Spedizione 2007 - Gabon / Il diario
Day 01 – 23.04.07 : Mechelen
Day 02 – 24.04.07 : Mechelen – Paris – Libreville
Day 03 – 25.04.07 : Libreville
Day 04 – 26.04.07 : Libreville
Day 05 – 27.04.07 : Libreville – Loango
Day 06 – 28.04.07 : Loango – Akaka
Day 07 – 29.04.07 : Akaka
Day 08 – 30.04.07 : Akaka
Day 09 – 01.05.07 : Akaka – Loango
Day 10 – 02.05.07 : Loango – Tassi
Day 11 – 03.05.07 : Tassi
Day 12 – 04.05.07 : Tassi – Loango
Day 13 – 05.05.07 : Loango
Day 14 – 06.05.07 : Loango – Ivindo
Day 15 – 07.05.07 : Ivindo
Day 16 – 08.05.07 : Ivindo
Day 17 – 09.05.07 : Ivindo
Day 18 – 10.05.07 : Ivindo – Libreville
Day 19 – 11.05.07 : Libreville
Day 20 – 12.05.07 : Libreville
Day 21 and 22 – 13.05.07 and 14.05.07 : Libreville – Paris
23.04.07 – MONDAY: MECHELEN
Today, five of the six team members met in Mechelen, Belgium, from where our trip to Gabon would start the next morning. The group consisted of two Belgians (Emmanuel and Guy van Heygen), two Germans (Klaus Reimüller and Roland Zobel) and Danishborn Brian Rasmussen. The only team member still missing was Lonnie McCaskill from the United States, whom we would meet at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris the next morning.
We had dinner in the historic centre of Mechelen, in a restaurant opposite the beautiful old cathedral. All of us were eager and anxious to start our trip to a country still unknown to us. We were all experienced travellers and during dinner we sat and swapped stories of our past adventures.
Afterwards at the hotel, we had a bottle of Champagne to toast Brian as the winner of the 2006 Nactus Award, and of course to celebrate in anticipation of our journey.
24.04.07 – TUESDAY: MECHELEN – PARIS – LIBREVILLE
We had an early start, leaving the hotel at 6.00 am. From Mechelen we took the commuter train to Brussels, and from there the super fast TGV, which took us from Brussels to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport in little more than an hour. At the gate we met up with the last team member, Lonnie McCaskill.
With the team now complete, we can start the first leg of our journey to the “Land of the Surfing Hippos”.
THE TEAM MEMBERS ARE:
Emmanuel van Heygen, Belgian (Expedition Leader and Exoterra Brand Manager)
Guy van Heygen, Belgian (Film Maker)
Brian Rasmussen, Danish (Winner of the 2006 Nactus Award & official Expedition Photographer)
Lonnie McCaskill, American (Zoological Manager, Disney’s Animal Kingdom)
Roland Zobel, German (Aquaristic and Terraristic Brand Manager, Hagen Germany)
Klaus Reimüller, German (European Brand Development Manager, Hagen International)
At 11.40 am our plane finally takes off after about a 40 minute delay. It’s very hot during the flight, but a good way to prepare ourselves for the next three weeks of traveling near the Equator. During the flight we talk about our itinerary and familiarize ourselves with the different regions we will be traveling to.
After an uneventful 6.5 hour flight we have a rough landing in Libreville. It’s now 7.00 pm. We are still in the same time zone, but 1 hour later, since Gabon doesn’t change the clock during summer.
As is normal in Africa, clearing customs and baggage control is pretty slow, but we still manage to get through in little more than an hour. Exiting the airport we are immediately hit by the heat. The outside temperature is roughly 30°C, with a humidity of 95%. This will need some getting used to. Expecting us are two young and pretty Gabonese girls, who are working for “Operation Loango”. In a bus too small for nine people and a lot of luggage we drive to the hotel Tropicana, our home for the first three days.
When we leave the air-conditioned bus, the heat hits us again like a hammer, and we all start sweating profusely. The hotel rooms are bungalow style, run-down and very basic, but the location of the Tropicana directly on the beach compensates more than adequately for the poor accommodation. Plus, compared to African standards, the restaurant is first rate.
After taking a long shower, we all meet in the open air restaurant and have our first meal in Africa. We are all very excited to be here and talk until 11.00 pm, before we decide to go to bed. However, Roland, Brian and Lonnie still want to go on a little excursion to find out what animals they might find in the closer vicinity.
25.04.07 – WEDNESDAY: LIBREVILLE
Shortly after 7.00 am, we all meet for breakfast. The day starts friendly and dry, but the sky is overcast. We are now all wearing the official Exo Terra Expedition T-Shirts and enjoy our coffee listening to the surf of the ocean. Three of the team members have already been busy looking for reptiles and have taken the first pictures.
We all agree that it is a fascinating feeling to literally sit on the edge of a continent and a country that is still pretty much unknown to the rest of the world; a country that has been named “The last garden of Eden, frozen in time”.
Most of the morning is spent searching for reptiles and taking pictures of a Gecko species that we find in abundance here, the Colonist Agama (Agama agama). Some of the males are strikingly beautiful with bright yellow heads and orange tails.
At 11.00 am, we decide to explore Libreville. We find two taxis, and after a short negotiation with the drivers, we agree on a price of 30.000 CFA, the equivalent of €45.00, for half a day. A short time later we are dropped at the biggest and most colourful street market in the town centre. Like everywhere else in Africa, the market is very crowded, noisy and chaotic. The most striking feature, however, are the colours and ubiquitous umbrellas.
Since we are all wearing cameras and identical Exo Terra T-Shirts, people very quickly acknowledge our presence and some even react in an aggressive way, asking us whether we have only come here to take pictures of their misery.
One stand in particular catches our eye, and we have to pay the owner almost €20.00, in order to be allowed to take some pictures. The stand features cut-off antelope heads, elephant feet, and monkey heads and feet in a more or less advanced state of decay. Plus we also find dried snakes, tortoises, chameleons, a decaying parrot, every conceivable animal skin, feathers, cut-off chicken feet and even a severed Hyena head. Taking the pictures alone could get us into trouble, but we are all so fascinated in utter bewilderment, that we cannot stop photographing. By now the midday heat has become very oppressive and the stench of the market overwhelming.
Emmanuel then pushes the team ahead, because we are causing too much of a scene. Back in the taxi, we are taken to a better part of town, where we stop for a drink and then have lunch in one of the most famous restaurants in Libreville. They serve international food, but the speciality at the L’Odika is bush meat.
The menu features antelope, crocodile, python, wild boar and porcupine. We all pass, but Roland orders Python, which actually doesn’t taste too bad.
During lunch it starts raining, and then the rain turns into a tropical downpour which lasts for almost two hours. When the rain ceases, we decide to visit the market for African art and artifacts. Both Lonnie and Emmanuel buy two stunning masks at very reasonable prices.
Back at the hotel at 6.00 pm, we all have a drink at the little beach bar next to the hotel. Afterwards we freshen up and meet again for dinner at 8.00 pm. While the rest of us are still sitting together after dinner, Roland and Brian go on a little excursion of the hotel grounds and return a short time later with a frog and a toad. Not bad for our first day. On the way to our rooms, we also discover a huge snail, which again is photographed in minute detail. By midnight we all have turned in.
