You may or may not have heard of Gabon. Its biggest claim to fame was probably being the setting for a season of the show Survivor. I never did see any of those Survivor episodes but from being in Gabon and certainly from flying over it I can see that the jungles are vast and untouched. The weather is hot, humid and nasty which makes for a great place for ecotourism which is the new buzzword in Gabon. The only problem is that it’ll cost you…a lot! Gabon and Central Africa in general are very cheap in terms of living, food and other basic necessities but as far as travel and certainly tourism-they are among the most expensive places on earth.
I arrived in Libreville with the idea that I was going to have a quick look around, buy my ticket to the Congo and then head out on an ecotourism adventure. I was specifically looking to go to Loango National Park which is Gabon’s most varied and visually stunning park known for the mythically surfing hippos. Yes, surfing hippos. Additionally, the park boasts whales, dolphins along with elephants and other assorted land mammals wandering around white sand beaches. It sounds amazing right? Well after further review, it costs upwards of $500 a day and nothing guaranteed. I understand the no guarantee but the price tag is ridiculous. It’s not like that includes drinks, food, souvenirs either. Plus you have to fly out there on a chartered prop plane arranged through one specific company that owns all rights to tourism in the park called SCD.
The bottom line is that those prices are prohibitively expensive especially for someone on an overland tour of Central Africa. The other parks in Gabon, each boasting something else special are also very expensive but Loango is considered to be the crown jewel of Gabon and unfortunately I had to pull the plug on the ecotourism plans as the costs are simply too high. If I was just here to do Gabon then I would’ve done it and also planned ahead-which wouldn’t have saved any money by the way. However, I do plan to spend the extortionate prices for a gorilla trek in Rwanda and possibly some others. But $2000 to see some hippos in the ocean just doesn’t seem worth it.
So this unfortunate news gave me plenty of time (3 days) to get to know the capital city of Gabon. Libreville is home to some 600,000 people and really isn’t that bad of a city. It’s relatively nice…for a Central African capital, and boasts a long beach right in the city. The cleanliness of the beaches (below) is another issue but there are some parts that are very nice such as above out by the airport.
Libreville is home to many expats, mainly European and French specifically. The country has been relatively stable after the current President Bongo, whose signs are literally on every street post and building as you can see below has centralized government making his power pretty much absolute. However, the people are worried what will happen when his time is finally up. A French expat I was talking to said he wondered what would happen and if it would finally turn violent like it did in the Ivory Coast or would it remain peaceful and there would be some smooth transition of power. Only time will tell on that issue.
Speaking of the President, I was walking along the main costal road in Libreville called Au Bor du Mer and was snapping some pictures like the ones of the slave escaping from bondage statue below which I think is really cool and significant. This particular statue is directly across from the grandiose Presidential Palace in Libreville. I also snapped a picture of it and also took several minutes of video that I was narrating when I got yelled at from across the road.
I pretended to ignore it; put my video camera in my case I was carrying and started walking north toward the beaches. The guy was following me walking across the street along the wall of the Palace when finally he took out a whistle and blew it really loud. I couldn’t ignore that and turned and faced him holding his machine gun up in the air and screaming at me to come there. I did and he starts yelling at me in French and I didn’t understand most of what he said but I knew I was in trouble for taking pictures of the Presidential Palace. He told me to follow him to the entrance of the Palace.
At the entrance there were four other military soldier types armed with machine guns putzing around doing nothing when the other guard informed them of my infraction and they got all excited and opened the gate and locked me inside. I knew what I did wrong and offered my sincere apologies but they wanted to see my camera that I had filmed with. So I took out my regular camera and went directly to the picture of the palace which I happily erased and showed him step by step.
He looked puzzled and unsure but I ran through the run of pictures again and there was no palace and he was OK. He then asked if that was it and I said yes. The other guard said video and pointed to my bag where my video camera was and I said no it’s broken. He looked at me suspiciously and said OK and then starts going into some speech about how it’s against the law to take pictures of the Palace and I could be arrested etc. Of course I was polite and apologized and eventually he let me go with my video intact of the Palace.
I just don’t understand what the big deal is about taking a picture of a Palace from afar. The only thing I could come up with is they are worried about a coup and this could give their enemies a potential view of a way into the Palace but that seems farfetched I know. So whatever…the Palace wasn’t that nice anyway, it looked more like a big office building and very out of place along the waterfront. I’d imagine you can Google a picture of it if you really want to see it.
After the Palace fiasco and being surrounded by 5 guys with machine guns I continued my 10 mile walk out to the airport passing all the beaches along the way, avoiding numerous missing manhole covers and a car accident or two. Many were very nice and featured mainly expats in the water along with some well to do Gabonese. But like most of Africa, the nice is surrounded by some very bad where the pollution runs rampant even on some of the beaches and there are homeless people bathing in the sea water and going to the bathroom right on the beaches etc. This is Africa.
Last night, I went out to a restaurant called La Dolce Vita which was recommended as a very good Italian place. It was one of the best Italian places I have eaten at in Africa perhaps only equaled by a place in Abidjan but the name escapes me right now. The penne arrabbiata was fantastic and the prices were very reasonable and the service was good. The pizza was OK as well.
I met the owner Luca by chance as I was looking for a cab, he helped me get one as it was pouring and sent someone to flag one down at the main road. During that time we chatted as he was from near Milano and had been living in Gabon nine years doing the restaurant. I couldn’t imagine I told Luca but there isn’t much competition for a very good Italian place in Libreville. The place was packed with mainly white European expats as you might imagine as well on a Saturday night.
After dinner I went back to my hotel as I was exhausted. Before I went up I checked out the lobby bar. Lobby bars at nice hotels in third world countries always intrigue me. There is always a mix of people that you don’t see anywhere else except for maybe in Russia-if you consider that first world. There were French expats, a few wealthy Gabonese, a two man band playing 1980’s Whitney Houston hits and an assortment of Gabonese hookers sitting alone waiting for men to approach them.
You can always tell the hookers in a nice third world hotel because first they are the only women there alone, they are generally dressed like hookers, they stare at their mobiles and they always drink coffee. They have to apparently stay up for the long night ahead! The other thing is, I can’t imagine business is very good for them. I mean 1 out of 3 people in Africa has AIDS and I’d imagine prostitutes run a pretty high percentage of that. However baffling, without fail, in the 15 minutes I was down there having a Regab beer before bed, I saw 2 French guys go upstairs with different hookers. I seriously wanted to grab them and be like, you fucking idiot!
Anyway, I am just relaxing most of the day today and will probably head down to the pool at the hotel or go up to the beach if the weather clears up a bit. My flight is tonight to Pointe Noire in the Republic of the Congo, where I will then head to Brazzaville and Kinshasa before a ridiculous string of connecting flights through to Nairobi, Kenya stopping in Bangui, Douala and Addis Ababa along the way. Flights within Africa are kind of a nightmare and there are almost always connections. I am trying to get to Central African Republic on this trip but it looks like it’s just going to be a stopover. Once again, you can’t have it all and to be honest, there isn’t that much there that interests me anyway. So stay tuned.