I’m revisiting Israel, as it’s ages since I was here, visiting Jordan, Israel and Palestine. My old photos aren’t great. As their strap line says, 'There's nowhere like Israel'. I’ve never been to Tel Aviv. And there was a great offer on my Virgin Air Miles.
Getting in is very straightforward. No visa, no forms to fill in, no Covid requirements. And a blue printed authorisation drops into my hand, as several countries are not very happy about passports with Israeli stamps in them. So, they've given up doing it. The immigration official isn’t exactly welcoming. But she’s allowed me in.
I’m renting an apartment in Jaffa and it’s Saturday – Shabbat in the Jewish religion - so I’m taking a taxi. Though first, I have to avoid all the hustlers, who try to edge me into their vehicles and charge double the correct rate. One even puts my bag into the boot of his car and I have to jostle with him to retrieve it. Then, I find the authorized queue. Little English is spoken here and nearly all the signage is in Hebrew or Arabic. My short, puzzled looking driver gesticulates at me instead.
Tel Aviv, officially, Tel Aviv-Yafo is the economic and technological centre of the country, home to most of the foreign embassies, who shy away from recognising Jerusalem as the capital. It’s the largest city in the country, if East Jerusalem is not considered part of Israel. If it is, then Tel Aviv is the country's second most populous city, after Jerusalem.
Tel Aviv has the largest economy per capita, in the Middle East, and more importantly, according to some lists, has the highest cost of living in the world. I’m stocking up in the supermarket. Shopping here is not as bad as the Cayman Islands, at least.
Tel Aviv is a modern city - founded in 1909 by the Yishuv (Jewish residents), as a housing estate on the outskirts of the ancient port city of Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew, hence the full name of the city). It was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The growth of Tel Aviv, due to immigration by mostly Jewish refugees, soon outpaced that of Jaffa, which had a majority Arab population. Tel Aviv was allowed to develop into a city in its own right.
My apartment is in Jaffa (Yafo) – now part of Tel Aviv-Yafo. Jaffa was not historically part of Israel. Ancient Jaffa (or Joppa) was the northern most city of the biblical Philistines, much coveted by Judea. Archaeological evidence shows signs of human settlement there starting in roughly 7,500 BC and the city was established around 1,800 BC, at the latest. Its natural harbour has been used since the Bronze Age.
There was considerable debate, as to the future of Jaffa, after independence It wasn’t wanted by the affluent boroughs of Tel Aviv, but it was eventually amalgamated with the city. Overall, the population of Israel is 20% Muslim and 1% Christian. Here more than a third of the people are Arabs. There are ongoing friction - complaints about discrimination and marginalization.
The local beach has large wooden shady areas with trellis type roofing. So I park myself on the edge of one of these. The pillar makes a convenient backrest and I'm thinking I can retreat into the shade as necessary. The sand is so fine and soft you can rub it onto your skin along with the sun tan lotion and it doesn't hurt at all.
But the locals or fellow tourists have no concept of personal space. Or don’t care. One family parks themselves right next to me and two small boys, aided and abetted by their father, create a huge walled castle networ,k which encompasses the whole of this canopied area. The other side of me rapidly fills up too. Another small boy of sand throwing inclination. Until I gesticulate to his parents that he should cease. And a couple speaking Italian and broken English. He poses arms outstretched while she takes the pictures at his command. They've cut off my escape route entirely.
When the babies aren't squalling there's the ongoing clack of matkot games. It's the Israeli version of beach or padel board tennis. And, some fishermen have just hauled a net onto the beach and are picking out the glistening fish.
Parks and canopies run behind the beaches most of the way to the old port at Jaffa. The port area might be old, it’s partly backed by old churches and a monastery. There are also renovated houses with jettied windows. But the expensive yachts moored up there are entirely modern. And a newly constructed quay is lined with plate glass chain restaurants.
Inland, there are older creamier buildings with arches (the modern ones often incorporate the shape of these) and the Clock Tower. Probably the most well know landmark in the area. There are bougainvillea filled parks (gorgeous against the blue sky) and gardens to wander, a warren of narrow streets, with views across the bay, to the new city, if you can find your way out. There's a beautifully decorated mosque, a proper pink canopied flea market, and a plethora of stalls selling food and goods of all descriptions. It definitely has 'atmosphere'.
In Tel Aviv, scores of white towers (mostly hotels and apartments round here) march down to the sea. This is the thronging Good Time Capital of the Levant. You can sunbathe, shop, eat and drink, to your heart's content. Or at least, as far as your wallet will allow.
There are more parks, running alongside the beach. And there are bicycle lanes. These have to be crossed cautiously. They're mostly used by scooters and electric bikes and both whizz by at alarming speed. Usually on the pavement, despite all the impressive infrastructure. The scooters frequently have an additional passenger on board. Sometimes the bicycles do too. Standing on the luggage rack.
As in England, the bicycles don't take a lot of notice of traffic lights. And neither do the motor bikes. It's exceptionally disconcerting, trying to cross the wide boulevards, uncertain when some huge machine is going to dart out in front of you.
Tel Aviv, has, as one would expect, numerous museums and galleries and is famous for its nightlife. The string of beaches (are wide, with more of that soft sand, though busy and urban, covered with sunbeds. It looks like one long stretch of sand to me, but each section has a different name. Jerusalem Beach is one of the most popular. Currents and rock don't augur well for swimming. There are designated swimming areas, mostly created with rocky arms in the sea and plenty of life guard stations. Tannoy announcements, vigorously warning swimmers (I assume - it's all in Hebrew) punctuate the click-clack of matkot. The promenade is thronging in the evening, right along to the south of Jaffa. And there's a food festival taking up the whole of one park. Loud music over speakers, police with automatic rifles posing on platforms and queues jostling to get in.
Although it's newer, Tel Aviv still has enticing narrow streets, lined with flowers, sculptures and cafes, behind the sea front towers. Wandering through here brings me to the Carmel Market. This, mainly one street bazaar, is delightful. It's mostly food stalls of all descriptions and most of it looks delicious.
To the other extreme, there's the White City. Tel Aviv is home to the world's largest concentration of International Style buildings, including Bauhaus and other related modernist architectural styles. Collectively (although they're spread out ) they've been dubbed the White City and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I’ve scoured the internet and picked out some for a walking tour. It mostly covers Rothschild Boulevard, and is so often the case, most of what I want to see is being reconstructed or refurbished. I’m sure they check my calendar when they plan these works.
I'm due to start at the Independence Hall (Number 16). This is where the Israeli state was declared in 1948. (Read more about the history of Israel here.) It's also known as Dizengoff House. Meir Dizengoff was the first mayor of Tel Aviv, one of the main drivers for Israeli independence, along with first Prime Minister Ben Gurion. His name pops up all around Tel Aviv. Sadly, the hall, which I've read is now a museum of history, is surrounded by hoardings and looks to be half demolished. Instead, I chat to lovely La'el, on a bench in the small square in the centre of the boulevard. This is very much small coffee shop under shady tree country. La'el lives here, but she's never heard of the White City or the term Bauhaus.
Next, the Great Synagogue. Definitely not a Bauhaus building, it's worth a slight detour, from the boulevard. Though opinions are divided as to whether this is a beautiful building. Perhaps striking is the right word. more brutalist with its concrete, pillars, buttresses and circular cut outs. It's looking a little worse for wear, but an upgrade is in the pipeline.
The U shaped Engel House (number 84), Number 61 Rothschild (plenty of curved balconies) and the Rubinsky House (residential and the curves are hard to see from the street, just off Rothschild). Habima Square, low, flat and brown, is home to the Habima Theatre and the Cultural Place. It stretches across the top of Dizengoff Street. This is a big shopping area, lined with cafes and boutiques. which takes me. north east, back down to the beach area.. In the middle, Kikar Dizengoff, a circus or plaza, with fountains and views across to the up market apartments in the Dizengoff Tower. Just behind the promenade, my favourite Bauhaus building, with its mirrored loops - 96 Hayarkon.
My apartment is another of life’s disappointments. It’s marketed as high end, cosy and luxurious, by the beach. Well, it's five minutes from the nearest beach, and I can cope with that. Though half the area is currently fenced off for building work. That’s not the owner of apartment’s fault. But the dust, mould, stains, peeling plaster and dirt inside are. The building itself is nice - and so could the apartment be, if it was looked after. There’s also a mosque, just over the road, with accompanying muezzin through the day and night. Description says its during the day only. Advertised as charming and specious - well that’s accurate. Cosy charming, high end. Recently renovated. The pictures are clearly ancient.
Tel Aviv-Yafo is also known as the Big Orange. Jaffa orange production is the only large Palestinian industry still remaining. Whilst cotton, soap and ink declined, orange cultivation became big business and Jaffa is surrounded by orange groves. The oranges were developed by Arabs who crossed the original Chinese orange with other varieties to produce a sweet fruit with a tough skin that would travel well. And so oranges became big business. There's even a visitor attraction here - a sculpture that depicts a suspended orange tree. Though the economy and lack of water has meant that citrus production doesn't thrive as much as it once did.
The smaller Jewish city of Bat Yam, just to the south, was initially a contender for an alliance with Jaffa, instead of Tel Aviv, but it was deemed insufficiently wealthy to support the area. Bat Yam is a 15 minute stroll from my apartment. It’s a gentle place, unremarkable cream and white high rise blocks, quiet roads and a gorgeous beaches backed by lofty cliffs. There are rip currents and small rocky islands galore along this coast too and much of the lovely sand is covered with large signs, prohibiting swimming in big red letters.
Fortunately, the Jerusalem Beach here has a huge pool, within the sea, created with rocks, and surrounded by several lifeguard stations. It also has beach cafes and lots of sunbeds. And, even though it’s the weekend, it’s not too crowded, at this end of town. Trying to attract a waiter's attention is another matter.
A day tour up the coast, from Tel Aviv, necessitates an uncivilised start. The roads are empty when I set off at 5.30 a.m., but there are still adventures to be had. I'm doused by the huge sprinklers set up in the parks to keep them green. And I find myself somehow inside the hoardings set up for the food festival, with apparently no exit. It's panic stations for five minutes while I retrace my steps.
Three lane highways. Manicured roundabouts decorated with flower beds. Avenues lined with jacaranda trees in bloom. The buildings are all cream or white, occasionally venturing daringly into beige or light brown. The traffic, crawling into Tel Aviv, is terrible. A million commuters each day. Fortunately, we are going the other way.
The orange groves are receding (out of sight and in size). Swallowed up by new housing. Each new apartment constructed must have an air raid shelter. Mine seems to be the bedroom. No Wi-Fi reception in there..
Further north, avocados ( the main Israeli export today ) bananas ( under gigantic tents of shady netting), pomegranates (apparently they are very good ones) and vineyards (there are 350 wineries in Israel, though the best Israeli wine is said to come from the Golan Heights). The swathes of golden sand , alternating with rocky patches continue, whenever we meet the coast, as we wind north up Highway 2.
Caesarea is famous for its historical remains. It was first settled by the Phoenicians and then became first, the capital of the province of Judaea (not to be confused with the smaller, earlier Judah). and later Syria Palestina, when Judaea was merged with Galilee. The Roman city was founded by Herod the Great (37-4 BC), who sycophantically (as was common) named it after Caesar Augustus. It's often referred to as Caesarea Maritima. to distinguish it from all the other Caesareas. The Byzantines followed and later the crusaders fortified the port. Further invaders, such as the Mamluks, preferred to utilize other areas and Caesarea once more became a fishing village.
It has a theatre (in good condition and still used), the usual baths, a large hippodrome or circus and the ruins of Herod the Great's Palace. At least, the guide says it’s a hippodrome and a theatre. He is adamant that there are no amphitheatres here. The leaflet I’ve been given says the hippodrome is a Herodian amphitheatre, which could seat 10,000. There are the remains of another hippodrome, further out, (200 AD), that could seat 30,000. To the north, there's also the remains of the moated crusader Castle, which was built on the site. Caesarea developed around its port, a huge hub in Roman times. But most of it's under water now. We're zipped round at top speed. Hardly time to take photos, let alone listen to the guide's version of history.
Ten minutes later, we are allowed to hop off the bus and view the aqueduct, snaking along the beach – 10 kilometres long and eight metres tall. Herod had to build it, as there was no fresh water in the area. It was later extended (doubled in size) by Hadrian.
