Central African Countries

November 2009


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The highlights of this trip were the natural wonders of the West African Countries.
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Itinerary

  1. Uganda:
  2. Kampala
  3. Masindi
  4. Murchison Falls park
  5. Budongo forest
  6. Lake Victoria
  7. Congo Kinshasa:
  8. Goma
  9. Kinshasa
  10. Congo Brazzaville:
  11. Brazzaville
  12. Lekana
  13. Gabon:
  14. Libreville
  15. Franceville: Cirque de Leconi (red-rock canyon)
  16. Cameroon:
  17. Yaounde: Benedictine Monastery's Musee d'Art Cameroonais
  • Uganda (2009)
    • Judging from Kampala, Uganda is doing much better. I heard that growth rate was 12% last year, which would be higher than China's. Roads are clean (unlike San Francisco), and there are no beggars (unlike San Francisco). I'm sure the villages around the country are still very poor, especially in the border areas, but a big chunk of the population lives in the big towns.
    • Kampala, in effect, is the ideal city to start a trip in Africa. The country issues visas upon arrival (so you can leave your country without a visa). The city has several neighborhoods like the one near the Parliament that are safe and have all sorts of comforts at a reasonable price. It's easy to move around with the boda-bodas (motorcycles) or private hires (taxis) or taxis (minibuses). There are decent and clean restaurants of several ethnic cuisines and some expensive European ones.
    • Uganda is de facto banning plastic bottles. All your favorite drinks that in the West come in your favorite plastic bottles here are only available in glass bottles. Unfortunately westerners (the planet's number one polluters even when they are away from home) are passionate about buying water in plastic bottles, so those are still available.
    • Visa at the airport: $50
    • Annex Hotel near Masala Chat House 30,000 shillings for two
    • Entebbe Backpackers in Entebbe 30,000 shillings for a double
    • Kampala restaurant Habesha (Ethiopian) on Kampala Rd
    • Bus from Kampala to Goma 30,000 shillings
    • $1 = 1,760 shillings
    • Bigger notes get a better exchange rate. Traveler cheques get lower rates.
    • Internet is 1,000 shillings per 30 minutes (and it's as fast as in the USA)
    • Travel around Kampala by boda-boda (motorcycles) and around the country by "taxi" (a minibus that leaves when full)
    • Murchison Falls is the main park for wildlife in Uganda: elephants, gyraffes, antelopes, hippos, etc. Murchison Falls itself is a place where the Nile river shrinks to a few meters wide. Practicalities: $30 entrance ticket, about 2 hours from Masindi. The main place to see animals is the Delta Point. Kampala-Masindi from the central car park: 10.000 shillings ($5) 3.5 hours.
  • Congo Kinshasa (2009)
    • Bus from Kampala to Goma: Horizon bus, leaves at 7pm, arrives at 10am, 30K shillings ($17)
    • Tourist visa for Congo: $80, one day (the embassy of Kampala is near the air strip). One can also get a visa at the Goma border for $35.
    • Photography is not allowed in Congo.
    • Police corruption in Congo is colossal. It's not the Hutu rebels or the various warlords that you have to fear but the people in uniform.
    • Goma, the Congolese border town on the Lake Kivu (Lake Tanganyka), looks like a peaceful town, despite the civil wars (plural) that are raging in the jungle nearby. The infrastructure is very basic, but a few months of peace have already made a difference. There are new hotels by the beach. The currency is the dollar. The only banknotes that are accepted are those that are in perfect conditions. Keep them in your pocket for five minutes and nobody will want them. The war is visible: i have never seen so many United Nations vehicles and i hear planes every 10 minutes. Unfortunately today is a cloudy day so i cannot see the volcano that covered the town with lava. In many streets the lava is still there and you walk on it. There are basically two tiers of prices. One is expensive and is for the United Nations and foreign aid workers: hotels, restaurants, flights, etc. The other one is very cheap and is for the locals: street food, market items, motorcycle taxis, etc.
