With backpacks to magical, misty Gabon
Forests fascinate me - the animals, the birds, the sounds. But to get to the Amazon is too expensive and the Congo is unstable, so Gabon in West Africa it was.
Lawrence Wedderburn, a schoolmate of mine, and my sons Chad, Dumbie and Speedy were dead keen. So there we were, on 26 December, on the SAA flight to Libreville. All I knew was that Gabon was in West Africa, and that backpackers - with small budgets and big reputations - were not particularly welcome.
First sight of the forest
As the plane descended towards Libreville, there was jungle, dense and huge and green, as far as the eye could see. At the baggage carousel the boys got their backpacks, but my bag and Lawrence’s were missing. At the lost-baggage counter we were told, in French, to come back in a week.
So now we were backpacking in Gabon without backpacks!
Lawrence and I accepted that we had no option but to hit the road and enjoy the trip. We would borrow clothes from the boys, who had two sets each; buy a toothbrush, malaria tabs, Tabard and toothpaste; and survive for a week.
Hunt for a roost
Where to stay the night? We found a taxi and tried to ask for a place where we could stay very cheaply and possibly pitch our two tents. Our guidebook was in my missing backpack, but I recalled reading about a Catholic church that sometimes puts up budget travellers.
The driver dropped us at the first Catholic church. We walked around asking questions. No joy. I was starting to panic.
We found a helpful Gabonese gent with a taxi, but his taxi had only three wheels. Then a little boy came running towards us, pushing the missing wheel for our taxi.
Five minutes later our transport was ready to leave. After many rejections, we found a Catholic priest who said we could camp under the trees at his mission school.
We drifted off to sleep to the squeal of bats and woke to the call of a coucal.
Ferry down the coast
We got up early; it was time to get going. But where to? We headed for the harbour, where we found out a ferry was leaving for Port-Gentile, and so we were off on a seven-hour journey on the high seas.
Port-Gentile, Gabon’s second-biggest town, is on an island, with swamps between it and the mainland. It’s the centre of the country’s petroleum and logging industries, and has a population of about 80 000.
The boat rolled and pitched, but although the boys were nauseous, nobody got sick. Dumbie sat next to Gladys, an army officer, and her son Noah. Gladys was to be a lifesaver. We arrived in Port-Gentile in the dead of night. She found us a taxi, shepherded us all into it and gave the driver the name of a motel. An hour later we had showered and were all snug in bed.
Lawrence and I shared a double bed, and the three boys shared another in the room next door. Gladys woke us at midnight, banging on our door. She was as drunk as a skunk, and wanted something neither of us was prepared to give!
The following morning, at the harbour, we found a river ferry leaving for Lambaréné, the town on an island up the Ogooué River where German-born theologian, musician, philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer ran his mission hospital from 1913 until his death in 1965.
The ferry was due to leave at 6 am the next day, so we had a day to spend in Port-Gentile.
A mighty river runs through the jungle
The ferry first moved through a mangrove swamp and later wound through the seemingly endless jungle. We saw lots of palm-nut vultures and many other birds.
We shared the deck with a few very attractive Gabonese women, who were jabbering away. One, with beautiful turquoise eyes, asked me in so many words if I would make a child with her, as such a child would have a mixture of her eyes and my blue eyes. I politely declined and she sulked for the rest of the journey.
Throughout the journey there was evidence of major logging, mostly of okoumé trees. Gabon is still 85% jungle, and timber is one of its biggest exports. Oil, manganese, uranium and cocoa are others. China is its largest buyer of timber, at 1,1 million tons a year, followed by France, at 276 000 tons.
Sadly, with the drop in the oil price, timber has become a more important export.
New Year in Lambaréné
We managed to find a small motel that was very reasonable. We were right on the street where all the action was happening. The following day was New Year’s Eve, and the boys were looking forward to having some fun. We were the only pale-faces in the village.
That evening Lawrence and I headed off to find the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. Schweitzer is buried in the hospital grounds, under a cross he carved himself. The doctor who runs the hospital offered us the hospital boat and a guide for R1 500.
