,

Gabon – A little piece of Eden

On arrival at the solitary building that represented Omboué airport there was a buzz of frenetic activity (perhaps given the heat and humidity frenetic is too generous an adjective). Boxes and people were unloaded and loaded in quick succession. The airplane door was slammed shut, the engines started and the plane taxied down the runway leaving us behind. The shutters on the dilapidated building were pulled shut. All of a sudden the airport reverted to its usual deserted calm and we were left waiting forlornly, exposed to the tropical sun and whatever fate awaited us.

I was in Gabon, a country that solicited a blank response from friends and family when I informed them that I was off there. Few had heard of this country in Equatorial Africa in the heart of Conrad’s darkness despite the myth of Tarzan and the fame of Albert Schweitzer. The fact that it currently has a president called Bongo, only furthered the stereotype and their impression of a dark inaccessible jungle in the heart of Africa.

Yet perhaps this image is not so misplaced as nearly three-quarters of the country is covered in tropical rainforests, which are among the richest and most diverse on Earth. The least densely populated country in Central Africa, Gabon has only one minuscule percent of its land falling under the agricultural axe. Although Gabon is principally known for its tropical rainforests it also has coastal woodland areas and open savannah grasslands where the coastal plains meet the forests. This is why I had come to Gabon. In particular to visit an area in the south known as Petit Loango, which in August 2002 was declared a national park.

That was the theory. But an hour after my arrival in Omboué I was still stood on the airstrip becoming increasingly concerned that my lengthy series of e-mails trying to coordinate this trip had been to no avail. Just as my thoughts were turning to what next and my boy-scout survival skills, a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon speeding toward us. A landrover screeched to a halt and out jumped Mireille and Piet.

Safaris are every bit about people as wildlife and wilderness and this is most certainly the case with Mireille and Piet. A wonderful couple, full of character and the perfect hosts, Mireille and Piet manage Camp Loango, the recently finished lodge that is the best place from which to explore the unspoiled wilderness of Loango. The camp used to be a fishing camp – tarpon, capitaine, barracuda are abundant in the lagoon and further out to sea there are big game fish such as marlin – but its main emphasis is now towards eco-tourism with the revenue of the camp helping to fund conservation and research work within the newly formed National Park.

In the untouched wilderness of Loango there is something for everything. In the first part of the year, December to February, turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Later in the year from July to September humpbacks are to be found just off the coast and the dry season from June to August is the best time to see wildlife such as elephant, buffalo and sitatunga along the flood plains of the Ngové River. At all times you will see at least one of the following buffaloes, hippos, crocodiles, manatees, chimpanzees, mangabeys, gorillas and elephants – one of the nightly hazards of the turtle researchers is confronting elephants on the beach! With such prospects ahead, I retired early.

The next morning we set out by boat to explore the lagoon and the Ngové River. The lagoon was vast, much bigger than I had expected, and the horizon was merely a faint blur between water and sky, discernible only by a thin line of green. Entering the river after the openness of the lagoon felt claustrophobic as huge ferns greedily stretched out to the water’s edge. Images, albeit too often quoted, of Conrad’s “riot of vegetation” sprang to mind. Thick walls of entangled green crowded down upon the water’s edge, where the dark waters of the river provided a brilliant reflection of the canopy.

The swampy vegetation hid a multitude and variety of animals, which unfortunately were alerted to our presence well before we arrived. Nevertheless we did see herds of buffalo, hippo, elephant and a timid sitatunga, which stared back at us frozen with fear before rushing back into the security of the forest. Egrets fluttered by us we puttered past. Ibises patrolled the river margins, as a fish eagle, the vociferous icon of Africa’s waterways, looked imperiously on. Pelicans struggled to get airborne. A pied kingfisher darted nimbly around.

No doubt we would have seen more had we been in canoes, something that Mireille is seeking to organise for the future – a difficult concept to come to terms with in Gabon where there is little concept of time. Such a move would be preferable not only in terms of the fact that less noise would be made and hence more game seen but it would undoubtedly add a boyish sense of adventure and exploration to navigating the river.

I hope that such a move will encourage intrepid travellers to Gabon as their stay would bring much needed revenue to the area and researchers. Thankfully due to the nature of life in the rainforest there would not be a deluge of visitors but a hardy few. The humidity is one factor in deterring masses of tourists, the other being insects, in particular the tsetse fly. The tsetse does not carry sleeping sickness as in other parts of Africa but they do have a nasty bite that becomes maddening to itch. They are the protectors of this magnificent environment and hopefully will ensure its survival for posterity. That is perhaps a little naïve of me as I am sure the same was said of other parts of Africa, which have sadly been developed and denuded of all wildlife. The hope for the future has to be you and your support of the area by going there on a visit that I assure you will not forget.

