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2008 Gabon Trip

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Hi guys, just return from Gabon: Here is our Diary

Thursday, August 21, 2008
Flew from Libreville via Casablanca.
Africa is big. No, really. It took five hours to fly from the north to central Africa. We arrived at 11:30 p.m. in Libreville without cash or a place to stay. The third ATM we tried kept my card, so we walked down the street with our bags to the Tropicana Hotel, Bar, Restaurant, and Beach (not necessarily in that order). It was dark. Very dark. We were tired and a little apprehensive, and our room was completely no-frills. If you strip the luxury from a Motel 6 and put it in Africa, you’ve got an idea. It was clean and had a/c, so we got a good night’s sleep. That’s all that counts.
Friday, August 22, 2008
Libreville is an interesting place. After retrieving my card from the ATM, we took a shared taxi to Jardin des Ambres where our tour company had our plane tickets and itinerary for the rainforest trek. Across the street at Mbolo Supermarket we found some breakfast and a friendlier ATM. One good thing about former colonies of France is that their pastries and breads are excellent. We started to explore Quartier Louis and scoped out a few restaurants for the evening but started to fade and took another shared cab back to the hotel.
We enjoyed the cool breeze off the ocean at the Tropicana’s beach. Even though we were just a degree or two off the equator, it was very comfortable near the water. We dropped off our suitcases at the tour office for safekeeping until we returned from the jungle. We had all the essentials in our backpacks.
We headed up a main boulevard and took a look at the major government buildings and their modern architecture. Some of them looked like spaceships, and it’s easy to see that President Bongo wanted to build a world-class capital with his oil money. We walked down the coast and then cut inland to a real, lively neighborhood where the locals lived and shopped. I think that was the best part of the day. By this time we were ready for dinner and decided to head back to Quartier Louis for Chinese food. Surprisingly enough, we had several Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants to choose from. The first featured a buffet without warming trays, so we went for Chez Wang and his dishes cooked to order. The food was, shockingly, pretty good.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Walked back to the airport (can’t beat the convenience of the Tropicana) and flew by prop plane to Makokou. Makokou, while a provincial capital, is a village of 10,000 people in tin-roof shacks in a clearing in the jungle. The FIGET (guide company) rep met us at the airport, drove us back to the house that serves as their office, finished up some paperwork, and served us a filling lunch. We had to sign a waiver stating that animals are wild and unpredictable, and FIGET is not responsible for any death or dismemberment that they might cause. We laughed and signed our lives away.
He drove us to the market to pick up some fresh food. Out at the camp there is no electricity or refrigeration, so our meals will progress from fresh to canned over the span of four days. At the river we loaded everything into a pirogue (dugout canoe) and started to head inland with three guides to Kongou Falls. It’s the dry season, so they had to be careful over rocks and rapids at a few points, but we arrived all in one piece three hours later. On the whole trip we only saw one other pirogue. The banks were covered with thick vegetation. We were the only guests at a camp that can sleep 14. By the time we arrived, it was four o’clock. The sun sets at 6 and rises at 6 at the equator, so we didn’t have much light. We got a tour of the camp, located right next to the falls, and saw the squat toilets (with bucket flush), cold showers from tanks overhead, and rustic cabins. Everything you’re going to use has to come with you on the pirogue. They cooked us a delicious dinner of fish, plantains, manioc, and rice, and we headed off to our (very comfortable) beds for a long night’s sleep.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
After breakfast we went with our guides on a trek through the rainforest. We saw some monkeys in the trees along with elephant, gorilla, and panther tracks. The forest is very dense and wet, as you would expect. We clambered up and down hills to see the falls from a few different locations, and it was simply amazing. These falls are wide enough that you can’t see them all from one place. They appear from the thick vegetation a few at a time. Five hours later, we had worked up an appetite for lunch. The food did not disappoint! We had chicken, ground beef, rice, beans, potatoes, and cake. I guess we looked hungry (and we were).