Next stop, Haifa, a huge port city, which has taken over from Acre (Akko) in terms of importance. There's a large industrial area with petrochemical plants that are said to significantly raise cancer rates in the region. They've talked about moving it. But it hasn't happened yet.
There's a great panorama across town, from the slopes of Mount Carmel. And a stunning view of the Baháʼí Gardens. They're built on 19 levels, as 19 is a holy number for Muslims, with the gold domed tomb of the Bab, Muhammed Ali in the centre. Bab means gate or door.
The Baháʼí Faith is a tolerant religion, emanating from Iran, which essentially attempts to unite all faiths (saying all are worthy). It has three central figures: the Báb (1819–1850), the herald, or messenger (hence gate), a John the Baptist like figure who taught his followers that God would soon send a prophet who would be similar to Jesus or Muhammad, Baháʼu'lláh (1817–1892), who claimed to be that prophet and his son, Abdu'l-Bahá (1844–1921).
The Bab was sentenced to death in Tabriz. He was tied up and forced to face 750 riflemen. Astonishingly they all missed (or so the story goes). So the Bab ran away, but was recaptured and this time the execution was successful. His body was stolen away to Israel and buried in the shrine here.
Baháʼu'lláh was persecuted, and imprisoned, but only exiled to Iraq. Abdu'l-Bahá was released from confinement in 1908 and able to make teaching trips to Europe and the United States. Today, the religion is estimated to have 5 to 8 million adherents, spread throughout the world.
Acre, known here as Akko, also goes back a very long way. The earliest evidence of settlements dates back to 3000 BC. Until the British came, it was the foremost seaport in the region. It's probably most famous for its role in the Crusader Wars, when it changed hands several times. There's a whole crusader castle church and crypt underneath newer, Ottoman buildings. These were simply laid over the crusader chambers, which were filled to the brim with sand. No-one realised these additional layers were there, until the 1990s. The sand was scooped out to reveal extraordinary vaulting on lofty ceilings and tiny underground sandstone passages, linking the buildings. It's a very impressive display, making good use of projectors to recreate scenes from the past and overlay them on the stone.
Lunch in a tourist restaurant with pickled cabbage, olives, flatbread, weird hot hummus, shawarma ( turkey scraps) and chips. One date each ( though I have the temerity to take two).
The obligatory tourist shop ' with craft demonstration '. It's another whistlestop tour. There's just time to admire the mosque. the second largest in Israel and to scoot down to the port and through the bazaar, which is mostly shuttered for the afternoon. Past a whole row of restaurants, lights strung all round in a large square. It looks like a fun place for the evening.
As far north as we can get, is Rosh Hanikra. This is where the British, and others, tunnelled through the rock and suspended 15 bridges, to create a train line between Haifa and Beirut during World War II. They blew up the main bridges, to prevent Lebanon sending in weapons, after the state of Israel was created. The border gate here remains firmly closed and the guard on duty declines invitations to have his photo taken today.
We descend to the grottoes on the world's steepest (and probably shortest ) cable car. The caves are suitably azure, filled with foaming waves and linked by slippery paths.
As nearly everyone who lives in Tel Aviv is Jewish or Muslim pork is unsurprisingly, in short supply. most of the sandwiches on sale are egg or fish. There are plenty of restaurants serving shellfish. The food is good, but (unsurprisingly, give the information above) expensive. As are the very tempting cocktails.
The beaches and restaurants are crowded on Friday thru Saturday - Shabbat. Every table is reserved at the nicest places on Friday evening, when I'm relegated to the bar.
And my taxi driver, back to the airport, argues over the fare. 'It’s a third extra on Saturdays', he says. 'It's 180 shekels.'
' Use the meter ',I insist. He does.(It's the law.) Complaining every five minutes. But, the roads are fairly clear and we clock up 140 shekels.
'You win', he declares, as he unloads my bag.
Palestine - few lands are so ancient and have such a troubled history. So, it's with excitement and trepidation, that my group tour crosses the Allenby (King Hussein) Bridge from Jordan into the West Bank and Palestine.
The term Palestine has been in use since ancient Greek times and Herodotus. Then, it referred to the southeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, beside Syria. Later, the modern State of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. as defined by the British Mandatory Palestine (1920-1948).
The State of Palestine today is officially governed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It claims the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip as its territory, though the entirety of that territory has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War. The West Bank is currently divided into 165 Palestinian enclaves, which are under partial Palestinian National Authority (PNA) rule. The remainder, including 200 Israeli settlements, is under full Israeli control. The Gaza Strip is ruled by the militant Islamic group Hamas and has been subject to a long-term blockade by Egypt and Israel (since 2007).
As I wrote under Israel, the current geopolitical situation in this region is complex and ongoing and I am not going to attempt to explain it further. Please read up for yourself. My understanding is, that according to international law Israel currently occupies land (see above), that legally belongs to Arab nations, Palestine in particular. So I have included those areas in this, Palestine post.
We take in Jericho shortly after crossing the border. Jericho is believed to be the world's oldest continually inhabited city and it dates back 11,000 years. In 7,000 BC Jericho had a population of 2,000 and was the largest city in existence. It was sustained by water from the nearby River Jordan. Jericho is probably most famous for its walls. They came later, of course. and were sloped (to make them difficult to climb), about 15 feet wide and over 10 feet high, with stone towers of about 25 feet.
This wall features in the biblical story in the book of Joshua and in musicals (Joshua fit the battle of Jericho). When Moses died, Joshua took over leadership of the exodus of the Hebrew peoples from Egypt into Canaan, the Promised Land. But Jericho lay in their way. God told the Israelites to walk around the wall, chanting and blowing trumpets, for several days. They did as they were told and the walls 'came tumbling down'. Perhaps that's why there's little sign of them in the scanty ruins. This is also the area in which Jesus was baptised (in the Jordan) and the home of the Mount of the Temptation. Not to mention the several monasteries.
A side trip from Jericho to Qumran, home of the Essenes, believed to have been the authors of the 2,000 year old Dead Sea Scrolls. These 15,000 priceless scrolls and scroll fragments were found amongst eleven rocky hillside caves from1947 to 1956. Mostly written in Hebrew, they include the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the Bible, along with other important religious documents. As with much else in this region, their ownership is open to dispute. They were mostly discovered during the period of Jordanian control of the West Bank. However, they were captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War and almost all of them are now held by Israel in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. Israel argues that they are hugely significant in the heritage of Judaism. The Qumran site is managed by the Israelis.
Into Jerusalem, It's claimed by both Palestine and Israel as their capital, Internationally, East Jerusalem, including the entire Old City, is regarded as belonging to the occupied West Bank territories. But neither part, West or East Jerusalem, is recognised as part of the territory of Israel or the State of Palestine. Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its capital, but few countries (other than the USA) have their embassies here. Nevertheless, West Jerusalem is the de facto capital of Israel,
The Palestinian Authority regards East Jerusalem as the capital of the future State of Palestine. It's currently in Israeli lands, but I'm going to write about it here, along with the other occupied territories that I visit.
The road winds steadily uphill through surprisingly green slopes. Jerusalem is 670 metres above sea level. First, Mount Scopus (its name means look out), for the iconic views. This city, one of the oldest in the world, dates back to the fourth millennium BC. It is hugely important to Moslems, Jews and Christians. East Jerusalem, where we are headed, contains the Old City, the City of David. By the eighth century BC, the city had developed into the religious and administrative centre of the Kingdom of Judah. Over the ensuing years Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, and attacked 52 times. There's too much to relate here. Again, the Bible tells the story better than I can.
In 1538, the city walls were rebuilt for a last time by order of Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire. Today, those walls still stand, surrounding the Old City. This has traditionally been divided into four areas – the Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters. There are eight gates. Jerusalem, as a whole, has one million inhabitants.
Close by Mount Scopus - really an extension of the same ridge - is the Mount of Olives. Today, there are plenty of cypress trees, but no olives. Part of the mount, facing Jerusalem, has been used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years and there are over 150,000 graves, cream boxes spreading over the western slopes. The Mount of Olives is the most sought after burial spot (an therefore expensive) as the Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, the resurrection of the dead will begin here. It's thought to hold the tomb of some of the Old Testament prophets.
The area is referred to numerous times in the Bible, both testaments. Several key events in the life of Jesus, as related in the Gospels, took place on the Mount of Olives, and in the Acts of the Apostles it is described as the place from which Jesus ascended to heaven. So it remains a major site of pilgrimage. It's sprinkled with churches, including the beautiful Russian Orthodox church of Mary Magdalene.
At the bottom of the hill, on the edge of the Kidron Valley, is the renowned Christian site, designated as the Garden of Gethsemane. Here, is the Roman Catholic Church of All Nations, also known as the Church or Basilica of the Agony. It's built over the rock where Jesus is said to have prayed before his betrayal and arrest.
I've revisited Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in 2023, so I'm going to add images from my second visit too. They were very similar, in terms of sights, but my 2023 is hard going. The traffic is slow moving. It's Jerusalem Day, commemorating Israel's' conquering of the city during the Six Day War in 1967. Very recently, it was the 75th anniversary of the Israeli State, in 1949. Blue Star of David flags are draped everywhere. Many Arabs take exception to the celebrations, especially the Jerusalem Day march through the Old City, which is seen as flaunting Israeli possession. There are often violent protests, especially around the Dome of the Rock, in the Muslim quarter.
In addition, there has been a recent escalation of violence in Gaza, with rockets fired. So today, tensions are high The city is crowded and the traffic crawls. Following a tour guide through the narrow streets of the medina,when there are 50 of you, is no mean feat.
In the Jewish quarter, the Western (or Wailing) Wall is believed by Jews to be the last remnant of the second Temple. begun by Herod the Great and so, is the most revered of all Jewish sites. This portion of limestone wall (all of the city is built from limestone) forms part of the larger retaining wall of the hill known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount. It's thought that there have been two temples on the site - the original built by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians and the second, built by Herod and destroyed by the Romans.
Orthodox Jewish tradition maintains it is here that the third and final Temple will be built when the Messiah comes.(Jesus is not viewed as the Messiah by the Jews) so, the Temple Mount is the place Jews turn towards during prayer. It's the presumed site of the Holy of Holies, where God is most present, although no excavations have ever been conducted here.
The Western Wall today is lined with worshippers, leaving prayers in the crevices and reciting their scriptures. Contentiously, a partition divides the men from the women. The men are allowed to wear shawls, talk and hold celebrations, such as bar mitzvahs. The women are only allowed to pray and that's under sufferance. They never used to be allowed all. But you can stand on platforms and peep over at the men. This is a Thursday, so it's a bar mitzvah day (Mondays and Thursdays). There are groups of celebrants boys in their hats, men in shawls and the boy in question walks under a canopy accompanied by musicians. The women wear their best. Small chic hats. Veils. And well tailored suits.
The Temple Mount was levelled when the country was under Arab control and the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were built here in the seventh century AD, one of the oldest extant Islamic structures in the world. The Rock is thought to be where God created the world, as well as the first human, Adam. And the site where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son,
It's also believed to be the site where the Muhammad tied his winged steed, al-Buraq, on his Isra and Mi'raj to Jerusalem, before ascending to paradise. It's also therefore a very holy site for Moslems. The Temple Mount compound is maintained by the Jordanian waqf; King Hussein of Jordan donated extraordinary amounts of money (eight million USD) to have the dome regilded. (He had to sell one of his houses in London.) The largest part of the Western Wall is here, in the Muslim Quarter, retaining the Temple Mount, out of sight and out of reach.
As a result, the Wall has been the catalyst for much conflict. Access to the Western Wall was in what was known as the Moroccan Quarter, but Jews were always allowed access to worship. Until Zionist movements in the early twentieth century incited several outbreaks of violence After the 1948 Arab–Israeli War the eastern portion of Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan and the Jews were completely expelled from the Old City including the Jewish Quarter. The Jews were barred from entering the Old City for 19 years, When they conquered Jerusalem in the Six Day War, they bulldozed the Moroccan Quarter, to create the Western Wall Plaza.
The Muslim Quarter is the largest of the four quarters of Jerusalem (so not strictly quarters in the mathematical sense), home to Christian, Jewish and Muslim landmarks. The souqs are colourful and bustling except for the oldest, covered bazaar, which leads to the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. This is closed today, to prevent access for protestors.
