The main challenge any traveller will face is the daunting and expensive task of manoeuvering around a country that only has about two million inhabitants, the majority of them living around the one and only city centre of Libreville. Founded as a town by freed slaves in 1848, this central African port city has grown into a bustling metropolis that lies astride the palm-fringed Komo River.
There are all the signs of luxurious five-star hotels, fine-dining restaurants jammed with expats and UN workers, as well as wide boulevards for the profitable jet-set to drive their hummers on. These are contrasted by ramshackle, tightly-packed neighbourhoods housing one-third of the country’s population that ekes out a living in small shopping matukis and dusty streets, a middle class all but absent or hard to locate.
The driver of the Gabonese economy is oil and, unfortunately, despite many organisations’ attempts, the tourism industry hasn’t really flourished because there’s never been a great need for it to do so.
What that means for the traveller is that traditional tourism facilities aren’t as ample as you’d find in other countries that are geared for tourism – but this is probably why I’m utterly charmed by Gabon. Here you have to work for your wildlife, as 80% of the country is forested jungle, and public transport – while it exists – is an adventure in every sense of the word, so be prepared to rough it if your pockets aren’t deep. Your accommodation options can be limited to one incredibly high-priced lodge and staying for next to nothing in local village rooms, with nothing in between.
However, if you can forgo creature comforts and manage your expectations with a positive attitude, you’ll reap the rewards of a different kind of exploration travel that will save your wallet and fill your diary. Prices go down once you start hitting the local villages and markets outside the city centres – and such areas beyond Libreville are where the real adventure starts.
Some of the main villages, like Tchibanga, can be reached via small-prop plane flights, but these are heavily weather-dependent, or (as I find out) delayed if your plane hits a wandering forest buffalo while attempting to land on a patchy gravel runway. The train service is usable, but don’t expect any sleeping berths and a 4×4 is a necessity when you take on the bumpy and potentially muddy road systems that carve their way into the national parks, weaving between police stops, tiny villages and logging trucks that kick up clouds of rich, red dust painted onto the infringing jungle. But it will be worth it.
The 13 different national parks established in 2002 are home to a variety of species including gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants and mandrills, while their waters are replete with migrating humpback whales, manta rays and four different species of turtle.
WHERE TO EAT
- Dine at the utterly bizarre, but charming Waptey (Montée de Louis), with its array of bridges over indoor ponds. Meat-lovers should head to Joyce African Dream (BP 452, near the Embassy of Ghana) for a hearty night out.
- Crêpes and croissants from La Parisienne (Rue Ndendé) are a must and stellar pizza and ice cream can be bought at La Dolce Vita (Port Mole), overlooking the waters of the city.
- Enjoy great food and live music at Le Lokua (Glass Quarter) and dance the night away at the No Stress Bar (Montée de Louis).
WHAT TO DO
- Visit the popular weekend escape of Pointe Denis beach (boats leave from Michel Marin port), but don’t expect blue waters, as the ocean in Gabon is rich with tannins, so visibility isn’t good.
- Attend the Sunday service at the St Marie Cathedral (off the L101 at the CKDO) or view the impressive woodwork carvings etched in columns at L’Eglise St-Michel (off Rue Léon Mba).
- Take a turn past the imposing Stade d’Angondjé (Angondjé suburb), where Gabon faced Brazil in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.
WHERE TO STAY
- Hôtel Le Cristal: BP 1017, Libreville. Tel: +241 01 722 778.
- Hôtel Le Patio: Quartier de Louis – Descente J Ebori, Libraville. Tel: +241 01 734 716. Visit:
- Résidence Hôtelière du Phare: La Sablière, Libreville. Tel: +241 04 120 000. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Royal Palm Hotel: L101, Quartier Glas, Libreville. Tel: +241 01 770 322.
- Lope Hotel (for Lope National Park): Ange MBA St Office, Libreville. Tel: +241 01 720 596 or 01 770 217.
- Safari Club: Tel: +241 07 900 929.
- Ogooue Palace Hotel, Lambarene: Tel: +241 221 106 or 581 864.