26.04.07 – THURSDAY: LIBREVILLE
We have all slept relatively well, but already have a case of Montezuma’s revenge. At 7.00 am, the first team members are already awake and are greeted by a partly sunny sky. During breakfast we discuss all the tropical diseases that you can catch in this part of Africa. However, this is not very reassuring. Afterwards, some of us already have to do some small laundry, since we have all packed light.
At 10.30 am, we hop into two taxis and head out of town for our first jungle excursion. Once we are out of town, the paved highway turns into a dirt road with huge pot holes, past simple huts and derelict houses. In moments like these, one realizes what a safe and comfortable life we live as Europeans. Although Gabon is one of the richest countries in Africa, it is still a poor country compared to European standards.
We drive for about 45 minutes until we reach a dense forest area. Here we start our first real discovery tour. We spread out and Guy gets his film camera ready. Although you never really notice him, he is always here, there and everywhere, filming for our documentary. The weather is turning again, and rain is in the air. Despite twelve eyes constantly scanning the forest and the ground, we only end up finding two skinks and one frog.
At 2.00 pm, it starts raining, and we slowly make our way back to the waiting taxis. On our way back into town, we spot two large monitors, but by the time we have stopped the car and gotten out, they have already disappeared into the bush.
We are back at the hotel at 3.00 pm and relax in one of the hotel’s gazebos. In the meantime it has stopped raining, and after lunch we enjoy the refreshing breeze coming from the ocean. As we will discover many times over the next three weeks, all of a sudden the breeze stops, and it becomes oppressively hot again. The rest of the afternoon we spend relaxing, talking and discussing the itinerary for the coming week. The sunset tonight is spectacular, and we all take a lot of pictures.
Shortly after 8.00 pm we have dinner, which tonight is a short affair. Since we are all tired, by 9:30 pm everybody has turned in for the night. Only Brian and Roland still have enough energy to go for a last “Agama Session”.
27.04.07 – FRIDAY: LIBREVILLE – LOANGO
Today our real journey starts. By 7.00 am, everybody is up. We have breakfast, sort out our finances and start packing our backpacks. Shortly after 10.00 am Charlene and Marcelle from our tour operator SCD arrive. While we are checking out and getting ready for the departure, it starts raining heavily again. Within minutes the path to our rooms is completely flooded, and we have to wait for a while until we can get our bags from the rooms. The weather really changes fast here, especially towards the end of the rainy season. The morning started with a nice breeze which then turned into oppressive heat and shortly after, tropical downpours again. Finally, the hotel employees get us huge umbrellas, so we can get to and from our rooms without getting drenched.
Again we have to pack everything into a van that is too small for nine people and leave for the airport at around 11.00 am. At the airport Klaus almost gets arrested for taking pictures of a public building. In the end, they just make him delete the pictures he took. Never forget the golden rule that one cannot take pictures of any federal or public building anywhere in Africa. Checking in is swift and easy, thanks to our female companions. When we go through the luggage scan, they wave their final goodbye.
At 1.45 pm, after a 45 minute delay, we take off. Our journey will first take us to Port Gentil, the economical capital of Gabon, and from there on to Omboué. The plane is small and only holds 16 people. Since we are flying relatively low through a cloudless sky, the views from the plane are spectacular, and a lot of pictures are taken. This has already become a routine for all of us. Although the expedition has not really started yet, we have altogether probably already taken more than 800 pictures, especially from our morning “Agama Sessions”.
The flight is relatively short, and we land in Port Gentil after a mere 30 minutes in the air. Upon arrival we are greeted by our Dutch hostess Loreen. Here we learn the bad news. It is very unlikely that we will be able to walk to Petit Loango, due to the long and heavy rainfalls. The good news is that this will save us the 30 km walk from Petit Loango to Tassi. But even going to Tassi by Jeep is still a big question mark at this point.
Another change in plans is the way we will continue our trip. Instead of going to Omboué by plane and from there to Iguéla by Jeep, we will be taken directly to Iguéla by means of a small Pilatus Porter plane. After an hour’s wait, it is time to go on board.
Rick the pilot is American, comes from Wyoming and doesn’t like talking. In short, he is very weird. Plus, getting all our staff into the plane is a small adventure in itself, and there is hardly enough space for six people, so we really have to squeeze in tight. However, despite the lack of space and the heat inside the cabin, the flight is fantastic. We are able to take a lot of wonderful pictures of the coastline, savannah, swamps and forests.
After about a 45 minute flight, Rick expertly lands in the middle of the savannah, close to the Iguéla Lagoon. Upon exiting we step into water. As a result of the strong rainfalls of the past few days, the field on which we landed is completely flooded. The scenery, however, is incredible. Now we are in deepest Africa and far away from civilization. A Jeep with two locals is already waiting for us. Their names are Popopo and Dimitry, and they will be our guides for the entire time in and around the lagoon.
All our gear is loaded onto a trailer, which we simply leave behind, when we first go on a three-hour safari before heading for the lodge. There is not a cloud in the sky, and it is hot. But we are all so excited to be here, that we hardly feel the temperature anymore. Or perhaps we have already adjusted to it. It is an amazing feeling to be in such a remote place, especially since we know, that not a lot of people have walked before, where we are walking right now. On this first excursion we see elephants, monkeys and buffalos.
The forest elephants here are different from the ones in India or East Africa. Much smaller than their peers, they are black and extremely dangerous. If a forest elephant attacks, he goes for the kill. Shortly before it gets dark we reach the ocean, where we see elephants again. The sunset is spectacular and our hearts soar with euphoria. On top of that, our guides open a cooling box full of beer. What a beautiful ending of a perfect day.
After the sun has disappeared behind the horizon, we return to our trailer, connect it to the Jeep and drive down to the shore of the Lagoon, where a boat is already waiting to take us across to the Loango Lodge. We are welcomed by Sandro, a German from Berlin who has lived in Africa for over twelve years and is now the Manager of the Loango Lodge. We check into our sleeping pavilions, take a long and hot shower and then meet on the terrace of the Lodge overlooking the beautiful Iguéla lagoon.
The dinner is fantastic, but the heat and humidity are very oppressive tonight, since there is no breeze from the water. We are all completely wired and stay up until 12.30, when we finally start getting tired. Roland and Brian, however, don’t want to miss any opportunity and go on another small night excursion in search of reptiles and amphibians.
28.04.07 – SATURDAY: LOANGO – AKAKA
We all slept well last night and meet for breakfast at 8.00 am. During the night it rained heavily, but now the sky is clear again. Shortly before 9.00 am, we start loading the boat. It has a good size and two powerful 80 HP outboard engines. Jonas is the captain; Dimitry and Popopo are our field guides and Makoy is the cook. At 9.30 am, we say our goodbyes to Sandro and take off for our first trip into the jungle.
When Jonas revs up the engines, we enjoy the wind in our faces, and within minutes our sweaty clothes have dried. Once we are out of the larger waters of the lagoon, following the smaller waterway, we are attacked by thousands of mosquitoes and TseTse flies every time the boat stops so we can take pictures.
During the the two hours it takes to get to Akaka, we see fish eagles, palm vultures, king fishers, crocodiles, monkeys and an elephant. Shortly after noon we arrive at the Akaka camp, where we are already expected by three more Gabonese eco-guides. We unload the boat and inspect the camp that will be our home for the next four days.
