November 2016: As is the case with a lot of my trip ideas, my visit to Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea was inspired by a National Geographic magazine article I read about the Gran Caldera, a mountainous wilderness of rainforest that is so remote and challenging to reach that the drills, hunting to near extinction in other parts of Africa, exhibit very little fear towards humans. In a country considered one of the most authoritarian with one of the lowest human rights rankings in the world, I set off to visit the wilderness of the Gran Caldera region and weirdly enough the best way for me to do so was via an American University, Drexel University, that runs the science and conservation program for the Luba Crater Scientific Reserve, a vast region of rainforest and coastline in western Bioko Island. This is the story of my week-long journey in Bioko Island.

 

 

About Equatorial Guinea

Location of Reserve on Bioko island

Equatorial Guinea, an ex-Spanish colony in equatorial Africa is one of the only Spanish speaking countries in Africa besides Western Sahara. The country is divided geographically between a section on mainland Africa and on Bioko Island. The country is run by President/dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who is the world’s longest standing leader of any country. Obiang has maintained his power due to the billions of dollars that his country receives every year from oil exports, mostly to the USA.  The majority of this money enriches Obiang, his family and other top government officials and very little of this wealth trickles down to the country’s citizens leaving Equatorial Guinea one of the poorest countries in the world. Any dissent is ruthlessly cracked down upon and political opposition is non-existent.  Another way Obiang maintains his grip on power is to let very few foreigners into the country that might otherwise observe the human rights atrocities his government is committing and with the huge amount of oil wealth the country receives, it just doesn’t need tourism. For this reason and because of its paranoia regarding attempted foreigner led coups in the past, the country has earned the reputation as being one of the most challenging places for foreigners to visit in the world. For most nationalities, with the exception of Americans that do not require a visa because of the involvement of American oil companies working in Equatorial Guinea, the visa is near impossible to obtain. The country just doesn’t have a favorable impression of foreigners, especially on the mainland. Difficulty in obtaining permits, corrupt abusive policemen, and permits restricting travel throughout the country all help to rule out Equatorial Guinea as a desirable vacation destination for most with the exception of the most adventurous travelers.

 

An Obiang Poster-Commonly Displayed throughout Bioko Island when I was there

Getting There

Drexler University has been invited by the government to help study and promote ideas to protect the reserve and all of Drexler’s funding comes from Exxon, the American oil company giant that drills in Equatorial Guinea. Drexler is a guest of the government and must follow all permit protocols and there are many. I wanted to hike the gran caldera, a dormant volcano crater with rainforest so remote that its primate populations are un-accosted by humans and exhibit little fear. The only problem is that permit is virtually impossible to obtain by the government to visit the caldera and to visit I would need to tag along with a scientific expedition from Drexler University and there were none planned.   Instead, I was able to convince the field manager of the conservation program for the Reserve to let me join a team of scientists living in the reserve in remote field camps where they are studying primate such as drills and nesting sea turtles. My selling point to let the field manager let me join the researchers was that I can provide insight into establishing ecotourism, which can further aid in the conservation of the reserve. Up until my visit, tourism was non-existent, and I felt like there was a lot of potential that could also benefit local communities and create an alternative to hunting bushmeat. The window to visit the reserve was only a few months from late November until March-the short dry season when it still rains a lot but just not in Noah’s Arc proportions like it does during the rest of the year. My permits were arranged by the university along with transportation and I was responsible for bringing my camping gear and food.

My friend Charlie and I flew from Gabon via Douala, Cameroon to Malabo, Bioko Island. The flight from Douala to Malabo was via a Boeing 777 connecting from Addis Ababa. The plane was ridiculously large for the short 45-minute flight and had very few passengers. In immigration, I expected draconian treatment from power hungry immigration officials, who I had been told might seize my SLR camera if they spotted it, so I disassembled it and spread it out throughout my backpack to conceal it. To my surprise, once the officials observed my American passport, they stamped me with no extra scrutiny. It was as if, they had been given order to treat Americans well given most of the oil infrastructure in the country was being provided by American oil companies and politicians have mostly turned a blind eye to the human rights violations of the Obiang regime because of this. We met the Drexler field supervisor at the airport, and we headed straight to the west side of the island passing through several checkpoints where our permits were checked by military personal before arriving in the Moka camp cloud forest reserve, where the headquarters of the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program is located.

