Since independence from France in 1960 Gabon has had just two presidents, with the late, Omar Bongo, in power since 1967. Despite being made up of more than 40 ethnic groups, Gabon has escaped the strife afflicting other West African states. As Gabon’s oil reserves diminish, eco-tourism has been growing in economic importance. The country’s rainforests teem with wildlife, including lowland gorillas and forest elephants. National parks make up around one tenth of the land area. Tourism in Gabon is in its infancy and while the areas that we have selected for our holidays are absolutely wonderful in terms of flora and fauna, it should be remembered that Gabon can be humid for large parts of the year and accommodation while very clean and comfortable is not five star – yet!
Location: West coast of Central Africa
Size: 267, 670 sq. km
Population: 1.2 million
Climate: Tropical, always hot and humid
Status: Republic; multiparty presidential regime
Main towns: Franceville and Port Gentil
Currency: CFA franc
Language: French (official) and 40 living African Languages
Religion: Christians (60%), Animist and Muslim
International telephone code: +241
Time: GMT +1
Gabon’s most popular areas:
Libreville and the Estuary
Gabon’s capital lies in the far northwest of the country, spread along the Atlantic Ocean for some 15km. Libreville is French for ‘free town’. The French lieutenant Bouet-Willaumez chose the name inspired by the example for Freetown in Sierra Leone when slaves freed from captured slave ship L’Elizia were settled here in 1849. This date is generally regarded as when the city was founded, although people, mostly the Mpongwe, had been living here long before then.
In fact, in preceding years the French has been making great efforts to increase their power on this part of the coast. In 1839 the local Gabonese chief Rapontchombo put his mark to a treaty placing his territory under the French flag, the first of many such treaties signed with local chieftains.
By 1860 Libreville is thought to have consisted of the village of the freed slaves, a trading post and a handful of missionaries. The city grew a bit after World War II, but the real sparks to its growth were independence in 1960 and the petrol boom in the 1970s, which made the city an irresistible magnet for immigrants from neighbouring countries. The city’s population increased in great leaps. Today Libreville has an official population of 450,000, which accounts for about 40% of the country’s inhabitants.
The coastal road runs from the airport to the north of the city centre – through the city and on to the port of Owendo, to the south on the Gabon estuary. On the way, roads lead away from the waterfront to the different quartiers. Batterie IV is the city’s grandest area full of embassies and large houses and Quartier Louis is primarily an entertainment district. The grand boulevard Triomphal Omar Bongo was built on what was once the marshland on the Sainte Marie Valley. The next big road junction leads up to Mont-Bouet, the busiest part of the city. Stretching from the Presidential Palace as far as avenue Felix Eboue is the commercial centre of the city, known as Nombakele, and butting up to it is the old colonial Quartier Glass, where many trading companies once had their headquarters. Continuing brings you to the industrial area Oloumi, then the lively residential area Lalala, and finally the train station and port of Owendo. All distances in Gabon are measure from the Bessieux roundabout, ‘le point kilometrique zero du Gabon’.
President Bongo had big ideas for his capital back in the days when the coffers were overflowing with petrol money. For most of the 1970s the city resembled a massive building site. A new presidential palace was built, the first skyscrapers, big roads, new ministries, luxury hotels, plus the futuristic buildings of boulevard Triomphal. Recession in the mid 1980’s slowed construction, but there’s no denying that on one level Libreville lives up to the image of the flourishing international capital that Bongo envisaged. The buildings and hotels are still impressive, and you can dine on food from anywhere in the world if you can stomach the international prices – les Librevillois, immigrants and expats all agree the city is ‘tres, tres cher’. But of course, there is another, less visible side of the city behind the modern buildings, ‘les matistis’ or shanty towns.
Within the Estuary region are a number of places where it is only too easy to forget the proximity of the big smoke. Just minutes out of Libreville on the airport road the forest begins. Both along this coast and on the other side of the estuary, there are dreamy beaches where it is possible to walk for miles along the shore at low tide. On the southern side of the estuary is Pongara National Park., which incorporates the tourist resort of Port Denis. Neither side of the estuary is short on birdlife – kingfishers, little egrets, reef herons, sanderlings and other fast-moving waders abound.
