Over the last month a collection of personal reasons and professional opportunities have conspired to make it worthwhile for me to travel back to Europe for a short break.
This was never part of the original plan. I always expected to be out here for 12 months straight. However, there were a couple of opportunities that were too good to miss, so I started to make plans to travel back to Europe for a couple of weeks.
The following saga has become another reminder of how isolated we are here and how “nothing is straightforward”.
Options for getting to/from Bayanga are limited. You need to get to either Yaoundé (Cameroon) or Bangui (CAR). Yaoundé is a considerably better option, as it is much safer. For transport, you’ve got two options, charter a plane (which if you do it alone, costs over €2,500) or hire a car and a driver (around €500).
Car and driver were not an option for me because my Cameroonian visa had expired. A flight would be fine, because I could land at Yaoundé airport from Bayanga, have a flight booked to Europe from the same airport for later the same day, and stay airside the whole time without a visa.
Initially, I got lucky. There was already a plane chartered for Tuesday 9th February, there was a spare seat (for €600), so I took it and then booked a flight out of Yaoundé to Europe for the early hours of the next morning. All looked positive.
Then on the 4th February, I discovered that the flight on the 9th had been cancelled. This left me with a BIG problem. I couldn’t hire a car and go by land to Yaoundé (because I didn’t have a visa) and I couldn’t afford to hire a plane on my own. What to do?
If I wanted to get to Europe on schedule, my only option was to reroute my flight and to Bangui. There were no planes scheduled, so I had to hire a car and a driver.
You might have seen me write before, that “CAR is a dangerous country”, that governments “advise against all travel” (to all parts of the country), and that down in the southwest corner we are “in the only bit which is relatively safe”. I was about to go against all my previous knowledge and advice (including what I wrote in the previous blog post!).
Since the crisis in 2013, the WWF do not actually allow their staff to travel by road. There is a total ban. In fact, to start with I didn’t know of anyone who had made the journey recently, but I discovered that a Catholic missionary had made the journey a month ago without any problems, so this gave me some confidence.
Someone has to be “first” from WWF, so I decided to go ahead with the plan to drive and reroute my plane to fly out of Bangui.
I can report that after 500 km and 14 hours of bone-rattling, stomach-churning, gruelling 4×4 travel, I have arrived safely in Bangui. We faced down 17 different police / gendarmerie / army checkpoints, but had surprisingly little hassle.It was a fascinating journey. I have been to 18 countries in Africa and to plenty of remote, rural, African places, but I have never seen anything like the poverty I saw yesterday. This is an incredibly, almost unimaginably, poor country. We passed two towns, in which there was a little more wealth, but the vast majority of human settlements were small villages. There was almost zero evidence of local economic activity: no basic shops, no stalls, very few examples of people selling things outside their houses, no adverts, no market places. Until we reached Bangui, all of the buildings were made of sticks, leaves and mud. Just one-room houses, basic churches and the occasional school.
People here are living the most basic “subsistence” lifestyle that you can imagine. They own the clothes on their back, a few pots and pans for cooking and perhaps a tool or two for working the land. That’s it.
Some people were moving around by push-bike or by motorcycle (I saw five people on one moto at one point!), but there were very few other cars. A few UN vehicles and a handful of aid organisations. I didn’t see a white face all day.
Logging trucks were the biggest example of economic activity. Huge vehicles, somehow negotiating the single lane dirt tracks, all heading west, presumably to Cameroon and then onwards to a sea port. The evidence of the exploitation of the forests.
It is dry season, so there was a fair bit of dust and haze, but there were still a few sections when we emerged out of the forest where we were given expansive views of beautiful rainforest and wooded savannah landscapes. One day, perhaps, this country could easily be a top destination in Africa based on the beauty I saw yesterday.
From what I saw of Bangui last night, it is a little less beautiful than the rural areas (!). Though this is not surprising, there are very few African capitals that are not hot, dusty, dirty, smelly and chaotic.
I am staying in a simple hotel near the centre. The security man assures me that it is safe to walk around the streets during the day. I don’t fly out for 48 hours, so I have a little bit of time to get to grips with Bangui.
My Bangui journey in numbers
2,000 – the amount of money in Euros that I had stuffed into my right sock (for safe-keeping in case I was mugged).
513 – total distance travelled in km (320 miles).
37 – the temperature in Celsius in the car during the middle of the day.
36 – average speed in km/hour (22 mph).
17 – army, police, gendarme and “unofficial” check points.
14 – hours and 5 mins, total journey time.
12 – until we reached Bangui, this was the number of other cars or trucks passed on the road (6 were logging trucks, 4 were UN cars).
1.67 – (incredibly) the tiny amount (in Euros) that I managed to get away with paying in “bribes”.
0 – the number of functioning seat belts / air con units / radios in the car, also the number of white people I saw all day.