The Akaka camp is located directly in the jungle on the shore of the lagoon. A solar panel is used to power the radio for emergencies and in case of poachers, which was the main reason why the camp had been set up in the first place. Therefore, it is manned at all times. The camp itself with old tents on simple wooden platforms appears to be pretty run down. Each tent has a bucket shower and a chemical toilet. The main platform on which we will eat and sit while being in the camp overlooks the lagoon and has a huge hole in the thatched roof. A lot of things are in disrepair, but we are just happy to be here.
After getting all our gear into the tents, we take our first walk into the primal rainforest, while lunch is being prepared in the equally derelict kitchen. During our half-hour walk we already discover a frog and a black forest cobra. Not too bad for a start. When it starts raining we make our way back to the camp. When we arrive we are completely soaked and have to hang up our clothes. For lunch we are having grilled chicken, vegetables and couscous. Fresh papaya and coffee complete our first meal in the jungle, and we all agree that this is much better than what we expected.
By now the rain has stopped, and after a short rest we venture out into the bush again. This time we discover various frogs, two skinks and a beautiful green mamba. Every animal is closely photographed and filmed before being released back into its natural habitat. Roland catches a few killifishes, a characin and a cichlid (or perhaps Tilapia) in a small biotope nearby.
By now the heat has become very intense again and sweat trickles down our body until our clothes are completely soaked. In addition the rain keeps coming back now and again. Lonnie proves to be a true “Crocodile Hunter” when he throws himself on a skink with his entire body, and manages to catch this fast animal without any major problems. With this knowledge we know that nothing will be safe for us anymore. We spent the whole afternoon in the forest, but when the heat becomes too much, we go back to the camp and decide to make another excursion with the boat.
The cool breeze on the boat is wonderful and we race through the mangrove swamps to cool ourselves. We even spot a forest elephant which we also chase on foot, but before long, the elephant is chasing us back to the boat. Shortly after six we are back in the camp and prepare ourselves for the long night. We all take a bucket shower, apply plenty of insect repellent and then gather in our “living room”. At around 7.00 pm it is pitch dark, and the night descends on us like a hot, wet blanket. The humidity usually drops between 4.30 and 6.30 pm, but only to gain momentum again after it gets dark. Tonight we measure 28°C with a humidity of 96%.
After dinner we make a last excursion which yields a Gecko. All in all we had an excellent first day in Akaka. By 11.00 pm we all go to bed. Because of the humidity, the small tents and no air circulation whatsoever, we all have problems to find sleep tonight. Klaus and Brian even find a small rat in their tent. After failing to catch the animal with a plastic bag, Brian swiftly kills it with his big flashlight. We now realize that we can even find animals in our sleep. Good night Akaka.
29.04.07 – SUNDAY: AKAKA
It was a long and hot night and by 6.00 am we are all up. Five minutes after taking a bucket shower and getting dressed, we are completely drenched with sweat again. Lonnie was up very early and has already found a nice hinge back tortoise. Today is also Guy’s birthday, so we all give him our best wishes and look forward to a small celebration tonight.
Shortly after breakfast the first thunder comes rolling in, followed by lightning and then the sky opens up. This will turn out to be another tropical downpour which will last most of the day. We sit on the platform and try to make do. Since we have a big hole in the roof, part of the platform is constantly flooded. We pass the time by photographing the spiders hanging between the beams and the roof. Roland is bored and catches big water bugs, which are also photographed and filmed.
Later in the morning Emmanuel and Brian go out in small canoes despite the pouring rain. We take more pictures of the tortoise and a big elephant tick. Roland is fishing again and finds some Epiplatys Singa and Hemichromis Fasciatus.
When the rain subsides, Jonas starts to cut quinine bark from a tree. According to an old tradition and in order to show your respect, you have to apologize to the tree for cutting the bark off. The same bark is then cut into small pieces, put into a plastic bottle and partly filled with water. This is what the natives drink as a prophylaxis against malaria. Popopo also explains that there are plants in the rainforest that cure almost everything from nausea to diarrhea and constipation.
Around 1.00 pm we are have lunch. Today we eat fish and are again surprised about the quality of the food and Makoy’s cooking skills. Since it is still raining we all try to relax and some of the team members even fall asleep. Shortly after 3.00 pm the rain stops, and we decide to go on a boat trip. We want to go back to the small deserted village that we saw yesterday and where we had spotted a group of colubus monkeys.
Until 1999, ten natives lived in this small village, selling vegetables and fish to the people from Shell who worked on an off-shore oil drilling platform. Every day the natives walked 10 km one way with their merchandise, sometimes even twice a day. When the platform closed, they could not survive anymore and had to move to Yombé.
On our way to the village we spot some monkeys, a poisonous water snake and a big monitor. Shortly before landing ashore, we see a large group of monkeys crossing the clearing in front of the dilapidated wooden farmhouse. However, they are so fast that it is impossible to get some good pictures. We scout the entire area and then walk deep into the forest. By now the sun is back and with it the heat and humidity. Thousands of flies, mosquitoes, wasps and TseTse flies are buzzing around our heads, attracted by our sweating bodies. During our walk we find a few frogs and a scaled lizard.
Around 6.00 pm we are back in the camp and Klaus has to remove a wasp nest from the shoes that Brian had hung up to dry. Today, the heat is extreme and everybody’s clothes are drenched. Dinner is served shortly before 8.00 pm, and tonight we are celebrating Guy’s birthday with Magret de Canard and a birthday cake afterwards.
At 9.30 pm, Emmanuel, Lonnie, Brian and Roland decide to take a night walk, whereas Guy stays back in the camp with Klaus and tells stories of the Seychelles. Later, with the whole team back together we can hear hippos on the other side of the river. We take the boat and try to get closer to the noise, but we cannot see anything. At 11.30 pm we give up and all go to bed in anticipation of another hot and steamy night.
30.04.07 – MONDAY: AKAKA
Despite all premonitions, the team slept relatively well, but we are all up again at the crack of dawn. At 9.30 we leave the camp in order to go back to the spot where we saw the big monitor yesterday. And sure enough, he is sitting on the same tree trunk. Luckily we get close enough to film and take some really good pictures. Later we see another monitor swimming in the water. However, all of Dimitry’s attempts to catch him fail.
At a small clearing we go ashore, because we saw some chimpanzees. For almost one hour we carefully follow their tracks through the thickest forest, Again and again we catch glimpses of them, but when we spot a group of forest elephants, we know it is time to retreat. On our way back we all wonder how our guides can find their way through this dense bush. Most of us had already lost their sense of direction after five minutes into the forest. Nevertheless, after one hour of brisk walking we exit at exactly the same spot where we had left the boat. For us this is a true miracle.
By noon we are back in the camp, and we are lucky. A nice breeze is coming from the river, making the temperature not only bearable but even pleasant. This is also a good time to hang up our wet and damp clothes. Lunch is schnitzel and afterwards crepes with chocolate sauce. Then the breeze stops, and now it feels even hotter than ever. The only thing we can do is move as little as possible, and very soon half of the team is fast asleep. Emmanuel first lies in the shallow water of a small biotope and then falls asleep on top of our boat.
