Tourism is still a fledgling industry in Gabon, but wildlife tracking is providing a much-needed boost to visitor numbers as Lyn Hughes found
"They are exquisite!" exclaimed Flip. "And I never thought I'd say that about a pig!" Exquisite wasn't the adjective that had jumped to mind when I saw my first red river hogs. I'd had to crawl along the sandy earth on my stomach for 15 minutes just to get within 100m of them. And as soon as I lifted my body out of the long grass, the heavily whiskered, tassel-eared hogs sensed my presence and stampeded off into the forest.
The same happened when I saw a group of shaggy forest buffalo. Apparently they had tasselled ears too, but this was hard to verify thanks to the skittishness of the buffs. During my first 48 hours in Gabon I had seen far more animal backsides than animal faces.
It's no surprise that the wildlife is so wary of humans - Gabon's national parks have only been in existence since 2002. President Bongo realised that the country was too dependent on its oil, which wouldn't last forever. But with its extensive rainforests and rich wildlife, including western lowland gorillas, tourism could be the key to Gabon's economic future. More than 10% of the country was given over to a network of 13 national parks.
I was staying in Loango National Park, a beautiful spot about halfway down Gabon's Atlantic coast with a diverse ecosystem of forest, savannah, rivers, lagoons and ocean. It had sounded amazing - I'd read about the humpback whales breaching off its shores, leatherback turtles nesting on its beaches, and the frequent sightings of gorillas and chimps. Unfortunately, I hadn't done my homework well enough and had arrived in just about the worst month - May - for seeing anything other than the hogs, the buffalos and the elephants. And even they were proving to be coyer than a nun in a brothel.
The park is run by an alliance of private businesses, government bodies and NGOs, including the WWF and WCS. Known as Operation Loango, it is spearheaded by inspirational Dutch entrepreneur Rombout Swanborn who considers Gabon his second home.
Hunting is a regular part of life in Gabon, so there was some resistance to the creation of these protected areas. Operation Loango has very deliberately recruited from the villages that border the park. As Rombout explained: "We started with the people who were the most notorious poachers. It's a cliché but these are the people who know nature best.
"We try to recruit from every village. We employ about 250 people at the moment. They will be economically responsible for their family - maybe seven to ten people - so we are influencing around 2,000 people."
This policy is laudatory, but it's early days and the standard of guiding and service is nowhere near what you would get in east or southern Africa. For €300 a night you don't expect to be making up your own (camp) bed as I had to. But it's just the beginning, and the intentions are good.
I was being guided by Flip Nicholson from Zimbabwe, who was there to train the local eco-guides, as they are called. "They're still a bit raw," he admitted as we took a river trip with eight of his charges, "but some show real promise. I hope their enthusiasm will rub off on the others."
Heading upriver in a launch, visions of The African Queen kept coming to mind. Thick lianas lined the banks; behind them the forest was a dark and impenetrable mass. The journey was a birdwatcher’s delight, with a different kingfisher every few metres, an array of herons and storks, countless palm nut vultures, the occasional African fish eagle and my first sighting of an African finfoot.
Slender-snouted crocodiles basked on fallen logs, while a hippo rapidly sank out of sight at our approach. The briefest of glimpses of a manatee's nose tantalised us. We rounded one bend in the river and came face to face with a young male elephant in some long grass above the bank. Forest elephants are a different species from the elephants of east and southern Africa. Smaller and shyer, they have huge, very round ears - like a simplified kid's drawing - and straight tusks with a pinkish tinge.
In between teaching his students the English names for everything we saw, Flip fed them titbits of information, such as how to identify the sexes of the various species of kingfisher. He then held their attention by explaining that it is the male jacana, rather than the female, that incubates their eggs. Sadly my limited French wasn't up to the saucy comments that were obviously being made in response.
The skills of the former hunters came to the fore the next day when we took a walk in the forest. A hitherto surly eco-guide called Ferre came into his own in this environment, confidently leading the way, leaving bent twigs and marks in the earth to enable us to find our way back. He talked through the various trees and their uses: the okume tree is carved into dugout canoes, while its resin is used in traditional ceremonies; the niovu has antiseptic properties, and is used by women after birth and men after circumcision; and the rare ifero, the much sought-after good luck tree, will get you a job or find you a wife.
Ferre and an excellent guide called Serge accompanied me from here to a bushcamp called Tassi, a collection of small tents spread out along a ridge with views across sandy savannah to the ocean, a kilometre away. The sense of isolation was palpable when it suddenly dawned on me that I was the only guest in the whole of the national park that night.
Down at the beach some hippo tracks were prominent in the white sand, leading from the sea to a brackish lagoon. Gabon is the one place in the world where hippos 'surf' the waves. While a rarely seen phenomenon, here at least was proof that the hippos do indeed enter the sea.
