Good wildlife, spectacular birding and new species being discovered all the time make Gabon an exciting, pioneering front. Loango National Park has beaches, whales and rainforests. Lopé National Park is good for plants, birds and primates alike. Príncipe or São Tomé offer some of the loneliest beaches on Earth.
Gabon has abundant natural resources and good foreign investment, which has made it one of the most prosperous and stable countries in the Central African region.
A population of fewer than two million is made up of small numbers of pygmy people, a few Europeans and larger numbers of traditional Bantu. French is the official language throughout the country and France still maintains a military base in the country.
On the edge of the Congo Basin, more than 11% of the country was nominated as National Park territory in 2002, and Gabon has definitely taken the first steps to being taken seriously as a safari destination. There are 13 National Parks but some are not accessible. Most trips visit Loango National Park, Lope National Park and Ivindo National Park, but even these are rarely seen by Western explorers – testament to that was our scouting trip back in 2006, where we were among the first 20 people to have ever trekked through parts of the Loango.
We know our adventure stuff, and take heed when we say that some of the safaris in Gabon are really, really wild – a decent degree of fitness, enthusiasm and determination are definitely required! There are those that appreciate exploration and travel in the remotest parts of the world – if you think you’re up to it speak to us in person and we’ll see what can be arranged!
Where is Gabon?
Gabon is located on the west coast of Africa, with the South Atlantic Ocean at its beaches. It borders the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. It lies on the equator, and as a result has a tropical climate which averages 85% humidity and 26°C. The humidity on the coast is less intense due to the trade winds.
The geographic and climatic conditions mean that rainforests cover most (85%) of the country, and there are three distinct regions: coastal plains (ranging from 20 to 300km from the shores); the mountains (Cristal Mountains north east of Libreville, Chaillu Massif in the centre), and the savannah in the east.
What to do in Gabon?
Famous for “surfing hippos” and beach-loving elephants, there are nearly 200 mammal species including large numbers of western lowland gorillas, 600 species of birds and more than 8,000 plant species – new ones are being discovered all the time.
There are an estimated 35,000 western lowland gorillas in Gabon (in related recent news [August 2008], game counts of gorilla have been improved in the Congo and nearly twice as many are now estimated to be in that area – a new figure of 125,000! Good news for any wildlife enthusiast…). There are also around 64,000 chimpanzees and 60,000 forest elephants, as well as a large number of other primates such as the black colobus monkey, the moustached monkey and the endemic sun-tailed monkey – Gabon is genuinely a good African safari destination.
Other large mammals such as hippopotamus, leopard, buffalo and manatees can be seen, whilst smaller mammals such as genets, mongoose and civets also live in the forest. Antelope are also found, such as duiker, bushbuck and water chevrotain. There are crocodiles and monitor lizards in the rivers and the Gabon viper throughout the area. On the coast, sea turtles can be seen nesting on the beaches, particularly the leatherback turtle. Whales can be seen off the coast breeding in the bays – particularly frequent visitors include the humpback whale, the killer whale and dolphins; the Loango National Park is a good place to visit if you’re interesting in witnessing or photographing this.
The monkeys of Gabon are often endemic to Central Africa, the best known example is the black colobus monkey, which can be recognised by its pure black colour and long, thin tail. Yellow baboons are commonly found in the lowland areas. Endemic to West Africa’s rainforests are the mandrill and drill, two large primates which were thought to be baboons, but have been discovered to be related to mangabeys – thus making them the biggest monkeys.
In terms of antelope, the duiker can be found in many African forests, as can the bushbuck, but the water chevrotain stays in the tropical regions of Africa. This is the smallest of the hoofed mammals and it stands at a very small 8-14 inches at the shoulder. On Gabon’s protected species list are the common duiker and reedbuck, as they have suffered from over-hunting. The largest forest antelope in the world is found in Gabon; the bongo. It is extremely shy, however, and so not seen very often.
