Monday, January 23, 2017

A week in Gabon for Afcon 2017

I have been here in Gabon for 14 games of the Africa Cup of Nations 2017 now, but it seems like just over a week. I have managed to make my way around the country. Not by the different modes of transport I intended but by flights that I have found that were not available to book before I came.

A week in Gabon for Afcon 2017.

We have completed the second round of matches and the games have gone from Libreville to Franceville, Oyem and then Port Gentil. So have I. But I have had to go back to Libreville, the capital, every time in order to make the next destination.

When I last wrote I had lost the two Germans I met earlier as they failed to make their scheduled flight back to Libreville.

No worries. Thirty minutes after I got back to our apartment they turned up. They had got a lift and arrived at the other airport terminal.

Instead of walking 50 metres to the terminal that they arrived from, they caught a different plane which departed after mine.

The next morning the heavens opened and the rainy season has shown itself for the first time in Libreville. We tried to wait for a gap in the weather but there didn't seem to be one.

Outside the stadium we met a group of Burkina Faso supporters. One was keen to practice his English. He was a big man with body paint depicting his country's flag. (I have a picture somewhere but am struggling to download photos at present.) His opening words: "I am from Burkina Faso."

A week in Gabon for Afcon 2017.


At the end of the match I heard a shout in English, I turned round to see it was him. He was delighted with his team's performance and gave me a big hug. I looked at my arm and saw red. His body paint had rubbed off on me.

My trip to Franceville was uneventful, although this time I went with Sebastiane.

We agreed to meet at the end of the second match to catch the shuttle back to the airport. With 10 minutes to go, a shout went out that all journalists for Libreville should go to get their bus now.

There was no sign of Sebastiane (from DRC), so I waited in the stadium and watched the game while looking for him. He sauntered over towards us slowly after the final whistle. Unaware that we had nearly gone without him.

I can't lose anyone else, can I?

The next day the football moved to Oyem and this time I received confirmation for the Oyem flight, returning the next day. So no helicopter, that was for CAF officials.

Before leaving the Tropicana, where I was staying I advised them that my room would not be used and they could sell it again if they wanted.

Went for my breakfast at the airport, croque monsieur, and then to Afrijet terminal about 11.00. Plane wasn't due to depart until 13.30.

A week in Gabon for Afcon 2017.


Sebastiane was there, but had some bad news. There was a problem with the helicopter and the CAF delegation were now going to join us on our flight.

At this stage we weren't sure of the implications, but an hour later they advised us that no journalists would travel.

So Sebastiane and I went to the airport terminal to try and book a flight to Oyem.

All the flights for Oyem had left, there were no more today.

We were offered a taxi who guaranteed he could get us to Oyem in time for kick off. With less than five hours to go. We declined, and went back to Afrijet.

I was in the throes of sending an email to a travelling companion who was in Libreville to ask him where he was and where he would be watching tonight's games. I didn't finish the email.

We heard that a request had been put to the CAF president to pay for a flight for the journalists. But it is not that simple, how do you get a plane that is ready to fly immediately from your point of departure.

The media scrum followed the person in charge round the room. Eventually an announcement was made, the gist was there were eight places available to journalists from the competing nations. I had already been enlisted to help Sebastiane at the RDC press conference. Does that make me a Congolese journalist?

Unfortunately there was a girl with a Congo shirt on, who just happened to be from Rwanda. Maybe I could get away with being Congolese if I borrowed one of Sebastiane's shirts.

I said that if this tournament is anything to go by it is most likely to be a draw, and so we should go straight to a penalty shootout. I later found out that Joseph Antonine-Bell, the former Cameroon World Cup keeper had said the same and offered to go in goal.

Sebastiane got his boarding pass, and I was left with Ed Dove, who thought we had no chance.

Now that all the passes had been handed out I started to work. There was no one waiting around the boarding desk so I spoke to the two gentlemen there, suggesting there ought to be some neutral coverage of the game. I then found out that there were 45 CAF delegates, but that if any didn't show there would be a place. Unfortunately the Rwandan woman was around and she was first on the waiting list. She asked to check this and was told there was no list, but just stay close. I put myself forward for second, as Ed who had no chance sat down at the back of the room.

I waited patiently as the numbers in the room dwindled, but stayed close to the boarding desk.

The woman was handed a boarding pass, others now surrounded us as her details were recorded for the flight, and I boldly held out my accreditation, Thierry who handed out the passes looked at it but seemed to blank me before taking it from my hand a presenting me with one of the last boarding passes.

Ed realised and came forward to the desk presenting his pass.

I saw him on the plane later.

We landed at a clearing that looked like it had recently been carved out of the surrounding forest and of course there were no lights.

The ground also has been carved out of the forest and with the nearest football team, Union Sportive de Bitam being 75 km away I suspect the forest may take the ground back very soon.

Two good football matches later and we sampled the nightlife in Oyem.

I decided to reserve the same accommodation for next week when I intend to return for two nights.

Leaving Oyem from the half-started open-plan airport, there was a sign for the cafeteria, where workmen were painting the walls and old fashioned weighing scales were lifted from one check-in table to the other.

The security scanning machine didn't work and so they had a casual inspection of the luggage before allowing us through.

The plane eventually set off and arrived at 12.30pm. I hadn't received confirmation of a place on today's flight to Port Gentil, but as I was at the airport I thought I would check to see if there was any possibility of travelling.

The flight was full, and due to fly at 13.00 and my name was not on the list. Never mind, by now you will have learnt that all you need is patience. Sure enough 30 minutes later and I was on my way to Port Gentil again.

This time we have been advised the shuttle to the airport will leave twenty minutes before the end of the match. I spoke to the media operations manager and she simply said "They don't understand".

Towards the end of the evening I asked again. I was told someone had asked to leave 20 minutes after the match. I immediately said that was not possible, but perhaps we could leave at the end of the match. Agreed.

Egypt, scored a late winner to ruin the report I had already before the final whistle.

We got to the shuttle and the driver wasn't there. The crowd started to stream out the ground in a large single line. Queues were forming for transport home. The problem in Port Gentil, and all the other stadiums is that there is only one road that leads to it.

We saw the convoy of CAF cars starting to move with a police escort. We were in pole position, to latch on behind them. Then we pulled over to the roadside. Three more journalists got in but we had lost the convoy.

There was a roadblock ahead and we were denied access and had to turn off. I presume this driver has not driven the press before. Didn't he know all he had to do was put his hazard lights on and drive as fast as possible, while the journalists on board would shout "Press", waving their accreditation at anyone that got in the way.

There was another convoy and we latched on it but he was not allowed past the next roadblock.

Now he started to speed up and drive in the middle of a road, which appeared only just wide enough for two large cars and with ditches at the side of the road.

I adopted the brace position on my seat waiting for the inevitable. We managed to arrive in one piece and on time for the 35 minute flight back to Libreville.

Following the same routine brought back memories of four days ago, when clearing security, Sebastiane accidentally picked up my accreditation and put it round his neck. As I was looking in my tray for it I saw Sebastiane pass.

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