At 3.00 pm we decide to take another boat trip, just to find relief from the heat. We rev up the boat and all enjoy the cooling wind. In a dark mangrove swamp we detect a water buffalo. He doesn’t seem to be very shy, and we are able to take some nice pictures.
Next we find a small monitor on a tree trunk who tries to hide within an opening of the tree. However, “Crocodile Lonnie” has no problems to extracting him, despite the animal’s fierce hissing, biting and scratching.
On our way back to the camp we experience a spectacular sunset. Nature here is fantastic, and you could almost feel in paradise, if it wasn’t for today’s stifling heat. After dinner, we decide to take another tour in the boat. Perhaps we can spot some hippos or crocodiles. The wind on our faces feels good, and within a matter of minutes our damp and sweaty clothes have dried. After about twenty minutes we are lucky and discover a Pygmy Crocodile in a dark mangrove swamp. Before you know it, Lonnie jumps into the murky water, disregarding the danger he might be in, and pulls the dwarf crocodile into the boat with his bare hands. This is incredible, what a guy! He lets out a triumphant scream and gets back into the boat. We are all happy about our “catch” and return to the camp, where we have a first half-hour photo session. At this point we estimate that we have taken almost 5.000 pictures so far. By 11.00 pm we all go to bed into our steamy tents, tired but happy.
01.05.07 – TUESDAY: AKAKA – LOANGO
Because of the heat everybody slept fitfully. Emmanuel got up at 3.00 am to sit by himself on the platform, which as he found out later was not a good idea. Until dawn he kept hearing the strangest noises close by. Was it an elephant? Could it be charging hippo? Anything is possible, but now he’s stuck and has to sit and wait it out because to try to go back to the tent means having to go through the bush and that may be even more dangerous. Returning to the tent is out of the question. So he starts humming songs until the first rays of light.
At 5.30 the rest of the team is gets up. The forest on the other side of the river looks spectacular in the misty morning light, and we take a lot of pictures. At 7.00 am we have breakfast. Afterwards we take some last pictures of the crocodile before releasing it back into the lagoon. We start packing up our gear, load the boat and leave Akaka by 8.30 am. We really had a good time here, but are now curious about what is lying ahead.
A few minutes down the river we are lucky again and see a slender snout crocodile bathing in the sun on a rotten tree trunk. We appreciate the bonus, film for a while and take pictures. By 10.00 am we are back at the Loango Lodge, where we all take long showers before gathering again for lunch. Some of us also take the time to do some laundry.
On the terrace of the lodge we meet Michael, a photographer from South Africa and Uli, a journalist who works for the German magazine “Stern”. They are here to write a story about Gabon, and it was not until the previous night that they had heard about us, otherwise they would have visited us in Akaka. We chat for a while, and the slight breeze coming from the water and the cold beer feel good after the steamy nights and days in the bush.
After lunch the weather changes and we can see a huge gray wall of rain approaching from the South, and within a few minutes the world turns dark, followed by thunderous rain. This automatically voids our plans for the afternoon, and we have to sit out the rain. On the way back from his room, Roland discovers a large group of African greys in a tree nearby. Later, we all take advantage of the satellite phone and Internet access in the Lodge and call our friends and family or answer e-mails.
We spend the rest of the afternoon swapping stories about Africa and journeys past. For dinner we have wonderful barracuda. At 9.00 pm most of the team retires to bed, because everybody is exhausted. Klaus and Guy stay up for another hour, chatting over a last bottle of wine.
02.05.07 – WEDNESDAY: LOANGO – TASSI
We all slept like babies in our air-conditioned cabins and feel energized when we get up at 6.30. Today, we will leave for Tassi. During breakfast Sandro informs us that our departure is delayed since one of the jeeps was caught in the mud from yesterday’s rain and has to be pulled out first. We seize the opportunity to take pictures of the animals that we brought with us and also of Sandro’s black forest cobra.
At 11.00 am we are ready for departure and load our gear into the boat. The jeep is already waiting on the other side of the lagoon. Since the trailer has a flat tire, a compressor has to be brought from the lodge. We use the time to try to take some pictures of a mudskipper. However, this does not prove easy, because these guys are shy and fast. Finally, we are ready to leave. Since there is no more space in the car, Dimitry has to sit on the trailer. Driving progress is slow, since the tracks are completely filled with water, and we sometimes have the impression that we are driving through a river.
During our two-hour drive through the savannah we see a large herd of buffalos and a jeep with five locals working for the Loango Lodge, who have prepared the camp for our arrival. The location is fantastic, and from everywhere, we have a wide sweeping view across the savannah and the forest. Our “Living Room” platform is much bigger than the one we had in Akaka and also in better shape. The same applies to the sleeping tents. There are five in total, and they are set up about 150 metres apart from each other. In the distance we can see and hear the Atlantic Ocean. The kitchen is out of sight of the main platform, but like in Akaka is fully equipped with everything we need. We unload our backpacks and go for a short inspection of what will be our home for the next three or four nights. On his way to the tent, Klaus spots two gorillas or chimpanzees in the distance, but they are too far away to be sure.
It is not long after that Lonnie and Brian start their first discovery tour. Since there is a nice breeze over the savannah, the temperatures here are wonderful, and we all feel good and full of energy to find out what is behind the next corner.
Upon scouting the area we see a lone buffalo coming out of the forest. Roland makes his way into one of the smaller forest islands and discovers a small biotope in which he finds a nice selection of killifishes. Back from his tour, Lonnie shows us some pieces of amber that he found close to a little creek.
Then it’s time for lunch. We have Avocado with vinaigrette and Chilli con Carne. Afterwards we relax a bit and around 3.00 pm we decide to go for a walk towards the ocean. The jeep will follow suit. The walk is easy, but we have to cross a little river on our way, and then we finally reach the ocean. The untouched sandy beach stretches as far as the eye can see, and we feel like the early explorers. It is amazing, however, how much jetsam and flotsam we find. Some time ago, Michael J. Fay started an initiative to clean up part of the beaches in Loango National Park. We find hundreds of plastic and glass bottles, cans, cream and yoghurt containers from every corner of the world. We cannot believe our eyes when we see some used hypothermic needles that had also washed ashore. It is really sad that even in an unspoiled and remote place like this, man has already left his mark!
A more natural and amazing sight are the thousands of ghost crabs that are continuously coming and going with the surf. They are so fast, that it is almost impossible to take pictures in order to demonstrate the huge quantities one can find here. We walk for about two kilometres alongside the ocean shore until we see a big herd of buffalos in the ocean mist. Amongst the herd we can also make out three elephants. However, we are hardly close enough to land some good shots.
On our way back to the car, all of a sudden we find ourselves eye in eye with a big forest elephant breaking through the bush and onto the beach. We are only about 80 metres away and are able to take some really good pictures, always aware of the danger that these animals represent. Apparently they feed on a special kind of hallucinogenic plants that make them even more unpredictable. While we are studying the animal the sun is slowly setting, and we relish this unbelievable feeling of remoteness and lack of human existence. Around 6.00 pm we drive back to Tassi camp and decide to go back to the beach a bit earlier tomorrow and leave the car behind, hoping to see perhaps some surfing hippos.