 

Moka Reserve

Moka Reserve is located in the cloud forest near a few rustic villages. Since the elevation was high, the temperature was quite cold at night. We slept in tents and met some of the rangers and American scientists, with PHD’s that were living on Bioko and working for Drexler University. One of the scientists mentioned he saw a bush baby the previous night, and I quickly jumped up and excitedly asked where. He offered to show me, so we hiked through the cloud forest at night and saw all kinds of interesting nocturnal animals. We saw chameleons and at least 10 bush babies which were not easy to photograph in the dark especially since they could leap dozens of feet into the air as soon as they spotted us.

Bushbaby that was camera shy

Huge foot long chemelion. 

Moaba Camp

We were dropped off at the end of road with a few scientists who were just arriving to their research base to start their season, and a ranger, who we paid the daily stipend to. The ranger led Charlie and I for approx. 3-5 hours along the jungle clad beach, crossing several streams and river to Moaba camp, where a group of scientists were living in a camp that was tucked away into the jungle along the beach. The heat and humidity were unbearable, and I wanted to cool off but the waves breaking along the beach were too big and dangerous looking for any swimming. When we reached the camp, we set up our tents soaked in sweat and covered in sand flea bites. Then one of the scientists asked if we wanted to cool off in the waterfall. before they could complete that sentence, we were heading over to the waterfall for a swim. less than 20 minutes’ walk from our camp was one of most beautiful and wild waterfalls that I had ever seen and one of the scientists explained that sometimes drills come down from the mountain to drink from the water. The waterfall was so refreshing, and I swam under the falls and spent hours in the water every day for the two days that we spent camping at Moaba Camp.

Hiking to Moaba Camp

Beach waterfall on our hike to Moaba Camp

Lava Formations on Beach

Another beach waterfall

Ocean at Moaba Camp

Our camp at Moaba Camp

My little slice of heaven at Moaba Campin the Waterfall

My little slice of heaven at Moaba Campin the Waterfall

Hermit crab on the beach

Moaba Camp is deep in the reserve and there is nothing but dozens of miles of mountain and lowland rainforest and pristine coastline in all directions. There are no villages, and it is just wild countryside. The volcanic beaches lined with piled of exotic rainforest driftwood are wild and the beach is crawling with hermit crabs. it is not the kind of beach to lounge around and suntan in.

Driftwood on the beach at Moaba Camp

There was a full moon and seaturtle nesting season that coincided with our visit. The scintists were stydying the turtles, which were mostly Green turtles along the beach by Moaba Camp. We walked under the full moon with no flash lights looking for sea turtles and spotted a few  that woukd immeditely start making their way to the ocean once spotting us so we decided to give them their distance to allow them to finish burying their eggs. Walking the humid moonlit beaches along the jungle at night looking for sea turtles was a highlight of my African travels. We were in a real wilderness in a tropical island in the Gulf of Guinea and this was one of those moments in life when I felt like I was in my element and extremely fortunate to have such an opportunity. 

Hiking the beach looking for sea turtles nesting under the full moon at Moaba Camp

Moraka Camp

After two nights in Moaba Camp, we made the all-day hike to Moraka Camp, another research camp with American scientists situated in the wilderness at the foot of the Gran Caldera that is the last camp before hiking to the Caldera. Moraka Camp was even wilder than Moaba and there was an increased opportunity of seeing monkeys and drills along with the world’s largest sea turtle, the leatherback nesting on the nearby beaches. The rare Pennant’s Red Colobus is common in the trees near camp and the researchers commonly see drills too that sometimes-sneak into camp and steal food.  I was excited by this, but we definitely had to earn the opportunity. We hiked all day along the beach and had to time our hike around the tides that could make the hike impossible during high tide in some parts where we had to cross rivers that would have been too high to cross or full of dangerous bull sharks during high tide. We also climbed up and over jungle clad hills via challenging trails that were overgrown by vines and roots. We were led by a Spanish speaking ranger, and we carried all of our packs and were just covered in sweat in the extreme humidity. on occasion we came across a random group of fishermen that were huddled around a cooking fire on the beach. We would stop briefly and visit them. One elderly fishing man missing most of his teeth and wearing nothing but rags who told his he lives in a village outside of the reserve asked us where we were from and when we said America, he replied oh President trump and laughed. he then said you can’t trust the rich and snickered some more. The election had just happened only a few weeks before the trip and I was surprised that this little old man from a remote village would even know or care about President Trump but in my experience of traveling the world, I had come to realize that most people of the developing world despite not even having electricity often seemed to have more awareness of the world around them than the typical American.