The Middle Ogooue
The Ogooue splits into two channels at Lambarene, before re-joining a large alluvial plain with a series of picturesque lakes fringed by papyrus marshes, reed beds and dense forests. This is one of the largest deltas in Africa, extending from Lambarene to Port Gentil, and it is hoped it will be granted protective status such as a Biosphere Reserve. Lake excursions can be made from either Lambarene or Port Gentil, but the Lambarene lakes are more accessible and less pre-planning is required. Aside from the lakes this region is known for two reasons: the hospital founded by Albert Schweitzer and the peculiar fierceness of its mosquitoes.
The Ngounie region takes its name from the River Ngounie – an important tributary of Ogooue – which feeds its forests and lakes. It is sometimes also known as Mitsogho country, after the people who have traditionally lived here. To the south lies the Congo, along this region’s eastern flank rise the du Chaillu Mountains, and along its western flank the Ikoundou Mountains. Sandwiched between there forested mountains lies the grassy Ngounie valley, location of the town of Ndende. The Ngounie must be one of the least visited regions of Gabon. If it welcomes any visitors they are invariably passing through on their way to or from Mayumba, or making a brief southerly foray from Lambarene to Fougamou and Sindara. Those who linger a while, however, and venture deeper into the Mitsogho country, are rewarded with the beauty of a little changed part of the country.
The Ogooue Maritime, or Coastal Ogooue, is a region that combines economic resources and diverse beauties in its 23,000sq km. The region’s capital is Port Gentil. From the late 15th century, Europeans, notably the Portuguese, descended on the coastal peoples to trade in ivory and timber. Later, in the 17th century, their commercial interests turned to slaves, while by the 19th century the missionaries were arriving to battle for souls. In the 20th century the attraction was oil, and that of the 21st century looks set to be tourism, thanks to the spectacular scenery and plentiful wildlife. The camps here have long been a place of pilgrimage for tarpon fisherman, and are now broadening their net to welcome birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts.
The coastal Ogooue region has many different ecosystems harbouring enormous biodiversity. It is a region that includes forests, lagoons, lakes, floodplains, savannahs and over 200km of coastline. This is one of the richest and most beautiful areas in Central Africa, and preliminary research has shown it to have one of the highest densities of elephants and apes. Yet such riches have not been a guarantee against exploitation. The government has been in the past given logging and oil companies the right to operate in the region, and their presence has both improved access routes for poachers and increased the demand for illegally hunted meat. Now the Gabonese government, in conjunction with the conservation agencies, has given the region two national parks of Loango and Moukalaba-Doudou. They are keen to find a workable solution to the twin issues of conservation and economics by encouraging tourism. Loango National Park is probably the only place on the African continent where western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, buffalo and hippopotami can all, with luck, be seen on the same beach. Even leopard have been spotted on the beach. There is also the chance to see manatees and crocodiles, and at the right times of year, nesting leatherback sea turtles, humpback whales and dolphins.
Port Gentil is located on the north-eastern edge of an island some 30km by 6km, an island surrounded by ocean and swamps. At the end of the 15th century it was named Lopez Island by the Portuguese sailor, Lopez Gonzalvez. The name did not stick, although the island’s furthest point is still know as Cape Lopez. Instead, the island became known as Mandji Island, a name chosen by the Myene people because of the concentration of mandji trees growing here.
The city itself takes its name after a certain Frenchman, Emile Gentil, an administrator for Afrique Equatoriale Francaise (AEF) who was sent to perform a mission here between 1890 and 1892. Port Gentil at this time was little more than a handful of villages and a mission, and was to remains so until at least the end of World War 1. Today Port Gentil is the economic capital of Gabon, a city that got rich quick, and in the process acquired a disproportionate number of hotels, restaurants and expats (mostly French and Lebanese). The residents of Port Gentil claim there are three separate groups of people here: the Gabonese, the expats and those working for Elf. The question on everybody’s mind is what will happen to the city when the petrol runs out?
