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.
Emerging Economies, But Weaker Passports
Africa dominates the bottom of the rung in the 2020 Henley Passport Index. A majority of the continent’s passport-holders don’t have the luxury of visa-free travel around the world.
The African Union may be gearing for a common African passport, but for now, it seems like most African passports don’t have what it takes to get to other parts of the world.
In the recently-released Henley Passport Index, which measures all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa, only two African countries –Seychelles and Mauritius — are in the top 50.
The rest of the continent dominates the bottom quarter of the rankings with weaker passports than most, pointing to difficult and intensive visa processes in most cases.
Africa’s biggest economy and one of its most influential, Nigeria, is at the end of the travel freedom spectrum, at a pitiful number 95 with Djibouti. Nigeria’s population of 200 million can only travel to 46 countries without obtaining a visa in advance.
Even passport-holders from Samoa and Serbia have a better chance of traveling to most places in the world, visa-free, than those in South Africa, the African continent’s second biggest economy.
Ranked 56, the number of global destinations South African passport-holders can travel to is 100.
It is followed by its southern African neighbor, Botswana, ranking at 62 with a score of 84.
Seychelles, the archipelago country in the Indian Ocean, is Africa’s top-ranking African passport in this regard, at 29 with access to 151 destinations worldwide.
It is quickly followed by Mauritius which is at 32 with a score of 146 destinations passport-holders of this country can visit.
The lowest-ranking African country is Somalia at 104. Passport-holders from this tiny nation in the Horn of Africa can only visit 32 countries without a pre-departure visa
Globally, Asia dominates the list. For the third consecutive year, Japan has secured the top spot on the index — which is based on exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 191. Singapore holds on to its second place position with a score of 190.
Executive Travel: Slikour’s Mexico
The South African hip-hop artist and entrepreneur experienced a hurricane and a seismic spiritual shift in the city of Cancun.
It has been a journey, a lot to learn and a lot learned,” says Siyabonga Metane, popularly known on South African hip-hop stages as ‘Slikour’.
The learnings have been in music and business, but the journeys have been beyond both.
Just two years post South Africa’s democratic elections in 1994, Slikour was part of a rap group named Skwatta Kamp, formed on the streets of the country’s Gauteng province, with the aim of commercializing the local hip-hop scene.
The group consisted of seven members and most of them went on to release solo albums. Slikour released two, Ventilation Mix Tape Vol.1 and 2, in 2005 and 2007. Long before that, in 2002, Slikour had turned entrepreneur, co-founding Buttabing Entertainment, a record label and artist management organization.
Today, he is also the founder of SlikourOnLife, a prominent urban culture online publication that he started in 2014 catering to music lovers.
Returning to the word ‘journey’, it especially sparks memories of a trip he undertook in 2011 to Cancun, a Mexican city on the Yucatán Peninsula bordering the Caribbean Sea, known for its beaches, resorts and nightlife. Slikour was there for a television shoot as part of a group. The trip still stands out in his mind.
He was not blown away by the city initially, but as he visited some of Cancun’s tourism attractions, he began to change his perception.
Ultimately, it proved to be what he calls an amazing rendezvous.
“The people were pretty much speaking Spanish,” he chuckles, recalling being immersed in the local culture.
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“There are a lot of laborers there and the people are beautiful and accommodating, but we never really spoke or interacted with the community.”
Slikour decided to savor the city’s famed nightlife instead and see for himself what all the hype was about.
It all began and ended with tequila, a distilled alcoholic drink and one of Mexico’s most famous exports, made of the blue agave plant from the city of Tequila in Mexico.
“Everything you do there is done with tequila. I don’t drink alcohol, but I had to accept and apply myself because there, they don’t use tomato sauce, they use tequila; I literally had to get into the tequila swag; it’s everything there. Tequila started there,” Slikour says.
Mexico is known for its recurring hurricanes too, which Slikour also got a taste of while there.
“After a few days of getting there, we were warned of a hurricane, and asked to close our doors and windows, and because these things happen regularly, there’s a drill to follow. The hurricane wasn’t a major one but I was excited because I wanted to see it. I had to look through the window,” he says.
The hurricanes are so frequent in Mexico that he likens the precautions taken to lighting a candle during South Africa’s frequent power cuts.
Despite this exhilarating encounter with nature, the real earth-shaking experience for him, however, happened deep inside a cave in the city of Cancun – and also deep inside him.
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“My spiritual [epiphany] was when I went into those caves. You go in there with your self-assurance, claiming you understand everything. Thereon, they tell you where everything comes from and all of a sudden, you become this very small thing in this big ecosystem. It just shows how everything affects everything,” Slikour says.
The tour guides explained how everything inside the cave came from rain, elaborating how it was connected to the core of the earth; which is where they were at the time.
Slikour was in Cancun for two weeks, and also visited the pyramids.
“The Mexicans didn’t have all the mathematics that we have now but the pyramids were built to perfection. It just showed you how forward-thinking they were and how behind we are in as much as we think we are forward; we just have technology. We don’t think the way historic societies used to think,” says Slikour, in deep reflection.
Mexico is a place he would return to, anyday, in a heartbeat.
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.”
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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.
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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.
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