Back in the camp we all take a bucket shower and gather again on the main platform. While we are sitting in our wicker chairs with a refreshing beer, waiting for dinner, an elephant suddenly appears out of nowhere and comes as close as 50 metres to the camp. It’s an elephant cow, and she is already known to our crew. Her name is Cruela, and on one occasion in the past she had attacked the camp’s kitchen. She seems to be used to people and allows us to take a lot of pictures, and we venture closer and closer to get better pictures in the approaching darkness. While we are having dinner and even for a long time after, we can still feel the presence of the animal. By 9.30 pm, we are all tired and go to bed.
At 2.00 in the morning some of us wake up to the thunder and lightning of a major thunderstorm, followed by torrential rain, which will be our lullaby for the rest of the night. We also realize that our return to the Lodge might be in jeopardy if it keeps raining like this.
03.05.07 – THURSDAY: TASSI
The camp wakes up at 5.30 and the first to arrive on the platform are Lonnie and Emmanuel. Upon approaching our “Living Room” they are completely stunned. Part of the wooden structure is destroyed; some of the wicker chairs and one cooling container are pierced by elephant tusks, and cans are strewn across the forecourt. Our eco-guides report that the kitchen building is also partly destroyed. For the first time we realize in earnest how dangerous and destructive these elephants can be. By 7.00 we are all sitting together for breakfast, discussing the incident and speculating whether the elephant will return tonight. During breakfast the rain comes back full force, and the water is running in sheets from the roof. An hour later, the downpour stops and at 8.30 we are ready to go on our next excursion.
While Lonnie and eco-guide Dimitry stay behind to go looking for Gabon Vipers, the rest of us hop into the jeep hoping to see some elephants and gorillas today. It is not long into the drive until we see the first buffalos and a bit later, red river hogs. While leaving the car to get some closer shots, it starts raining again, slowly first but then the rain becomes heavy, and we are forced to retreat to the vehicle.
We keep driving through the untouched wilderness, and our guides take us to a camp of primate researchers, three European girls, who live in the bush with four local guides to carry out research on gorillas and chimpanzees. The camp is deserted since they are on a field trip, which gives us ample time to take some pictures of the camp. It consists of 6 sleeping tents and several rough structures that house a library and a working room including a big table with skulls and bones of all sizes and forms, a rudimentary kitchen and a toilet and a shower “house”. Outside, under a big tree is another table with 18 elephant tusks, ranging in length from 30 to 150 centimetres. For us it is inconceivable that people can live in a place like this for three years while doing their research. You have to be really dedicated.
We stay for about 20 minutes and then continue our excursion. About 10 minutes later we see the next herd of buffalos; 16 animals in total with three young ones. A short time later we run into a small herd of Sitatunga Antelopes. In order to get closer, we have to cross a small forest island. Crawling through the bush pays off, and we get some really nice shots of these beautiful animals.
At noon we are back in the camp. Lonnie has caught some frogs, and during his excursion with Dimitry they came across a huge herd of red river hogs, consisting of at least 150 animals. After lunch, we are all taking a little siesta, since we have planned a big walk for the afternoon.
When we are all back together, Guy is completely frustrated since his video camera somehow doesn’t work anymore. But we are lucky, since he brought a replacement camera, albeit not as good as the big one. By 3.30 pm, we leave the camp in the jeep to drive to our drop-off point some six kilometres south of the camp and close to the ocean. Our guides will then pick us up at a predetermined point about the same distance down the beach.
Popopo comes with us and the first kilometre leads through a small swamp, followed by dense bush. By now the sun is back full force and it becomes hot again, especially since there is no breeze from the ocean today. Walking through the bush is not without risk, since we can always run into an elephant at any given moment. And, according to the foot prints and droppings, there must be plenty of them around. We are all sweating profusely, but all of a sudden we are out of the bush and on the beach. It is almost 5.00 pm by now, and we are hoping to see a lot of animals.
We start our 5 km walk back on this deserted beach, knowing that only few people have walked here before. The feeling is indescribable, and we are all filled with euphoria to be able to see that places like this still exist. We don’t have to wait long until we see the first elephants. The group consists of 5 adults and one juvenile. For almost 30 minutes we crawl towards the animals in order to get some nice close-up images. Finally we hide behind a big tree trunk, only 30-40 metres away from the group. If they spot us, we know we will have a big problem, especially since they will do anything to protect the little one.
After we have taken plenty of pictures and Guy is happy with the filming material, we slowly move back towards the edge of the water, always aware of the extreme risk we are taking. We continue our way along the empty beach, and again it is not long until we run into the next group of elephants. Again we take pictures and film, but all of us are hoping at this point to find some of them standing in the surf or even see some hippos. By the time the sun disappears behind the horizon, we have reached the car, happy to have some cold drinks and watch a spectacular sunset in one of the remotest places on earth and on the edge of the darkest of all continents. At the same time the wind picks up and cools the sweat on our faces. Perhaps this is what heaven must feel like.
While we are still standing on the ocean shore and enjoy being alive, a lone elephant steps out onto the beach and catches our attention. Hard to be believe, but it is Cruela, the same elephant that we believe destroyed our camp last night. We all have a strange premonition, then she eventually turns around and disappears as quietly as she arrived.
Back at camp we wash off the sand and gather together on the platform. Before dinner Lonnie walks off again and brings back two big hinge back tortoises. During our meal we talk about the next day. In the morning we want to go back to the beach before breakfast, i.e. by 5.30 or 6.00 am at the latest. Tonight we are all very tired. By 8.45 pm Lonnie has already gone to bed, and the rest of us follow suit about an hour later, looking forward to a good night’s sleep, but still a little bit worried about whether Cruela might return tonight.
At 1.15 am, Klaus is woken up by a very faint noise. When he looks out of the screened window on his side he doesn’t see anything, but when he looks out on Brian’s side, he notices Cruela standing right next to their tent. Without making any noise he wakes Brian, and the moment he looks out of his window, wondering what to do, the elephant’s trunk comes sniffing at the window. Instinctively, Brian jumps over to the other side and now both are horrified, watching the trunk like an animal from a horror movie going up and down the window sniffing and looking for them. While they are still wondering what to do, the trunk suddenly disappears. Then there’s a tearing noise, followed by the elephant’s tusk ripping through the wall of the tent and into Brian’s mattress. Klaus lets out a primal scream that pierces the darkness, waking up Emmanuel and his father. The scream is enough to frighten Cruela into backing away from the tent, but only by a few metres. There she stops and starts to graze as if nothing had happened.
Within a few minutes the whole camp is awake, and we chase off the elephant with our powerful flashlights and a lot of screaming and yelling. Our eco-guides follow the animal with the jeep until Cruela disappears into the dark forest. Eventually, we all gather on the platform, forgetting for a moment how tired we are. There is no way we can go back into our tents tonight, so we decide to stay on the platform until morning and then go back to the Lodge. Tonight was the final proof that it is not safe to stay here any longer. For the next few hours we all try to find a way to catch some of sleep, not an easy thing to do on the wooden floor or in the wicker chairs. By 3.00 am the camp is quiet again and the night has reclaimed peace.
04.05.07 – FRIDAY: TASSI – LOANGO
At first light we are all up, still tired but happy that nothing worse has happened last night. Breakfast is served at seven, and of course we only have one topic. Nevertheless, we decide to take another trip around Tassi before going back to the Lodge in the afternoon. By 9.00 am we are on our way into the dense forest, still hoping to spot a Gabon viper. During our almost twohour walk we find another hinge back tortoise, a huge millipede, a wood bore beetle and several frogs. And, as so many times before, all are photographed and filmed from every conceivable angle.
