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Gabon: a land like no other

This is the Gabon showcased by National Geographic and just about every other big-name TV channel.

More importantly, Gabon is a last chance to see how the entire coast of western tropical Africa once was. It’s a magical window into long-long ago, when elephant and buffalo wandered the beaches, gorillas and chimps cavorted through the rainforest and when giant fishes ruled the waves.

Visiting Gabon is also about exploring the meeting point of two great realms, the Atlantic Ocean and the Congo forests.

I spent 3 months in Gabon in 2010 working with the WWF and Smithsonian Institute. We moved between two of the National Parks, Loango and Moukalaba-Doudou. It was a time that fundamentally changed me and re-directed my understanding of true wilderness. It was this trip that I believe changed the trajectory of my life and made me sure of my commitment to protecting wild places.

Sadly, in all of the countries north and south of Gabon, the Atlantic coastal belt has been reduced to the final, skeletal fragments of their original states. But thanks to Gabon being an African good-news story and a positive conservation anomaly, Nature’s ways have remained largely intact. About 83% of the country is covered in forest, it has a network of thirteen national parks and about 29% of the ocean and marine areas are protected.

Forming part of the protected area network, Loango National Park is a scenic, biodiverse, 1550 km² mosaic of forests, many types of wetlands, grassy plains, mangroves, lagoons and sandy beaches along the southern coast of Gabon.

After looking for a way to return to Gabon with guests for the last twelve years we have now found an incredible team operating trips on the ground in Loango. Occidental Safari offers small groups of guests the opportunity to intimately experience the unique, varied, and intact ecosystems of the southern region of Loango National Park from Petit Loango to Sette Cama. While some activities are boat and vehicle based, most activities are centred around guided walks where guests will have the chance of encountering forest wildlife like common chimpanzee, western lowland gorilla, red river hog, forest  (western) sitatunga, leopard, and numerous forest duiker and monkey species, along with the unique experience of forest elephant and forest buffalo sightings on the beach. The mammal count for the area is around 90 species.

For those with more specialised interests, hiding amongst the botanical richness that spans everything from tiny carnivorous plants to rainforest giants there are whole microcosms of reptiles, frogs, freshwater fishes, insects, spiders, etc. to be explored. Gabon also offers some of the best inshore, saltwater fishing in the world and Occidental Safari can cater for many fishing interests, all within a sustainable, environmentally sensitive manner.

What can be said without an iota of doubt is that a visit to Loango should be on the bucket-list of everyone with a spirited interest in the natural world. It’s a place that has a way of deeply impacting everyone who comes to know it.

Here’s a closer look at some of the experiences on offer in this unique wilderness:

Beach Walks (year-round):

Beach walks in Gabon are like no other beach walks on the planet. The iconic big-game-on-the-beach phenomenon, with encounters with forest buffalo and forest elephant, is only half of the story. There’s also the chance for other exciting experiences sighting forest sitatunga, crab-hunting red river hogs and red-capped mangabeys (a monkey species), cruising bull sharks, and the very rare Atlantic humpback dolphin, etc. As animal movements and behaviour varies along the coast at different times of the day, doing at least one full-day walk with a picnic, optional swims, and a siesta is recommended.

Searching for surfing hippos (year-round, best from October to April):

The Loango coast is famous for its ‘surfing’ hippos, hippos that are totally at home in the ocean. One’s best chances of seeing hippos in the waves is to walk the beach at dawn when the hippos use the sea and currents to move between their feeding and resting areas. We offer to opportunity to fly camp in an area known for surfing hippos so that we’re close to the action at dawn.

Habituated Gorilla Experience:

Note: If this elected activity is arranged by ourselves as part of your itinerary, and the on the ground service is provided by the Parcs Gabon, national parks tourism service, operating in the northern part of the park. Numbers are limited to groups of not more than 4 PAX only as protocols limit gorilla viewing interaction to a single 4 PAX-max group spending one hour with the gorillas per day. (If our group is bigger then we will split the gorilla experience over two days).

This add on option is highly recommended, as it allows each guest the rare and unique experience of traversing the Loango National Park from South to North, on foot and boats. This adventure in itself is unique and wonderful – and well worth the trip. Having the habituated gorilla experience serves as the icing on the cake and is a fitting culmination of ones’ journey of discovery through this incredible wildness. The extension of your trip further contributes to Gabon Parcs and ultimately the conservation of this amazing ecosystem.

By transferring to Loango National Park (north) there’s a two-day minimum add-on that gives you the chance for near-guaranteed close-up experience with researcher-habituated western lowland gorillas. Though you always have the chance of seeing any number of unhabituated western lowland gorillas throughout your stay.

The transfer, which is on-foot and by boat, includes a night in the Akaka forest camp and time in and around the spectacular swamps of the area.

