With its lush rain forests, unspoiled savanna, and pristine coastline, this oil-rich West African nation has emerged as a regional leader in conservation—and an Eden for eco-minded travelers.
On a moonlit beach lapped by the Gulf of Guinea, I jump out of the way as a pair of giant flippers sends sand flying in my direction. Though we can’t make out the entire kayak-size bulk of the nesting leatherback turtle, the semi-darkness reverberates with her heavy breathing as she slowly digs a burrow in which to lay 100 or so eggs.
My husband, Mark, and I are on the shores of Gabon’s Pongara National Park. While it’s just 20 minutes by boat from Libreville, the capital, Pongara teems with wild elephants, forest buffalo, marshbuck, duikers, and even a few chimpanzees. And turtles. According to an international study conducted a decade ago, Gabon’s warm equatorial beaches harbor the world’s largest nesting population of leatherbacks, to say nothing of three other threatened species of sea turtle.
It’s a bounty that has captivated me ever since I read how in 2002, Gabon’s then-president Omar Bongo Ondimba set aside more than one-tenth of the country for the creation of 13 national parks. The unprecedented decree was thanks in no small part to lobbying by American naturalist Mike Fay, whose epic 3,200-kilometer trek from northeastern Congo to Gabon’s Atlantic coast in 1999 laid the groundwork for identifying the country’s most critically important habitats. Gabon may still struggle with issues like corruption, misspent oil revenues, and poaching, but its place on the regional conservation map is at least secure.
Omar Bongo’s son and successor, Ali Bongo Ondimba, has continued the legacy of his father, pledging to end the ivory trade and establishing Africa’s largest network of marine protected areas. But while tourism here is still a far cry from the slick, well-oiled safari machines found in South Africa or Kenya, I’m keen to see for myself how Gabon’s attempts to balance environmental protection with economic needs are playing out on the ground.
Located at the edge of the Congo Basin, Gabon is the size of the United Kingdom, yet has fewer than two million residents, most of whom live in Libreville and a few smaller cities. The rest is rain forest and savanna and, at Loango National Park—which Fay once described as “Africa’s Last Eden”—one of the continent’s last great coastal wildernesses.
To get there, we hop a 30-minute flight from Libreville to the seaport of Port-Gentil, then endure a five-hour drive along roads so bone-jarring they make you wonder where Gabon has spent all its oil revenues. The upside is true virgin safari territory—aside from ourselves, there are only a few other tourists to be seen.
With 100 kilometers of uninhabited coastline, Loango is a jewel in Gabon’s ecotourism crown. The waters here are home to one of the planet’s largest concentrations of whales and dolphins, not to mention a squad of surfing hippos. (Google it if you don’t believe me.) You’ll also spot families of elephants plodding along empty white-sand beaches as they forage for salty vegetation. These are not the gray pachyderms seen on the savanna but instead their smaller and rarer cousins, African forest elephants, which are tinged a beautiful dark pink. Sadly, some two-thirds of all forest elephants have been killed for their ivory in the last decade, and Gabon, which is home to more than half of the surviving population, has struggled to stop the grisly trade.
For all its safari potential, there is really only one feasible place to stay in the park: Loango Lodge, where six wooden bungalows perch on the banks of the Iguéla Lagoon. Originally opened in 2000 by Dutch entrepreneur Rombout Swanborn, the lodge is now managed by Gabon’s National Parks Agency. On our first morning we eat on a stilted terrace overlooking the water before heading off in search of western lowland gorillas, another of the park’s key attractions.
We begin our trek at a rustic gorilla-research camp across the lagoon, accompanied by a Spanish primatologist named Nausica and three Pygmy trackers. We’re plunged into a dappled world where monkeys swing through the branches and trees throw down lianas as thick as a giraffe’s neck. “Finding lowland gorillas is usually more of an adventure than seeing mountain gorillas in countries like Rwanda,” Nausica tells us. “In Rwanda, it’s easy—they’re out in the open. But here you may have to cross swamps and mangroves because they’re constantly on the move.”
The first one we spot is an enormous silverback called Kamaya, who heads a family of wild gorillas that have become habituated to humans. Napping at the foot of a tree, he stirs just long enough to glance nonchalantly in our direction. More captivating is the pair of young gorillas that we catch at play. One swirls around a tree like it’s a carousel, before the other—after beating his chest in mock bravado—tackles him to the ground. It’s almost like watching my two sons roughhousing.