The Dome of the Rock is the key Muslim sight. But the Muslim Quarter is also home to the first seven (of 14), so called Stations of the Cross, on the Via Dolorosa (Sorrowful Way). This is traditionally believed to be the route taken by Christ, on the day of his execution. It evolved from Catholic devotions. Some parts are not even documented in the scriptures. The stations are marked by medallions and plaques on the walls.
This is where we move outside the city walls, following Jesus' route two thousand years ago.
Now we're in the Christian quarter, also a mélange of landmarks and home to some crusader remains, as well as several new-ish churches.
First, two more Stations of the Cross
Today the last five Stations of the Cross are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the huge basilica constructed to encompass the sacred sites where it's said that Jesus was stripped; nailed to the cross; died on the cross; removed from the cross and laid to rest in a cave tomb. A Franciscan chapel to the right of the Sepulchre entrance marks where Jesus was stripped of his clothes.
The compound is a confusing complex of chapels and churches with domes and towers. The main church has several different orthodox and catholic sections. Just inside the church entrance is a stairway leading up to Calvary ( or Golgotha), traditionally regarded as the site of Jesus's crucifixion. It's said to be the most lavishly decorated part of the church. but it's heaving, so it's hard to tell. There are two chapels here, one orthodox, one catholic, each with its own altar. The Greek Orthodox chapel's altar has prime position, directly over the supposed Rock of Calvary (the 12th Station of the Cross), The rock is visible through protective glass on both sides of the altar and underneath. I suppose it's a sort of a hill.
The Stone of Anointing, in the main entrance area is another tourist magnet. It's where Jesus' body is said to have lain, after he died. (It was only added in the 1810 reconstruction.)
The main altar of the church is found in the Greek Orthodox Catholicon, a Crusader-era church. It has a dome 20 metres (65 ft) in diameter, set directly over the compas. This is an omphalos ("navel") stone once thought to be the centre of the world (there's one of those at Delphi too). There's a huge crucifix on top of the dome.
But everyone wants to see the tomb. That's in a rotunda under an even larger dome, in a small chapel called the Aedicule (Latin for small shrine) The Aedicule has two rooms: the first holds a relic called the Angel's Stone, which is believed to be a fragment of the large stone that sealed the tomb; the second, smaller room, contains the tomb of Jesus. There's a very long queue that winds all round the chapel,
Behind the sepulchre, is the Chapel of the Apparition, reserved for Roman Catholic use only. There's an old Jewish tomb in here that our guide tells us is much more likely to be the tomb of Jesus than the one in the Aedicule. If I was cynical I would say that he was trying to fob us off, as he didn't want us to try and join the throng. Who knows?
I struggle with the Stations of the Cross. The rubric is based on later, European constructions, with continually expanding numbers of stations. There are too many more recent buildings along the way. It detracts, in my view, from what could be a spiritual experience. Sadly, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre doesn't change my opinion. Too many different sects confusing the story and introducing conflict and therefore doubt.
The church is jam packed with tour groups being given explanations or jostling for a better view, waving their phones for pictures. Then there's the tourist paraphernalia (hawkers in all the surrounding streets). I can only sympathise when some of my fellow tourists are ejected from the queue for the Holy Sepulchre by irate priests, because they are giggling. the close and convenient juxtaposition of these important sites in one building is hard to swallow.
Apparently my scepticism is shared by some experts. I've read that there's a strong chance that this is the place of the crucifixion. Golgotha. (There is the hill, sort of, inside the church). The Romans attempted to distract attention by building a temple to Aphrodite here, but in doing so they, marked the spot. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, excavated and found what she believed to be the original sites. She was responsible for the first of the many churches built here, over the ages.
But, as I suspected, it's unlikely that the tomb was so close to the crucifixion. and it is believed that the original burial place, provided by Joseph of Arimathea, was further afield and destroyed in the eleventh century. The jury is out on Gethsemane.
South, to Bethlehem. It's only a short journey. The first time rocks are hurled at the bus. Fortunately, they only dent the paintwork. Now there's a wall built, by Israel, to separate the Israeli lands from the West Bank and Palestine. Donald Trump would approve. Most people don't. Even Banksy has lent his support with artwork alongside the structure and the Walled-off Hotel (get it?).
Demonstrations here this week are Nakba (Catastrophe) related. No more blue flags. It's 75 years since the people of Palestine were ousted from their lands.
The biblical birthplace of Jesus is a small town still, 50000 people of whom only 20% Christian nowadays. (It was nearly 100%). But it's a major Christian pilgrimage destination. The supposed birth place of Jesus is in a grotto, under the sixth-century Church of the Nativity. Again, I was a little sceptical, but I've read that the actual birth site was indeed a cave. The manger was a stone cut nomad feeding trough, sadly replaced by a silver one. The birthplace is marked by a silver star (it was stolen by Greek monks in the nineteenth century but eventually restored.) According to biblical scholar E. M. Blaiklock, the cave 'is hung and cluttered with all the tinsel of men’s devotions'.
The site was again unintentionally preserved by the Romans. The pagan emperor Hadrian ordered a grove dedicated to the god Adonis to be planted around the cave. The first church here was built by Constantine, after his mother's visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. parts of this church (much extended and adapted over the years) date back to the sixth century AD.
But first, enforced shopping at a 'cooperative' that's called Johnny's Souvenir Shop. Inlaid crosses and carved nativity scenes. And jewellery of course. The demonstration consists of holding up a chain and saying it comes in different metals and with a choice of jewels attached. Apparently we have to go there before the church at the request of several passengers. Really ?
I sit outside instead of shopping and am chatted up by a Palestinian tour guide who tells me I have lovely eyes and wants to meet up. I suppose it's good that I'm not entirely over the hill yet.
The Church of the Nativity is actually three churches, (Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian this time). They share Manger Square (!) with the 1860 Mosque of Omar. On my first visit, the nativity church is decorated with glittery lights, surrounded by tacky souvenir shops and surmounted by another illuminated star. It's now more muted. but there are still the odd signs: 'Nativity Roastery and Creamery'. Touts even clamber on the bus waving necklaces and fridge magnets.
Bethlehem is as crowded as Jerusalem. The three churches that make up the Church of the Nativity are packed. Again, the Greek Orthodox Church has secured the main attraction. We have to stoop to enter the basilica, through a very low door called the "Door of Humility'. The queue to see the burial chamber in a cave below the Orthodox Church winds round the 44 pillars of the nave. The guide says we would have to stay in line for three hours. I hear another guide say the same thing to his group. Who knows if they are telling the truth, or if this is just another ploy?
The group agrees not to wait, though there is some disappointment. And then the line goes down rapidly, so we join it. But now we've already wasted an hour. And no, the guide is back and we're not going to queue. The Romanian Orthodox visitors are taking their time once they get there. At least we think we're not going to wait. It turns out we have to kick our heels on the bus instead, as three members of the tour group are disobedient and stick to the line.
Eventually, it's time to leave Palestine. Back to Israel.
According to the CIA, 'the Central African Republic (CAR) is a perennially weak state that sits at the crossroads of ethnic and linguistic groups in the center of the African continent'. This ex French colony (known then as Ubangi Shari) has been fraught with conflict between ethnic groups (emanating from the local population's involvement in the slave trade in the 1700s, which metamorphosed into forced labour after the abolition of slavery) and subject to numerous coups (since independence in 1960). Much of the country is not under government control - the Wagner group have recently been called in. The FCO advise against all travel - the map of CAR is entirely red.
This is one of those trips where I start off wondering what on earth I'm doing, but I'm swiftly and delightfully reassured. I'm in the south west corner of the Central African Republic. And here, it's peaceful and full of smiling faces. The welcome from the local Bayaka peoples is almost rapturous. And. the wildlife is reported to be amazing. Let's see.
We’re met, in Limbongo, in Cameroon, by the Sangha Lodge (where we're staying) deputy manager Kate, from Zimbabwe. (Lives in Spain, Swiss husband). Passage through immigration, across the Sangha River, couldn’t be easier. From my point of view anyway. Though it involves two stops across the river, one in the small hamlet of Bomandjokou, one slightly further up the river at Lidjombo (there's Lidjombo I, II and III) and then a lodging of passports at Bayanga, the main town in the area, for the actual stamps (they are liberal with these). Moses from the lodge deals with it all, very efficiently. My visa, which had to be arranged as a message du port, (as Travcour managed to request the wrong country when they sent my passport to Brussels) doesn’t seem to cause any issues at all. It seems that all the correct palms were greased at the right moment.
It’s a tranquil two hour ride up the river (if you don't count the noise of the engine), into the Central African Republic. The border wanders west, away from the river, as we progress north. Two hippos poke up their heads and eye us warily. Rippling gold sandbanks, thatched villages perched on the edge of the rainforest, locals fishing in their pirogues, washing and splashing or and glorious cloud reflections in the still water.
Our tour group for our Central African Odyssey Part 2 is still zoologist guide Ben, Russian American, Olga, and her husband Dave, who's a commercial pilot, and Andrew, Ben’s father, a professor of zoology at Cambridge. Rupert, another zoologist and eminent virologist is waiting for us at Sangha. As I said before, I'm in very eminent company.
Sangha Lodge is a very welcome piece of paradise. It’s managed by South African Tamar and (very long bearded) Rod. Parents of Alon, who I met in Odzala in Congo, (who was also very long bearded). Louise from Kurdistan is here, doing voluntary work. (It is indeed a small world). The other member of the family is an adorable Siamese cat, N’duzu (blue or sky). He poses for photographs when he’s not scratching at your shoes or demanding to be stroked.
I have a bungalow with river views, (the dining room terrace has better ones. they're stunning, but I also have a jungle curtain and my own deck). Gorgeous sunsets go without saying. Gin and tonic and excellent dinners too.
The forest is constantly alive, alarm calls fill the air. Everything from the annoying microwave timer buzz of crickets and the chirrup of frogs, to the melancholy wail of the tree hyrax (they sound as if the world is about to end). Butterflies flit down the paths, taunting me by alighting on branches and moving just as I focus the camera. Monkeys (moustached, putty nosed, colobus and de Brazzaville) crash through the trees, followed by equally boisterous giant blue turaco. There’s a self- habituated de Brazzaville monkey, known as Basil, who has befriended the cat. He also obliges for the camera.
Night walks with torches and thermal imagers yield results, even around the camp. There are bats galore, galagoes and cute pop eyed pottos (Milne Edwards) blinking down at us. The mammal specialists are exceptionally excited to see two anomalures in one tree. (Beecroft’s and Lord Derby’s.) These rodents were once thought to be a type of flying squirrel, due to the skin flaps attached to their limbs, but have now been given their own classification.
As I repeatedly have to point out, every paradise has its flaws. There isn’t sufficient electricity for fans, let alone a.c. There is hot water, but it takes 25 minutes to arrive, via a long rubber pipe, run along the ground. The insect life is prolific. Cockroaches peep out from behind the rafters and larger bugs (they remind me of Kafka - I am in bed after all) clamber across the mosquito net swathed over my fourposter bed. Swarms of winged creatures duck in given half a chance.
There are large ants marauding in the bathroom. Their favourite spot is the toilet seat, so I have to check carefully before I sit down. (Oh the ant-icipation.) Tiny sweat bees gather around and tickle when I'm on the Wi-Fi, outside the office. There's a giant thunderstorm at night; lightning crackles overhead and my toilet, it turns out, doubles as a shower when it rains. And there's a deluge. At least it will drown the ants.
It's two hours, in a safari vehicle, to see the habituated the gorillas in Dzanga Ndoki Park. The national park here, Dzanga-Ndoki, is split into two parts, Ndoki to the south and Dzanga, to the north. They are separated by the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, (home to the lodge, towns and villages). Together they form the Dzanga-Sangha Complex of Protected Areas. Together with Lobeke, in Cameroon, and the adjacent Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of the Congo Dzanga-Ndoki completes the Sangha Trinational protected area. It's the second largest rainforest in the world.
We’re ducking under whipping branches and taking impromptu showers, as the jungle closes in on the narrow forest tracks. It’s like being on a jungle ghost train. We're going to make two visits to Ndoki, home to the western lowland gorillas, which necessitates two gorilla permits and a Covid tests each time, before we can enter the tracking area. The checks are carried out by the lofty, bashful local vet. Then, it's a happily, not too strenuous, 40 minute hike to the primates. (They were two hours away the day before). Though my flapping boots aren't faring too well. Ben duct taped them up, but we had to dunk our feet in disinfectant baths and the tape didn't respond well.
