The two men were dripping with sweat as they chased the cheeky little three-year-old around the area outside their camp. Just when they thought they had him, he would slip between their legs and bound off again hooting and grinning. The mischievous little gorilla didn’t want to go back into his pen and he was definitely enjoying the game of catch-me-if-you-can.
It was our first full day in Gabon, and what a brilliant 24 hours it had been. While we are keen travellers, neither my husband, Jan, or I had ever visited Africa before, something we were keen to correct. So with a taste for places a little off the beaten track, we had chosen Gabon for our first adventure into this great continent. Although quite expensive, it sounded like the perfect destination. Situated on the west coast of Africa and right on the equator, Gabon is a former French colony and, in African terms, a relatively wealthy and stable country. In 2002, a network of 13 national parks was established and with a mixture of dense rainforest, savannah and untouched beaches it is truly a nature lover’s paradise.
Checking-in at Libreville Airport gave us our first glimpse of the way things run in Africa, as some 30-odd people bargained, jostled and tried to talk their way into one of the 18 seats on SCD Aviation’s small plane. Luckily Operation Loango, who ran the lodge we were headed to, had organised everything for us.
After a few technical difficulties and a longer than scheduled stop in Port Gentil, we finally landed at Omboué airport, a small building by a rough runway where pilots sometimes have to ‘buzz’ the airstrip before landing to chase away stray dogs. We were met by our first guide and discovered that Caterina and Coen, a lovely Dutch couple we had met on the plane, were to be our travel companions for the next five days. Then we all piled into a four-wheel-drive, Jan volunteering to ride on the open back with the bags, and after a short drive we arrived at a lagoon and transferred to a small boat.
Motoring out across the choppy water, we passed a number of small tugs dragging behind them barges piled high with logs. With so much native forest, logging is Gabon’s second biggest industry (the first is oil). Over the next ten days we were to hear varying opinions on the environmental impact of both these industries, but for me it was sad to see these majestic giant hardwoods heading off to Europe and America.
Pulling into the little jetty at Evengue, we were greeted by the warbles and calls of a colony of yellow weaver birds, flitting in and out of their intricately woven nests, which hung like small baskets from the branches of the trees next to the main lodge. We’d come to this little island to meet some orphans, including that mischievous little gorilla and his female friend. Their mothers had been killed by hunters and become victims of the country’s large appetite for bush meat. These two babies had been brought to the island to be hand-raised.
Joining the gorillas for their regular afternoon forest outing was a truly delightful experience. With their distinct personalities and insatiable curiosity, we immediately fell in love with these intelligent little creatures. Watching them play and explore – chasing each other, picking berries and climbing trees – it was impossible not to draw parallels with human children of a similar age. When it was time to return home they evidently decided walking was not for them; running up and grabbing the closest human leg, the little gorillas would put both arms above their heads and you couldn’t help but extend your arms down towards them. Soft little hands grabbed your own hands and then they would scramble quickly up to your shoulders and proceed to investigate your bag, hairclip, sunglasses and anything else that took their fancy.
After returning to camp (and finally getting the cheeky little things into their pens) we headed off to the other side of the island to meet the older orphans, including a big silverback – an awe-inspiring but slightly intimidating 120kg male. I have to confess I was quite thankful there was a fence between us and him.
The evening was spent dining with Caterina and Coen, chatting amicably and listening for the hippo who frequently visits the area outside the lodge. Finally we retired to our huts and fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle and the splashing waters of the lagoon.
The following morning, after a few more hours in the forest with the two young orphans, we headed off on the next leg of our journey. First stop was St Anne’s Mission, home of the oldest church in Gabon. The church sits on the banks of the lagoon and is surrounded by forest. Built in 1889, this amazing cast iron construction was designed by Gustav Eiffel (a good friend of the first missionary’s mother) and all the pieces were shipped out from France.
Inside, the rows of termite-eaten pews are still used to this day. The ceiling of the church bends overhead in graceful arcs mirroring the giant stands of bamboo that grow in a clearing nearby. The clearing is known as the Bamboo Church as it was used for services until the cast-iron one was built.
Leaving St Anne’s we headed up the Mpivie River, listening to the calls of chimpanzees and baboons echoing from the dense forest around us, while kingfishers, egrets and other birds took flight as we approached. After three hours in the boat, and a further one hour’s bumpy drive, we arrived at our destination – Operation Loango’s main lodge which sits proudly on the edge of Loango National Park.
Wolfgang, the camp manager, ran the lodge with impressive efficiency. Everything happened on time and to schedule in a manner that would have been impressive anywhere in the world; in the jungles of Africa it was nothing short of miraculous. And yet he always seemed to find time to stop and have a chat, check that everything was okay and adapt the programme to our needs. As it was the right time of year for whale watching we decided to spend the afternoon on the water. This was the only activity during our stay at Loango that involved an additional cost (the price for the trip was all-inclusive, with the exception of alcohol), but it was well worth every cent.
Skimming across the top of the breakers on our way out to sea in the small zodiac boat was an exhilarating ride and quite an experience. Once out in the open ocean we soon spotted a whale and her calf, just a few days old, with the mother, in a protective move, positioning herself between the calf and the boat. Being in such a small craft we were able to get amazingly close and at one point the whale surfaced right next to us. If I hadn’t been paralysed with sheer wonder I‘m sure I could have reached out and touched her rough, barnacle-covered skin.
We followed the mother and calf for a while and then in the distance we saw a whale breaching, that is jumping right out of the water. We zoomed off in that direction and shortly came across three males playing together – rolling, splashing and doing head stands, all just for the fun of it. Then, as if to add to the show, a number of dolphins appeared. At one point there was a whale in front of us, one behind us and dolphins jumping all around – I let out a desperate cry; “I don’t know which way to look!” Suffice to say there were wide grins and excited chatter when we finally headed back into shore.
