This is part of the twelfth section of our around the
Complete Trip Overview & Map
Coming from Gabon
22/8/06 The night passed incredibly slowly as the seas became rougher. Our boots soaked through as were the ladies sitting on the deck, a couple nursing children. It will never cease to amaze me the amount of discomfort the Africans can put up with and still manage to continue. One lady with a child never moved from her wet deck. Her urine and sea soaked clothes clinging to her. All her belongings and the small boy she was nursing were wet through. The salt spray destroyed many of the cardboard boxes in the cargo area at the back of the boat and with people climbing over them to avoid the water their contents became scattered. About four hours out of Sao Tome the seas were noticeably rougher and a wave on our side threw our bench and us across the floor pushing those on the deck along with it. With the added weight of everyone on one side of the boat it lurched, hung, but luckily dumped the water it had collected and returned level. One woman was crying and few were praying as the crew in semi panic tied back the bench, cupboard and gas bottles that had shifted. It was about now that we decided we had reached the limit of our risk level for boat travel. Generally not too averse to taking calculated chances this had moved beyond that point. The boat kept a distinctive starboard list till we reached Sao Tome harbour as it's load had shifted slightly. Luckily there were no other equally large waves. We arrived at 2 pm but waited till after 4 pm before we were allowed to come alongside. Even then by 5 pm we were told to come back tomorrow for final immigration and customs for the motorcycle and our documents were kept by officials. Money was changed on the street at about twice the rate we had checked on the internet a few days ago. We are not sure if there is a black market, very open if there is, or if the currency recently crashed. Our dingy hotel at about 25 Euro a night had promised hot water that didn't eventuate. To relax we joined the local past time of a beer in one of the only thriving industries in town, "pubs". Hole in the wall establishments, no decor, a seat and table if you are lucky, but friendly people, particularly the drunks, and "tapas", meat filled bread rolls for dinner and to bed at 7 pm as most pubs start at lunch time and close early.
23/8/06 We were at customs at opening, 8 am. They wouldn't accept the carnet so it was four hours of paperwork, payment for customs, police and a handling agent, compulsory, came to $US 60.00. The agent's fees of $40 were however reduced to $20 after complaints to the officials. It was now lunch time, a couple of hours so the bike remained aboard the boat. We learnt that there was a dispute between the owner of a boat that usually goes between Sao Tome and Nigeria and so the boat had been stranded in Sao Tome for the last two months and was unlikely to be moving soon. Our hoped for departure route was closed. We also learnt that the boat we had come here on, "Therese", is not going back to Libreville but will be on the route to Principe next, not that we would have considered taking it unless desperate. There was however a boat leaving for Libreville tomorrow, "Tornado", of Lion Maritime , delayed from today by paperwork, luckily, and it was only doing this trip as a special run. Not wanting to have to stay here more than two weeks or indefinitely, for the next boat, we were looking at the boat to Libreville for tomorrow. The decision was ultimately made easy when the agent returned after lunch with a $US 20.00 unloading charge and a 65 Euro port handling fee, both to get the motorcycle out of the port area. If it remained in transit back to Libreville those charges could be avoided. We booked on the boat leaving tomorrow, run by a Filipino man the negotiations were quick and easy, at 70% of our outward journey. Immediately the mood on the wharf changed, why were we not visiting their country. The total charge of 125 Euro to get the motorcycle from the boat to outside the port in a country where GDP is less than 1 Euro per day, per person, is more than excessive and more than we have paid anywhere in the world for a similar service, and probably why few boats come here, and why we didn't want to be stranded. We rode less than 1 km along the wharf in late afternoon ready to load the motorcycle tomorrow. Back to our friendly bar in the evening we could better understand why the people of Sao Tome drink so much, the country looked much better on our walk home from the bar than on our walk towards it but the electricity in the city was off and just our luck the hotel generator only broke today, according to the manager, so with a candle and no fan we slept.
24/8/06 We had been told to be at the wharf at 8 am and waited. Waiting and talking are the main past times in West Africa. We were surprised to see truck loads of World Food Program bags of rice being unloaded from containers on the wharf. In a country where so much money is spent on beer? The bike was finally loaded at 11.30. The wharf loading union refused to allow the ship's captain to load the motorcycle by crane as they considered they could load it by hand. It seems they have the ultimate say. We had seen the quality of port loading in Libreville. Crates of beer were dropped and 20 kg gas bottles were simply thrown from the boat onto the concrete wharf. About ten wharf handlers pushed the motorcycle down a ramp and despite my protestations of there not being enough men on the boat and too many on the wharf I was simply waved away by "no problem" a frightening statement meaning a problem was likely to occur. The motorcycle ran away along the ramp, wedging one handler between it and the other cargo and falling off the hatch broke the front mudguard lower behind the wheel, but luckily little other damage. I was beyond breaking point after two frustrating days in Sao Tome and let the handlers have the best of my rantings as I let off steam. To confirm the "least desirable country we have visited rating" that we have given Sao Tome, after all the passengers were loaded the port authority refused the boat permission to leave till we paid $US 30.00 as the motorcycle had been on their wharf. Blackmailed, we paid it, receiving a receipt, else the boat would still be there.
