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In Search Of Africa’s Last Eden

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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.

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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.

Gwiti-disumba ceremony of drumming and dancing in Gabon. Picture: Ramdas Iyer

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.

Traditional societies of Gabon including the Punu, Fang, Kwele and the Kota have managed to maintain their cultures despite the slow creep of modernization. Picture: Ramdas Iyer

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.

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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.

Gwiti-disumba ceremony of drumming and dancing in Gabon. Picture: Ramdas Iyer

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.


Dr Joseph Okoye, Executive Director of Parcs Gabon, which manages conservation in the 13 national parks, says there are over 50,000 forest elephants. Picture: Ramdas Iyer

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Bad Times For Billionaire Branson–Staff At Virgin Atlantic Asked To Take Unpaid Leave As Coronavirus Cripples Air Travel

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Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has been criticized by a U.K. politician for airline Virgin Atlantic’s request on Monday for staff to take eight weeks unpaid leave during the coronavirus pandemic.

Labour MP Kate Osborne, the second U.K. politician to be diagnosed with coronavirus, described Virgin Atlantic’s decision as “an absolute disgrace” on Twitter.

Author Liam Young tweeted, “Virgin Atlantic have 8,500 employees and Branson has asked them to take 8 weeks unpaid leave. It would cost £4.2 million to pay all of these employees £500 a week to cover this leave. In total that’s a cost of £34 million for 8 weeks.”

The implication appears to be that billionaire Richard Branson, whose net worth Forbes estimates $3.8 billion, could afford to cover this cost.

Virgin Atlantic confirmed in a statement Monday that it plans to reduce its schedule and prioritize routes based on customer demand. The airline predicts an 80% reduction in flights per day, and adds, “As a direct consequence we will be parking approximately 75% of our fleet by 26 March and at points in April will go up to 85%.”

Virgin Atlantic describes the changes as “drastic measures” put in place to “ensure cash is preserved, costs are controlled, and the future of the airline is safeguarded.”

Adding, “Staff will be asked to take eight weeks unpaid leave over the next three months, with the cost spread over six months’ salary, to drastically reduce costs without job losses.” The airline confirms its decision has received the support of unions BALPA and UNITE in agreeing to the unpaid leave.

A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “The aviation industry is facing unprecedented pressure. We are appealing to the [U.K] government for clear, decisive and unwavering support. Our industry needs emergency credit facilities to a value of £5-7.5 billion, to bolster confidence and to prevent credit card processors from withholding customer payments.”

Bad Times For Branson

Branson’s business empire has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 14 the Virgin Voyages cruise ship operation decided to postpone the launch of its new Scarlet Lady cruise line. “The current global health crisis is understandably making many people rethink upcoming travel plans,” Virgin Voyages confirmed in a statement.

On March 5, British airline Flybe — which is part owned by Virgin Atlantic— collapsed after it succumbed to its financial woes and weakened demand because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Following the announcement of Flybe’s collapse, Virgin Atlantic said: “Sadly, despite the efforts of all involved to turn the airline around, not least the people of Flybe, the impact of Covid-19 on Flybe’s trading means that the consortium can no longer commit to continued financial support.”

Flybe, which once was Europe’s largest independent regional carrier, narrowly escaped collapse in January, after being bought by Cyrus Capital, Virgin Atlantic and Stobart last year.

Virgin Galactic, Branson’s publicly traded space tourism arm, has seen its shares slump since its mid February high of $37.26 on the NYSE. Having lost another 10% of value as of 4:30 pm U.K. time on Monday, Virgin Galactic is priced at $13.30 and falling. Branson’s Virgin Investment Limited owns 47% of Virgin Galactic through an investment entity, Vieco.

David Dawkins, Forbes Staff, Billionaires

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Life

#ExecutiveTravel: Unathi Nkayi’s Ghana

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In the coastal country’s capital Accra, the South African musician savored street food and a different kind of music, in tandem with the sound of the waves.