There are some incredible bright fungi and huge termite mounds, shaped like the minaret in Iraq to amuse us en route. The ground is heaving with termites. It augurs well for the lowland gorillas who eat insects, as well as fruit (unlike their mountain cousins). Next, we have to don face masks. It's already steamy hot, so that makes us perspire even more. That’s when the sweat bees arrive. Clouds of them. So now it's net bonnets over the top of our masks.
The minuscule bees are not daunted. They zip inside the nets before we've even managed to pull them over our heads, and so now we've trapped them even closer to our skin. They lodge inside our eyelids and cling on, reluctant to be flicked away. If you squidge one, the scent attracts more. And their buzzing increases to a mighty roar.
Nevertheless, the gorillas are amazing. This is the only fully habituated family currently at Sangha. (Two other troop leaders died recently.) The silver back, Makumba, takes life easy, on his back, scratching occasionally, whilst his family doze. His name means 'With Speed' in the Bayaka language (because he used to run away from the rangers), but he's not letting that affect him. And sadly, he's getting on now. He must be over 40.
After a while, the gorillas amble off, keeping a distance in the trees, until they settle again to feast off termites. There are eight of them. A three month old is carried by his sister, who swarms off into the trees with him on her belly. A six month old performs a trapeze display on the creepers. And the others feast on termites, breaking up bark and scattering the insects over their chests. One runs straight towards me, clutching her bounty. Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/shorts/bW0SsELUEMg
Our return visit sees Makumba in post prandial mode. He’s lolling against branches, rolling over from one side to another, rearranging his limbs (huge haunches), stretching in yoga like poses (downward gorilla) and farting. His family are grouped behind him. The baby is fed by its mother, peeping out from under her arms, just behind Dad. Then he jigs around, poking at his his young sibling, and tugging on leaves. He must be teething. He’s clamping his teeth on slender branches.
The gorillas don’t move from their spot, until we pack up to leave and then they suddenly all rise up too – having played their part. They lollop off stage right. Makumba pulls himself upright. Poses for his fans for five minutes and then lumbers off after them. I'm so grateful to him, for allowing us to participate in his life, for a couple of hours. More moments to be treasured.
There's even more to admire, before we leave. A small waterfall cascading over a cave full of whirling bats.
A totally delightful expedition, till the safari truck refuses to start, or even bump start, after we have stopped to chainsaw a fallen tree. (There are numerous obstacles on the forest tracks). The car has no radio phone today and Ben can't get a satellite connection to the lodge on his device. I'm worried our night wildlife viewing experience might commence ahead of schedule. But Ben does eventually manage to contact his girlfriend Marina, in England. She succeeds in getting through to Rod and the seventh cavalry finally arrive. Though the engine has actually fired up by then.
We're assured that the vehicle is repaired and ready to go the following morning, when we're due to visit the famous Dzanga Bai. (Rod advertises the clearing as 'Without any doubt.....the best elephant experience in the world'.) It’s another long drive, with branches lashing our heads. This time, we skid on the bai track. Lucie, the Parisian trainee guide driver has been taken unawares by the slippery surface. The vehicle very nearly topples over to my side. It's one of those Life Flashes Before Your Eyes moments. I'm trying to decide if I will be crushed or thrown out. But it teeters and remains upright, crashing into the edge of the forest.
We're all shaken and just a little battered, but nothing worse. Efforts to dig the vehicle out (with aforesaid chainsaw) and reverse are fruitless. More calls are made. Today, we have the radio phone, but it is exceeding slow to message. A relief truck is sought - Ben goes on what we think is a four kilometre walk to search for that. And the sweat bees are relentless.
Ben's walk is thankfully shorter than anticipated. The vehicle is eventually hauled out and we continue on our way. First, an elephant research station (run by Cornell University) and a 30 minute rainforest walk to the bai, We begin with wading along a river. Finally, my Crocs come into their own. (My boots have gone into the village to be repaired.)
There's a spectacular welcome. Seventy forest elephants are scattered along a shallow, winding river. They're continually coming and going from the surrounding forest. (There were over 200 on December 25th, Did they know it was Christmas?) Chains of the pachyderms march in criss-cross lines, across the set. It’s a patchwork of glistening pools, shower opportunities and sunken mineral mud baths. A glorious elephant spa. (Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJCIrQt_Dr8)
The air is filled with the trumpeting of elephants, warning others out of their favourite spots and away from their particular groups. Chainsaws angrily starting up. Mothers are followed by calves, ranging from small to tiny. The diminutive babies are oh so cute. They attempt to shower with their trunks, like their parents and then flop into the water. Or tentatively link trunks, in the hope of finding a friend. ‘Do you want to come and play?’ Their older siblings jostle and bat heads or trunks. Golden elephants too. They've actually just been bathing in the yellow mud, but were once venerated as being sacred. In the sun, they really do look totally gilded. Though some are just splattered, as if they’ve been in a pot of custard.
It’s not just elephants in the pageant. There are resident chestnut forest buffalo family. They're submerged in the deeper water, every so often taking a wander round the bai, waggling their fringed black and white ears, before returning to their pool. Black and white colobus monkeys frolic on the outskirts (there’s a solitary red colobus too). Hamerkops swoop past, storks and cattle egrets tiptoe around the larger mammals, Hartlaub's ducks splash around and bee eaters and kingfishers dart into the trees.
There's still more. The entertainment continues later in the afternoon, as a family of giant forest hogs arrives and meanders around the edge of the clearing. They're relatively rare and huge - the largest of the pig family, at 275 kilograms. Bristles and long tusks. Mother, father, older progeny and a couple of juveniles who stay resolutely underneath Mum, whilst they're wandering away from the trees.
We also make two visits to this jewel of the Central African Republic. The second is just as fascinating and rewarding as the first, with virtually the same cast. (A wrinkly sixty four year old elephant and two new borns today.) But also waiting in the bai, much to the delight of our zoologists (they're in heaven), are a herd of thirty something bongo. These are the largest forest antelopes and this is the only reliable viewing site for them in the world. (And that's only a one in three or four chance, season and weather dependent).
The bongos are nothing short of striking, stealing the show as they meander along the pools, into the forest and back out again for another cooling dip and drink. Reverse humbugs, gingery coats with distinctive narrow white stripes, no two the same. Erect manes running the length of their backs, black and white legs, spirally twisted horns. Even their heads are astonishing, White daubings and black muzzles. Their ears whirr constantly - ongoing insect protection.
Rod is right. Dzanga Bai is truly wonderful. Despite the columns of ants and ever present sweat bees marching and congregating around our (very) lofty hide.
Just as rewarding, is an expedition to visit the Bayaka people of the Central African Republic. (They're also known as the Baka or Bebayaka, Bebayaga, Bibaya or Ba'aka), As well, as south west CAR they inhabit the south-eastern rain forests of Cameroon, (where we've just been), the northern Republic of the Congo and northern Gabon. The Bayaka were formerly referred to as pygmies, (they have average heights of 1.5 metres), but due to historical misuse of the term, as an insult, it is now, unsurprisingly, considered derogatory.
The Bayaka are traditionally hunter gatherers, living as semi nomads, and building temporary huts of bowed branches and leaves. As the rainforests become increasingly restricted and cleared, they are being forced into more sedentary and urban lifestyles. They have no hierarchies or leaders. And there are tensions with the majority Bantu peoples, (relations are of course vital if there is to be any trade). Most of the Bayaka only speak the Bayaka language and are often regarded as inferior, working as indentured servants or labourers.
Today, a group of Bayaka are taking us hunting, with them. We meet them in their villages, on the edge of Bayanga (this logging town in the Sangha Reserve, is as close to tourism as CAR gets) , and they cram into the back of the lodge pick up, Kate at the wheel, clutching nets and singing joyously. The Bayaka are famous for their polyphonic music. Spontaneous performances are common. Spiritual likanos stories and vocal singing, with accompaniment on a variety of instruments. The women even perform water drumming, (liquindi), hitting the surface of the water with their hands.
Today, they beat time on plastic bottles. (Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r0WBYf4nAM.) We follow behind, in our so far well behaved vehicle, still ducking all the while. Machete man André leads us into the forest behind his fellow hunters. He slashes a path that’s just about navigable, though watching the ground for creepers and ants and looking out for whiplash branches and stems at the same time, is a skill I'm struggling to master. I follow warily. André doesn’t always look behind, before he wields his weapon.
Traditionally, the Bayaka fish, using a chemical they extract from crushed jungle leaves, which stuns the fish and apparently, doesn't harm the streams. Or they hunt, with poisoned arrows and sometimes, dogs. On this occasion, we're just using nets.
Worship of nature is fundamental to the Bayaka. They communicate with Komba, the supreme being, who lives in the rainforest, via Jengi, the forest spirit. So, the hunt begins with the Bayaka blessing the nets, dancing rhythmically in a circle, swirling their snares and singing once more, before setting off into the forest. (Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzKFNYoCemE). The nets are incredible. They’re woven from divided liana stems, which are plaited. They are astonishingly strong. André demonstrates and fashions us all bracelets,
The traps are staked across sections of forest and then the Bayaka whoop and call, driving any wildlife in the area towards the nets. They set up in three different sites, but today the hunt is unsuccessful. Three duiker escape. I’m quite relieved. we're shown how to drink the refreshing sap of lianas. Then, the people build one of their traditional forest hut dwellings. In under ten minutes it is completed (watch here: https://youtu.be/EJkYU5ulifg) and they are all sitting around it, with a small camp fire, singing and smoking (Watch here: https://youtu.be/JZ__JOXE2fY). The performance finishes with a sales pitch and we buy bright bean bracelets for one and half euros each. How can you not? This is probably the most rewarding part of the day for the Bayaka.
The Bayaka return to Bayanga, in the pick up, singing exuberantly again. Kate is not afraid of African roads and drives at pace, But there's a sudden bump in the road. One lad is catapulted out, soaring head first into the bushes. He lands with a thud and is momentarily dazed. But he seems to have escaped any broken bones and clambers back in.
As in Cameroon, there's a variety of construction, in the villages. Brick, lath and traditional igloo style huts. All the roofing is palm. The shops are small booths along the wayside, strings of plastic bags with palm oil pegged across the windows. The people here are amazingly friendly and the children cheer and wave every time we drive past. They have the most endearing smiles and queue up for photographs. Some have tattoos on their faces. One or two of the older villagers have chiselled vampire like teeth. Clothing is a mix of western and ethnic African, often very ragged and many folk are barefoot. André's yellow plastic flip flops have just fallen apart. I've left him my Crocs.
Pangolins have been on my wish list for a long time. They didn’t appear in Chad (along with the aardvarks) and I’ve almost given up hope. These extraordinary animals are often mistaken for reptiles, as they’re scaly. But these ant eaters are mammals. They have no teeth, but amazingly long sticky tongues (sometimes the length of their bodies – maybe half a metre), to scoop up their prey. They’re very good at this. An average pangolin can consume up to 70 million insects per year.
Tam is passionate about the creatures and has, in the past run a rehabilitation centre for rescued white bellied (or tree) pangolins. They’ve all been returned to the wild, and the last recently had their radar tracker removed. There are four species of pangolin in Africa, white and black bellied (or long tailed), Cape and Giant. And they are so notoriously difficult to spot, they’re on The Impossible Five List.
Because pangolins live solitary lives (there’s no collective noun for pangolins), population studies have not, until recently, been able to successfully estimate how many pangolins are left in the wild. But Professor Andrew tells me that some of his students have been able to make reasonable estimates based on further estimates of the numbers that have been poached. This, astonishingly, may run into hundreds of millions.
Pangolins roll into a ball when attacked, hoping their scales will defend them. This might work with other wildlife, but it doesn’t deter humans. These are, possibly, the most trafficked mammals in the world. Their meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam, where their keratin based scales are used in traditional medicine and folk remedies.
There are some close calls here, in the Central African Republic. Tantalizingly, the latest rescuee returned for a fleeting visit, just before we arrived. And Ben rouses me from my slumbers, one night, to say that another white bellied pangolin has been spotted in a tree. But he’s gone, by the time I’m able to throw on some clothes and stumble to the site, where there is excitable flashing of torches.
