Gabon is a country of impenetrable rain forests, wild coastlines teeming with marine life and home to some of the most elusive species on the continent. It is Africa’s Eden. Maurice Schutgens heads out in search of elephants in one of Gabon’s most spectacular wildernesses.
I have dreamt of visiting Gabon for decades, but somehow it has always been just out of reach. No longer. As the plane started its descent into Léon-Mba International Airport the vast Congo Basin came into view. Broccoli as far as the eye could see. Simply mesmerising.
Libreville, French for “Freetown”, is Gabon’s unassuming capital city of about a million souls. Situated directly on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in the protected Estuaire of Gabon, it exudes a supremely relaxed vibe. One that just happens to be extremely appropriate for the stifling equatorial humidity. We headed straight for the refuge of La Tropicana, a simple hotel with dark wood paneled rooms situated on a picturesque stretch of beach in the middle of Libreville that has become a favourite amongst expats visiting the country.
With only a day in the city, we were excited to be immersed into what Libreville had to offer. We navigated our way through the manic traffic on the oceanfront boulevard, swinging past the extravagant yet imposing golden glass Palais Presidentiel, built by the late President Bongo in the 1970s. Sadly, visitors are not allowed inside and any
attempts at photography would also be considered a major faux pas. We quickly moved on to marvel at the architectural wonders of the Ministry of Mines and Petrol building which is positively futuristic. As evening fell we strolled along the beach to La Voile Rouge, one of the most popular restaurants serving mouth-watering dishes with
a French flair best consumed in the warm sea breeze.
Next morning, after a Parisian breakfast of Pain au Chocolates, croissants and excellent French coffee at Chez Paul situated on Boulevard Quaben, we departed Libreville heading for one of Gabon’s premier national parks: La Lopé, a Unesco World Heritage Site. While a six hour stint aboard the famous Trans Gabon Railway is the easiest way to make it to Lopé, the night-time departures from Libreville’s Owendo Station mean that you miss the opportunity to appreciate the stunning scenery through which you travel. Instead we opted for a sturdy landcruiser. As a result we quickly became intimately acquainted with the affectionately known Gabonese massage.
The road out of Libreville deteriorated with an insatiable appetite as massive potholes erupted all around us. Despite slowing to a crawl, our bodies were still regularly flung through the cabin. It didn’t matter, however, as I stared out of the window at the tunnel of vivid and vibrant greens.
After about four hours we pulled into the town of Ndjolé, situated on the banks of the Ogooué river, the fourth largest in Africa. Ndjolé was never going to win any aesthetic awards but there was still a special reason for interrupting our journey east: lunch. Down by the river there was an open-air kitchen of sorts with individual stoves, each presided over by a chef. It was a hectic affair. The moment we arrived we were pounced upon with offers from deliciously slow cooked meats to oily potato chips and deep fried bananas, each served with a smile.
As our journey continued eastwards, somewhere along the way we passed the village of Junkville (pronounced Chengué-ville). An up and coming metropolis it was not – take my word for it. We plunged ever deeper on worsening roads, the rain making a muddy mess ahead of us. Yet, somehow the lowhanging fog made it a hauntingly beautiful
By mid-afternoon we were settled into some simple cottages situated just outside of Lopé village. Suddenly Patrice, the caretaker, came to fetch us. He had spotted a couple of forest elephants tucked away just beyond the clearing. This was too good an opportunity to miss! We followed enthusiastically, albeit cautiously. He beckoned us closer until we were no more than 15m from them. There they stood, three of them – completely unaware of our presence, feeding peacefully.
For reasons I still do not know, Patrice decided this was the perfect moment to practice his elephant trumpeting skills. The elephants didn’t hesitate and charged. We turned and ran, slipping and sliding through the mud, the animals hot on our heels. From the safety of the cottages we watched the elephant signalling its displeasure one final time at the edge of the clearing before slinking away into the darkness. Patrice was in stitches of laughter on the ground.
Come sunset we headed into Lopé National Park with the conservateur, in search of elephants, gorillas and whatever else this magical place had to offer. It was the golden hour. The undulating savannahs, framed by the Ogooué River, turned a vibrant shade of yellow. The gravel crunched happily under our tyres. It was one of those Ernest Hemmingway
moments. We headed deeper into the park, dropping down into dense forested patches in the valleys. We stopped the car and listened and looked with bated breath but the elusive gorillas were nowhere to be seen. All I wanted was a fleeting glimpse of one of the estimated 25,000 gorillas, but it was not to be. As we emerged out onto another patch of savannah, the sky was turning a deep shade of purple, tall trees of an ancient primary forest creating silhouettes on the horizon.
Suddenly out of nowhere, a sound erupted from the tall grass to our left. It was two forest elephants. They had been spooked by our sudden appearance. The elephants and I stared at each other, one of them lazily lifting its trunk to taste the air. Then just as quickly as they had appeared they disappeared into the undergrowth. As the night closed in around us, I promised myself I would return to see what else Gabon had to offer.