Updated On: January 24, 2007
Current Location: Franceville, Gabon
Distance Since Last Update : 4,410k
Cumulative Distance: 35,415k
Current Weather: Hot and Rainy
Won't Soon Forget: Dense Rainforests, Wild Wildlife, Wet Roads, Corrupt Police, Knee Problems

 
  Bitam - December 12, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning we loaded up Betty and setoff for the Gabon border. 40 trying days after arriving in Ekok, our visas were expiring and we were being kicked out of Cameroon. Behind us was 40 very difficult days and $1,000 in parts, still sitting in customs. Ahead... the tropical rainforests, amazing wildlife, horrific roads, corruption and political instability that define Central Africa.

Back on the road, we were uneasy about our prospects of making the nearly 1,000k to Libreville. Betty was visibly lame. Missing two fenders and three mudguards, she was literally being held together by string, her bumper kept in place by a climbing rope. At least she was mobile again, thanks only to a five-centimeter thick block of wood and a length of bungey cord. The long drive to the border was uneventful, so consumed by the task of keeping the truck moving that we hardly noticed the seven roadblocks we encountered along the way.

At the border, we breezed through Cameroon’s immigrations and customs formalities. On the Gabon side, we were told that the immigration office was several kilometers down the road and the only thing we needed to take care of was customs. As we pulled up to the customs control gate, we found an angry mob surrounding a truck on the other side. There was a lot of shouting and pushing and then a fight broke out. Two men were going at it and the larger one, dressed in a khaki suit, was pounding his adversary relentlessly, punching him repeatedly in the head. It was an ugly site that reminded me a bit of Nigeria.

Ignoring the commotion, we headed into the customs office. It was empty. As I headed back to give Sheri an update, I noticed that the fight was still raging a 30 or so meters in front of our truck. As Sheri and I discussed what to do, she suggested that maybe the customs officer was involved in the fight. It was such a brutal affair that it didn’t seem likely. A few minutes later however, the fight broke up and the man in the khaki suit, satisfied that he’d made his point, stormed off, drenched in sweat and with smoke still coming out of his ears. As he came closer, I could clearly see that his suit bore the markings of a customs officer. Covered in sweat, he looked like a raging bull that’d just received the business end of a picador’s lance.

Hesitantly, Eric and I followed him into his office. Inside he sat down behind his desk and without looking up, motioned for us to hand over our carnets. Clearly disheveled, he sat behind his desk wiping sweat from his brow while quietly filled out our carnets. When he was finished, he handed them back and we were out the door, happy to be on our way.

When we got back to the trucks, we were approached by man in street clothes who told us that we had to go across the street for more paperwork. Not unusual, we followed him into a small room with a hand painted sign hanging over the door that said something about taxation. Inside he requested that we each pay a 10,000 CFA ($20) tourist tax. As he pulled out his receipt book we began to get the feeling we were about to be had, so we told him we’d already paid for our visas and walked back out the door and drove away.

On the other side of the control gate was Gabon. We were finally out of Cameroon. Ahead was a country we’d dreamt of visiting ever since reading about Michael Faye’s Megatransect in National Geographic. From the border, the road snaked south into dense, seemingly impenetrable rainforest. It was a world of wild and unparalleled beauty. Alas, we were indeed in Central Africa!

We arrived at the immigration office in Bitam shortly before dark to take care of the remaining border formalities. By the time we were finished it was nearly dark and we headed for a nearby Catholic Mission in hopes of finding a place to stay. At the mission we were met by a friendly sister from France who invited us to camp on their lawn just outside the main living quarters. Her only word of caution... watch out for the snakes! It was a wonderful and surprisingly cool first night in Central Africa!

 
 

Bush Camp Near Njole - December 13, 2006
(Jim Writes) After a cool and restful night at the mission, we setoff for Libreville. The day’s drive took us through stunning rainforest, past roaring rivers and across the equator. We’re now in the southern hemisphere – a significant milestone on our march towards the southern tip of Africa.