    • No photography allowed.
    • Internet $1 but extremely slow.
    • Favorite restaurant: Soleil Place (buffet or main entrees for $5)
    • $1=850 Congolese francs
    • Hotels by the lake include: Mukata Lodge, Breeze, Linda. The cheapest in town is Tony's Guesthouse $20. But all of them can be bargained down to a reasonable price. The Breeze is brand new and had no customers, so it was willing to give me a $60 room for $30. To reach the Mukata lodge when coming from Rwanda, it is located just after the border post with Rwanda on the lake. Walk no more than 100 meters and turn right into a narrow alley and walk to the end of it. A motorcycle to the center is 500 francs (half a dollar). It's safe, quiet and cheap. All hotels have mosquito nets.
    • Motorcycle around time for foreigners is about 500 francs. To the airport is 600.
    • Flight Goma-Kinshasa: $320, daily. It's the only way to reach Kinshasa.
    • Check-in at the tiny Goma airport is an adventure in itself. You have to check in early in the morning for a flight in the afternoon (that will almost certainly be delayed by many hours). Then you keep the luggage with you. All of this should be simple enough but the confusion is such that de facto it's best to hire one of the many kids and ladies who offer to help you. Then you can go back to town and return one hour before flight time. The road to the airport is probably the most interesting. Unfortunately don't even think of pulling out your camera. First there are the slums. Then the refugees (entire trucks full of them). Then the United Nations military camp with lots of tanks. Then the airport.
    • The cost of living could be very high, as all places that have a lot of foreign aid workers and United Nations personnel.
    • Kinshasa is expensive by USA standards. A soda is $1 at the supermarket. Internet is $1.50 per hour. Etc.
    • Kinshasa is a relatively quiet city. Until you get to the real downtown, the vast boulevards absorb traffic very easily and so noise is relatively low. People are very friendly. I steered away of police officers, who rarely miss a chance to ask you for money. Everybody else is polite and helpful. Even in the market and at the port i never had the perception of danger. As far as i can tell, there is no crime in Kinshasa. The only major annoyance is the police. This is a city that does not have beggars, but has police officers begging. It is also a city without postcards. Not only is photography illegal but they don't even have postcards or books with pictures of the city.
    • Photography is a serious offense. You can be detained for it. Ordinary people will alert the police if they see you pull out a camera. This regime is raising a generation that will think taking pictures is a crime. It will take decades to change their attitude, even if they clean up on police corruption.
    • The government of Congo is making no effort to spread the English language, but another factor is having the same effect: Google. In every cafe i see the students searching for articles and most of what they found is in English. That's how they become more and more fluent in English. Their spoken English is terrible but you can tell that their vocabulary is quite rich.
    • There are cheap hotels in Matonge (Ave de la Victoire) and in just about all the suburbs.
    • There is an ATM at the Grand Hotel. Lots of banks downtown have the signs for credit cards. Change money in the street: money changers have a little booth and openly display huge piles of banknotes. Obviously no thieves around.
    • Hotel: Centre Lasallien in Kintambo. The room is normally $40 but i bargained it down to $20. The neighborhood is safe and has several internet cafes and stores. No real restaurants but plenty of grocery stores. Transportation to town takes a while, whether through Magazine or Bandal.
    • There are two ways to cross the river to Brazzaville: the fast ferry $25 and the big slow ferry. Either way you have to go through hell first. The place where they sell the tickets (the Beach) is heavily patroled which means lots of cops. The fast ferry departs every 30 minutes.
  • Congo Brazzaville (2009)
    • The ferry from Kinshasa across the Congo river (no photos allowed, of course) to Brazzaville is mostly exciting because of the corrupt immigration offices. You can only get a transit visa upon arrival in Brazzaville.
