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Friday, June 15

Gabon


Brett: Gabon feels very different from Cameroon. The guys at the border are wearing smart golf shirts with "Immigration" logos, rather than the normal army uniforms, and the checkpoints mostly just wave us through. Most of the roads are fantastic curvy, hilly roads, but we couldnt do any justice with overland vehicles. Everything is also very neat, with the forest and grass on the side of the road cut back for hundreds of km along the roads, the wooden houses (Central Africa has mostly wooden houses rather than the mud of West Africa) often neatly painted with tended gardens. The country also has about 1% of the population of Nigeria and although there were quite a few villages along the road, they were tiny.

We stayed at Bikang Complexe in Bitam on our first night because we were tired from a long day (can't recommend it though - very expensive for the rooms and they don't allow camping). We then took a long day's drive south along the excellent roads, stopping to add our mark along with most other overlanders to the equator sign. It felt strange to be back in the Southern Hemisphere!
The last 100km of the day was spectacular with the forest opening up to rolling grasslands. The dirt roads are similar condition to the tar, ie excellent. We pulled in at the Lope Hotel Annex, but they were full with guests from a conference, and even though there was plenty of space for us to camp they wouldn't let us - we think they didnt want scruffy overlanders lowering the standards. It was nearly dark so we drove back to some of the freecamping spots we thought we had seen on our way in, eventually stopping in a quarry west of town. We made a quick dinner, while watching the lightning roll in over the hills, and just after we had finished eating an almighty rainstorm came pelting down. It was amazingly loud even before it started, while it was still rolling towards us, as it started hitting the forest on the valley opposite us. We hid away inside out tent as the strong winds ahead of the heavy rain reached us and then couldn't hear each speak when the rains finally hit - these storms are really fantastic.
    
We took a drive through the Lope National Park in the afternoon ($60 for two people, car and obligatory guide). The scenery in the park is very pretty and we saw elephants, buffalo and bush buck, but they tend to be far away when you do see them. The roads also only reach 10km into the park to where the forests begin and continue south through to the Congo, so you only get to see a tiny portion of it despite the park being massive. It just generally seemed not very geared up for tourism - we had to actively seek out guides and hunt around to find someone to pay to go in. We had some expensive beers at the very posh Lope Hotel, which has a fantastic setting on a hill overlooking the massive Ogooue River. We had never heard of this river before, and its not very big by Gabonese standards, but is absolutely huge. It would be brilliant spot for someone to set up a canoeing or white water rafting business here in the future. We were looking for a place to camp and came across the Lope Clinic, where the kind manager let us camp for free and came and chatted to us about our travels. When we left we gave him a donation towards the clinic as well as donating some of the extra medical kit that we won't need (we did massively overpack on the bandages and swabs!). We were warned that elephant often wander through the grounds at night, but unfortunately for us we didnt see any...what a pity.
Mary: The next day we left quite late and headed back the way we came. We tried to find a place to freecamp on the dirt road, but it was either difficult to get off the road or visible from round the next bend. We ended up at the Catholic Mission in Ndjole, which was very nice. We arrived in the middle of their prayer session so we ended up disturbing that while they showed us round, but they were very friendly. We camped on the grass overlooking the road and had the use of a shower and toilet. The next day we headed into town to stock up on groceries and tried to buy a sim for internet, but it turns out that data is very expensive in Gabon (0.3 USD per Mb!! How does anyone get anything done?). We camped on the edge of another (massive) very pretty river at the Catholic Mission in Mouilla the next night and got a lesson in fourou - they are tiny flying insects, maybe 0.25mm across, that you can only see against a dark background, swarming in what looks like a mist, and  leave you covered in bites that don't itch at first but then come up in red bumps that look like measels and itch like crazy 20 minutes later. They dont seem to care about whether or not you have bug spray on, and can get through mosquito nets - the only thing you can do is cover up with long clothes. In the morning Mike looked like a crazy man with his bottom lip and one eyelid puffed up because of fourou bites - and Brett's legs were also covered in bites. Camping at the missions is free but we left a small donation to them when we left.

