Ramdas Iyer travels deep into the untouched Gabon rainforests to a cornucopia of natural wonders few have seen.
“My father and mother were pygmies, we are all pygmies here and among us is a visitor, who has crossed many seas and rivers to see you. He was, perhaps, a pygmy several generations ago and now wishes to experience our lives as the Babango of Waka.”
This was my – rather unusual – introduction to the villagers in their mbandja (temple) by the Secretary General of the indigenous forest people of the Congo, Gabon and Cameroon.
Visiting the pygmies traversing treacherous roads was certainly a highlight of my trip and was organized by my Spaniard friend Antonio Anero who heads Gabon Untouched, an NGO dedicated to sustainable development through conservation and community tourism.
A marginalized people in most of equatorial Africa, the pygmies have managed to survive for several millennia by hunting in the forest and through sustenance farming.
They live deep in the forests and have only recently started setting up villages near old logging roads.
In 1996, National Geographic explorer, American Michael Fay received grants from National Geographic and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to map unexplored areas of the equatorial rainforests of Gabon.
Accompanied by 16 pygmy trackers, he walked 3,200km for 455 days, mostly along elephant trails in order to demarcate areas for conservation. Fay, along with other agencies, convinced the then President of Gabon, Omar Bongo, to convert 11% of the country into 13 national parks.
In doing so, Fay became one of the greatest explorers and conservationists of the 21st century. After watching his lectures at the National Geographic headquarters, I was inspired to make Gabon my next destination. National Geographic highlighted Fay’s work, along with staff photographer Michael Nichols’ storied images in three feature issues and dubbed Gabon “Africa’s last Eden”.
While Gabon offers everything an African traveler desires, it is certainly not a stroll in the park. The infrastructure, being poor, restricts road travel to only a few months each year, during the dry season.
I felt safer traveling by river, since getting stuck on roads and washed away bridges was minimal. Telephone services and electricity did not exist in the rural areas where I was traveling.
On two occasions, once in the Waka Forest and another time in the remote forest village of Doussala, where we are setting up the Gabon Untouched NGO, I was feted with an amazing all night bwiti-disumba ceremony of drumming and dancing.
Bwiti is a spiritual discipline and plant-based belief of the forest-dwelling Babongo and Fang people of Gabon and Cameroon.
They are the originators of the use of iboga, a mind-altering hallucinogenic root, which is central to the practice of bwiti for thousands of years.
Bwiti followers believe that the supreme being can be found in the presence of the ancestral dead. Chief dancers in night-long rituals lead men to the afterlife with the help of iboga.
It turned out that Tataou, my bush tracker, was the nganga (traditional healer) of the village. Despite being under the controlled influence of iboga, he honored my presence as patron for the evening and danced with me for some time.
This was a surprise since only initiated members of the tribe dance around the fire. To me, this experience represented old Africa at its zenith and made my Gabon trip complete.
Equatorial rainforest envelopes 85% of Gabon’s territory, while grasslands, large rivers, savannah and coastal lagoons make up the rest.
Gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants can be seen anywhere, even on the beaches. While on my way to Kongou Falls, a 3.5km wide cataract of the Ivindo River, I bumped into Dr Joseph Okoye, Executive Director of Parcs Gabon, which manages conservation in the 13 national parks.
He remarked that there are over 50,000 forest elephants, 25,000 gorillas and over 60,000 chimpanzees in Gabon based on a census conducted by WCS in 2015.
It certainly felt that way to me, since I was nearly trampled by a charging elephant that emerged onto the forest trail leading to the falls. It took me four hours by pirogue to reach my camp through pristine rainforest, occasionally dodging whitewater coursing over dangerous rocks.
Okoye informed me that less than 50 people visit the falls each year. In this ultimate wilderness, there’s no sign of human impact for over 150km downstream from the falls.
Hunting for bush meat is very common in Gabon. This makes apes and monkeys very shy and one needs to penetrate deep into the jungle to get a glimpse of them.
It’s very common to see hanging carcasses of gazelles, exotic monkeys, pythons, antelopes, porcupines and mongoose as you drove along the roads. Every restaurant serves these animals, which can be both dismaying for a conservationist and discomforting for a western traveler.
Fortunately, many primatologists from the world over are working with Parcs Gabon to habituate gorillas, chimpanzees and mandrills for conservation and ecotourism.
