This post isn’t that exciting, just elephants….we obviously live in their habitat and during the year they will occasionally pay us a visit. However, from October toDecember the fruit ripens on the mango trees and elephants come with it…The elephants love the mangos and en masse come into camp after sunset during the mango season. They are way more silent than you would expect so there are multiple occasions where you, and others, have bumped into them. Often they are equally scared and run away, but some times they are surprised and startled and start chasing you…mostly a bluff charge but it is always a good idea to show respect and run….
In Gamba we have a Smithsonian research group that studies a variety of subject ranging from developing strategies to ease human-animal conflicts and discovering new species of animals to analyzing the impact of industrial practices on local ecosystems. I met one of the visiting researchers, Matt, who specializes in research on crocodiles in Central Africa, and asked him if I might be able to join him on one of his trips to search for new nests. Lucky for me, he agreed and one morning in October I set off in a boat with a small group of researchers and volunteers to go check on a nile crocodile nest he had recently found. Our journey took us into the Ndogo lagoon towards the Moukalaba river. After about 45 minutes we anchored the boat on a patch of land nearby the nest. We hiked up the muddy bank and across a small savannah, keeping a careful eye out for mommy crocodile. Unfortunately there was no sign that the crocodile had been anywhere around the nest for at least the last few days, most likely abandoning her nest after realizing humans had been poking around it. The crocodile population here is pretty small, mostly due to overhunting for many years. So we sadly made our way back to boat.
On the way back to Gamba we decided to take a little detour into an offshoot of the Moukalaba river to see what we could see. It was an absolutely beautiful place, lined with fluffy papyrus plants and raffia palms. I gleefully snapped away, hoping that some of my photos may capture the magic of the area.
And then our crocodile expert spotted them! Two slender snouted crocodiles sunning themselves on a fallen tree in the river! Crocodiles around here tend to be very shy and run away at the first sign of people, but these two seemed very relaxed. They just hung out on their tree as we made several passes by them in the boat.
We continued down the river, finally returning back into the lagoon and heading back toward Gamba. On the way back Matt and Tobi, one of the head researched at the Smithsonian that I’ve been helping out run the Nature Club at Yenzi, asked if I would like to join them after lunch to look for crocodile nests in one of the coastal lagoons. I happily agreed.
After lunch they picked me up and we headed towards Colas beach. This would be a little different trek than our morning excursion. Instead of the large boat with 100hp motor we would be using their small aluminum dingy with a 12hp motor to explore areas of the shallow lagoon. Matt already had some ideas where to look so we crossed the main body of the lagoon and headed towards a narrower section that apparently goes on for several miles through thickly vegetated areas. Soon enough we found a sandy bank that could be a potential nesting area so we stopped the boat, all got and started walking around (in the middle of no where in potentially crocodile/hippo/elephant/snake infested territory) looking for loose sandy areas that could indicate a nest and started poking long sticks in the sand. Apparently if there’s a nest the stick will easily go several feet into the ground, otherwise it just goes a few inches in. No nest, so we started wanderingfurther around in the bushes. After a few minutes of searching we headed back into the boat to go further up the lagoon. Soon the water became shallower and more plant filled and the motor became useless. That’s when Tobi and I grabbed the paddles and used man power to continue on. We would paddle on a for bit before Matt would spot another potential nesting spot and we would all jump out and begin our search again, but again with no luck. Back in boat we would go, sometimes we could use the motor for a bit before we had to go back to paddling. It was turning into quite an adventure… and then it got real… Anybody who know me well, knows that while I’m crazy about all kinds animals, I’m not a fan of spiders, in particular them crawling on me. So as we continue down the lagoon the waterway is getting narrower and the bushes and trees are overhanging further into the water. And all I can see as tree branches and bushes are headed straight for my face, in slow motion (paddling isn’t getting us anywhere very fast) are spiders crawling all over them. Of course I’m in a boat with two seasoned field biologists who aren’t at all bothered by these harmless little spiders, so I’m trying to keep my cool, casually as possible dodging branch full of spiders after branch. Eventually I was busted when they advised me to put my camera strap around my neck in case we went overboard, I had left it sitting on the bench in front of me and it was now crawling with spiders that I clumsily tried to remove with the end of my paddle before hanging it around my neck. So between the paddling through the thick brush laden water and doing my best to avoid the hundred of spiders, all in the middle of the humid mid-day heat, it was turning into quite an adventurous afternoon. We continued further up the lagoon for a another hour or so continuing our search unfulfilled before giving up and heading back to the car. It was quite an amazing day!
