How I visited Equatorial Guinea without flying!!
It is interesting to me, how many people hold opinions to countries they have never been too.
Equatorial Guinea (EG) is often regarded as one of the most difficult countries to gain access to. Many have tried and failed. Having a visa is no guarantee that you will be allowed to enter. EG is a strict military dictatorship and it is the only Spanish speaking country in all of Africa. The population is estimated to around 800.000 inhabitants and it is hard to separate the truth from fiction, when people start telling stories about EG. Most people are likely to ask me about how I intend to enter North Korea. A far more educated question would be: "How will you get into Equatorial Guinea?"
After several failed attempts at several embassies and consulates in several countries I bought myself a blue shirt. Apparently the truth wasn't working for me. I created an online booking for a flight in and out of EG and made an online booking for a hotel in EG for the matching dates. Then I visited the consulate in Douala, Cameroun. I had previous tried the embassy in Cameroon's capital Yaoundé. But the embassy wouldn't even let me through the door and through a window, while still on the street, I was told that "they were out of visas".
At the consulate in Douala I didn't bring my hat. I told them nothing of the Red Cross and I played the role of a tourist. While in my blue shirt I explained to the staff that my friend David had previously visited Malabo (the capital of EG) and he loved it! So naturally I had become interested and would love to make a visit of my own. But only for 2 days. After a few more questions I was granted a visa and paid no more than the ordinary fee of CFA 51,000 ($85.00). It was even valid for 30 days!
At this point I had broken the first barrier. But I had been advised that even a visa is no guarantee for entry when it comes to EG. In fact that turned out to be very true.
I contacted my friend Floriane in Libreville, Gabon. She works for the Wildlife Conservation Society and has a colleague who frequently crosses the border to EG from Cocobeach in Gabon. That would supposedly be the best and "easiest" route for me. But as I contacted Floriane I received bad news: EG had closed all its land borders for unknown reasons.
I did some research and confirmed that it was true. EG borders Cameroun on one side and Gabon on the other. All borders were closed. EG is also open to the ocean and furthermore it also consists of an island. On that island you will find Malabo. But my plan had always been to reach Bata which is the country's"second city" and which is located on the African continent and not on the island. The reason for that was to avoid the trouble of finding a boat and possibly getting stuck on an island.
Now what?!? I had spent roughly 3.5 months dancing around various solutions you cannot even imagine to get that visa. My attempts had brought me through 3 different countries and when I finally received the visa the land borders turned out to be closed?!? Come on!!!
It would however still be possible to fly in and out of Malabo which as mentioned is located on an island. Oh, the irony of the situation.
What would you do? Wait and see if the borders opened up again? Sneak across? Try to strike a deal with immigration and border police? Leave and turn back another time? Try to see if there were any possibility to go by boat?
EG is located at the coast in Central Africa. If you look at a map then you will understand how hopeless it would be to return if I didn't visit now. EG is notoriously famous for putting people in jail even for the smallest of things. So don't cross the borders illegally and be very careful at the borders in general. The borders had already been closed for roughly 3 months and there was no official reason for that which I knew of. Also no sources could inform when they might consider to open the borders again.
Writing about EG on any social media could possibly attract negative attention which could backfire and have my name blacklisted in a worst case scenario. So I chose to go silently with the news of my newly acquired visa. And taking a boat turned out to be a very hard task and possibly a very bad decision:
From the day I nearly quit the project (a few weeks earlier)
So I tried to return to Gabon with the problem in hand of having been denied to do so 4 times already!! Bureaucracy, politics and geographical challenges...I was nervous regarding my 5th attempt. And further more I was running out of time with my 30 day visa for EG. Imagine the horror of wasting THAT visa of all visas?
That is when I saw Sebastien for the first time. Sebastien is a tall Frenchman with a fit build, a shaved head and a pair of glasses. He certainly looked kind, polite and professional as if he knew what he was doing. And as I observed him at the immigration office in Cameroun I got curious about who he was. I tried to read the logo on his polo shirt and ended up saying hello and shaking hands with him.
What I was really hoping for was to make an ally for when I had to deal with the Gabon immigration for the 5th time. So I asked if he spoke English and French? "Yes I do, and Spanish as well" he replied with a smile.
As our small talk progressed I learned that he was going in the opposite direction and had just left Gabon to go to Cameroun. However only for 1 day before he would return.
Good I thought. I could try the border on my own for the 5th time and if I still couldn't cross I could wait a day and hope for some help from Sebastien? That sounded good to me. I didn't fully understand what Sebastien actually did for a living, but it had something to do with sports arrangements I thought?
