Stuck in Cape Verde: an adventure with a shine

On 11 March, Toon Nicolai and his wife Hilde Verlinden left for São Vicente, one of the Cape Verde islands. What was supposed to be a 3-week stay, turned out to be 8 weeks due to the corona crisis. He tells the story of his stay and the repatriation to Belgium.

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Toon Nicolai and Hilde Verlinden on a trek

Toon Nicolai and Hilde Verlinden out and about in Santo Antão

On 11 March, we took a TAP Portugal flight to the Cape Verde island of São Vicente for a 3-week holiday. The corona crisis still seemed like a "far-off situation". We were travelling at our own pace, without a tour operator.

The ultimate destination of our trip was the island of Santo Antão, which is located right next to São Vicente. After a boat trip, we arrived in the village of Paul on 13 March. We stayed at the small hotel Black Mamba for 3 nights. We then left for a guest house in the mountains.

Lockdown in Belgium

On 17 and 18 March, reports began to seep through about the spread of the coronavirus and the lockdown in Belgium. Several guests then left in a panic. They also tried to re-book their cancelled flights.

We didn't see a problem yet. After all, our return ticket was still valid for 1 April. So we continued our journey to the city of Ribeira Grande. There – and indeed throughout our stay – we followed the news – at home and worldwide – remotely: via news online, WhatsApp with friends and family and conversations with the locals.

Flight cancelled

"So far, so good!" But on 20 March, TAP Portugal informed us that the 1 April flight had been cancelled. Still, we weren't worried. After all, there were still plenty of opportunities to get back home.

Gradually, however, all the hotels and guest houses started to close and the government also took safety measures on Antão. After a lot of effort, we found another room for 2 nights in Ponta Do Sol.

We later learned that a number of French and Belgian tourists had then taken the boat to Mindelo on the island of São Vicente. After all, Santo Antão has no airport. There, the six of them rented an apartment until they could take a flight to Paris. Other tourists flew from Sao Vicente to Sal, hoping to find a ticket for a flight to Luxembourg there.

Toon Nicolai and Hilde Verlinden withLiana

Good ambiance in Black Mamba! On the left hotel owner Liana

Welcome to Black Mamba

We knew nothing of this, however, and stayed on Antão. Because we couldn't find a room anywhere on 24 March, we called the first hotel, Black Mamba. And we were still welcome! Because we thought the place was such a paradise, we decided to wait for a flight there in peace. We'd rather have been there than in the busy and chaotic city of Mindelo.

In the meantime, we had already registered with Travellers Online. That's how the embassy in Dakar knew where we were. On 24 March, we received a message from them that a flight was due to depart from Sal for Luxembourg on 25 March. There were also flights to Europe on 27 and 28 March, but from islands that were inaccessible to us.

Good news for other stranded Belgians, but not for us. After all, there were no more boats sailing to Mindelo. And then we had to manage to book a domestic flight to Sal. Mission impossible!

The whole village knew us

We now knew for sure that we were stuck on our very beautiful island. But no worries! The embassy had all our details and we had let it be known that we wanted to go back, but that we didn't mind staying at Antão for quite a while. They didn't have to worry about us.

From that moment on, we had to "change gear" and wait for a flight home. But we were lucky. The owner of Black Mamba, Liana, an Italian woman, received us as part of the family. As it happened, we were her only guests. Gradually, we even became very close. I taught her French every day and Hilde painted portraits of the locals.

The whole village knew us... and the rare police checks were carried out in a friendly atmosphere. We always felt very safe there. Many people were out of work – there were no more tourists – but they always remained incredibly friendly.

Positive point. The embassy sent us the names of 3 other Belgians. This allowed us to exchange news among ourselves. We had the impression that the embassy really cared about our fate. The few Belgians in Cape Verde were not the absolute priority, but we were confident that everything would be alright.

Hilde Verlinden says goodbye to Liana

The inevitable farewell

Emotional farewell

And so the days and weeks went by. We were satisfied and enjoyed the peace and nature. In the meantime, we learned through other foreigners that there might be a flight from São Vicente to Luxembourg on 5 May. They had heard this through their own embassies, particularly Luxembourg, France and the Czech Republic.

On 28 April, we ourselves received the official news from the Belgian embassy that this flight would go ahead. We registered immediately. But we did need a "laissez-passer" to get off the island. We had to take care of that ourselves. A letter of recommendation by e-mail from the Belgian ambassador in Dakar was needed to help us obtain the necessary documents from the local authorities.

On 29 April, there followed a 5-hour search for all the necessary documents: Kafka x 10!! But it worked. The boat was supposed to leave on 4 May. It turned into an emotional farewell. Hilde had 2 of her painted portraits framed and donated one to our top host, Liana, and one to the household help, Yanina. When we left, the whole family and friends were waving us goodbye. Liana even personally took us by car – a 1-hour drive – all the way to the boat.

Trucks with fruit and goods on boat

Boat trip with bananas to São Vicente

Flight to Luxembourg

And so we sailed between the bananas and the goats to São Vicente, an island with an airport. We were accompanied by 6 or 7 Europeans on the boat. No face masks needed! Eventually, we were able to take the plane the next day in Mindelo.

At the airport, almost everyone was wearing a face mask. We also got masks on the plane, which were replaced every 3 hours. Our meal was pre-packed in a paper bag. We were packed in quite closely. In fact, that was the only moment of unease that we had on our journey.

We landed in Luxembourg around 11pm. There, the Belgian ambassador and a member of staff were waiting for us with the necessary information about hotels and trains. We got some face masks here too.

Everything else went fine, including at the hotel. Masks were mandatory there. In the morning, we took an almost empty train via Arlon and Brussels to Antwerp.

Colourful portraits

Nice memories of Santo Antão

Smooth contact with embassy

We look back on our adventure with great emotion. We were very lucky on Antão – in fact, we didn't suffer much from the state of emergency there! Contact with the embassy went smoothly. We preferred cheaper e-mailing to calling; WhatsApp turned out not to be possible. We knew when a plane was coming and what we had to do. The info was to the point, although sometimes we would get the news sooner via others.

Of course, getting to Belgium in lockdown took some time to get used to. Even at home, we could only see our children, grandchildren and friends from a distance. But the fact that our trip lasted 5 weeks longer than expected only made it extra special!