Barbuda - What To Expect?

Barbuda 's renowned for its beaches I know, but I'm not sure what to expect from this island, which often gets dropped from its country's name, Antigua and Barbuda. It wasn't easy to afford reasonably priced accommodation. I'm hoping for tranquil relaxation, to finish my island hopping trip from Trinidad, via Saba and Statia.

Ferry to Barbuda

Barbuda is about 30 miles north of Antigua and today, the December winds have dropped and it’s not too choppy, as the larger island recedes behind my ferry from Antigua’s capital, St John’s. And I’m not inclined to be sea sick though the stench of marijuana, rising from the deck below isn’t helping my resolve. They’ve put me on the cargo ship instead of the advertised Barbuda Express catamaran. And sent me reminders with the wrong departure port and time on. Fortunately, I’m able to check. Cases and sundry crates are hidden under a couple of orange tarpaulins on the flat wooden deck below. Its going to add two hours to the ninety minute journey.

Barbuda the Beautiful

Barbuda’s nothing like Antigua, however, more the Caribbean as it was before the tourists arrived (or so I imagine). It’s coral limestone and pancake flat – it’s hard to make it out, on the horizon, until we’re very close. This is one of the most sparsely populated islands in the Caribbean. The 1800 or so population nearly all live in Codrington, the one and only town. It looks like a lattice of spaced out dwellings, with wire fenced compounds. there are Caribbean gaily painted cottages, a church, a bank and a couple of supermarkets.

The airport forms the southern border of the town. You walk off the runway into one of the side streets. Two cafes that are closed all the time. And there are a couple of restaurants - I’m told, but its hard to tell, as very few buildings have signboards. And I discover that Codrington’s not really a grid either, as I get lost every time I go out. The lack of signposts doesn’t help.

Hurricane Irma destroyed more than 90 percent of Barbuda's buildings, in 2017, and the entire population was evacuated to Antigua. By February 2019, most of the residents had returned to the island. Reconstruction is ongoing. I’m told that signs are on their way. Meanwhile, I have to try to use Google to navigate. And she’s being as tricky as ever.

I’m staying in a dinky little purple cottage. It’s wooden, on stilts, like most of the traditional houses here and it serves its purpose, except I manage to lock myself out, by twiddling the wrong knobs on my first excursion. The supermarket and fisherman’s quay are four minutes walk.

Getting Around in Barbuda

I’ve rented a car. I don’t know how legal my transaction is. No-one has even asked to see my driving licence and only cash has changed hands. The windscreen has a huge crack running across it, there are warning lights on the dashboard (‘Don’t worry, it’s only the engine overheating’), the cover is coming off the control panel in the door and it rattles like crazy.

Mind you, anything would rattle on these roads. There’s one concrete stretch from the ferry half way to Codrington and the rest is unmade and very bumpy or very old broken pitch, with huge potholes. So, slow is the order of the day. (Though I can’t be certain how slow, as the speedometer doesn’t work). Especially, as I also have to avoid the cattle, goats, chickens and donkeys. It reminds me of Turks, with its roadside cacti and aloes, salt ponds, scrubland and wandering wild asses. And, every so often, another whiff of marijuana, even in the middle of nowhere.

I say roads. There’s really only one, Route 1, which runs from Two Foot Bay in the north east, across to Codrington in the middle, down to the ferry and past the beaches in the south. It’s about 12 miles long. And the island is almost totally fringed with stunning empty beaches. I’m stopping to sample them, as I bump along.

Princess Diana Beach is the Winner

So far, Princess Diana Beach (it was called Access Beach before she came here, with Wills and Harry) is winning. A fabulous swathe of soft white sand with swirling cobalt water. And Enoch’s bar. He only serves drinks and grilled lobster (to order). The lobster (Barbuda is famous for them) is delivered by boat, fresh from the sea, whilst I watch. Then it’s placed on the smoking barbecue. Enoch, smiling, serves up a huge plateful, beautifully succulent. with baked potato. I look at it, think, that’s not bad for 30 USD and I consume it very happily. He then says, ‘Would you like the other half now?’ And he follows it up with Haagen Daaz ice cream. What more could you want?

Tales of the Unexpected

Barbuda is not what I expected. It's a hard island to categorise. It’s definitely not cheap. Cottages like mine are the economic way to visit. There are some, way more expensive, on stilts, by the sea. Other than that, there are three resorts - said to be of the expensive exclusive variety. And they’re artfully hidden away. A helicopter flits in and out of the airport strip belonging to Coco Resort, behind the Princess Diana Beach. Water taxis whizz their VIPs across the lagoon, to the west of the island. It’s a recluse’s version of Anguilla. There are restaurants like Uncle Roddy’s at Coral Group Bay, with a kitchen full of earnest chefs and an upmarket menu. And 'Oh look darling, there's a Nobu', nestling serenely, by the sand, in the middle of nowhere. Tenders from the mega yachts moored at the little wooden landing stage.

But it definitely has tranquil relaxation in abundance.

Trying to Find Two Foot Bay

Well, it's relaxing some of the time. I'm searching for the caves at Two Foot Bay, at the top of Barbuda. Google is not happy with this instruction at all. She takes me to Two Foot Bay Beach which is to the north of my goal, gorgeous wild, windswept and littered with driftwood and flotsam and jetsam. And totally deserted, which is just as well, as I realise I’ve forgotten to lock the car, when I get back from my reconnaissance mission. And then the signal drops out. to the rescue, although the caves aren't marked on here at all. The road is, however. Up to the giddy heights of 125 feet, in the 'Barbuda Highlands '. First, a quarry. This is a little alarming and I beat a careful retreat and try another route. I'm glad I persevered. Limestone has been raised and eroded to form picturesque karst pinnacles and caves, along this rugged coast. I'm not so interested in clambering up the spiky slope, to explore the caves, but the views are spectacular. There's even the ruins of a house, built up against a rocky outcrop. It’s thought it was related to the phosphate mining which took place here once. At the far end, is a sparkling sapphire bay.

