Category Archives: Offroading

Road Trip Around Gabon. Part 1: Gamba to Lope National Park

One of the things we knew even before we moved to Gabon was that we we wanted to explore as much as the country as possible. So after months of planning, Teun, myself, my brother and four other friends set off on a road trip around Gabon. We planned a route that took us around the center of Gabon and included several different parks. In planning our trip we used the Bradt Guidebook to Gabon (no, I’m not receiving any money to mention it, but it is the only (as of early 2017) English language guidebook for Gabon), and, as we live in Gabon, we gathered information from friends that had already traveling around the country. While the Bradt book was extremely helpful in planning our trip and finding our way around, we did find some of the information to be incorrect or out of date, and in some cases it was obvious that the author did not actually visit what they were talking about, but must have heard this from other people, so just an FYI.

map of our driving route around central Gabon

Getting out of Gamba is always a challenge as after about 45minutes of driving you have to take a small ferry to cross the Nyanga river, and you never know how long it will take to get your turn. Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long (only about 45 minutes ūüėČ ) and we were soon onto the new (not yet tarred at the time of the trip) road that connects to the national road system.

Day 1: Gamba to Mouila
ready to cross the Nyanga River at the start of the road trip

On the first day we drove from Gamba to the town of Mouila. It took the better part of the day as a considerable part of the road between Gamba and Mouila is still under construction and consists of laterite (red rock gravel).

I insisted we pull over so that I could get a better look at this shy snake (Calabar Boa)
First sunset of our road trip around Gabon seen from the the car as driving
typical view on the road…lots of trees

In Mouila we stayed in a nice hotel near the river, where we had dinner. There was a wedding going on in the hotel that night, which made it rather awkward for us when we turned up at the front of the hotel in our 4×4 cars covered in dirt and the majority of us dressed in casual/outdoor wear, while all the guests milled around in their fabulous wedding attire. The party went on until the wee hours of the morning, making sleep a little difficult.

Day two took us from Mouila to the lively ¬†town of Lambarene, a drive of about 4 hours on a very nice road.¬†In fact, the majority of the national road network is very good, being new, wide paved roads. However, in certain places there are “national roads” that are pretty horrendous dirt/gravel tracks with loads of potholes and bumps (more about that in a later post).

after a long drive, we stayed the night in Mouila. The next morning we visited the nearby Blue Lake (trust me, it was blueish)

On the way into Lambarene there is a police stop we are all too familiar with. During our trip to Ivindo National Park earlier in the year this police stop had caused us the most delay and annoyance (as we refuse to bribe police). It ended after about 20 minutes with us giving the police officer a few slices of chicken sandwich meat and some stale bread. This time was no different. You always have to present your residence cards or passports to the police at every stop. He quickly examined Teuns and mine, but upon seeing my brother and Adrienne’s passports we asked where their invitation letter was. We explained that they had applied using the online e-visa scheme and they only needed the Gabonese visas that were in their passports. After some arguing, among which he also insisted they needed permission from their parents to be in Gabon, even though they’re both in their 30’s, I suggested that we should call the visa services ministers to determine what was actually necessary. This ended that conversation so he was on to his next issue…in our breakdown emergency kit (there are a large number of items you are required to keep in your car including a fire extinguisher with its own certificate of expiry) we only had one reflective triangle instead of 2. Again more discussion and us being told we could be fined 200,000 XAF (roughly $350) or thrown in jail, and magically one of the other police officers having an extra triangle he could sell us, we eventually negotiated that we would buy the triangle for 20,000 XAF and not get a fine. After 45 minutes and 20,000 XAF we were on the road again.

