November 2016: In pursuit of wildlife in central Africa’s forests, and as part of a larger trip that included Equatorial Guinea, I spent 12 days exploring Gabon with my friend’s Charlie and Jimmie. Our trip coincided with the aftermath of an attempted coup in the month before our visit to remove the president, Ali Bongo that resulted in some sporadic fighting and the deaths of a few soldiers. There was tension on the ground in anticipation of another attempted coup and security forces were on high alert. This wasn’t entirely bad news for us since the price of the airline ticket, which was notoriously high, was now remarkably affordable as a result of the coup.

We came to Gabon, a country rarely visited in Africa to see its wildlife and in Lope National Park was where able to observe mandrills, forest elephants and gorillas. We camped in the forest at times dangerously close to forest elephants and we found ourselves being constantly charged by them and having to run for our lives. We also stayed in a guesthouse at the hospital that Dr.  Albert Schweitzer founded in lamborene and we camped at a remote Catholic mission in the jungle with a priest in the village of Sindara. This is the story of my Gabon adventure.

 

 

About Gabon

Here are some facts about Gabon:

  • French speaking
  • Ex-French colony
  • Consists mostly of equatorial rainforest and 30 percent of the country’s forests are protected for conservation making it one of the leaders in conservation.
  • large oil and timber reserves make it one of the richest countries in Africa, although very little of this money trickles down to its citizens.
  • Gabon was ruled by one of the longest ruling dictators in Africa, Omar Bongo, for 40 years until his death in 2009. Since then, Omar’s son, Ali has ruled despite some controversial elections that screamed election fraud.

 

My route in Gabon

Detained at Immigration

I arrived in Gabon, Libreville on my own via Air France. While I was in the immigration line, I noticed that there were very few foreigner looking people on my plane besides me. While I was waiting in line, an immigration officer in a military uniform motioned anyone who appeared to be foreign into a separate office. I wasn’t worried since I had everything that was officially required of me to enter Gabon; Gabonese visa affixed into my stamp, yellow fever card, a return ticket and an email stating I had accommodation at a couch surfing hosts house with a kind French couple. I was seated in an office by myself and a Gabonese man in broken English viewed my passport and looked at me with a scowl and informed me that there was a problem. I asked him what the problem was, and he responded, big problem. I realized this was a corrupt official trying to shake me down for money and there was nothing I could do but remain calm. The official took my passport and left me in the office alone for 20 minutes. I texted my couch surfing host, a French expat who worked as an engineer for a telecommunication company in Gabon and he was well connected with government officials. He reassured me that I had nothing to worry about and that he was on his way to pick me up and would sort out the issue. When the government official returned, I informed him my host would be arriving at the airport soon to receive me. The official did not seem impressed and left me alone again for another 20 minutes before returning again and this time he handed me my passport and administered an entrance stamp into my passport. I didn’t ask any questions and headed through the airport exit as quickly as possible to find the French Couch Surfing host. My host apologized and explained that the officials in Gabon are corrupt and that these things happen but that a little bribe money can always fix any problem. In my case, he paid the official 20USD to secure my release from airport detention.  I was indebted to the stranger who out of generosity was allowing me to stay in a room of his house with him and his wife for free and on top of that he picked me up at the airport and help me navigate the corrupt immigration officials there.  Then if that wasn’t enough, he and his wife took me out to dinner in a local restaurant on a Libreville beach, which I insisted on paying.

Lope National Park

When my friends Jimmie and Charlie arrived to Loibreville, luckily without any issues with immigration like I had, we met up and organized a 4WD landcruise through a local fixer to drive all the way to Lope National Park and arrange mandrill tracking, camping and gorila tracking in Lope. While there is a train to Lope, it doesnt run every day and in order to have enough time to do everything we wanted to do, we needed to drive to Lope. But our plan was to return via the train.

The drive was long and the roads became prgressively worse as we traveled deeper into gabon. We passed soldier manned checkpoints but surprisngly we had no issues with them. We did see military convoys with heavy weaponry on occasion likely as a result of the recent attempted coup. Another sign of being in Central Africa were the many side of the road venders selling bushe meat, usually monkeys and sometimes crocodiles.

I would like to say that the drive to Lope was uneventful but it wasn’t. The first problem ocurred in a market in a small village. My SLR camera died on me in Equatorial Guinea and I bought an oinferior one in a camera shop in Libreville for amuch higher price than I would have paid back home but at least I had something to record my memories in gabon. I wanted to test it out and so I did in the market by taking photos of the fish in the stalls. One Muslim man accused me of pointing my camera twords a woman and taking her photo, which I didn’t and he was very verbally angry with me. I quietly removed myself from that scene and quite frankly did not expect for that in Gabon, a country with a very small Muslim population. But regardless, of religion, I am always careful about who I photograph and of obtaining permission. Later I read of a foregn man who was attacked from behind with a machete and died in one of these markets on the way to Lope from an angry Muslim man. 

