Equatorial Guinea is the smallest UN country in Africa and the only African country with Spanish (alongside French), as an official language (due to its colonial heritage, when it was called Spanish Guinea). The scenery is said to be spectacular, with ‘beautiful beaches and coastal plains turn to rolling hills in the interior’.
I’m surprised to discover that the country consists of two parts, an insular and a mainland region. There are five islands in the Gulf of Guinea: Bioko (formerly Fernando Po after the Portuguese explorer who ‘discovered’ it), Corisco, Great Elobey (Elobey Grande), Little Elobey (Elobey Chico), and Annobón (Pagalu). None of the country actually lies on the Equator, though the islands sprawl across it, as Annobón is to the south of the line. To add to the confusion, the two islands that comprise the country of São Tomé and Príncipe are located between Bioko and Annobón.
The mainland region is called Río Muni. It’s home to Bata, Equatorial Guinea's largest city, and Ciudad de la Paz (formerly Oyala), the country's planned future capital. Corisco, Elobey Grande, and Elobey Chico lie off Rio Muni. Here's a screenshot from Google Maps to help:
This all sounds quite exciting, but I’ve got very mixed feelings about visiting Equatorial Guinea. The world wide web has very little that’s good to report. The country has the worst record for Human Rights in the world. According to the yearly Freedom in the World survey, which measures political and civil rights, Equatorial Guinea has a ranking of 7. The scale is 1 (mostly free) to 7 (least free). Calculated per capita, oil and mineral income makes this the richest country in Africa. But the majority of the population don’t get to see any of this largesse.
Equatorial Guinea is ruled by ‘presidents for life.’ First, Francisco Macías Nguema (The Reign of Terror), until he was overthrown (and murdered) in a coup, in 1979, by his nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. He’s been president ever since. His son is the vice-president.
Coming from Chad, I’m visiting Bioko, the main island of Equatorial Guinea and home to the current capital, Malabo. I wanted to fly from Cameroun; Bioko is just off the coast of Cameroun, so it seemed sensible. But there isn’t a flight routing that will take me that way. So, I’ve added Equatorial Guinea to my Chad trip instead. Four legs on ASKY. Not exactly my favourite airline, as they abandoned me in Cotonou last time I tried to use them. West from N’Djamena to Abuja, to Lomé and then east again from Lomé to Cotonou (Hello, old friend) and south east to Bioko.
Arranging the flight is one hurdle. Getting the visa is another. It wasn’t such a problem before Covid, when my first trip was planned. But since then the UK government have imposed sanctions on the vice president (the president’s son) and the Equatoguineans (great word) retaliated by closing their embassy. They reopened again earlier this year, but are still not inclined to make things easy for the British. After much procrastination - police certificate to show no criminal record (£50) and other oddities required, documents are demanded that are impossible to obtain. I’m asked to get permission for my visit from the minister of culture in Malabo and apparently no-one there knows how to do this.
So, I have to get my passport sent to Madrid instead. The ambassador there isn’t very inclined to issue it either. He has to be leaned on quite heavily. The whole process has taken two months and I need to set off for Chad imminently. At least I’ve been told by Travcour - the visa company that I’m using - that my visa hasn’t been issued in London. But when I finally get my passport back – whilst I’m travelling in Chad (long story – I have two passports) I find two visas for Equatorial Guinea. One from London and one from Madrid.
The immigration clerk doesn’t seem to mind that I have two visas. The health people request the yellow fever certificate, but aren’t interested in my vaccination certificate or the PCR test I was told to get. That’s just as well, as it’s got next week’s date on it.
Malabo Airport is brand new. It’s only been open a month. But the escalators don’t work here either and the luggage takes forever to arrive. My bag is searched in the hope of eliciting a bribe. Fortunately, I can’t understand a thing the official says, and I ignore his gesticulations towards a side room. He gives up and lets me through, after a cursory rummage.
Malabo is right in the north of Bioko Island. Hermès and Norma show me round. Norma speaks very little English and very fast French, so the commentary is short and sight-seeing doesn’t take too long. There’s the port and a variety of open fronted shops in old Malabo. The largest and most imposing building by far, is the presidential palace. No photos allowed here. The Spanish colonial architecture includes the prettily apricot neo-Gothic, twin-towered Santa Isabel Cathedral (next to the palace). The dark green Casa Verde is a nineteenth-century house which was prefabricated in Belgium. It might become a museum. No-one is quite sure. The ochre Equatoguinean Cultural Centre has study centres, an arched atrium, a gallery and other performance spaces.