Lambarene is known for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital and the beautiful waterways that surround it. We stayed at the Ogooue Palace Hotel, which sits on a lovely spot next to the water.

we arrived at Ogooue Palace Hotel in Lambarene
saw lots of weaver birds busy building nests in the trees around the hotel
pool time in Lambarene

After a quick dip in the pool we headed out on a boat tour, which included a walking tour of a small island where a former woodmill was located. This island now offers cabins to stay at.

boat trip in Lambarene
riverside market in Lambarene
fisherman in the lagoon near Lambarene

 

view of the Albert Schweitzer hospital from the water
coming back to our hotel there was a bridge where hundreds of bats were roosting on the underside
bats under bridge in Lambarene

The next morning we visited the nearby Albert Schweitzer Hospital and museum. We picked up some pastries on the way and enjoyed eating them while watching the sitatungas (antelopes) and pelicans, before heading into the museum which gives details about Albert Schweitzer’s life and work and reconstructs his house.

Albert Schweitzer Hospital museum in Lambarene

young sitatunga at the museum
Albert Schweitzer’s grave
not so friendly pelican

A little before noon we were back on the road heading to Lope National Park, but not before a quick detour to cross the equator.

made a slight detour to cross the equator
getting closer to Lope the terrain changes to open grassy fields
first elephant sighting as we get to close to Lope National park
beautiful river view near Lope Hotel

 

next up….Road Trip Part 2: Lope National Park….

Chimpanzee and Car Trouble en route to Point Pedras Beach

Teun and I spontaneously decided to go to Point Pedras¬†beach one Sunday afternoon, so after loading up the car with some snacks and drinks we hit the road. It takes about 30-45 minutes (depending on how fast your drive down the laterite and sand tracks) to get there and it was already about 3:30 when we made the decision to go so we didn’t think to invite anybody else that day. Just after turning off the laterite path and on to the sand track I noticed something running across an opening between the trees ahead of us. It looked quite large, but I didn’t say anything to Teun at first because I thought it was probably just a monkey (hahaha just a monkey, they’re so common place around here ūüėČ ). A minute later we both spotted a smaller primate running through the same area and we looked at each other and started discussing what it could be… a monkey? a gorilla? a chimpanzee? All are possible here. He sped forward towards the opening and just as we came through we saw a large ape-like animals¬†running through the savannah towards the next group of trees a couple hundred meter in front of us. 20151122-IMGP8657I raised my camera through the open window of the car and started trying to snap some pictures of our mystery creature. It was definitely too big to be a monkey! As it reached the edge of the trees it quickly climbed into one of the trees and turned back towards us. It was checking us out too! 20151122-IMGP8678He must have sat in the tree for a good 5 minutes just staring back at us and occasionally glancing away toward the far end of the forest.¬†This also gave us time to¬†finally identify our mystery animal, it was a chimpanzee! I assume there must have been a family group and this was the alpha male making sure his family was safely concealed before taking off. Soon he climbed out of the tree and took off himself. What an amazing siting!!!

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We then continued on our way to the beach and had a nice time walking along the edge along the edge of water with Eva (our puppy) and then having some drinks and snacks under the shade of the palm trees.¬†A little before 6 we decided to pack up and head home as the sun would be setting soon and we would rather not negotiate the sand tracks through the jungle in the dark. At almost the same exact place that we have stopped the car to watch the chimp Teun drove through what looked like a shallow stream of water (normal here during the rainy season) and it ended up not being so shallow. 20151122-IMGP8696The front of the car made it through thanks to the momentum, but the back end wasn’t so lucky.We were stuck. After a few failed attempts to try get out of the rather deep pool of water that were only digging us in deeper (the back bumper was now completely under water) we knew we were going to have to call someone to help us.I dialed the first person I thought would be able to get to us quickly, our friend Anne, who was actually borrowing out other friend’s¬†(Ann) car. 20151122-IMGP8723Luckily she picked up and said she would come as quickly as possible, which was good as the sun was about to set. About 30 minutes later we saw our rescue (Ann and Sarah) coming down the road. In just a matter of minutes we had attached the tow rope between the two cars and we were free! We all headed back to Yenzi and¬†invited the girls over for dinner as thank you for saving us!

