Get up close with the residents of the gorilla sanctuary on an island in Langue Fernan Vaz.
A trip to the Fernan Vaz Lagoon is one of the highlights of any exploration of the Ogooué-Maritime region and, with the opening of the new road from Port-Gentil, it is more accessible than ever. The setting is delightfully dramatic, with the lagoon’s dark waters ringed by an impossibly green and vegetated shore. The lagoon takes its name from the Portuguese sailor Fernão Vaz, who discovered it at the end of the 15th century, but its most famous landmark, the Mission Sainte-Anne and its rust-red église, dates from four centuries later. Today, the lagoon is also home to the commendable Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project, which has been caring for orphaned gorillas since 2001.
Omboué is the jumping-off point for the area’s main attractions. While it’s a sleepy town of just 2,000 people, the facilities here are surprisingly good and it’s got a fetching location on the west coast of the lagoon, where boat trips, jet skis and other watersports are available.
About 12km from Omboué as the crow flies, Île Evengué-Ezango (Evengué-Ezango Island), popularly known as Île aux Gorilles (Gorilla Island), is the location of the Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project (PGFA) (admission 10,000CFA foreigners, 5,000CFA children, free for nationals), initiated in 2001 when a family of orphaned gorillas was transferred from the Centre International de Recherches Médicales de Franceville (Franceville International Centre for Medical Research; CIRMF) to the island. The project runs a sanctuary and reintroduction centre. The four gorillas in the sanctuary, a forested enclosure on the island, act as conservation ambassadors to help educate national and international visitors to Evengué-Ezango on the plight of great apes. The rehabilitation centre is located on nearby Île Oriquet (Oriquet Island), away from human exposure, where eight orphaned gorillas currently reside. The aim is to reintroduce them back into the wild. The PGFA base camp is located at Mpando (on the mainland) just 600m across from Oriquet Island. Visits generally last about 90 minutes, including a short introduction to the centre.
Set at the tip of a headland where the Fernan Vaz Lagoon slowly begins to narrow into the Mpivié River, the Mission Sainte-Anne is only about 18km from Omboué as the crow flies, but the lost-in-time ambiance here feels much, much further. The church was built in 1889, the same year as the Eiffel Tower, and, unlikely as it may seem, there’s actually a connection. Look no further than Gustav Eiffel himself, who shipped the plans and materials all the way from Paris at the behest of Mrs Bichet, the mother of Sainte- Anne’s founding priest and a wealthy woman with Paris connections. The church stands tall and elegant, the metal worn to a deep, rusty red over the years.
In addition to touring the mission, you can take guided walks in the surrounding forest or along the beach (where you can also go for a dip) and visit some of the surrounding villages. Most visitors arrive by boat on a day tour with one of the hotels in Omboué, but it’s also theoretically accessible on some 50km of unsurfaced roads and sandy tracks (4×4 only) connecting the mission to Omboué. Ask locally for advice on the route if you’re planning on going this way. If you’d like to spend the night, the mission offers basic accommodation in rather austere first-floor rooms built of wood.