By late afternoon, Gabon’s only smooth paved road had eroded into a patchwork of potholes and our pace had been cut in half. With dark rapidly approaching, it was obvious we weren’t going to make it to Libreville. Just outside of Njole, we found an old logging road that cut into the rainforest. A short distance down the track, there was a small clearing out of view of the main road. It was a comfortable bush camp in which we were serenaded by the sounds of the forest and the round the clock logging trucks that were hauling it away.

 
 
 
 

Libreville - December 14, 2006
(Jim Writes) Another long bumpy day on the road to Libreville, we finally arrived on the outskirts of town around 2:30pm. The only road leading into the city was choked by heavy traffic as a long processional of logging trucks, minibus taxis and expensive SUV’s all fought for a piece of the badly decayed road. Eager to get to Toyota, we spent the next 1 ½ hours battling our way to the Zone Industrial.

By 4pm we’d made it to Toyota Gabon, by far the most modern Toyota dealership we’ve seen in Africa and rivaling anything in Europe or the U.S. Inside, we met with the parts manager, to inquire about our shipment. The order had already been placed and the parts were scheduled to arrive on December 28th, three days after Christmas.

We also met with the Toyota Gabon’s service manager, Francois Gougeon. A French expat who’s spent most of his adult life in Africa, Francois was everything the service department at Cami Toyota in Yaounde wasn’t. Knowledgeable, experienced, and able to speak English, he understood what we’d been through and immediately offered to take a detailed look at our trucks the following day (free of charge) and committed the full resources of his service supervisor and assistant to helping us sort out everything from our transfer case to having new carnets and drivers licenses sent to us from back home. It was an excellent visit. If only they’d been in Yaounde!

Afterwards, we headed for the Catholic Mission, Maison Emilie de Villeneuve les Soeurs Bleues in hopes of finding a safe place to camp. At the mission we were met by a friendly nun who directed us to setup camp along the edge of the mission’s driveway, an acceptable location were it not for the pungent fecal aroma that stained the air.

 
  Libreville - Demember 15, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning we were up early so that we could be at Toyota when the doors opened. Shortly after we arrived, we were met by Francois and his service supervisor, who spent the entire morning going over our trucks – diagnosing problems, replacing diff. fluids, and even repairing some of the damage done by Cameroon’s roads. All free of charge.

At noon, Francois and his team headed for Toyota’s annual Christmas party and we headed for the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) to get some information on Gabon’s numerous parks and reserves. At WWF we met with Bas, a Dutch conservationist with several years experience in Gabon, to discuss the feasibility of getting to Loango National Park by land, something that’s rarely done. After giving us a look, Bas responded to our inquiry by asking “Do you have a good 4x4? You’ll need a very good 4x4!” He went on to say that there wasn’t really a road to Loango and the only way to get there was by crossing a area of soft sand and deep water. When we asked how deep the water was, Bas said that it was up to the windshield and that we would “feel like we were in a boat.”

Intrigued, when common sense would have dictated that we should have been deterred, we spent the next hour discussing logistics. The highline was that Bas would contact the WWF field office in Gamba to aid with logistics and that they’d work with local government officials to organize a convoy, as there was no way we’d be able to find our way and negotiate the deep water on our own.

After thanking Bas for his help, we left to start making arrangements. If all went well, we’d be spending Christmas in Loango. And if it didn’t, we’d be spending it stuck in a water filled hole in the middle of nowhere. Only time would tell which it would be!

 
     
  Libreville - December 16, 2006
(Jim Writes) We spent the day at the mission preparing to depart tomorrow for Loango. Laundry, website updates, etc. It was an uneventful day only made more interesting by the cheap chicken, fried plantains and beer we bought at a roadside stall just down the street.
 
     
  Bush Camp Near Mouila - December 17, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning we departed for Tchibanga . 565k from Libreville and approximately 175k from the Congo border, Tchibanga marks the end of the good road and will serve as our staging point for the journey to Loango.

The perfect day for a road trip! Because it’s a Sunday and, more importantly, a national election day, traffic was at a minimum, Libreville’s notoriously corrupt police were off the streets, and the roadblocks that we’d encountered on the way into the country were unmanned. From Libreville, we drove East along badly potholed tar roads that snaked through rainforest covered mountains and past tiny villages where bush meat hung for sale by the sides of the road.