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Our First Visitor…Ariana Visits Gabon…Trip to Loango National Park

20151029-IMGP7648At the end of October we were very happy to have our first visitor to Gabon, my best friend Ariana! After spending a few days in Paris to celebrate her 35th birthday we flew altogether back to Gabon. We eased her into her first African experience by spending the first few days doing a bit of relaxing, visiting the beaches nearby our house, 20151029-IMGP7653watching the elephants coming through camp to eat all the ripe mangos, and kayaking around the lake.

 

 

20151030-IMGP7691 But over the weekend we took a boat and headed up north through the lagoon to Sette Cama where we stayed in the Shell Hut and arranged for a guide to take us for a couple of hikes into the amazing 20151030-IMGP7708Loango National Park. Before arriving at the hut we of course had to stop at the newly semi-improved BBC Treehouse. I was really impressed that Ariana, who is extremely scared of heights, actually climbed all 20151030-IMGP7712the way to the top and even crossed the rope bridge! That night we enjoyed some drinks on the beach, just steps behind the hut, while watching the sunset.

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all smiles at the start of the hike

The next day we picked up our guide in Sette Cama at 6:30 for an early morning walk in Loanga. We decided to start with an easy 2 hours hike that takes you through the forest and 3 separate savannas. We came across several groups of monkeys (mostly red capped mangabeys), a massive snail, and some¬†fairly 20151031-IMGP7736impressive spiders.¬†I found walking through the forest was really magical; Ariana, who lets just say isn’t the most outdoorsy person, may have found the experience slightly less magical. 20151031-IMGP7749Or at least that the impression I had as she asked every 10 minutes if we were almost back to the boat yet and continuously tried to in vain to swat invisible insects away from her face. This probably wasn’t helped when at one point, after our guide pointed out a large spider web and then demonstrated where to walk around it, Ariana then walked through the side of it ūüôā

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Giant snail, it was bigger than my hand!

 

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We all survived the hike and to our surprise Ariana even raved about how much fun she had! After a bit of relaxation at the hut, we dropped the boys (two of our 20151031-IMGP7823friends arrived that morning) off on the beach near the lagoon mouth and we went in search of hippos in a little river off of the north side of the lagoon. 20151031-IMGP7802It was a successful search and we spent about a half an hour watching a fairly relaxed group of hippos bob up and down in the water checking us out. We also spotted some rosy bee eaters, pelicans, and a red capped mangabey monkey hanging out in the mangroves.

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After meandering up and down the river for a couple of hours we headed back to the beach to see what the boys had caught (unfortunately nothing this time) and then all headed back to the hut for a (fishless) dinner

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The next day we had another early wakeup call and tried to mentally prepare ourselves for what was to come….a 6 hour hike through the heart of the Loango National Park!

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Getting from the boat onto dryish land
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more spiders
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giant monitor lizard
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our guide Kasa
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lovely scenery
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massive trees, small people
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yet more beautiful trees
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We finally made it out of the forest an onto the beach
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Herd of buffalo on the savannah next to the beach
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Herd of buffalo on the savannah next to the beach
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Cute!
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Pure Beauty! The only thing we’re missing is a surfing hippo…

We were all pretty exhausted after the long, hot hike, but everyone agreed that it was an amazing experience.

Part 2 of Ariana’s visit to come in the next blog post

Roof Tent Camping near Gamba, Gabon

One of the things we were excited¬†to do in Gabon is camping, that’s why we bought a rooftent! A rooftent is a fairly unknown concept for most¬†Americans/Europeans but in Africa is a fairly common sight. Just a big pack on top of the car that folds open into a nice spacious tent! One of the biggest advantages is that you sleep off the ground. So less likely for nightly visitors to surprise you: snakes, or other critters. But also being off the ground gives some safety for wandering elephants or hippos.

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Teun posing with the car and rooftent on top (unfolded)

Once the roofrack was assembled and mounted and the rooftent fixed on, it was time to give it a try. Helped by a long weekend off we headed to the beach. First night was spent at Ponte Dick (Dick’s bridge) and a second night¬†at Jardin d’elephants (elephant garden).