For Unathi Nkayi, life is all about investing in experiences, be it in her music or her travel sojourns.

The popular South African musician and Idols South Africa judge has lived in and visited several countries around the world, but one of her most abiding memories of a holiday was last year in the coastal African country Ghana.

“I felt the beauty of the continent in Ghana and her pride and respect and her anointing,” Nkayi tells FORBES AFRICA.

In December, she accompanied a friend who was traveling to the West African country, and spent six days in the capital Accra, well into the New Year.

They stayed at the Mövenpick, situated on a busy street down the road from the military base, the presidential house and in close proximity to the beach.

“I’m a beach person so wherever I travel for leisure, I have to be on the coast,” says Nkayi.

On New Year’s Day, she was at one of Ghana’s most popular beaches, Labadi Beach, and it was the most beautiful she had seen – and what attracted her to it more, were the Afro beats emanating from it as she arrived at the parking lot.

The air was spiked with a medley of music, from Burna Boy to Tiwa Savage to D’banj and Wizkid.

As she sauntered closer to the white sandy shores, the music got louder and it became apparent it came from the restaurants serving food to serpentine queues of visitors on the beach.

With music in the air, and the clear blue waters of the ocean under her feet, Nkayi experienced a serene calm as she closed her eyes and shut out her city life in far-away Johannesburg.

The two-hour professional spa massage she received on the beach, with the sound of the waves in her ear, made her de-stress totally. After that, it was time for some soul food on the busy streets of Accra.

Busy Nima area.

“You park on the streets and your table and chairs are on the street. And then, they bring you a tank with live fish and you choose,” she says of the unique experience savoring local delicacies.

She relished her fish with jollof rice and some plantain, the local staples that took her on a culinary journey.

“It was very multicultural in that sense, and experiencing the vastness of Ghana which is absolutely beautiful.”

Apart from the food, the culture and the scenery, Nkayi greatly appreciated the people.

“They are the most gracious people I have met,” she says of their welcoming nature.

Nkayi grew up in Namibia, England and Wales, studied in the Netherlands and Spain, has traveled to France and Belgium, but says nothing compares to visiting countries like Ghana.

“There’s a grace and respect I feel that I don’t feel in the rest of the world,” she says. “It is almost royal.”

She was especially impressed with the way Ghanaian men treat women.

“They adore women… there’s a deliberate acknowledgement of the feminine presence of power,” she says.

Hailing from a country where the femicide rate is one of the highest in the world, she was struck by these genteel attributes.

“For example, there are certain things I do not wear in South Africa. There are certain parts of my closet I only go to when I go on holiday [to places like Ghana], and that is because I know that the West African man will not whistle at me, and he will not call me ma bhebheza [meaning ‘my baby’ as a form of cat-calling].

“There’s an adoration West Africa has for women that I don’t get to experience in any other part of the world,” she says, adding this is something all countries could learn from.

More on Ghanaian hospitality: on one particular morning in Accra, she and her friend visited a local couple who cooked them a three-course meal for brunch.

Alcohol of every kind was offered, including some of the finest from Nkayi’s home country, South Africa.

But what she loved most was the sauce that accompanied her meal.

“There’s a Ghanaian fish sauce I love called shito,” she says.

It’s a hot pepper soup that consists of fish or vegetable oil, ginger, dried fish, prawns, crustaceans, tomatoes, garlic, peppers and spices.

The couple gifted her with three jars of shito that they made, which she carried back home, and thrust into her freezer, so she could enjoy them for longer.

And what can South Africa learn from Ghana?

“Everything!” says Nkayi.

“We need to be more open, and we need to be more hospitable. We need to look at our own continent the same way we marvel at traveling to America or Europe… Africa is beautiful and I marvel at how complex she is.”

Nkayi hopes to visit Ghana again, but not just yet.

Her next trip is to another pristine beach, at Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, for the carnival in February 2020.

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Travel

Emerging Economies, But Weaker Passports

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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.

[To see the infographic on Africa’s rankings, click on the image]

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.

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