On the search for gorillas in Gabon's untamed jungle
If there had been a thousand pairs of eyes staring back at us from the green abyss, we wouldn’t have known. Our pirogue drifted languidly with the Offoué’s toffee-coloured flow and, like commandos on a covert raid, we silently watched the forest margin, waiting and hoping as it tumbled unrestrained down the river’s steep banks.
Images of Martin Sheen’s hunt for Kurtz in Apocalypse Now raced through my mind; the impenetrable rainforest caught the mood of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – the book which inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s classic movie. But then we weren’t looking for a rogue colonel, and this certainly wasn’t Vietnam.
But Lopé Reserve’s large forest mammals were proving just as elusive as any guerrilla army. They were masters of disguise. Over several days tracking we craned our necks skywards, straining to see black colobus monkeys frozen motionless in the canopies of some of the loftiest trees on earth. We startled duikers which would vanish with the blink of an eye, and trailed forest elephants which seemed able to ghost through trees as if invisible. I was finding central Gabon’s skyscraper rainforest both enlightening and beautiful, though its inhabitants were a little on the shy side.
Gabon’s mishmash of 20th century progress and extreme wilderness makes it one of Africa’s most schizophrenic nations. Almost unknown outside central Africa, a 1970s oil boom saw this former French colony take a quantum leap overnight from subsistence economy to modern society.
Yet while its Atlantic capital, Libreville, is sophisticated and westernised – a forest of concrete and gleaming-glass edifices – three-quarters of Gabon remains shrouded by extra virgin rainforests. The country lies at the western extremity of the Guinea-Congolese basin’s million square kilometres of rainforest, which stretches across six central African nations. Little wonder that passing Portuguese explorers in 1472 named the land ‘Gabao’ – roughly meaning ‘hooded cloak’.
However, Gabon’s economic miracle has petered out. The oil industry has run out of gas, and overspending on massive capital projects has sent it spiralling into mounting debt. So, with the assistance of ECOFAC, an EU-funded organisation promoting sustainable forest use across central Africa, the Gabonese government has become interested in ecotourism. Gabon’s first two rainforest camps – Ololo and Mikongo – have recently been constructed within Lopé Reserve by ECOFAC, and ex-bushmeat hunters are being trained as wildlife trackers to work with tourists.
I’d joined up with a small group of inveterate wildlife watchers, curious to discover what Gabon had to offer. Reaching the country’s untamed forests may sound like a major expedition, but in truth it was a doddle. We simply took the train. And what a train. The Transgabonais is Gabon’s very own silver bullet, slicing through the wild interior. It was ludicrously expensive to build – a staggering $4 billion – but is sleek and quite luxurious. Nevertheless, I was relieved to disembark seven hours later, as the air-con had reached polar proportions, and I’d emptied my bag of warm clothing.
In the late evening we arrived at the comfortable Lopé Hotel, a staging post for Lopé Reserve’s forest which stretched over 5,000km2 to our south. When dawn cracked, I peered through the mock cheetah skin curtains of my chalet to find we were a stone’s throw from Gabon’s largest river, the Ogooué. It thundered impetuously westwards, spoiling for a head-on collision with the Atlantic. Around the grounds, orange-headed agame lizards scuttled between ripe mango trees and frangipani bushes, while malachite-coloured kingfishers zipped between boughs.
After a brief game drive on a rare clearing of savannah, where we saw plump red river hogs and buffalo lounging in muddy pools, we journeyed southwards, further into Lopé, following the main dirt highway from Libreville. Quickly, the A-road became a B-road then a C-road, and a 4WD proved a godsend as the clay tracks had a tendency, according to local parlance, to ‘go poto-poto’.
Besides, there really was nobody around to help if we got stuck, barring the residents of the occasional roadside village, like Masangalani, an eerily quiet collection of wooden shacks gathering dust from logging trucks driving through. Its villagers tempted the passing trade with bottles of jet black palm oil for cooking and neat pyramids of mangoes, arranged on rusting oil drums. Business can’t have been good.
When the road became too poto-poto to continue, we abandoned our vehicles and trekked into the cloud-filled rainforest which enclosed Ololo (one of ECOFAC’s new camps) with Christian, a local guide. Ololo was supremely simple. Several thatched huts, dotted between leviathan trees, clustered around a stilted restaurant which offered a gratuitous touch of Gallic flare – Moët et Chandon topped the drinks menu but it didn’t require any French fizz to leave me feeling lightheaded with the primeval beauty of our surroundings.