Driving onto the beach of Ponte Dick we were welcomed by a group of 4 elephants! One ¬†was a bit more daring than the rest so we kept hoping they would go into the ocean. Unfortunately no surfing¬†elephants…

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Welcome committee at Ponte Dick
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One brave elephant
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Keep the fire going!

An important part of camping is collecting wood. Not only nice and fun to have a fire going for marshmallows, but also a necessity in order to keep the wild animals away; elephants, hippo’s, monkeys and big cats… so as soon as you arrive you start collecting wood…..the resulting flames provide a night of entertainment;¬†¬†sit around it, stare at the flames, or look at the starry nights which is amazing due to the lack of light pollution all accompanied by the soothing sound of ¬†waves crashing on the beach.

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Rooftent unfolded at Jardin d’elephants

As mentioned, the second night was spend at Jardin d’elephants, elephant garden. This raises the expectations to see some more of these magnificent creatures. Once we arrived we looked for a nice spot to set up our camp and started to look for wood. the view onto the beach was amazing and we had it all to ourselves. Having this to yourselves is fairly common in this very low densely populated area.

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Beach front property

You already feel bummed and the place overcrowded if you show up and there are 2 other people there….guess Scheveningen beach will be a different experience from now on…

During the night we heard a thunderstorm and the flashes were amazing, slowly but surely it moved towards us and eventually stopped. At 4AM we noticed a light drizzle but expected some heavier rain later, as it was rainy season. When we set up our tent earlier that day, we decided not to put on the rain sheet…..so that was something we did…. at 4AM……a light drizzle, worry for elephants/wildlife (fire died because of the rain) dark and ow…because it was our first time out we did not have experience with this….luckily we managed within 10 minutes and enjoyed our dry tent while at 6AM the rain came!

The next morning we woke up and enjoyed our stroll around the beach. A bit disappointed, it was elephants garden and our campsite was surrounded by elephant dung but we didn’t see any,¬†but happy with our rooftent we left for a new adventure!

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Bee eater

 

 

 

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Gabon Road Trip: Mission Saint Anne and Loango Lodge

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After we finished all of our hard work with the gorilla¬†project we happily¬†got to do a little sightseeing in the area nearby. About a 20 minute boat road from the town of Omboue lies¬†the Mission Saint Anne. It was built in 1889, the same year as the Eiffel Tower, and, funnily enough both were designed by the same man,¬†Gustav Eiffel. IMGP3320-253It seems that the founder of the church had a very rich mother with good connections in Paris,¬†Mrs Bichet.¬†All of¬†the plans¬†and materials were shipped¬†from Paris and assembled in Gabon, reminds me of ikea furniture ūüėČ

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We were guided through the church and the area surrounding it by an enthusiastic, and perhaps slightly inebriated local gentleman, none the less he seemed to have a lot of information and love for the mission.

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We went inside one of the classrooms of the local school. On the outside there were some lovely painting of local animals, however, IMGP3390-265on the inside there were some live specimens, I would have rather avoided…

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One of the most beautiful areas was the bamboo forest. They actually refer to part of it as the bamboo chapel as the stalks tower over you, making what IMGP3428-270 looks like an arched ceiling. Once a year thousands of people gather here for a mass.

 

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After lunch in Omboue we set out towards our next destination, the Loango Lodge.

 

This beautiful resort is situated on the northern edge of the amazing Loango National Park.IMGP3558-281 The owners of the Loango Lodge actually helped start up the Gorilla Project, so when they heard that we were helping out there, they offered us to stay at IMGP3560-282 their beautiful hotel and join them for dinner. Needless to say we were all ecstatic at the opportunity. Teun and I and few other didn’t get to lodge until after dark and we all had to leave before sunrise the next morning, but from what I got see it looked fabulous, I can’t wait to go back again and join in on some of their safaris into the national park.

