I've flown in from Sao Tome. to Libreville. It's a flight from Port Gentil today on my way to visit Loango National Park . The same policemen are on the immigration desk at Libreville Airport. ‘Ca va?’ they beam. Afrijet seems to be quite an upmarket airline. The departure lounge has leather seats and free coffee. I’m the scruffiest person in here - everyone else is dressed in business suits or smart dresses. Today the plane is full.
South over the Equator. Port Gentil doesn’t look at all like its name. There’s wooden shanty housing, oil rigs offshore and a clutch of oil executive houses with swimming pools. I’m paired up with Bill from Seattle who is booked in at the same lodge. Another tourist - a rarity on my travels. It takes three different vehicles to get us to the lodge, over increasingly bumpy terrain. A battered old German estate, an even more battered 4WD and an open safari truck.
The first section is not especially interesting, through empty grassland edged with jungle and over some huge river mouths. This is a (small) country of lakes and waterways. There are smatterings of open shops along the wayside, with the odd concrete school. More than anything the journey is an exploration of Chinese engineering, as a Chinese settlement abuts the road, created to facilitate the rebuilding of the National Highway, which we are directed on and off as engineering permits. The project involves some massive stretches of bridge over the waterways, but they’re not open for general use yet and we clatter over temporary metal structures alongside. I’m glad I can swim.
Once at Ombue, at the end of a long peninsula, we’re on sand, slippy silver alternating with stodgy red and the odd ford, for another two hours, until we reach the lodge on the edge of the lagoon in Loango National Park. It’s a picturesque setting, but it’s the Gabonese equivalent of Fawlty Towers. Matthieu, the French manager, instantly goes into a stream of apologies for the state of the place: ‘Neglected, run down, end of lease, new building sometime', he exposulates, in a good John Cleese impression.’.
It’s certainly gloomy and feels empty and uncared for. I have a two room bungalow suite on the edge of the lagoon, with what looks like a pleasant veranda running around it. Except that the doors to this are locked and there’s no key. Matthieu doesn’t know where it is. 'Maybe the last guests took it?' he suggests. Matthieu might have instructions not to spend on refurbishment, but that doesn’t really excuse this or the fact that half the lights don’t work. There’s no curtain over the bath either, so the floor is a huge puddle by the time I’ve finished in the shower.
The Wi-Fi router doesn’t work - quelle surprise - so we’re all piggybacking off Matthieu‘s own phone. Then it runs out of battery. No one has thought to plug it in.
The only upside is the food which is delicious French cooking on the waterside terrace; stuffed crab followed by captain fish for lunch. And there is some animal entertainment. The lodge is alive with lizards, of all sizes and colours, swarming over the decking and engaging in lively spats.
‘It’s very windy here because it’s between seasons and it’s the worst time of year for animal safari. The animals are moving between feeding grounds and are hard to spot. Even the whales are out of season. The gorillas are especially difficult to get to at the moment,’ is the other happy piece of news imparted by Matthieu. So, it’s not surprising that our evening drive is uneventful. The park is unique in having beach, lagoon (with mangroves), savanna and rainforest, so it promises large land mammals, on the beach, as well as whales out to sea, if you come at the right time.
We’re driving along the edge of the lagoon where there are narrow stretches of sand. There are a few shy forest buffalo in the savanna. These are very stolid, with hippo like bodies and are distinctive for their shaggy stripy ears. There are a couple of elephants hiding in the bushes. Our guide Carl, surprisingly, says he will go and entice them out. Unsurprisingly, the cow elephant isn’t keen. She has a calf to protect. So, she makes a mock charge, trumpets and sprays sand all over Carl with her trunk. That’s our excitement for today.
Yesterday, an ordeal by road transport, today by boat, as we bump over the open lagoon for 40 minutes to the gorilla camp. I’ve sat at the front, as I didn’t realise we were virtually on open sea, so I’m bearing the brunt. The lagoon is immense, stretching for miles and spreading into hundreds of inlets.
