Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gabon

This style of travel is so different from what we are used to that I don't know how I can say anything about where we are. The approach and experiences are just too different. The cultural experiences and interactions have almost completely disappeared but it is nice to be able to get out to see scenery and places that we wouldn't otherwise get to on public transport. So at best I can attempt to describe the scenery (more Savannah's thing than mine) or point out a few obvious features that distinguish themselves from the country before.
Cameroon had roughly one tenth the population of Nigeria and Gabon has one tenth of Cameroon's so the low density has been very nice and gives a feeling of remoteness even on the main routes through the country. Apart from the area around Libreville, the capital, there is almost no traffic on the road and villages are few and far between. Since we don't really stop anywhere I can just comment on passing through villages but there is still a lot you can tell. The Cameroonians waved a lot while the villagers in Gabon tended to be older and more reserved or less excited about seeing strangers as whole. Different villages have different characters, attitudes and reactions. Some are very excited and happy and all the people rush to the side of the road to wave with their kids. Some are suspicious or grouchy and just stare, others look stunned and some seem totally indifferent and uninterested in the outside world as a whole. The ones I like the least are those with the people that look at you and give you the rude hand flick that says "What do you want?" and/or "What are you going to give me?". We've only had a few rocks thrown and one boy tried to push his friend or little brother off the hill and in front of the truck, but we've had less of that than I expected overall. Gabon's villages were also quite clean and sometimes I wonder if it is because the rain washes the garbage away better or if they simply are so poor that they don't buy anything to have plastic wrap, etc to throw around but I doubt it. I think they actually take better care of themselves because even the dirt in front of their homes looks swept and is not a mud puddle like it otherwise could be. It is such a nice change and makes so much difference in our overall impressions of a people and place.
Gabon has been ruled by the same president for the last 40 years and in that time Gabon has been one of the few peaceful central African countries and now has a reputation as an expensive package ecotourism destination. It has oil and resources but because of corruption, the rich are rich and the poor are very poor. Libreville looks like a modern European city and has lots of SUVs, expats and modern conveniences. It is the least African thing I've seen since arriving in Africa!
For the most part the main roads were good and after the first night in a catholic mission in Oyem up north, we drove all the way to Libreville and camped at a restaurant right on the coast at Cap Esterias, about 25 km from the capital and a popular weekend stop for the expats. We were there a couple of days, the first of which was a Sunday and saw lots of French couples come out with their young children for lunch and a swim. The water was warm and the sunsets were amazing.
Coming down from the north we continued to drive through dense rainforest like in Cameroon and dad had to do most of the driving because Kees came down with malaria. He's not the only one that has been sick and at present all of us are trying our best to not go insane from wanting to scratch all the bites all over us. Mosquitoes are not the worst. We've suffered most from little biting black flies and sand flies to the point of bad rashes and open sores though each to a different degree. I'd rather sweat than deal with all that so I cover up more than most and so am suffering the least :) There were also huge logging trucks hogging the road (and nearly ran us off it a few times) and it is sad to see that the biggest trees are being systematically taken down. Of course we never got to see primary rainforest because we were on the main roads but there is still tons of vegetation where it occurs.
I am also happy to announce that finally, after 91 countries and many years of travel, I have finally crossed the equator for the first time. That took a lot of work and now I have a whole other side to explore :)
As we travelled further inland after Libreville the rainforest gradually thinned out to grassy meadows and until we were on a plateau of softly rolling hills and grasses with the occasional tree, soft colours and a guaranteed thunderstorm every afternoon though they don't last long and often miss us. No wildlife to speak of though it looks perfect for a safari. The national parks are really expensive and are not as full of wildlife as at more famous African destinations so we stayed behind on the one afternoon when the rest of the group went for a little guided drive in Lope's Nature Reserve and saw some pygmy elephants.
A few days later on an attempt to find a waterfall on a little dirt road around Franceville, we stupidly drove across (and wrecked) a little log bridge before finding the road washed out and impassable a little further ahead. By that point we were approaching dark in a thunderstorm and the muddy road was so narrow that we were ripping branches off all the trees a getting a good car wash as we went along. It was very Jurassic Parkish. Forced to turn back, we decided to just set up camp in the middle of the road and proceeded to try to scare each other with jungle horror stories. There were lots of sounds out there and the setting was perfect..... The following day we turned around and spent a few hours rebuilding the log bridge and it's exit to hopefully hold 10 tonnes of truck again. We'd unloaded a lot of weight too, and just as Kees was about to give it a go some road work guys showed up. They told us the bridge was scheduled to be replaced in 10 days time and that there was no way it would hold. Since we really had no choice and it held the first time, we made a few more adjustments at their suggestion and went over. It was pretty intense and a bunch of logs ended up falling into the river but the bridge survived and we made it across. Got a nice video of it too! Drove as far as the next bridge and all jumped in the stream for a wash and relax after another rough day. That night we stayed in Franceville and Ben, without really expecting any success, managed to talk his way into getting us free camping at the nicest hotel in town. The president's house is on the grounds and we even got to use the swimming pool. Talk about luxury!
A little closer to the Congo border is the Leconi Canyon. We'd hoped to camp out there before crossing the border but the locals in town told us that it had bandit problems so we ended going with a policeman as a guide and staying only half an hour or so for a quick look. It was small but very colourful and reminded us a lot of Bryce canyon and some of the others in the Utah area. We ended up camping in front of the police checkpost and crossing into Congo the following day.
Ammon

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