However, this is one of those trips where luck runs with us. Huzzah! Lucie spots a black bellied pangolin, in a tree, on the way to our second gorilla visit. He’s nestled up top, so we can just make out his long winding tail, broad scaly back (from the other side of the trunk) and small head, peeping out behind a leaf. He's not very easy to photograph. Lucie took the right hand two pictures. (www.lucie-seuret.com). The first gorilla picture is hers too.
This has been a magical visit. Fortune has favoured us (have we been bold?). Central African Republic was my final African country. I think I left the best till last.
Down the river again. The Sangha flows on to join the mighty Congo and I set off for more adventures, on my way home, via Cameroon.
Cameroon is known as Africa in Miniature, 'because of its geological, linguistic (275 languages) and cultural diversity'. It straddles West Africa and Central Africa, so is categorized as being in both camps and its geography is said to include beaches, deserts, mountains, rainforests, and savannas. I'm hopeful of sampling much of this, as we're crossing the country west to east, to visit Lobeke National Park and the Central African Republic (CAR) and back again.
It's a very typically African experience. I arrive bleary eyed, at one in the morning, at Yaoundé, the political capital. Everyone on the plane is corralled into a nursing bay, to be Covid tested immediately. Fortunately, there not a huge number of us. Most of the passengers got off at Doula, Yaoundé’s bigger sister and economic capital, on the coast. We're expelled after 15 minutes, with no explanation or results. Immigration is straightforward (the visa was too) and I'm not hassled in customs - they're all too sleepy - and I'm just waved on. I'm lucky, others in the group report demands for money, for imagined offences, at this stage.
I’m met by guide Ben. Our tour group for our Central African Odyssey is Russian American, Olga, and her husband Dave, who's a commercial pilot, and Andrew, Ben’s father, a professor of zoology at Cambridge. Ben is also a zoologist. Rupert, another zoologist and eminent virologist is yet to join us, in CAR. I'm in very eminent company.
Ben reports that local tour manager Jude is punctual and polite and organised. That’s a good start. So, I’ve arranged for him to take me on an afternoon sightseeing tour of Yaoundé. But he’s a no show for that. He’s also a no show for our first group dinner. He’s busy preparing for out tour. One of his three cars is sickly. I’ve decided to dub him Jude the Obscure.
I devise my own tour of Yaoundé, using Google. Cameroon became a German colony in 1884 known as Kamerun. German explorers founded an outpost between the Nyong and Sanaga rivers at the northern edge of the area's forests in 1887. It was used as a trading base for rubber and ivory and known as Epsumb or Jeundo. A military garrison enabled further colonization. After Germany's defeat in World War I, France was awarded control of eastern Cameroon and chose this town, now known as Yaoundé, as the capital of their colony in 1922. A strip running along the northern border, came under British control (North and South Cameroons) and was administered from Nigeria. Despite Douala's continuing domination economically, Yaoundé continued as the seat of government for the Republic of Cameroon when it became independent in 1960.
Yaoundé is a network of streets, leading in all manner of angles, as its extremely hilly (lush and green in parts and 750 metres above sea level). In fact it's known as La Ville aux Sept Collines (City of Seven Hills). I'm pretty sure I've heard that somewhere before......Anyway, I manage to get lost and end up in the huge central market, which spills over numerous adjoining streets. I’m not really comfortable out on my own. The people are not entirely welcoming. Wary – not exactly hostile, but definitely cautious. Some stallholders respond to my bad French, when I ask my way, but I don’t understand the reply and instead follow their pointing fingers.
I take in the town hall and its park (no way through, the gates are all locked), Independence Square, with its bank tower blocks, surrounding government buildings, the modern Our Lady of Victories Cathedral and the I Love My Country Monument, in-between losing my way and trying to hurry back before night falls. I've been warned not to walk on my own after dusk.
We eat in the (United) hotel restaurant, after waiting fruitlessly for Jude’s arrival. Its surprisingly good food. The menu covers all eventualities from local dishes- Catfish and huge prawns (the name Cameroon derives from shrimp found in the local river, which was originally called Rio dos Camarões by Portuguese explorers), to pork chop with mustard sauce. I can testify that the latter is delicious. (As was the astoundingly fluffy breakfast omelette). Before dinner we’re entertained watching fruit bats streak across the hills of Yaoundé and the Palais de Congres (conference centre), against a backdrop of lightning. There are several palaces in Yaoundé it seems. There’s been an event going on in the Yaoundé Sports Palace, just across the way and the band is still playing, as people stream in and out.
Paul Biya, the president, lives in the Yaoundé Unity Palace, across town. He's the second president, since independence. Ahmadou Ahidjo, served as Cameroon’s first president from 1960 until his resignation in 1982. Biya was his hand-picked successor and is the second-longest-ruling president in Africa (after Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea). He is the absolute head of state and de facto head of government of the country.
Talking of rulers, the hotel dining room is deserted, except for a king who is being entertained by a group of dressed to the nines dignitaries, who troop in and out, whilst he eats, bearing gifts and making speeches. I don’t think he’s best pleased that we are there. They are all studiously avoiding eye contact. I suspect we only got served as we were already on the terrace.
When Nigeria became independent, in 1961, a UN-administered plebiscite was agreed to to decide the fate of the British Cameroons. The Muslim-majority Northern Area opted for union with Nigeria, and the Southern Area voted to federate to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. Since that time the Cameroon has not had an easy passage. There has been too much poverty, due to economic mismanagement, corruption and cronyism. Boko Haram have infiltrated and been defeated. And there has been ongoing unrest and conflict from the ex South Cameroons, due to the imposition of the French language and perceptions of segregation and lack of representation. There have been ongoing demands for greater autonomy, and the Southern Cameroons National Council has advocated complete secession as the Republic of Ambazonia. Terrorist attacks are ongoing and have led to an upsurge in Boko Haram as the Cameroonian army battles on two fronts.
Jude, it transpires, is very decidedly Anglophone. As is Yvonne the cook, and Ken, one of the drivers. Ken's attire of choice is shorts and a baseball cap (worn backwards, of course.) Jude has his own car (the sickly one which smells of diesel), which is a land cruiser. Affable Ken has a rented land cruiser and third driver, Romeo, has a rented Toyota People Carrier. He professes to only speak French. Romeo sports a series of chic outfits, natty jackets, tapered trousers and grandad collar shirts. He also disappears frequently, so his epithet is 'Wherefore art thou?' He doesn’t get the joke, but he does refer to me as Juliet.
Romeo's car has a union jack steering wheel though and the number plate says Good Luck to reinforce the point. Though I hope we wont need it. Cameroon is famous for its music and Romeo has a selection of African bands on his USB stick. He croons along and dances too, taking his hands off the steering wheel, to tap the rhythm, or clap his hands. The player is set to repeat tracks and he’s happy to play the same tune many times over. I turn it off when he gets out of the car. He doesn’t always notice.
We finally get to set off, early, on our adventure. First stop is the Santa Lucia supermarché, on the outskirts of Yaoundé. It’s really crowded, with a bustling local market outside and tic tac men to guide cars in and out of parking bays, waving red and green table tennis bats.
The roads are better than in Chad. Generally smooth, for the first day at least, through the cleared rainforest, The towns are more affluent too. Pavement cafes, plate glass shops. In the villages, cuboid houses with pitched roofs. Tiled, corrugated or thatched. Wood or timber lath with mud, occasionally painted. A scattering of brick. Large numbers of Cameroonians live as subsistence farmers and we see more agriculture, as we travel east. The odd goat in town. Bananas and pineapple plantations.
Romeo collects a speeding fine, after being caught by a trap, hidden on a motor cycle with a wheel missing. Lunch is very late despite the good roads. Jude's car is showing signs of wear and tear and has to be examined regularly. We’ve also had to stop for drivers' breakfast. Whilst they're eating, we visit the local market. I'm cajoled into buying a pair of second hand Crocs, for wading through mud and rivers in the forest.
We’re partaking at La Petite Pygmy, which seems both politically incorrect and tautological to me. Jude can't find the restaurant and flags down a motor cycle guide. But the food is good - capitaine fish. So a very late arrival to Hotel Komandour in Batouri. It's the best in the area, but the itinerary description of 'basic' is a little too kind. No light in the bathroom and sockets hanging off the wall. But there is a.c. and my toilet flushes. It's even got two swimming pools, covered in green slime.
Today, a very bumpy dirt road through the forest, after a more than delayed start. The clutch is being repaired on Jude’s car. Romeo has disappeared again. In the back seat, I'm bombarded with pineapples. A volley of grenades and then back packs spilling over them. Jude’s battery is playing up now. It was wedged in with a shoe sole and it's come apart. It’s stuck down with slabs of stone and sticking tape. Adjusting it becomes a recurrent theme during the day, as we fly past strings of villages in a cloud of dust. Everything inside the vehicles is now covered in a rusty red film.
Increasing police hassle also slows progress. We are stopped several times to have our passports examined, along with yellow fever certificates and covid vaccination records. As slowly and languorously as possible. As if the immigration officers didn't check the first time. The police security chief in the area has had to be invited for a drink in the Little Pygmy, while we eat our fish. Good job the food was already ordered when he arrived.
Then we stop at Yokadouma (I’m sure this place ought to be in Japan) for fuel and for Ken’s exhaust and fenders to be welded. Both are flapping. Five minutes down the road and Ken decides that his oil should have been topped up too. So we halt again to do that.
Night falls very fast on the football games which seem to be taking place at dusk in every village. Soccer is a national pastime and Cameroon has one of the best teams in Africa. It's scary driving now. We can't see the road edges or the bumps. Romeo seems unperturbed.
We're staying in the ‘basic but comfortable’ World Wildlife Fund (WWF) compound on the outskirts of Lobeke National Park. I'm now a little apprehensive about what basic might mean, but I'm not going to find out. The WWF have commandeered our accommodation for themselves, at the last minute, we're told. So now we're in the guest house, which doesn't run to electricity or running water. That doesn't stop the staff gossiping loudly till well after midnight as they clear up. Then there’s a very loud thunderstorm and a deluge. I've been promised a lie in till 8 30 a.m., but the group are outside my window talking loudly before 7 a.m. So that hits the dust too.
The next three days are to be spent wild camping in Lobeke National Park. Readers of this column will know that I am not a happy camper and I'm not looking forward to this at all. I'm hoping for rare wildlife sightings to compensate. Cameroon is said to be home to at least 9,000 plant species, approximately 900 bird species, and around 320 mammals. It's a four wheel drive ride and then an eight kilometre walk to the first camp site at Petite Savane.
I've been told that my wheelie bag will be carried into the rainforest. All belongings, no problem. But that's clearly not going to happen, so I'm emptying what I need into a sack. Collecting the porters and sorting what is to be carried into the forest is as chaotic as Africa gets. The rain has created rivulets and bright orange pools and thick red mud is coating everything and everyone.
Next, we have to wait while the porters go to say goodbye bye to their families and give them their advance wages. It’s a sad time to be parting they say. We're informed they will be away 20 minutes, so I double it, in my head. Andrew and Ben are happy. There are monkeys and birds in the trees. We finally set off at noon.
It's a hair raising ride, hurtling down an ever narrowing track and skidding across huge ruts and ruddy puddles, as branches catapult us through. The driver wrestles with the wheel and, towards the end, orders some of the porters hitching a ride to descend. He removes some of the larger branches impeding our path and we rally on. A rare bongo (the largest forest antelope) stands on the road ahead of us, conspicuous by his black and white muzzle. That's a good start (our zoologists are ecstatic) and we're now 10 kilometres into the forest.
From a small bridge, the old logging road becomes a track that we slither along, on foot, for another 8 kilometres, avoiding tree stumps and roots, heaps of duiker and elephant dung. It rains the whole way. Black and white colobus and hornbills call. We've been warned that there will be wading involved, but happily there is none and my Crocs stay in their bag. The guides and porters sensibly all wear wellingtons or plastic beach shoes.
I'm happy to reach the clearing (or bai) that is Petite Savane without incident. Only to fall off the slippery planks surrounding the viewing platform. It is surrounded by muddy pools and approached by dilapidated planking, which is collapsing into the water. It's only too easy to slide sideways into the ooze. My boots are soaked.
The savane is prettily green, framed by palms, but there is little happening in the bai itself, other than a pair of woolly necked storks wandering. The twitchers are still happy. There is birdlife aplenty at a distance. Green Pigeons and African grey parrots flock overhead, discernible through binoculars.