The Flying Frigates of Barbuda

My most rewarding excursion here is a boat trip, into the mangrove lined lagoons on the north west corner of Barbuda. Codrington Lagoon National Park is home to the largest frigate bird colony in the western hemisphere (some say the world). More than 2,500 of the birds roost in the mangroves every year (some say 5000). And I’m here in December, right in the middle of the mating season, (from September to April).

I’ve booked with Solomon, The Pink Sand Water Taxi Man, but when I turn up, at the agreed time, I have to wait ‘five minutes’, as he’s bagged another job and another four clients are on their way. Half an hour later, five Americans turn up. (This is the Caribbean.) But the trip, across the shallow lagoon is well worth it.

The frigate birds display their very best mating performance, red chest pouches ballooned to extraordinary sizes. In between, they take to the skies, wheeling and diving. It’s their only exercise. Frigate birds have such small legs and tiny feet they can’t walk. So they either sit on a solid enough branch or fly and they need a high branch to take off. The fluffy checks have to say in their fragile twiggy nests for eight to ten months, until they are sure of being able to launch themselves into the world.

Frigate birds can’t swim either, their little feet aren’t webbed and their feathers aren’t waterproof. So, they either have to scoop up squid or fish, which are floating or resort to mugging. They’ve become adept at jostling other birds, so that they drop, or even regurgitate their catch. Then they swoop in and grab it, with their beaks.

This is much more impressive than the colony I saw on the Galapagos, though I thought that was wonderful, at the time. They’re altogether astonishing. It’s not surprising that frigate birds are also known as Man O War birds.

The Elusive Pink Sand Beach

And beyond the mangroves, where the birds are ensconced, is Eleven Mile Beach. Along with Bermuda, and a pocketful of other islands, Barbuda lays claim to pink sand. But, so far it’s been elusive. There's a beach called Pink Sand, down south by a Martello Tower fort (it was built by the British in the early 1800s, and had three cannons, it looks just like a sugar mill and is now a popular wedding venue). But as far as I can see, that beach isn’t pink at all. I've read it depends on the wave action. I know that the pink is the effect of tiny shells in the sand. Maybe they only look pink when suitably wet.

But Eleven Mile Beach really is pink. Well, in patches, as the waves swirl in and out. It’s delightful.

Problems in Paradise

What problems does this paradise pose? More No See Ums (sand flies). I’ve acquired several itchy bites. There’s music from some of the hideaway restaurants. ( I tried one called Timbuk-1. It boasts a 'casino' - several slot machines). There are also some very noisy dogs. There’s a cacophony of yipping, as I try to drift off to sleep, and it’s back again at six in the morning, with some intermittent bouts during the night.

They’ve changed my boat back to Antigua to the cargo ship again. (And sent me more reminders with a departure time that’s half an hour later than it should be.) That’s not the only problem. I’m so sad to leave. This is an utterly gorgeous place. The beaches are probably as good as those in Anguilla, which I awarded Overall Best Beaches in the Caribbean. I’m considering putting Princess Diana Beach on my Top Beaches in the World List. You could see everything I’ve visited in a day tour from Antigua. on the elusive Barbuda Express. But you wouldn’t be able to savour it. Days spent on the beach here are bliss.

(Read more about Antigua and Barbuda here.)

The Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are administered in association with New Zealand, so no-one is sure if this is an official country or not. The 15 islands would maintain that they are self-governing. The people have Cook Island nationality, as well as being citizens of New Zealand. There are a lot of Kiwis here, both running businesses and on holiday. That means plenty of flat vowels and friendly, but we're not going to stand any nonsense or emotional twaddle conversation.

History of the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands were settled by Polynesian peoples in about 10000 AD, migrating in waves from what is now French Polynesia. The islands were visited by Captain James Cook, in the 1770s, but were named the Hervey Islands, after Augustus Hervey, third Earl of Bristol. In the 1820s, Russian Admiral, Adam Johann von Krusenstern, referred to the southern islands as the "Cook Islands"on his maps after their British 'discoverer'.

The islands were decaled a British protectorate in 1888, but later annexed by New Zealand (against the wishes of the local chiefs. At that point the entire territory became known as the Cook islands. (the southern group islands are still referred to as the Hervey Islands.)

Facts and Factoids

  • The capital of the Cook islands is Avarua, on Rarotonga, 13,000 of the 17000 Cook Islanders live on this island.
  • Cook Island peoples - more than twice the number of the residents of the Cook Islands have left to live in New Zealand
  • Cookies aren't just biscuits - it's a name given to the people of these islands
  • The people of The Cook Islands style themselves 'the great entertainers of the Pacific, the best dancers and drummers in Polynesia'.
  • Cook Island law says that buildings may not be taller than coconut trees
  • The main source of income is tourism
  • You can't buy land here - property is handed down through the generations

What to see in the Cook Islands?

Cook Islands websites say that visitors refer to the islands as Paradise on Earth. They're certainly gorgeous - the perfect coral islands of your imagination. Aitutaki, in particular, is stunning, with its idyllic lagoon. Read about my visits:

Leaving the Cook Islands

Flying on, to French Polynesia, is as laid back as everything else in the Pacific. From Aitutaki, returning to Rarotonga, I'm early for check in, so I hang around, thinking that at least I'll get a good seat. Mais non. It's free seating. So, some lunch, I've got well over two hours. I wander across the road to a café on the beach. All departure lounges should be like this.

