After our visit to the gorillas (and changing one tire that developed a leak on the way here) we were back on the road. Today was the beginning of the end…we had no more exciting stops planned, just getting back to Gamba in time for our friends to catch flights back home. As we backtracked north on the road that would lead us to Koulamoutou we heard a pop…yup the spare tire Teun had put on just blew…. Luckily Teun had put a patch on the tire with the hole that he took off, just in case. So we all piled out of the car, mainly to watch Teun change the tire (well done Teun!).
Not knowing how long the patch would hold, we knew we would have to buy a new tire in the next town we came across. We weren’t far from Moanda, so that would be our stop.
There were several auto repair shops and tire stores so it was easy to find a place to buy a replacement. We left the car at the shop and explored Moanda a bit,
wandering around the market and looking at shops. It always amazes me what you can find in small towns in Gabon. You’re in the middle of absolutely nowhere, a place that is notoriously difficult and expensive to get goods in and you find the craziest things. One music shop was selling large amplifiers and speakers from well known brands as well as home made CDs. My friend Neha, after listening to the same playlist for the last week and half, decided to buy one of the local music mixes…unfortunately she never got it to play in her CD player…
The road to Koulamoutou was good and we arrived in the later part of the afternoon. We hadn’t booked a hotel in advance so we drove around to several hotels in the center of town advised by the guidebook, but none had hot water, and after a couple days of short, cold showers I, and everyone, was really keen for a decent shower, so we decided on a business hotel just on the outskirts of town. This hotel was great, AC great showers, a welcome surprise. After cleaning up we went in search of dinner. The first place we stopped only had drinks, so we sat down and enjoyed a beer. A couple of friendly, and rather drunk, locals came up to talk to us, showing us their secret stash of their homemade palm wine. We tried a couple more recommended restaurants, but they weren’t open so we finally found a Pizzaria and were served a delicious fish dinner there (welcome to the randomness of Gabon) by a happy hostess that must have had some of that secret palm wine.
The next day we had a nice breakfast at the hotel and then hopped in the car and headed west.
We were headed to Tchibanga and as the distance to get there wasn’t much were hopeful we could make it there by the early afternoon, which would give us enough daylight to make to an area on the coast near the ferry where we could camp and be first in line for the ferry the next morning. Well, the national road that we headed out on that morning soon turned into the worst of the trip. It was a horribly narrow, extremely rough and potholed dirt road with thick vegetation or steep hillside on either side. We were often going at a snails pace. It was painful. Needless to say we slept in Tchibanga that night.
After leaving Tchibanga it only took a few hours to reach the ferry and we were back in Gamba in the late afternoon. It was hard to believe our trip had come to end, but it was also nice to be back in our comfortable beds 😉
My final thoughts about traveling around Gabon:
Gabon is not a really easy place to travel around…there are very few signs and roads in towns are not named (the best way to get around is to ask someone on the street, people were usually very helpful), there are many police stops/checkpoints (some of which will keep you for long periods of time), knowing at least some French is necessary, there are very few websites to use for information/bookings, bookings usually have to be done over the phone and even then you have to get lucky to find the correct phone number and that someone actually answers, and there is little emphasis/money put into tourism so getting to interesting places and the level of service and accommodations is of a much lower standard than in South or East Africa. It is also important to consider the weather…as Gabon is located on the equator there is no summer or winter, but rather rainy and dry seasons. The long dry season is June-September and the short dry season is the end of December to mid January. As you may have noticed some of the roads we took are dirt or laterite, and during the rainy season these can become horribly bumpy and muddy messes. Even the tarmac roads often develop severe potholes during the rainy season. And if you plan on hiking be prepared for thunder storms, very heavy downpours and hot and humid conditions. Animals also move around depending on the weather and what plants are fruiting. We planned our trip for the long dry season, which meant the roads were easy to travel on, the temperature was cooler and less humid, and hiking was easy, but, as you can see from the photos, it is usually gray and cloudy. Another issue is that one of the main draws to come here is to see the amazing wildlife endemic to and still thriving here. Really the only way to do that is to go to the parks (or spend a lot of time hanging out around Gamba/Yenzi 😉 ), but staying in and visiting the national parks is often very expensive, often the accommodations are very basic, and even when you’re in the parks there is no guarantee that you will even see any animals. Animals here are still hunted and even within the national parks there is still problems with illegal hunting, so most animals would prefer to keep their distance from humans. That being said, Gabon is an absolutely amazing and unique place that I can highly recommend visiting. Gabon has so much to offer! From gorgeous, lush forests, to stunning white sand beaches, and absolutely incredible wildlife. It is essential when traveling here to have an open mind and a good sense of humor, be friendly and considerate (even in frustrating situations), and have bucket loads of patience. If you do decide to travel around Gabon I wish you the best of luck and hope you enjoy it as much as all of us did! Bon Voyage!
