The boat ploughs over the gentle chop, leaving the mainland as a speck far behind us. In the distance appears a small island. Not flat, as you expect from a typical tropical island, but with structures that give the impression of boating up to a velvety round cushion. As we get closer, we see the sandy beach circumferencing the island, and a thicket of forest in the middle, with a lighthouse standing tall over the trees.
This is Ilha do Fogo.
We depart the boat with a warm welcome from the island crew, who start walking along the beach with our luggage. We follow them across the pristine white sandy beach, scattering the pink crabs that wait patiently for the tide to bring them treats. Upon entering the forest path that leads to the campsite, we are instantly transported to a magical land that resembles something out of a fairy tale.
Maro waits just inside the forest with a refreshing drink and a twinkling smile, then precedes to show us the path to follow. Later we learn that he’s the island’s doctor, onsite to support the construction team that’s currently building the bijou resort.
A short walk through the forest stirs our souls and awakens our ancestral desire for nature and greenery, which once surrounded us centuries ago.
Kissinger, our host, greets us with a warm welcome and shows us to our lodgings, each of which has been strategically located so that a smattering of forest trees separates one from another. Over pre-dinner drinks, Kissinger recounts the tale of how his mother fell in love with the name when Henry Kissinger spent time in Zanzibar to film a movie, and bequeathed it to her son.
The first thing that’s very clear, is that every part of the infrastructure development is being carefully considered to minimise the impact on the environment.
Each lodge has been built on logs to ensure that the ground beneath is not damaged. The tented room is far above and beyond a typical tent. The room inside is large, with an ensuite bathroom. The canvas walls provide the perfect enclosure in which to lay down and listen to the rustling of the trees, the calls of the birds and the lapping of the waves hitting the island’s shore.
One truly feels away from life’s constant bustles, and in a unique world, unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
Kissinger introduces us to chef Hannibal, whose passion for food is very apparent in any conversation you have with him. He puts a great effort into dinner for us that evening, with a selection of mouthwatering options that delight both the carnivores and herbivores in our party. Lunches are the same type of delicious and well thought out affair and the hot breakfasts are made to order, or, if we prefer, a choice of fresh fruits, muesli and yoghurt.
Our first stroll around the island leaves us stunned by the ethereal beauty of the enchanting forest, offering paths that meander in every direction. The canopy of trees provides the perfect shield from the bright African sun and, alongside the soft breeze rustling through the foliage, ensures our walks are comfortable.
Exploration of the forest life left us bewildered with the question of how this little island came to support such an abundance and variety of biodiversity. The forest is thick with dozens of different species of trees and bushes. An assortment of colourful butterflies cross your path as you walk, and the beautiful sing-song of the birds and gentle humming of the cicadas and crickets can be heard as you amble along.
That experience alone is utterly serene and creates a sense of peace, even in the most stressful of times.
When we step out of the thicket of trees we see a blanket of leafy dunes paving their way to a stretch of silvery gold sands that lines the island’s coast.
Thousands of corals and huge shells, including Moana’esk conches and impressive clams, and tiny, beautifully coloured cowries and helmets, are lined up in rows, brought in by the tides. Casts of charismatic little pink ghost crabs are waiting, as always, along the shore, scurrying into the waves or their sandy holes as we walk closer.
Dipping our feet into the Indian Ocean is like stepping into a heated swimming pool, with the added delight of the sand squishing between our toes.
Donning our snorkelling gear, we head down to the reefs on the south of the island. Just a few meters from the shore, we are wonderstruck by the biodiversity and abundance that proliferate the shallow reefs. Within seconds of slipping our heads underwater, we spot Clark’s clownfish, blue tangs, butterflyfish, triggerfish and angelfish by the dozen.
A little deeper we see trumpetfish darting by, lionfish resting in the rocks, and some of the larger reef fish. The corals are astounding, and entirely pristine. Small hard corals and giant soft corals are spread out, in vast quantities, over the area.
Our next snorkelling expedition takes us to the north side of the island, and an entirely different reef system. Instead of sandy seabeds and bright corals, we are presented with contrasting topography; rocky outcrops, seagrasses and distinctly diverse fauna.
We are quite taken aback by the habitat heterogeneity in such close proximity. A quick inspection of the seagrasses gives us a bit of a surprise, when we spot a sea cucumber over a meter long, that, at first glance, we thought to be a sea snake.
A curious Picasso triggerfish is certainly a highlight, having not been observed in the coral reefs south of the island. Time is sadly not on our side, and alas, we did not manage to thoroughly search the dense grasses, which offer a perfect calm, protected habitat for seahorses.
What can be seen from the surface, although prolific, is really just a smidgeon of what the shallow reefs have to offer, and an iota of the 150kms of reefs around the area.
Our SCUBA experience highlights the extraordinary marine life boasted by Ilha do Fogo. Just minutes into the dive, led by the multifaceted Kissinger, we come across massive lobsters and tiny nudibranchs, resting on the superabundant corals.
Divemaster Danny is decidedly in his element during the dive, enthusiastically showing us a multitude of reef life. We inadvertently awake a green turtle from its slumber as we drift around a coral-cloaked corner, and carefully observe a scorpionfish as it idles just above the seabed.
These are just a few of the hundreds of reef animals we happen upon during the dive. The multifariousness of fish and molluscs that surround us seem infinite, and we only just touch upon a tiny section of the endless reefs.
Had we more time on the island, we also would have delved deeper on SCUBA to explore the incredible marine topography of pinnacles and caverns, that are no doubt the home of some exciting megafauna. We would also have spent more time traversing the unique ecosystems of the 25kms of mangroves off the mainland, just a 45 minute boat trip away.
The next group of divers to the island will undoubtedly experience other sections of the reef and mangroves, to reveal even more of what the island and surround’s exhilarating marine fauna and flora have to offer.
For now, we are filled with gratitude that we have experienced one of mother earth’s rare immaculate sanctuaries, and seen how life can thrive without pollution and abuse of resources. The ethos of Ilha do Fogo will always be to protect the environment and ensure that its idyllic beauty is not impacted by human activity.
If you are fortunate enough to be one of the exceptional visitors to the island, it must come with the understanding that your footstep has to be negligible and certain luxuries may have to be relinquished. Amenities that may harm the reefs will have to be forgone, in favour of the carefully selected, yet delectably luxurious, Ilha do Fogo products provided. However, this is an insignificant sacrifice for what you get in return… paradise.