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All images © David W. Bennett

 
 

This article first appeared in Lonely Planet, "Africa on a Shoestring"

TOURIST VISA NO. 001

by David W. Bennett

I knew that Equatorial Guinea was off the beaten track, but I didn't fully realize the remoteness of the place until I looked down at my freshly stamped passport. I had just been issued Tourist Visa No. 001.

Actually my presence in the country was quite accidental. My original intention was to travel overland from Cameroon to Gabon, bypassing Equatorial Guinea. Upon my arrival in Cameroon, however, the authorities insisted that I purchase an onward air ticket. Financial considerations and my southward destination made me decide to take the weekly flight to the Guinean town of Bata. My map showed it to be a mere 125 kms by road from the Gabonese border.

My outdated guide book described Bata as a thriving commercial centre with a population of some 30,000 people. I knew, of course, that things had probably changed. Six months earlier, a coup had deposed President Macias Nguema, one of Africa's most tyrannical dictators. During his 10 year rule, many people disappeared, the country's economy collapsed, and half the population was forced to flee. This information didn't fully prepare me for what I found. The centre of Bata was a virtual ghost town. The handsome Spanish colonial buildings were boarded up, and the well maintained streets were empty of both people and vehicles. I surmised that the refugees had little reason to return here from the relative prosperity of Cameroon or Gabon.

This conclusion did nothing to alleviate my present predicament, however. Knowing there to be no flights, I resigned myself to the possibility to having to walk to Gabon. After about half an hour, I was surprised to come upon an apparently well-populated thatched suburb. I say surprised, but after travelling in Africa for a while, nothing seems that surprising. I, therefore, did not find it strange to hear the sound of a fifteen year old Beatles recording blaring from a large thatched building. Nor did I find it that strange to enter the building and find a well-stocked bar and about one hundred dancing patrons, eighty of whom were young women. I am sure the most bizarre event to occur that day was the entrance of a lone white man, with a bag strapped to his back.

In any case, I settled down to enjoy a few beers, answer curious questions and gather more information. Amidst many offers of overnight accommodation, I was able to ascertain that a vehicle would be making its weekly journey to Acalayong, the southernmost town, the very next day

The next morning, a decrepit pickup truck did, indeed, turn up. I thankfully scrambled into the back with sacks of grain, baskets of live chickens and about fifteen other passengers. Apart from one small village, there was very little to see during the eight hour journey. The road was in deplorable condition, practically swallowed up by the dense jungle which closed in tightly on both sides. By the time the truck wheezed into Acalayong, I was alone, my fellow passengers having disappeared into the bush along the way.

Acalayong consisted of thirty huts huddled on the shore of a broad estuary.  At the shallow water's edge was beached   a flotilla, of hollowed-out log canoes; some sporting outboard motors. After intense bargaining, one of the owners agreed to take me across the estuary to Gabon. Soon, we were under way, skimming over the water which occasionally surged over the prow of the low sitting canoe.

We must have travelled a good three hours before the engine sputtered to a halt. The estuary had widened considerably at this point and the change in water colour indicated that we were geographically in the Atlantic Ocean. Apart from a few nearby islets, land appeared to be very far away indeed. I was, therefore, greatly relieved when the current carried us to one of these islets, rather than out to sea.

To be truthful, when we landed, I really was surprised. There was a village on this ½ sq. km. dot of land, and I was surely the first traveller to ever visit it. Not only that, but the friendly villagers considered me to be an honoured guest who had obviously come there to settle. By nightfall, a reed hut had been constructed for me to live in. Then I, and the entire village sat down to a feast of grilled fish, manioc and copious quantities of palm wine. This was followed by dancing, drumming, and drinking long into the night. It was very late when I finally staggered to my hut and I did not have the inclination to reflect on my onward journey. Were I feeling romantic, I may have conjured up a multitude of exotic, Robinson Crusoe-style scenarios. But sleep intervened and I awoke to the reality of a buzzing outboard motor. And so it was, with the entire village enthusiastically waving farewell, that the possessor of Tourist Visa No. 001 finally departed Equatorial Guinea.

David W. Bennett © 1985 - 2000