where tourists come to get re-energised (or duped) by the effect of the healing mineral salts. Afterwards, scraping the salt across my legs and feet in the baking hot sun, I feel like my skin has been given a couple of jolts from a Sodastream.

What Sal lacks in must-see sights (apart from the salt craters, there’s scant else), it more than makes up for in soul. People are gregarious, portions are generous and the sun never stops beating down – more than one day of rain a year is, frankly, unthinkable. And in this blistering mid-afternoon heat, I soon learn, it’s easy to spot a true salgadinho, for they only go to the beach after 4pm. It’s only then, once the shadows start creeping out from behind the candy-coloured buildings of the resort of Santa Maria (painted in vibrant greens, pinks and oranges to help fishermen drunk on local grog find the right house after dark), that the beach really sparks into life.

Kitesurfers, bodyboarders, windsurfers, jet-skiers, paddle surfers, even flyboarders (those lunatics with water jetpacks), they’re all out in force. It’s on Santa Maria beach that I meet Didi Mero and Hendryk Ramos, two semi-pro skimboarders who spend their days competing for the best breaks (and girls) on Santa Maria beach, a glorious wisp of powdery bleached-white sand straight out of a washing powder commercial. Unlike surfers, skimboarders begin on the beach by dropping their board onto the thin wash of previous waves, with boarders using their momentum to skim out to breaking waves, which they then catch back to shore. To help them with their training for a competition on the neighbouring island of Boavista, they’ve installed a makeshift bungee cord under a rock beneath the waves. It’s a gamble that only half pays-off. Moments later, Didi takes flight, flips and twists in the air, and is dumped back on the beach. “Tout fixe, bro?” Hendryk asks him. He shakes the sand out of his dreadlocks and flashes a grin, an ivory-white smile that leaves the crowd of on-lookers in no doubt. In Cape Verde, when you’re at the beach, everything is always tout fixe.

Photography: Greg Funnell