The new town is called Malabo II. The Paseo Maritimo is a Spanish style promenade alongside the water, with paved walkways and upmarket cafes. It would be very pleasant if it wasn’t raining.
The most enjoyable part of Malabo is the Malabo National Park, handily adjacent to the airport. Its beautifully planted, if a little regimented, with rows of tropical trees, lakes, sports facilities, an art gallery, cafes and restaurants. You have to pay to get in. And extra for fancy cameras. There’s no-one else there and all the facilities are closed. It’s Monday. Norma takes me on a tour and driver Hermès seems to have acquired a friend, while he is waiting.
You can’t miss the Pico Basilé Volcano peak, to the south of Malabo. In fact, it’s difficult to miss it from most of the island. At 3,000 metres, it’s the highest mountain in Equatorial Guinea. It’s surrounded by the densely forested Parque Nacional del Pico Basilé. A road winds to the summit, slowly. It takes almost an hour, as there’s a very low speed limit. And you need a permit to get through the police barrier at the bottom. (You need a permit to do just about everything here.) A church and statue of Mother Bisila is located atop the mountain. The sculpture was created by the Spanish sculptor Modesto Gené Roig in 1968. There are also radar and satellite stations. You’re not allowed in that area, of course.
I’m not sure the views justify the long haul. There’s an obstructed panorama of the coast and a lot of rainforest. It’s misty too. Wikipedia says that Malabo is one of the cloudiest, wettest and most lightning-prone capitals in the world.
My hotel, the Sofitel, is in Sipopo, west of Malabo. It’s a manicured resort area, built for the 2011 African Union Summit. I’ve got mixed feelings about my hotel as well. It’s an outrageous price considering the quality of the offering. It smells musty and I’ve been given a smoking room that also, unsurprisingly, stinks of cigarette fumes. I don’t like to try to complain, as no-one speaks English and my room is otherwise very nice, the bed is super comfy and it actually has a very nice view. I don’t want to lose that.
The grounds are lovely. Hibiscus winds around the pergolas below my window and masses of tiny yellow weaver birds are building here and in the palm trees. The fronds are weighed down, with hundreds of lantern like globes.
There’s a nice pool, a bar and sunbeds, with proper emerald mattresses. Beyond that, the beach is decidedly indifferent. More gravel than sand, some rickety sunbeds, but kept clean and tidy. Off the beach, a couple of islands. The larger, Isla Horacio, is joined to the beach by a wooden footbridge. Which is barred and padlocked. In the not so far distance, across the strait, the shadow that is the islands and mountains of Cameroun.
The food is as variable as the building. My sea bass is delicious and so’s my scrambled egg (once I’ve realised you can order it – the placing of breakfast menus is a little idiosyncratic). The ‘potato cookies’ (hash browns) are rock solid. The hot water for tea is tepid and coffee flavoured. The lemon water contains so much fruit, it’s like drinking acid. The Thai broth has no discernible spice in it, at all. My lamb shank is undercooked. My pork chop with prunes turns up overcooked and with pepper sauce, but no prunes.
There’s reasonably good Wi-Fi, but WhatsApp calls are blocked and news channels are slow to update. I expect there’s a reason for that.
Guide Agustin takes me on a circumnavigation of Bioko. It’s raining hard and the views are ruined. but cloud rises atmospherically from the rainforest, with which this small island is cloaked. Pico Basilé in the north, towers above Malabo and there's the caldera de San Carlos, in the south, forming a rainforest reserve. The national tree of Equatorial Guinea is the ceiba, found on the flag. They're prolific, standing proudly against the sky.
The roads are in great condition. Much better than at home. In town, there are three lane highways. Round the island, the towering, terraced roadside banks are scythed and strimmed. There’s Spanish signage - and vibrant music emanating from the cafes. Each village has a church and a presidential palace. Some of the palaces are still in the early stages of building. They dwarf anything else in the vicinity.
There are also frequent police and/or military check points - usually logs draped across the road. The police check permits and ask for money at the same time. Agustin usually gives them something. He says they get paid very little. I'm less keen when one of the demands involves hitching a ride to the next town. But I'm not consulted. The country's motto, inscribed beneath the tree on its shield is Unidad, Paz, Justicia (Unity, Peace, Justice).
Luba is the second-largest town on Bioko, in Equatorial Guinea. It developed as a logging port and there’s deepwater access for larger and oil industry vessels, an alternative to the congested port at Malabo. There’s an oil platform in the centre of the bay.