At Bifoun we turned south towards Lambarene and then continued on to Yambi. South of the Ngounie river, the tar road soon gave way to badly corrugated dirt track, the sun gave way to torrential rain, and the pristine rainforest turned into open savanna.

For most of the afternoon it was slow going as we negotiated heavy rains and bad roads. Along the way, the relentless corrugations eventually got the best of Eric’s rear wheel carrier, which came apart in the middle of the road. After a half-hour search failed to produce a lost bolt, we were forced to use a ratchet strap to hold his wheel in place.

The balance of the day was an uneventful ramble along rough roads, the only other traffic being a steady stream of logging trucks. Shortly before dark, we arrived in the small town of Mouila where we decided to stop for the night. Unfortunately, because of the election, the few rooms in town were booked full. Our only option was to return the way we’d come in search of a potential bush camp I’d spotted (but failed to mark with GPS) on the way in. Without a waypoint, spots, or even high beams (both were broken), finding a bush camp in the dark was exceedingly difficult. Nevertheless, we found a hidden clearing, just off the main road, where we made camp for the night.

As we cooked dinner, Sheri and I reflected on our first few days in Gabon. In a word, it’s a wild untamed country like nowhere else we’ve seen on earth - Pristine rainforest, beautiful savanna, lush green mountains, roaring rivers, picturesque little villages, and very wild wildlife. Perhaps most amazing to us is the fact that everything we’d seen was outside the country’s national parks and reserves.

Unfortunately, not everything we’d seen was good. We’d also seen a never ending stream of logging trucks working round the clock to haul off Gabon’s forests and along the sides of the road, signs of the bush meat trade were everywhere as everything from pythons, to dwarf crocodiles, to mangabeys, to duikers and even gorillas was strung up for sale. And from what we’ve learned, the two go hand in hand as logging companies cut tracks deep into the rainforest to haul out wood and hunters use the tracks to access once impenetrable forest.

It’s one thing reading about it in National Geographic or watching it on the Discovery Channel. It’s another seeing it in person because the only thing as impressive as this wild and wonderful wilderness is the rapid rate at which it’s being depleted. I’d strongly urge any nature lover to come have a look for themselves! I can assure you, it’s an image you won’t soon forget.

 
 
 
 
  Tchabanga - December 18, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning we got up early. A beautiful morning, Sheri and I decided to take a quick run before breaking camp. By 10:30am we were on the road and, after a quick stop for provisions in Mouila, headed for Tchabanga. The drive to Tchabanga was along mostly poor dirt roads that ascended into forest covered mountains. It was a beautiful drive, made more memorable by a group of young boys we passed on the side of the road that were completely naked and covered from head to toe in gray clay-like mud. It was a funny sight that gave us both a good laugh.

In Tchabanga, our search for a place to stay lead us into an angry mob armed with rocks that was protesting the election results. Once safely on the other side, our search eventually lead us to the Hotel Nyanga, a once nice hotel perched high on a hill overlooking the Nyanga river.

Once settled, the balance of the afternoon was spent working through logistics. First we contacted Bas (a different Bas than the one we’d met with in Libreville) at WWF’s office in Gamba to discuss our plan. Bas contacted a local government official in Tchabanga who agreed to arrange a convoy for us. At 5pm, the official stopped by our hotel to discuss the plan. As he explained to us, he’d made arrangements with Osman, a local bush taxi driver with a 79 series Land Cruiser, to convoy with us to Gamba the following day. According to the official, Osman knew the route well and could help us navigate the maze of zig zagging tracks, soft sand, and deep water. In exchange, we’d be able to offer the Osman the added security and recovery support of two additional 4x4’s.

That night, we went into town with Sharikay and Eric to search for a restaurant. This proved nearly impossible as, like most Gabonese villages, Tchabanga has more beer than food. Eventually, we found a little place on the other side of town that had an extensive menu but only fish and rice on offer.

 
     
  Tchabanga - December 19, 2006
(Jim Writes) We woke up this morning to rain. It had rained most of the night and showed no signs of letting up. Not great when the road ahead is known for it’s deep water. Not surprisingly, Osman cancelled. The water was too deep. All we could do was sit and wait. We’ll try again tomorrow.