Loango Lodge has several satellite camps where you can drop in for the day or stay overnight. One, Tassi, is marooned out in the middle of the savanna. There’s no electricity or hot water, but the outdoor shower is glorious after a day out in Gabon’s equatorial heat. In the morning, we wake to the hoots of chimpanzees before our guide, Dimitri, appears to tell us he has just seen a red river hog in the grass. Despite its humdrum name, the pig turns out to be one of the most surreal creatures I’ve ever seen, with a truffle-orange hide, long curling ears, and white-and-black facial markings that make it look like it’s wearing an African mask drawn on by Picasso.
Next, we head inland to Tsam Tsam, a commu-nity-driven ecotourism project tucked away at the end of a chain of lakes and unreachable by road. Getting there involves a six-hour boat journey across a labyrinth of waterways bejeweled with emerald islets. The only signs of human presence are the odd fishing camp and two boats pulling a barge piled high with okoume logs.
American biologist Heather Arrowood runs this off-grid camp with her Gabonese boyfriend, Cyrille Mvele, who grew up around here. Set on a secluded peninsula, its handful of stilted wooden platforms hide among an endless mantle of trees, each with a tent sheltered underneath a thatched roof. Tsam Tsam is a grassroots business—its proceeds fund sister charity Organisation Ecotouristique du Lac Oguemoué (OELO), which works on environmental education in local schools, sustainable fishing, and promoting alternatives to the illegal bushmeat trade. “Eating most animals is traditionally part of our culture,” Cyrille says. “Hippos are almost extinct in Gabon because people have a taste for them.”
Hippos, however, have never lived in Lake Oguemoué. “Each lake has a genie and this one doesn’t like hippos,” Cyrille tells me. “So you can swim here, because although we do have a few slender-snouted crocodiles, they never attack humans.” Diving into the bath-warm water, I’m glad for the supernatural protection.
Each day Cyrille’s nephew, Prince, paddles over in a dugout pirogue to a lakeside village, returning with fresh dishes—smoked tilapia soup, grilled catfish, delicious fried plantains—cooked by the local women. We spend our time between meals canoeing through flooded forests or hiking through stands of towering hardwoods with Cyrille and Prince. Late one afternoon, we approach a clearing where hundreds of rosy bee-eaters fill the sky, shooting like pink fireworks out of their nesting holes in the ground. Nighttime is no less thrilling. On a moonlit boat ride I stare out at a thousand red eyes glinting at me from a tangle of silver: crocodile nests hidden in the mangroves.
Another evening we’re told that the residents of a nearby village are performing a Bwiti dance. The Bwiti cult is recognized as a religion in Gabon; during initiation ceremonies, people eat the root of iboga, a hallucinogenic forest plant, which they believe enables them to commune with their ancestors. “Iboga takes you on a long, arduous journey, but the end is profound. You get to know yourself as well as the world beyond,” Cyrille explains.
It’s late by the time the dancers suddenly appear, some wearing feathered headdresses and amulets. They snake into the Bwiti temple to a frenzy of drumming. White kaolin clay is chalked on their faces and daubed in dots and stripes across their chests. They dance over a sacred fire, swirling their clothes through the flames, a few entering trances as they become possessed by spirits.
Most of the other villages we visit, however, are near-deserted. “Many people have left for Libreville to find work,” one man says. “We can’t hunt antelope like before or cut wood to build our houses. It’s all very well creating the parks, but the people here need replacement livelihoods.”
They also need education and healthcare, two other things that are virtually nonexistent in rural areas. For all its oil wealth, Gabon is still a country of significant disparity, not to mention levels of corruption that have straightjacketed conservation efforts.
But Lee White is bullish. When I meet him later in Libreville, the British-born director of Gabon’s National Parks Agency tells me that additional eco-guards have been hired from local villages, providing much-needed jobs and bolstering the country’s fight against poachers. His agency is also building more electric fences to protect elephants and prevent them from crossing over into human settlements. And ecotourism facilities are gradually being developed. “New satellite camps are about to open in Loango, and others will follow in parks throughout Gabon,” White says.
For now, though, visitors can expect to have this near-pristine country practically to themselves. It may not quite be Eden, but it’s the closest I’ve come to it.
Where to Stay
La Baie des Tortues Luth
Located across the water from Libreville at the northern tip of Pongara National Park, this 20-room resort is the ideal base for turtle-watchers. Pointe-Denis; doubles from US$566.
Loango National Park; from US$370 per person per night, including all food and guiding.
Lake Oguemoué; double tents from US$150 per person per night, including all food and guiding.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Going Green in Gabon”).