News: 11 Jul 2010, Grogue










I woke up at dawn to have a look at what was going on outside and to my amazement there was not a breath of wind. Whether this is usual for this place I didn't know, but encouraging all the same, and completely unusual to our normal experience here. After breakfast I went down to the airport to rig the machine. By this time there was a bit of wind, but nothing I would be doubtful about flying the FIB in. The fire station wasn't big enough for me to rig the wing inside but looked as though it might fit once rigged. With the help of Francisco and his ten year old grand daughter I managed to get it in, with a foot to spare. Perfect.

Christian wants us to fly up and down the coast here abouts, and into a couple of the deep green valleys which are the defining feature of Santo Antão and should make some useful subject matter for Stéphane. As this seemed to me to be the sort of enterprise best done early morning before it becomes windy and/or thermic, then rather than flying immediately, the plan was to go and do a recce, for me to have a look to see if these valleys are wide enough to turn in, see if there are any possible emergency landing places, and for the crew to pick a few good spots to film us from.

Our first stop on this expedition was to a Grogue factory. Pronounced 'grok' this is the local brew distilled from sugar cane, so I suppose it's a sort of rum. I'd already tried some of this stuff in São Vincente, it's pretty fierce, so fierce that I don't suppose it would take much modification to get the FIB to run on it.

I understand there are many Grogue factories on Santo Antão but the particular one Christian was interested in is the last remaining one driven by oxen, thus perfect for us protagonists to visit as part of the film. With a Teutonic attention to detail, our shooting schedule actually says "Attention: Ox needed". So we went through a door made out of flattened oil barrels into this rather extraordinary farmyard in the shade of a huge mango tree with a great big cane press in the centre with two long arms to attach the oxen to, various goats, pigs and dogs all tied by their legs to things with a bit of string so they couldn't wander too far, and in an adjoining enclosure three oxen contentedly browsing a large pile of dry cane leaves. Missing, was any cane to press, or indeed any sign of Grogue manufacturing activity at all.

While we admired the scene, Antonio had a long conversation with a bleary-eyed man who looked like he'd spent a bit too much of his life testing his product. I think the conclusion was that it is all done for this year, come back in a few months time.

We continued our recce along steep narrow cobbled roads up the valley. Christian pointed out a 500ft high rock pinnacle sprouting from the centre of the valley that would be great for me to fly around. I was more interested in possible emergency landing places, of which there were simply none, or possibly one small place, but I said I'd take a look from the air and see what I could do. Stéphane looked glum.

We stopped at another place and got out of the van, walked around a corner to find a group of people stuffing sugar cane into a noisy Victorian looking contraption with many wizzing gear wheels and a thing belching flames and smoke nearby. We'd found a Grogue factory actually manufacturing Grogue, it was dribbling out of the still's condenser into a dirty plastic can. Not quite as scenic as the one with oxen, though I thought the emergency switch nailed to a tree was a neat touch. I think a plan was made that we'd be back.

On our drive back to Ponta Do Sol it started to rain. By the time we got to the Blue Bell Hotel it was quite heavy. Bastian said, "good - after the rain comes the sun". We are at the beginning of the rainy season now so I pessimistically pointed out that might not be until September.

The rain stopped in the night, word seemed to have got round town that there's something funny going on at the airport, so next morning we had plenty of spectators watching us extract the FIB from the fire station and rig it on the apron. A bit of an overcast but light wind, same as the previous day. Christian had an elaborate plan for us to fly this way and that way while they dashed about in their van between different shooting spots, and we were to try flying into two of the valleys we had recce'd, 'as much as is safe', which was fine by me. The machine had a Go-Pro Hd mounted behind the co-pilot's head looking forwards and a Canon SLR set for video on the bow of the boat looking back. They are amazing these modern SLR's which also do HD video. The results are superb but I do have to remember to reset it every ten minutes or it dies. Something to do with the maximum size of individual files on the memory card.

Then Stéphane said he wasn't coming. A tricky moment for Christian our director, after all, the whole point of this entire enterprise is to film Stéphane photographing the place from the air.