It’s a far cry from when Count Arjelejos landed here, in 1778, to take possession of the island for Spain. Bioko had previously been settled by the Portuguese (who swapped it for lands in the New World) and intermittently by the Dutch East Indies company. Spain leased Bioko to England, who based their anti-slavery campaign (mainly against the Portuguese) here.
Spain claimed Bioko back in 1855. They then used the island as a kind of penal colony, deporting several hundred Afro-Cubans, as well as dozens of Spanish scholars and politicians considered politically undesirable. In addition, Spain exiled 218 revolutionaries here from the Philippines. Only 94 survived for any length of time. Another historical snippet: the British explorer Richard Burton, served as a consul here, writing several books about Africa.
Luba has some traditional Spanish buildings. At nearby Batete, there are a plethora of old traditional houses and an early twentieth century wooden church. Equatorial Guinea’s leaning tower of Pisa. It’s heavily shored up and in dire need of restoration.
Also close by, is beautiful Arena Blanca Beach. It’s strewn with basalt boulders, spilling into the sea. This is where the locals spend their Sundays. I’m told the bars around the car park get very rowdy then. You have to be careful to avoid the drunk drivers on the road home.
Upwards, through the clouds, into the high ground of the south. The road is covered in fog; frustrating, as the views of the lakes are said to be stunning. A hawk is similarly disorientated and flies into our car, concussing himself. Agustin pops him into the boot, to recover.
At the top, at the village of Moka, there’s a small interpretive centre, with information about the local primates. The guide says that monkeys are often hunted for food, even though its illegal. here, Agustin opens up his car and our recovered bird swoops out, to freedom.
There’s another lovely beach at Riaba, once a British stronghold. Here, the president’s wife has enclosed a large parcel of land and is building a new resort village.
Back up north. There’s the Cope Bridge to admire. It carries the road over a jungle covered gorge and is famous for having been built by the first president. Just before Sipopo, Santiago de Baney village has a striking church and still more traditional houses.
A sunny day (huzzah) and back down south, with Agustin, to the small town of San Antonio de Ureca. I’m really lucky, as Ureca (or Ureka - I have it!) is the wettest place in Africa.
An invigorating walk, along the volcanic sands, on the edge of the rainforest. There are five pretty waterfalls here, and we reach the first two, wading through streams emptying into the sea. It’s impossible to fend off the many mosquitoes, as the water washes off the repellent, as fast as I apply it. This is leatherback turtle country, but it’s not the right season. Clouds of butterflies swarm around the pools, however.
To my consternation, Agustin hides the car keys in a hut by the car park, as he doesn’t want to get them wet. Thankfully, they’re still there when we return.
Equatorial Guinea are playing in the Africa Nations Cup qualifiers this week - against Botswana. Agustin is a football fanatic and he offers to take me. International match tickets are like gold dust aren’t they? Agustin says no, they were giving them away free yesterday. They want people to support the team. Incidentally, the Equatoguinean team are staying in my hotel. I’ve been bumping into them in the lift and, peeping over my balcony, I can see them trying to train in the garden. Their nickname is National Thunder. I suppose that works with Malabo and lightning.
The match is billed as starting at seven, at the Malabo Stadium. It kicks off just after eight. Meanwhile, we’ve parked on the main highway, I’ve been hauled over walls, asked to clamber over tall locked gates (I refused) and bundled through turnstiles with a squash of others. None of the stadium gates seems to be open - it’s a free for all. I don’t have a ticket and Agustin is waving a football business card. I’ve no idea if it's valid or not. I’m not sure anyone is checking.
But we’re in and seated - with a pretty good view. The crowd is well behaved; there’s some drumming utilising the seats. And I’m the only Caucasian face.
Agustin predicts that the Equatoguineans will win. He says they always do in the Africa Cup, as its easier to bribe the referee when you’re at home. Sure enough they do. There’s a very dubious penalty. In the second half one of the Botswana players is sent off. I’m not sure what offence he committed. But he is roundly booed as he leaves the pitch.
It’s a very African experience and probably the highlight of my visit here.
I’m adding Equatorial Guinea to my list of weird and uncomfortable places to visit, alongside, DRC, Liberia, Turkmenistan and North Korea. It’s a struggle to get here. It’s horribly corrupt – police or military demanding money every five minutes. Social media is controlled. There’s a huge divide between rich and poor. Some of the people are friendly, others cautious and reserved. There’s nothing exceptional to see. There are some lovely beaches, breath-taking mountain views and the rainforest is gorgeous, but these can be found elsewhere. Even the new airport is strange. There’s nothing at all open in the departure lounge. I’ve been deposited here early and I haven’t had any lunch. I won’t be hurrying back. Back home for a few days and then Cameroun.
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