The next day we embarked on our first safari, to explore the mix of dense forest and open savannah that stretches from far inland down to the country’s deserted beaches. Apparently Gabon is one of the few places where you’ve a chance of seeing elephants walking on the beach or even hippos surfing the waves. Sadly, so being the unpredictable nature of wildlife, we missed out on both.
Unlike East Africa, Gabon does not have great plains covered with vast herds of animals, but there is certainly enough wildlife to keep you entertained. While walking in the forest and across the savannah we got to see various primates, buffalo, antelopes, elephants, birds, bats, butterflies, lizards and even a scarab beetle desperately trying to roll his little ball of dung out of our tyre track.
That evening we dined alfresco, sitting on the small private platform built out over the water. Wolfgang came down to tell us about the famous visitor who had been there for lunch that day and we were all amused to hear Caterina was sitting on the very same seat that actor Steven Seagal had occupied just a few hours before.
The following morning we headed up-river to the forest camp, Akaka, a basic but comfortable site at the meeting point of two rivers. Our tent, set on a raised wooden platform, looked out into the surrounding forest and during the first night we were visited by one of the local inhabitants. Lying in the dark we could hear an elephant as it munched and stamped around outside. In the morning his giant footprint was visible in the dirt by our tent-platform.
Over the next few days we saw several forest elephants up close. Even though they are smaller than their savannah cousins and live solitary lives in the forest, it was still a bit scary to come out of the tent and see one just metres away. However, our guides had briefed us on standing still and not startling them, and they had also pointed out a type of tree, with large finger-like roots, that provides a good hiding place… just in case!
From Akaka we walked into the forest and canoed on the river, allowing us to see elephants, buffalo, squirrels and red river hogs, plus plenty of bird and butterfly life. I began to wish I had brushed up on my French as although most of the guides could speak a little English, they could explain things much better in their native language. Luckily Jan’s French is quite good and he ended up as translator.
At dusk elephants came to feed in the long papyrus grass on the riverbank opposite the camp’s open lounge. Once the sun had set evenings were spent talking with our fellow campers. Jean Pierre, a Belgian man who had lived in central Africa for over 30 years was writing the first guide book for Loango National Park. He explained that the soft glow we could see on the horizon was the flare from an oil well. He pointed out that, ironically, in some areas the oil concessions actually help protect the wildlife population, as security is so tight that no poaching occurs within their confines. In fact, at one oil concession he had seen all types of animals gathered in a giant circle around a flare at night to keep warm. Gabon certainly has the potential to offer up some amazing sites for those lucky enough to see them.
After two nights at Akaka we returned to the main lodge for a brief stop, and a much needed shower (I had decided not to use the bucket showers at Akaka, although I was told by the others they worked perfectly well). We then headed off for our final night at St Catherines, a camp on the beach near the mouth of Iguela Lagoon, and a fitting end to our time at Loango.
We spent the afternoon swimming, collecting shells and walking along the miles of pristine beach, where our only company were the hundreds of crabs who scurried in and out of the retreating tide. As the sun went down we sat in the beach lounge looking out across the surf at a whale breaching over and over again in the distance. Loango is a magical place and we were sad that we would be leaving.
Our last two days in Gabon were to be a stark contrast from our time at Loango, as we spent them in the capital city of Libreville. Eighty percent of all Gabonese live in an urban environment and it was in the city that we got the best sense of the people of this country. Taxis are the best way to get around, with a 15-miniute journey costing around £4 if you have the taxi to yourself, or anything from 50p to £2 for a single seat in a shared taxi. It’s worth noting that few taxi drivers speak English.
We visited the National Museum, which had a fantastic collection of native masks and costumes. Gabon comprises a number of different tribal groups, including pygmies, all of whom have their own unique costumes and rituals.
We also took the opportunity to sample some local cuisine, as meals at Loango had been of a fairly standard western fare. Manioc, for example, is a root plant and a common accompaniment to main dishes. Jan decided to sample his as whole pieces while I opt for it mashed. Now I don’t consider myself a fussy eater (and I always delight in trying local foods no matter how strange) but I have to say manioc is possibly the most unpalatable food I have ever eaten. After several mouthfuls I was forced to give up as I was scared of the consequences of trying to consume any more. Jan didn’t fare much better.
The waiters had obviously been watching the ‘tourists’ for the predictable reaction and when one came to clear the plates he couldn’t help suppressing a grin as he asked “You no like manioc?” All I could do was look slightly downcast and shake my head.
The final thing that we had on our list for Libreville was a little souvenir shopping in the Artisans Market. Bear in mind that credit card facilities are virtually non-existent outside the big hotels in Libreville, with cash often the only option for payment, with both the local currency and Euros generally accepted. There are a number of ATMs in Libreville but they are not always in operating order so the best bet is the big hotels. Even if their ATM is not working, they may be able to help you at the desk.
We wandered through the rows of market stalls where all manner of wooden artefacts were available, from small carved animals and jewellery to masks and large pieces of furniture. The stallholders were quick to try and lure us in, ready to bargain but quite accepting when we politely refused their wares. I couldn’t, however, resist buying a traditional mask and wooden head rest.
Late that night, as we flew out of Gabon, we looked back at ten fantastic days and it was hard to believe how much we had done. It’s always a great feeling when you can leave somewhere new with a fresh understanding for a country of which you knew so little before. But then, I guess that’s what travelling is all about.
For more infomation about Gabon – Click here