The balance of the day was spent held up at the hotel. Outside it was raining. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

 
     
  Gamba - December 20, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning we woke up at 6am. The rains had stopped and once again we set about preparing for departure. With water reportedly up to our windshield, we made sure that our water proof cases were sealed up and all of our camera equipment was as high possible inside the truck.

At 8am we met Osman in the center of town, his Land Cruiser overloaded with people and supplies. Soon we were off. Destination Gamba!

From Tchabanga we headed west towards Mayumba on a mostly good dirt track. Not far outside of town we hit our first snag. Osman’s Land Cruiser had a flat tire. We weren’t even to the bad road yet. 15 minutes later and we were going again. And 15 minutes after that we were stopped again. This time to help another 4x4 broken down on the side of the road. After getting the truck sorted we were moving again.

A couple of hours later we reached a small village where we turned north onto a sandy track. The first leg of the track cut through rainforest and over grassy savanna before reaching a broad river. To deep to ford, the only way across the river was via a small raft only slightly larger than our trucks. To keep the raft from being pulled down stream by the river’s current, it was connected by a rope and steel shackle to a cable that ran across the river. Forward motion was created by pulling the raft, hand over hand, along the cable.

One by one, we loaded our trucks onto the raft and pulled them across to the other side. With the raft almost completely submerged by the weight of our truck, it was a nerve racking task that seemed ripe with dangers. The real trick however was getting Betty onto the raft. Perhaps the best analogy I can draw is trying to get back into a capsized canoe. Now imagine the same but with a three ton truck. Needless to say, the thought of the raft sinking mid river was more than ample motivation to work quickly to get to the other side.

Back on dry ground, we were going and we didn’t go far before dry ground gave way to an open flood plain. It was incredible. There was water everywhere and faint tracks ran in every direction. Without any clear direction, we were totally dependent on Osman for guidance. For 36 nerve-racking kilometers, we motored (gurgled really, as our truck sounded more like a boat as the engine was often completely submerged) our way through water so deep that at times it rushed over Betty’s roof. Along the way we passed the skeletal remains of less fortunate 4x4’s that had been stranded and later abandoned, their engines ruined after being flooded with water.

The further we went the more I felt like we were in an amphibious vehicle as water rushed in, filling the floor board. It was hard going and I soon began to wonder how much damage was being done to our truck.

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached what I thought was a lake. Partially submerged near the edge of the lake was a 79 series Land Cruiser, half its engine, cargo and passengers scattered on the sandy bank a short distance away. I offered up our winch to pull them out. They accepted and, with Eric’s help, I executed a difficult recovery. As soon as the truck was clear of the water, Osman jumped back in his truck and signaled for us to follow him. He was going straight into the lake! It seemed insane, but we followed, Eric going first and Betty second so that her winch would be available should we need it. Getting to the other side was by far the most hair-raising experience I’ve ever had in a 4x4. As Betty entered the water a wave of water went up the windshield and over the roof. I had no idea where to go and it was all I could do to avoid a tree that disappeared into the lakes black waters just ahead of us. With no idea what line to take or what was lurking under the surface, I just plunged in and hoped for the best. As Betty’s engine gurgled, the truck porpoised like a boat bouncing along the surface of choppy water. Thanks be to some divine power not yet identified, we made it across! On the other side we both let out a now all too familiar sigh of relief, tempered by the fact that we’d have to do it again to get back!

The balance of the 36k stretch was more of the same. Very deep water! At the end of the flood plain we reached another river and just as I approached its sandy banks, the same Toyota Hilux we’d stopped to help earlier in the day, raced around me in an attempt to get a place on the next ferry. It was a shit move that ended up costing us three hours as the little 5hp ferry only held two vehicles and the trip took 1 ½ hours out and back.

By the time both of our trucks were across, Osman was long gone and it was well after dark. Fortunately, the road on the other side was tarred thanks to Shell, who basically built Gamba to extract oil.

By 9pm we’d reached Gamba and found a place to camp at a small auberge in town. Both Betty and Eric’s truck were soaked and Betty’s door locks spontaneously locked and unlocked all night long. Another day of water and sand and we’d be at Loango.

