A WILDLIFE SURPRISE FOR EVEN THE MOST JADED SAFARI ENTHUSIAST
The only current English guidebook I could find on Gabon describes it as “an oasis of stability and prosperity in a region that has had more than its fair share of trouble”. It is indeed a remarkable country and was at the top of my African wish-list for many reasons: 80% covered in dense forest, 13 national parks with exceptional biodiversity, a bird-list of 774 species, nearly 900km of coastline and mega-species such as gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills and forest elephants (it is estimated that Gabon has 60,000 forest elephants, 35,000 western lowland gorillas and 64,000 chimpanzees). Add to that an enlightened conservation policy under the wonderfully named President Bongo and his “Green Gabon” programme, zero-tolerance of poaching (although that is becoming a serious problem in the north) and low crime – making Gabon’s “last Eden” moniker seems deserved.
With only 1.6 million people, enjoying the highest GDP per capita in Africa as a result of oil, and politically stability, Gabon is the envy of the region. Unusually, this gem of a country remains largely off the “new destinations” lists. Despite a few stuttering attempts to ignite interest, it is known mainly to primate researchers, oil executives and, well, to the French – as with Reunion, French Guiana and Surinam, they have kept their ex-colony holiday secrets to themselves.
It felt different just coming out of arrivals, with no hassling outside the airport, sensible driving, clean streets and ex-pats and locals jogging together along the capital’s Boulevard du Bord de Mer in the dark. Was it actually central Africa?
Having flown Johannesburg-Libreville, we checked in at the Royal Palm – a stunning boutique hotel with an uber-cool beach bar whose charms were insufficiently enjoyed ahead of the 30-minute flight to ramshackle Port Gentil early the next morning. This is the small economic capital of the country by dint of its proximity to the oil fields. From there we headed to one of the jewels in the crown of Gabon’s national parks, Loango.
The journey from POG (as it’s called), is a jewel in its own right: 3 hours of extraordinary river journey as you can no longer land a plane anywhere near Loango. It’s like Costa Rica’s jungle rivers on steroids, with flocks of African grey parrots and black-casqued hornbills amongst dense riverine forest. From the village of Ombue, the end of this remarkable leg, there was a 1.5 hour drive to Loango Lodge, one of the few places one can stay in the park.
Loango National Park is an extraordinary place and would come as a surprise to even the most jaded safari hand. With 175km of coastline and 230,000ha of forest, savannah and wetlands, it is a national park unlike any other. Aside from the topography, it has significant populations of western lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, forest elephant, forest buffalo, hippos, manatees and, just offshore, an important humpback whale population and the largest concentration of whale species in Africa after South Africa.
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From mid-July to mid-September, humpbacks come close inshore and an estimated 1,000 or more can be seen as they head towards Sao Tome and Principe. Turtles nest from October to February, in particular the leatherback (the world’s largest population at some 47,000 females, never mind their other halves), while loggerheads, olive Ridleys and Kemp’s Ridleys are frequently seen.
This was what attracted Bob Sobek, the French owner of Loango Lodge, and the charming Mathieu Msellati, the manager and erstwhile Parisian sea-food restaurateur to the park. On my first day I asked Mathieu how long he thought he’d stay – “For the rest of my life?” was his reply. By the time I left I reckoned he had a point.
They run 3 satellite camps from the main Loango Lodge, adding variety and the ability to move according to the seasons. Similar to Kenya, equatorial Gabon has two rainy seasons (April-May, and October-November – the latter sometimes quite biblical) and the game moves according to the water levels and vegetation, so flexibility is important. We spent two nights at the Tassi camp, about half way down the park’s coastline where National Geographic famously filmed the “surfing” hippos a decade ago. Unlike the main lodge, it’s a very basic camp, and could do with a Kenyan tented camp make-over, but the game-viewing made up for that. Days were spent driving and walking the savannahs and finding herds of forest elephant and forest buffalo in-between the scattered forest areas.
Along with this were encounters with the most handsome of pigs, red river hogs, or les potamocheres d’Afrique as they are evocatively known in French. Until recently the red river hog has been classified as a bushpig species, but it bears little resemblance, certainly in terms of its red coloration and white ear “tassels” which are extended when you approach them in order to look bigger. Late afternoons we walked along the wild beach looking for elephants, buffalo and hippos at the water’s edge. We found buffalo lying on the sand looking out to sea – I’m sure they were sun-bathing – but alas no surfing hippos; apparently they did that at a different time of year. Unusually, the game seemed more approachable on foot – perhaps a legacy of French hunting in this area by car before it became a national park.