    • Downtown is about 50% more expensive than Kinshasa, which means it is approximately European prices (more than USA)
    • It is getting difficult to find a country anywhere in the developing world where you feel rich if you are carrying dollars.
    • It is getting harder to find drinks in glass bottle. I am surviving on grenadine (big glass bottle)
    • The ubiquitous packets of purified water are a great invention because here all the streams of water are heavily polluted. However all the plastic packets that people thrown in the river contribute to pollute it even more. Without the water packets, they would all be sick. With them, they have good water but the environment suffers even more. Hard to choose.
    • Best sight in town is the Cathedral of St Anne, built in 1949.
    • Brazzavile transit visa: $70 plus 4,000 CFA of taxes
    • Congo Brazzaville belongs to the CFA area. Change in the streets, like in Kinshasa. $1=460 CFA
    • Hotel Siringo1 in the Poto Poto district: 12,500 CFA (good value with bathroom and A/C walking distance from the center)
    • Gabon 15-day visa: 65,500 for same day delivery
    • Cameroon visa: 50,000 in one day or even same day
    • From Congo to Gabon via Lekana is quite an adventure. The corrupt officials in Lekana demand payment for registering the traveler. Brazzaville-Lekana: 7000 CFA from Mikuli station about6 hours. Lekana-Leconi in Gabon: bargain at the border if there is any car that is going. I paid 35,000. The best way to get to Gabon is via Okoyo and Edo.
  • Gabon (2009)
    • Leconi to Franceville 2000 CFA in shared taxi (bush taxi). One hour. Very fast road. Lots of shared taxis around. Hotel Pere Meduba in Potos market 11,000 with AC and tv +. Train to Libreville 39000 CFA.
    • Train from Franceville to Libreville 39,000 CFAs 12 hours (arrives in Owedo, 8 kms south of the center of Libreville, only one expensive hotel nearby). The train leaves on time.
    • Gabon obviously has money. This is a richer country by any African standard. It was already famous for gold and diamond when it was a French colony. Then they found oil (although not as much as neighboring Equatorial Guinea) as well as countless minerals that Western Europe and China need (chrome, manganese, etc). The country has been ruled by the same president for almost 50 years: Bongo. He is probably the longest serving leader of any country in the world. Apparently he has a bodyguard of about 1,000 French and Moroccan soldiers. Whatever the politics, Gabon is clearly more modern than the neighboring countries. One neighborhood (where the amazing church of St Pierre is) feels totally like a quiet relaxed village in Provence. Nobody ever approached me to sell anything. No hassle no crime.
    • Franceville is a nice relaxed town in the mountains of Gabon, quite far from the capital Libreville. It doesn't feel African at all. It is not crowded and it is not polluted. Franceville is spread out. It looks more like a federation of small towns. The cheap hotels are around the market of Potos. It has a strong Arab influence.
    • Libreville has the most impressive architecture of any city in Central Africa.
    • Hotel Libermann 10,000 CFAs near Gare Routiere ++. Visa for Cameroon: 51,000 CFAs ($110) in two hours. ATM for international banks at BIGIG/Prestige Agency.
    • It takes the whole day to travel by bus from Libreville to Bitam, the last town of Gabon before the border with Cameroon. Bitam has several small hotels, two restaurants and a market. The roads were excellent. In the morning walk two blocks to the immigration office to have the passport stamped. Then board one of the many shared taxis that were heading for the border (pronounced Kiosi' but the spelling is quite different). There's just a bridge in between the two immigration areas. The Cameroon side is a bit scary because you have to register in three different places and each time the officers may ask you for money. To go from one office to the next one hire a kid on a motorcycle for a dollar. On the other side of the broder the market is ten times bigger. Cameroon appears immediately a lot poorer than Gabon. The good news is that prices are also a lot lower.
    • The worst part is the trip from the border to Yaounde. There are countless (eight? ten?) police checkpoints and every time the police singles out foreigners and checks passports. Asides from sheer incompetence (one policeman asked me why my Cameroon visa had been issues by an embassy outside Cameroon...) there is no attempt to extort bribes. The waste of time is colossal though.