One sight that I will never forget was seeing elephants on the beach. It is easy to use any number of hackneyed clichés to try and describe how I felt about seeing the elephants on the beach but it was quite simply a very special moment. Why it was quite so special and moving I am not quite sure – I have been lucky enough to see elephant in a variety of places and environments across Africa but none like this. The sound of the Atlantic crashing on the beach, the feel of the sea breeze on my face and the sight of the small herd of four adults, two juveniles and two calves walking on the beach was incredible.

An equally fascinating and highly informative part of our stay were our excursions into the forest. As we set off on a forest walk with our guide François, media-inspired images of unending columns of ants, snakes hanging like vines from trees, and dense vegetation that made progress difficult if not impossible, filled my mind. François warned us about the razor grass, which drew blood at the slightest caress, and to look out for symbiotic ants that lived on, and in, certain small trees – stories abound of local men tying their wives to these trees to elicit confessions of suspected adulterous liaisons. His parting words did little to ease my sense of trepidation. “If we see elephant, keep calm and follow my instruction. The forest elephant is skittish and far less predictable than his savannah cousins. We must be ready to climb out of harm’s way.”

However the reality was a little tamer and all we came across was a man heading off into the forest clutching a couple of bottles. Far from being the local alcoholic sneaking surreptitiously into the forest with his forbidden pleasures, this man was off to reap his daily harvest from his Elaeis Guineesis palm tree. With his permission we followed him to a felled palm tree, where he unravelled some strips of bark covering a hole in the middle of the main trunk of the tree. Below the hole was a large flask into which dripped what he referred to as palm wine. It tasted sickly sweet, unlike any wine that I have had before and is perhaps why I have never seen palm wine in off-licenses back home, despite the fact that each day between one and two litres of wine can be collected from the tree for up to three months.

Within the rainforest there was a bewildering array of flora from the climbing palms and liana of cartoon jungles to hardwood trees like the okoumé (unique to central Africa) and Ozigo trees, which represent cash crops of significant value. François’s knowledge of the forest was encyclopaedic and he showed us a variety of alternative and fascinating uses of the trees and plants. For example the injured bark of the okoumé exudes a sticky clear aromatic resin that solidifies in the air to produce a hard white protective layer, which burns brightly and is used by the locals as candles. François showed us a plant, which he referred to as the “Gorilla plant” so called because of the reaction of gorillas to the surprisingly loud “tok, tok, tok” noise created by tapping the stem of the plant. “It annoys the gorillas,” François said, smiling wickedly. Thankfully there were no gorillas within range to verify his theory.

On our penultimate day we crossed the lagoon by pontoon and headed to Tassi, a rustic turtle research camp on the beach. En route we drove through what is described in guidebook’s as ‘gallery of savannah forest grassland mosaic’, or in layman’s terms savannah interspersed with pockets of forest. There are several different schools of thought as to how this landscape was created, the most prevalent argues that at one point in time the whole area was forest before it receded leaving pockets of grassland. Whatever the reason, the short-cropped grass of the savannah looked manufactured, even manicured. François explained that this was due to the poor quality of the sandy soil rather than the efforts of the herd of buffalo that we encountered.

Arriving at Tassi, the size and sound of the surf was impressive as the waves thumped noisily onto the beach. But it was not until I was actually in the sea and I tried to do battle with the tide did I appreciate its full force. The other thing that I did not appreciate was that I might not have been the only one attempting to master the surf that day.

“Did you see a hippo?” Piet quipped as I left the water. Or at least I thought he was joking until I met Lee White back in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. Lee heads up the Wildlife Conservation Society’s involvement in Central Africa and he showed me some amazing video footage of Gabon and its wildlife, in particular footage of a hippo surfing at Loango!

That night we ventured out from the camp onto the beach to see what animals we might come across. In the lagoon nearby camp we saw the reddish-orange glint of the eyes of crocodiles hunting fish in the shallow waters. We found the tracks of both buffalo and elephant but sadly only came across the former. Yet it did not really matter that we did not see any elephants, for me the thrill was walking for miles on an empty beach bathed in moonlight merely in the hope that we might see elephant.

Early the next morning we set off from camp on foot in the hope of seeing gorillas emerging from their nests in the forest out into the open savannah. Expectations were high, as several gorillas had been seen on the two preceding days. As we sat patiently in the savannah for what seemed like an interminable age, I began to think that I had been the butt of an “If you had been here yesterday, you would have seen…” joke. Then suddenly François whispered, “Chimp”. I looked up to see a large alpha male bounding towards the security of the forest.

Although in the end we did not see any gorillas I was not disappointed. In fact, bizarrely, if we had seen any that morning it would almost have been too easy, too predictable.

Much of the wildlife in the region is wary of humans but where else do you have the opportunity of seeing elephant, buffalo and gorillas in such proximity and by the sea. For me this makes Loango one of the most exciting safari destinations in Central Africa. The habituation process will be a long, slow process but then that is half the charm of Loango, namely that it is raw and untouched. This is an area not for those with tick-lists but those with a thirst for adventure, those who wish to experience.