I’m with an expat French lady who speaks English, is quite chatty and tells me she works in the oil business. She says her last attempt to see the gorillas was cancelled before she even got to the lodge. Our Spanish ranger, Sonia, gives us the low down on safety procedures and protecting the gorillas. The great apes, as predicted, have been elusive over the last few days, feeding in the almost inaccessible swamplands, but the trackers have called to say that the gorillas are currently resting in the forest and we set off to look. Another short boat trip and Sonia remembers a final instruction: ‘If we meet an elephant close up, run. It will charge.’
By the time we arrive, an hour later, scurrying up jungle paths, trying to avoid fallen trees and swarming ants, not to mention patches of deep mud, our quarry has retreated into the marshes. Sonia says that even if we manage to get into the swamp, which is a mammoth challenge, we still won’t be able to see the gorillas, as the elephant grass is so high. I’m definitely not keen, as I’ve already left my trainers behind twice, sucked into the brown goo. And Arturo from Mexico, who lives in Italy and works in London, has already helpfully reported that he picked up leeches after plunging up to his waist here.
But French Oil Lady is somehow dealing with the mud more effectively than me. She looks lithe and fit and is totally unscathed; she insists we advance. We’re not allowed to split the party, so I have to go as well. Two minutes later, I’m up to my knees in mud and have to be hauled out by our two diminutive trackers. (I think they’re probably pygmies). We are forced to retreat. FOL doesn’t speak to me the whole way back. I try sitting in the stern of the boat, in an attempt to avoid the bumps, and instead I’m drenched in spray.
After I’ve cleaned up there’s a transfer to my tented camp. The countryside is almost bucolic, with sun on the rippling grass. And there are four elephants, with a calf, some red river hogs and a hippo to be seen. The hogs have extraordinary white patterned faces and snouts.
Matthieu has promoted this new Loango camp, set by the water and deeper into the park, as being infinitely superior to the dilapidated lodge. I’ve decided not to trust anything else he says. The tent is again nicely sited on the riverbank. And it does have an attached wooden bathroom with an open shower, accessible through a zipped door. But it’s definitely not glamping and there’s no hot water. Also, there is a big spider sitting just above the toilet. I’m supposed to have two nights in camp and am trying to decide whether to request to go back to the lodge tomorrow, but I’ve just been told I’m going back anyway. They didn’t know I was supposed to be staying and there is no food in.
Safely zipped in at night I’m reading peacefully. There is a generator that has been switched on for the evening, so I have light. Until the chugging comes to a halt and there are grinding sounds. On - off, on - off until it comes to a complete halt. I guess the generator has given up too. It’s just as well I’m being repatriated.
The water has run out this morning. Fortunately, there’s just enough to flush my outdoor loo. FOL is here also with her two children and insists that we depart early, as she has to get back home to prepare for her children’s school outing tomorrow. Fair enough, except that she then sits at the lodge waiting for lunch after our entirely without fauna encounter return journey (unless you count a terrapin discovery).
Matthieu explains that last night’s camp was not the one I was supposed to stay at anyway. He just forgot to tell me. He wanted me to sample different areas of the park and he offers a night in the original camp tomorrow.
A boat trip round some of the lagoon inlets with Jean Pierre in the afternoon is more rewarding than previous forays. There are elephants (we creep up and view them from behind a bush) and a family of hippos who perform like synchronised swimmers, lining up in a row to watch us. Only their eyes peep out of the water, swivelling as we move round them. Then they obligingly take it in turns to give huge open mouthed yawns.
Tsetse flies seem to love the water’s edge and they descend on the boat in droves. Jean Pierre bashes my arm, saying that I’m about to be stung. He squeezes the offending insect and tosses it to the deck. Immediately an army of tiny ants appear, march across the floor and demolish the carcass. Ants? Even in a boat.
Jean Pierre follows the narrow beaches to the ocean, flirting with the breakers around the neck of the lagoon and then we return, pursued by a very pretty sunset.
