Bring on the Elephants

So the dream continues. The Nzalang have navigated their way safely through the group stage thanks to euphoric victories over Senegal and Libya and a disappointing defeat to Zambia. The Elephants from the Ivory Coast, the strong favourites to win the tournament now wait for the boys in red on Saturday.

The levels of anticipation couldn’t be any higher in the capital, Malabo, where the game will be played to a packed stadium.

The last 10 festive days have whipped the country up into a near delirious state. Few could have expected such a festival of football or the delicious victories, which have planted a surreal sense of optimism in the team, especially given its lowly ranking at 151 in the world. The enthusiasm behind the team has made a mockery of the rankings and the momentum behind the Nzalang has invaded the small nation, now totally focused on the next game.

Surely they won’t be able to pull off the shock of beating the team led by Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Kolo Toure and Yaya Toure?

Together these football superstars earn more in a week at Chelsea and Manchester City than the entire Nzalang first team earns in a year.

The generous $1m bonus paid to the Nzlang for their extraordinary victory over Libya is a weekly occurrence for these four premier league superstars.

The odds are stacked against the Nzalang but who would bet against another miracle. Through application anything is possible and its the ‘can-do’ attitude that has invaded the country that has been the most incredible result in this topsy-turvy tournament.

Vamos Nzalang.

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Vamos Nzalang

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Few could have expected such a wonderful atmosphere and a fantastic response from Equatorial Guinea’s national football team – the Nzalang on the opening game of the Africa Cup of Nations in Bata.

The country is flying after its national team beat Libya 1-0 in the first game of the tournament being jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

It has been a whirlwind few days in Malabo and Bata as the preparations for the tournament reached their culmination.

Teams have been arriving from all over Africa over the last few days, with Northern Sudan, Libya, and Burkina Faso based in Malabo.

With many of the traditional Goliaths of African football missing – Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa – there is a feeling that it could be the year that the smaller nations, the David’s of the continent, make a mark on the bi-annual tournament.

The opening games were no exception with the players selected by Brazilian coach, Gílson Paulo, responding accordingly.

Ranked 151st in the world, few outsiders expected Equatorial Guinea to make much of an impression in their first appearance in the tournament.

Losing their coach a month before the competition was not seen as the best way to prepare for their Cup of Nations debut but once again this country has managed to confound its critics.

The team fought like lions throughout and finally got the goal they deserved with five minutes left. Both the team and its passionate support have been walking on air ever since.

As if to underline the giant-killing atmosphere at this tournament little old Zambia, recorded a historic 2-1 victory over Senegal in the following game.

The stage was set for the team’s heroics by a glittering opening ceremony in the gloriously refurbished Nkoantoma stadium that left little doubt that this small nation was taking its responsibilities as the host nation seriously.

The 40,000 spectators lucky enough to get a ticket for the opening spectacle were treated to a cultural smorgasbord that included a two-hour concert that featured local artists Anfibio, Besoso, Poen, Sandra Star, Yuma and Pili la Peligrosa.

A generous offer of a $1m bonus for a win in the first game may have been at the back of the players’ minds, but a team put together at short notice was undoubtedly moved more by the uplifting atmosphere within the stadium and the outpouring of national pride that comes with such events.

I haven’t lived here long but there can’t have been many happier days in the country’s history than this one.

Long live the Nzalang! Bring on Senegal and Zambia.

Time to Explore

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Adjusting to life in Africa has been fascinating, if a little hectic, but fortunately there are a host of interesting places to get away from the construction boom underway in Malabo and Bata.

While most of the country’s expatriate employees spend much of the their free time at the exclusive surroundings of the city of Sipopo, playing golf or enjoying the best beach on the island, there are many other places to visit in this small but diverse country.

Most of Equatorial Guinea’s 28,051 square kilometres of territory remains untouched by the country’s breakneck development, which means that there are some wonderful spots to get away from it all and savour its impressive natural reserves.

On the island of Bioko itself, the trip to the towering volcano, Pico Basile, that serves as the imposing backdrop to the city provides a welcome change.

Reaching heights of 3.011 metres allows you to pass through all the different variants of rainforest on display in this part of the world. If you make it to the top the 4,040 metres-high Mount Cameroon on the mainland of neighbouring Cameroon can be seen looking out over the east of the island on a clear day.

If it is beaches you’re looking for then the sun-kissed islands of Corisco and Annobon serve up a perfect change of scenery and a dramatic shift in the rhythm of life.

Efforts to develop these two islands as tourist destinations for the local population and international visitors have heralded important investments in infrastructure of late.

In the larger of the two islands, Annobon, a new airport was inaugurated in October 2010.

A new port has also been constructed as well as hotel infrastructure to help open the island up to tourism. In total, the government has invested $400m in Annobon’s development.

The 600 m extension to the airport’s runway allows it to receive airplanes as large as the Airbus A320 and helped reduce its reliance on Equatorial Guinea’s Djibloho, the ship that has kept cargo and people moving between the country’s remote territories for more than a decade.

The Djibloho, has become something of an institution for the country’s inhabitants shuttling them to and from the different corners of the country on a daily basis.

Equatorial Guinea’s local airline Ceiba now offers services to the island, which is located 595 km south-west of the island of Bioko and the capital, Malabo.

Following a similar approach a runway and high-end beach villas are being built on Corisco in time for the Cup of Nations. While Annobon boasts a small local population of about 1,900, Corisco has had little development or human populations of note until work started on a tourism complex last year.

It was not always the case and long-forgotten aspects of the country’s rich history have been uncovered in the race to make Corisco habitable once more.

Those planning a return to the island encountered archaeological evidence of its importance to early European visitors earlier this month when they discovered the archaeological remains of an abandoned port and village constructed by some of the first Europeans to arrive in Africa.

What could be the largest and oldest necropolis in central Africa is believed to date back more than 2,000 years and point to the presence of predecessors of the Portuguese who discovered the island of Annobon in 1472.

Along with its neighbouring islets Elobey Grande, Elobey Chico, Corisco, has for decades, been fiercely disputed by Equatorial Guinea and its neighbour, Gabon, more for their importance in defining the limits of both countries’ offshore oil reserves than their idyllic beaches.

But a realisation of the finite nature of the country’s oil riches and the untapped potential of tourism in the country has placed greater emphasis on the latter in recent years. Beyond the country’s beaches there are also plans to build on the biodiversity of Equatorial Guinea’s different territories.

Some 60% of Equatorial Guinea is covered in largely pristine rainforest rich in flora and fauna. Efforts to preserve the thick rainforest from over-logging have been stepped up in the last few years including an initiative to designate 21% of the country’s territory as protected areas to preserve the biological, physical, technological, economic, cultural and social treasures they represent.

National Parks like the Monte Alen lowlands, a 200,000 hectare area on the mainland populated by gorillas and Pico Basile a 33,000 hectare park that covers most of the south of the island of Bioko as well as the Monte Mitra-Altos de Park, home to pygmy elephants are all preserved for environmentally-sensitive tourism.

Moving along the Rio Muni throughout the country’s mainland and following the path taken by Miguel Gutiérrez Garitano in his award-winning travel book, ‘La Aventura del Muni’ presents the more intrepid traveller with an intriguing insight into the continent’s rich cultural history and phenomenal natural treasures.