During an ambient dinner, orchestras of cicadas provided a rasping musical accompaniment, while a praying mantis gatecrashed our meal to feast upon insects mesmerised by our candles. I thought I saw stars sparkling within Lopé’s dark recesses but they were nothing more than flickering fireflies.
Eventually nature trails will be cut around Ololo but if ecotourism does thrive in Gabon, the undoubted stars of the show will be Lopé’s gorillas. They’re best seen around Mikongo camp, deep in the rainforest. To reach it we boarded a pirogue from Ololo, and spent a carefree morning floating along the Offoué.
It was a great way to spot wildlife, despite kamikaze squadrons of tsetse flies launching waves of suicidal attacks. We spied crocodiles, dozing monitor lizards, African grey parrots, and putty-nosed monkeys cavorting in the trailing breadfruit trees and tangled lianas. Periodically, a Benedictine silence would lull over the boat as we approached disturbed banks of creamy soil – mineral licks for the forest elephants.
Two hours into the journey, a mother and juvenile duo were startled by our sudden appearance. Pachyderms and dense forest don’t seem a marriage made in heaven, but Lopé’s elephants are a metre smaller than their savannah counterparts, and streamlined, with downward facing tusks and smaller ears. They saw us, panicked, scrambled up the squelchy bank, and vanished in a flurry of tusks and trunks.
On arrival at Mikongo, we were greeted by Jonathon, a Canadian researcher adjusting to sweaty tourists turning up on his doorstep. Unlike the long-established tracking of the highly endangered mountain gorillas around Uganda and Rwanda, western lowland gorillas – a larger skulled and less hairy subspecies – have been largely unstudied.
Little was known about Lopé’s estimated 3,000- 5,000 gorillas. “One of the difficulties tracking them,” said Jonathon, keen not to over-inflate our hopes, “is their habitat range is vastly greater than their mountain cousins, and they can move up to six kilometres each day in small groups through dense cover”. So why not radio-collar them, he was asked? “Try doing that to a female, and the silverback will beat you to a pulp,” he joked, before adding that they were peaceful creatures. He was deadly serious, however, about Mikongo’s potential: “I hope one day this gorilla-watching tourism project will fund the whole reserve,” he told us.
Mikongo’s future success is vital as central Africa’s rainforests are disappearing at a rate of about 1% per annum; with some 2,500km2 exposed to logging in Gabon each year. As oil revenues have declined, the government has been granting an increasing number of timber concessions to logging companies – often French-owned – including some within Lopé itself. Ololo and Mikongo’s presence will help to monitor the integrity of a unique deal negotiated in July 2000 between environmental groups, the Gabonese government, and timber companies. A small timber-rich parcel (5,000ha) of the reserve was surrendered in return for Lopé’s complete protection.
Outside Lopé however, the picture looks bleaker. The widespread okoumé tree, an orangey grey barked forest giant, is a highly coveted source of plywood. Its extraction can cause great damage, and creates avenues into the forest for bushmeat hunters – not averse to taking gorillas or chimpanzees. Would our presence here really inspire a secure future for Gabon’s forests?
ECOFAC hopes so. Operating across Central Africa since 1992, they’ve initiated these small-scale ecotourism projects to demonstrate to the Gabonese that their forests can offer an alternative income other than logging and hunting. Perhaps we are part of the problem though – 85% of Gabon’s timber wends its way to Europe.
Our forays from the camp commenced each dawn when there was a touch of magic about Mikongo. Laser-straight shafts of pearly light scythed through the canopy’s early morning mist. Hornbills shaking off the early morning dew flapped powerfully over our stilted huts with a wingbeat that left me staring skywards expecting to see a pterodactyl.
Guiding us were Guy and Didier, former bushmeat hunters from western Gabon who’d been converted into trackers. Their mentor was Magda Bermejo, an internationally renowned Spanish primatologist based in the Congo, who was visiting Mikongo to train new trackers and assist with the habituation of three gorilla groups to human contact. She was relaxed about tourists coming to Lopé: “At first, as a researcher, I thought it was terrible, but now I think it’s the only way to protect the gorillas,” she said.
I wondered whether the uncompromising Dian Fossey would have been so accommodating to our presence. Magda said the chances of sighting gorillas were currently around 65% – but would improve as the trackers gained more experience.