On our way back to Tassi, we drive past a solitary buffalo and start yet again another photo session. Shortly after noon we are back in the camp, and we don’t have to wait long until Makoy serves another unforgettable lunch. Today we have a hard time finding enough glasses and plates since Cruela has destroyed most of them. After lunch we pack our bags, and at 1.30 pm we drive back to the Lodge. At around 3.00 pm we arrive at the ferry. A short time later we are having a nice cold beer on the terrace of the Lodge.
05.05.07 – SATURDAY: LOANGO
We all had a good night’s sleep without rodents and elephant attacks, and by 7.00 am we are sitting at the breakfast table. We meet Rene from Hamburg, Germany. He is a journeyman carpenter, has been on the road for two and a half years and has a lot of incredible stories to tell. After breakfast some of us do laundry, and by 8.45 our boat is ready again for departure.
Our eco-guides today are Dimitry and Sandro, who we have given the nickname “The Great White Hunter”, because we think he is more talk than action. We cross the lagoon and go ashore, where Dimitry knows the nesting places of some crocodiles. However, all that is left are some broken shells and a crocodile tooth. On our walk through the jungle, Sandro tells stories about blister beetles that use their urine in defense. It is almost as aggressive as hydrochloric acid and can cause huge blisters, hence the name. Dimitry explains that the lower layers of the forest floor are rich in nutrients and minerals and can prevent starvation, in case somebody gets lost in the forest.
Our first find today are the skull and collarbone of a chimpanzee. We take pictures from all sides, and then Dimitry picks them up with the help of a stick, careful not to touch them, and puts them in a plastic container. The fear of Ebola is great everywhere in Africa, and we learn that only four months ago there was an outbreak in the Northern part of Gabon, but it was quickly isolated.
We continue walking at a brisk pace and find several frogs, a gecko, a beautiful hinge back tortoise and a big bird spider. The latter we want to take back to the camp, so we can take some more pictures, but catching her does not prove so easy. On our way back to the boat we run again in a herd of ubiquitous buffalos.
By 12.30 we are back in camp. We have lunch, relax a little bit and by 3.30 pm, we are ready again for another excursion with the boat. This time Dimitry wants to lead us to a spot in the lagoon, where he thinks we can find hippos. Guy stays back in the Lodge, because his stomach doesn’t feel good. Only 10 minutes after departing from the Lodge we see the first hippos. Since they only surface for a second or two and always resurface where you don’t expect them, it is extremely difficult to take good pictures.
It is a wonderful afternoon, and we all enjoy the wind on our faces. After we left the hippos, we encounter a solitary elephant grazing close to shore. We kill the boat’s engine so that we can get close enough, and are able to get some extremely good close up shots. The elephant reacts with aggression, trumpeting at full force and flapping his big ears in unison.
After we have taken plenty of pictures, we change direction and drive back towards the Lodge. Again we see two elephants, one of which carries a transmitter around his neck. We film and take pictures again, until it is time to return to “Hippo Bay”. We are going on the assumption that shortly before sunset we will see a lot more than we had previously.
And we are lucky! We count four or five animals, and they sometimes stay above water for almost 15 seconds, enough time to get some good pictures and filming material. At the same time the sun sets with unbelievable colours, and it is truly a magic moment, being so close to these wild animals and in such an unforgettable setting. When it becomes too dark to take anymore pictures, we open the throttles of the boat and return to the Lodge, the wonderful breeze drying our sweat-soaked clothes.
Dinner is served at 8.30 tonight and by 10.00 we are all in bed. Tomorrow is going to be a hard and long day.
06.05.07 – SUNDAY: LOANGO – IVINDO
By 6.20 the first team members are already having breakfast, since departure is scheduled for 8.00 am. Rick, our “mute” pilot, is sitting at the next table and hardly acknowledges our existence. We all have a weird feeling knowing that he will fly us for two hours over primal rainforest. Shortly before eight we say our goodbyes to Sandro, our wonderful eco-guides Jonas, Dimitry, Popopo and Makoy and the waiters at the Lodge. At this point, we are all wondering whether we will ever see this place again.
At 8.10 our plane takes off in the direction of East-Central Gabon. Again, we are sitting like sardines in a can in the Pilatus Porter plane that Klaus calls “The Banana Carrier”. It is a cloudy morning and the flight takes about two hours. Every time the clouds open we see nothing but true virgin rainforest, sometimes broken by a small river or a lake. As usual, we use every opportunity to take pictures of this fantastic country.
The touch-down in Ivindo is pretty bumpy, and we are glad to be back on the ground. The landing strip is a simple dirt road that has been cut out of the forest, and the moment Rick opens the canopy of the plane we are attacked by mosquitoes and thousands of small bush flies. The next thing we notice is the change in temperature. It is not as hot here as it was in Loango, because we are at a somewhat higher altitude of roughly 400 metres.
The small logging community Ivindo is about a 20 minutes away from the airfield, and we are patiently waiting for the jeep that will bring us as close to Langoué Bai as possible. When the jeep finally arrives we realize that we will probably have less space in the car than we had in the plane. The driver is a local Gabonese; his only passenger is English and both work for the WCS. The English guy welcomes us to Ivindo, at the same time telling us that they have an outbreak of Dengue Fever and that he will return with the pilot to the hospital in Lopé.
That makes us feel really good, and after the plane has taken off, we load our gear into the car and squeeze in. There are four people in the backseat and three in the front. Driving time is two hours over dirt roads and makeshift bridges, deeper and deeper into the virgin rainforest. The entire time we have the impression driving through a green tunnel, especially since the road is just wide enough for one car. After one turn we run into a small herd of buffalo and must wait patiently until they have crossed the path. It’s a rough ride, and at some point the road ends and we find ourselves at a small wooden shack, where we are greeted by Louise from Yorkshire, England and two eco-guides, Alain and Joseph. They all work for the WCS and will be our hosts for the next four days. We stretch our legs and unload our gear, leaving everything that we don’t need in the car, because from here on we have to carry everything that we need ourselves.
After the car leaves, we are offered some soft drinks, courtesy of the WCS and then start our walk towards Langoué Bai. The first hour is particularly difficult, since we have to master a steep ascent, and after a few minutes into the forest we are completely drenched with sweat. We walk at a brisk pace, since we have to cover a distance of about three hours. By about 4.00 pm, we reach the WCS camp without any major incidents.
Upon arrival we drop our stuff on the floor and, being completely dehydrated, enjoy the ice-cold drinks. Then we start looking around at what will be our home for the next few days. The campsite itself was discovered by Michael Fay and consists mainly of flat rocks and slates, which is a big advantage during the rainy season. There is a wooden building that houses the office, a separate kitchen building with refrigerators and a big gas stove and a large building that serves as living and dining room. We cannot believe all of this, especially when we see the shower house and the separate toilet shack with a septic tank underneath. Plus, the sleeping tents are the best and biggest we have had so far. Although everything is pretty basic, it still appears luxurious to us, taking into consideration that we are in one of the most isolated places in Africa.