On Day 9 we left Leconi and headed west to Franceville (supposedly the 3rd largest city in Gabon) in route to Poubara and then Lekedi Park. After reading though the Bradt Guide we learned that there were 2 roads leading to Poubara Bridge, so we hoped that might be able to take the one road there and then cross the river (somewhere) and take the other road further west to Lekedi, instead of just taking the main road that would require us to back track. With that plan in mind we drove around Franceville looking for this secondary road and with the assistance of several locals we found it.
Remember when I said the Bradt book isn’t always correct or it seems the authors didn’t actually test out all the advice they put in there…here is the best example….
Yes that secondary road does take you to, or rather close to, the bridge, but not in a way you will ever find it or will be useful to you…
Please do not take the back way to the Poubara Bridge! You will end up on a terrible dirt road that become a serious 4 wheel drive experience (and we drove it in the dry season, I can only imagine what it looks like in the rainy season) and you will dead end at a gate (probably part of the Poubara Dam). On the drive there we noticed quite a few steep downhill “tracks” (even worse than the road we driving on) to our right. I’m sure one of these will take you to the trail near the backside of the bridge, but good luck deciding which one it would be and getting down it.
So after that, we turned around and back tracked to Franceville and took the main road to Poubara
The Poubara Bridge is a suspended bridge made of liana vines and is quite impressive. There is a small fee to go over the bridge and then a guide will also take to some waterfalls and rapids nearby if you like. The bridge is made by hand by members of the local tribe, popularly known as pygmys. Only one person is allowed to cross at a time (the bridge is not super stable, as you might imagine) and sometimes there are quite large gaps between where the vines are woven together, making the whole experience a little nerve wracking as the wild river water is flowing beneath you towards a waterfall….
After leaving Poubara we headed further west to the town of Bakoumba from which we visit Lekedi Park.
We decided to stay at the hotel associated with the park, which is actually old hotel rooms from the expat camp of the old mining company that used to be there. There was a “conveyer” system that transported manganese to the port of pointe noir. Bakoumba was one of the stops along the route and the company had set up a town to coordinate operation of this system. When this site of the mining company closed down, an initiative was started to start up a private park there, to help provide jobs for some of the workers and keep the town afloat. This happened about 20 years ago and I’m pretty sure none of the buildings or accommodations have seen any maintenance since. It was pure luck as to which of us got a semi-decent bed or a working shower.
After a nice meal (it was very tasty, fairly basic like most meals in Gabon, but tasty!) we played a game of cards and headed to our (rather uncomfortable) beds.
The next morning was our first excursion into the park. The park is very large and they have a wide variety of animals, either on islands or separated by several sets of fences. There are two different groups of chimpanzees, a few gorillas, a large group of mandrills, some forest buffalo and antelopes, red river hogs, etc. Most of the animals were either rescued from bushmeat traders or were previously housed a the research university in Franceville before they banned primate experiments, and thus could not be released back into the wild. You pick what you want to see for the morning and afternoon excursions (each of which takes about 3-4 hours including travel time to get there). For the first morning we decided to see the chimpanzees, one of the main draws being that you can walk over one of the chimpanzee areas on a long suspension bridge.
The first group of chimpanzees (the larger ones) lived on an island and you take a boat to go see them. Chimpanzees are our closest relative, they’re extremely intelligent, and they exhibit very similar facial expressions to humans. If you’ve ever seen chimpanzees you’ll know this can sometimes be quite disconcerting. They are also notoriously aggressive and some groups have been known to use tools and will hunt an kill other animals. Getting on the island with the chimpanzees is forbidden 🙂
Approaching the island by boat this was our first glimpse of the chimps:
They were clearly keeping a good eye on us. Soon after we got close the dominant chimp went a little crazy and started screaming and chasing two of the other around and two of them got into a fight.
Then everything settled down and we enjoyed watching them.