Then as we approached Lope deep in the rainforest hours from any villages in some of the muddiest and worst roads imaginable we found ourselves stuck in a deep rut of mud and when we tried to get out of it our engine died. Our driver was able to fasten a temporary fix for the engine with some rubber bands and metal clothes nagers in the vehicle in true African style to get the starter cables that came loose to reunite so the engine would start but we were still stuck in the mud and the driver was too afraid of scratching the car on the rocks to the side of the road. It was dark ad raining and the insects were horrendous and our driver stopped with a look of panic, began to pray for the car and then said he would walk to the village for help hours away and leave us with the car. Charlie demanded he stay and we continue trying to free the car and this time we cleared a path in the mud and added sticks in the most slippery parts. Then while everyone pushed I drove the car and after several atempts and protests from the driver about scratching the car, we managed to escape the mud and continue to Lope arriving around minight to a very basic wooden hut hotel that at least had working air conditioner. 

Bushmeat for sale

Sig on the road promoting Ali Bongo, President of Gabon

Our Hotel near Lope

Inside of our hotel

The dusty little town along the edge of Lope is where most people stay before entering the park. We spent a lot of time in the local bars, where we had a lot of fun dancing to local music and drinking beers with local villagers.

Tracking Mandrills

One of the main attractions about Lope for me was the mandrills, a giant baboon like species of monkey with bright colorful faces and rear ends. I have seen captive ones in the San Diego Zoo, and I find them fascinating and beautiful, and I really wanted to get photos of them in the wild. Lope has a lot of them, but they are hard to spot in the wild. However, the park warden a French man, pioneered the idea of tracking mandrills with a GPS collar and then leading tourists to the location where they are to observe them. He did this by putting a GPC collar on one of the females because she will always stay in a larger group. Of course, tracking mandrills isn’t easy. They move around a lot and stay mostly in the treetops during day, and they live in deep bush where all kinds of other dangerous animals like snakes and elephants live. My friends and I joined the first tracking trip for mandrills that the warden has ever tried for tourists, and we spent all day tracking them in difficult terrain through where there are no trails. It was hard work and at times we had to retreat because we could hear angry elephants ahead. But on two occasions we were able to get ahead of a moving group of 10-20 mandrills in the forest and wait below the trees as they approached us. I could hear them before seeing them. Watching them reminded me of the movie predator. They were so fast through the treetops and camouflaged. Occasionally I would see a glimpse of one of their rainbow-colored faces in a glint of sunlight but sadly by the time I tried to snap a photo they would move along too quickly and my cheap SLR I purchased in Gabon was not up to the task. They were not accustomed to humans, and they moved even faster once they detected us. Maybe in the future they will become more habituated, and they will feel less threatened by tourists.

Warden looking for sat signals of mandrills

Tracking the mandrills across the hills into gallery forest

Camping in the Forest and Being Charged by Forest Elephants

We initially were going to go to a place where there are habituated gorillas to observe called Mikongo but the road was washed away from the rains so we the rangers recommended another forest in the park where there are gorillas, but they are not habituated and completely wild. We purchased food and arranged our camping gear and were driven a few hours into the park via a jeep until we arrived at the edge of the forest where we immediately spotted a group of forest elephants and buffalo. Gabon is one of the last strongholds of the forest elephant which is being massacred throughout Africa for its ivory and Lope has a lot of them. The rangers dropped us off with our guide and a cook and the jeep sped off. This was our new home for two days and we needed to figure out how to get passed the elephants. The ranger and I went ahead to scout out a path for us to walk around the elephants while the others stayed behind.  Everything seemed fine and it appeared we could just go around them until we rounded a grassy hill and noticed a group of elephants feeding only about 100′ away. The matriarch was already facing us aware of our presence and before we could reach, she charged. The ranger yelled run for the boulders which were located at the bottom of the hill near a swamp full of buffalos. The ranger and I ran like hell, and I could hear the pounding of the elephants’ feet behind me and its trumpeting screams. We sprinted for our lives down the hill and I ran through water spooking a group of wild forest buffalo relaxing in the pond as I ran around its edges finally reaching the boulder and safety perched up on top of the ricks out of reach from the elephant. of course, the elephant is faster than us and could have outrun us if it wanted to but the charge was a bluff. However, not all charges are, and the ranger told me about one of his friends that was killed by an elephant and a Japanese researcher who was crushed by one in this very same area of the forest, so we knew these were elephants that you needed to respect. We waited on the rocks for a good 30 minutes and when it seemed the elephants were gone we continued to the edge of the forest. By now the others had arrived at the forest via a different path with no elephant drama. We walked together into the forest from the grasslands and found an open spot in the forest near a stream suitable for camping.