Not far from us, hidden between the beaches and the large Ndogo lagoon, is the a beautiful place called Vera Plains. It consists of large sprawling open meadows, dotted with patches of dense forest. One weekend we went with a group of friends to camp in one of the prettiest spots in the area, a hilltop that offers panoramic views over the plains, forests and nearby lagoon. It’s about an hour drive from our house through rough dirt paths winding through the forests and hills of the plains.
It’s not the easiest spot to get to, often areas of the road are blocked by fallen trees or debris from a newly build plantation. Usually nothing a little muscle and machete work can’t fix, though.
But one you get to the view point it makes all your effort worth it…
The boys worked on cooking dinner while the girls enjoyed the view and sipped on some cocktails….
Soon the darkness came and we all huddled around the campfire, or rather very large, bright citronella candles in this case. You would have though they would have protected us from all insects, but in a strange twist of fate we were actually invaded by a large swarm of tiny beetles. At first was funny, as all the bugs seemed be attracted to our one friend, but as more and more came we decided to take shelter in the car. After 15 minutes or so the coast was clear and we returned to our “camp fire” for a bit before heading to our tents for the night.
We woke up to a beautiful misty morning and enjoyed the sights and sounds of Vera Plains as we made our way back home.
With Ariana coming we decided to do some maintenance on the BBC treehouse. Floorboards were bad, the ladder was missing some steps so it was becoming quite an adventure just to go to the top. Not to mention the safety hazards while climbing up…At the top there is a bridge, a big rope with some side netting, leading to the other side where another platform is. All providing a great view over the jungle. Just as it was designed by the BBC. The hut was build some 8 years ago by the BBC and featured in their tv show. The goal was to provide a place for researchers to study the red capped mangabeys, which apparently are a rare species if you consider the world. To us they are quite normal as they roam the trees around our house quite frequently….anyways Ariana was coming and the hut needed some repairs, after years in the jungle being exposed to the elements this was needed very much….we wanted to show her the hut so some upkeep was required. We went up there for the day, brought some wood, nails and elbow sweat…all worked out well and the hut was safe again to climb up…at least for a couple of weeks…
The sea is teeming with life off the coast of Gabon. Dolphins frolic close to shore, sea turtles lay their eggs on the beaches from December to March, and humpback whales give birth and mate off the coast from June to September. The last weekend in August we had the immense pleasure to be invited to be go whale watching with Daniel on his boat.
Teun left on Saturday morning with Daniel and few others to try their luck at fishing and then camping on the beach. Unsure of how my body was going to take to the potentially very choppy water, I decided to not go for the full two days on the boat, but instead left on Sunday morning with a few other to meet them.
Apparently Teun and the rest of the first group spent the whole afternoon on Saturday trolling to no avail (saw loads of whales though, from what I heard it was actually pretty comical how many whales there were, like oh look another whale…), so unfortunately after landing on the beach they set up camp and went to bed without a fish feast that evening. However, the next morning on their way back to pick us up Teun and Angus both got bites on their lines in quick succession. And after the battle to end all battles (I believe there was blood, sweat and tears shed) Teun pulled in a massive rouge! (African red snapper I believe). As you can imagine, when Teun came onto shore to meet us he was beaming with pride as he displayed his mighty catch.
After a change of crew we set off for the open seas. We had a nice ride down the river for about 15 minutes as Daniel joyfully explained the dangers of exiting the river mouth and how to navigate through the breaking surf to get out to the ocean without capsizing the boat and potentially drowning us all. As we neared the breaking waves we were instructed to hold on and we all braced ourselves for some serious rocking, but hopefully not rolling. He navigated out into the calmer waters with ease and we began our search for whales.It didn’t take too long before a splash in the water was spotted and soon we were within meters of a small pod of humpback whales! It was really amazing being so close to such huge and majestic animals. One was particularly curious about us and popped up what seemed like right next to the boat and twisted its massive body around on the surface to get a good look at us.
