This week, we travel all the way to Gabon on the west coast of central Africa with Bret of I Moved to Africa. Having spent a year living in the capital city, Libreville, Bret now tells us more about Gabon, an overlooked destination for adventurous travelers. As he writes, “There aren’t many places on earth where you can spend the morning on a white-sand beach and then go looking for forest elephants in the afternoon.” Read on to learn more about Gabon.
ONE YEAR IN GABON
I just spent the last year living in Gabon, a country on the west coast of central Africa. Like many people, I was affected by the recession in New York. A girl I was dating had just re-entered the Foreign Service and was about to be posted to the U.S. Embassy in Gabon. I figured an adventure was what I needed so I packed up my stuff, rented my apartment and went with her. That’s how I landed in Gabon.
We were based in Libreville, Gabon’s French-flavored capital city located on the Atlantic coast. You’ll notice the French influence of this former colony immediately upon arrival to the airport. English is not used anywhere — on any of the forms or signs at the airport or by any of the customs or ticket agents. Now I know what travelers with limited English feel like when they land at JFK. So I’d recommend you brush up on your French or get a phrasebook for a more comfortable trip to Gabon.
Gabon’s coastline showcases some magnificently unspoiled beaches. You can drive up the coast, or simply take a 20-minute ferry from Port Mole in Libreville across the bay to Pointe Denis. There are several lodges along the point; the Maringa (241-07-32-17-45) and Le Phare de Ngombe (241-62-99-99) are both good choices. If you arrive during turtle nesting season (Dec–March), stay for several nights or just spend the day. If you’re staying at one of the lodges, do call ahead to arrange for a pick-up from the ferry and lunch.
We frequently visited a safari camp called Nyonie, located about two hours south of Libreville – one hour by small boat and another by 4×4 across the Equator. This trip is highly recommended: There aren’t many places on earth where you can spend the morning on a white-sand beach and then go looking for forest elephants in the afternoon. Note that the cabins are very basic (bring your own towel) but the surroundings are gorgeous, the food very good (the French owner, Beti, used to be a chef), the wine and beer always available and elephants aplenty to spot. Any local operator can set you up with a trip there; Mistral Voyages is your best bet. Otherwise, it is pretty easy to visit independently by calling the camp ahead of time at 241-06-03-36-36. As long as you can find your way to the port to meet the boat (really a large dinghy) by 9.30am, there is nothing else to worry about. A three-day/two-night trip is ideal.
There is no real economy in Gabon outside of its natural resources, which include primarily oil and timber. Because of these, it is considered one of the wealthier countries on the African continent. Yet, as you might expect, the wealth is not distributed and the majority of the population still lives in poverty. Once the oil runs out, ecotourism will be a major opportunity for Gabon. Its countryside is lush with biodiversity and thick with wildlife. The former President, Omar Bongo, declared 11% of the country a national parks system, protecting these areas from poaching, logging and oil exploration.
Something to note for visitors to Gabon: Police corruption is the standard. Police may pull you over in the hopes of finding a reason to extort money. They are usually standing in the street near high-traffic areas and signaling you to pull over with ridiculous questions like “Do you have a health insurance certificate for your car?” They don’t write tickets, or even have tickets. Instead, they attempt to negotiate a price. When pulled over, speak calmly and exclusively in English and they will eventually get frustrated and wave you on.
Despite the occasional hassle from police, the country is relatively safe and without civil unrest. Although it has one of the highest GDPs on the continent, infrastructure in Gabon is surprisingly limited. Consistent electricity and water depend on which neighborhood you live in. Sabliere, home to our compound and the presidential residence, is almost always connected. Other neighborhoods are on and off. Several expat friends would frequent our home to shower and do laundry when the water wasn’t on for several days.
Some practicalities to keep in mind: Phone lines and internet connections are limited, and cash is an absolute necessity. You can leave your American Express at home although Visa is sometimes accepted, as long as lines are open to make the transaction. There is a trustworthy ATM at Laico Hotel, located on the main strip, Boulevard du Nord de Mer. To get around, use taxis, as these are the main transport in Libreville. Make sure you negotiate a price before you get in. Whatever the driver says, tell him to reduce it by 500–1000 CFA.
Although there are many different things to see and experience in Gabon, the country is not quite set up for tourism just yet. But that is part of the adventure, figuring it out as you go along. Do you want to travel deep inland or along the coast? See elephants, turtles or gorillas? Experience rivers, jungles, savanna or beaches? How about a local Bwiti religious ceremony? Whatever your interest, you’ll be charting new territory in Gabon. If tourism is developed and managed properly, it promises to be that way for a long time to come.