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Gabon - The author’s take
When I mentioned to relatives and friends I was going to be writing a travel guide to Gabon, some hesitantly questioned if there are many travellers to write that guide for. It’s true that until now foreign appreciation has been predominantly confined to expats and people travelling Africa overland, but under the new president Ali Bongo, Gabon is serious about unlocking its ecotourism potential. Dubbed ‘the land of the surfing hippo’ or ‘Africa’s Eden’, the country aims to attract 100,000 high- and middle-end visitors by 2020. Gabon’s national parks protect over 12% of the country and the government has recently taken up the battle against poaching by creating well-trained, effective anti-poach brigades. In 2012 the president publicly destroyed the country’s ivory stocks.
As the country has so many beautiful places waiting to be discovered by adventurers and nature-lovers, and while ecotourism can also be the key to sustainable nature and wildlife conservation, I hope that this Bradt guide will contribute to the promotion of tourism and lead others to grow to love this exceptional country too. In fact, little-visited Gabon has everything to become Africa’s next big ecotourism destination, while the fact that it isn’t a mainstream holiday destination yet only adds to its attraction. Not only is it exciting to travel in this pristine region off the tourist radar, but also the hassle of other safari destinations is totally lacking. Without a dozen minibuses crowding around one lion, there’s actually something left to explore.
Dubbed ‘the land of the surfing hippo’ or ‘Africa’s Eden’, the country aims to attract 100,000 high- and middle-end visitors by 2020.
The main part of the country, over 80%, is covered in dense rainforest, and the remainder is savannah and coastline, and for each of these habitats Gabon has the wildlife to match. This is a country where gorillas and elephants can be caught on camera on the same stretch of beach – although a healthy dose of patience is obligatory. At the same time birders are guaranteed to leave satisfied, as they will surely spot many of the almost 700 species recorded for the country.
Gabon is an oasis of stability and prosperity in a region that has had more than its fair share of tension and violence. The discovery of oil has boosted the economy and its main cities are modern with high rises. The country enjoys one of the highest GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa (although far from equally divided) and you will notice more fancy cars on the streets of Libreville than in a random European capital.
Gabon not only possesses a huge wealth of natural treasures, it also maintains a rich tradition of pre-Christian animist culture, including mystical ceremonies and initiation rites. One of the secret societies that appeals most to the imagination is Bwiti, whose initiates eat the hallucinogenic shrub of the iboga to facilitate contact with their ancestors and deepen their understanding of life. True, getting around Gabon isn’t exactly a stroll in the park. It is an expensive country (although prices of flights dropped by more than 50% after Turkish Airlines accessed the market), and the infrastructure and tourist facilities are basic, and in more remote places simply non-existent.
In fact, little-visited Gabon has everything to become Africa’s next big ecotourism destination, while the fact that it isn’t a mainstream holiday destination yet only adds to its attraction.
Travelling in Gabon can feel like hard work, but the rewards are great. The Gabonese travel around a lot to see friends and family, particularly in the holidays, and the atmosphere is invariably fun and friendly. This is Africa at its purest, where you can still enjoy wildlife and breathtaking natural beauty while having the place to yourself. It can’t take long before the 100,000 tourists arrive – so now is the perfect time to go.
As a 12-year-old, I wanted to save the world and tried to do this by raising money for the rainforest. I annoyed all grown-ups around me with endless stories about the forest’s importance, until they bribed me to skittle off. When time and resources finally permitted, I took off to Africa to see the forest with my own eyes. Raving about the unparalleled beauty of this magnificent ecosystem, I have probably become even more annoying ever since.
When I first visited Gabon in 2006, I thought it the most beautiful country in the world. Never before I had seen such an unspoilt wilderness, where century-old trees line deserted white beaches and majestic rivers teem with wildlife and, allegedly, sirènes (mermaids). Unfortunately for me, it was also the most expensive country to which I had ever been. At the time, we were travelling on a tight budget, and I remember sleeping in hotels with two in one single bed to lower the costs of accommodation. At one point things got so bad that we had to choose between a decent dinner or a couple of drinks. I chose the dinner and my companion went for the drinks.
When I first visited Gabon in 2006, I thought it the most beautiful country in the world.
Unsurprisingly, this trip didn’t last too long, but I’ve kept going back, every time discovering cheaper ways to explore the country. Gabon has never received many visitors. However, things are about to change with the country’s ambitious development programme. Gabon’s strategy is to diversify its economy and become less oil-dependent by developing the country’s ‘green oil’ through a focus on ecotourism. Seeing conservation as an essential part of economic development, the country aims to become the gateway to equatorial Africa. Tourists will play a key role in the conservation of one of the world’s largest remaining rainforests.
I’m grateful to Bradt for believing in the potential of Gabon, and my hope is that the Bradt guide will help to put this place of exceptional beauty and biodiversity on the map as an ideal destination for nature lovers and adventurers. Although it’s not cheap, by visiting the country’s national parks, you are contributing directly to their much-needed protection.