Cows being walked across the border from Cameroun to Gabon.
You will not believe this!! Sebastien works in EG and was coming back the next day to drive to the border and cross it! And as I asked, Sebastien immediately offered to help me within his capacity. We exchanged numbers and Sebastien left for Cameroun.
What were the odds of that encounter? To underline how serendipitous that was I would propose the following:
- What if I had arrived at immigration 5 minutes earlier?
- What if I had arrived 5 minutes later?
- What if I didn't contact Sebastien?
- What if he had been on the phone?
- What if I had crossed the border to Gabon on any of the 4 previous attempts?
- What if I had stayed a day more in Limbé looking for a boat?
- What if I had tried going by boat?
- What if I had left Limbé a day earlier?
This list could be at least 1,000 questions longer...
I DID cross the border into Gabon that day. Immigration made me suffer for about 2 hours before they rather reluctantly let me pass. And with that crossing I arrived to Gabon for the 3rd time within this project. I have no idea why it had to be so hard this time? But some of you will state that things happen for a reason...
After the international bicycle race "Tropicale 2016" had passed and the roads opened, I could take a shared taxi to Oyem and email Sebastien that I was in. In Oyem I have a rather long story about how a great guy named Jean came to prove once again that "a stranger is a friend you've never met before". But I'll give you that story if we some day meet.
The next morning Sebastien picked me up in his 4WD and we made the 50km to the border of EG. I was full of excitement!!!
Every morning and every night for nearly 4 months the first and last thought on my mind had been: "What am I going to do about EG?" Sadly the Red Cross has so far taken very little interest within this project and proved absolutely no help within this particular matter. But let's console ourselves with the though that the Red Cross does many wonderful things on a daily basis to help those vulnerable people who need it the most.
I guess the majority of the Red Cross chose to congratulate me in silence while some of my good friends within the movement did it personally. Thank you!
Sébastien and I in Djibloho. VICTORY!!
But anyway, there I was! In front of the EG border with a real chance of ending this silly nightmare of an impenetrable country in a hopeless geographical situation. What would happen next?
Sebastien has over 6 years of work experience in the region and greeted everyone at the border great with routine. He clearly knew everyone at immigration.
A red relatively smooth dirt road leads almost all the way from Oyem in Gabon to the dusty Gabonese border village and outpost. From there, across a valley, you can see into EG which at first sight seems to be the equivalent of a modern European town with modern buildings and paved roads. We had crossed over to the paved side of the road. Customs wanted to take a closer look at my bags and we let them. They had no interest in Sebastien who they already knew.
Sebastien and the company he represents enjoys a special status as they have been hired by the government to complete the construction of a series of modernities within EG. And that explains how we were able to cross an otherwise hermetically closed border with relative ease.
I said almost nothing at the border. Sebastien did the talking and soon we were back in the 4WD again racing inland on a perfect freeway with absolutely no traffic.
My mind was ready to implode. Only 24 hours earlier I was nearly without any ideas left for how to enter EG. Now I was sitting next to Sebastien who was smiling away while we drove though a dense jungle on a perfect freeway inside country number 100!! Was I dreaming? This couldn't be real? It simply couldn't?
I could open the car door and role out onto the Tarmac...and run into, and hide inside the jungle for 24 hours!! I had surely made it! Yes yes yes!! Thank you Sebastien! Thank you!!! Will you ever understand the impact you will forever have had within this project?
While still in the car Sebastien suggested to give me a rather unique experience. EG is having a new capital constructed: Djibloho. Sebastien had already taken part in constructing a golf course and a luxury hotel. How about I stayed in the camp and took a look around the new city? I could have a room of my own with bed, toilet, shower, air condition and wifi all to myself. And a guy named Augustin could show me around and help me if I had any other needs. Eh...let me think: "Yes thank you!!"
Yes! Yes! Yes!
We passed a few checkpoints before Sebastien turned of the freeway and into Djibloho which is roughly 50 km from the border and nearly in the center of the small country. He then introduced me to Augustin, took care of a few things and then left for the airport to fly home to France for a few weeks with his family. But not until after he had told me to feel at home.
It was unreal! Like a dream. I could suddenly with relative ease continue to Bata and take the fast boat to Malabo if I wanted. But why do that? I was pretty much in the center of the country and in a unique position to explore EG's new capital. Over the next few days Augustin took me wherever I wanted to go. But on the very day I arrived he took me straight to the Grand Hotel Djibloho and its golf course. All of this stood ready surrounded by dense jungle.
