Gabon: a looking glass into the past
“One of the most endangered phenomenon of our times is the experience of wilderness.” - Ian McCallum
The word wild is one that gets touted around a lot and has somewhat lost it’s meaning but if someone were to ask me for the place that epitomised the essence of this word, Gabon would be it.
It is a place that makes you feel as though you have strayed into a long gone century. It’s a place where civilisation fails and wilderness prevails. It is a place so vast and unexplored it leaves you awed. Even flying into Libreville, the capital city, gave me goosebumps as we flew over kilometres and kilometres of rain forest (of which 83% of the country is covered) with fat, snaking rivers running through it. The city appears as a mere dimple of human impact before the forest begins again.
Loango National Park
I was back in Gabon earlier this year, for a two week trip with eight adventurous guests. We focused our time in Loango National Park in the west of the country. 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. It’s a place that is so anomalous, it scrambles your brain. Standing on a beach that has no other humans for 100kms in either direction, where the Atlantic oceans meet the Congo forests, you find yourself dwarfed by 30m tall mangroves and palm trees. Nearby, forest elephants and forest buffalo wander out of the heaving forest and onto the sand and whales cruise down the coast beyond the break. In the right season, turtles come onto the beaches to lay their eggs and giant fishes rule the waves.
We spent time at Sette Cama Camp in the south of the park and Akaka and Ndolo Camps in the north of the park. And the way that we got from north to south was to walk an 18km transect along a long-since overgrown forestry path, finding elephants, duiker and red-capped mangabeys along the way.
I must say at the offset that Gabon is not for the average traveller; it is for the true explorer and adventurer. For those with a spirited interest in the natural world, keen to explore far off the beaten path, Gabon is a must. It’s a place that has a way of deeply impacting everyone who comes to know it, I think because it reminds everyone of a shared by-gone era.
One of the first questions people tend to ask about Gabon is if one can see habituated gorillas. The short answer is yes. There are currently two habituated groups in the country. One in Loango, which is the group that we saw and the other is in a national park called Moukalaba-Doudou. The gorilla experience in Gabon is the most intimate of any I’ve had in Africa, as only 4 people are allowed to trek and view the group on any given day. The area where the gorillas are found is completely unimpacted by humans and the only way to access it is by boat through the expansive Iguela Lagoon. There are no lodges, no welcoming committees, no villages and no other tourists to be seen. The gorillas have been habituated purely for research purposes, and as a tourist you are a welcomed few. Like with anything in Gabon, you feel as though you are the first to experience it.
While you trek, you walk with expert pygmy trackers who guide you through areas where you will also get a chance to see forest elephants. One of the enormous perks of this trek is that you are accompanied by two researchers from the Max Planck Gorilla Research station. One follows at the back and records data from the behaviour they are witnessing. The other interprets the behaviour to the group, including what you’re seeing, the groups’ history and social structure, why they’re eating what they’re eating, what various sounds mean and so on.
These researchers have the utmost respect for the animals and can preempt movement and behaviour, allowing you to get into the perfect gaps and viewing spots to appreciate the animals which only adds to the richness of the experience. An added perk of gorilla viewing in Gabon is that they have a very healthy population of western lowland gorillas and so you may well find any number of unhabituated gorillas during your time in the parks too.
A very different pinnacle moment we had was to see surfing hippos. This has only been recorded in a few places in the world and although locals had witnessed this behaviour sporadically in the past, it was mostly known only from the tracks seen crossing into and out of the ocean. No-one is sure why these hippos do this, though it seems they are most likely making use of coastal currents that carry them to favoured feeding grounds or close to parts of the nearby lagoon where they rest during the day.
We had staked out the hippo’s lagoon resting the afternoon before but eventually had to leave after dusk as they made no signs of heading for the ocean. We slept at a fly camp two kilometres down the beach, setup for this exact purpose, and rose before daybreak the following morning to walk back to the group. Our timing was perfect and we intercepted the family of hippos heading for the waves. Their dark bulky shapes could only just be seen in the blue grey light, coming from the savanna where they had been feeding during the night, and rushing into the protection of the waves.