A compromise was made, I would fly Christian's complicated plan solo, see what the conditions were like in the valleys, they could film me from the ground, and then if it's fine, perhaps Stéphane could come with me on a shorter second flight along the coast which I assured him would almost certainly be nice and calm over the sea, and maybe into a valley. Then came the problem of the photos Stéphane now won't be taking. I said give me a decent camera and I'll do it, I've spent 25 years doing this stuff. They looked sceptical, but did give me a camera. I don't think they were expecting much. The flight was fine, it was even OK in the valleys, no wind, and the overcast prevented any heat-generated turbulence. The wind was low enough that I could even land in the open sea, it wasn't rough but there was a significant swell which crashes onto the rocks or very occasional beach. I think if I did have to make an emergency landing it would either be near a fishing boat or far enough out that there was plenty of time to organize one to come and give me a tow to the tiny port at Ponta do Sol before the onshore wind drove me into the surf. After a while the camera on the bow packed up, and if the lens of the Go-Pro hadn't fogged you would have seem me doing manoeuvres over the sea while trying to lean over far enough to reset it, but it was dead, later revealed to be a flat battery. From the ground, the overcast didn't really give the crew what they wanted either, but better than nothing. So all in all, none of the video of this flight was much good. But I think Christian was reasonably pleased with my stills.

I did the second flight with Stéphane, we had a less complicated plan this time, I was to fly just past the next headland so the crew could get some ground to air shots. As before, conditions were perfect over the sea but the overcast perhaps wasn't the best for photographing or filming, and Stéphane asked me to turn round and go back before we got there. Near the little port I did some low passes past some fishing boats which looked good on the Go-Pro, now fitted on the wing. Not long after we landed the sun came out for a while, but we didn't fly any more.

After lunch we went back to the Grogue factory and filmed a full 'visitation' by us protagonists, which took the rest of the day. I had a go at stuffing cane into the dangerous machine and got wacked on the head by a particularly long one as it was sucked in - all good TV no doubt. The juice goes into a barrel sunk into the ground from where they transfer it in buckets to a bigger plastic tank nearby. When that's full they pump it 50 metres or so to the basement of a house which is stuffed full of those 500 litre pallet-tanks. This is where the fermentation takes place and the heat and smell in there was quite overpowering. Ten to fifteen days later the fermented juice is pumped back down the same pipe to a barrel next to the still.

The still is quite a thing. It's made of copper and mostly buried at the top of an earth and stone structure which has space for a bonfire beneath. Some of the fermented juice is transferred in buckets to a smaller pot balanced above the still. From time to time the still is drained and refilled from this pot via a hosepipe siphon and then sealed with a wooden plug. Bundles of cane leaves are thrown into the fireplace and fire and smoke belch out. Once the condensing tube starts steaming someone turns on a tap and a continuous supply of water runs down the metal channel surrounding the tube to condense the alcohol vapour, and finished Grogue trickles out into a red funnel in the dirty yellow plastic can.

It's all brilliantly simple, but how it's controlled I really don't know. I suspect the shape of the still buried in the ground has a lot to do with it, and it must be to some extent self-controlling, but I didn't see anyone tasting anything so how you know when a batch is ready to start, or when it's done, was a mystery beyond my limited understanding of Portuguese, either to ask the question in the first place, or to understand the answer, and these people only speak Creole anyway, which I'm told is a simplified form of Portuguese. Nevertheless I think I did manage to get them to explain the basics of the process for the cameras, though my question "how long is the fermentation" could have been answered by "yes, it's not very sunny today, we're expecting rain soon" and I wouldn't have known better.

Of course when this was all done, several times over for the cameras, we had to have a tasting. It confirmed my view that this stuff might be better employed as a fuel for the FIB.

Joint Aviation Services, suppliers of insurances to the expedition
Micro Avionics - Suppliers of pilot intercom and radio equipment to the expedition
Cam-ARA - Suppliers of video equipment to the expedition
Polaris - manufacturer of the FIB
SKYDRIVE, the UK Distributor of ROTAX engines
Articole Studios - GRP mouldings