As we strolled around the golf course we came closer and closer to the jungle at the far end. And on the golf course I thought I saw...no...could it be? No, it couldn't possibly be...apes?! But it was!! Two infant chimpanzees suddenly turned towards us and approached to check us out. Shy at first but that quickly passed. There were no chains or fences. These chimps were free to leave at will. But they had clearly been habituated to humans and were more than likely taken from their family when young.
It was astonishing to me how much they resembled children in their play and curiosity! Slowly at first they would try to touch my skin and pull the hair on my arm, then touch my beard and finally attempt to take my hat. One would pick up a dried out leaf, sniff it and pass it to me. The other wanted to hug me. We played for a while before Augustin and I continued. That was an amazing experience!! And 2 days later I came back for more!
If you have ever crossed paths with a game called Sim City then you understand what is going on with Djibloho. An area of jungle has been cleared and sewers, pipelines and electricity has since been laid. Now a hospital, an airport and a university was popping up underneath the large tower cranes. So were supermarkets, a stadium, government buildings, public housing, skyscrapers, public parks, a beautiful parliament building and much more. And all of it looked as modern as anything you can imagine. Construction companies included some of the usual suspects such as the French and Chinese. But also Israeli, Arab, Italian and others stood for the completion of this massive project.
From the billboard it looks like the new parliament building might be under construction?
If you have ever seen The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy then you might remember the scene were Arthur Dent is being shown around the new planet earth which is under construction after the old one had been blown up. In those scenes you see mountains being painted and the oceans being filled with water. Now, this wasn't as extreme as that, but it still had a certain feel to it which reminded me of it.
And it all made me think: If I was given a small country in Central Africa, unlimited power and nearly unlimited economic funds...then I might actually act the same way? Instead of building and rebuilding on top of the ever failing colonial plumbing and narrow streets, I might just decide that it was time for a fresh beginning. Sure it is extreme, but once you have seen the lack of swift progress in the neighboring countries you might take a turn in the opposite direction yourself? Or you might not. Who is to say.
I had the chance to see a few of the nearby villages which were constructed by wood and had dirt roads. The structures and building materials looked better that what I have observed in other villages in other countries. But still nothing compared to what was rising up in the jungle nearby.
Nearby local village.
Since the population is quite small both Malabo and Bata are home to the majority of the population. From 2020/21 it is the plan that Djibloho will become either the new capital or the administrative capital and who is to say how that will affect EG? As long as petroleum has value and as long as EG has enough of it, it is hard to say what will happen. Is this the new Dubai or a completely different creature?
EG imports almost all its food from Cameroun and the people share the same local languages as people in both Cameroun and Gabon. Suya, grilled fish and manioc is as much a part of the menu in EG as elsewhere.
Watering like a boss!
The everyday-people I spoke to seemed friendly and polite and why wouldn't they be? The weather wasn't special and it would typically rain in the afternoon. I saw far more small lizards in EG than anywhere else. Even on the freeway they would sit and wait for a car to come before they would run away.
After 2 nights in the country Augustin and I got into the same company 4WD I had arrived in, and he drove me back to the border with Gabon. I was wearing my blue shirt and a pair of sunglasses to fool any checkpoints into believing that I was an expat. And I think that worked.
It was no hustle leaving EG and I received an exit stamp in my passport while I observed a Gabonese football team entering the country. All the players had to step out of the bus they arrived in and shake hands with all the police, immigration and military at the post. Quite similar to how two opposing teams shake hands before a match.
Back in Gabon having left Equatorial Guinea...relieved!
I was full of a feeling I had not felt for a very long time as I had EG behind me and once again stood inside Gabon. After a while I found myself standing on a truck along with other passengers and fresh green bananas. A red dusty trail spread behind us and my smile widened. Relief!! And so much of it!! I could hardly believe that this was over? Now I could continue south again. Now the Saga could once again have measurable progress. All because of the kindness of a single man I met a few days earlier. I had been released...
It is quite important to me that I remember to mention that many people have been assisting, supporting and helping me online. More than 30 attempts to gain entry to EG have been made within the past 4 months. Good ideas, bad ideas, crazy ideas, creative ideas...much!! Thank you everyone! You were all a part of the success.
Once back in Oyem I found transport back to Libreville. In Libreville I found my stuff covered in dust. I hadn't returned after a few weeks as planed. But I had returned. I rejoiced with some of the friends I had made in Libreville, did some of the things I wanted to do with my girlfriend (back when it was the plan she would come there) and after a few nights I left to see gorillas in the wild. But that's a story for the next blog ;)