At the Moukalaba-Doudau National Park, I stayed in a research encampment built by the Japanese to allow trackers find gorillas. I spent two days in the station deep inside the park with two Japanese students, Masaki and Miyoki.
This is a place with no phones, electricity or food sources. My team happily shared our non-dehydrated food with them, so science could prosper in the park.
Fay also created Loango National Park, the crown jewel of the park system, which is home to a stunning diversity of habitats within its 1,800sqkm range.
The rainforest meets the ocean at Loango and it was indeed a thrill to see elephants, buffaloes and occasionally hippos strolling on the beach. For animal lovers, Loango is a true paradise on earth: home to forest elephants, hippos, red forest buffalo, leopards, crocodiles, western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, sitatunga, duikers, a vast array of birds, a variety of monkey species, and one of the world’s largest offshore concentrations of humpback whales and dolphins.
Traditional societies of Gabon including the Punu, Fang, Kwele and the Kota have managed to maintain their cultures despite the slow creep of modernization. The wood carving traditions here include Fang and Punu masks, beaten copper Bakota funeral reliquaries and the ultra-modern looking Kwele sculptures.
It is well-known that West African masks had a significant impact on 19th century artists working in the abstract style of modern European art. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse both shared this admiration, with Picasso amassing a large collection of Gabonese masks.
One of the most touching moments during my trip was my visit to Dr Albert Schweitzer’s hospital and gravesite. The jungle hospital he set up in 1915 is one of the greatest feats of self-sacrifice and service to humanity and, as such, was duly recognized by the Nobel committee by awarding him the 1952 Peace Prize.
The hospital at Lambaréné is visited by many physicians as homage to a great medical practitioner. I had the privilege of staying in one of the renovated rooms where many young interns from around the world arrive to perform health service and learn about tropical disease treatment.
Gabon is also gifted with oil wealth. However, the profits from oil wealth and mining have only built the fortunes for a handful of elites.
The government of Ali Bongo maintains a heavy hand in the local politics while most of the citizenry does not see a trickle down effect of this wealth.
Boko Haram, the terrorist group, has nearly 2,000 jihadists in the Cameroon, Congo, and Gabon border trading in diamonds and tusks while promoting human trafficking.
Like elsewhere in Africa, the future of the continent’s natural wealth is in jeopardy. The serpent has entered Eden.
Executive Travel: Reneilwe Letsholonyane’s Manchester
The 37-year-old South African soccer midfielder says he could move to the English city for its sense of serenity and calm.
South Africa’s former national football player Reneilwe ‘Yeye’ Letsholonyane started playing in the streets of Soweto but his fame has often taken him beyond the soccer pitches of South Africa.
Also a fashion entrepreneur and co-founder of the newly-established ShaYe lounge, the veteran midfielder recounts the indelible memories of his most recent holiday to Manchester with his wife, sports presenter Mpho Letsholonyane.
“In the off season of 2018, I had just gotten married. I personally love Jay-Z and my wife loves Beyoncé; and they were having their On The Run 2 tour in Manchester; a major city in the northwest of England.”
READ MORE | Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana
Letsholonyane had also always wanted to go to Paris, a major European city and global center for art, fashion, food and culture, so flew to Manchester via the French capital.
The newly-weds spent a few days in Paris and thereon proceeded to Manchester for the concert, flying Air France on both sectors.
“Funnily enough, the economy class on Air France is not as squashed as the economy class on South African Airlines. You’d expect an uncomfortable flight, but that wasn’t the case. There was enough room to stretch your legs and recline your seat,” says the footballer.
Upon landing and clearing customs, a shuttle was waiting for the two to be chauffeured through the city to their hotel. The 40-minute drive was what the 37-year-old says he enjoyed the most. It made him reflect and draw comparisons between his home country and Europe.
At the age of 23, Letsholonyane’s professional career had kicked-started, but it was in 2008 that he joined one of South Africa’s biggest teams, the Kaizer Chiefs Football Club, for an eight-year stint.
READ MORE | Executive Travel: NaakMusiQ’s Dubai
Receiving the call to represent Bafana Bafana for the 2010 World Cup was a moment he recalls vividly.
“We were at camp, and told to check out from the hotel and go home. We were to find out from the media, like other citizens, if we had been selected to play. I remember I was in the streets and didn’t want to focus on the media because I was nervous, panicking and excited.
“My parents broke the news to me, but there was more cheering in my hometown and outside my parent’s home. A soccer pitch and jersey with my number and surname were painted in the streets.”
