With great rainforest comes great water. Rivers, lagoons, streams, rivulets. Lakes, ponds. Estuaries.
Venturing to Gabon’s interior, I saw more Giant Kingfishers in an hour than I had seen in my 64-year-old life. Africa’s biggest rainforest is awesome, getting there is worth the considerable effort, as you discover so much about the country, its people, its potential.
The birdlife is prolific: on the estuary in Loango National Park hundreds of Darters flew with our small boat, on the mighty Ongoue River, deep into Gabon’s famed forest.
It takes six hours by small speedboat from Port Gentil, a small harbor town 45 minutes by air from Libreville, to get to the tiny five-hut camp of Akaka. Here you are alone in the middle of the rainforest. Although the only guest in the park, I was provided with three helpers: a chef/fire maker, a boatman/bird guide and a house/bar maid. But I run ahead.
This was my first visit to Gabon. The country is green, humid, has a musty smell, is very French and fascinating.
New and expensive cars, in slow traffic along a lengthy boulevard next to the sea, take you from the small airport to beachfront hotels in Libreville. The country looks rich but when you leave the city you become aware of the chasm between the haves and have-nots. You discover that the fancy SUVs are owned by the rich, but mainly by NGOs, oil companies and government employees.
With 1.5 million people, a lot of oil and the biggest rainforest in Africa, Gabon has great potential. Tourism. Technology. Transport. Telecoms. All need work.
I woke up on my first morning to a grey and greasy ocean: the eastern Atlantic. A lukewarm humid wind was blowing across the beachfront.
People are warm and cheerful, yet seem reluctant to do anything. Trying to organize a tour to the fabled reserves in the rainforest was trying, to say the least. Tour companies are thin on the ground.
Prices can be high, at $415 a night in Loango and $130 for dinner, bed and breakfast at the only hotel in Olako, a small town where most residents live in shacks. The hotel would struggle to earn three stars. But you can bargain everything in Gabon, from the price of accommodation to the price of a cold drink.
That said, the rainforest is certainly that overused word: awesome. It inspires awe and defies description—talk about one huge, tall, straight tree and it is immediately out of its jungle context. You can’t describe the wood for the trees. The extent, too, is vast.
In 2002, President Ali Bongo declared 11% of the oil-rich country a protected area, a decision with enormous consequences.
A decade later the decision is creating work for many, from bureaucrats to conservationists, forest police to scientists. All agree that Gabon is not yet ready for ‘real’ tourism, but it does have a detailed plan, which is to be ready by 2015.
It includes addressing the lack of qualified personnel in all hospitality sectors; providing tour packages in languages other than English; improving marketing and the establishment of accredited tourism companies. Patience, money, effort and professionalism are absent. The chain of command is weak; economic viability is precarious and service needs improvement. Gabon needs close links between government, community, industry and scientific and conservation partners.
Heading up Gabon’s parks is Professor Lee White—a strong supporter of the president and a realist about the state of the country. White says Gabon is not set up for tourism… yet.
“There is a big vision for industrial Gabon to help the economy, but we need to take account that Gabon is also 88% rainforest, and 20% protected areas. Other countries create parks in their cities, we have created cities in a park. Our challenge is to plan to expand Libreville with an emerald necklace around it of those gems of protected areas. I’m lucky, I probably work for the greenest president on the planet. Some of our neighbors are less green so we do have cross border problems.”
Getting to my first park was certainly an experience. To give readers an idea of what it means to travel in this water world of rainforest: I left the hotel in Libreville at 5:30AM in a taxi to the airport, took a 40 minute flight to Port Gentil, then a taxi to the fish market, waited for an hour or two, took a speedboat for three hours, changed to a long boat, traveled by car for two hours, only to arrive at 3:30PM—10 hours later. And then you are only at the park’s entrance. And I was lucky, as I had run into a concession owner at the fish market, who happened to be going to the park.
The 9AM boat up the river to Omboué left 90 minutes late at 10:30AM.
Both my Gabonese fellow travelers inquired politely, and independently, before we embarked whether I knew that Jesus was my savior. I considered myself fortunate to know the answer.
Wide-eyed at my first look at the forest, I vocally enjoyed the boat trip, which was merely a commute for them. Everyone travels on water in that area, roads are few and far between.
The next morning my carefully arranged 7AM boat was only ready at 9:30AM, to take me from the outskirts of the rainforest to its heart of Akaka. There is no electricity at Akaka, it is wild, a tiny camp built facing one of the innumerable rivers, estuaries, lagoons. The tented huts are sparse and clean, each with a shower and toilet.
It took another three-hour boat ride to get there, it was a fascinating boat trip on a lagoon, into floodplains and flanked on all sides by massive trees, papyrus, palms and undergrowth. Deep in the rainforest, wild animals emerge and the birdlife becomes more prolific.
Two forest elephants lifted their trunks to sniff us as we arrived. And I ticked a Hartlaub’s Duck, then a beautiful Shining Blue Kingfisher, and a Slender-snouted crocodile, looking very unthreatening with his long, thin jaw.
My three-person team cooked French food that was superb, rather anachronistically given the jungle setting. A communal kitchen-cum-dining room overlooks the water.
En route to Akaka common birds on the river included scores of Palm-nut Vultures, Green-backed Herons, Hamerkops, as well as Pied, Giant and Shining Blue Kingfishers. We counted 76 Jacanas in an hour, and over two days saw eight African Finfoots, a bird rarely seen in South Africa; it looks like a duck, swims like a duck but it ain’t a duck.
By night, in the dark of the forest I tried to tell frogs’ calls from birds, or were those weird sounds perhaps insects, monkeys or bush babies?
Wonderful and exciting. Truly, Africa’s Eden.
The forest elephants of Loango, unlike many African parks, are solitary or in twos. No herds. It was curious to see one, great long tusks colored brown, struggle through the muddy bank, each foot audibly sucked by mud as it was withdrawn with difficulty, before the beast plunged ever onward, through even more mud.
A buffalo also tried running from us, quite comically, its legs in mud up to its tummy.
As you drift quietly along the estuary, dense forest keeps opening up to large plains, still with water everywhere and brilliant green ground cover. In one single view at such an opening I saw a flock of 31 Pelicans, a pair of elephants, Great and Cattle Egrets, a hovering Pied Kingfisher, three African Darters, a flock of about 40 White-faced Whistling ducks, and a Nile Crocodile who was observing it all from the bank, while two buffaloes struggled through the mud.
We stopped floating down the estuary soon after, tied up the boat and took a walk through the forest for an hour, believing mistakenly that we were going “to the sea” whereas we were just going “to see”. English is a problem in Gabon; the president is committed to changing the national language from French to English. Good luck!
We saw three different kinds of monkeys and two species of buck, a duiker and the Sitatunga, a large and striking antelope rather like a Kudu.
Some very special Hornbills haunt the trees, including the big Black-casqued Wattled Hornbill and the Piping Hornbill—“Peeping Hornbill”, my guide kept chanting—we saw a huge Great Blue Turaco, and around 40 African Skimmers on a sandbank with a dozen Royal Terns plus a few White-Fronted Plovers.
Near Loango Lodge two hippos in the lagoon eyed us warily, around 200 meters from where they surf in the sea.
But it’s not just about the birds or the trees, elephants, crocodiles, buffaloes or the like. It is the whole magnificent rainforest that inspires wonder.
Ecotourism will always be a tough battle but at least Gabon has a plan and a very good place to start. President Bongo and the good professor White deserve the conservation world’s support in their admirable endeavors.