One of the females even had a very little baby!
After visiting the crazy chimps on the island, we went to see the smaller, more docile chimpanzees.
The are in a very large enclosure, above which a very long (300m) steel cable suspension bridge hangs. This allows you to have a birds eye view of the chimps and tree tops from a safe distance. Sounds great, right?! Remember when I said the Poubara vine bridge was kind of nerve wracking? Well that was nothing compared to this bridge of death…. Being so incredible long (and high off the ground) means that the bridge has a nice swing to it when you’re walking on it that get more exaggerated the further towards the center you are. Now imagine 7 full size adults all walking (at different paces) and all leaning to look for chimpanzees/take pictures/selfies while moving across this monstrosity. I consider myself a pretty adventurous person and don’t have a fear of heights, but when you’re in the middle of a 300 meter long steel cable bridge that may or may not have had any maintenance work done on it in the last 20 years (it’s Gabon, so probably not), maybe 20 meters above the ground where chimpanzees are roaming, and every time someone else move it feels like the bridge is likely to flip over, you get a bit rattled.
As I was walking across the entire middle portion of the bridge I was not thinking oh what a beautiful sight this is, I was gripping onto those steel cables and thinking how on earth am I going to hang onto this thing WHEN it finally flips all the way over. I didn’t take any photos as I was in the middle of the bridge (as I was too busy hanging on for dear life and yelling my friends behind me to stop walking), so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say at certain points that bridge was leaning over 45 degrees to the right and left. But don’t take my word for it, please go and check it out yourself, I highly recommend it! 🙂 No really, I do recommend it, it’s really cool to walk above the trees and on the far end of it some of the chimps came out to take a look at us. One climbed up a nearby tree so were at equal eye level, a second lay on the ground practicing his yoga moves, and another watched us for a while before grabbing some rocks and sticks to throw at us. Good times.
We then went back to the hotel for lunch and had a chance to walk around and explore the town a bit. A few hours later we headed out to see the mandrills. The park has a large group of mandrills (about 40) that came from the university in Franceville. Several have radio collars and researchers now come out sometimes to study their natural behavior. Because they came from the university they are fairly at ease with people, so for this excursion we would roughly locate where the mandrills were using the radio collars and then get close to them on foot. We were given a safety talk before entering the forest and were told to walk in a single file line, close together, behind the guide and not get closer than 8 meters to the mandrills.
The mandrills did not get this message. After a few minutes of walking into the dense forest we started to see some monkeys darting about on the ground maybe 10-15 meter in front of us. Then we start seeing more, there was a whole group just in front of us! Then the large and very brightly colored male appears. He starts walking towards us. I was super excited, thinking
“OMG they are so close, this is awesome!” Apparently not all my friends shared my same insane feeling of enjoyment being super close to dangerous animals because soon that very large, armed with 3+ inch canines dominant male decided to come aggressively walk towards us and the 3 friends that were at the front of the single file line jumped and went running backwards. Perfect for me, now I was just behind the guide 😉 I glanced at the guide and he indicated to keep walking forward, so I did as the male huffed and puffed and jogged back and forth between us and his ladies. We walked into a small clearing and were surrounded on all sides by mandrills of all sizes and ages. I was loving it. We soon realized why the mandrills were so drawn to us…the backpack the guide was carrying was full of bananas which he began throwing out the mandrills. The excitedly ran around us, some heading up the trees and into the branches above our heads. The guide made sure to keep the big male happy and distracted by throwing bananas in his direction. I was in heaven.
The next morning we headed back into the park for one last viewing….to see the gorillas.
He had another bumpy, dusty drive in, but after about 30 minutes we arrived at a spot along the lagoon where we would take a boat to go view the gorillas. Our guide grabbed his electric motor, attached it to the boat and we all piled inside. The lagoon we glided across appeared to be man made as there were large numbers of cut tree trunks that we had to the dodge. About 3/4 of the way (10 minutes) to the gorillas we heard a loud “thunk” and I looked back to see the guide scrambling to try and grab the motor that had just hit a tree stump got dislodged and was sinking down into the water. He had no luck. We looked at the bubbles coming up from under the water where the motor was still spinning. Not good! Our guide starts panicking and jumps into the completely murky water (containing who knows what in it) and with one hand on the boat (it didn’t appear he could swim well) he tries to start searching for the motor. He’s having no luck, and it probably doesn’t help that the ground is well below his dangling feet. He climbs back into the boat. We continue to stare at the bubbles. A minute later the bubbles stop. The guide grabs a paddle and paddles us to the the steep bank and without saying a word to us climbs out of the boat and wanders into the forest.