Dinner was fantastic, with a beautiful view over the river below.

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But at 5am we all rolled out of bed, grabbed a quick breakfast and were on our way to begin our trek back home.

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Once the sun stared to come out the landscape looked amazing! I couldn’t help, but to try and capture it as Teun was¬†driving.IMGP3602-288

 

We even saw a leopard while were driving! We were in the lead and we saw a large, dark cat (leopards here are very dark colored)¬†crossing the road. It IMGP3609-289was quite far away and as soon as it saw us coming it ran off so I didn’t get a picture unfortunately. A while later (while I was napping) Teun spotted a chimpanzee crossing the road, again it happened so fast, by the time I woke up and looked around all I saw was some movement in the bushes.IMGP3620-290 IMGP3624-291 IMGP3630-292

Large hornbill flying by

 

 

 

 

We needed to make it to the ferry by 11am in order to get our cars on. And it was very tight, we were the 2nd car of the group and made it there at 10:50am. Of course the ferry didn’t actually leave until 11:30…

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After our final ferry ride a few of us decided to sit and wait for the cars to arrive. We made a picnic lunch out of the leftovers in our cooler.IMGP3656-295 IMGP3695-296

 

 

 

Our New Car!

Although everything is fairly close by here…¬†work 5mins drive/7mins by bike (down a potentially elephant infested path through¬†the jungle), supermarket 5 mins by car/15 min by bike (down proper roads, but still potential to run into elephants), bar/clubhouse a few mins… having¬†a car is highly appreciated. It will take you beyond the “compound” limits to where the nice places are, like the beach, lagoon, villages, etc.

While in the Netherlands we started discussions with a car¬†dealer in Port Gentil, Gabon. Options were fairly limited; a 4 wheel drive¬†is the bare minimum and the rest is a nice bonus. Since there is a healthy population of Mitsubishi Pajero’s the local mechanic has some knowledge and also the way to get them from Port Gentil to Gamba is more established which makes your own life (a lot) easier….

I selected the model, with good off road tires included, and would start¬†the process of how to get it to¬†Gamba once we arrived, first making sure we would get the visa. Then of course there’s the the last bit, sending money to a person you only know via email…but since a lot of people have done it before it should be OK…right? The dealer doesn’t want to hurt its reputation… ¬†Once that was done I had to arrange the Bon de Transport; so the car gets on the boat from Port Gentil to Gamba and this requires a special form. And two signatures…which is not at easy at it sounds… Then finally I received a confirmation the car was going to be delivered!

Side note: It is very important that you have all the car papers, insurance registration, carte gris (sort of APK/MOT). Every other Friday (there seems to be a link with payday) the local gendarmerie (police) is on the look out between the worksite and the restaurant at the club between 11-13 (lunchtime). Cars being stopped often fall in a certain category: not local and not company cars….They tend to search for something not in order resulting in fines varying from 15-150 euro…

Enthusiastically we drove on Easter Monday 40 mins to Mayonami to pick it up.  In theory everything should be OK, but right before you get to the boat yard there is a gendarmerie outpost (police). Depending on the chain/sign you need to drive through a little corridor to report yourself.