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But the real treat was almost accidental. I was offered a dawn forest walk and said yes, thinking it would be the usual experience of unseen but heard wildlife and at best a glimpse of a monkey species. After examining a couple of forest tortoises, watching some delightful greater spot-nosed guenons with their blobby white noses (incredibly their alarm call varies depending on the danger) and scoping out the trees where you hide if you are charged by an elephant, the tracker suddenly stopped and whispered urgently, “gorille”. Twenty metres ahead I glimpsed a silver-back running away, but only into cover ten metres on where he stopped and roared at us repeatedly. We were later told that there must have been another one behind us as he would have disappeared otherwise. I asked if we could try to get closer (not wise – adrenalin talking), the tracker firmly said “Non, partir, doucement mais vite” (No, we must leave quietly but quickly). I was pretty lucky to see this (and not get closer). The gorillas here are not habituated and it’s a very different experience to the mountain gorillas of Rwanda or Uganda. But this may change with the efforts of the Max Planck Institute, led by the renowned primatologist Martha Robbins, to study and habituate them, in conjunction with SFM Africa (Sustainable Forestry Management Africa).
SFM Africa’s manager of “Safari Development” in Loango, Matt Shirley, is also carrying out significant crocodile research in Loango. While we were there he tagged the largest female croc he had ever seen (and he’s seen thousands – as one of the foremost authorities on the seven species of African crocodile) and it was a nerve-wracking privilege to help with that – my Crocodile Dundee moment. Matt discovered the extraordinary orange cave-dwelling crocodile elsewhere in Gabon (in Abanda), but in Loango his research covers that park’s three species – the Nile, one of the three dwarf species (tetraspis) and the long-snouted or false gharial.
On the way back from the forest I was shown chimpanzee nests and poo – all I could think of was getting back in the next day to try to find the culprits. It was almost as though the Gabonese trackers didn’t realise that this would be of interest, but we set off at dawn the next morning and eventually found a troop of a dozen chimpanzees – young and old with a very big male – in a huge tree some thirty metres away. We stayed on them for an hour, until they silently descended and slowly moved past us, equally silent, no more than ten metres away. It was a special moment. Seeing a Congo serpent eagle and a great blue turaco in the treetops was a lovely bonus as we emerged from the forest.
The final amazing experience of the trip was the sight of many hundreds of rosy bee-eaters and African river martins, all nesting in holes in the ground and taking off in huge flocks as peregrines swooped low over them and palm-nut vultures walked around picking out the odd fledgling. It was high avian drama.
I feel Gabon will change, but, unusually for the continent, with much cause for optimism and viability. It isn’t perfect – the country’s infrastructure needs are huge (you can’t even drive from Libreville to Port Gentil), transport is expensive, as are most things there by African standards. There are few lodges – the only one in Ivindo park (and the access to Langoue Bai, a famous site for observing gorillas, western bongo and the largest forest elephants) was closed when I went; no one knew when it would re-open. And a very tight lid needs to be kept on poaching, logging, onshore oil-drilling and palm oil plantations. But the government seems to get it, it needs to have a plan for the time when oil runs out, but the country is blessed with stability and very few demographic or geopolitical pressures. The direction of change will likely be more akin to Botswana, focusing on high end tourism. As an example, Aman Resorts are going into Gabon with some 6 sites, in conjunction with the country’s unusually visionary and conservation-minded sovereign wealth fund, the FGiS.
I’d barely touched the surface of Gabon. 12 more national parks beckon in this counter-intuitive country – a central African gem that is safe, barely populated, sensibly run, covered with pristine forest, with intact biodiversity – where the big game hang out on the beach and the food is fantastically French.
About the Author
NICK TIMS has worked in the City of London in various banking positions since 1987, when he left Cambridge University, and is currently a managing director at Investec Asset Management where he raises money for African investments. A trustee of Tusk Trust, he has previously been a trustee of Save The Rhino and the Selous Trust and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. He has traveled around 18 African countries over the last 30 years, including a year’s expedition with his young family across southern and eastern Africa. With a home in Samburuland, Nick and his family share an abiding passion for the people and environments of Africa, and the far north of Kenya, Gabon and Zimbabwe in particular. A member of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association, Nick is also a keen open water swimmer, raising money for African conservation with endurance events whenever he can.