Hiking to Moraka Camp

Arriving to Moraka Camp, we just collapsed in exhaustion. The scientists there were surprised to see us but were very kind and accommodating to our presence, short of sharing their most prized food items such as cheese.

Moraka Camp

Volcanic beaches at Moraka

We spent two nights in Moraka camp. The researchers showed us around camp, where the best freshwater swimming hole is, a deep clear spring with colorful river fish which had a view of the ocean and was almost as nice as the waterfall in Moaba Camp. If we had more time, one of the researchers offered to take us to a waterfall deep in the jungle with a great swimming hole. The researchers brought me with them when they were doing their daily count of primates in the area. We saw tracks of drills but no drills, but we did see several other rare primates.

The western side of Bioko Island is known for a large amount of rainfall and up until reaching Moraka Camp, we had been lucky by not having any rain in Bioko. But on one of the nights while sleeping in our tent, it poured and thundered. The pounding of rain and crashing and flashing of thunder and lightning at nights from our tents was terrifying and I half expected a tree to fall on our tent or worse the tent to be hit by lightning. In the morning we awoke to find our camp flooded but the puddles were quick to subside.

Primate unique to Bioko

Moraka Beaches

Storm Coming

Seeing the Giant Leatherback Sea Turtles Nesting-A Wildlife Watching Highlight 

from Moraka Camp, I joined the researchers on one of their nightly counts of the nesting sea turtles. The primary beach where the turtle’s nest is located about an hour away from the camp and the beach is approx. a mile long.  The beach is one of the best nesting sites for leatherbacks in the world and a majority of them visit Bioko Island. The researchers explained to me that every turtle that hatches from a beach no matter how far they venture into the ocean, and they can venture thousands of miles away in pursuit of mates and food, they all will eventually return to the beach where they were born to lay their own eggs someday.  Why they do this is a mystery and how they navigate is also a mystery. A researcher is present at the beach 24 hours a day during the nesting season night and day, rain or shine and the researcher’s rotate shifts. Their presence is to both conduct research and ward off poaching fisherman and they are usually accompanied by a ranger but not always. Poachers are not common on the beach however, but it doesn’t take much to really devastate the turtle nests.

When the researchers and I arrived at the nesting beach under the full moon, we didn’t need our flashlights. We instantly saw tracks along the beach of sea turtles and followed some to a few giant green turtles. The Green turtles lay their eggs in the beach near the jungle line and have to travel further up the sand. Sometimes these turtles get stuck in the trees near the edge of the beach and die. We found one that was stuck between two giant gnarled tree roots and the researchers, and I dug the turtle out from the sand and pulled its hulking frame that was in excess of 200 pounds from the tree while it hissed and kicked at its with the sharp dagger like talons on its feet. We managed to get it free, and it turned around and retreated to the sea.

The highlight no doubt was seeing a few Leatherbacks turtles nesting, the world’s largest turtles and relics of the dinosaur era. They are 3times bigger than humans and are just amazing to look at because of their reptilian like features. They only lay eggs a few dozen feet into the beach to reduce their time on land and we spotted a few while in the moment of laying eggs. Once they start laying eggs there are very vulnerable and they do not retreat or attempt to defend themselves. While they lay eggs one of the researchers explained, they are in a kind of state of euphoria and oblivious to their surrounding for the 10 or so minutes it takes them to lay their eggs. The researchers took the giant turtles’ measurements, and I took a few photos without flash because the flash disturbs them, and I was asked by the researchers to avoid doing so.

The researchers and I stayed on the beach to midnight counting turtles and one time I stayed behind and sat on the beach with a turtle by myself while the researchers went ahead, and I just sat there in silence with the giant turtle under the full moon listening to the soothing lapping of the waves. The turtle as long as I remained motionless didn’t seem to mind me.

 

Hike to the remote beaches near Moraka to see the nesting sea turtles

Scienitst taking measurements of a nesting Leatherback Sea Turtle

Leatherback sea turtle

After two nights in Moraka camp, we made the long hike back to the road barely getting out before the tide rose too high and we met our transportation at the road after hiking a mile or so up the road to a nearby village where there was cell phone reception so we could call and announce our arrival. We drove all the way back to Malabo passing a few faded, decaying old Spanish colonial towns and military checkpoints. We spent one night in Malabo at a research dormitory and had a big dinner with at a local restaurant at a fancy restaurant with the research director and other researchers from Drexler and provided them some eco-tourism ideas. The next morning, we flew from Malabo back to Gabon to resume our travels in Gabon.

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