Loango National Park
The Loango National was created in 2002 when the Iguela and Petit Loango Reserves were merged to become one. The Iguela Reserve has covered an area of 230,000 hectares surrounding the lagoon alternatively called Iguela or Nkomi. Neighbouring it to the south was the smaller coastal reserve of Petit Loango. Visitors come to Loango National Park to enjoy the irresistible combination of scenery and wildlife – ocean, lagoon, forest and savannah – and the different ways of exploring them: namely by boat, 4WD or on foot. The attractions change depending on the time of year. The whale season begins around mid-July and continues through to mid-September, the tarpon fishing season October to mid-November, and the turtle season is October to mid-January. At all times, you will see at least some of the following: buffaloes, hippos, crocodiles, manatees, elephants, chimpanzees and gorillas.
Nyanga is in the far southwest of Gabon, its limits defined by the ocean to the west and the border with Congo to the south. The provincial capital, Tchibanga, lies beside the River Nyanga in a low-lying corridor between the Mayumba Mountains and the Ikoundou mountains, paralleling the Ngounie valley to the east. It is a fairly wealthy region with fertile soil. Its agricultural industry – based largely on rice and some vegetables – is centred around Moabi, and marble is quarried near Tchibanga. Tourism is an embryonic industry at the coastal town Mayumba, famed for its pristine beaches. Talk of building a port on Gabon’s southwestern coast has raised fears about the future of Mayumba, but it seems an unlikely choice as long as oil is not found here.
This region takes its name from two large rivers, the Woleu and the Ntem. It is a frontier region, separated from Cameroon to the north by the river Ntem, and butting up to Equatorial Guinea to the west, and around the Crystal Mountains to the south. The regional boundaries were created by the French in the early 20th century. Woleu-Ntem fell under German colonial control in 1912-15 – the German legacy lives on in the cocoa they planted – but the factor to impact on the region today is the influx of immigrants from these neighbouring countries.
Woleu-Ntem has an estimated population of 220,000 people, making it second only to the estuary in terms of population density. The majority of its inhabitants are Fang, who are known for the Mvet, the name of a Fang stringed instruments and musical tradition. There are also villages of Baka pygmies near the Cameroonian border. As well as being one of the country’s most densely populated regions, Woleu-Ntem is one of the wealthiest. An immediate indicator of its importance is the beautifully surfaced main road, which allows produce from Cameroon to be easily transported south through Bitam, Oyem, Mitzic to eventually join the road to Libreville.
The region’s wealth is based in agriculture, and specifically on the company Hevegab, which carved massive hevea plantations totalling thousands of hectares of the forest here in the early 1900s. These work opportunities not only meant less of an exodus of the young from Woleu-Ntem compared to other, less-wealthy regions, but also acted as magnet for jobless young men from across the borders. Unfortunately, Hevegab is now experiencing difficulties. Jobs can no longer be taken for granted and unemployment is rising.
Because of the region’s higher altitude, the weather tends to be colder than most of the rest of the country, with a longer rainy season. Seen from the sky, the region’s overwhelming feature is the dense and breath-taking forest, broken only by the dramatic inselbergs that give shape to the landscape, and the occasional roads with their pretty villages dotted with avocado, mango and banana trees. The far northeastern corner of the region, and the country, is uninhabited impenetrable forest broken only by massive granite outcrops.
