Whilst Gabon's reputation for excellent wildlife-spotting opportunities is well-deserved, the country boasts many other notable sites and activities. Here are our top five must-sees in Gabon.
Journey on the Trans-Gabon Railway
The 670km-long Transgabonais railway streches from west to east for 660km through the forest © Stuart Jarvis
The Transgabonais (Trans-Gabon Railway) is Gabon's only railway and is the economic backbone of the country, linking the capital to rural areas. Former president Albert-Bernard Bongo was ambitious and wanted to improve the country's international profile. For him the Trans-Gabon Railway was a symbol of Gabon as a modern, progressive state. Work on the railway started at Owendo, 20km south of Libreville, in December 1973. The final section was finished in December 1987, not at the iron deposits in the northeast as had originally been planned, but in the southeast, at Franceville. The official reason why Bongo had changed the route was to transport the Haut-Ogooué’s manganese and uranium to the coast. To many it looked more like a thinly veiled attempt to contain the power of the Fang, the prominent ethnic group in the north, while favouring the Batéké, Bongo’s own people, in the southeast.
Study rock engravings in Lopé
More than 1,500 Iron Age rock engravings have been found in and around Parc National de la Lopé © Stuart Jarvis
Lopé is the location of several of Gabon’s most important archaeological sites. About 15km downriver by motorised pirogue from the Lopé Hôtel (where the excursion can be arranged), Kongomboumba is the landing point for a walking tour of rock engravings that attest to man’s presence here in the Iron Age (2200–1800bc). Once on the river, you can really appreciate the strength of the majestic Ogooué, where an experienced captain is essential. The river seems calm but is nonetheless merciless; the simple memorial to a French army officer next to the swimming pool is proof. He went swimming in the waters in front of the hotel and drowned; his body was never found. According to staff, the seemingly feminine rock in front of the hotel could be partly responsible, as it’s believed to be a mermaid. Found in a small savannah area of great beauty on the banks of the Ogooué, the reason for the engravings is difficult to guess at, although it’s possible that they, and the hollows carved in some of the rocks, have a sacred significance. Of the 1,500 rock engravings discovered in and around the reserve between 1987 and 1993, three-quarters are abstract and symbolic designs. The concentric circular designs in particular, also found elsewhere in Africa, are typically Bantu.
Marvel at the Léconi Canyons
Strictly speaking the formations here are not canyons, but semicircular craters © Boris Kester
The three canyons known as the Cirques de Léconi (Léconi Canyons) are individually named after their colours (red, white and green). Canyon Rouge is the most visited of three and is reported to be the prettiest, but if you have enough time you can also visit Canyon Blanc and Canyon Vert. The canyons are vast eroded craters, punctuated by craggy fingers of rock festooned with greenery, and at sunset the rocks glow gold and red. According to local belief, the canyons are the home of rapacious spirits and those who enter will never return.
Climb Mount Brazza
Mount Brazza is named after the explorer Savorgnan de Brazza, whose European expedition was the first to arrive in Gabon in 1875, after protracted negotiations with the local Okandé people. The actual ascent isn’t especially strenuous, taking about an hour to the antenna at the top. The climb is best done in the afternoon, when you’ve got a higher chance of enjoying expansive views over the Ogooué and the forest-savannah patchwork of the park below (mornings often find the summit shrouded in mist). The pond at the foot of the mountain attracts numerous birds.
Cross the thrilling cable bridge in Lékédi Park
The impressive cable bridge in Parc de la Lékédi offers a breathtaking perspective on the forest below © Kapuska, Shutterstock
Lékédi Park owes its conception and creation to the mining company COMILOG, which decided to set up the park in 1990. By 1959, COMILOG had started work on the construction of a 76km téléphérique (cableway) designed to transport manganese from Moanda to Mbinda in the Congo. From Mbinda a train carried the manganese to waiting boats at Pointe-Noire, but after just 30 years of operation the cableway (and its hundreds of workers) became redundant, due to the arrival of the Transgabonais railway in 1986. As compensation and an alternative source of income, COMILOG created the Société d’Exploitation du Parc de la Lékédi (SODEPAL). Visitors can cross the pont de câble (cable bridge), which stretches for 365m above the forest canopy of the Mioula Valley and is made of ten cables, a direct attempt to re-use the skills of COMILOG workers in setting up the park. From the bridge you have a great view of the chimpanzees that roam the sanctuary below. Although visitors should be aware that some smart chimps have discovered how to access the bridge and use these skills to have a good look at the visiting tourists.
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