December 28, 2015 by Rob Gardiner
Sleep deprived and disoriented, I arrived in Gabon after a mammoth air journey that had begun 36 hours before, in Reykjavik. Still recovering from Steppes’ annual Christmas trip, I fell into a Libreville taxi and headed to my hotel. I was so tired that even the sight of cockroach scuttling out of sight as I entered my £50-a-night hotel room did not faze me.
A couple of days of acclimatisation followed. But I soon escaped the city, cycling at a modest pace in the challenging conditions. Making use of asphalted roads, I quickly left urbanity behind and entered more rural surroundings. The roadside was dotted with villages, but the beginnings of the jungle started to appear in between. My first target was the village of Lope, beside Lope National Park, which I hoped to reach in three days.
The highlight of this flat, well paved stretch was my brief encounter with an eccentric Gabonese lady who was keen to discuss English culture with me. As I sipped a mercifully cold bottle of Coke, she asked me about England. It transpired that her love for my country seemed to be based largely in fiction – she loved Merlin and was keen to see our native elves.
On the other hand, she was very damning of Americans. First of all, they were too loud, she complained – hardly a revelatory remark. But she also declared that they were “trop sexy”, and this complaint was accompanied by her shaking her posterior in a somewhat provocative fashion. I looked suitably shocked, before escaping further conversation by returning to my bike.
Awakening at dawn the next day, I celebrated the birth of Christ by getting up and cycling some more. After a couple of hours, I reached my well earned present, the equator. Having never cycled across the equator, it was a pleasant surprise to be doing it on the morning of Christmas Day.
As I rode onwards, I was greeted with innumerable cries of “Joyeux Noël”. Whilst this was pleasant and very friendly, I was more appreciative of Gabon’s Muslims, who were happy to feed me on what was a normal day for them.
Leaving the main road and heading further east, I soon joined a much quieter road. Still asphalted, it began to wind its way into ever thicker jungle. The noises of birds and monkeys increased, as the traffic decreased. I began to really appreciate the density and scale of Gabon’s forests – unbroken walls of green appeared on either side, often encroaching on the asphalt.
Unfortunately, after only a couple of hours, the sun still burned strong in the sky, without a rain cloud in sight. At the same point, the hills began and I started a rollercoaster journey of up and down, sweating in the intolerable heat. It was at this moment that my festive joy began to wear off slightly.
Struggling on, I soon began to suffer. My heart and head pounded, agonising pins and needles spread through my limbs and my lungs tightened. Sapped of energy and battling the heat, I was desperate for a village to appear around the next bend. But one never arrived.
Taking frequent breaks in the shade, I eventually made it to town of Ndjole. After a fantastic, carefree morning of cycling, I had only just scraped over the line. The last few hours ranked amongst the most unpleasant I had experienced on a bike, but I was relieved to have made it. In the process, I had covered 136 kilometres and climbed almost 1,500 metres. Not bad for a day that I usually associated with obscene gluttony.
Aware that I had overdone it, I was equally aware that I needed to get to Lope by the evening of Boxing Day. This was always going to be a challenge with the asphalt about to end, but it was made worse by an extra 20 kilometres appearing out of the ether. This left me with 140 kilometres of cycling to do – a mammoth task.
Resigned that I might be hitching, I set off towards Lope at dawn the next day. After a couple of hours, I turned off the main road, crossed a narrow bridge and began to tackle the dirt road into Lope. The landscape started to change and, after some slow climbing, I found myself entering a different terrain. Forest was interspersed with verdant grasslands, whilst small hills rose steeply above the vast Ogooué River.
Grinding onwards over a bumpy surface, I eventually reached the desolate town of Junckville. Tracking down some of the aged inhabitants, I managed to purchase a soft drink. My attempts to buy bread or any other food proved in vain. Feeling a little disheartened, but still relishing the landscape, I trundled out of Junckville.
Soon, however, the reality began to sink in. As the heat rose, a familiar feeling returned to my body. But at this point, I had only been passed by three convoys of vehicles all day. After another hour of cycling, I sought the shade of the trees and decided to wait.
Fortunately, it only took 15 minutes for a pair of friendly French families to arrive on the scene. Before I knew it, my bike was attached to the top of a Land Rover and I was bouncing along with air conditioning cooling my overheated body.
However, my body was not the only thing suffering in this tough environment. The Land Rover died 30 kilometres from Lope, leaving me with the real possibility of having to start pedalling again. Luckily, a push start managed to revive it and it survived the remaining distance. I arrived in Lope relieved and relishing the chance to explore one of Gabon’s most accessible national parks.
Rather than rest my weary legs, the next morning I set out on a guided walk through a forested area of the park. Accompanied by a pair of French expatriate teachers, I watched as our guide ambled out of the village bar, cigarettes in hand. I immediately likened him to every washed-up cowboy in Western movies, who still manages to be the fastest draw around, in spite of appearances.
Armed only with a pair of secateurs (I’m not lying), we made our way into the jungle of Lope National Park. After an hour, I was starting to doubt my analogy, and beginning to wonder if we really had just picked up the local drunk. But all of a sudden, the forest seemed to come to life. In the space of a few minutes, a red river hog appeared ahead of us, a troop of monkeys flew through the trees above and then – finally – a lone forest elephant ambled through the undergrowth. It gave us just a glimpse, before crashing off to safety.
It was all too fast for photos, but amidst the tree trunks, vines and dense foliage, it was as good as I could expect. Satisfied, I left the forest with the sounds of ants teeming over dead leaves and the calls of monkeys still echoing in my ears. Next stop is the Foret D’Abeilles (Forest of Bees), en route to Franceville, where my cycling will end.