For the next couple of hours we enjoyed the peaceful surrounding of the sea and the gentle lull of the waves as we searched and found several more whales. We were also joined by a group of dolphins for a bit, they had fun swimming in our wake and we clicked away trying to get decent photos of them.
For the most part the whales were pretty lazy, just popping up to get some air, with a little bit of tail action here and there, but then we came across one that treated us to a little acrobatics leaping out of the water and landing with a huge splash. It. Was. Awesome!
But all good things must come to an end. We said our good byes and headed back to shore.
First of all I have to start this blog post with a very random side note. I can not think about the pink hippopotamus I saw without my Dad’s most infamous joke popping into my head. It’s one of those jokes that he loves to tell, but nobody wants to listen to more than once, so if you ever see my Dad be sure to ask him about it, he’ll be over the moon to have a captive ear 😉
Anyways, now onto the actual blog post…the other day (hahaha, actually a couple of months ago, I’m just so terrible at updating this blog that I didn’t get around to posting this yet…whoops) I was at Colas beach to go for a walk (as I do quite often) and I wandered down to the lagoon. I started taking some pictures of the beautiful lagoon separated from the ocean by only 10s of feet when I heard a noise. It’s an unmistakable noise if you’ve ever heard it before, the sound of hippos talking (if you’ve never heard it please do yourself a favor and have a listen here, it makes me crack up every time I hear it). I immediately swing back around towards the main lagoon and in the distance in the middle of it I can see them! The ears and nostrils of a few hippopotami are visible just above the water.
I move around the side of the lagoon and crouch down near some bushes. Slowly I see hippo heads popping in and out of the water. And then I realize that one of the hippos, the largest one that I can see, appears to be pink! Now I’m really fascinated. I sat down and for the next 20 or 30 minutes I just watched the hippos hanging out in the lagoon, moving around a bit and talking to each other. It was really amazing to just sit and watch and listen to them.
After getting my fill I stood up and started to wander back to the car, but not before spotting a bee-eater watching me from a tree branch over the lagoon. Somebody’s always watching you around here it seems 🙂
And for any curious minds out there, I did a little research into my pink hippo (why he’s pink) and found out that most likely it’s leucistic. Leucism is a condition where an animal has total or partial loss of pigmentation in the pigment cells (for hard core science nerds, it’s due to a defect during differentiation of the pigment cells or problems during migration from the neural crest to skin, hair, or feathers during development). The difference between leucism and albinism is that albinism only affects the melanin producing cells where leucism can affect all types of pigment producing cells. Leucistic animals don’t have red eyes.
One of the best parts about living here is all of the wildlife we get to see on a regular basis. As you’ve noticed from all of our previous posts, we see A LOT of elephants (most likely we see a few elephants over and over again…), but monkeys are also abundant around Yenzi (and Gabon in general). The most common type we see are red capped mangabeys. They’re pretty funny and really curious, sometimes they’ll even come sit on the tree branches closest to where I am and watch me watching them. Here are some of the pictures I’ve managed to take of the red capped mangabeys around camp.
After spending a few weeks in the original house we moved into here in Gabon, we realized that although it had some positives (it was recently built so had nice, modern features, and it was huge with 3 massive bedrooms and 2 bathrooms that you could fit a pool inside) it also had some problems… the master bathroom was constantly flooded with water coming from under the bathtub, the walls were paper thin (and we shared our bedroom wall with our neighbors), and it had a very small yard around it which was overlooked by 4 other houses. So after a lot of discussion we decided to see if we could move to another house, which meant down grading to an older (built in the 60’s or 70’s) and smaller (2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom, all about half the size of those in the first house) house. Luckily (and by luck I mean hounding the housing people daily for several weeks) we were allowed to move houses. Unfortunately they gave us this news a few hours after unloading our shipping container into our then current house…
Our new house is in a beautiful location, tucked into the corner of the forest with a large, more private feeling yard. The interior is a tad more dated, to say the least, but we feel much more at home here.
Here’s a little tour though our new house, but be warned it’s still a work in progress, and the 2nd bedroom has become a dumping ground for items we don’t know what do with yet… Oh, and the bathroom is pretty spectacular… 😉
We’ve also noticed that we have a very nosy neighbor here…his name is Rabi…he gave me a bit of a startle a few weeks ago…we enjoy him more from a distance…
Personally, I think it was his way of trying to make a friend…a friend that rides on his back… Next time Rabi, next time…
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. It 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 😉
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.