25/8/06 "Tornado" is a new boat in the region. Owned by a Belgian, and skippered by a Cuban with a Philippine sales person and local crew this ex Dutch boat is an international challenge. It has only been here a couple of months and the owner is already feeling the strain of running a business as an outsider in Africa where there are different regulations for foreigners in business compared to locals. The boat was comfortable. We rolled out our camping mattresses and slept for most of the 20 hour journey back to Libreville. Unfortunately our problems were not yet over. Sub Sahel West Africa is a difficult region of the world, made more difficult on this visit due to the logistics of needing shipping to and from islands. The boat was at the port by 8 am but it was after 11 am that immigration informed us we needed a new visa to re-enter Gabon. Kay had been to the Gabon Embassy in Sao Tome, while I was waiting at customs, and was informed we could use the same visa for our return visit. We were a bit surprised as the visa was not specific as a single or multiple entry. Half an hour of discussions through an interpreter with us using the lovely line "it's not our problem", it's your problem, as your embassy gave us this advice, and we can't force them to issue us a visa. In the end it was too difficult for them, lunch time was approaching, so they simply cancelled our original departure from Gabon, giving us just two legal days left on the original visa, plus one extra arguable day if they didn't count the visa start date, something we have argued before. We were at the Cameroon Embassy before noon and the incredibly helpful official could get us a visa by 3pm, at the usual price, now a nice round $US 100.00 each. The motorcycle was still on the boat. The short wharf only allows for four small ships. Two berths are taken up by the president's and friend's motor cruisers. The third berth has been occupied for the past six weeks by a boat getting engine repairs, we were told it's a friend of the president, and the fourth spot is three deep in boats actually trying to do business. A boat from Nigeria had arrived the night before us and would likely take five days to unload. The motorcycle would be stuck, we would need two new Gabon visas, again a round $US 100.00 each. The owner and captain offered, and moved, their boat to be second boat out from the one with engine repairs. With 15 pallets borrowed from a local company along with a couple of planks, a metal table and a lot of help from the crew and interested people, a series of platforms were constructed over "Tornado's" gunwale, across the next boat's deck and gunwale and onto the wharf. It was now dark. Riding a plank from one deck to a stack of eight high pallets on the next boat had the motorcycle teetering as the front wheel missed the ramp's end. People reorganised the next stack of pallets, now only a few above the metal table, and I could ride a couple more metres, moving a metre or more above the second boat's deck. Pallets were taken from behind and rebuilt in front for the final ride onto the wharf. Unfortunately we were so concentrating on unloading the motorcycle that no-one thought to take any photos of the process. Everyone was elated to the extent the ship's owner invited the captain and us to dinner where we had a chance to unwind and let the adrenaline subside. The Cuban captain then informed us that last year an overloaded boat had rolled over and sunk with all lost between Sao Tome and Libreville.
26/8/06 We left early hoping to make it to the border immigration office before nightfall, 600 km away, the last day on our visa. The road was generally good being asphalt all the way except for 20 km's. The middle section particularly excellent and one of the world's great riding roads. New hot mix surface on well engineered corners through rainforest and with almost no traffic made the cloudy but dry ride relaxing after the last few day's problems. We were at immigration by 6pm and a casual stamp in a couple of minutes. Gabon's Immigration offices are not at the borders. This one was in Bitam 30 km from the border. Now that we were stamped out of the country, we could and did stay the night to rest up in Bitam. This region of Gabon is really Cameroon feeling. The forest between here and Libreville seems to divide the country. The people are more industrious, many are Cameroon nationals.
27/6/06 There is a new bridge across the river but the old barge still sits on it's shores, perhaps hoping the bridge will collapse, it is likely to still be there rusting away in 30 year's time. A quick check of our passports by police and we were out of Gabon.
UPDATE. We received the following email from JP, the owner of the vessel Tornado, in December of 2006. The vessel we left Sao Tome on.
Dear Peter & Kay,
A few words from Sao Tomé.. ur favourite
I went on your web page, what u are doing is just
You know what.. Last month "Tornado" rescued "Therese"
and saved lives.. and
the other boat "Marisol" sunk one week before !
It seems that the local regulations are more strict
now.. Luckily but for
Best regards and good luck,
Move with us to Cameroon
Story and photos copyright ©
Peter and Kay Forwood,