From watching the pace at which they moved north up the coast in the current, I’d buy the above theory about why they surf. The hippos moved much faster than they would have if they’d been walking on the beach whilst using a lot less energy. We followed them up the coast and eventually got to see them exit the water and rush into a smaller pool of the lagoon for the day. This behaviour has been captured on film in the Netflix show “our great national parks” docuseries and it really is something quite strange and wonderful to behold. I’d recommend checking it out to get a better sense of this special corner of central Africa.
The mammal count for the area is around 65 species. We had multiple sightings of forest elephants with their eerie pale eyes, the timid forest buffalo and the most attractive of Africa’s hogs, the red river hog. We sat at the edge of an island in the Ndogo lagoon and watched thousands of African Grey parrots blackening the sky as they came in to roost for the night. The sound itself was like nothing I’ve ever heard before. We sought out interesting creatures such as water chevrotain and dwarf crocodiles and watched the interactions of red capped mangabeys as they hunted for crabs. For the guests that were keen on fishing, they tried their hand at catching some of the big game fish like Jacks, Threadfin, Cubera Snapper and Tarpon whilst forest elephants moved around them on the beaches. We’ve only cut paths through and explored tiny corners of the Ndogo lagoon, for example, and what we find is a place teaming with life that continues to offer new creatures and new insights. It makes you wonder what else may be occurring in the much, much larger unknown vastness.
Until now the government has relied on the extraction of oil in small pockets of the country for its wealth but as these wells dry up, it becomes more and more important that we help to support the economy in more sustainable ways. The country’s low human population and relatively high standard of living as well as selective logging has meant fairly low pressure on natural resources. In order to avoid the government turning to extensive logging though, growth of responsible tourism and the economy of wildlife is a necessity.
Because tourism is in its infancy, Gabon is a place we can still do right by. It’s a place where we can take what we’ve learnt from our past successes and mistakes in other conservation areas and grow the tourism industry here so as to leave no scar. Far from these national parks being mandated for the sole purpose of biodiversity conservation, they need to be explored by people responsibly. To travel in small groups mostly on foot, by boat and canoe, as the locals do, and to experience its magic, creates life-changing and life-affirming experiences. It reminds people where they fit into the natural system and what they can do to protect these precious swathes of wilderness. For those looking to experience a looking glass into the past, this one’s for you.
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.
The saying goes that when you support a small business, an actual person does a happy dance. In our case an actual person, a wild place, countless wildlife and a whole lot more people do a happy dance too.
Founder, Private Guide and Safari Planner
Being born the daughter of David Attenborough (it’s true but he’s probably not the one you’re thinking of) I don’t believe I ever really had much choice about what direction my life would take. I grew up in the city of Durban, South Africa but for as long as I can remember nature has called to me. Whenever I could I would escape to the forests around my home barefoot and in search of chameleons and red duiker to befriend.
And so in 2010, after completing my Journalism and Media Studies degree, I followed that calling to the wilds of Southern Africa to become a game ranger. I planned to stay for a year but it turned into ten. During that time, I worked at Phinda Private Game Reserve, Ngala Private Game Reserve and Londolozi Game Reserve, some of South Africa’s most prestigious lodges and immersed myself in the natural world. I learnt to track animals with Zulu and Shangaan trackers and spent as much time as I could on foot approaching animals with my guests. I also put my photojournalism degree to use by becoming a specialist photographic guide. I travelled to Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, India and throughout South America in search of wildlife. My greatest adventure was living in Gabon training local guides for the WWF and Smithsonian Institute, where we spent weeks at a time living like early nomads in the dense and remote coastal forests, fulfilling a life-long dream of tracking and habituating wild gorillas. Seeing how embodied and present animals are inspired me to begin practicing yoga. I am a qualified vinyasa and yin teacher and spent six months training under a Hatha master in Boulder, Colorado. I am also a certified Martha Beck life coach. With this mixture of knowledge, interests and skills, I started Wild Again to help others really experience the wild places I know and love so much. Through my specialised Wellness Safaris that incorporate yoga, meditation, mindfulness and personalised life coaching I continue to grow more conscious safaris that return people to nature and to themselves. As we re-wild ourselves we hear the earth, our common mother, again. It is only then that we can co-create with her healing.