Over two days, Rick and Karen, a couple dreaming of swapping their lives in Hampshire’s leafy suburbs to become African wildlife guides, and myself, were charged with anticipation each time the trackers stopped to sniff the air, listen, or examine half-eaten leaves. Their senses seemed superhuman. We used trampled elephant paths and ex-logging tracks to navigate but it was disorientating, spiralling around the forest in ever-decreasing circles.
When the gorilla trail was cold we had time to appreciate our rich surroundings. And who knows what lay hidden nearby. For it’s less than 20 years since a completely new primate species, the sun-tailed monkey, was discovered around Lopé. Though in truth everything seemed new to us. We were shown a gargantuan moabi tree – 70m tall – with buttress roots the height of a man, and were fed the juicy blood-red fruits of the grapes-of-Gabon tree.
We also heard the legend of the pallid adultery tree which is inhabited by fearsome ants, and was once used by outraged husbands, who would tie their wives to the tree to confess infidelity or be bitten to death. Lopé also has lilliputian subtleties: elfin-like termite mounds; millipedes sipping rainwater from curled-up leaves, and sulphur-yellow spider webs. On seeing a web, Didier earnestly informed us: “it’s the house of a spider, and it uses it to catch insects.” This brought smiles to our faces, the forest was his world, and in his eyes spiders were Lopé’s very own jealously guarded secret.
Late one afternoon, events really exploded into life. We’d begun a four-hour chase for a silverback and four females. Our pulses quickened when a guttural roar, both close and intimidating, had halted us in our tracks. The trail – nibbled stems of the gorillas’ favourite food, marantacae palms, and an embedded knuckle-print, twice the size of mine – led us deeper into Lopé’s wilderness. It was a gruelling pursuit.
The cling-film humidity lingered like a hazy net between the trees, and our sweat-soaked clothes snagged continually on the clawing vegetation. They were close, but we heard little – how could such bulky beasts move so quietly? In reality though, the closer we thought we were, the further we’d fallen behind. Finally, like stage-show magicians, they’d vanished beneath Lopé’s succulent cape, silently and without trace.
Twenty-four hours later, Libreville’s urban jungle had substituted Lopé’s greenery. It took some adjustment. I was disappointed not to have seen any gorillas, but enthused to find Libreville buzzing with parades of majorettes and tribal dancing – the razzmatazz of parliamentary elections called by longtime president, El Hadj Omar Bongo.
Libreville is a kind of poor man’s Dubai: modern office blocks; boutiques and hypermarkets, dissected by high speed highways, yet all a little frayed around the edges. Libreville’s necklace of sandy beaches were littered with okoumé logs, lost overboard and washed up like pale, beached whales along its breezy Atlantic coastline. I had to look hard, but a Francophone veneer still existed: a few elegant chateaux, and vendors wheeling wooden carts crammed with baguettes.
The rainforests were less wastefully represented at L’Eglise Saint-Michel, where 30 exquisitely carved mahogany pillars depicting biblical stories supported an open-sided church. I’d wandered down there for Sunday morning service read in the local Fang and Nzebi dialects. The congregation was squeezed in like a football crowd at a local derby, and sung just as passionately, though with a rhythm that I’d never heard inside a church before. They were backed by drums and balafons and a spine-tingling harmony from a violet-robed female choir. Outside, the crowd spilled out, merging with a street market bursting with fresh fish, crustaceans, fruits, and manioc wrapped in banana-leaves.
We ate a final meal together that evening at the restaurant L’Odika. Besides French and African cuisine, gibiers (bushmeat) was available on the menu, though neither crocodile nor porcupine, antelope or python (with pommes frites) particularly appealed. This wasn’t the close encounter I’d envisaged with Gabon’s enigmatic wildlife. And, for the sake of keeping them off the dining table, I couldn’t begrudge their chameleon qualities, which in the forest, had led me on a merry dance.
When to go: Straddling the equator, Gabon is hot and humid all year round – constantly nudging 30°C with around 80% humidity. June through to September are the drier months, though the wet season (January to May) is thought to be the best time to view forest animals as many forest fruits are ripe, and the skies clear quickly after short, sharp, tropical downpours.
Health and safety: Technically, a yellow fever certificate is required, and protection against malaria is important. Visit your GP for advice before travelling. Take care with photography, as the military are very sensitive, and I nearly had my camera taken when snapping a simple market because a barracks existed nearby.