Four species of sea turtles occur in Gabon: leatherbacks, green turtles, olive ridleys and hawksbills. All of these species are in danger of extinction worldwide, with their numbers are declining sharply.
Every year between October and January female sea turtles make their way to their birth place on the beaches of Gabon to lay their eggs. Gamba is one of their prime nesting sites and we have the opportunity to join local researchers on their nightly walks to monitor the beaches for nesting turtles. As the turtles only lay their eggs at night the walk along the beach (that is home to a variety of other nocturnal animals including elephants and hippos) doesn’t begin before 9pm. And because the bright white light of a flashlight may confuse the turtles this is done mostly with just the light of the moon and the stars. It’s actually very fun, if you don’t mind walking up to 12 kilometers in sand, and you actually get to see a turtle (mother nature doesn’t always/usually cooperate 😉 ).
Females lay around 50-100 eggs in each nest. During oviposition (the name for the process of laying the eggs), the turtle enters a kind of trance and is insensitive to disturbance. During this time it is safe to approach a nesting turtle to observe her quietly and take some pictures. This is also when the researchers measure the length of the turtles and put a tag on them (if they don’t already have one) for identification and tracking.
Gabon has the largest population of nesting Leatherbacks in the world! These turtles are the largest of the sea turtle species and also the most unique-looking. They have a soft leathery shell with longitudinal ridges and white spots. A full grown adult can measure over 180 cm in length! Last year during a turtle walk with friends I saw one and as you can see from the photos, it was massive!
After the female lays the eggs and returns to the sea, the nest incubates for approximately two months, buried in the sand.Due to the fact that the sea turtles are endangered the researchers in Gamba have set up a turtle nursery where they move nests to if they feel that the nest was laid in an area that endangers the eggs (such as in tracks cars drive on). When these eggs hatch sometimes local residents are lucky enough to be invited to see the baby turtles and carry them down to the water to be released in the ocean. It’s an incredible experiance to see and touch these tiny, beautiful babies.
Sorry for the long absence!!! We’ll make an effort to try and catch you up on some of our adventures over the past 9 months…
Back in February, our good friend Ann was preparing to leave Gabon and wanted to do one more trip before she departed. A look on the map set the destination: Ivindo National Park. Ivindo is famous for its waterfalls and also appeared in the latest Tarzan movie. Little did we know that Ann’s reputation (always excitement when on a trip with Ann) would follow us….
Teun, Andrea and our two friends, Ann and Aly, left Friday afternoon just after work and had to wait for the ferry at Mayumba. Ferry is a nice word for a little 2 car floating pontoon thrusted with a single 40hp outboard engine…slightly overconfident Teun quickly drove up the ramp of the ferry, but the rear right tire missed the narrow ramp and
the car became stuck precariously on the ramp. Luckily, out of nowhere lots of people came help to get the car of the ramp and on the ferry….a great start….
We camped overnight in a remote laterite quarry and after an efficient set up of camp, dinner and clean up we all went to sleep early as next day was going to be a long day of driving. We got up around 6 and were on the road by 6.30. on our way to Makokou.
We past quite some “bush meat” stalls where the days merchandise varied from putty nose monkeys to crocodiles and even a pangolin….all technically illegal, but the police nearby these stands didn’t seem to mind. The road has quite improved over the last couple of years, so quite some ground could be covered, unfortunately, there are also quite some police stops…48 in total…which slowed us down a bit. Also the last 100km were on gravel roads which slowed us down even more…finally we reached Makokou and checked in into the Belinga Palace hotel. We then called the conservatuer that organizes trips into Ivindo to meet us up and discuss the plan, as we weren’t successful in working out all the details earlier…it seemed all was in order and we would head into the park the next morning.
The next day we drove to the park office and registered, then headed on our way to the boat. The boat appeared to be a wooden pirogue, which is not necessarily very comfortable…and we were told that the journey was going to be 4 hrs…
To get to the waterfalls of Ivindo park you must travel down the Ivindo river and there is quite some drop in height, which means quite some rapids. But we were assured: the captain serves in the Gabonese navy…Alright, onward!
We saw the first rapid that was quite timid and not too exciting. Next one was a bit more tricky…we got stuck on a rock.We were told to stay inside and the guides got us off by rocking the already tipsy boat. A bit more exciting!
We had some more rapids and even one of them provided us a big splash into the pirogue getting us and some food wet, but not too bad, nothing the sun can’t dry.
Then we almost got to the exchange point, where we had to get on another pirogue and leave the more wild rapids behind.
We made the last turn down the rapid and the boat got stuck…this time the water started rushing into the boat and began pushing us sideways allowing more water to gush in…this was when the captain told us to evacuate the boat. Andrea and Aly through the front, Ann and Teun via the back…the water surrounding us was too deep so we couldn’t stand.
We hold on to the boat and found a rock to stand on. Andrea and Aly found a rock to sit on and Andrea started to document the whole ordeal. The captain began handing Teun and Ann all our bags, food, fuel and the outboard engine, while the copilot was trying to keep the boat afloat. After everything was unloaded the guides floated the boat to an island further down stream and emptied the boat.
We were rescued to a little sandbank and dried up while waiting for the other pirogue to pick us up….this sure fits in Ann’ s adventures book…
After another 1.5hrs in the second pirogue we made it to our camp. The camp was pretty basic but as this is truly the middle of nowhere and was quite impressive. The location beautiful, on the edge of the river, next to a waterfall and enveloped by the forest.
After unloading and relaxing a bit we did the first hike to nearby waterfalls through the jungle. No major wildlife sightings unfortunately. Back on arrival at camp we tried to dry some more clothing but with 90% humidity there is little chance…we played some cards and had some s’mores! Even the guides were impressed.
The next day was the hike to the big waterfalls.
1hr hike though the forest, then a short boat ride across a lagoon boardered by smaller falls, and finally another 1.5 hrs hike, but finally we made it!
A magnificent view, despite the smaller size of the falls as it was just the beginning of the rainy season so not much water yet. But this allowed us to go to the base of the waterfall, which gave a good impression of the size and a lovely view.
We soon headed back to camp where we had a delicious lunch and started our journey back up the river. This meant we had to go up the rapids….luckily this captain was a bit more experienced and at some points told us to get out of the boat and walk along the sides as he would go up he rapids by himself.
After a long day we finally got back to the Belinga Palace hotel where enjoyed a hot shower and air conditioned room, then we set off to have some dinner and happened to walk into a bizarre restaurant where the menu solely consisted of bush meat including rare and endangered species…funnily enough they didn’t have anything any food for us…mmm…weird. A tip from a local guy brought us to a nice waterside restaurant where we had a delicious meal.
Early the next day we started our journey back and we made it from Makokou all the way to Tchibanga..an 800km journey!
We stayed overnight in Tchibanga and next day we continued our journey and timed so we would take the earliest ferry back. This time Teun decided to go a bit slower up the ramp and made it in 1 go!
After 2100kms in 5 days, 48 police stops we came home, quickly refreshed and went to work, still full of adrenaline from the trip, an amazing experience despite the troublesome boat ride.