Other tracks crisscrossed the beach too: Serge pointed out the trails of genet, marsh mongoose, crocodile, buffalo and monitor lizard. There were even fresh signs of elephant. Squinting through the Atlantic spray and the dazzling light, we scanned the horizon and, sure enough, three large dark shapes were lumbering away from us in the far distance. We power-walked along the beach, only catching up with them after a good 3km hike. But the sun was now setting, so we turned around and trudged back.
As the light went, a new moon cast a glow over the sand turning it silver, while offshore we could see the twinkle of oilrig lights.
The next morning I peered out at an ethereal sight. In the pre-dawn light the sand looked like snow, while a ground mist added to the mystical effect. It was Sunday, the day off to visit the 'Gorilla Girls', three primate researchers who are based in a camp not far from Tassi. With two of the girls away having medical treatment, we visited the remaining one, JoJo, and took her some fresh fruit and beers.
JoJo Head is from Hampshire and has a degree in anthropology. She found the research position on the internet and was clearly thriving on it. "I love the simplicity of the life" she said as she showed us her log of gorilla sightings and behaviour.
JoJo revealed that it was a month since she had seen any gorillas or chimps.
"In January we were spending two hours at a time with them, only 40-70m away. They'd come and look at us, and sometimes beat their chests. Our main problem is not that they're afraid of us, but that we can't find them! Their territory is so huge. The vegetation is sparse, so they cover large areas to feed." She acknowledged two smiling men nearby. "That's why we've got these guys, the pygmy trackers. They are Baongo, renowned as forest people."
We all took a walk through the nearby forest, Massande and Ekia looking out for any telltale signs of gorillas or chimps - alas, there was nothing to see.
We invited JoJo back to Tassi for lunch and her eyes lit up at the sight of boiled eggs and fresh salad. "I can feel the vitamins racing through my body!" she sighed as she tucked in. The researchers are not allowed to hunt, fish or grow anything inside the park so live on tinned supplies, with sardines and rice being the signature dish.
We also had some unexpected visitors, who arrived by microlight. Dr Marti Marco is a European who has lived in Gabon for more than 20 years, and he is passionate about the country. "Gabon is the last paradise on earth. You can hunt in the forest, fish in the rivers; throw a seed and it will grow. There is no time of the year when there is no food. You don't need money to live here."
However, he was also worried for its future. He gave an insight into some of the conservation issues, with indiscriminate logging, mining and fishing - both legal and illegal - being of particular concern.
We took a stroll into some nearby forest to show JoJo a large nest we had found, just 100m from the camp. She examined it with the intensity of a forensic scientist and confirmed that it was a gorilla nest, most likely of a solitary male, and said it was very fresh - perhaps from the previous night. It was thrilling yet frustrating to know that a gorilla had slept so close to me without my knowledge.
There is one place in Gabon where a gorilla sighting is guaranteed. Operation Loango runs a rehabilitation programme for gorillas a few hours north of the park on an island in the Fernan Vaz Lagoon. At Petit Envengue, also known as Gorilla Island, it is another young woman who is filling the Dian Fossey role: Penny Elzinga, a 24-year-old from the Netherlands, was just two weeks into the job when I visited. She was on a massive learning curve, but fiercely committed, taking care of the project while also looking after visitors who either drop in for a couple of hours or stay overnight, as I was planning to do.
Penny explained that the gorillas here have either been taken from captivity or orphaned, most likely when their mothers have been killed for bushmeat. A small group of the primates, led by 26-year-old Mbeke, live in an enclosure that has been extended to cover half the island. The plan is to build the group up, then move them to the opposite, larger island, where they would have even more autonomy. From there, they will eventually be released into a wild habitat that has lost its gorillas.
For now, the gorillas don't have access to enough wild food, so are given supplementary food, such as sugar cane and bananas. In the late afternoon I accompanied a keeper to watch the feeding. Mbeke looked coolly at me, sending a shiver down my spine as he made eye contact. I lowered my gaze first; it was my turn to feel shy. He was less impressed with my male companion, doing mock charges along the fence and threatening to swing a punch at him. "Bryan's a strange male, so a threat to his 'family'," explained Penny. "Gorillas are usually very gentle, but we think Mbeke has had a terrible past and it has made him very distrustful. Who can blame him?"
Satisfied that he'd made his point - he was the alpha male around these parts - Mbeke went back to the serious business of tucking into a papaya.
Back at the base, a couple of young orphans were being hand-reared. The older one was a boisterous toddler, who age-wise had hit the 'terrible twos', and was almost ready to join the main group. Accompanying him on a walk into the woods, he bounded down the path in front of us, playing hide and seek among the tree trunks and dive-bombing us from overhead branches. He completely disregarded the rule that states that gorillas and visitors shouldn't make physical contact.
The other, smaller orphan, just nine-months old, was also oblivious to the guidelines. Clearly missing her mother, she climbed up into my arms, resisting all my attempts to put her back down. I melted as she looked at me with large, trusting eyes, and reached out to touch my face and hair.
It had been frustrating not to see a gorilla in the wild. But that's Gabon for you. Exasperating yet magical. An Eden, but a fragile one.