It was a moment that led to fame and more travels. He flips back to Manchester, gushing about the city’s architecture as he was equally captivated by the serenity of the city and its mild-mannered people.
“The standalone houses are the kind you see on television, with no walls. People that side don’t seem to be worried about burglaries. It seems like the crime rate is low. It’s quiet and it’s the quiet that I like. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I could stay here’.”
Letsholonyane admits to seeking alone time to think and ruminate.
Ironically, for the footballer, the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert was in the home of a football club.
Like all tourists, the couple traveled to Etihad Stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club, where the musical extravaganza was to take place.
“We were told to use the train; luckily, it was a five-minute walk to the station. We got there but the people around us showed us what to do and where to go. We got off at a station, only to find out we had to wait for another train and it was packed. Then I started thinking about the hassle of getting into the stadium,” he says.
Letsholonyane and his wife dribbled their way through busy subways in Manchester to watch their favorite musicians on stage.
“Getting to Etihad Stadium was a pain-free experience. We got there early and people were idling outside. We went straight in and got seats in the front. There was no opening act, just the artists’ music playing.
Then the lights went dimmer and dimmer.
“It was time, we were about 10 meters away, and we saw them closely. Then it started raining. You’d think people would run for cover but no, people were just enjoying themselves. It was two and half hours of Beyoncé and Jay-Z and an experience never to be forgotten,” he says.
It was well after 1AM when the couple reached their hotel. “There was nothing that made us uncomfortable about walking the streets of Manchester at night. It felt like day.”
The night ended with rain, rounding off a day so different from playing under the hot African sun in the soccer fields of South Africa.
No Longer In The Wilderness
Meet the women challenging stereotypes deep in the bush in Botswana’s tourism capital Maun, filling roles conventionally held by men.
For 10 years, until 2018, Botswana had no First Lady, as President Ian Khama was unmarried. Botswana’s first First Lady, Ruth Williams Khama, the wife of Botswana’s first president Sir Seretse Khama, was recognized for her charitable work with women, and the current First Lady, Neo Masisi, is a champion for these causes too.
However, Masisi is also an accountant by profession with an MBA and an impressive resume (United Nations Headquarters in New York, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic).
But not just on the frontlines, in the deeper realms of this southern African country and acclaimed tourism destination, there are more women defying stereotypes, especially in its famed safari industry.
In the country’s tourism capital of Maun, at Kwando Safaris, guests visiting the iconic Okavango Delta waterways and predator plains of the Central Kalahari might be surprised to discover that for over a decade, a majority team of women have been behind the operation.
“Having so many women work in the company was never a policy; it just happened that way. I guess that women were just more capable,” says Sue Smart in her office in Maun.
She talks about her role as the Director of Kwando Safaris for 12 years as an accidental occupation, but a gutsy corporate background primed her for the head position.
“Coming to Gaborone as a volunteer, I worked with children impacted by HIV/AIDS. Then I visited the Okavango Delta on holiday. A chain of life events eventually led to me working at Kwando Safaris’ Kwara Camp, volunteering back of house, in the kitchen, with housekeeping – anywhere they needed it.”
Formerly a Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, with a background in environmental biology, it was a chance meeting with the owner that saw her grow from volunteer to boss in just three months. “In many ways, I was not a conventional fit for this role. I’m not African, a pilot, a guide, or a man, but my background in other areas meant I could run a business – even in the bush.”
Having a woman at the helm has had significant side effects for the company. Many women at Kwando Safaris hold high positions, from the general manager to operations manager to those in reservations to sales and marketing. This unofficial head office policy also extends into the camps in a formal staff management plan, where each lodge has a male and a female camp manager always on duty.
Looking at the origins of tourism in Botswana, it’s perhaps not surprising that (generally speaking) travel in southern Africa has been a male-dominated industry. After all, the very first visitors to Botswana’s wild spaces were rough and tough gun-slinging, trophy-seeking tourists.
The current CEO of Botswana Tourism is a woman and, attesting to the country’s progressiveness, she’s not the first either. Myra Sekgororoane is encouraging about women in the industry saying, “I have not encountered any significant challenges because of my gender. Perhaps, I have been lucky in that the hospitality and tourism industry tends to have a high predominance of females globally.”
According to National Geographic, research shows working women in developing countries invest 90% of their income in their families, compared to the 35% generally contributed by men.