We drop our gear in the tents; familiarize ourselves with the camp, and a short time later lunch is served. After the walk we are hungry as wolves, but our meal is a simple affair, consisting of a mixed salad and some omelettes, hardly enough to satisfy our appetites. But then again, we mustn’t forget that we are not on a wellness trip here.
The rest of the afternoon we spend on “The Rock”, which we call our new temporary home, since we are not allowed to leave the camp on our own. Utterly ridiculous, but we have just arrived and don’t want to start arguing right away. Perhaps Louise will relax in the next few days to come. Nevertheless, we stroll around the edge of the jungle for some time, but don’t find anything worthwhile to take pictures of, except the camp itself.
When it gets dark we discover a relatively big civet cat behind the “dining room” building, and we are able to take some nice pictures.
The civet loves coffee berries and when it eats them, it only digests the fruit and the actually coffee bean comes out in its droppings. People believe that these civets know how ripe these berries are, always picking the berries which are just right. So it’s safe to assume that the coffee beans in those berries will be the best too. It is also believed that enzymes in the stomach of the civet add to the coffee’s flavor by breaking down the proteins that give coffee its bitter taste. In many south Asian countries, the coffee beans in these civet droppings are collected, processed and sold on the International market. Since these droppings are rare, only 500 kilograms of this coffee is produced every year, making it the “rarest” and the “costliest” coffee in the world.
At 8.30 pm we are having dinner during which we question Louise and Alain about Langoué Bai, where we have planned to go tomorrow morning. Langoué Bai apparently it is a place of unparalleled beauty; located in the heart of Gabon’s rainforest, where we might have the chance to encounter forest elephant grazing alongside lowland gorilla mixed amongst sitatunga antelopes and buffalos.
Although we are now getting even more excited to see this place, by 10.00 pm we are all tired and retire to our tents. Tomorrow will be here soon.
07.05.07 – MONDAY: IVINDO
We wake up at 6.00 am to a clear sky. Breakfast is at 6.30, and by 7.30 we are ready for our walk to Langoué Bai. From our present camp it is a brisk two-hour walk and by 9.30 we arrive at the platform. The Bai, which is the pygmy word for a forest clearing, is approximately 1 km long by 300 m wide, consisting of nourishing saline soil which lures the forest animals out into the open, which we can watch unnoticed from viewing platforms up in the tree line. Langoué Bai was also discovered by Michael J. Fay during his Megatransect walk across Central Africa.
Louise and our eco-guides have brought sandwiches, coffee, tea and soft drinks, since we will spend most of our day here. Again, it is strictly forbidden to move anywhere, not even to the toilet, without a guide accompanying us. We stay on the platform until 2.30 pm, when it starts to get really hot. Today we see elephants, sitatungas and red river hogs. During our time on the platform, there is not much action, and one can literally hear the grass grow. On our way back to the camp we spot a group of monkeys, a skink, a snake and a big millipede.
By 4.30 pm we are back, completely drenched and thirsty like horses. Klaus suddenly discovers a big lump under his knee and has problems walking. The lower part of his leg is completely red and hot and seems to be inflamed. We assume either an insect bite or a bone splinter. We give him an anti-inflammatory medicine and suggest not putting any strain on the leg for at least 24 hours, since we have to make sure that he is able to walk out of here again in three days.
We spend the rest of the afternoon in camp, talking and telling stories. Roland goes fishing in the little creek close to the camp and comes back with a nice selection of different killifishes.
He might even have found a new species, but we won’t know until we have returned home. Around 8.00 pm dinner is served. The atmosphere is a bit tense, since we are not happy with the arrangements, and Louise and our guides can feel our resentment. After dinner Emmanuel decides to clear the air, and we have a lengthy discussion with Louise. Emmanuel explains that we have done several of these field trips before and that this is not the first time we have walked through the jungle. We don’t ask for much, just to be allowed to roam outside our campsite, with a guide of course. At first Louise is scared, because we are so isolated here, but in the end she gives in. By 10.30 pm we all disappear into our tents.
08.05.07 – TUESDAY: IVINDO
Last night we all slept pretty good, and by 6.30 we all meet for breakfast. Klaus’ leg has not improved, so there is no way he will walk anywhere today. Since there are no ice cubes in the camp, he has put a wet towel in the semi-freezer which he later places on his leg in order to bring the inflammation down.
The rest of us leave around 8.30 am for an excursion into the forest, but still close to the camp. We walk around for the next three hours. By 9.00 am the heat has become almost as oppressive as in Akaka. However, we are lucky today. We find a nice frog and, most likely, a new Gecko species. It’s a beautiful female, and we can only imagine how the male counterpart looks. Around 12.30 pm lunch is served, and then we relax for a while. The heat is intense, and there is absolutely no breeze whatsoever. It is almost like the whole of nature comes to a standstill. Today, everybody seems to be a bit exhausted. Even Roland, who can never sit still for a long time because of his “Camera Syndrome”, has retired to his tent. Emmanuel is completely covered with Mosquito bites, but seems to be totally oblivious to them. By 4.00 pm a small breeze picks up and the worst heat of the day is broken.
Again we hang out around the camp and swap stories about past adventures. By 8.00 pm we are having dinner, and we can feel a certain animosity between Louise, Alain and the rest of the locals. We assume that Louise is having an affair with Alain and that this is what’s creating the tension in the camp. By 10.00 pm we are all dog tired from the walk and the heat. We’ve been going nonstop now for two weeks, and we are all slowly starting to feel the effects. On our way to the sleeping tents, we notice the full moon and the beautiful starlit sky that you can only find in places such as this, far away from civilization.
09.05.07 – WEDNESDAY: IVINDO
Thanks to a cool night, we all got some refreshing sleep. By 6.00 am we are already having breakfast. This will be our last day in the camp before we return to the real world. Klaus’ leg still hurts, but it is not inflamed anymore, and with a little bit of luck he will make it out of the bush tomorrow.
We would have liked to spend a night on the viewing platform in Langoué Bai, but Louise would not allow us to do this. Today we also try again to convince her that leaving earlier in the morning would increase our chances of seeing gorillas, but she just sticks to her own personal schedule. No departure before 7.30, because before that it’s too dark in the forest! We all think she is just on a power trip.
By 8.00 am we are well on our way back to Langoué Bai hoping to see some gorillas. Today will be our last chance. We walk fast, and reach the platform shortly before 9.00 am. And we are lucky. A solitary gorilla is still at the river, and we are able to take a lot of pictures before he disappears into the forest again. We are pretty sure that there were more gorillas earlier this morning, but they usually retreat into the forest by the time the sun rises. There are no clouds in the sky, and it will turn out to be another scorching hot day. At 11.30 we have a light lunch and shortly after 12.00 pm we decide to return to the camp, where we arrive an hour and a half later.
By 3.30 pm the most intense heat is over and we venture outside to sit and chat in the gazebo. We take turns showering, feeling more refreshed afterwards. After the sun has disappeared behind the trees, huge dark clouds start to gather in the sky. We definitely don’t need another tropical downpour, since this would make our return to Ivindo tomorrow a bit more difficult. While we are still sitting in the gazebo, we spot a colubus monkey in a nearby tree and even manage to do some filming and take pictures.
