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.
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.
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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.
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.