The next day we travelled downstream to the great Lake Evaro and the even bigger Lake Onangue, which are fed by the river. We saw hippo and many, many birds. We managed to get to some small islands in the lakes and met fishermen in remote villages, communicating furiously in sign language. We also bumped into some Chinese lumberjacks, who were ever so proud of their achievements.
On New Year’s Eve the boys partied in the street with the locals while Lawrence and I caught up on some sleep.
We decided that we would find a taxi on New Year’s Day for the 300 km trip back to Libreville in search of our luggage. We met Alain, who said he would be sober and happy to safely get us to Libreville. The next morning at six he arrived at our motel. The trip of a lifetime was about to begin.
Within the first kilometre we realised that this man was in a hurry to get us to our destination. He was under the impression we had to get to the airport by nine, and that was his mission. When I waved my hands for him to slow down, he thought I wanted the wipers on! I shouted that he was going too fast, but he thought I was saying the opposite, and he drove even faster!
I looked back at the kids: If we crashed, where would I find a hospital? We spent most of the time on the wrong side of the road, dodging potholes, drunks and timber trucks. By the end of the day we knew it was not our day to die.
Our backpacks were waiting for us at the airport! We could now get out of our week-old jocks into something fresh.
The worst camp ever
Pongara National Park, near Point Denis, is one of only a few places where giant leatherback turtles lay their eggs on the beach. We made the 45-minute trip by ferry cross the Gabon Estuary to get there.
We couldn’t decide where to stay, but the boys suggested we camp on the beach. Then a storm with gale-force winds struck. It lasted for almost two hours. We pitched our tents after the storm had abated.
That night we went in search of the leatherbacks, and by midnight had found our first. Leatherbacks can weigh up to 500 kg. This lady was a huge 1,6 m by 1,1 m. The turtle guards patrol the beach every night in two-hour shifts, to protect the turtles and watch where they lay their eggs. If they lay them in a dangerous spot, they are immediately dug up and moved to safety.
We made friends with the turtle guards, many of them volunteers from France who come out for three weeks at a time, at their own expense.
We eventually moved our tents to the Turtle Centre. But the camping facilities were probably the worst I have ever experienced. I’ll never forget the expression on Chad’s face after a visit to the long drop. While he was squatting there he looked down into the pit and saw a live chicken having dinner!
In search of gorillas
We caught the ferry back to Libreville, and bought second-class tickets for the train that runs to the east of the country and back to Lopé, the newly created national park where the lowland gorillas of Gabon live. Tracking gorillas in Uganda and Congo is a lot easier, with a better chance of sightings, but I had promised the boys we would try.
The seven-hour journey by train takes you through the heart of the jungle. After two hours my brain was in overload. The trip is one I believe every person should take.
The jungles of Lopé are home to the gorilla, chimpanzee and mandrill, and lots of other animals.
John, a local guide, met us at the station for our two-day jungle adventure. Our room was disgusting, but we went straight out on a four-hour game drive, through the most amazing forest. The park spans 50 000 ha and only six guards are employed. We found three of them asleep under a tree.
We were attacked by minute Gabonese red ants that fall from the trees as you brush past in the vehicle. On our drive we saw many African grey parrots, river hogs, duikers, buffaloes and a family of chimpanzees.
The greatest hiking day of my life had arrived. John took us into the jungle, which was intense, close and wild. The canopy was alive with sound.
As we hiked in silence for eight hours we absorbed every sound, every movement. We drank litres of flowing water from the crystal-clear streams, the same rivers the gorillas, chimps, mandrills and forest elephants drink from. I had always dreamt of this moment. I felt that I could not get any closer to nature - I was surrounded by it.
After six hours we bumped into a chimp. He screeched, warning us that this was his turf.
The canopy was full of samango monkeys, flying through the treetops. After an intense eight hours we were all exhausted. The kids had been going flat out for almost 20 days. We called it a day. We had not seen the silverback gorillas, but I’m sure that one of them had seen us!
We walked out of the jungle in silence. I felt completely fulfilled.
I’ve visited 26 countries, but those seas, trees, turtles, trains, taxis and forests left me feeling that Gabon is the greatest country left on this planet.
My wife allows me to do these wild things. Thank you!
My sons want to do it with me. Thank you!
And to Lawrence, thank you for hanging with us, Boet!
I will be back to track the western lowland gorilla.