There are no safety announcements. We have to wait for the stewardess to finish the chapter in the novel she is reading, before we get any drinks. I'm going on to Papeete, French Polynesia.

A Singles Holiday in Antigua

My first trip to Antigua was a 10 day singles holiday, in a hotel at Jolly Harbour. Arrival was at the island's single airport, VC Bird Airport, named after the first prime minister, following independence, in 1981.

Jolly Harbour

The hotel itself came in at acceptable - a three star with an outdoor restaurant that was reminiscent of a holiday camp - wooden communal bench tables.

Most days, I walked down to the beach, at Jolly Harbour, to spend my time idling. The little port is one of several on Antigua which serve yachties. There is a web of small canals here (it used to be a swamp), where the boats ply back and forth. It's an interesting stroll. This is a view taken from the helicopter when I went to Montserrat, for the day. (It wasn't all idling.) You can see the harbour, the hotel, the golf course and the supermarket!

The beach was prettier then that it is now, and much quieter. ( Antigua, with Barbuda. has 365 beautiful beaches - so they say.) There were still plenty of beach bars, but the sand is exceptionally gorgeous, powdery white. Wandering down to the point, watching the seabirds on the rocks, is rewarding. I'm also on the look out for snakes, as I've read that the Antiguan racer is among the rarest snakes in the world. I'm not sure I really want to see one. And, no doubt, they're sensible enough to hide up in the hills.

St John's, the Capital of Antigua

It was a singles holiday. I spent most of the time on the beach. But I did get about a little. The capital city, St. John's. is home to 22000 people. It has a deep harbour, which can accommodate large cruise ships, so sadly (or not, depending on your point of view) it’s a thriving cruise ship port. It's also where the ferry departs for Barbuda, so I'm back here for a later trip. It's not the prettiest town from the sea, the the white baroque cathedral dominates. The church is in its third incarnation (fire and earthquake put paid to its predecessors) and its dedicated to St John, of course. There's also a little fortress, Fort James, at the entrance to the harbour, dwarfed by a mountain of container boxes.

St John's is one of the larger Caribbean metropolises, with plenty of shopping malls, as well as boutiques throughout the city, selling designer jewellery and high end goods. Fortunately, there’s also still plenty of Caribbean colour, with bright wooden buildings, markets and locals wearing Rasta hats.

There are also several museums, the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, mostly for cricket matches, a tiny Botanical Garden and the (slightly crumbling) Government House. V.C Bird has cropped up again too. There's a bust of him in the middle of town.

English Harbour and Falmouth Bay

English Harbour, on the south-eastern coast, is perhaps the most famous of the harbours on Antigua. It's a good place to visit on a day cruise. This pretty and well protected bay provides protected shelter, during violent storms and became a naval base not long after England acquired colonial British Antigua and Barbuda in 1632. It was a good place from which to keep an eye on the French navy and 'chase ye pirates'.

It is also the only harbour in the region large enough to repair big ships. It's the site of the restored 'Nelson's Dockyard'. It's named of course, (but not till the 1950s) after Admiral Nelson. Horatio Nelson, a major figure in Antigua history, arrived in the late eighteenth century, as the captain of the H.M.S Boreas, sent to Antigua to enforce British laws in the colonies. However, he got into rather too much trouble with the locals, when he tried to implement the Navigation Acts. These prohibited trade with the newly formed United States of America and most of the merchants in Antigua depended upon American trade. It put his career back a few years. The former Admiral’s House now contains the Dockyard Museum.

Round the corner is Falmouth Bay, yet another harbour. This one is where the rich and famous hang out.

Betty’s Hope

As with much of the Caribbean, Antigua rapidly developed as a profitable sugar colony. The only two surviving structures of the first large sugar plantation on Antigua are two restored and picturesque sugar mills. These have been incorporated into an open air museum at Betty’s Hope. The plantation was owned by the Codrington family who led the first British settlers.

Devil's Bridge

Another must see, on my tourist itinerary, is Devil's Bridge, a natural rock arch, near a village with the great name of Willikies. Here, as well as the arch, are natural blowholes, shooting up water and spray powered by waves from the Atlantic Ocean.

Hug a Sting Ray

I joined in with a boat trip to Stingray City. It seems compulsory now for tropical tourist areas to have these interactive ray sessions on the reef, where the fish are enticed with regular squid feedings. The rays burrow into the sand and then launch themselves against your body. They’re surprisingly velvety soft, but it’s also a strange tickly sensation. There’s much squealing. I can’t help thinking about naturalist Steve Irwin, who was killed by a ray. However, I’m told that the southern rays are so friendly that they’re known as the puppy dogs of the sea and love to be affectionate.

There were also a few bars. Maybe more than a few.

Antigua again

Flying visits again, to Antigua, when I'm Tall Ship Cruising. Then back again, from Saba and Statia, via St Kitts, so I can visit Barbuda. The ferry leaves from St John's and Antigua fills the skyline for much of the journey. Just time to visit Ocean Point and Hodges Bay - more glorious soft white, (if small), beaches, before another wistful departure.

(Read more about Antigua and Barbuda here.)

Libreville Beach

When I arrive back from Luango Park visit there’s no car to meet me at Libreville Airport and I have to walk to my hotel, which is luckily just up a level road. The only problem is trying to cross the busy highway. There is no respect whatsoever for zebra crossings. And just when I’m getting to the point when I’m swearing never to return to Africa I end up, totally unexpectedly in a little idyll, on a white sand beach eating delicious succulent prawns and asparagus.( At a price.) Tomorrow I’ll have time on the beach before I go home - excellent.

Where's My Tour of Libreville?

