WHAT A DESOLATE PLACE THIS IS, OBSERVED C3PO DRYLY. R2D2 BLEEPED IN REPLY. Their escape pod had just crash-landed on Tatooine. The 1970s location for this scene in the first of George Lucas Star Wars films was the Tunisian desert.
Red Sea bores drone on about the time when Naama Bay was just an empty beach surrounded by desert.
You too can qualify as an I was there before... bore if you go to the islands of Cape Verde, but you'd better be quick.
The skyline of Sal, the island with the good charter airline connections, is already punctured by tower cranes.
The construction race is on - but in the meantime, Sal is still a desert.
Cape Verde forms an archipelago of islands in the Atlantic, off the coast of Senegal. Its history is closely associated with the slave trade, because it was in these islands that slaves from West Africa were assembled ready for shipping across to the New World at the end of the 15th century. The trade winds blew reliably here, making this a good place for sailing ships to embark their fragile human cargo.
A hundred years later, ships were able to bypass the islands, and their economic demise was confirmed with the final abolition of the slave trade in 1876. In the intervening period, the islands had become vulnerable to pirate attacks.
It was never a good place to live. Part of the former colony of Portuguese Guinea, Cape Verde suffered the first of many droughts in 1742. Goats were allowed to over-graze the already sparse vegetation, turning the place into a desert. Half the population died from starvation. Others emigrated to the American continent, to Portuguese-speaking Brazil.

THINGS LOOKED UP AGAIN when the British started to use the islands as a coaling station for the new steamships of the 19th Century. Cape Verde was also ideally positioned for American-bound ships to stop to make repairs and pick up fresh supplies.
Thats all over now. Cape Verde became an independent nation in 1975. Today its touted as the next big event in cheap property-buying opportunities for European holidaymakers.
Drought has been the continuing problem for these desolate windswept islands, but things are looking up.
Fresh water is now made in modern desalination plants, and Cape Verde is increasingly a world-famous destination for windsurfing and kite surfing. The Hawaiian-born world champion Josh Angulo lives here. Scuba-diving is also on the increase.
Dive-centre owner Christian Melville is an interesting character. A happy French blond Ronnie Corbett look-alike, he was originally a professional racing driver who took a place on the winners podium 109 times during his career, driving Formula Fords at the Jim Russell School and as a works driver for the Rootes Team, driving a Sunbeam Imp in the Monte Carlo Rally.
Later he became a fine art photographer, working for the Louvre in Paris. Through this activity he met well-known art collectors like Hugh Hefner.
His daughter, Ana Luisa, presently studying for a PhD in Marine Biology, was a PADI Open Water Instructor. She taught him to dive as recently as 1999.
Christian took to diving immediately, doing a raft of courses with both PADI and TDI. He started a dive centre in the Algarve, but the season was too short there to build a strong business.
He now has a small dive centre called Scuba Team attached to the Hotel Morabeza at Santa Maria on the island of Sal. It is managed by multi-lingual Italian Guido Resca, who himself has been on the island for more than 11 years and is a very experienced and competent instructor.
Local guys help out too, and I was amazed at their linguistic skills, as well as their abilities in the water.
The Morabeza is a very comfortable family-run affair, established in 1967. It is now undergoing rapid expansion to cope with the demand from a rapid influx of British holidaymakers.
Its clientele are either young surf dudes or elderly people tottering from the effects of too much caipirenha, the local rum-based cocktail.
Christian insists that he wants to keep his dive centre small-scale yet high-quality, and takes a maximum of six divers on his RIB. Air is the only breathing gas available.
Scuba Team client-divers assemble their kit, walk with it across the powdery white sand to the sea and swim out a short distance to where the boat is moored. Sometimes we used a small GRP sport-fishing boat, which was less than ideal, because it was difficult to get in and out of, and tipped alarmingly when divers rolled over its side.
Christians RIB was undergoing winter maintenance at the time.
I was on Sal in mid-January, when the temperatures are at their lowest and often the dive centres are closed through lack of business. The water was disappointingly cold and the sea uncharacteristically rough, but we managed to get to all our intended dive sites, and good diving was had.
The wind drives strong surface currents at times, and this made getting from the boat to the downline necessarily quick and slick, as was getting back in after surfacing.
The fact that the buildings of the village are on low-lying ground right next to the waters edge indicates that the locals never expect any big storms.
Under water, things were much easier than at the surface, and usually there was little water movement with which to contend.
Its not at all like diving in the Red Sea. For a start, there are no real reefs to speak of. Dives tended to be beyond 20m deep, with no visible datum between that and the surface.
Some dives were in the order of 45m, and merited either a 15-litre cylinder or twin aluminium 12s. The strong surface currents meant that ascents in open water were also out of the question, and we always had to find the mooring line of the boat before we made our way up.