    • Gabon to Cameroon: Bus from Libreville (next to Libermann Hotel) to Bitam: 12.000 CFA 10 hours. Hotel in Bitam: Djakarta, next to bus agency, 8000 CFA. Shared taxi to the border 1000 CFA. Motorcycle to Kye-Ossi (Cameroon side) 500 CFA. Bus Kye-Ossi to Yaunde 3000 CFA.
  • Cameroon (2009)
    • There are three factors that make Cameroon difficult to visit: 1. The frequent police checkpoints become a torture (especially for the tourists, since they are usually singled out for a thorough check). So traveling overland is a real pain. Never experienced such a pain before. 2. Domestic flights are very expensive. 3. It is not really camera-friendly (several people, with and without uniform, told me that one or another thing should be not photographed).
    • Yaounde is quite easy to explore. It is relatively quiet and most people leave you alone. But be aware of the scams, especially downtown (e.g., someone may pretend to be from the secret police).
    • There is no bus to go to the airport of Semale'. If you flag a taxi downtown and ask for a "course" to the airport, they ask about 5000 CFA. Take a (shared) taxi to Mvan Carrefour (400 CFA or so) and then from there take a shared taxi to Semale' (offer 1,000 CFA or so).
    • Good restaurant in Yaounde: Pizza Roma inside the Euro supermarche' 500 meters from the Nlongkak carrefour.
    • The taxi system is cheap and efficient. It's the same system in all of the countries of this region, but in Yaounde it is at its best. Basically, you just stand by the curb and wait for the taxis to show up. If they are not fully, they honk and slow down in front of you. You shout where you are going (here it's the carrefour that matters, i.e. the intersection/square). If the taxi is going in that direction, it stops and picks you up, otherwise it just drives to the next person waiting by the curb. The route of the taxi is therefore decided dynamically, based on where the current passengers have to go. It is an interesting Darwinian system.
    • Hotel Ideal (carrefour Nlongkak, behind Clamantis Hotel) 8000 CFA with tv, bathroom +
    • Internet costs 300 CFA per hour

Notes

Trip difficulty: difficult to strenuous
Length: 30 days
Season: Dec-Jan
  • Visas (2010): the main obstacle to travel in west and central Africa is the expensive (and time-conuming) visas. If you think that other parts of Africa have weird visa regulations (that basically discourage tourists from visiting those countries), wait until you get to this part of the world. Most countries between Nigeria and Angola require vaccination against yellow fever. The visas are also extremely expensive.
  • Visas (2010) are the real problem in this part of the world. Africa is a wonderful part of the world. Unfortunately it is in the hands of a bunch of corrupt, incompetent, criminal and unfriendly politicians. The governments of Africa make it very difficult and expensive to obtain a visa. Some of the requirements are laughable. In 2011 the embassy of Nigeria still required a hotel reservation and a letter of invitation!
  • It would be wise to avoid tourism in all the countries of Africa that make it difficult to obtain a tourist visa (by definition, they don't welcome tourists). The stupidity of these governments border on the demented. (Written in 2007. Hopefully it will improve with time)(Note of 2011: the stupidity of these governments has not decreased).
  • Cameroon is one of the least hostile countries. Still, here what its embassy writes (2008): "Travelers arriving at the Douala airport without a visa are typically held at an airport holding area until they can be boarded on a continuing flight, or a return flight. Those being held often are not able to use any services." They don't even let you pee without a visa...
  • If you are a USA citizen, Equatorial Guinea does not require a visa (2008). Unfortunately, a photography permit is required.
  • All these countries tell you to obtain a visa in your home country, but the truth is that visas can be obtained much cheaper and much faster in neighboring countries. The price is sometimes less than 50%, and the number of days you have to wait drops from two weeks to one day.