After being stopped¬†by the police we handed the papers and he start studying him.We borrowed someone’s car and the car papers were OK, but we had some minor discussion about the carte gris. Technically cars not older then 1 year don’t need¬†a carte gris….we had to explain the policeman the laws he was maintaining…..but alas, everything was ok after a couple of nouveau voiture’s. Next driver’s license. We were told that while applying for a Gabonese license you can use an international drivers permit with the original one (from your home country). However, this policeman was not impressed since Gabon didn’t show up on the list of the international permit¬†and basically said I did not have a license, but his english was non existing and our combined french insufficient to explain we applied for one and this should be OK. We were still in the 3 month grace period. After suggesting we could call someone to help translating he told us strictly we couldn’t. Later we found out that there wasn’t any reception to start with anyway….So there we are, discussing the license for last 15 minutes, in the heat, sweating (making it more suspicious) not sure what to do…do we get a fine or does he want something for himself (technically a bribe…). If you bribe them they could arrest you resulting in a 1500euro fine….so one has to be very careful…To top it off we explained that we were there to pick up a car. The other guy didn’t have his license on him either so we couldn’t just swap…resulting we would have to stay there…….after repeatedly discussing in somewhat broken French he told us just to go pick up the car. Normally one would be really happy, however, we had to go back and then we would have double the issue, 2 cars, 2 drivers, 2 missing drivers licenses…..but he insisted us to go….so we drove off. We arrived at the yard and saw the car! Unfortunately it was still on the boat. Due to the strong river current the boat couldn’t dock and unload……we had to come back another day…..so¬†all the trouble with police for nothing and we’ll probably have the same issues the next day…also¬†we had to go back and pass by the same officer…We took off from the boat yard and stopped at the policeman. We told him the car wasn’t there and we would come back the next day….he couldn’t be bothered this time…perhaps by now the alcohol left his system…I didn’t notice but our friend¬†on the passenger side, closest to the policeman noticed a very strong alcohol breath during the discussion before….so most likely he was after some money and when it appeared we didn’t understand him and it was taking too long, he just gave up. We waved goodbye and took off home.

Next day we showed up again…but this time we didn’t see a chain blocking the road so we drove right past¬†the police office, the officer saw us but couldn’t be bothered this time! The car was unloaded from the boat, we picked it up and left without any problem.

Quickly fixed the insurance and now we are the proud owners of a 4×4!

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Now we have the car we should make use of it, right? So we decided to take it up to Sette Cama where there is a hut/cabin. Because the drive is a bit tricky we followed others to make sure we wouldn’t get lost. First part is easy, tarmac, only a pothole or so, but thats easy.IMGP1844Then laterite, sort of gravel, which is more challenging since the surface is quite uneven….only one detour since the people we followed took a wrong turn…hopefully we remember for next time…Then the laterite stops and you think the road ends but no, you just continue on the sand.IMGP1839¬†This is where the 4×4 comes in handy. We had let the tires down before so it would be able to go through the sand a lot easier. We continued and drove for 15min and then went through the forest….very dense woods.IMGP1853At some points you even wonder where to go next, but a turn appears.
Because we are still in the rainy season there was some water crossings, but nothing too scary, fairly shallow.

IMGP1872The drive went over hills, through plains, little creeks and at some point a small settlement. Just after this we pulled over and went to the people we joined. We assumed we were there but we weren’t…the best part was¬†still to come…the last bit was over the beach. Not your typical hard sand beach but a fluffy sandy beach.1857As long as you keep the car going everything will be OK, they said. With images of digging our car out of sand on our mind we set off. Without any recovery equipment required we came to the hut. A very remote place, overlooking the lagoon¬†on one side, the ocean on the other.IMGP1862

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We weren’t spending the night, the others were, so we had to drive back by ourselves. This was a bit daunting but oh well, we had water and some food.¬†Worst case we would spend the night on the plaines….with the elephants, snakes and whatever wildlife… We took off before sunset, just on time to be home before dark. The sun was setting which always lures the animals out of the woods. While driving on the beach Andrea saw an elephant.

IMGP1880This time we didn’t stop, as stopping would most likely result in stranding the car in the deep sand. A bit later we saw a group of monkeys on the path and were able to stop. Too bad the monkeys saw us as well and quickly escaped into the woods. After a couple of “is this correct?” “did we drive here before?” we found the path out.On the way we saw a lonely forest buffalo and some birds, no more elephants.¬†IMGP1883We would have expected so since the path/road was infested with elephant dung and it has been a couple of days since we saw one. Disappointed we continued on the tarmac and when we were almosthome we saw a couple of bins in the street with contents spread out….the graceful act of an elephant. So what we had been hoping to see far away just walked through our street….oh well better luck next time.

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