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Gabon - Travel and visas
Needless to say, you must ensure you have a valid passport, and one that is not due to expire for at least six months. An International Certificate of Vaccination against yellow fever is also necessary for entry into Gabon and is the first thing to be checked upon arrival. Visas are required for all travellers and the application process can be quite challenging if you’re not a ‘luxury tourist’ (those who book a package via a travel agent or tour operator). These tourists will automatically have their visa arranged for them as part of the trip’s services.
If flying into Gabon independently, you will either need to apply for a visa at one of Gabon’s notoriously unfriendly embassies before departure or use the services of a travel agency to arrange the necessary paperwork. The latter is a bit more expensive but will save you lots of hassle, time and energy. The tour operator will provide you with a letter of authorisation issued by the Ministry of Immigration, that allows you to buy a visa for €70 upon arrival at the airport. All can be arranged through email.
At a European embassy a three months’ tourist’s visa costs €100, and depending on which embassy you go to, you will probably also need to attach a couple of passport-sized photos, photocopies of your airline ticket, proof of health insurance and confirmation of your accommodation, such as a hotel booking covering at least the first night(s) of a trip. An absolute minimum of five working days should be allowed for a visa application to be processed, but this varies between embassies.
Applicants for a business visa will need a formal invitation letter from their company plus the above mentioned documentation. It is usually easier and cheaper to obtain a visa from a Gabonese embassy in one the neighbouring countries (around 50,000CFA), so if you are crossing overland, you can apply either in Yaoundé, Cameroon, or in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. Sometimes visas may even be available at the border, but don’t rely on it.
If you are intending to leave the country and then return – for example to go to São Tomé – you should apply for a multiple-entry visa, although there is no guarantee that you’ll get one. If when you fly back from São Tomé you are connecting to an international flight then a single-entry visa for Gabon is sufficient. Once in Gabon, visa issues are dealt with by the Ministry of Immigration, but in the first instance it might be advisable to talk to a travel agent.
If you are leaving from Europe, your choice is between Air France, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, Royal Air Maroc or Ethiopian Airlines, which means flying via Paris, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Casablanca or Addis Ababa respectively. There’s no direct flight from London. Direct flight time from Paris is about seven hours. Since Turkish Airlines entered the market in February 2013, ticket prices have dropped significantly and you can now fly for under €700, depending on the city of departure.
From North America Ethiopian Airlines runs direct flights between Libreville and Washington. There are regular flights to Gabon from other African countries such as South Africa, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Cameroon, Kenya and Ethiopia.
If you enter Gabon overland, the surest and cheapest approach is to have obtained your visa from your home country in advance. Although it may sometimes be possible, do not rely on being able to purchase a visa upon arrival at the border. The two most popular routes from the Republic of the Congo into the northeast of Gabon lead to the Gabonese towns of Ekata (customs office in Mékambo) and Mazingo. Travellers coming from Congo’s Odzala National Park normally use the first route, while those coming from Ouésso are better off going to Mazingo. If you come from Congo’s Okoyo, you can take the (rather bad) road to the border at Oyo, and continue to Léconi in the east of Gabon.
Popular with overlanders arriving from Dolisie in Congo, the main crossing into the south of Gabon is between Doussala (Congo) and N’Dendé (Gabon). The River Ntem forms a natural border between Cameroon and Gabon. There’s a bridge for vehicles, and for those without their own transport there are plenty of piroguiers taking passengers from the Cameroonian side of the river to the Gabonese village of Eboro. Border formalities in Cameroon are carried out in Ambam. In Gabon you have to get your passport stamped in Bitam. There’s a copy shop right across the street from the police station to make the necessary copies of your visa and your passport.
To go to Gabon by any means other than by air, you’ll need to take a pirogue (5,000CFA) from Cogo, site of Equatorial Guinean customs and immigration, to Cocobeach in Gabon. Freight boats bound for Libreville will sometimes take paying passengers. They usually leave from Bata (Equatorial Guinea), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Sao Tomé and, most frequently of all, Douala (Cameroon). Crossings are irregular and you would need to make enquiries at the boats docked at the ports and negotiate with the captain. Prepare for a rough ride and take more food and drink than you think you will need.
Getting from place to place in Gabon can be difficult, time-consuming, expensive, and more often than not it’s all three. It can also be a fantastic way to see the country and meet its people.