Ummmmm….ok….we are now sitting in a boat in the middle of a wild animal park without our guide and have no idea when he’s coming back. This led to a discussion in the boat about what happening and how we could find the motor, how dead the motor probably was by now, and whether or not the guide was going to get fired. Should we jump out of the boat and go looking for him? Or look for the motor? Should we all put together money to pay for the lost motor? After about 10 minutes our guide comes back down the hill carrying a long stick. We paddle back out to where the motor dropped into the water and he tries to feel for it with the stick. After several minutes of this he jumps back into the water and tries diving to locate the motor. A few seconds later he comes up, coughing and sputtering, no motor in hand. This went on for several minutes before he climbs back in the boat looking defeated. We all stare at the water, it’s as if we’re mourning the drowned motor. Ok, time to give up and go see the gorillas. Without the motor we now are recruited to paddling through the swampy water. We switch off paddling…it gives us a break from thinking about what’s going to happen to our guide when we return to camp.
We arrive at the gorillas and see a young silverback sitting near the water. Upon seeing us get closer, he retreats closer to the tree line. Then a female and juvenile appear. Some caretakers were standing near a fence and threw food to the gorillas to entice them closer to the water. Opportunistic monkeys joined in, stealing any food the gorillas left behind.
Gorillas are magnificent and shy creatures, it’s always wonderful to be able to observe them; however, this moment felt more somber than normal with the uncertainty of the fate of our guide weighing on our minds.
After about 30 minutes we needed to head back to the car. This trip should have taken 10-15 minutes with the aid of the motor, but our manpowered boat moved a bit more slowly. After about 45 minutes we reached the car and all piled in the the back for the dusty ride back to the hotel. As we neared the hotel our guide saw one of his friends walking near the road. He pulled over and told his friend that he lost the motor. His friend started laughing and then replied back, “Again?!”
After our stay in Lope we went on to Leconi with a stop in Lastoursville. We were looking forward too a nice shower, after the basic conditions in Lope, but in our hotel in Lastorsville there was AC and a shower, but no hot water…oh well. After cleaning ourselves up and doing a little laundry we went into town. Time for some food. We passed a delicious smelling street BBQ joint which we decided to try out.
It could be looked upon as very daring but our faith was rewarded with some delicious chopped up chicken and no stomach issues! After dinner we strolled on and Saras wanted to have a dress made. We found a tailor that could do and pick up in the morning. We decided to celebrate this with a drink and were accompanied by some locals.
After picking up the dress the next morning we went on to Assiami, famous for its “Vin du Gabon”. Yes, they make wine in Gabon….but first some ticks were removed on Adrienne and Chris and the usual police stops and the unusual ones….we were stopped by the police and were summoned one by one into the “office”.
Questions regarding our profession, parents, occupation, army service, children and why not, purpose of being in Gabon were asked….this took an hour from our time but provided entertainment to the local police force which after the interrogation showed us the way to Assiami, so not that bad after all.
After some dusty roads we finally saw the sign to the vineyard. Our plan was to camp there but
as nothing was arranged we had to ease our way in….
We were welcomed by a very friendly man who appeared to be by himself on the property so was happy to talk to some people. He showed us around the vineyard and told some about the history. Not sure it was on purpose but he was muslim, guess to keep the wine safe…
The previous president of Gabon wanted to produce his own wine and several grape varieties were tested before they finally found the right one that would survive in the tropical rainforest.
Climate in the area is relatively mild but still a rainforest none the less. The advantage is that because of the high temperatures and rainfall there a 2 harvests a year so more wine can be produced on the same area.
We got a tour along the pond where they store water for irrigation, some previous trial plots and went back to the tasting room.
Some of our friends and family have tried the wine, and they know its an acquired taste…but in general it is not considered as very nice….
We were offered some by the guide and as not everyone drinks in our group the honor was up to 4 people…but we didn’t want to offend him as we wanted to camp there…so after taking one for the team we put Saras close to him and finally asked the question: can we camp here tonight? Yes was the answer!
We set up our camp near to the vines and prepared dinner. Luckily we had other drinks to wash down the taste.