Forest elephants

Forest elephants

Forest buffalo startled by my intrusion into their pond

Giant boulders in the grasslands where we ran to seek coverfrom the elephants

Deep rainforests of Lope National Park

The forest was a different world from the grasslands. it was cooler, more protected from intense tropical sun but the jungle was far more humid and far more bugs. Every day around sunset to dusk and an hour after sunrise, swarms of stinging bees would gather on our tents and clothes, anywhere with salt and they would occasionally sting if they felt threatened and it hurt like hell. One of the managed to get into my pants and sting my testicle and I had to quickly rip my pants off and remove the bee and the stinger. This was intensely painful. We typically would spend very little time outside of our tent in camp and we ate our food inside our tents. At night, we would avoid wandering far and sometimes we could hear the elephants approaching our camp. It was exciting to be in such a wild environment at the Mery of the jungle around us.

 

Our camp

Tents

Swarms of stinging bees

Jimmie protecting himself fromstinging bees in camp

From our camp, we hiked hours into the forest following game trails each of the two days we were in the forest. To see wildlife and listen for elephants we stayed quiet. We followed our ranger guide, and he could spot monkeys that we did not. He could also hear the elephants ahead of us before we could, and this prevented us from stumbling upon them which would have been dangerous. Nonetheless, every time we hiked into the forest, we would encounter a group of elephants and no matter how careful we were, and we would have to try and tip toe passed them, but this usually led to us being charged and we would have to run and take cover behind a large tree. The elephants were extremely defensive and for good reason, poachers are decimating their populations in central Africa.

After about 5 hours of hiking, we entered an area where the ranger said there were a lot of gorillas, and he was right. Immediately we heard them on the ground, and we crouched down. It was incredible! We sat down and looked up on a small tree as a small female gorilla quietly climbed the trunk of a tree to get a glimpse of us and when she was high enough to lay eyes on us, she immediately froze staring at us in shock. I had my camera out, but it was too dark, and my camera again failed me. After a few seconds of shock, she started screaming and immediately ran off in terror through the forest and the other gorillas followed her. This was our gorilla sighting.

Crossing a stream

Monkey

 Staying in a Guest House at Dr. Albert Schweitzer Hospitol in Lamborene

After our time in Lope, we decided to take the train south and towards Libreville and from there take a bus or taxi to lamborene. My goal was to travel to an area of the forest where the Gabonese pygmies live and camp with them. We waited at the train station at night expecting it to be late and surprisingly it was on time. The interior was absolutely freezing because the A/C was cranked so high making it difficult to sleep in just shorts and a t-shirt. When we arrived at a small junction town on the road to lamborene early the next morning an hour before sunrise, we waited at the train station where there were guards because there were some suspect looking individuals who were trying to lure us out of the station with a promise of a ride to where we wanted to go, and something didn’t feel right about them. We eventually were able to arrange a taxi from one of the train station workers and we drove directly to lamborene. In lamborne we stayed at the hospital founded by Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a German missionary doctor who had a strong desire to bring health care to this part of the world and improve the living standards of its people. He left a wealthy life behind and moved his family to Gabon, where he would dedicate his life to starting a hospital deep in the jungle, where he would eventually die. The hospital to this day is one of the best in the country and we stayed in a guest house adjacent to Dr. Albert Schweitzer house and grave, which is now a museum.

 

Train station in Lope

Train station in Lope

avertisement for hemorroid cream 

Piano that Dr. Albert Schweitzer played in his room

Portrait of Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Bedroom of Dr. Albert Schweitzer Overlooking His Grave and his Wifes

Family graves of House of Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Grave of Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Ruver running passed hospitol of  Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Sunset over river in lamborene

Thanksgiving Dinner with a Catholic Priest in a Remote Jungke Mission 

The plan was to take a taxi to Sindara and from there continue on into the jungle to find a pygmy camp and camp with them for a few nights. But the cost of the taxi to the pygmy camp was too much and we were running out of money, so we ended up staying in Sindara and camping for 2 nights at a remote 100-year-old Catholic mission where a lonely Cameroonian priest was stationed. The old crumbling wooden mission tucked away in the rainforest along a crocodile infested river was exactly the exotic location we wanted to find. It was a few miles walk from a small humble village, where we would eat at a small restaurant and where we would end up buying noodles and cooking a basic meal for Thanksgiving in the Catholic mission kitchen from whatever we could find in the village store, which wasn’t much. We shared the meal with the priest in his home. It was a lot of fun and was one of my favorite Thanksgivings despite the meal not being the finest I have had.  The lonely priest, who only spoke French, still appreciated our effort to include him and we still managed to communicate with basic words and gestures.

 

River we would have to cross by boat to find antoehr taxi to take us a few hours into the forest to find a pygmy tribe

Catholic priest living alone in a remote mission in Sindara. 

100 year old Catholic mission

100 year old Catholic mission

100 year old Catholic mission

Sindara village kids attending the Catholic school in the remote mission post

Graves at catholic mission

Graves at catholic mission

Village kids in class at Catholic Mission

Village kids in class at Catholic Mission

Priest living at the Mission

Thanksgiving dinner with the priest

After our stay in Sindara, we took a bus back to Libreville and spent one more day there exploring before flying back home via France.

 

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