By 6.00 pm it gets dark and a short time later night descends over the camp. In fact, this will be our last night in the jungle. Suddenly we discover a scorpion in the gazebo. We all jump up in order to get our cameras. It’s a relatively small animal, but without doubt extremely dangerous. We take pictures from every angle until we are called for dinner. By that time the humidity has returned, and we are all bathed in sweat. By 10.00 pm we all go back to our tents and pack, since we will be leaving the camp early tomorrow morning.
10.05.07 – THURSDAY: IVINDO – LIBREVILLE
Because of last night’s heat, most of us did not sleep well, and by 5.30 everybody is up. Breakfast is at 6.00, and by 7.00 am we leave the camp. We have to walk fast, since we will be picked up at the pre-arranged meeting point by 9.00 am. Klaus’ leg still hurts a bit, but he is confident that he’ll make it back without any problems. By 8.00 am the forest is steaming and we are all sweating like pigs, especially with all the gear we are carrying on our backs. On our journey we see a herd of red river hogs crossing our path, a beautiful millipede and a jet black, 24 cm long emperor scorpion.
By 9.15 we are out of the forest, and Nigel is already waiting for us. He is from England and in charge of the WCS operation in Ivindo. According to him it would not have been a problem to spend a night on the platform in Langoué Bai; if we had only asked him before going there. We try to stow all of our gear into the small vehicle, say goodbye to Louise, Alain & Joseph and squeeze into the small car for our two hour ride back to Ivindo station.
By 11.30 we arrive at Nigel’s house opposite the train station. Ivindo is a logging camp and the gateway to Ivindo National Park. The small village consists of roughly 200 inhabitants, most of whom are Gabonese. It is pretty basic, but not bad taking into consideration that we are in the middle of nowhere. Upon arrival at Nigel’s house we are first welcomed by a yellow back dyker that he keeps as a pet. Since we were all completely drenched in sweat after the walk through the forest, Nigel invites us to clean up at his home. When we enter his house we are all amazed at how nice it is. The house is of course air-conditioned, and we all feel like newborns after having taken a hot shower. Our host has even prepared lunch for us, and the table is already set. We cannot believe our luck and relish the ice cold beers in airconditioned comfort.
Shortly after 1.00 pm we get ready to walk down to the station where we thank Nigel for his hospitality. The train is an hour late, and we seize the opportunity to talk to some locals and take pictures of the station and the village. The scenery here reminds us of an old Wild West movie, if it wasn’t for all the Gabonese people who hang around here, eyeing us curiously.
Many years ago, President Bongo had this railway line built as a prestige project for roughly one billion Euros, It connects Franceville in the South East of Gabon with Libreville in the North West, approximately 800 km away, and there are only three trains per week, two of which run through the night. Now everything is pretty run down, especially the cars on the trains.
Nevertheless, we are all still looking forward to a nice relaxing train ride, but are quickly disappointed when we enter our compartment. Although the seats are comfortable, the car is dirty and in disrepair and we can’t even look out of the double glazed windows. First of all, because they are completely dirty from the outside and probably haven’t been cleaned for years. Second, in between the two windows, condensation has accumulated from the air-conditioning, so it’s almost impossible to see anything. What a pity, because our train ride will take us through some of the most spectacular regions this side of Gabon.
Seven long hours later we arrive in Libreville, weary and tired. The air-conditioning failed shortly after our departure, and we are again sweaty and thirsty and happy to leave the train and get some fresh air. It is now 9.30 pm and the train station is in utter chaos. There are police checking everybody who arrives on the train, and even we have to dig out our passports. Thank god the two girls from “Operation Loango” are on time, and we are quickly whisked away and into the van. We squeeze in and race across town like the devil himself is chasing us, back to the Tropicana, where we arrive shortly after 10.00 pm.
We check into our rooms, drop our gear and meet a few minutes later in the restaurant. There is live music tonight, and we are lucky that the kitchen is still open. We enjoy some cold drinks, a nice meal and the fresh breezy air that is coming from the ocean, especially after the long hours on the train. Shortly after midnight we call it a day and retire to our rooms. It has been a long and exhausting journey ever since we got up this morning.
11.05.07 – FRIDAY: LIBREVILLE
We all slept well in our air-conditioned rooms and wake up to a wonderful sunrise and clear skies. Once again, Brian and Klaus are the unlucky ones. They are both covered by insect bites, and we assume they had fleas in their beds. In addition, the mattresses in their room are so old that they sag in the middle. Klaus talks to the Manager, and a short time later the mattresses are exchanged for new ones, and a big can of insecticide is dispersed inside their room, probably enough to kill an elephant.
By 8.00 am we are having breakfast and discussing our financial situation. The problem is that we don’t have enough cash. Nobody takes credit cards here, not even the hotel. After hours of driving around Libreville looking for cash machines and arranging for a Western Union money transfer from Belgium, we have money again. The day turns out to be very sultry and hot, and we spend the afternoon under the gazebo watching the waves. Emmanuel spends hours in the water, his skin completely wrinkled when he finally emerges.
All of a sudden it gets dark and lightning illuminates the horizon, followed by heavy thunder. And then, as so many times before, the sky opens and the rain turns into a deluge. We have dinner shortly after 8.00 pm and by 11.00 we all go to bed. Shortly before turning in, Brian has emptied another half can of insecticide in his room, and we wonder whether he and Klaus will wake up again the next morning.
12.05.07 – SATURDAY: LIBREVILLE
This is our last day in Africa. We all had a good night’s sleep and are happy to see that Klaus and Brian are still alive. As we had expected, no further insect bites are reported. By 7.30 we are all having breakfast, planning what to do with the rest of the day. We all agree that we want to take a last trip into the jungle. By 9.30 am we have organized two taxis with drivers, including our old friend Claude and are on our way into the jungle outside Libreville. The drive over dirt roads filled with huge potholes takes about an hour. Since the cars are not air-conditioned, we can feel another steamy hot day coming.
Five minutes into the bush, and we are already drenched again. Our excursion takes about two hours, and we cannot believe the amount of animals that we find so close to the capital, i.e. two Geckos (probably even a new species), a skink, three different frogs, a toad, a beautiful orange-coloured land crab, some killifishes and a catfish. Not bad for a small excursion, especially if your expectations are low.
By 1.00 pm we are out of the forest with parched throats but happy about today’s yield. However, this was our last chance to spot some chameleons, the only reptile we were not able to find during the entire expedition. Back at the hotel, we first quench our thirst with some ice-cold drinks, and then we all disappear into our rooms to shower and shave off our two-week-old beards. When we all meet again, we look like new people. The rest of the afternoon we relax in the gazebo, and at this point we are all looking forward to going home. The sky is clear, and we enjoy a last spectacular sunset in Gabon. Dinner is at 8.30 and by 11.00 pm we all go to bed.
13.05.07 and 14.05.07 SUNDAY – MONDAY: LIBREVILLE – PARIS
It rained heavily last night and we are up early. After breakfast we pack our gear, getting ready for our final departure. Sunday brunch is legendary at the Tropicana, and we enjoy a wonderful fish lunch. The afternoon is long and doesn’t want to end, especially since we are not scheduled to be picked and taken to the airport until 8.00 pm. From there, we travel back to Europe and America.
We use the time to relax and reconstruct the entire journey. It was a wonderful experience for all of us, and we all take home some unforgettable memories from a country that still represents nature as it once was, “sitting on the edge of a continent and frozen in time”.