We couldn't find petrol in a few towns because delivery was interupted by a broken bridge. We decided to take a chance and drove to Mayumba anyway - the roads are a bit slow after  Tchibanga. We crossed on the free ferry and set up camp on a deserted beach near the park entrance just past Hotel L'Ocean where the friendly manager said we would be fine freecamping on the beach. The beach was bleak, long, straight and a bit uninspiring looking at first (it was cloudy which didn't help) but in its stark way was actually very pretty. We had a lovely dinner of curry and wine, sampling Mike and Emma's latest acquisition - a 3.5l plastic bottle of Spanish red wine which cost almost nothing but didn't actually taste too bad. Alarmingly, it looked very similar to their oil bottles and we were hoping we wouldnt get confused after a glass or two...

Brett: We tried to drive into the park the next day, heading along the deserted-looking airstrip, and letting our tyres down before we went on the soft sand. The driving was hard work, even though we have done soft sand driving before, because we were following deep tracks, and winding around the plants or driving through them to avoid the deepest bits. There is dense vegetation either side of the track so not easy to turn round, and very easy to crash into tree stumps. After about 10km, we decided to turn back as we weren't having fun anymore and there was very little chance of seeing anything with the dense bush with all the noise we were making. Heading back along the runway, we saw a plane and helicopter near the unfinished buildings - somebody had obviously arrived while we were exploring. We stopped for a drink at the Hotel L'Ocean restaurant and a supposed police guy came up to check our passports and, I guess, to check we weren't spies. He wasn't wearing a uniform but had on some severely tight jeans, a scruffy tshirt, and massive earphones, and he wouldn't tell us what he wanted. Anyway, he looked through all of our passports without talking to us and then held onto Mary and my passport. He wouldn't give them back and we were getting anoyed, and finally figred out he couldn't find our visas. We tried explaining to him but he wasn't listening to us, so eventually we forced him to talk to the owner of the restaurant who managed to explain in french that South African's don't need visas for Gabon, and that we (and our car) clearly were tourists and not mercenaries. He looked really unimpressed but handed the passports back reluctantly and went into a sulk. What a chop! We camped at the same spot again and made a big bonfire from the piles of drift wood. I hard-wired the power supply for the GPS as the 12V car plugs aren't very good on bumpy roads - the GPS had been turning off every few minutes on the bumpy dirt roads. 

We headed to Lebamba and camped at the local hotel (didn't get the name, but it was the only one). It was a bit pricey (20 USD per car for camping with no facilities), but we really needed to fill up waters etc and they let us use their tap. We drove to the nearby Bongolo Hospital and tried to find the massive caves that are apparently just over the hill from there, but the only guide who knew where to find the entrance didn't want to get dirty on a Sunday, so we moved on. Another potential tourist site that you can't really get to.

The roads to Mbigou were ok, but with lots of sticky clay. We stopped in town and a lady was selling sandwiches, so I asked her to make one with Sauce Arachide (thich groundnut sauce, like spicy peanut butter), for me. She started laughing at the crazy suggestion and asking if I was sure. After a while a crowd started to gather and were all laughing and saying "Really?" or "Now I have seen everything!". It was really fun and I made lots of yummy noises as I ate it in front of them.

We left town the way we came in and the Gendarmerie stopped us and made us come into his office. He wanted to write down all our details, taking an hour, and generally being difficult - we think he was taking a long time on purpose to try to get us to pay him to get finished. He asked lots of stupid questions like "are you married?", "is your wife married?", "do you have children?", "does your wife have children?". He also made a show of having his pistol in his draw pointing towards Mike and couldn't see how it was possible that someone from UK and SA could know each other and be travelling together. Eventually he started saying it was very difficult, and asking us for a cooldrink, but we just said no and he finally finished writing everything out.  It was like a long border crossing - not what you expect when you are just stopping to buy lunch, but I suppose it was because there is a border to the Congo further along that road (not that we were going that way).