Birding (year-round, best from October to January):

Bird-watching sorties to a variety of habitats are by foot, boat, or vehicle, but as with other forest animals, most birds require searching for. The bird species count is at 355, a species list is available on request.

Local specials are Vermiculated Fishing Owl, White-crested Tiger Heron, Loango Weaver, Black-headed Bee-eater, Rosy Bee-eater, African River Martin, Forbes’s Plover, Grey Pratincole, Mangrove Sunbird, Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush, African Finfoot, etc.

Kayaking (year-round):

Paddling a kayak offers a very different perspective and is a super-silent and stealthy way to sneak around the islands and coves of the Ndogo Lagoon.

Kayaks are an especially fun platform from which to enjoy the antics of monkeys and birds in the waterside trees and one might even spot the shy and rare West African manatee.

Lagoon Excursions (year-round):

There’s an endless number of quiet nooks and crannies on the 487 km2 Ndogo Lagoon that can be visited by boat. There’s always the chance to see big game on lagoon excursions, including elephant in the water. Boat trips are also good way to introduce aspects of the general area and ecology, focussing on the ‘smaller’ things and learn about various birds, fish, plants, crustaceans, insects, etc. and how they interact.

Night-Drives for Tiny Specials (year-round):

This is not the typical African game drive, but an excursion to look specifically for the very rarely seen water chevrotain. Other small nocturnal mammals that are often seen are African palm civet, servaline genet, marsh mongoose, various bats, galagos, etc.

Overnighting in the forest (year-round):

A two-day forest hike and sleeping out emerged in the otherworldliness of the forest at night, is an adventure that will be the source of many stories.

Crocodiles (year-round, best from Sept – May):

Three, and maybe four, species of African crocodile occur in the area. Nighttime boat trips, to look for and get up very close to these crocs, is an out of the ordinary experience.

Sea turtle nesting (Nov – Feb):

Night-time walks during the nesting season can bring one face-to-face with one of the four species of marine turtle that lay their eggs along the Loango beaches.

Game drives (year-round, best from Sept – May):

Loango South has no road network hence most activities in the park are on-foot or waterborne, but drives outside of the park can at times encounter especially forest elephant and forest buffalo. It goes without saying that there is always a chance for the sighting of any of the other wildlife.

Botany (year-round):

Plants are very important in the indigenous cultures of Gabon, and many of the local guides are very accomplished amateur botanists able to identify a great number of the plants and relate their characteristics and significance.

Archaeological sites (year-round):

Loango has a long history of human settlement with archaeological sights ranging from the early Stone Age, through Bantu settlement and into the colonial era.

Bwiti dancing (year-round):

Bwiti is a traditional Gabonese initiation ritual, parts of which can be learned about and seen during a late-night visit to a local village; the fire dances associated with it are an unusual spectacle.

Fly camping (year-round)

Depending on availability and season, there is the option for guests to spend a few nights in very basic fly camps that lie in the epicentre of wildlife activity zones.

Any visitor to Gabon should keep in-mind that the country has only a fledgling tourism industry, everyone is still learning and that includes the wildlife, which is largely unhabituated to humans. The birds and mammals are typically forest-bound and dispersed and need to be actively looked for. So rather than expecting sightings on a platter, guests should come envisaging fewer encounters but in an intimate setting. In other words, time in the field in Gabon is about the quality of the overall experience rather than the quantity of wildlife sighted.

What is guaranteed and not guaranteed? Sightings of forest elephant and forest buffalo at the beach are pretty much a given. Sightings of all the locally represented monkey species, forest sitatunga, and red river hogs, while not guaranteed, are highly probable. Sightings of some of the smaller mammal species such as the various forest duikers are probable but typically fleeting. Gorilla and chimpanzee are common in the area, but range across wide territories and are constantly on the move, so while signs of their feeding and resting activities will almost always be found, finding the animals themselves is not consistent. The habituated gorilla experience offers a near-guaranteed sighting. It’s very likely to see hippos in the lagoons and signs of hippos on the beach, but seeing the ‘surfing’ hippos in the ocean is a question of luck. For the rest of the creatures, all is possible at any time and the really exciting part is to always be expecting the unexpected!

Travel of all types and regardless of the management thereof is under the influence of an infinite number of complex variables in Gabon and travel schedules can change at the last minute.

Gabon’s tourism industry is in its infancy, so there are some aspects of the tourism dynamic that may be lacking in comparison with established tourism countries. A guest in Gabon might need to be understanding at times as well as to see themselves as somewhat of a pioneer in the exciting process of growing Nature-based tourism and its contribution to conservation.

What we can say for sure is that it is, in our opinion, one of the most impactful places to experience on this continent.

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