Tumie Matlhware and Ruth Stewart, managers for Travel For Impact, wholeheartedly agree. The Maun-based NGO aims to spread the wealth generated from tourism activities into the community, providing a direct and tangible link between conservation and its benefits.
“We want tourism dollars working beyond the traditional tourism world,” says Stewart, when we meet for coffee at the charming Tshilli Farmstall, another female-run establishment in Maun.
Travel For Impact has a powerful goal, with the slogan of “If every tourist who slept in our beautiful country paid 1 USD for every night they spent here, we would raise in excess of 300,000 USD per year”.
By partnering with exclusive lodges, camps, tour operators and hotels in Botswana, funds generated are put into local community partners, such as support for basket-weaving cooperatives. Looking at the company profile, the NGO funds many projects that support women.
Stewart shares the scientific standpoint endorsed by National Geographic, saying: “Women are the backbone of the community. If you support women, it gets passed down. They buy food, school supplies and more. They are the pillars of society.”
The corporate social responsibility choice at Kwando Safaris concurs. Smart believes that “the ultimate saviors of animals are people, which is why we sponsor the grassroots initiative, Mummy’s Angels, instead of a more usual conservation project”.
Mummy’s Angels started in April 2018, spearheaded by three women in Maun, to empower mothers with newborns who have little by way of financial support.
“We had second-hand clothes and other baby items in good condition and wanted to donate somewhere it would make a difference,” says one founder, Rochelle Katz.
Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana
The 32-year-old South African comedian traveled to the West African country for some eye-opening experiences.
South African comedian, actor and entrepreneur, Mpho ‘Popps’ Modikoane, is a frequent traveler but ask him about his happy place and he says it’s a little corner of Africa named Ghana.
He has traveled overseas before, but it was his travels within Africa that opened his eyes to the magic of the continent, and made him realize that all Africans have the same stories and are essentially the same.
“It’s just these borders we were brought up [in that] we don’t take the time to learn about each other’s cultures and share each other’s stories,” says Modikoane.
“I’ve traveled to a lot of countries over the years and early on in my career, I was in the US. A few years ago, I went to Canada for the annual Just For Laughs international comedy festival and these places are amazing, but traveling in Africa has been the most eye-opening for me.”
Modikoane’s career kick-started in 2009 on the reality TV show, So You Think You’re Funny? His growing audiences haven’t stopped laughing since.
With fame, came the chances to travel. His very first trip to West Africa was to Nigeria on Arik Air two years ago, when he flew business class.
“I don’t know what it is about us [black people], but when we don’t have things, we don’t see why it’s necessary – we don’t understand why we have to pay R30,000 ($2,000) for a seat, a leather seat,” he says, chuckling.
He goes on to elaborate with his trademark wit: “The seat is reclined all the way, we are drinking champagne in glasses; I didn’t even know there were glasses on planes…. Even forks and knives. And in business class, you don’t get shouted at by the attendants for reclining your seat four centimeters back, never! Even the magazines are not the same – we get business magazines and informative magazines. We even have a food menu with pages.”
That was his trip to Nigeria when on the ground, he was impressed by the hard work of the locals, the hustle and bustle of the streets and everything from bikes and Maybachs driving past him.
However, Ghana was his most memorable destination where he stayed five days.
“Ghana just looks beautiful and is next to Nigeria and they have this feud going on about who makes the best jollof rice and after tasting both, I have to give it up to Ghana,” says the comedian.
What he also loved about Ghana was its orderliness, and the warmth of the people.
What impressed Modikoane was that the people did not wait for the government to give them handouts and opportunities; the locals were willing to work hard to find them.
“The people there work outside of their work, have a business outside of their job and that’s the one thing I’ve come to realize about traveling in Africa. We [South Africans] are sitting in the land of opportunity but we are not working as hard as those from other parts of Africa. That is the magic of going to these places and spending time with other artists or musicians who also may have [on the side] their own clothing store, a restaurant, a barber shop…”
Modikoane juxtaposes his experiences in Ghana and South Africa, making various comparisons in the ways people conduct their lives. “When you go outside of South Africa, you see the Africanness of our continent. We South Africans have the modern, western element and live with white people in our communities and our country is not fully ours, but there, it’s theirs. Their heritage is rich, their culture is rich.”
And the most important part about visiting the rest of Africa for Modikoane?
“They make you feel like a celebrity,” he chuckles again.
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