Fifteen minutes away is the campsite. And it’s horrible. It’s in a very small clearing, crowded with tents. all under one corrugated roof. There’s a National Geographic research team alongside us and our porters. The occupants are watching videos on their phones. There’s a long drop toilet, with no privacy at all, the end of a very long path, so anyone can appear. 'Qui es la?' you have to declaim. It's an especially long way in the blackness of night.
Flying ants appear whenever a light is turned on, pouring off the adjacent trees, into my clothes and onto my hair. They’re crawling all over my dinner. Extra protein. There are the other, ordinary biting ants too, micro and large. There are also shining horsefly like flies, that sneak up your trousers and deliver a tsetse like hot needle sting. I daren’t have a drink, in case I need the loo at night.
To add to my woes, the porters have lost my sack. No sleeping bag, washbag, blankets or pillows. It finally arrives at 10 pm. For some reason, It's been decanted into another one, with holes in it. Perhaps someone liked the look of my intact one. All my stuff is wringing wet.
I spend the whole night picking ants out every orifice. One or two have the temerity to sting me. All to the accompaniment of mobile phones and not so muted conversations. Sleep is virtually non existent. This exceeds my worst expectations. It's what hell would look like.
Next day, the others go onto Grande Savane, a larger clearing, thankfully, together with the occupants of the tents. I've opted to stay at Petite Savane, in the hopes of a quieter night. Park ranger, Mr Bock, tour manager Jude, and cook Yvonne are all delegated to stay with me. So now it’s not entirely peaceful, but better. It’s roasting hot in my tent, but if I open the zip, flies swoop in by the hundred. I've taken most of my clothes off. All my spares are wet anyway.
Yvonne delivers me plates of fresh pineapple. It's not my idea of cooking, but the fruit is sweet and refreshing. Jude rigs me up a hot shower using a bucket and a showerhead. That definitely is welcome. They've even sent a guide to the bai to look out for animals and fetch us if anything appears. It doesn't.
Up at six, the next morning, when there s a gap in the snoring, to see if there is any more activity on the bai. The jungle is atmospherically misty, but there's little happening in the clearing. Pigeons wheel over head and colobus monkeys scoot down a tree. A couple of ducks drift across the pool in the centre of the reeds. One sitatunga darts through swiftly. Blink and you've missed her. Certainly not long enough for a Kit Kat break. The guide says that some gorillas slept in the trees and are foraging in the undergrowth but they are not venturing into the savane.
An AK 47 comes too, along with Mr Bock. He’s a kind and very serious man. He refuses to tell me his Christian name. but he wears a Paris St Germain shirt. Mr Bock says Real Madrid are his team, but the shirt was a present. He has his head shaved by one of the porters and dons a woolly hat. Just what you need in the steamy jungle.
I’m a little worried about my diet. Other than pineapple, it's mainly already (over) cooked chicken, increasingly old and kept in a Tupperware style box in the jungle heat, and chips ( Irish potatoes as the Africans call them ) or fried plantain.
My tent now looks like a war zone. It's unbearably hot and stuffy inside. Absolutely everything is covered in red mud. The floor is littered with insect bodies. Whenever I go outside a cloud of flies hover round my head. My body is covered in wheals and bites. One eye has swollen up as my lid has been bitten and I've a bloody cheek across my face from a serrated leaf. The rainforest protects itself very well. And outside the flies lurk. Thousands of them.
There’s lemongrass growing in clumps, so I suggest turning it into tea. It’s delicious, with a squirt of lemon. The others have returned from Grande Savane, reporting sightings of forest buffalo and lots more pigeons. I don't feel deprived. Andrew is competing on the injury front. He has been wearing wellingtons and has huge blisters on his shins. He's called the largest Mr Blobby. The porters are back too, with their tents and outdoor mosquito cages. They have their own cook, Adeline. She prepares bushmeat - duiker mixed with sardines and tomato paste and manioc mashed into a puree. I'm getting some duiker from Yvonne for dinner and eggs and plantain again for breakfast. They are cooking on small fires, but Yvonne has a primus stove, as back up.
My last night camping ever - I hope.
And now it's raining again, as we tramp the two hours through the forest, back to the vehicles. Finally, once more at the WWF. we have to wait for the porters to be lined up and presented with their tips. Then, a return to the guest house. We're presented with chairs outside,whilst the manager cleans the rooms. It seems that little is pre-planned here. But huzzah. Electricity this time. And hot water in a bucket.
Romeo springs into action, helps with the cleaning and even takes our boots way to clean. Though they emerge sodden with the sole flapping. And I've collected an additional crop of insect bites that itch ferociously. There's even one on the sole of my foot.
Romeo's car has a flat tyre, but that's quickly sorted and the logging road, through the park, is the best surface so far. Smooth and gravelled for the most part. It's needed to service the extraordinary amount of timber, that is, surprisingly, being removed from the park. The wood is transported on trailers, the trunks so gigantic, that only three or four can be carried at a time. It's stashed in a huge compound outside Limbongo on the Sangha River. We reach this border town surprisingly quickly. Fixers greet us and they’re swiftly given their cut. A commissioner is summoned and we are on our way to the Central African Republic (CAR), across the water.
Jude and his crew are waiting at the riverside, on time, to greet us when we return seven days later. They seem overjoyed to see us (they've had nothing to do except hang out in Limbongo) and leap about taking photographs. Immigration is smooth again. This time part of the deal for a smooth passage is a lift for the police commissioner - all the way to Bertoua (on tomorrow's itinerary). He's travelling in Jude's car, up front.
The humour doesn't last long. Ken's window won't wind up and it's raining. It's also going to be very dusty, when it does stop raining. It takes half an hour for mechanic Romeo to fix it. Now I know what the workings inside a car door look like. Though I'm not sure that they usually involve so much tape. We set off again, but there are trees down across the road. Romeo to the rescue again, with his saw. The downpour has turned the mud road into a bog, with a skating rink on top. The cars slide and zig zag along it, agonizingly slowly. It seems that the four wheel drive on Jude's dream machine doesn't work. And he eventually skids right off the road into the undergrowth. (Hey Jude, don't make it bad.)
Ken is deputed to haul him out and is unsuccessful. Until it's pointed out that his four wheel drive does work and it might be a good idea to use it. We eat lunch while we're waiting. Grilled catfish and fermented manioc in banana leaf batons. My intestines protest for the rest of the day.
Off again (this really is the long and winding road), hugging the border with CAR. Our Google blue spot moves worryingly slowly across the map. Romeo's is the only car that hasn't had any incidents, though his windows are a trifle idiosyncratic. Sometimes they slide, sometimes they jerk and sometimes they're just plain obstinate. His driving is superb. One hand constantly wiggling the wheel left and right as the wheels attempt to skid and the other continually shifting gear. He spoils it slightly by insisting that we refer to him as Chauffeur Numero Uno. But he's right.
This area is inhabited by the Baka (once known as pygmies) peoples. Eastern Cameroon is much poorer and much friendlier. Smiles and waves here (like in CAR). Finally, Yokadouma once more. Ken's bumper is hanging off now and needs tying back on. We stop to do that and refuel. Ten minutes up the road, Jude halts again. He's got a rattle. And again, half an hour later. Ben and Jude have words.
We finally roll into Hotel Kommandour, in Batouri, at 12.30, desperate for sleep. But no, there's a birthday party in full swing, with disco and speakers at full blast. No electricity in the bathroom again and no towel either, this time.
Ben informs us that we should leave, next day, at seven, as the state of our vehicles is unpredictable and I have a flight to catch at midnight. Jude snorts and says his cars are perfectly fine. I don't know which criteria he's using. The hotel has been requested to provide breakfast. but nothing arrives. The staff are still recovering from the night before. And Ben declares that we wouldn't want breakfast anyway, if we could see the state of the kitchen.
Jude has become obscure again. Ken and Romeo appear at 7.30 and Jude finally arrives on the back of a motor bike, just before eight. There's no explanation. He's probably sulking, after yesterday's dressing down.
Bertoua, to drop off our commissioner and for breakfast - a supermarket with a boulangerie. We're moving into more monied Cameroun again. Fifteen minutes up the road and we have to stop. The wheel nuts on Jude's car need tightening. But there's a ongoing spectacle to keep us amused. It's Eid and the Muslim community (about one third of Cameroon's population in all) are out in their finery.
Olga has metamorphosed into a really unpleasant person over the course of this trip. She insists that everything is done her way, she eats what she wants. regardless of the needs of others, she always goes first, she interrupts and bosses poor Dave continuously. though he still calls her Sweetie all the time. She took an instant dislike to me, with sly digs and insinuations, before she decided that she would just pretend I wasn't there. Which to be frank, is much easier. But she won't speak to Andrew or Ben either (unless she is demanding something from Ben) and they are the most inoffensive and charming people you could wish to meet. I'm now calling her Obnoxious Olga.
Olga has been travelling with good natured Ken most of the time, his being the most comfortable car. But she has heard us lauding Romeo's driving, so she has insisted on travelling with him today. We run into trouble with the police and customs next. The police checks have become oppressive again, since we lost our commissioner. Then, it was salutes and 'Please pass through'. A customs official at one village takes one look at us and decides to be awkward. In fact, the whole place feels very antagonistic and there is some cat-calling. We try to keep out of the way. But Ken's licence is confiscated, 'to be 'verified'. Jude's follows. And we are held for two hours, whilst the officials wait for a reply from Yaoundé, they say. It's Sunday. They're not even interested in bribes.
Romeo is the only driver who's car has not been impounded and it begins to look as if the other cars will be here all day. It's still six hours or more to Yaoundé, so Ben decrees that he and I should set off in Romeo's car, whilst the others wait. Olga and Dave are staying in Cameroun another two days, so there is no urgency for them. But, predictably, OO refuses to get out of the car. She also stipulates that Dave must have the front seat for his back. 'I love and care for my husband'. Pah! He's been travelling in the back all the time in Ken's car and I get travel sick, as well as having a bad back.
Andrew, understandably, refuses to be left on his own, so it is now decided we will all five travel with Romeo. Olga promptly boots Dave out of the front seat, leaving the four of us squashed in the back seat, with our day packs. (So much for caring for her husband.) We travel for six hours. She inspects her toe nail polish in stony silence. We giggle behind, and Romeo plays the same track over and over again.
Romeo is a really good driver. We arrive in Yaoundé at seven. There's even time for more of those prawns and a shower. I can't scrub this red mud off my skin. Now I know what they make fake sun tan cream from. It sticks to the bath and refuses to clean off. My hair looks like Old Man's Beard and my clothes and bags are all streaked with red. I don't think I'm in line for an upgrade. I shall be lucky if they let me on the plane home.
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.
This trip, to my last four remaining African countries (in central Africa) is jinxed before I even set off. I’m leaving without two of the four required visas, but more of that later. My first stop is Chad and I have that visa. I’m flying Air France, via Paris ,to the capital N’Djamena.
The plane is an hour late taking off and packed to the gunwales with French rugby supporters, who have just seen England handed their biggest home drubbing ever. They’re wielding flags and other memorabilia. I fall over a flagpole and take an ingloriously ignominious header, down the aisle of the plane. It’s definitely not a try and my hand requires ice. Then I have to run for my connection and go the wrong way on the navette, in the biggest airport in the world. I just make the connection. No time to buy provisions, but the lovely French stewardess plies me with champagne so the world immediately looks better.
Immigration at N’Djamena is quick and easy. No-one so much as hints for money, although this is yet another African country, where the vast majority of people live well below the poverty line.
N’Djamena, the capital, is the largest city in Chad by some way. Perhaps surprisingly, in this arid country, it rose to prominence as a port city. It’s situated at the confluence of the Logone River with the Chari River. It’s also almost on the border with Cameroun, as well as being very close to Nigeria.
The city has little of note to report. There are a scattering of very modern buildings - split arches, a dome tipped TV station skyscraper, the Chad National Museum, the Al-Mouna Cultural Centre, Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, several mosques (roughly 55% of the population follow Islam and 40% are Christian), a market, some roundabouts with sculptures and the president’s palace. No photos allowed.
Time for some R and R in the Radisson – the epitome of luxury here. Though sadly, it doesn’t run to tonic and the water gives out totally in the middle of my shower and hair wash. It stands in its own enormous compound, well-guarded, on the River Chari. The river feeds the huge expanse of Lake Chad and features small islands, little fishing boats and hippos. (I’ve only read about the latter.) There’s a huge pool by the river. It’s a great place to rest up, ready for the upcoming exertions and to check occasionally, for the elusive semiaquatic mammals. It’s apparent they’re not going to materialize for me and I have to be content with life on top of the water, fish (plenty of silvery splashes as they leap around) and canoes.
