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Gabon - Eating and sleeping
It is possible to eat very well in Libreville and Port Gentil if you can afford the international prices. Some of the world’s most popular cuisines are readily available, notably Italian, Chinese and, of course, French. There are French-style boulangeries selling all manner of croissants and pastries, and the supermarkets are stocked with cheeses, wines and even meat and vegetables imported from France. The choice is supplemented by goods imported from Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa. In Libreville, Port Gentil and other places where there are tourist restaurants and hotels, it is usual to find both European and African dishes on menus, and often tasty grillades (barbecued fish or meat) as well.
There are French-style boulangeries selling all manner of croissants and pastries, and the supermarkets are stocked with cheeses, wines and even meat and vegetables imported from France.
In smaller towns and out-of-the-way places there may be a handful of small African restaurants or maquis. These tend to be Senegalese or Cameroonian, and the best serve generous portions of good food for not very much money. No meal is complete without piment, a very hot sauce made of peppers and herbs. Fish lovers will be in heaven in Gabon as fresh fish is available all over the country, from upmarket restaurants to a local maquis.
The quickest and cheapest sources of prepared food, however, are les bédoumeuses. These are the women selling doughnuts, small brochettes of meat and filled baguettes on the street. Amazingly, fresh baguettes are sold every morning in just about every market in the country, no matter how remote. French baguettes are one of the Gabonese staples, alongside smoked or salted fish, manioc, plantain and rice.
‘Chocolate’ consists in fact of crushed, fermented odika seeds.
Typical sauces are prepared with arachides (peanuts), nyembwe (the pulp of palm nuts) or odika (an oil-producing seed also known as chocolat). ‘Chocolate’ consists in fact of crushed, fermented odika seeds. This paste of crushed seeds is stuffed into plastic bottles used as molds, and dried until the ‘chocolate’ is solid. This can be used immediately or stored for future use. If this exceeds your culinary skills, you can also buy ready-made ‘chocolate’ in the big supermarkets in Libreville.
Bushmeat – antelope, porcupine, monkey, snake and so on – has traditionally been an important part of the Gabonese diet. Attitudes are slowly changing, largely because of the bad publicity of Ebola fever and growing awareness about endangered animals. Vegetarians will probably end up relying on omelettes, hard-boiled eggs and avocados (if they are in season) for protein if they are travelling outside of Libreville. In the capital they will be able to vary their diet with pizzas and the occasional pasta dish.
To be on the safe side, it is better not to drink the tap water in Gabon unless you have water-purifying tablets. Bottled water is widely available, as are soft drinks (usually referred to as jus) like Coca-Cola, Sprite and Fanta, beers, wines and spirits. Drinking is an extremely popular pastime and, particularly in rural areas, it’s often easier to find a bar than something to eat.
The local beer Régab, a light lager sold in 65cl bottles, is good value. Its brewery, the Société de Brasseries du Gabon (Sobraga, owned by the French Groupe Castel), is one of the country’s biggest employers. Sobraga also brews Guinness, 33 Export, Castel and Beaufort under licence. Count on paying 500CFA for a Régab in the local wooden shack, rising to 1,000CFA in a mid-range bar or restaurant, and over 1,500CFA in an upmarket hotel or restaurant.
In rural areas, the ubiquitous palm wine is the usual tipple. It’s cheap and easy to produce by extracting the sap from a wine palm and leaving it six to eight hours to ferment. The alcohol percentage is around 4,5%.
There’s no shortage of hotels in Libreville, a handful of which conform to an international standard of luxury tourist hotels, with the price tags to match. In Libreville the problem lies at the opposite end of the scale, in finding a cheap hotel. Most hotel rooms, in whatever price category, have en-suite facilities, double bed, and choice of fan or air conditioning.
Budget travellers are hard pushed to find a hotel bed for less than 15,000CFA a night. Outside the capital, the urban norm in Franceville, Port Gentil and Lambaréné is for there to be one or two would-be luxury hotels (with swimming pool, nightclub, restaurant and room service) and many more middle-range ones (usually with a bar-restaurant). Port Gentil is also unique in the sheer number of its self-catering apartments. These are essentially hotels made up of self-contained, furnished flats – one or more bedrooms, bathroom, sitting room, kitchenette – that are charged on a nightly or monthly basis.
Safari accommodation tends to be of a good standard, with attractive solid wooden cabins or tented huts, mosquito nets and running water (not always hot). There may be lighting at certain hours of the day when the generator is operating. At the cheapest end of the scale are cases de passage, which are simple establishments with normally fewer than five rooms at 5,000CFA a night or even less. These are used by truck drivers, sometimes double as brothels, and can be very rowdy. The best have clean sheets, a fan and either a shared shower room or a bucket of water in each room. Toilets – often outside and often long-drops – are always shared.
Every town has at least one case de passage, often in the market. Just ask. Cases de passage and some hotels have a rate for repos (rest) for use of the room during the day. Although not always centrally located, mission houses with rooms for visitors are a good bet for just a little bit more than a case de passage. Rooms are invariably clean and good value, and sometimes there are facilities for cooking. Often there are gardens in which you can pitch a tent. It’s possible to cross Gabon hopping from mission to mission.
If you find yourself in a village in need of a place to sleep, then ask the village chief to help. Chances are he will be very welcoming, inviting you to eat, putting a hut at your disposal or finding you a place to pitch your tent if you have one. If you are able to contribute to the meal with food or wine, or even better, whisky, the gesture will be much appreciated. Having your own tent is invaluable for anyone intending to spend prolonged periods in out-of-the-way places, such as the forest. Unauthorised camping is not allowed in protected areas. Anywhere else, just check with whoever seems appropriate, such as the village chief.