The Ogooue-Invindo is one of the least populated regions in Gabon. It is traversed by the Ogooue and Ivindo rivers, and two main roads. The regional capital is the small town of Makokou. East of Makokou the road passes through some villages before arriving in Mekambo, the furthest town before the road splits and crosses the frontier into Congo in two different places. Away from the roads, this region is inaccessible and uninhabited, except for the Pygmies living along the length of the River Ivindo and the gold panners sifting through the small streams around the River Nouna. The other people living here are mostly Fang, Kwele and Kota. They are eking out a subsistence existence, growing, fishing and hunting their food. There are iron deposits around Mount Belinda that were once a source of great hope, but the quality is simply not good enough to justify the expense of mining it and transporting it to the coast. Now the government, in conjunction with environmental organisations such as WWF, hope that ecotourism will provide a boost to the economy in a region that is after all one of Gabon’s richest in terms of flora and fauna. Until now, Lope has been the only real options for tourists, from those in search of the little-known Dja River Warbler or a rare species of orchid, to those interested in primarily in a ‘gorilla experience’. The formation of three new national parks means an explosion in tourist possibilities is imminent.
Lope National Park
Lope National Park is a vast expanse totalling 2,069 square miles. It is bordered by the Ogooue to the north, the Offoue to the east, the du Chaillu mountains in the south and the River Mingoue to the west. Lope was created as a national park in 2002 (prior to this it had been a reserve since 1946). More than 1,500 plant species have been recorded here, of which 40 represent new species for Gabon. Lope is home to 400 of the 680 species of bird recorded in Gabon, and according to the ECOFAC there are 60 different species of mammal within the reserve. Little wonder Lope is the chosen research centre for long term studies on gorillas and mandrills. In the region of 1,350 mandrills are thought to inhabit the reserve and the surrounding area. They are particularly visible in the dry season (July – August), when they hand around in super-groups numbering hundreds in the north of the reserve for up to two weeks at a time. There are estimated 3,000-5,000 western lowland gorillas roaming within the reserve.
Ivindo National Park
Southwest of Makokou is the Ivindo National Park. The highlights of the park includes its two waterfalls, the Koungou and the Mingouli. By far the greatest are the Mingouli falls – a magnificent series of falls that crash down into the river from every direction. A pirogue trip through the forest to the falls provides plenty of opportunity to glimpse birds, monkeys and hippos. The dry season is not the best time to go, as the river can get dangerously low and it will be necessary to drag the pirogue over the rocks in places.
The High Ogooue
Historically, the high Ogooue region as it stands today has been very cut off from the rest of the country. It even became a Congolese territory in 1925 – because of the building of the railway from Brazzaville to the ocean – and was only reunited with Gabon in 1946. Even then, it was to remain isolated from the other regions until the roads to Libreville and the airport were built in the 1970s, followed by the Transgabonais railway and the Intercontinental Hotel in the 1980s.
The rich resources in the mining towns of Mounana and Moanda in the west of the region played an important role in ensuring that Franceville be brought closer to the capital, but arguably the most important factor was President Omar Bonga himself. Of all the people in the High Ogooue – Ombaba, Bawoumbou, Banjabi and so on – the dominant people are the Bateke, the president’s people. Bongo hails from Bongoville (originally named Lewai), a village lying between Franceville and Leconi. He has been unceasingly committed to developing his region, but has not yet succeeded in fulfilling his dream to transform it into an important place on the international stage. The airport never handles international flights, and the Intercontinental is never full.
The Ogooue-Lolo is crossed by the Ogooue and its tributary the River Lolo, hence its name. A third important river, the Ofooue, marks the natural border between this region and the Ngounie region. It terms of landscape these two regions are remarkably similar, both being green and mountainous. The dense forest has long attracted forestry companies, and more recently scientists and conservationists. The du Chaillu Mountains are rich in endemic species – just how rich is not yet known – and excursions on foot guarantee encounters with numerous monkeys and birds. Climbing Mount Iboundji represents the biggest challenge, but there are other, less strenuous alternatives. The road directly south of the region’s capital, Koulamoutou, leads to the Congo border via Pana.
On the southern most edge of Zambia, bordering Zimbabwe, over half a million litres of water a minute cascade over The Victoria Falls. The spray can be seen and often felt, up to thirty kilometres away. For more adventurous visitors, the wild Zambezi River offers adrenaline packed river rafting, river surfing, tiger fishing and bunjee jumping. With vast lakes, rich wetlands and breathtaking African sunsets, Zambia’s scenic splendour is not to be missed.