The next day we packed up, said goodbye and went on to Leconi to the canyons. On the way we passed the Anza factory, the main supplier of bottled mineral water in Gabon. Unfortunately the plant wasn’t open for visits.
As with a lot of things in Gabon, the road to Leconi canyons is not really marked so we had to ask a couple of times for directions, but we even saw some roadsigns! Then we followed random tracks that led us to the canyon where we had some lunch while enjoying the view.
After the canyons we went on to Leconi Park. This park has been set up by a rich Gabonese business man who decided to introduce some south african antelopes into the plaines of east Gabon. The plaines are endless and resemble a completely different habitat compared to the rainforest elsewhere in the country. Unfortunately the road to the park wasn’t clearly marked and we had to take some assumptions along the way. At one point we asked a guy on a scooter and he told us to follow him. But soon he turned and we were on our own again.
We drove for a long time into what we thought was the right direction. In the distance we saw a truck loaded with people and we decided to ask for directions…..it appeared we were approaching the Congo border and totally the wrong direction. Two guys were “friendly” and decided to join us in the airc onditioned cars to show the way.
Finally we arrived at our destination and we got to drive through the park. We saw Oryx, lots of Oryx….which is an amazing and surreal sight at the same time.
We were shown a cabin in the park where we could spend the night, however, we decided to pitch our own tents….the cabin was filled with spiders and other creepy creatures. We had an amazing view over the valleys and started the fire while sun was setting.
After dinner we enjoyed some drinks and went to bed on time as in the early morning we had to get up for a tour of the park.
Alarm went of at 5 and tents were packed up in silence. We drove to pick up the guide and started the tour where we saw more Oryx
The guides took us to the border of the park too the outlook. we had a great view on Gabon and Congo (which we almost visited).
After the tour, after spotting some more Oryx we had to say goodbye to this gem as we were headed to Poubara and Lekedi park. The way back was a bit easier as we had some clearer directions “tout droit”….but still some sand hazards.
The forests of Lope National Park have some of highest densities of gorillas and chimpanzees in all of Gabon, so we decided instead of staying at the Lope Hotel and doing short visits from there, we would camp inside the forest where we could more easily try to search for gorillas. So, the next morning we met with our guide and host that would take us into the Mikongo Forest of Lope National Park, Ghislain Ngonga Ndjibadi, who I can not recommend more highly. Ghislain is truly passionate about what he does and is extremely knowledgeable. If you have looking to visit Lope I would highly recommend that you use his services to tour the park, either with half day full day trips or staying at his camp deep in the forest as we did. You can get more information about him and his services on his website Mikongo Vision http://mikongo-vision.info/
On our way there we observed a family of elephants grazing on the edge of the forest
We also needed to stop at the house of chief of the village in which the entrance to the Mikongo forest lies. We had to ask for his permission to enter and pay… Mostly it was just us sitting in his living room while Ghislain talked to him. Then we headed into the forest and after a bumpy, windy road through the trees we arrive at the camp.
We set up our tents, had lunch and then laced up our hiking shoes for our first trek. The forest is gorgeous! There are small streams and creeks feeding though lush trees and bushes and you’re surrounded by the calls of birds and monkeys.
No signs of gorillas the first day, but our spirits were still high.
The next morning we set off at the crack of dawn to begin our search. We soon came upon a pair of black colobus monkeys that kept us entertained for quite some time.
After several hours of hiking we stopped by a creek for lunch.
Back on the train Ghislain started seeing signs of gorillas
We found a knuckle and foot print near one of the streams.
We were on their tracks, but the sun was getting lower, so we had to head back to camp.
When we came back to camp Ghislain asked if anyone was interested in a small hike, to a nearby former camp. This tented camp fell in disrepair after investors pulled out of the project. While roaming around Ghislain found tracks of gorillas, very fresh tracks, and fresh dung. He was in utter unbelief as we spent all day finding them and apparently they were very close to camp. We tracked them for a bit but had to head back as the sun was setting. As most guides, Ghislain doesn’t want to be in the forest at dark, when elephants are roaming around, but are difficult to spot.
The next morning we headed out for a short hike as Ghislain had a feeling they were close.
We found some interesting things, but unfortunately the gorillas evaded us.
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.
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 😉 ) and we were soon onto the new (not yet tarred at the time of the trip) road that connects to the national road system.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.