It’s raining, naturally, so much for the beach. It’s also quite chilly - and I’m on the Equator. My itinerary says I’m having a city tour today, but there’s neither sight nor sound of a driver or guide. Not even a message. Encore quelle surprise. After breakfast, I ask the hotel receptionist to phone; the only working number we have is the trip mastermind,  the Italian guy who runs the lodge in Sao Tome. He says a car will arrive in twenty minutes. I eventually set off for my morning city tour at 12.30.

It’s conducted by the Man with the Van, who turns out to be the elusive Fifi who was supposed to meet me when I first arrived. He doesn’t speak any English and has brought along his son, Laurent, who speaks about two words of English. Just enough to establish that I’m from London and pester me for my phone number the rest of the trip, so I can invite him to stay at my house. He wants to marry an English lady. In the end I just remonstrate, ‘What’s in that for me?’ and they laugh.

Libreville Museum of Art and Culture

My tour of Libreville consists of a lot of traffic jams and a church that is wooden and decorated with tribal features, so I think it must be a museum. It isn’t, but we visit the Libreville Museum of Art and Culture next. It’s obviously a novelty for Fifi et fils, as they don’t know where the entrance is and saunter in too. They get a tour in French from the guide and I wander off on my own. It’s mostly masks, used to praise the ancestors and to mark important life events by signifying transformation It’s a compact museum with a few fascinating masks that look like props for a horror movie. There are photos in the display cases of many more masks that are lodged in the Louvre. If I remember rightly there are a fair number in the British Museum too.

A FedEx Delivery

And that’s the end of my tour. Except that there is now a little moonlighting, as we park up at the Embassy of the Ivory Coast and Laurent dons a FedEx cap. He then leaps out and delivers a package - or at least he tries to. They’ve all gone to prayers and we have to wait.

Libreville, I have to report is entirely nondescript, and has very little to recommend it except for the beach. The sun has come out and I’m happy to spend my last few hours relaxing by the Atlantic.

Port Gentil - Not So Well Named

I've flown in from Sao Tome. to Libreville. It's a flight from Port Gentil today on my way to visit Loango National Park . The same policemen are on the immigration desk at Libreville Airport. ‘Ca va?’ they beam. Afrijet seems to be quite an upmarket airline. The departure lounge has leather seats and free coffee. I’m the scruffiest person in here - everyone else is dressed in business suits or smart dresses. Today the plane is full.

South over the Equator. Port Gentil doesn’t look at all like its name. There’s wooden shanty housing, oil rigs offshore and a clutch of oil executive houses with swimming pools. I’m paired up with Bill from Seattle who is booked in at the same lodge. Another tourist - a rarity on my travels. It takes three different vehicles to get us to the lodge, over increasingly bumpy terrain. A battered old German estate, an even more battered 4WD and an open safari truck.

South to Loango

The first section is not especially interesting, through empty grassland edged with jungle and over some huge river mouths. This is a (small) country of lakes and waterways. There are smatterings of open shops along the wayside, with the odd concrete school. More than anything the journey is an exploration of Chinese engineering, as a Chinese settlement abuts the road, created to facilitate the rebuilding of the National Highway, which we are directed on and off as engineering permits. The project involves some massive stretches of bridge over the waterways, but they’re not open for general use yet and we clatter over temporary metal structures alongside. I’m glad I can swim.

The Lodge at Loango National Park

Once at Ombue, at the end of a long peninsula, we’re on sand, slippy silver alternating with stodgy red and the odd ford, for another two hours, until we reach the lodge on the edge of the lagoon in Loango National Park. It’s a picturesque setting, but it’s the Gabonese equivalent of Fawlty Towers. Matthieu, the French manager, instantly goes into a stream of apologies for the state of the place: ‘Neglected, run down, end of lease, new building sometime', he exposulates, in a good John Cleese impression.’.

It’s certainly gloomy and feels empty and uncared for. I have a two room bungalow suite on the edge of the lagoon, with what looks like a pleasant veranda running around it. Except that the doors to this are locked and there’s no key. Matthieu doesn’t know where it is. 'Maybe the last guests took it?' he suggests. Matthieu might have instructions not to spend on refurbishment, but that doesn’t really excuse this or the fact that half the lights don’t work. There’s no curtain over the bath either, so the floor is a huge puddle by the time I’ve finished in the shower.

The Wi-Fi router doesn’t work - quelle surprise - so we’re all piggybacking off Matthieu‘s own phone. Then it runs out of battery. No one has thought to plug it in.

The only upside is the food which is delicious French cooking on the waterside terrace; stuffed crab followed by captain fish for lunch. And there is some animal entertainment. The lodge is alive with lizards, of all sizes and colours, swarming over the decking and engaging in  lively spats.

Loango - A Unique Park

‘It’s very windy here because it’s between seasons and it’s the worst time of year for animal safari. The animals are moving between feeding grounds and are hard to spot. Even the whales are out of season. The gorillas are especially difficult to get to at the moment,’ is the other happy piece of news imparted by Matthieu. So, it’s not surprising that our evening drive is uneventful. The park is unique in having beach, lagoon (with mangroves), savanna and rainforest, so it promises large land mammals, on the beach, as well as whales out to sea, if you come at the right time.

Loango Elephant Encounters

We’re driving along the edge of the lagoon where there are narrow stretches of sand. There are a few shy forest buffalo in the savanna. These are very stolid, with hippo like bodies and are distinctive for their shaggy stripy ears. There are a couple of elephants hiding in the bushes. Our guide Carl, surprisingly, says he will go and entice them out. Unsurprisingly, the cow elephant isn’t keen. She has a calf to protect. So, she makes a mock charge, trumpets and sprays sand all over Carl with her trunk. That’s our excitement for today.

Across the Lagoon

Yesterday, an ordeal by road transport, today by boat, as we bump over the open lagoon for 40 minutes to the gorilla camp. I’ve sat at the front, as I didn’t realise we were virtually on open sea, so I’m bearing the brunt. The lagoon is immense, stretching for miles and spreading into hundreds of inlets.

