Destination of the week: Gabon
Political stability and environmental stewardship make this west-central African nation a good place to visit.
Mon, Jun 21, 2010 at 09:11 AM
Gabon is one of its continent’s success stories. The west central African nation has had a peaceful, relatively prosperous recent history despite being home to more than three dozen ethnic groups (historically a recipe for conflict).
Gabon’s stability is due to the stewardship of its oil and mineral wealth and its relatively small population (less than 2 million). Farming and logging, through aspects of the country’s economy, have not led to the widespread destruction of land. The heavy forests, scenic coastlines, lakes, cascading rivers, tropical mountains and abundant wildlife have earned Gabon the nickname Africa’s Eden.
The French-speaking country has often been off the tourist map for travelers from the other side of the Atlantic. However, it has all the attractions travelers in search of an African eco-adventure could want. The untouched landscapes offer the quintessential Central African nature experience. The relative political stability means there are none of the security problems that make tourism all but impossible in most of the region’s other countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Indeed, Gabon is on track to become one of the continent’s foremost eco-tourism destinations. Everyone from the government to tour operators to organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society are championing the idea of developing the industry in a way that preserves the natural landscapes.
Unfortunately for penny-pinching safari-goers, large oil companies and their employees are based in Gabon’s cities. Corporate spending has caused hotel prices to rise and the general cost of living and visiting is high, as it is in the nearby petrol-rich nation of Angola. In fact, the coastal oil town of Port Gentil was once called the world’s most expensive city by Time magazine. Prices are more reasonable (though still expensive by African standards) outside the capitol and the oil boomtowns. Still, there are plenty of Lonely Planet-type spots for budget-minded safari travelers.
Gabon’s capitol and largest city, Libreville, is small by modern African standards. Still, the laid-back metropolis is surprisingly cosmopolitan. Aside from nightlife, shopping and restaurants, the long seaside promenade (bord de mer) is the city’s biggest attraction. Some of urban Africa’s freshest air compliments the seaside scenery and the public art that dots the beachfront.
The Sibang Arboretum gives Libreville visitors a taste of Gabon’s natural side without forcing them to leave the city. Hundreds of native tree species are found inside the park. In fact, nearly one-fifth of Gabon’s tree species are found nowhere else in the world. Chances are that visitors may have the whole park to themselves when they visit — except for the mosquitoes. Because of the chance of catching a mosquito-borne illness, these irksome insects are the biggest safety concern in Gabon. Weapons-grade insect repellant and anti-malarial meds are unfortunate necessities for tourists.
Gabon’s leaders, namely President Ali Bongo Ondimba, have been promoting a sustainable vision for their country’s future. The new president is the son of the famed Omar Bongo, Africa’s longest serving president until his death in 2009 and founder of Gabon’s 13 national parks. Gabon is in a good position to lift its already blooming industry to the top of Africa’s eco-tourism heap. Eleven percent of the country is covered by national parks and most other parts are sparsely inhabited.
With its low population numbers and large stretches of land, pollution from autos is not a large problem. When traveling in the interior of the country, cars are all but necessary, with 4x4s being the vehicle of choice when it comes to traversing the unpaved stretches of road that lead to the best wildlife viewing spots. A train from Libreville is the fastest, most comfortable option for reaching the popular Lope National Park. Many package safari tours use the train, though high-end ones fly directly onto the park’s airstrip. The Trans-Gabon Railway stretches all the way from the coast to the interior city of Franceville.
Package tours are the most convenient way to see Gabon. They are usually billed as safaris and offer a pass through one or more of the country’s national parks. Lope National Park is the largest (5,000 square kilometers) and oldest park in the country. The forests and savannas make for a diverse animal population, and gorillas are the stars of the show. Most eco-tourists head to Gabon with the sole purpose of getting some snapshots of these large primates. Mandrills, forest elephants, buffalo and chimpanzees also live in the park.
Three eco-tour organizations have been spawned from a project called Operation Loango. This effort sought to create small-scale tourism opportunities in the areas around Loango National Park without damaging the environment. Africa’s Eden and transportation affiliate Africa’s Connection are organizations that partner to make eco-tourism possible not only to Loango, but also in the Central African Republic and the islands of Sao Tome and Principe. These are some of the least visited, most pristine destinations in Central Africa and also some of the places most in need of sustainable sources of income. The third group, Société de Conservation et Développement, focuses on research, park management and educational activities.
Ivindo National Park is arguably the wildest of Gabon’s destinations. The forests in the park are dense to the point of being impenetrable and the rivers are fast-moving and difficult to navigate. The area teems with wildlife, from apes to elephants to gorillas to the rare bare-headed rock fowl.
Gabon is not the most accessible country in terms of language and mainstream tourism infrastructure. But tour companies offer guided excursions, and the country seems intent on building an infrastructure that can make eco-tourism easier without causing undue harm to the country’s greatest resource: its natural beauty.