January 4, 2016 by Rob Gardiner
I awoke after a rest-free rest day feeling shattered. Hardly buzzing with excitement about setting off into the Forest of Bees, I quietly reminded myself that I was meant to be on holiday. Craving sleep more than cycling, I went back to bed and resolved to catch the train out of Lope.
This left me with two days of relaxation before the next train stopped at Lope’s tiny station. After a day of contented sloth, I felt refreshed. The following day, I returned to my usual ways and hiked to the top of nearby Mount Brazza – named after the famous explorer, Savorgnan de Brazza – before setting out on a final evening game drive in the park.
Although I had appreciated the brief glimpse of a forest elephant that I had got whilst walking in the park, I still yearned for a better look at these fascinating creatures. For an hour and a half, we drove through the park’s magnificent landscape, scanning the tree line for grey shapes and peering down into boggy watering holes for signs of movement. Led by Rémy, the only English-speaking guide, I was kept entertained, but the park’s pacheoderms remained elusive.
Eventually, we rounded a corner and, in the distance, a pair of distinct grey shapes moved, accompanied by an almost invisible third mass. Two adult elephants were dining on rich marsh grass, alongside a juvenile. Leaving the 4×4 behind, we crept closer, getting as near as we dared. Bravery personified, Rémy led the way barefoot, and without even a pair of secateurs to defend himself. We reached the edge of the savannah, looking down on to the marshland, and held our breath as the elephants continued their dinner, blissfully unaware of our presence.
It was a remarkable experience, and made me exceptionally glad that I had chosen to stay longer in Lope. Boarding the train later that evening, I contentedly waited as my next destination, Franceville, grew slowly nearer.
Avoiding the Forest of Bees had meant reversing my intended route, with the need for an ATM also a fairly important factor. Franceville is Gabon’s southern hub, positioned within striking distance of the Congolese border and the final point on the country’s main road. Spread over a series of lush hillsides, this quiet collection of buildings hardly felt like a city at all. I stayed only long enough to replenish my wallet, before striking northwest, towards the town of Moanda.
Now heading back in the direction of Lope, the road took me through a hilly landscape that seemed less thickly forested. It was also noticeably cooler. Although I was only a couple of hundred metres higher, the air seemed more pleasant and less humid. Suddenly, I could cycle in the afternoon without feeling like I might have a heart attack. It was quite a relief.
Moanda was nothing more than an unglamorous steppingstone – well positioned for reaching my next target, Bakoumba. The town was an odd place, with everything owned and run by the local mining corporation, COMILOG. And it was one of their pet projects that I was headed to next. Near to Bakoumba lay Le Parc de la Lékédi, a private game reserve that was set up by the mining corporation.
But first, I had to make my way south, through the thickening jungle, to Bakoumba. Whilst it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the road was mainly asphalt, an endless succession of ups and downs meant an exhausting morning of cycling. The road followed the creeper-clad pylons from the old cable car, which used to carry manganese from Moanda to the Congo. Now they were firmly the property of the jungle. In addition to these out-of-place, steel structures, there were a succession of graves that dotted the verges. It seemed that the roadside also doubled as a cemetery.
Eventually, I made it to Bakoumba and had a chance to explore Lékédi. Whilst this reserve played host to an odd collection of creatures – including orphaned chimpanzees and gorillas – it was the habituated mandrills that I was most interested in seeing.
These rare monkeys are found in only a handful of places, with Lékédi one of the few locations where it is possible to get close to them. When the reserve was created, a captive group of mandrills, complete with radio collars, were released to breed with the wild population. The result was semi-wild mandrills that were relatively easy to track and comfortable around humans.
Setting out into the forest, I was led by a guide with a tracking antenna. It took some time to locate the mandrills, but finally they appeared in a raucous group. Remarkable for their colourful faces, they also had particularly fine fur that seemed to shimmer as the light hit it. I stayed for half an hour, content to watch as these odd monkeys ate, played and relaxed around me.
But soon I had to return to the bike, and make my way onwards. Unfortunately, my uncooperative body took this opportunity to attempt to derail my plans further. A painful swelling had developed on the side of my face overnight and, thanks to the expedition doctor, I was soon informed that I had a form of cellulitis. Whilst I felt fine, this meant that I had to stay close to medical facilities. Therefore, I headed back towards the main road, rather than taking the narrow, jungle-lined tracks that skirted the Congolese border.
Passing through Moanda once again, I pressed on for the COMILOG-free town of Mounana. Confident that there would be somewhere to stay, I was soon sorely disappointed. It was New Year’s Day, which, I discovered, is a day of non-stop partying in Gabon. Everything was closed and people were too busy eating and drinking to be of much help. Fortunately, a friendly gendarme, named Felix, promised to find me a bed for the night.
As is typical in these situations, there was a lot of sitting around with me unaware of what was going on, but hopeful that he would pull something out of the bag. And he did. But not before he had cracked open a beer (he was on duty), tried to set me up with a couple of passing teenage girls and showed me some rather racy photos of his girlfriend.
However, he was good to his word and I soon had a place to sleep in an odd rest house. Hoping I could finally get some rest, after an exhausting day, I was perplexed to find that elderly owner and her grandson were adamant that I was not allowed to go to sleep yet.
After running out of things to do and still rather baffled by what was happening, I insisted I must go to bed. Then, I finally discovered that they were attempting to hold the air-conditioning remote control ransom, but they had been completely unable to convey this to me. Of course, they were keen for me to cough up before I slept. Within minutes I had happily paid half the requested ransom and was thankfully able to escape their company. (In case anyone is keen on repeating this money-making enterprise, I advise that you check your target understands French sufficiently to comprehend your demands. Otherwise you will reach the same bizarre impasse that this slow-witted duo did.)
The next morning, I set out just after dawn, leaving Mounana and its eccentric inhabitants behind. Mist hung over the jungle as I began another day of tortuous ups and downs. Sweat poured off me as I tackled innumerable 10% inclines, only to hurtle down the other side each time. But I enjoyed this rollercoaster ride, as I wound my way through a succession of small villages, interspersed with forest that hummed with life.
I was just getting into the rhythm of cycling in this challenging country, but it was all soon to be over. As the Ogooue River again came into sight, I flew downwards towards the town of Lastourville. This was to be my final destination and where I would catch the train back to Libreville.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the train, contemplating a strange, exciting and exhausting couple of weeks. Gabon certainly isn’t made for cycling – in fact I have only seen three other bicycles – but it has still been a curious, enthralling and wild country to ride through.