I’m with an expat French lady who speaks English, is quite chatty and tells me she works in the oil business. She says her last attempt to see the gorillas was cancelled before she even got to the lodge. Our Spanish ranger, Sonia, gives us the low down on safety procedures and protecting the gorillas. The great apes, as predicted, have been elusive over the last few days, feeding in the almost inaccessible swamplands, but the trackers have called to say that the gorillas are currently resting in the forest and we set off to look. Another short boat trip and Sonia remembers a final instruction: ‘If we meet an elephant close up, run. It will charge.’

Gone Gorilla or No Gibbons in Gabon

By the time we arrive, an hour later, scurrying up jungle paths, trying to avoid fallen trees and swarming ants, not to mention patches of deep mud, our quarry has retreated into the marshes. Sonia says that even if we manage to get into the swamp, which is a mammoth challenge, we still won’t be able to see the gorillas, as the elephant grass is so high. I’m definitely not keen, as I’ve already left my trainers behind twice, sucked into the brown goo. And Arturo from Mexico, who lives in Italy and works in London, has already helpfully reported that he picked up leeches after plunging up to his waist here.

But French Oil Lady is somehow dealing with the mud more effectively than me. She looks lithe and fit and is totally unscathed; she insists we advance. We’re not allowed to split the party, so I have to go as well. Two minutes later, I’m up to my knees in mud and have to be hauled out by our two diminutive trackers. (I think they’re probably pygmies). We are forced to retreat. FOL doesn’t speak to me the whole way back. I try sitting in the stern of the boat, in an attempt to avoid the bumps, and instead I’m drenched in spray.

Loango Tented Camp

After I’ve cleaned up there’s a transfer to my tented camp. The countryside is almost bucolic, with sun on the rippling grass. And there are four elephants, with a calf, some red river hogs and a hippo to be seen. The hogs have extraordinary white patterned faces and snouts.

Matthieu has promoted this new Loango camp, set by the water and deeper into the park, as being infinitely superior to the dilapidated lodge. I’ve decided not to trust anything else he says. The tent is again nicely sited on the riverbank. And it does have an attached wooden bathroom with an open shower, accessible through a zipped door. But it’s definitely not glamping and there’s no hot water. Also, there is a big spider sitting just above the toilet. I’m supposed to have two nights in camp and am trying to decide whether to request to go back to the lodge tomorrow, but I’ve just been told I’m going back anyway. They didn’t know I was supposed to be staying and there is no food in.

Safely zipped in at night I’m reading peacefully. There is a generator that has been switched on for the evening, so I have light. Until the chugging comes to a halt and there are grinding sounds. On - off, on - off until it comes to a complete halt. I guess the generator has given up too. It’s just as well I’m being repatriated.

Hip Hip Hurray and Open Jaws

The water has run out this morning. Fortunately, there’s just enough to flush my outdoor loo. FOL is here also with her two children and insists that we depart early, as she has to get back home to prepare for her children’s school outing tomorrow. Fair enough, except that she then sits at the lodge waiting for lunch after our entirely without fauna encounter return journey (unless you count a terrapin discovery).

Matthieu explains that last night’s camp was not the one I was supposed to stay at anyway. He just forgot to tell me. He wanted me to sample different areas of the park and he offers a night in the original camp tomorrow.

Pachyderm Performances

A boat trip round some of the lagoon inlets with Jean Pierre in the afternoon is more rewarding than previous forays. There are elephants (we creep up and view them from behind a bush) and a family of hippos who perform like synchronised swimmers, lining up in a row to watch us. Only their eyes peep out of the water, swivelling as we move round them. Then they obligingly take it in turns to give huge open mouthed yawns.

Tsetse flies seem to love the water’s edge and they descend on the boat in droves. Jean Pierre bashes my arm, saying that I’m about to be stung. He squeezes the offending insect and tosses it to the deck. Immediately an army of tiny ants appear, march across the floor and demolish the carcass. Ants? Even in a boat.

Jean Pierre follows the narrow beaches to the ocean, flirting with the breakers around the neck of the lagoon and then we return, pursued by a very pretty sunset.

Open Jaw Returns

Across the vast Loango Lagoon once more to head up the river to Akaka Camp, which is where I was supposed to stay. Matthieu has suggested one night’s sojourn here, but I’ve declined and we will return this afternoon. I’ve had enough of cold water showers and tents. I’ve also acquired at least 50 very itchy bites from the ungrateful mini-beasts with whom  I shared my  tent and I’m jigging around, tired and grumpy.

This time the boat doesn’t have any bench seats and I’ve been installed in a canvas camp chair, splendid like Cleopatra. Which is fine till my throne collapses as we bump over the waves. Not so dignified now. Carl rescues me by contriving a wedge out of a piece of timber that’s been washed up.

Other than being bombarded by tsetse flies (fortunately I’ve remembered to wear white) it’s another pleasant day, meandering through the wetlands into the heart of the park. There are plenty of dwarf and long nosed crocodile, snoozing on logs. They sleep with their jaws wide, saw-like teeth on display and their eyes open, and don’t usually notice us straight away, leaping into the water in fright when they do. Most of the animals here are very skittish. They’ve all been hunted and eaten by the locals, even the crocodiles.

More Elephant Encounters

We also have buffalo and dainty sitatunga antelope sightings and several elephant encounters. Carl’s definitely not frightened of elephant. His speciality is waterside confrontation, whilst they are feeding on the vegetation at the river's edge. He says there are too many loggy obstacles and too much mud between us for them to be able to charge. I’m hoping he’s right, as it’s me that’s in the firing line. I’ve got a whole series of pictures of flapping trunks and angry red eyes.

