Equatorial Guinea’s ecotourism is even
more valuable than its oil.
Scratch, rasp, scratch, swoosh! The eerie, foreign sound awoke me from a deep sleep within my tent on the edge of the equatorial jungle, the sound standing out distinctly above the symphony of loud, crashing waves and the ceaseless singing of cicadas a few meters away. What was that?, I thought, sitting up.
There it came again. Exiting my tent into the moonless night, I switched on my head torch and searched out the source of the sound, my heart racing. The sound grew louder, and then suddenly, movement. Down on the beach. Yes. Something dark was digging among the stones. And sand, sand was being flicked onto dry jungle leaves. My heart beat a bit faster as I took a few steps closer and discovered, finally, a turtle.
A giant Atlantic Green turtle, almost as big as a double bed, worked meticulously before me, digging and dislodging stones, sticks, and sand in order to dig out a nest and lay 80-100 eggs on the edge of the equatorial jungle — the same stretch of beach where she was born many years ago.
How they know where to return after years at sea; how they know to safeguard their eggs from predators by digging two false holes and then a third one true; and how they even know how and where to dig are all questions scientist can only guess. But here they come in scores; Atlantic Green, Hawksbill, Leatherback and Olive Ridley, year after year during the dry season between September and April, and peaking in January to lay their eggs and complete the cycle of life as they have done for eons. This is why I had come to visit Equatorial Guinea; this is what makes Bioko Island so special.
Bridging the gulf
Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. Where the wild things are . . . for now. The name alone conjures up mental pictures of an exotic land, with jungles and the open wild beckoning the adventurous. With giant beach-laying turtles, volcanic islands and endemic primates, Equatorial Guinea is all of that and much, much more. Wedged in the armpit of Africa, sitting just 32 kilometers off the west coast across from Cameroon in the Gulf of Guinea, the country is one of the most biologically significant in all of Africa, and it plays a pivotal role in supplying the world’s insatiable need for oil and gas.
Ranked by the United Nations among the 10 least-visited countries in the world, Equatorial Guinea hasn’t seen many travelers other than those involved in the increasingly rich and exploited oil industry — mainly in the north and offshore of Bioko Island. The capital city of Malabo on the northern tip of Bioko may seem a bit unwelcoming or even guarded at first, but therein lies a great deal of its beauty; it reveals its true self only to those willing to explore. For it’s only then, with honest immersion, that one can discover some of the real hidden gems of the city: Places like Malabo’s Cultural Centre, where talented and passionate youths breakdance the afternoons away to the captivating beats of the African bass; the refurbished Seminario Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Banapa up in the foothills, where monks and nuns have studied the Christian faith for centuries; or even the deserted and seemingly forgotten suburb of Sipopo, with its vine-covered streets and unused mansions built with oil money for wealthy owners. But despite the lack of wealth being distributed to more than just those in power, the oil and gas industry appears to have boosted Malabo’s economy enough to have attracted American and Chinese investors, and within the past 10 years the city has grown considerably.
Built around the old colonial city center with its beautiful neogothic Santa Isabel cathedral and Plaza de la Independiencia, Malabo boasts many impressive and ultramodern projects that are currently nearing completion. A brand new international airport sits alongside the old just waiting to be opened, supposedly sometime in 2018; a large-scale and very picturesque promenade peacefully greets visitors along Malabo’s west coast; and the impressive Malabo Gate stands sentinel over the newly finished national road between the airport and the city. Not to mention the many hotels (Hilton, Sofitel and Magno to name a few), shopping centers and a university under construction, all of which appear to be screaming for visitors.
But Equatorial Guinea is not just about its oil. It is its people, its jungles and beaches, and its flora and fauna, and therein lies the magic for any traveler, especially eco-conscious ones. While most others entering Equatorial Guinea only know of or focus on the treasure trove of industrial “black gold” under the ocean floor, there are treasures far more precious and rewarding — with longer-lasting returns — in a myriad of facets elsewhere to explore and experience. Of all the places on offer, Bioko Sur on the southern end of Bioko Island is the place to be.
Unfiltered and undefiled
To spend a week with the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program in Bioko Sur is to be given the key to the country’s wildlife door: It is the only way for a visiting outsider to truly experience the authentic, unfiltered and undefiled world of the old Equatorial Guinea and its pristine jungle. Here is where the wild things still roam, and hopefully will continue to roam because of the BBPP’s commitment to environmental protection.
The Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program is a partnership between Philadelphia’s Drexel University and Malabo’s Universidad Nacional de Guinea Ecuatorial whose mission is the conservation of Bioko Island’s biodiversity through the development of economically self-sustaining programs that demonstrate the value of conservation. Its hope is to increase local education and awareness, as the detrimental trade of bushmeat continues all over Equatorial Guinea despite a presidential decree banning its practice. By changing tradition and thinking, and giving local people various eco-conscious alternatives for income, BBPP aims to engage locals in supporting ecotourism and biodiversity protection, both for their good and the good of the wildlife around them.
Of all the places BBPP could have chosen, its camp on the mouth of the Moaba River within Bioko Sur is a piece of paradise on earth. Wedged between the Moaba, the mighty Atlantic Ocean and two majestic waterfalls, it provides the perfect base from which to learn about life in the jungle from the knowledgable and accommodating scientists, volunteers and local guides — and to explore what Bioko Sur has to offer.
One of the primary reasons I had come to Equatorial Guinea was to explore the undocumented beaches of Bioko, and the surf they might yield. The waves of the more exposed southern coastline of Bioko Sur, in particular, are sent across thousands of miles of open ocean by the Roaring Forties — one of the most powerful winds in the world. At the idyllic beach of Moaba, a deep undersea trench focused any swell out in the ocean, and a giant cliff-face created a magnificent “wedge” near to shore, producing the perfect jungle wave for intermediate and experienced surfers.
What’s more, the proximity to camp, and comforts like fresh water, food and our hammocks, made the surfing experience here a dream come true.
This closeness became all the more sweet because of how much time it left for enjoying Bioko Sur’s other highlights — from primate hiking and turtle patrolling, to waterfall exploring and butterfly watching, to name a few. I spent hours at a time just lying on the black volcanic sand photographing hordes of butterflies of every color, shape and size sipping cool water from the wet banks of the Moaba River.
But it was at the close of each spectacular day that the real highlight beckoned: the evening shower. Set beneath a mighty waterfall behind camp a few short steps into the jungle, a crystal clear pool sat as it seemingly has since the beginning of time. With a privacy rope set across the path, the falls each night were all mine — complete with glowworms and fireflies to light my way, the thundering song of falling water, and the soft, cool kiss of the spray blowing on my face. I could not think of a better way to end a warm and fulfilling equatorial day. Without the work of BBPP, experiences like this would not have been possible, and places like Bioko Sur might not exist — at least not in its pristine, natural state anyway. Not for long.
And so, the work being done and ecotourism on offer by BBPP is crucial to the future of Bioko Island, and indeed Equatorial Guinea. The country may have oil for now, but it needs tourism, and its natural wonders need protecting forever. Though it currently stands among the least-visited places on earth, it is nevertheless getting ready to make a powerful tourism debut. Like the nesting Atlantic Green, Equatorial Guinea lies full of promise and possibility, with hatchlings ready to emerge from the raw earth, eyes set on the bright horizon and hearts ready to tackle the mighty beyond.