The roads from Mbigou to Mimongo were a lot rougher, but very pretty with steep hills and dense forest. We ended up going in convoy with a local family in a Rav4. A tree had fallen across the road, completely blocking it, so we toook a few pictures and then hooked up the tow rope and pulled most of it out of the way - the guys from the Rav4 hacked up the rest with their pangas. They were really impressed with the Beast and offered us a place to stay in their village, but it was quite a lot further on and we didn't make it in the end before dark. Further along the road, I had the locals laughing at me for a second time that day when I climbed out to photograph the thick line of army ants crossing the road. I got a bit distracted by taking the photos and before long they started biting my feet so I was hopping around trying to get them off, with everyone laughing at me.

It was getting dark, so we asked at a Mouela village if we could camp there. They said yes and we drew a massive crowd while we parked up on the side of the road, got the tents out and made dinner. We chatted a bit in broken French and English and they finally went to bed when Mike and Emma gave them a picture of the whole group with their digital poleroid camera. The stars were out so we showed Mike and Emma the Southern Cross and sat looking at fireflies for a while, before heading to bed. We heard a tree falling in the night, along with lots of other spooky noises, and in the morning Mary woke me up to tell me there was a black animal attacking a brown animal in the road - it turned out just to be goats fighting!

The roads from Koulamoutou via Lastoursville to Franceville were tar. On our way into Fraceville, we overtook a huge beaten up lorry full of sand crawling up the hill, and a few km later, coming down the next hill, we stopped at a red traffic light. I looked in the mirror and saw the truck coming towards us. He hooted at us and we assumed he as saying that the traffic light was out and we didn't have to stop, so we checked for traffic and pulled off. As I did that, I saw the truck swerve onto the curb and hit the 1m concrete base of the traffic light - it turns out he couldn't stop in time and was either going to plow into us or the traffic light! A very near miss indeed! My first thought was to stop and check the driver was ok, but then figured that we weren't actually involved and we didn't want to get blamed for him crashing into the traffic light, so we moved on. The locals didn't stop either, but the driver was fine and there were people there to help him anyway. Mike had been behind the truck and estimated it at 20 tons - he had apparently been driving too fast, without engine braking and his brakes had clearly failed. The car would have definitely been written off if he hadn't swerved. Mike drove past the spot the next day and the concrete was already being fixed - even bigger this time.

We camped around the back of the Hotel Poubara for free. It was a fantastic spot, with friendly staff and a great restaurant, wifi and a pool, which is just what we needed. I replaced some of the fuel pipes I did earlier as they weren't good quality rubber and were starting to crack, and greased the prop shaft. I also gave the car a long overdue wash - some of the red mud really sticks! We caught up on our internet chores and then I somehow managed to drop the laptop that Mary's mom lent us, breaking the screen and the hard disk!! We were really devastated - we hardly ever break stuff and it was really frustrating to lose another laptop.

After a few days r&r at the hotel, we headed towards the Congo border. Leaving town, a cop decided to try for a bribe, asking to see all possible documents, hi-vis jackets etc etc. She then invented the need for some metal chocks or something, and another piece of paper which doesn't exist, and refused to speak to us in English even though she could see we were struggling to understand her. (She definitely could speak English, because when we told her we ne comprende pas, she said in English that it wasn't her problem!). Eventually Mike flagged down a passing local car and suggested that she ask the same of them; she got really embarassed and told us to just go.


We had lunch at the stunning Leconi Canyon - it is more like an eroded hill, but has massive upright fin-like eroded rocks and is very pretty. There are 5km of sand tracks to get there and it would be a nice quiet spot to camp, but we wanted to head on and get through both sides of the border. Gabon immigration and customs was at Leconi. Immigration was easy - customs took an hour for the guy to show up from town, but was then easy.




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