We went inside one of the classrooms of the local school. On the outside there were some lovely painting of local animals, however, on the inside there were some live specimens, I would have rather avoided…
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 looks like an arched ceiling. Once a year thousands of people gather here for a mass.
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. 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 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.
But at 5am we all rolled out of bed, grabbed a quick breakfast and were on our way to begin our trek back home.
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.
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 was 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.
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…
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.
From May 21st to May 25th Teun and I (and a group of other volunteers from Yenzi) volunteered our time to help out the Fernan Vaz Gorilla Project (or Le Projet Gorille Fernan-Vaz in French). It was an amazing experience and I’m so happy we were able to be involved!
The Fernan Vaz Gorilla Project is an educational and rehabilitation center for western lowland gorillas in Gabon. You can learn more about them on their website: http://gorillasgabon.org/. They have 2 islands in the Fernan-Vaz lagoon that they work from, 1 if for orphaned gorillas (usually because of the illegal bushmeat trade in Gabon) that they aim to release back in the wild once they are healthy and old enough, the 2nd is an educational center that is home to 4 adult gorillas that can not be released into the wild because they are too dependent on humans for food (these gorillas came in 2001 from living in a research facility in Gabon) and the aim is that these gorillas will help promote great ape conservation through education and eco-tourism. We went to help make improvements (building a jetty for boats to dock on and repair to the gorillas enclosures) on the 2nd island to make it more feasible to bring tourists to view these magnificent animals which will raise the funds needed for the rehabilitation center.
But to get to the Fernan-Vaz was an adventure in and of itself. It started with a ferry ride through the Ndogo lagoon, which is simple enough except that the cars had to go on a separate ferry than all of us, one which took much longer than ours. So the day before we actually left Gamba, we sent our cars out on the ferry. One of the volunteers and his son went on the fast ferry the same day and then camped overnight with the cars. The rest of us left in the wee hours of the morning of the 21st and took the fast ferry (1 hour versus 5 hours) and met them on the other side of the lagoon. Now the real fun began.
We spent the next 6 hours driving through beautiful forest towards the Fernan-Vaz lagoon. The roads started out pretty good, well maintained laterite that we could keep up a good pace on. But after a couple of hours and turning off of the main route, the road got quite a bit worse and in some areas our pace slowed to a crawl. I loved every second of it!
Stopping at a check point before entering the Rabi Complex. Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long, some of the volunteers that were driving up later in the day had to wait a couple of hours before being let through
Still not too bad, but to pace was pretty slow through this area
We arrived around 4pm and began setting up camp in a field near where the boats would pick us up from to get to the island with the gorillas.
We had a nice, short hike through the woods down to the boat the next morning and even found some new friends
We divided into 2 groups, one that would make the repairs on the gorilla enclosures and the other that would build the jetty. It was really hard work, and for the most part I’m not sure how helpful I was being that I’m almost the least handy person there is (but I learned how to mix cement several different ways and I’m a pro a carrying around pieces of wood LOL), but together we really accomplished a lot and made some huge improvements to the island.
Team Jetty hard at work:
Our well deserved lunch break
Team Gorilla Enclosures just monkeying around: So the young male gorilla wasn’t really happy the team was working on his transfer cage and showed his frustration by continually running up the door (the only thing keeping him away from the team) and slamming tree branches or his body up against it. His care taker protected them by standing inside the cage and banging a stick back at him. All in all I think they had a pretty relaxing time…until he actually broke the door. Don’t worry…no gorillas were injured in the process… 😉
Heading back to camp on Day 1:
I don’t think the gorillas were very impressed by our effort
After we got cleaned up a bit (as best you can with camping shower bags and face wipes…) we went out to dinner the nearby town of Omboue. It was in a beautiful restaurant above the water.
Our beautiful finished jetty.
It even functioned properly!
On day 2 the children of some of the volunteers came for a visit
On day 3 we came back to make some final adjustments to the jetty and walkway
And say goodbye to our new friends
Again, he just doesn’t seem impressed by the quality of work… He was actually scraping the paint off with his fingernail, it was pretty unreal
After leaving the gorillas we got to do a little sight seeing nearby and were put up by the owners of Loango Lodge in thanks for our volunteer efforts, but you can read all about that in the next blog post!