And I’m really glad I didn’t opt for the Akaka camp In Loango. It’s been left in total disarray. There’s one tent with no electricity or water and a filthy toilet.

I’m the only one staying at the lodge tonight (it being off season) and the dining room is dead. I’m looking for someone to give me some food…I’m hoping it’s not captain fish again. It’s very good, but I’ve had it three times already. My hopes are in vain. Though there’s an excellent accompanying gratin dauphinoise to compensate.

Luango Beach

My bites aren’t getting any better - in fact they’re increasing in number. And nothing I’ve tried is working - antihistamine tables, cream, painkillers. I’m on fire.

A final drive along Loango Beach. It’s a perfect day for it, sunny and breezy, though there are few animals to enjoy it. Even the elephants' usual swimming post is abandoned. ‘They come later in the afternoon’ says Jean-Pierre. I bite my tongue. I’ve been here 4 days and know better than to ask why this trip was scheduled for a morning. The tideline is a conglomeration of plastic - the Benguela current brings it all up from Angola and Congo.

How Safe are the Chinese Bridges?

It takes four vehicles to get me back to Port Gentil. Leg 3 is driven by Monsieur Phillippe who gives rides to all the locals in the back of his pick-up and hands the old ladies money for the taxi ride home. I’m obviously right to have misgivings about the Chinese makeshift bridges. As we clatter over Monsieur opens the windows and undoes his seatbelt.

On to Libreville.

Welcome to Gabon

I almost didn’t make it over the starting line to visit Gabon. Afrijet has its own terminal, at Libreville Airport, but it’s not equipped to deal with the issue of visas. So, I have to wait till everyone else is stamped in and then I’m bundled into a black police car and driven round the airport. It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings and it’s a bit scary. Especially as they then refuse to accept my authorisation of visa documents, as they are a copy of the originals printed out from an email. Thank goodness I’m now in a French speaking country rather than Portuguese. No-one here has any English. I give them the phone number of my contacts in Libreville and amazingly someone arrives with acceptable papers. (Or a bribe - I'm not sure which.) Half an hour later I’m allowed in.

I’m supposed to be met by a man with the unlikely name of Fifi. He’s elusive, but eventually I bump into a Robert, who  is asking around for a Suzanne and he has access to a Man with a Van, who takes me to my hotel and agrees to fetch me again in the morning for my flight to Loango Game Park. (Fifi materialises later - see Libreville.)

Is Gabon a Poor Country?

Gabon has rich reserves of manganese, iron, petroleum and timber and offshore oil was discovered in the 1970s, helping to make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In spite of this five percent of the population still live below the poverty line.

Gabon - Facts and Factoids

  • The entire country of Gabon is just slightly smaller than the state of Colorado in the United States.
  • Almost 80-85% of Gabon is covered by rainforests, 11% of which has been designated as national parks - some of the largest natural parks in the world. The rainforests of Gabon are home to 777 species of birds.
  • Gabon is known as The Land of Fangs because of the density of its wildlife population -and its gorillas. Apparently, around 80% of Africa’s gorilla population live in Gabon, although they were eluvia when I was there. The country is also home to most of Africa’s baboons.
  • The Equator passes through Gabon (and not Equatorial Guinea to the north). Its represented by a yellow stripe on the tricoloured flag.

A Very Brief History of Gabon

The region was initially inhabited by the pygmy peoples, followed by peoples of the Bantu tribes. In the 18th century, Orungu, the Myeni kingdom was established in Gabon. The French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza arrived here in 1875 and founded the town of Franceville. In 1885, Gabon was annexed into the territories of French Equatorial Africa. This federation lasted for almost five decades.

  • Gabon is a presidential republic; the first president of Gabon was Léon M’ba, who was elected in 1961. Omar Bongo Ondimba served as his vice president and later became the president. He is the longest serving head of state ever, ruling over Gabon from 1967 to 2009 (the year of his death). According to the French weekly L’Autre Afrique, President Bongo  owned more real estate in Paris than any other foreign leader.

Is it Safe to Visit Gabon?

  • Gabon is a relatively safe place to travel. Tropical disease, most notably malaria, poses the biggest safety threat. However tourists are something of a novelty, The more upmarket hotels and facilities have been built to cater for those who work in the oil business. And hardly anyone speaks English

Where to Travel in Gabon?

São Tomé e Principe - Where?

São Tomé e Principe consists of two archipelagos around the two main islands: São Tomé and Príncipe, located about 140 kilometres (87 miles) apart. They are nestled in the arm pit of West Africa. São Tomé Island, at 854 square kilometres, is the largest island and is home to about 96% of the nation’s population. It is tiny: about 30 miles long (North-South) by 20 miles wide and  is a typical tropical island.

São Tomé e Principe - Facts and Factoids

  • The official name of the country is the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe.
  • São Tomé e Principe is the 172nd largest country in the world in terms of land area with 964 square kilometres (372 square miles) and the second smallest country in Africa.
  • Cocoa represents about 95% of agricultural exports and I'm told that the chocolate is world-renowned.
  • The official language is Portuguese.

A Very Brief History of São Tomé e Principe

The islands were reportedly uninhabited at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese sometime between 1469 and 1471. The Portuguese brought Jews to settle first but most of them died. Gradually colonised and settled by the Portuguese throughout the 16th century, the islands collectively served as a vital commercial and trade centre for the Atlantic slave trade. Cycles of social unrest and economic instability throughout the 19th and 20th centuries culminated in peaceful independence in 1975.

Is São Tomé e Principe Safe to Visit?

São Tomé is a surprise. It's well geared up for tourists and there are some very nice hotels and restaurants. Crime rates are low.

Is São Tomé e Principe a Poor Country?