It’s a very long drive (two days) to Zakouma National Park, where I’m going on safari. And we’re told that recent rains have reduced the roads to ruts and doubled the journey time. We’re going to wild camp on the way. Most of our proposed journey lies through orange, essential travel only territory, according to the FCO. A chunk from N'Djamena, to the main road east, is coloured red. Violence related to civil war, kidnappings, car jackings and theft are cited. I've had a Facebook message from someone saying they were kidnapped here in 2008. And two guys in the bar here are inquiring about security and wondering if it's safe. I'm having one of those 'Am I mad?' moments.
We are a group of four: Sarah who lives in Wales, Karen from Fort Lauderdale (who has a formidable camera lens and proper safari gear all packed into hand luggage) and Gunnar from Malaysia. Our two Land Cruisers also contain Mike, our guide from Zimbabwe, two drivers, a cook, and Tahir, our transfer leader and interpreter. Chad's official languages are Arabic and French, but it is home to over 200 different ethnic and linguistic groups. The Babel Tower of the World.
We’ve been instructed to be ready to leave at 5.30 a.m., so I’ve complied, though early morning starts are far from my favourite thing. Naturally, the crew don’t turn up till 6.30 a.m. when the sun is well over the horizon.
Chad is divided into three belts: The Sahara Desert zone in the north, an arid Sahelian belt in the centre and a more fertile Sudanian Savanna zone in the south. The latter bridges the gap between the dry north and the central African rainforests, and that’s where we’re headed. I should also mention Lake Chad, to the north of N’Djamena (I flew over it to get here). This is the second-largest wetland in Africa, and gave the country its name. Chad, somewhat ironically, is sometimes known as The Dead Heart of Africa, because of its central position and because it's so dry.
As predicted, the road surface deteriorates rapidly, once we are out of the capital, though we still have to pay tolls at the regular péage points. Potholes proliferate. We career on and off the raised carriageway, bouncing along the sand and salt licks beneath. The route is mainly rural, with flat, yellow desert scrub, acquiring a greenish tinge, as we progress east. The towns are lined with open shops and thronging market stalls. Horseback riders and high flat facades give them a wild west feel.
The Sahelian villages have round huts, with frilly flamenco dress roofs. Some of the dwellings are festooned with small round gourds, trailing from vine plants - Christmas houses. Roofs are used to dry crops and stack hay, away from animals. Cereals are stored in large painted clay pots. The main transport is motorbike or ass. Those with a little more money have horses and most of the goods go by donkey cart. Meandering donkeys or camels hog the road, unwitting sleeping policemen. (Which incidentally they call dos d’anes - donkey backs in Chad.)
As I’ve already said, this is a very poor country. Much of the land isn’t suitable for agriculture and most of the people scrape a living by herding camels, cattle, goats and sheep. These drift by, a never ending stream. There is some oil in Chad (replacing the traditional cotton growing industry), but ongoing civil war and coup d’états and refugees pouring over the Sudanese border from various crises there (most notably Darfur), have increased the economic pressures. I’ve also read that the country holds vast reserves of oil, uranium, and gold. I’m not sure what’s happening about that. Tahir knows very little about it. As is so often the case, corruption goes hand in hand with poverty. There is very little mining development it seems. Though there is definitely a Chinese presence here, with the usual road building programme. That’s usually associated with mineral extraction.
This is a very controlling regime, with an extremely poor human rights record. Chad ranks the second lowest in the Human Development Index. Online maps are restricted in Google and Chad has only one television station (Tele-Tchad), which is owned by the state. Radio is the main source of media coverage in the country.
Understandably attitudes vary from shy, but friendly (a wave of the hand) to suspicious and a little hostile. No cameras here, thank you.
At N’Goura, a group of pointy topped kopjes, heaps of smooth round boulders, enlivens the horizon. It’s roasting hot. Over 40 degrees. One of the land cruisers is low on fuel and we stop to buy some a jerry can’s worth. Filling stations are in short supply and so is fuel, it seems. Tahir explains that Chad’s ex colonial masters, the French , have hijacked supplies since the Ukraine war began. The drivers fill up using a funnel and a muslin cloth. Cook Jerome ventures off to buy meat for dinner. I’m wondering how he’s going to keep it fresh, in this sweltering heat.
South-east now to Mongo, switch backing. The town is named for the many delicious mangoes grown in the area and sold by the wayside. Some of the frilly roofs are joined by red (natural clay) brick houses and walled compounds. More stunning inselbergs, a swirl of ochre, framed by a perfect azure sky. Now, both vehicles need petrol. We find a garage with diesel (long queue of motor bikes waiting for petrol) and, relieved, set off up the road. Then, Tahir realises that they haven’t collected their change and we have to turn round and fetch it.
The poor drivers who have been at the wheel for over nine hours now, set up our tents for us. Dinner pops out of the back of one of the cruisers - two hobbled chickens. No need to worry about our lack of a fridge - though bath temperature drinking water isn’t hugely pleasant. The fowl are dispatched with rakes, boiled (the feathers come out more easily) and fried.
We have thin foam mattresses and Mike has lent me an air bed. Even so, the ground is appallingly hard. My shovel bounces off it. No toilets and no holes in the ground and no ability to dig one. My stomach is already playing up. At least two of my companions snore. It’s not the best of nights. Camels, goats and cattle are meandering, chewing their breakfast bushes around our tents, when we wake up. It doesn’t make early morning ablutions any easier.
But thankfully, the forecast very bad roads do not materialise. Now, we’re entering the savanna region. It’s still flat and golden. But there’s some agriculture and lakes, heaps of catfish being smoked on the banks, unappealing rows of charred whiskers. We bounce a little on the sandy route, weaving in and out of palms, acacia and occasional villages. And ever more camels, goats, cattle.
The sign at the entrance to Zakouma isn’t wildly auspicious, 'You Are Now in the Park', it says, in French. But the wildlife has a much better handle on a welcome. A large troupe of baboons appears immediately, alongside a pair of warthogs. Elephant, giraffe, buffalo, various bucks and antelopes follow, in quick succession. There’s a mammal performing, at each stage of our journey to the camp. Which is just as well, as our transport team haven’t a clue where it is. They thunder past the animals, who go flying off in all directions. ‘Isn’t there a park speed limit?’ I inquire of Tahir. ‘No,’ he replies obliviously. Jerome has already cheered earlier, when we almost ran over a puppy.
The room is fairly described as basic, in an oddly turreted bungalow. My room has dangling wires, where the ceiling fan used to be. Fortunately, there’s a portable alternative. No hot water and I shower with some trepidation , but the tepid water is actually tolerable, in the heat.
The lodge has a bar, with good food and a bar. What more could you ask for? There’s a very expensive Wi-Fi hotspot, a crocodile river and a viewing platform with a hide. Elephant come down to bathe and drink. Lion even pop up on a regular basis. All is fine on the western front.
Zakouma is famous for its river systems, rich floodplains, and seasonal wildlife migrations. In the wet season, the centre of the park is marshy wetland, with large lakes and overflowing rivers. It’s virtually impassable. Safari season is the dry season, when the animals flock to the huge pans and waterholes left by the receding waters.
Zakouma National Park was established in 1963, renowned for its huge herds of elephant - over 4,000 of them. But the elephants had learned to congregate so closely because of the persistent threat from ivory poachers. By 2010 the park had lost 90% of its elephants. So, African Parks, a non-profit making conservation group were invited to take over. Gun battles and assaults on park headquarters were eventually eliminated.
The days are long. Driver Hassan Zachariah takes us on morning drives (start at 6 a.m.),afternoon drives (back as the sun sets) and night drives (back at 10.30). The latter involve torches being swept along all the roadsides, searching for reflections in the eyes of startled animals. There are an abundance of sinister yellow crocodile eyes in the pools. Hassan doesn’t speak any English, so I’m official interpreter. My reward is a gin and tonic. (They’re one up on the Radisson). I need it after the long days. My companions are seemingly inexhaustible.
The only other lodging in Zakouma is Campe Nomade, which caters solely to the affluent. They fly up in small planes and are ferried around in safari vehicles with leather covered seats. The glamping style tents are erected in a new spot each year and the likes of us are not allowed in the vicinity when anyone is in residence. We’re permitted to explore the Rigueik Pan, where the camp is based, when all their clients are out elsewhere. It’s on a different scale - a huge expanse of sage green, cinnamon brown and charcoal soil - herds of buck and giraffe grazing contentedly. It's a perfect spot for a sundowner.
It’s the dry season in Chad and we have been told, quite firmly, that it will not rain - by locals and tour operators. This is the Dead Heart of Africa. So, I haven’t brought any wet weather gear. And the equipment provided conforms to the same beliefs. Zakouma isn’t open in the wet season, when it becomes a huge swamp with much of the land submerged. (We’re careering over cracked mud for much of the time).
There’s no weather proofing on the safari vehicles and a plethora of small holes in the roofs. Nevertheless, storms range on the periphery of the park for most of our stay. It rains for 10 minutes, on our way to Rigueik, enough to soak us and then dry out. There’s an absolute deluge, another evening, in search of elusive pangolins and aardvarks. Everything I’m wearing is drenched and so is everything I have with me. This time we’ve skidded to a halt.
The famous Zakouma elephants (they have very small tusks - perhaps an evolutionary response, or is that too quick for Darwin?) now number almost 600. And, because they’re no longer so anxious about predators, the herd tends to split. We’re told it’s mainly in two parts at the moment, with numerous solitary or small group males. We see those every time we venture out. We’re told that the largest herd is down in the palm forest (which isn’t really a rain forest) and we’ve planned to go there. But the unheard of rain in the dry season has put paid to that. Tinga GPS says that the rest of the herd is just 20 minutes’ drive away. So we’re out looking for them instead.
The elephants, however, are still not that happy about human proximity. They’ve retreated to thick swathes of forest. We circle for some time, with no sighting, before deciding to give up and go in search of other wildlife. Or so we think. It’s not till I notice the same fallen tree yet again, that we realise that Hassan has not given up, despite instructions. A hair-raising ride across thorny scrub and many flailing branches, to the edge of the herd. It’s impossible to see them properly, in the foliage. There’s a great deal of trumpeting. Mike says they’re distressed, so I don’t like to venture closer. So near and yet so far.
Zakouma is, in theory, home to the Big Five. But black rhino have only just been introduced and are an unlikely sighting. Lion, yes, ( female lions, some with cubs, male lions are more evasive, like the female elephants.) elephant, definitely yes, leopard, one, blinking, at night and buffalo. We do get to see a huge herd of buffalo - some 600 together. This is another success story. The park’s buffalo population was reduced to about 220 animals in 1986, but now numbers over 15,000.
Zakouma is also home to 50% of the global Kordofan giraffe population. We encounter these regularly, lolloping across the pans, chewing the acacia and, very slowly and cautiously, lowering their heads to drink. They’re a gorgeous rich brown pattern.
Other than those, here is my Zakouma mammal tick list:
Defassa waterbuck, bush buck, Bohor reedbuck, Thompsons gazelles (red fronted - Hassan calls them something gazelles)), Egyptian mongoose, banded mongoose, warthogs, vervet and patas monkeys, olive baboons (a scattering of Buddha statues squatting erect on the plain or participating in sprint races thundering along), oribi, roan antelope, topi (called tiang here), cheetah (fleeting backsides), buffalo, crocodiles, common genet, civet, serval, , Lelwel’s hartebeest, Buffon’s kob, diminutive common duiker, striped ground squirrel, lesser galago and spotted hyena (wandering with two babies).
This is a shorter list:
Monitor lizards, Nile crocodiles, agama lizards, tortoises and three pythons (this is a first).
