With Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Africa, click here.
Gabon’s medical facilities are relatively good. Most hospitals are public, but in the main cities (Libreville, Port-Gentil and Franceville) there are some good private clinics. The best known is without doubt Lambaréné’s Albert Schweitzer Hospital, but better equipped to deal with emergencies are Port-Gentil’s Clinique Mandji or Libreville’s Polyclinique El-Rapha Clinique. Be aware that few doctors speak English. If you are not confident of your language level, you might want to enlist the help of someone to act as your translator. Note that consultation fees and laboratory tests are comparable to those in most Western countries. The US Embassy maintains a list of doctors here.
Pharmacies are omnipresent in larger cities and towns and commonly required medicines such as broad-spectrum antibiotics are widely available throughout the region, as are malaria cures and prophylactics. If you are on any medication prior to departure, or you have specific needs relating to a known medical condition (for instance if you are allergic to bee stings or prone to attacks of asthma), then you are strongly advised to bring any related drugs and devices with you. Sadly, there is a problem with counterfeiting drugs in Africa, Gabon included, so while pharmacists will be selling medicines in good faith, you would be wise to carry anything that you know you will need with you.
Sensible preparation will go a long way to ensuring your trip goes smoothly. Particularly for first-time visitors to Africa, this includes a visit to a travel clinic to discuss matters such as vaccinations and malaria prevention. A list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available. For other journey preparation information, consult Travel Health Pro (UK) or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA). Information about various medications may be found on Net Doctor. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel. The Bradt website now carries a health updates page to help travellers prepare for their African trip.
Although Gabon is, by and large, a safe country in which few travellers experience any problems, it doesn’t hurt to remain cautious and be prepared for potential dangers.
Contrary to what you might expect, tropical disease, most notably malaria, poses the biggest safety threat at any time of year.
Serious crime, such as muggings and hold-ups, are comparatively rare, but travellers should guard against petty crime. As is the case anywhere in the world, pickpocketing and bag snatching can be a problem in busy areas like markets, buses and train stations. It’s also worth being cautious in poorer areas and on isolated beaches, particularly around Libreville, and avoid walking on any beach at night. If you’re headed to any of these places, it’s best to take a few sensible precautions: keeping valuables safely stashed or – better yet – not bringing them at all. For the essentials you are carrying, simply work to make them less accessible – think money belt and front (buttoned) pockets.
Outside of Libreville and Port-Gentil, expect attention from men and women alike – many locals will simply be curious about who you are, where you come from, where you are going and, above all, why you are alone.
Taxis in Gabonese cities operate like public transport and are the easiest and most common way of getting around town, picking up passengers heading in the same direction until the car is full. Take taxis in the bigger towns and cities rather than walk and be sure to use authorised taxis only. The driver’s ID should be hanging from the rear-view mirror. After dark it is better to avoid share taxis and pay for a private ride (une course). It’s even safer to book a taxi through a restaurant or hotel.
Road travel in Gabon can be challenging and even dangerous. Owing to the lethal combination of hazardous road conditions and risky driving, accidents are common. You can lessen risks by avoiding reckless and/or drunken drivers, ill-maintained vehicles and travelling by road at night.
Carry your passport with you at all times, particularly when travelling. Random controls are a feature of life in Gabon and foreigners can be a lucrative target. You may even hear some unpleasant stories of nights spent in jails for those without papers. These may not be usual (or may not even be true), but it’s simply not worth the risk.
As soon as you leave or enter a town by road, you will encounter several checkpoints. Firstly, passengers will often have their identification checked, and visitors will be asked to show their passport, visa and yellow fever certificate (or some combination of the three), so have these documents ready and in order. Secondly, the police will verify that all vehicles have a fire extinguisher and first-aid kit, and that all drivers have a licence, registration and proof of insurance. Often a quick look will suffice, but some officials tend to carry out a more detailed search, sometimes searching for a pretext in which to solicit a bribe. Traveller reports on this are mixed – some find the checkpoints chronically corrupt and an interminable hassle, while others seem to breeze through with a bit of better luck. Since 2011, police officers have been required to wear a badge with an identity number to aid citizens seeking to report extortion attempts. As anywhere, make sure you and your vehicle’s paperwork are in order, stay calm, polite and smiling, and you’ll be waved through – at some point.
Ecotourism is generally safe; however, be sure to use reputable guides who know the forest or rivers well, as fake guides posing as experts put their clients’ (and their own) lives in danger. Do not venture away from your organised tour group.
In the unlucky event that something happens, don’t expect miracles from the police: their response is often slow. They may do little or nothing to help, or may even request a payment to listen to you. For police assistance, call 01 76 55 85 in Libreville and 07 36 22 25 in Port-Gentil. If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 1300 or 1399, pray that somebody will pick up the phone, and ask for an ambulance.
It’s essential to organise comprehensive travel insurance that covers medical complications, including an emergency flight home. The cost of travel insurance is based on a number of factors such as the type of cover requested, the age of the insured, the destination of travel, length of stay and any pre-existing medical conditions. A wide range of policies are available so shop around. Bear in mind that you may have to pay for medical treatment on the spot (and that this can be very expensive in Gabon) and claim later, so keep all documentation.
Travelling alone in Gabon does not pose any particular security problems for women; although, as anywhere in the world, there are always drageurs (scoundrels) on the prowl.
Generally speaking, Gabonese men may try to flirt, but usually a (fictitious) boyfriend or husband does the trick in losing their attention. And the extra attention you may receive will tend to be more annoying than dangerous. It’s worth noting that in Gabon, revealing dress will increase the amount of this type of attention you receive.
In December 2008, Gabon co-sponsored and signed the nonbinding UN declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity, calling for the global decriminalisation of homosexuality – one of only six African countries to do so. Homosexuality is not explicitly illegal (in contrast to most African countries) but is definitely frowned upon. Discrimination is a problem and many people turn away from gay individuals who are open about their sexual identity. Predictably, you won’t find a vibrant gay scene here.
Travelling with a disability
Gabon has no infrastructure that suits visitors with disabilities. There are no laws for providing access to transportation, buildings or services, and few buildings in the main cities have disabled access. Only the more luxurious buildings have lifts. Staff at hotels are generally not used to taking care of visitors with specific needs, and disability awareness still has some way to go.
Travelling with children
The Gabonese love children and will go out of their way to help you get by, but pushchairs are rare and you may have difficulty manoeuvring them in and out of buildings and along non-existent pavements and/or dirt roads. Baby milk is widely available, as are nappies, although for some mysterious reason the quality may be lower than that which the same brand offers at home. For older kids, Gabon’s beaches and national parks offer countless exciting things to do. Check with tour operators where and when to go, as the less-visited parks may be a bit too rough and some excursions may have age limits.
Children can also be more vulnerable to some health risks, such as malaria, so ensure you are well prepared and that you take all medical precautions