ECU Field Journal: Africa

Marie's Blog from Lambaréné, Gabon<-- back

Weekend in La Lopé
September 21, 2008

After a little over seven weeks living and working in and around Lambaréné, it was time to leave the hospital compound, and get to know life outside of Schweitzer territory. Since there has only been one travel guide ever written for this country (now many years outdated), the decision of where to start our adventure was difficult. Gabon, unlike much of Africa, is not a tourist destination. It is more expensive, and more secluded than many of its counterparts on the continent. So for a weekend adventure our choices were limited. We could either catch the riverboat to Port Gentil, or hop the train to Lopé National Reserve, where we could see that which makes Gabon so unique—the place where savannah meets tropical forest, and where so many species of birds, primates, and the rest of Eden’s inhabitants live in harmony. If you know me, the answer was quite obvious. Off we went to Lopé!

Gabon has sanctioned 10 percent of its geography as a national reserve park system in an effort to protect its unspoiled ecosystem and wildlife. Special mention must be given to the man that stimulated this undertaking, Michael Fay, a research scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the National Geographic Society. From 1999–2000, after a 456-day hike from the eastern edge of Congo to the western edge of Gabon, he described, “Blue seas, white sand, elephants, whales, sea turtles, monkeys, bush pigs, unbelievable scenery—Gabon has it all. It has everything that everyone ever dreams about in paradise, as far as I'm concerned.” His words helped President Bongo create the world’s largest park system, with Lopé National Reserve being the first area to be protected from loggers, poachers, and the like.

The trip from Lambaréné to Ndjolé was so very beautiful, with its winding, although narrow roads. I focused on the beauty of the lush, tropical greenery that adorned the road. As I have said before, driving in Gabon is much the NASCAR experience. Our driver, Maxwell, was very diligent in sounding the horn at every sharp curve, person, or even chicken along the road. Despite this wild ride, packed in the backseat, intended for three people, I managed to fall asleep snuggly between Christy, a mother with her child, and a Gabonese man. Maxwell, being quite the entrepreneur, made the most of his trip to Ndjolé!

Along this route, we came to the expected police control stops that serve as “unofficial” tolls in this country. Not surprisingly, our presence prompted an identification check. It turned out to be quite the comic relief. As soon as the gendarme spotted our American passports, he belted, “So, who are you voting for? Obama!” We just smiled and said, “Oh, it is still a toss-up!” Interestingly, American politics are as discussed here as they are in the United States.

Once we arrived in Ndjolé at its town center, we were struck by how similar it appeared to Lambaréné. There were markets lining the streets, with make-shift wood store fronts, and many Gabonese staple items. You can always count on finding bananas—mind you there are five different varieties to choose from. They also had manioc leaves; blackened, smoked whole fish; rice; and piment. Piment is quite the health hazard here. It is like a habanero pepper and gives you an ulcer to match the heat it gives when you eat it.

For the next part of our journey we climbed into the back of a pickup truck with many other people. Off we went, up and down the mountain, all the while dodging the fury of a sandstorm produced by the logging trucks ahead of us. It was so bad that we had to pull our shirts over our faces. I did not mind riding in the back of the truck, as the view of the rolling landscape was quite invigorating, and I felt such anticipation for the adventure ahead at Lopé. Occasionally we would see families sitting in front of the houses that lined the road, or looking through the window to see who was passing by. There were children who pointed and yelled at us. One little boy yelled, “You are beautiful!” in his best English. Then there were others who seemed to look at us in a rather curt manner. I often wonder what they really think of us when they see us?

Travel is like a window into the world of others, but at the same time, it allows you to look back on your own world and see it from a much clearer perspective. When I first arrived in Gabon, everything was so different, so strange. I didn’t know quite what to think of life here. It is important to realize that life, and one’s perspective, is entirely dependent on where you live. It can be as hectic as the New York City streets or as calm as the dirt roads here in Gabon.

Once we arrived at the train station, we were eager to purchase our reserved tickets. We doubted the likelihood of our reservation being found, but it was indeed there waiting on us. Unfortunately, we had to wait six hours for the train to come. Why did we have to arrive so early, you ask? No driving after dark here! Thankfully, the train station wasn’t a bad place to wait, but thinking we could easily find food here was a mistake. There were two choices—gazelle and manioc. Good thing I brought cookies and Pringles!

By midnight, we were all half asleep, when we were motioned into the manager’s office. Thinking there was something wrong with the train, we all filed in. Luckily, nothing was wrong with the train, it was simply that the workers saw us and thought it would be nice to have a break from the night air and talk to us. Traveling is so great as you never know whom you are going to meet. We had the greatest conversation about Gabonese politics, the state of poverty in this country, and their desire to go to the good ol’ United States of America.

We arrived at Lopé at six o’clock the next morning and thankfully, the hotel safari truck was waiting for us. So, the adventure began! We checked into our room, showered, and had breakfast. Christy and I were so excited and in awe of the spectacular views, we certainly could not go to sleep as we had come so far and had so little time to spare. We walked around the hotel grounds, did some reading on the terrace over-looking the Oogué River, and then took a cat nap. That afternoon, we embarked on our first excursion out on the savannah. Our eyes were peeled, looking for the first sign of life. Would it be an elephant, a gazelle? Our first spotting—buffalo! Our presence certainly got their attention, although it did not stop them from grazing. Their ears would pop out and freeze to focus on our sounds. Then they would drop as if to rest and focus on eating. In all, we saw seven elephants, several different kinds of monkey, a gazelle, and the many buffalo. When it was time to leave the savannah, the sunset was breathtaking. The sky was as pink as cotton candy with swirls of orange sherbet. Can you tell my sweet tooth is dying here?!?

The next day we went on a hike in the jungle. It was fantastic tiptoeing through the trees, trying not to alarm what life was all around us. If we got too close, you could hear the ruffle of leaves, and see the tree limbs catapulting shadows. We tried hard to gain a glimpse of these monkeys flying through the trees. Down on the ground, we met creatures that were not afraid to see what we were about. At one point, I looked down and found a rather large black creature latched onto my foot. I jumped around trying to knock it off. I finally succeeded but his presence was still there. Minutes later, Christy was doing the “ants-in-my-pants” dance as dozens of ants had literally crawled up pant legs. We quickly learned to keep moving and not to stop in the jungle as you just might pick up a passenger.

The highlight of the day for me was seeing a moustache monkey come so close to us. Our guide said he was essentially warning us to leave his territory! I could not help but to be in awe of the beauty and diversity in this small area of the jungle we explored. If the world could only realize that we must protect areas like this, or they will be gone one day. These areas serve as evidence of man’s presence on earth, and our influence on Earth’s last true Eden.