First colonised by The British South African Company in the 1890′s, Zambia is the land of the legendary African walking safari. Explore the bush on foot with an experienced guide and see an abundance of flora and fauna.
Location: Landlocked in the tropics at the northern edge of the region referred to as ‘southern Africa’.
Climate: Dec-Apr hot and wet, with torrential downpours in afternoons; May-Aug dry, and fairly cool; Sep-Nov dry, but progressively hotter
Population: 10 Million approximately
Other main towns: Livingstone, Kitwe, Ndola, Kabwe
Economy: Minerals (principally copper, cobalt), agriculture, hydro-electricity, tourism
Currency: Kwacha (Kw)
Language: English and numerous ethnic languages
International telephone code: +260
Time: GMT +
Electricity: 220 volts.
Flag: Bight green background; panel lower right of three vertical bands of red, black and orange eagle in flight
Zambia’s most popular areas:
Despite the assertion of the tourist board, Lusaka is still not high on the Zambia’s list of Major attractions. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards can be pleasant, but the traffic is chaotic and many of the suburbs are sprawling and dirty. However, Lusaka is no worse than London, New York, or any number of other big cities. Like them, it has a fascination because it is unmistakably cosmopolitan, alive and kicking.
As home to one-tenth of Zambia’s people, it has a discernible heartbeat which smaller or more sanitised cities lack. So if you go to Zambia with an interest in meeting a cross-section of its people, Lusaka should figure on your itinerary.
Livingstone and the Victoria Falls
Livingstone is probably better oriented towards visitors than any other corner of Zambia. In spite of this, visitors travelling north from Zimbabwe are attracted simply by the Victoria Falls. Until recently the town of Livingstone often remained unseen. In the past, some have even viewed it with suspicion, being bigger and less well known than the small Zimbabwean town which shares the name of the waterfall. As a result of Zimbabwe’s political instability, however, much of this has changed in recent years. Zimbabwe is now considerably more expensive than Zambia, and the lodges on the Zambian side of the river, are going from strength to strength.
Both the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides of the river offer different views of the waterfall, and it is worth seeing both sides of the falls to appreciate the whole waterfall.
Lake Kariba and the Lower Zambezi
Zambia’s border with Zimbabwe is defined by the course of the Zambezi as it slowly meanders towards the Indian Ocean. Below the Victoria Falls, it flows east, sometimes northeast and today’s biggest features of this river are artificial: Lake Kariba, between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Lake Cabora Bassa, in Mozambique.
Zambia’s attractions on Lake Kariba are limited to a few islands in the lake, accessed from Sinazongwe, and perhaps Siavonga, which is a pleasant enough place to relax. Of the two inhabited islands, Chete is large enough to be a credible wilderness destination with some good wildlife on it, while Chikanka offers access to the lake at a much lower cost, making it accessible for those on a mid-range budget, or even for more affluent backpackers. Below the wall of Kariba Dam, the Zambezi continues through the hot, low-lying Lower Zambezi Valley and some of the best game viewing in the country. On both sides of the river – Zambian and Zimbabwean – are important national parks. This is also the place to canoe down one of the world’s great rivers, whilst game-spotting and avoiding hippos. It should be on every visitor’s list of things to do in Zambia.
Lower Zambezi Valley
The Lower Zambezi Valley, from the Kariba Dam to the Mozambique border, has a formidable reputation for big game – leading UNESCO to designate part of the Zimbabwean side as a World Heritage Site. The Lower Zambezi National Park protects a large section of the Zambian side. Across the river, much of the Zimbabwean side is protected by either Mana Pools National Park or various safari areas. This makes for a very large area of the valley devoted to wildlife, and a terrific amount of the bigger game, notably elephants and buffalo, actually cross the river regularly.
However, take a look at a map of the Zambian bank and you will realise that the land up to 55km east from the Kafue River is not in the national park at all. Going past the Kafue, the first land that you arrive at is privately owned by large agro-business companies, and then it becomes Chiawa Game Management Area (GMA), which is leased from the chieftains in the area by conservancy operators and hunting concessionaires. Finally, east of Chongwe River, is the national park.