Across the vast Loango Lagoon once more to head up the river to Akaka Camp, which is where I was supposed to stay. Matthieu has suggested one night’s sojourn here, but I’ve declined and we will return this afternoon. I’ve had enough of cold water showers and tents. I’ve also acquired at least 50 very itchy bites from the ungrateful mini-beasts with whom I shared my tent and I’m jigging around, tired and grumpy.
This time the boat doesn’t have any bench seats and I’ve been installed in a canvas camp chair, splendid like Cleopatra. Which is fine till my throne collapses as we bump over the waves. Not so dignified now. Carl rescues me by contriving a wedge out of a piece of timber that’s been washed up.
Other than being bombarded by tsetse flies (fortunately I’ve remembered to wear white) it’s another pleasant day, meandering through the wetlands into the heart of the park. There are plenty of dwarf and long nosed crocodile, snoozing on logs. They sleep with their jaws wide, saw-like teeth on display and their eyes open, and don’t usually notice us straight away, leaping into the water in fright when they do. Most of the animals here are very skittish. They’ve all been hunted and eaten by the locals, even the crocodiles.
We also have buffalo and dainty sitatunga antelope sightings and several elephant encounters. Carl’s definitely not frightened of elephant. His speciality is waterside confrontation, whilst they are feeding on the vegetation at the river's edge. He says there are too many loggy obstacles and too much mud between us for them to be able to charge. I’m hoping he’s right, as it’s me that’s in the firing line. I’ve got a whole series of pictures of flapping trunks and angry red eyes.
And I’m really glad I didn’t opt for the Akaka camp In Loango. It’s been left in total disarray. There’s one tent with no electricity or water and a filthy toilet.
I’m the only one staying at the lodge tonight (it being off season) and the dining room is dead. I’m looking for someone to give me some food…I’m hoping it’s not captain fish again. It’s very good, but I’ve had it three times already. My hopes are in vain. Though there’s an excellent accompanying gratin dauphinoise to compensate.
My bites aren’t getting any better - in fact they’re increasing in number. And nothing I’ve tried is working - antihistamine tables, cream, painkillers. I’m on fire.
A final drive along Loango Beach. It’s a perfect day for it, sunny and breezy, though there are few animals to enjoy it. Even the elephants' usual swimming post is abandoned. ‘They come later in the afternoon’ says Jean-Pierre. I bite my tongue. I’ve been here 4 days and know better than to ask why this trip was scheduled for a morning. The tideline is a conglomeration of plastic - the Benguela current brings it all up from Angola and Congo.
It takes four vehicles to get me back to Port Gentil. Leg 3 is driven by Monsieur Phillippe who gives rides to all the locals in the back of his pick-up and hands the old ladies money for the taxi ride home. I’m obviously right to have misgivings about the Chinese makeshift bridges. As we clatter over Monsieur opens the windows and undoes his seatbelt.
On to Libreville.
I almost didn’t make it over the starting line to visit Gabon. Afrijet has its own terminal, but it’s not equipped to deal with the issue of visas. So, I have to wait till everyone else is stamped in and then I’m bundled into a black police car and driven round the airport. It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings and it’s a bit scary. Especially as they then refuse to accept my authorisation of visa documents as they are a copy of the originals printed out from an email. Thank goodness I’m now in a French speaking country rather than Portuguese. No-one here has any English. I give them the phone number of my contacts in Libreville and amazingly someone arrives with acceptable papers. (Or a bribe - I'm not sure which.) Half an hour later I’m allowed in.
I’m supposed to be met by a man with the unlikely name of Fifi. He’s elusive, but eventually I bump into a Robert, who is asking around for a Suzanne and he has access to a Man with a Van, who takes me to my hotel and agrees to fetch me again in the morning for my flight to Loango Game Park.
Gabon has rich reserves of manganese, iron, petroleum and timber and offshore oil was discovered in the 1970s, helping to make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In spite of this five percent of the population still live below the poverty line.
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