WITH REPETITIVE DIVING, ordinary air in our tanks and cautious modern computers, we often had to make deco stops on the mooring line. In many ways it was like British diving, but with much better visibility, and we always managed to find our way back safely.
The possibility of unintentionally surfacing away from the boat in a rough sea meant that a surface flag was an essential item of kit.
The inauspicious village of Santa Maria, where we were based, is home to a few hotels and fewer subsistence fishermen, who trade their catches of tuna, wahoo and some reef fish in wheelbarrows on the village pier.
A few of the buildings merit a photograph. They are of unusual architecture and painted in colours that compete with the deep blue of the sky.
The village is at the southern tip of Sal, so we had the choice of diving on either the east or west coast of the island.
The sea to the east tended to be rough, because it caught the prevailing wind, but the sea to the west, although seductively calm, tended to suffer from those strong surface currents.
The underwater topography comprised large rocky edifices surrounded by sandy areas. The rock strata folded under on itself, providing rocky overhangs that were the haunts of inordinate numbers of fish.
It all looked monochromatic at first, but these overhangs were invariably coated with Tubastraea aurea coral that, lit up by a lamp, showed itself in a startlingly gorgeous chrome-yellow colour. This contrasted with the violent orange of the cardinalfish, squirrelfish and bigeyes that hung around in vast numbers, and assorted red sponges.
Out in the open, large red mullet rushed about in gangs when they were disturbed by the arrival of noisy air-breathing divers. As in the Canary Islands, huge numbers of cornetfish cruised the black coral, some of them significantly large.
Two-dimensional scrawled filefish hovered around in groups of half a dozen, turning sideways in a pointless effort not to be noticed.
Well-fed spiny puffers lurked at the back of dark crevices. The lobsters they hadnt eaten lurked at the back of others. We looked for promised nurse sharks, but decided that the water was too cold for them in January.
It was fun to swim inside the many sea caverns and see all the fish disturbed in passing close like a veil over the window of blue daylight we left behind us.
We came across a massive male loggerhead turtle sleeping with his head in the gap under a couple of boulders. His head was bigger than mine.
I couldnt get a good photograph of him there, so I decided to tickle his chin gently to wake him from his deep slumber. He woke dozily from his dreams and observed me grumpily with a rheumy eye.
I got off one photograph before he decided to bulldoze his way though me as if I wasnt there. He knocked me to one side as he went and swam off slowly but purposefully, a gnarled old gentleman dragged rudely from the arms of Morpheus.
In total disarray after being run down by this ancient reptilian steamroller, there was no way I could overtake him. My second shot was of his impressive rear view in rapidly receding perspective.
We saw him again on a later dive, but he snootily glanced over his shoulder at us and preferred to stay undisturbed on a sandy seabed that was deeper than any of us were prepared to go.
We saw plenty of brown moray eels, but these were attended by arrow crabs rather than the more familiar cleaner shrimps we see in the Indo-Pacific region. Pretty little snowflake morays, yellow mouths agape, were often seen hunting out in the open, dashing across the sand from the safety of one isolated boulder to the next.

THE SIGNATURE FISH of the Cape Verde Islands must be the yellow guinea grunt. These pile up in groups of such great numbers that from a distance you think you are looking at a single tall rocky edifice.
Its a treat to swim among them and see the odd fish of other types that use these enormous schools as cover.
Each time we set off diving, Christian would promise us schools of surgeonfish so dense that a diver could get lost among them. After a few dives we began to think hed got the English name wrong. He had incorrectly called raggedtooth sharks bull sharks, so we thought that he had this wrong too.
Then we dropped down onto the wreck of the Boris, an elderly Russian freighter only 50m long that had been impounded by the authorities while attempting to unload an illegal cargo of Senegalese immigrants in Cape Verde.
A little over two years ago, its rusting hulk was sunk as an artificial reef. This is where we finally came across the surgeonfish densely shoaling. Sitting upright on the sandy seabed at 28m, this wreck, because there are no other topographical features nearby, has become a haven for marine life. Giant lobsters waved their antennae at us from holes in the sand under the hull. Groups of scrawled filefish loitered around the still fully equipped wheelhouse.
The surgeonfish congregated in great numbers around the superstructure and mast until the exhaled air from the few other divers, downstream along the deck of the wreck and driven on by a strengthening current, dispersed them.

SAL OFFERS A REAL alternative to diving in the Red Sea. The diving is on a par with the little-developed island of El Hierro in the Canary Islands, but the water is warmer and it has the benefit of direct charter flights from UK airports such as Gatwick and Manchester.
In summer months there is a chance of seeing plenty of tuna and the sharks that prey on them. And its a refreshing change to see only a handful of divers at a dive-site.