  • The economy of São Tomé e Principe, whilst traditionally dependent on cocoa, is experiencing considerable change due to the development of its oil industry in the oil-rich waters of the Gulf of Guinea.
  • However, currently, infrastructure is poor and there are few natural resources, Much of the population depends on the cocoa industry for employment. Demand here has slowed - the quality of the product is not always good enough, despite boasts to the contrary. As a result, over half the population lives below the poverty line.

What to See and Do in São Tomé e Principe?

I'm exploring both the east coast and west coast of São Tomé island separately - you can't get all the way round.

There are beaches, fishing villages, colonial buildings waterfalls and national parks to explore, as well as a Jurassic Park style Volcanic plug tower. There's some surprisingly good accommodation, converted Plantation Houses and modern hotels and some very up market food. And chocolate...

There's also a five star resort on Principe that has good reviews - next time.....

Getting In and Out of São Tomé

I flew in from Luanda. I'm flying to Gabon this afternoon on Afrijet. No visa required. In his inimitable style guide Agostinho has told me that their planes are old, only hold about 20 people and are often overbooked. In the event it’s an ATR that is nowhere near full and has capacity for 66. Perhaps I should take everything else he has told me about São Tomé with a pinch of salt.

The Road to São João dos Angolares

We’ve almost done a Round the Island of São Tomé Tour, from the far side of the south west to the far side of the south east and reached São João des Angolenes (there’s no linking road through the south). The islanders believe there were indigenous people here (the Angolenes), when the Portuguese appeared, though the Portuguese claim the island was uninhabited - they arrived in the north.

Roca Agostinho Neto -Cocoa Plantations on São Tomé

Driver Wagner has dressed up for the day, military style, in his old army beret, which attracts much attention from the children who come running to meet us at each stop. They gather round staring into the car and then sycophantically hand me flowers, smile and pose for photos. I fall for this scam the first time, when we visit the old cocoa plantation at Roca Agostinho Neto (named after the first president of Angola) and I buy them all lollipops. (I’m being a very bad tourist this trip.) They all lose interest the second they’ve laid hands on the goodies. Two boys are enterprisingly playing draughts with bottle tops, turned up or not turned to denote the two colours.

The old plantation is huge. It was once the the grandest plantation on the island. The Portuguese word for plantation or farm is roca and these rocas were often grand affairs containing whole villages and a hospital. The pink and decaying hospital here is huge (there's a museum inside now) with a grand entrance. It now leads to a squatter village of nearly 5000 people including the adroitly begging children. As Lonely Planet says, 'Agostinho Neto is now the grandest symbol of its decline' and is typical of many of the old plantations.

The Chocolate Islands

Agostinho has plenty of tales about the bad behaviour of the Portuguese owners of the various plantations and their cruelty; they’ve been immortalised in place names such as Wicked Person Bay. An alternative name for Sao Tome e Principe itself is The Chocolate Islands. They boast that this is the best chocolate in the world. The good news is that the industry is now being revived via several ecotourism projects.

Agua Eize, São Tomé

The old roca mansions scattered over the countryside are fascinating, with their shabby chic peeling cement arches. The most interesting halt is at Agua Eize, where there is a whole village of at least a century old and still charming (through probably very uncomfortable) painted wooden workers' houses, still inhabited by the locals. The cobbled streets lead up to the remains of another once very magnificent hospital. This one is complete with ornate staircase entrance; the smaller hospital for the local  population is still to be found on the hillside behind it.

A Gourmet Converted Sugar Plantation House Restaurant

I’m staying in a converted sugar plantation house at São João dos Angolares. It’s not quite as grand as those in the USA or St Kitts, (hot water is elusive) but it’s been very nicely done out with wooden floors and periwinkle louvred doors and plenty of nick-knacks. And the dining room certainly has pretensions with its open kitchen and views across the bay. There are Philip Jackson style sculptured figures in the gardens and a gallery stuffed with modern art.

I’m eating lunch with an African tasting menu that has so many courses I’ve lost count. It’s all blobs of tuna and mango and baked banana with bacon. As well as chocolate, of course. The dishes are so tiny I fear I may still be hungry by the end, but the waiters keep on coming and  I’m almost replete when they're done. And then, as guide Agostinho explains, we get proper lunch – beans, rice and more fish. And two more desserts. I think I’ve already had four, but I’m not sure what counts as which.

I escaped the worst of the rain today, but it’s poured down all afternoon and shows no sign of ceasing in the evening. It could have been worse. It’s the end of the wet season (Agostinho says the rainy season lasts until the end of May and he seems to be expecting it to cease entirely on June 1st) and the forecast said it was going to rain every day. Agostinho also says it rains a lot more in this area. The veranda that serves as the restaurant would be gloomy if it wasn’t atmospherically lit by candles. The bats have followed me. They’re swooping overhead as I eat my dinner.

Pico Cão Grande

Agostinho turns up at eleven this morning. He says that’s plenty of time for the tour of the capital I still haven’t had. Admittedly I hijack the tour at that point by asking if I can see the Pico Cão Grande.  I’ve seen pictures which suggest it shouldn’t be missed. It’s a 30 minute detour further south but Agostinho says that’s no problem. It’s worth the trip,  a landmark needle-shaped volcanic plug peak that erupts from the jungle, rising dramatically over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, and is crowned with cloud, like something in a science fiction film.

São Tomé Town

Wagner drives back to São Tomé  town at leisurely speed and then it’s time for our fish restaurant looking over the bay lunch. Again, they both take their time eating and enjoying themselves until I tap my watch. I finally get a whistle stop tour of the capital’s crumbling charms. The Portuguese founded the city in 1485, and São Tomé still retains much of its original flavour.

