x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Equatorial Guinea: border closed, entry denied

Around Africa: Scott MacMillan attempts to cross the border to Equatorial Guinea.

Life was getting too comfortable on the beach in southern Cameroon. I sheepishly asked Roger and Luke, my travelling companions, "Would you guys be offended if I went to Equatorial Guinea?"

Not at all, not at all, they both insisted, with British politeness. I was loath to break up our little group, and I knew they couldn't come. "I'll meet up with you in Gabon, then, with a detailed report," I said.

A bit of background is called for. In the anthology Tales from Nowhere, Simon Winchester, the British author, recalls a pub discussion in which he and his fellow foreign correspondents sought to determine "the worst country in the world". After much consideration, they eventually landed on Equatorial Guinea, a land of no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The editor of the Sunday Times overheard the conversation and promptly dispatched Winchester to do a write-up on the place. He slept in a warehouse on sacks of rotten beans for six weeks before returning to London to be hospitalised with a rare and dangerous strain of malaria.

Granted, this was the 1970s, and Equatorial Guinea may have become marginally less wretched since then. Vast reservoirs of oil were discovered in the 1990s, just in time to cash in on the coming oil boom. But reports still describe a country where most live in dire poverty and, on a continent known for noxious and despotic regimes, the presidency of Teodoro Obiang is often ranked among the worst.

And for some bizarre reason, US citizens (of which I'm one), unique among all nationalities, don't require a visa to enter Equatorial Guinea. For Roger and Luke, a visa would have required a letter of clearance from the British High Commission in Yaoundé - and even then, a week's wait. It was too much.

Meanwhile, other circumstances were conspiring against us as a group. Luke suddenly announced he had to return to London for a family emergency. He promised to return to Cameroon within 10 days and pick up the trail where he left off, catching up with Roger and me on our journey south.

I spent a day going to Douala, Cameroon's bustling port city, seeing Luke off to the airport, snapping some photos of the port from a hotel terrace and then promptly returning to our beach-side base in Kribi. Douala's disreputable charm showed a face of Cameroon I hadn't seen before and, moreover, the trip gave me time to review my plan.

A dirt road from Kribi goes down the coast to a place called Campo, where a boat crosses to Equatorial Guinea. Intelligence on the ground in Kribi said this border crossing was open. In a day, I could probably reach the town of Mbini, described by Lonely Planet as a good place for pirogue trips, hikes to waterfalls and reasonably priced hotels.

From there, I could certainly reach the Gabon border in a day, probably staying at an enticing place called Cocobeach before rendezvousing with Roger in Lambaréné, the peaceful riverside town that Albert Schweitzer called home.

Sadly - and who knows, perhaps it's for the better - my trip to Equatorial Guinea wasn't meant to be. I reached the other side of the Campo River on a wooden ferry operated by a hustler named Rocky, only to find an epauletted official whose only words of English were: "Border closed." He crossed his arms in an "X" to make the point. There was no negotiating.

"Let's go," said Rocky. No wonder he'd been holding on to my change; he knew I'd be coming right back, so I'd have to pay him double. Entering Equatorial Guinea at the main crossing, miles inland, would add days to my schedule, so I gave up and took off in hot pursuit of Roger, already well on his way to Gabon.

I waited the entire next day for the only east-bound transport to leave Kribi in the afternoon. On a road that at times had the consistency of viscous clay, I shared the front seat of a decrepit minibus with a man named Ntimbane Didier. "Travelling like this must be very uncomfortable for you," Ntimbane said during a rest stop. "Isn't it?"

It was late at night by now, at a village pub deep in the rain forest. Granted, the ride wasn't exactly smooth, but this was the first time since Ghana that I'd been travelling on my own, and I was relishing it.

I searched for something Yoda-like to tell Ntimbane until I remembered my favourite quote from Autobiography of a Yogi: "Everything on earth is of mixed character, like a mingling of sand and sugar. Be like the wise ant which seizes only the sugar, and leaves the sand untouched."

He nodded. "Why don't you wear comfortable shoes?" he asked.

"These?" I looked down at the US$2 (Dh7.3) flip-flips I'd bought in Mali and told the truth. "I think these might be the most comfortable shoes I've ever owned."

He burst out laughing. "No, no, no," he said, shaking his head. "I like this conversation."

As did I. It's not that you have to seek out wretchedness, like a thrill-seeking journalist, to make the most of your experience, but you do have to overlook it sometimes. The worst country in the world might have been great, but this pub in the jungle was even better.

Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com