We took a nice afternoon nap in our cabin, and later in the afternoon the guides took us to the middle of the falls where we got out of the pirogue and walked through the water at the very edge while they took a bath and fished. The water was cool and swift but not very deep, and to see it rush over the rocks at the edge was incredible.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Today we went looking for elephants and gorillas deep in the jungle. The guides took us on a five hour trek to areas where trees are known to produce a red fruit that the animals love, but the fruit was out of season. Even so, we were amazed again at how thick and dark the rainforest is and how skilled our guides were in navigating such dense vegetation. There are plants growing at all levels from tall hardwoods that form a canopy down to spiky, vines that grow on the ground and grab at your clothes. Over logs, under vines, up and over hills, and down and around the bend we went. We did see elephant, leopard, and gorilla tracks, but the animals themselves stayed hidden. Later that afternoon I talked the guide in charge into taking us out for another walk down the Chinese road. The Chinese have been working with the Gabonese government to explore the possibility of damming the river at the falls, and they cut a road through the forest to connect with the main road to the capital. It makes walking a little easier, but it also makes it easier for hunters and poachers. The animals have moved a little deeper into the jungle. This was also the day the shower building ran out of water, so we brought some bottles up from the river to wash our hands and flush, and we started bathing right in the river where the water rushes over the falls.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
We packed everything up and took the pirogue upstream to a clearing in the forest called a “bai” that elephants and gorillas visit for its salty mud. This hike through the jungle was a little shorter, but we had to cross a few streams on fallen logs and navigate around and through scores of fresh elephant prints in the mud. We were in full safari trekking gear, and our guide was barefoot with a machete. We sat in the dirt at the edge of the bai for an hour or two, but our luck was not so good. In Gabon, all told, we saw a few monkeys, some beautiful butterflies, and an African fish eagle, but that’s about it. Even so, we were happy to be isolated in the thick, green forest next to such a magnificent set of waterfalls.
We took the pirogue another three hours upstream and arrived in Makokou at the IRET research station. We hiked uphill from the water’s edge and met up with Guy, the boss from FIGET (the Gabonese eco-tourism authority). He drove us into town for dinner at a local restaurant, I can tell you that those plates of fish and chicken tasted like some of the best food we had ever eaten. Back at IRET, we settled into our two-bedroom villa. The station consists of a number of villas and support buildings for ecological researchers, but at the moment they were between sessions. The place was deserted. We figured out how to get the hot water going, cleaned up, and got some very important rest.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Since there are only two flights a week to Libreville and we didn’t want to cut short our time at the falls, we opted to drive back instead. We got up at 4:15 so that we would be ready when Guy and his friend/mechanic came at 5 a.m. to pick us up in a 4x4 truck. It was too early for the pumps to be on, so we relied on the previous night’s shower to carry us over. It was still dark outside as we settled into the backseat to dig into the bread, cheese, sausage, and Nutella that Guy brought us for breakfast. The ground is iron-rich in northeastern Gabon, and after passing a couple dozen logging trucks on the dirt road our luggage in the back was covered with a thick layer of dust (and we were covered with a very thin one). Rural Gabon from the road looks a lot like rural Gabon from the river: very, very green. The road was rough, but Guy’s expert driving got us skillfully through the forest and past a handful of small villages and a couple of small towns. About half of the way there in terms of distance, you pick up some speed on a paved road. Altogether, the trip took 13 hours. The villages we saw ranged in size from three to about ten rough buildings made out of scraps of wood, corrugated metal, or mud packed into a wooden frame. They were one small step away from thatched mud huts. We were an item of curiosity among villagers and checkpoint police alike, but the Gabonese we met were uniformly friendly and welcoming. This road trip was a rare and enlightening opportunity to see the “real” Africa away from capital cities and tourist destinations.
Back in Libreville we retrieved our suitcases from the travel agency and went back across the street to Mbolo for some food, our energy from the bread and cheese having run out some time ago. The data lines were down, disabling not only the ATMs but the credit card machines at the checkouts. They were kind enough to exchange some $20 bills we still had with us, and we had a dinner of bread, meat, chips, chocolate and yogurt. We took a taxi to the airport and found a restroom where we could shave and take towel baths to remove as much of the dust as possible (much to the attendant’s amusement). The internet outage affected the airport as well, and check-in for the three international flights that evening all had to be done by hand. Finally, just after midnight, we took off and said goodbye to Gabon.

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