There are villas with peeling walls, four hundred year old churches, the pink president’s palace is a smaller version of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, no photos allowed I’m told - too late), the heavily renovated in the last century cathedral, a couple of Art Deco buildings and monuments and two bustling and adjacent markets, one colonial and jam packed, one of Taiwanese concrete construction ( the Taiwanese have now been ousted as a presence in the country by the Chinese ). There's even a sprinkling of Art Deco.

Finally, São Sebastião Fortaleza, a museum combined, at the entrance to the port. It contains both religious art and colonial-era artefacts and is decorated with those blue and white azulejos. We emerge to find married Wagner flirting shamelessly with an attractive lady on the street corner. Now I know why he sports the beret.

Next stop, Libreville and Gabon.

The West Coast -Guadalupe and Morro Peixe Beach, São Tomé

The sand is squishy and rock strewn, so my hike along a string of beaches is hard work, even though they are beautiful. They’re fringed with palm trees, fishermen in overcrowded boats are casting their nets in the small bays, pursuing shoals of sardines,and at least twenty falcons are wheeling, after the same prey. It hasn’t helped that it’s rained all night, so the humidity is super high, as you would expect - São Tomé straddles the Equator, and I didn’t get to bed till two in the morning after my late flight.

And I’m not prepared. I flew in from Luanda yesterday. The itinerary said exploration of the small capital, followed by a tour of the west coast. Nothing was said about walking, so I thought I’d aim for semi-elegance, for a change, and I wore a dress and flip flops. They’re not ideal for clambering over boulders. My guide, Agostinho says we’re visiting the city at the end of my trip. This is still Africa.

So the town of Guadalupe and then the beaches, most notably the stretch of sand at Morro Peixe Beach. Agostinho is relentlessly chirpy and a mine of inaccurate and irrelevant information. He doesn’t like to say if he can’t understand me, so he just says ‘Yes’ and carries on talking, at breakneck speed, so it’s hard to follow his broken and thickly accented English. Attempting to cover all bases he occasionally doubles his nouns. ‘That ship - boat sank delivering Chinese cargo’. ‘That’s a mosque - church over there. ‘

Lagoa Azul, Sao Tome

Wagner is driving and they’ve brought a picnic lunch, which we are eating by the tourist hot spot - the crystal clear Lagoa Azul (Blue Lagoon). I’ve been for a swim, which at least has cooled me down, and I’m drying off, sitting on a creaky old boat under a baobab. The ants have already found me. And my hair is a yellow ball of frizz.

Mucumbli Ecolodge

Spoth west, past sixteenth century churches and ramshackle colonial houses on stilts to my lodge. My bungalow is beautifully appointed (as they say), has a view out to the sea in the west and I’m sharing it with some tiny crabs and more ants. Tiny blue birds flutter in the banana plants. The information booklet says there are snakes around, but not to worry. They’re harmless.

Obo National Park - an African Assault Course

I’m sitting on a pile of sawn logs waiting for Agostinho and Wagner. There are flies buzzing all around me - I’ve tied my cagoule round my ankles to keep off the worst of the mosquitoes - and I’m muddy and wet. I was expecting a walk today, as the itinerary said I was hiking in the primary forest of the Obo National Park and visiting a pretty waterfall - Cascata Sao Nicolau. It didn’t say anything about slippy steep uphill paths or wading through six tunnels in water a metre deep, while bats dive bomb me. It’s an African assault course. It would be ideal for I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

Agostinhoe’s idea of motivation is to maintain a constant distance of 20 metres in front, never stopping so I can catch up or rest. Though it’s probably safer to keep a distance, as he’s happily slashing away at the undergrowth with his machete. Occasionally he uses it to point at birds I can’t see, way up in the canopy, instead. Flycatchers and orioles and the odd distant monkey. Cloud sits on top of the trees Jurassic Park like. Piri piri is growing wild across the path and heaps of giant African snail shells line the way. The locals suck out the snails live and toss away the remains of their feast.

Braving the Bats

‘Many bats in this one, Agostinho says encouragingly, as we approach the fourth tunnel. We’re following the water channel down from the top of the mountain, after climbing up to the waterfall. It’s covered with old paving slabs between tunnels, many of them rickety booby traps. ‘Careful ‘, warns Agostinho unnecessarily, each time I approach a gap.

When we get to the top Agostinho offers me the choice of going on further and then returning via the way we came, or descending using the tunnels. ‘I will call the driver to meet us as we will arrive at a different point to where we left him,’ he says. He doesn’t tell me how long the tunnels are or how deep the water is. You can’t even see the light at the end of some of them. I’ve borrowed some plastic shoes from the lodge to wear while wading (Agostinho told me there would be a few metres of water) and I’m using my phone torch to light the way, trying not to think about what else might be lurking in the chilly depths.

Alone in the Jungle

I’m not wildly keen on sitting alone in the jungle - too many noises to feed the imagination. But I rebelled when we arrived at what I thought was the end of my overland trial and Agostinho said he couldn’t reach Wagner on the phone; he probably didn’t have a signal. He said it was another 30 minutes’ walk back to base camp, and I've learned to at least double Agostinho's time estimates, so I sent him off to find the car on his own.

The track up and back follows the old colonial road through the cocoa plantations. There are decrepit plantation houses and the way is still cobbled at times. At others it’s just a muddy track.

Santa Catarina, São Tomé

Back on the tarmac (of sorts) we drive as far south as the road goes this side of the island,. It's a scenic route by the sea and through a tunnel, to a winding fishing village hugging the shore. A long line of sacking sails flutter. The houses, all at sea level and perilously close to the water are a motley assortment of wooden shacks. Most of the villagers are on the streets and we’re getting a mixed welcome. They’re still unused to tourists.

Next, the East Coast of Sao Tome.

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