With the large amount of rainforest in Gabon, there are obviously a huge number of birds. With over 670 different species identified in the country, some endemic or regionally endemic, birding in Gabon has not yet taken off and so visitors have been known to make significant discoveries surpisingly often. For species local to Central and West Africa it is the best place to visit, with species such as the spot-breasted ibis, the Congo serpent-eagle, the black guineafowl, Congo moor chats, the Dja River warbler and many more.
There is a standard birding circuit which can be covered in two weeks, and covers the Lopé National Park, the Ipassa Reserve, the ‘Highlands’ of southeast Gabon, then on to the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. Lopé contains both rainforest and savannah, and has around 400 species which need a minimum of two nights, although four night is more realistic as forest birding is far more time-consuming than regular birding. Sunbirds, hornbills, weavers and bee-eaters are key species of interests – several varieties of each. The Dja river warbler and lyre-tailed honeyguide are also present.
The Ipassa Reserve deserves a stay of four to six nights, and has about 430 species; which earns it the reputation as Africa’s single best forest birding site. Again there are sunbirds and weavers, and others including blue-headed doves, yellow-throated cuckoos, various barbets and forest robins.
The Highlands of southeast Gabon has copses, grassveld and heathland which are a result of the increase in altitude between Franceville and the Congo border. Many of the species that are found here can be found elsewhere in Gabon and so a short stay is recommended, but birds you are likely to see are the Finch’s francolin, Petit’s cuckoo—shrike, Joanna’s sunbird and the black-headed bee-eater.
Why travel to Gabon?
Gabon has over 700 kilometres of unspoilt beaches (and we mean unspoilt – tourism is still very much in its infancy here!), huge regions of wild rainforest and a selection of wildlife that is definitely not your African norm – most travellers go to the traditional safaris found in Kenya and Botswana…gorilla tracking and rainforest trails are still very much isolated adventures. Food is particularly splendid, and one of our guides has gone so far as to say that it’s the best he’s tasted in 25 years of covering Africa’s finest.
Best time to go to Gabon
You can visit Gabon at any time of the year; it is hot and humid the whole year, but not as much in the dry season from May to September. The best time to visit in our opinion is the European winter, known as the ‘champagne’ months because of the brilliant light and hours of sunshine allowing a combination of beach and safari.
The forest starts flowering in mid-September, and by Christmas and New Year there is plenty of fruit. Orchids in the savannah flower between October and January, and some marshy areas flower during December and January.
For gorilla-trekking, you are more likely to see the magnificent creatures between October and late February as there is more fruit around and the gorilla tracks are easier to spot in the soft ground. They also migrate to the coast due to the slightly higher land and the fruit of the Ikoume trees, along with forest elephant, forest buffalo, red river hog and lowland gorilla, giving the unforgettable sight of elephant, buffalo, hippo, turtle and gorilla on one beach.
Bird and animals are less likely to be seen in the open savannah between mid-June and mid-September as fruit is scarce, and they spend more time in the forests searching for food.
For birders, migratory birds can be seen between November and April coming from Europe or northern Asia and Africa, whilst photographers should note that during the rainy season the sky is blue and sparkling after the rainstorms have consumed themselves, and continuously grey and dull during the dry season (this may sound wrong – but no mistake! Blue sky during rainy season when the rain stops, and dull light during the predominantly overcast dry season).
For whale and dolphin watching, you are most likely to see them between August and September, although July/October can also be good. For turtles laying their eggs at night, come from mid-November to mid-January.
How to travel Gabon
Most of the usual international airlines service Libreville, and regular flights are run to the following cities: Abidjan, Bata, Brazzaville, Bruxelles, Casablanca, Cotonou, Dakar, Douala, Dubai, Johannesburg, Lago, Lomé, London, Luanda, Kinshasha, Malabo, Marseille, Paris, Pointe-Noire, Port Harcourt, Rome, São Tomé and Zurich.
Flights are fairly regular, especially with Air France and Swiss International Airlines. If you are coming from the USA, you must first travel to Europe, then catch a connecting flight as there are no direct flights.
“Africa’s Eden” became very difficult as a proper safari destination a few years ago…best for intrepid travellers…done on a few set date trips each year.
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