  • Bottom line: visit some other countries.
  • Uganda is the nearest civilized place that lets you land without a visa and where you can apply for visas to the other central African countries (getting there is another story, given the war in Congo). Congo Brazzaville is a close second.
  • Money (2009): don't rely on ATMs or traveler cheques. This part of the world is cash only.
  • Photography (2009): for mysterious reasons, people in French-speaking Africa tend to dislike tourists who take pictures. Sometimes they ask for a "photo permit" (which is indeed still required in places like Chad and Congo Kinshasa) and sometimes they react violently (even if you were taking pictures of something else). Absolutely don't take pictures of government buildings. To further compound the problem, you might get in trouble if you ask permission from a soldier or a cop (who will then want a bribe or, unsure about the answer, will detain you until he can contact his superiors).
  • Centrafrica (2009): Bangui used to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world but the security situation has improved. Hotel: Levy's (18,300CFA). The northern part of the country is still extremely dangerous. The border with Sudan is off-limits. Extreme police corruption (pay bribe at every police checkpoint and there are many on every road), probably the worst in the world. The difference between a cop/soldier and a regular thief is that the former has a machine gun to convince you to hand over your money. The southwest corner, where the Dzanga Sangha Reserve is (the gorillas), is relatively peaceful, but getting there is risky because of banditry outside Bangui (and expensive because of the continuous bribes to be paid to police).
  • Congo Kinshasa (2009): extreme police corruption (pay bribe at every police checkpoint and there are many on every road), very poor infrastructure (all roads are unpaved). Cheap hotel in Kinshasa: La Creche ($30), Hotel de La Gombe, Centre d'Accueil Protestant, Hotel Phenix in the Barumbu district ($20). Virunga National Park is open again but the "permit" to see the gorillas costs $400. Kigali (Rwanda) to Goma is just a two-hour taxi ride (visa at the border for $35), and seeing gorillas from Goma is much cheaper, but Goma is far from safe. There are also minibuses from Uganda and from Kigali to Goma. Cheap hotel: Colibri Hotel. Photography is not permitted in Goma but you can probably bribe police. There are flights between Goma and Kinshasa ($300), but at your own risk: these are the worst maintained aircrafts in Africa. Flying from Kinshasa to Kigali is about $800.
  • Congo Brazzaville (2009). The cheapest hotels are located around the Poto-Poto roundabout. To go to Kinshasa just take the ferry across the river (minimum $25).
  • Gabon (2009) is the safest country in this region.
  • Angola (2009) is one of the most expensive countries in the world. A cheap dirty guesthouse room in Luanda (if you can find one) is easily $150; but it is quite normal that the only rooms actually available are in the $400-500 range. The visa is quite difficult to obtain because it requires a letter of invitation (one of the many countries that inherited the old communist system of discouraging tourists) and the processing can easily take two weeks. Lobito and Benguela are coastal cities south of Luanda, reachable by both train and bus as a day trip or by plane in an hour: they have hotels that are more affordable. If you are planning to visit the south, then Lubango has "cheap" hotels. Air travel is common, safe and unusually reliable (for African standards) at reasonable fares. Because of the African Cup 2010, Angola is expected to relax its ridiculously complicated visa regulations. As of 2008, Angola was one of the most difficult countries to enter because of both its government regulations and the corruption of its embassies. Stay away from Angola unless you really have to go.
  • Aid workers anywhere in Africa are a real curse for the independent traveler: wherever there are lots of aid workers, prices for hotels, food and transportation skyrocket (higher than Europe or USA).
  • As of 2006, the stupidity of border officials in this region is colossal. Print webpages of tour operators and print fake hotel reservations. If they ask you for one, just show them the printouts. If you try to explain that you don't have a tour/hotel reservation, you might be denied entry. It is also useful to have a printout of a flight out of the country, as if you had bought that ticket and you only had the electronic ticket.
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