There’s also a plethora of birds. These slow our journey immensely, as Gunnar and Mike are intent on identifying very single one. I’m probably not going to list them all:
Gloriously bright show off bee eaters, green, little green, and bright northern carmine (flocks lifting off from the banks of the pans in hundreds as they decide where to drill their nests), marabou storks, saddle bill storks, yellow bill storks, woolly necked storks, African open billed storks, crowned cranes (multitudes of them), vultures of several types (hooded, leopard, white backed, white headed Rueppells and griffon - four different types in a row on one carcase), ostriches, long crested eagles, fish eagles, owls ,eagle, scops and otherwise, Abyssinian rollers( looping wonderfully behind us and posing on the slimmest of branches), ground hornbills, northern hornbills, red billed hornbill, tiny red billed queleas, (massing on branches until they sag and then taking off in a cloud of thousands, filling the sky and making waves like the murmuration of the starlings in England - Watch My Video on You-Tube), pelicans, assorted herons, grebes, hamerkops, sacred ibis, bateleur, harrier hawk, goshawk, lizard buzzard, black bellied bustard, African jacana, thick knees, green pigeons, turacos, coucals, malachite kingfisher, hoopoe, nightjars, lapwings, beautiful sunbirds, drongos and oxpeckers.
The highlights of our wildlife observations:
A lion attacking a buffalo and coming off worst, hyenas gorging on a stinking giraffe carcase, a ground hornbill spearing and eating a small snake which he flaunts under the beak of his mate, lions with a waterbuck kill, teeny lion cubs - four being suckled by their mother (Gunnar deems this a good moment to tell us that he was breastfed by his mother until the age of six), another pair of lionesses with two youngish cubs and giraffes sparring, thumping each other with the sides of their necks.
The most unusual encounter is a civet trying to nip at a python. He’s fascinated. Does he really think the python is food potential and not realise that the menu is likely to end up reversed? Luckily for him, he decides that our flashlight is getting in the way of his adventures and he saunters off.
It’s an impressive encounter list, but sadly, nothing to add from my small, shy or impossible lists. I’ve been told that aardvarks (anteaters) are a possibility, but all we see are their claw marked holes. No (even more elusive) pangolins either, despite relentless searching.
Camping on the return journey is even more eventful than on the way out. The ground is still rock solid and the tent pegs can’t be hammered in, to hold down the flysheets. And it’s clearly going to rain (in the dry season). The other three have their guy ropes attached to one of the land cruisers, which is driven into the middle of the camp site. My tent has been placed a little way off, to try and avoid the snoring. So, the water containers are utilised to hold the sheet down. Which is fine, until the crew need water and come to fetch it late at night, whilst simultaneously having conversations on their phones.
Tahir warns of snakes in the area, which doesn’t thrill me. But it’s actually a scorpion that’s running rings outside my tent, its stinger waving aloft. There’s also a huge ants’ nest (big ones) just in front of me. Come on aardvarks. This is your opportunity. And just to add to the confusion, the wind roars under aforesaid flysheet and it rains. But fortunately not in buckets.
Karen emerges in the morning, as always, with a full face of make-up, false eyelashes and immaculate clothing. How is she doing it?
Safely back to N’Djamena, with only one flat tyre, and without running out of fuel. Though it was a close run thing. We’ve done well.
The country's only international airport is small and with very few facilities. There’s one counter serving drinks and snacks in the departure lounge. And there are outdoor escalators, but they don’t work. Equatorial Guinea next.
The Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory, three islands in the western Caribbean Sea: Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. They are believed to have been uninhabited before the first Welsh settlers came, in the seventeenth century. The smaller islands had been sighted by Columbus, who called them Las Tortugas (turtles) and Sir Francis Drake landed on Grand Cayman. Early maps refer to them as Los Lagartos, meaning alligators or large lizards, But by 1530 this had become the Caymanes after the Carib word caimán for the marine crocodile. There must have been a lot of them. The turtles were quickly depleted, as they became the mainstay of the economy, for export and eating.
Alison and I have flown in to Georgetown, the capital of Grand Cayman (and the Cayman Islands), from Jamaica. As with Jamaica this is a revisit, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship snorkelling counts. Three hundred miles and it’s yet another world. Very flat. Pristine. A series of interlinked lagoons, especially in the west. Very American. Plaza after plaza. Lines of car rental shops. Huge neat car parks. Four lane highways. And signposts. Low rise apartment blocks pretending to be traditional Caribbean architecture. Incongruously, chickens run around squawking. They feature right across the island and are useful for hoovering up any scraps of food we drop, whilst we’re picnicking. I’m assuming no foxes here. The only predators are the many vehicles.
Cars stop at pedestrian crossings, if we show the slightest inclination to cross the road. They even stop to let you out at junctions. Best of all, a huge supermarket offering everything we couldn’t find in Jamaica. And just about anything you could want to buy to eat. Beautifully stocked meat and fish sections. Again, at a price. I fill two shopping bags with goodies - for 200 USD.
Georgetown is the largest town in the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) and a significant financial hub. There are almost 600 banks and financial institutions here. Twice as many companies as people. Plate glass office blocks are dotted around the edges of town (which spreads out a surprisingly long way across the island), spilling towards more traditional buildings in the downtown area. Some timber buildings could be correctly described as historical. More adopt the mock wooden Caribbean style, especially those around the cruise port (where every block is a mall). A few are actually made of concrete. This is where you find your Versace, Tiffany, and Gucci nestling alongside native vendors and craftsmen.
Restaurants line the wharf alongside the harbour. In between the boutiques, bars and cafes on the shore side are dainty churches, the parliament building, the site of an old fort (marked by a few cannons) and the island museum.
We pick up a rental car and navigate smoothly to our Cocoplum apartment at the bottom of Seven Mile Beach, just north of downtown Georgetown. We have a little heart shaped swimming pool in front of us, sunbeds (screwed down, so sadly, we can’t move them into the shade), and a view out to sea, across a wrecked boat. Glass patio doors lead onto this area. It’s hard to tell when they are closed, so I repeat my trick from Tunisia and walk headlong into the door. This time my glasses come off worse than I do. We also have a resident teeny tiny curly tailed lizard who is not remotely afraid of us. Even so, I have to check he’s not a scorpion, his tail is held so high.
The wreck, the Gamma, offers interesting snorkelling. It’s not the prettiest section of what doesn’t really qualify as a seven mile beach (in my humble opinion). To start with, it comes in at just under six miles in length. And the land fringing the long crescent disappears entirely at several points along this, the quieter end. We have to make use of the various alleys leading to and from the parallel West Bay Road, when trying to explore north. There’s a thin strip of sand and seawater channels, accessed by stairs cut into the exposed coral. I’ve read that storms have caused some erosion and there’s plenty of construction work along the shore here too.
Reefs more or less encircle Grand Cayman, which is why the islands are renewed for its snorkelling and diving. There are snorkelling spots all along seven mile beach right down to Georgetown, in the harbour and beyond. The one close to the Burger King is known as Cheeseburger Reef
Seven Mile Beach is yet another of those beaches that’s touted as best in the Caribbean, maybe twelfth in the world. It’s lovely, but not that amazing. As I’ve said several times before, these best beach in the world lists are way off . I don’t think the Bahamas counts as the Caribbean, but Anguilla and the BVI certainly do.
Another couple of miles further up Seven Mile Beach widens. Here, it is called Governor’s Beach, imaginatively named, as it’s right in front of the Governor’s House. There are signs in front of a low chain fence, requesting privacy. The Cayman Islands are more British than Great Britain. The governor presides over garden parties wearing one of those big cockaded hats. Even the Christmas decorations feature the flag of St George. It’s been created in wide banded satin ribbon along the wall of one tall block.
Here, the beach could rightfully be called beautiful. The sand is soft and inviting. The sea is a translucent swirl of contrasting blues, warm and shallow. There’s what seems to be the best snorkelling on Seven Mile, a few hundred yards off shore. It’s not fantastic, I hurry to add. More, mostly dead, coral, and there are a few shoals of vibrantly coloured fish. Some of them intrepid specimens, keen to eyeball us snorkellers.
Grand Cayman is an odd shape. The Georgetown area and Seven Mile Beach looks as if it sits on its tail. On the opposite side of the tail to the long stretch of beach are marinas with glitzy malls and restaurants. The most well known is Camana Bay.
At the top of the tail is the North End and West Bay. At West Bay. Cemetery Beach is, you guessed it, adjacent to an old cemetery (they’re all bedecked with artificial flowers here) with a narrowish strip of sand and a peaceful vibe. Shade is provided by casuarina trees . They’re gracefully atmospheric, but the needles make a patchwork on the sand and invade all your clothes and stick to your towels. Here, I meet up with Ron and Anne, who have just come from Negril in Jamaica, where I’m heading next. They live in Lindfield in West Sussex, where I used to have a house. It really is a small world.
Cemetery Beach has another reef, even further off shore. Ron is going to come in with me, but first his equipment all floats away on the swell, and then he discovers that his mask is too small. These are the sort of rolling waves that fill your swimsuit with sand, but you don’t realise until you go to the toilet and it all falls out. There’s a little purple fan coral and even fewer fish. Cayman might be one of the best snorkelling spots in the Caribbean but it’s not a patch on other parts of the world. If I remember correctly it’s better when you take a boat. Nevertheless, I mustn’t complain. It’s nice to able to snorkel off shore at all.
The North End is more quirky. Bestrewn with less pretentious homes, gentler, more rural and further away from the financial mecca. Though it hasn’t escaped hotels and apartments all together. There are quiet lagoons and a medley of limestone formations. One area named Hell is especially full of dark pinnacles. This is a very polarised population. and Hell is where the less well off tend to live, Unsurprisingly, the locals have capitalised on this with a gift shop and a post office, where you can get Hell postmarks - if you’re so inclined.
The formations meet the coast at Turtle Reef for scenic views, more snorkelling and some cafes. There are gorgeous wind swept beaches all along the North End coast to here and round the edge of Barker National Park, where horses wait patiently for clients to ride them along the sand. There’s a whole line of dune buggies next door. I'm unsure whcih is the safer option.
The key must-do in Grand Cayman is Stingray City and I went there on my last visit. Time to explore the island then. I’ve read that we should allow two hours to circumnavigate Grand Cayman. It takes us about three hours to work our way right round the coast to Rum Point and then Starfish Point, with frequent photo stops. The traffic in Georgetown, both ways, is incredibly heavy, despite the four lane highways and huge roundabouts. Nobody bothers to use the indicators on their expensive shiny land rovers And there are gargantuan American style trucks thundering by. Living with the rich and powerful isn’t always paradise, it seems.
Just south of Georgetown is Smith’s Cove, more exotically known as Smith’s Barcadere. Formed from the coral reef, it’s incredibly photogenic. And has really easy (straight off the sand ) fairly decent snorkelling alongside all the reef cliffs. There's even an exciting altercation with an octopus. I had no idea they could camouflage themselves so well against the coral. I would swear this one turned white and then brown depending on the light. I’ve read that they can change texture too, to match their surroundings.
Spotts Beach, on the south road, isn’t actually that easy to spot. We zoom past. Its accessed like all the beaches down public rights of way and its another gorgeous piece of palm backed sand. Though there’s a stiff breeze blowing off the reef in front.
Further along the south road, Pedro St James, is home to the oldest stone building on Grand Cayman. It’s actually called a castle, though it doesn’t look like one to me. William Eden, an Englishman, used slave labour to build it in 1780. You can buy tickets to go inside and visit and there’s a swanky gift shop and restaurant attached. We just peer at it from the road.
Bodden Town, the first island settlement, is the old capital of the Cayman Islands. (The first settlers were Welsh - the islands are thought to have been previously uninhabited.) The place is named after William Bodden, a government leader. It’s now the fasted growing district on Grand Cayman. Perhaps they’ve run out of space in Georgetown. Traditional buildings line the main road. The most notable is the Mission House, intended to depict life as it used to be in the islands, though its origins are murky.
The East End is where the real Caribbean begins. Mangrove forest, lakes, low subtropical forest and wild and windy beaches draped with sea weed and facing a vividly turquoise lagoon. There are blowholes in the raised coral. Gun Bay, as it’s name suggests, has cannons lining the road and Colliers Beach is gorgeously picturesque.
Turning the corner to the North Side of Grand Cayman, still more beaches running alongside the road. The sand almost disappears at Barefoot Beach, where the once lofty trees have succumbed to the winds, bending over at almost 90 degrees.
Rum Point, at the end of a straggling peninsula on a bay opposite Georgetown has still not reopened after Covid. There are major renovations underway and JCBs blocking the path. The area between here, a series of pools and lagoons lined with houses and apartment blocks is known as Cayman Kai.
Right at the tip is Starfish Point. It’s tranquil and exceptionally pretty – shallow waters, white sand and casuarina trees to bask under.