As you might expect, the game densities increase as you travel east, with the best game in the national park, and fewer animals on the privately owned land nearer to Chirundu. The situation is similar on the other bank of the river, in Zimbabwe, so if you want good game viewing then do get into the park if you can, or at least near to it.
The Luangwa Valley
This lush rift valley, enclosed by steep escarpment walls, is one of the continent’s finest areas for wildlife. Four national parks protect parts of this area: South Luangwa, North Luangwa, Luambe and Lukusuzi. Separating these are game management areas (GMAs), which also contain good populations of game. This entire valley is remote but, for enthusiasts, the wildlife is well worth the effort made to get here.
For most visitors, South Luangwa National Park is by far the most practical park to visit in the valley. This is the largest of the parks, with superb wildlife and many excellent camps. Organising a trip to South Luangwa is not difficult, and its infrastructure is easily the best. However, it is still a very remote park, and so most visitors arrive on trips organised outside Zambia. A few arrive independently and, though this is possible, it does limit their accommodation and activity choices.
The more intrepid might organise a safari from the South Park into North Luangwa, which is even more remote and exclusive. Its wildlife is now flourishing, thanks to some intensive conservation efforts over the past decade, and the few safaris that do run concentrate on taking small groups purely walking trips.
Luambe National Park is much smaller than either the South or North Park, and there is one very promising new camp there that makes a perfect stop-over if you are heading that way. The bird watching is good, as with the other parks, though there is less game.
Finally Lukusuzi National Park is something of an unknown quantity. Few people have even visited the park and there are currently no facilities or camps there.
The spectacular Wetlands are, after the rains, a fascinating water-wilderness similar in size to Botswana’s Okavango Delta. A huge wetland area with its own endemic species of antelope, it is also a breeding place for one of Africa’s strangest and rarest birds: the shoebill.
Nearby Kasanka National Park is a jewel of a reserve, proving beyond doubt that small can be beautiful, while the manor house and estate at Shiwa Ng’andu are a mist for anyone seeking an insight into Zambia’s colonial history. Meanwhile Mutinondo is a relatively new area, ripe for modern adventurers to explore. Apart from these four main attractions there are numerous fascinating stops around here – from waterfalls to caves and old colonial monuments – in this area where David Livingstone, literally, left his heart. If you want to explore Zambia beyond the obvious trio of great game parks (Luanwa, Lower Zambezi and Kafue), then this is perhaps the first area that you should visit. The region is perfect for adventurous self-driving visitors with full equipped $WDs, but most of the main highlights here can also be visited on fly-in trips using light aircraft for transport.
The Copperbelt is Zambia’s industrial base, a prosperous area around Ndola, Kitwe and Chingola dotted with mines – the area’s production of copper and cobalt are of global importance. The population density here is high, and the environmental impact of so many people can clearly be seen. Despite this the centres of the Copperbelt’s cities are pleasant and not the sprawling industrial wastes that might be expected. For the normal visitor, these areas have very few attractions.
The Kafue River Basin
Southwest of the Copperbelt, the Kafue River Basin covers a large swathe of central Zambia stretching from almost DRC to the west of Lusaka. It encompasses large areas of very sparsely populated bush as well as the Kafue, Blue Lagoon and Lochinvar national parks.
Much of this region of Zambia is difficult to visit, consisting of endless season bush tracks link occasional farming settlements. At its heart lies the huge Kafue National Park, which has some superb game viewing areas within its boundaries, The best of these, the Busanga Plains, take time to reach, but at times it ranks with the subcontinent’s most impressive game areas.
Elsewhere, there are seasonal floodplains that sustain game and attract a rich variety of birdlife – like the Lukanga Swamps and the Kafue Flats. Part of the latter is protected by two small national parks – Blue Lagoon and Lochinvar – but most such areas remain outside the parks. The Kafue River Basin is a wild area, with some excellent game and endless possibilities for exploring, but very little development.