Flight schedules change frequently and with little notice and airlines should be contacted directly for the most up-to-date information. They usually have offices in town as well as in the airports. Flying around Gabon isn’t cheap. Depending on the distance and the airline, a one-way trip costs 70,000–150,000CFA and a return flight can set you back up to 300,000CFA. At the time of writing, there were three airline companies serving the interior.
All three of them are on the list of air carriers banned in the European Union (a blacklist including airlines with safety concerns, preventing them from entering the airspace of any EU member state). If you have the funds, hiring your own light aircraft will give you even greater flexibility. It’s expensive, but the views are amazing – that is, unless weather conditions force the pilot to fly above the clouds. Seeing the rainforest from 10–100m above is much more than a means of getting to your destination, it is an attraction in itself. Make enquiries at Afric Aviation (mobile: 07 59 72 55), Air Affair Gabon (tel: 01 44 48 60/72 20 10) or a tour operator.
Gabon’s only railway, the Transgabonais (Trans-Gabon Railway), bisects the country east–west, running from Libreville through over 20 stations to its terminus, Franceville. It serves a crucial role in the country’s economy and in linking the capital to rural areas. In 2012, it transported an estimated 711,201 tonnes of merchandise and 255,930 passengers. The railroad is run by SETRAG, a private company. SETRAG runs two types of trains: the Train Omnibus l’Equateur that stops at all stations, and the faster and more luxurious Train Express Trans-Ogooué, calling only at Ndjolé, Lopé, Booué, Ivindo, Lastourville and Moanda.
According to the timetable the whole journey from Libreville to Franceville takes a little over 12 hours on the fast train (the Omnibus needs one hour more), but this is very optimistic. Delays might be due to any number of factors, for instance sometimes rear carriages come loose and the train has to return to reattach them. The Omnibus has a second and a first class while the Express train has three classes of accommodation: VIP – a quite bizarre-looking carriage in 1970s-style orange, yellow and brown – first and second class.
Minibuses and taxis
Apart from the railway and the recently launched Transpog-bus network in Port Gentil, Gabon has no public transport. It does, however, have upwards of 9,000km of road. Despite remaining challenges, Gabon’s infrastructure sector has seen large improvements since President Ali Bongo took over. When he came to power, only 10% of the roads were tarred and only 20% of the untarred roads were good. At the end of 2013, this was increased by 768km and it is by no means impossible that the president will achieve his objective of 3,600km of tarred roads in 2016.
Major renovation of the road between Libreville and Ntoum, currently a main bottleneck for all incoming and outgoing traffic, is planned for 2015 and a road between Libreville and Port Gentil, that currently doesn’t feature on the road network at all, should be realised in 2017. During the rainy season, travel on certain roads is difficult, but the absence of surfaced roads does not mean an absence of unscheduled services by minibuses, taxi-brousse (bush taxi) or clando. Clandos are the – usually unregistered – pickups that ferry people and their packages between towns, beeping for passengers as they pass through villages. They are easily recognisable as always being in poor condition and very crowded.
They offer the cheapest form of transport, and a little money will bring you quite far. Minibuses and clandos can be found at the town’s or city’s bus, bush taxi/motor parks (gare routière). They only depart when full, even if it takes hours of waiting for passengers to come. Choose a seat behind the driver, near the window, and on the side with most shade. It doesn’t matter if you’re travelling in a bus or in a private vehicle – once on the road, checkpoints and roadblocks will inevitably slow you down. Officials may try to catch you on a mistake in order to make some money, so make sure your paperwork is in order and always carry your passport. To avoid unnecessary hassle, also carry your international immunisation record (yellow booklet).
Taxis are the lifeblood of the transport system within towns. They differ in colour depending on where you are – red and white for Libreville, blue and white for Port Gentil and so on – but they almost always look as if they are falling apart. Une course is when you hire an empty taxi and the driver takes you directly to your destination. It’s a set fee of 1,000CFA for standard journeys. Each town has a recognised point beyond which the fare increases. For example, going to the airport or Owendo in Libreville, or Cap Lopez in Port Gentil, will cost you 2,000CFA. All fares double after 21.00.
Pirogues, or dugout canoes, are the traditional method of transport wherever there is water. Increasingly pirogues are now motorised. A man who directs a pirogue is called a piroguier, or a pagayeur, after the pagaye or pole used in traditional pirogues. Ferries run between Libreville’s Porte Môle and Port Gentil and between Port Gentil and Lambaréné.