 
     
  Beach Bush Camp - December 21, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning we headed over to WWF’s Gamba office to meet with Bas, a young conservationist from Holland who’s spent the past year managing the WWF’s efforts at Loango. After discussing the various wildlife viewing opportunities available in and around Loango, Bas introduced us to the parks conservator and offered to assist us with logistics including organizing a tracker, arranging for fuel and supplies, and offering us a place to camp at the WWF’s brigade headquarters in Setta Cama. In addition, Bas also made arrangements for us to spend a couple of nights with a team of WWF researchers studying giant leatherback sea turtles on Gamba’s wild beaches.

From WWF’s offices we headed for the beach to meet the research team. On the way to the beach we passed signs warning of elephant crossings and followed a long dirt road that cut deep into the rainforest. By the time we arrived at the beach it was dark and raining and finding the turtle camp proved difficult. As we drove north following a deep sand track, we searched as best we could for the tiny beach camp.

After driving a couple of kilometers down the beach I began to hear a rattling noise under the hood and Eric and I got out to have a look. The difficult road to Gamba had no doubt claimed another victim. Under the hood I found that two of the three bolts that mount the A/C and the alternator and fan belts to the engine had broken off. Only one bolt was still holding the wheel in place. Ugh!

Not having any luck with finding the camp using the trucks, Sheri and Sharikay stayed behind while Eric and I ventured into the rain on foot to have a closer look. Using headlamps, we searched the beach for signs of life. Nothing. As we continued down the beach we walked close to the forest searching for the WWF huts. Then I noticed something. It was pitch black, but with my headlamp I could make out what appeared to be a large hut just in front of me. I called to Eric to let him know that I’d located the camp. As I headed into the bush towards to hut, I heard a rustling noise and the hut began to move. Before I had time to react, I found myself staring into the eyes of a large bull forest elephant, only 15 meters away. We were far too close for comfort! Not keen on being charged, Eric and I slowly began to back away in hopes that we could get out of range before he came at us. Fortunately, we made it onto the relative safety of the beach without any problems.

Further down the beach we finally located the camp, a tiny collection of huts hidden within the forest just off the beach. Nearly impossible to find, our only clue was the cigarette-sized glow of a lamp coming from inside the bush. After meeting the research team, they invited us to make camp on the beach just in front of their huts and told us to get some rest. We’d be searching for turtles from 9:30pm to around midnight and again from 3-6am. We headed back to get Sheri, Sharikay, and the trucks and, after a quick stop to dig Eric’s truck out of the soft sand, we arrived at the camp and setup our tents.

By 9:30 the rain had stopped and everyone was ready to go. For the next two hours we walked along the beach in complete silence, with our headlamps off. Walking along in almost total darkness, the only sound we could hear was the crashing waves. Moving at a brisk pace we covered a lot of ground, crossed tank sized turtle tracks left by nesting turtles who’d recently come ashore.

By midnight we were back in our tents, eager to get some sleep before our 3am wake-up call. Shortly after getting into the tent the rain started again and continued the rest of the night. Our 3am trek was cancelled. We’ll have to try again when we return from Loango!

 
     
  Sette Cama Bush Camp - December 22, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning we woke up to our first views of Gamba’s beach. In the early morning light it was stunningly wild and beautiful. In front of us was the ocean and an unspoiled stretch of beach, while behind us was lush green rainforest, and to our north, a calm mangrove lined lagoon. It was a photographer’s paradise and a nature lovers Eden.

With little time to spare, we setout to explore the surrounding area. Signs of wildlife were everywhere. Being careful to avoid giant piles of elephant dung, we marched over leatherback tracks and elephant footprints on our way to the lagoon. While the conditions weren’t optimal for photography, the raw beauty of the place made it impossible to go more than 20 meters without snapping a photo.

On the way back to camp, Sheri and I were walking just on the edge of the rainforest when I heard a noise just below my left foot. It was a large python, coiled tightly just along the edge of the trail. Instinctively, I called out a warning to Sheri as I leapt out of the way. Once at a safe distance, I looked back at the snake. It was a marvelous sight, which slipped slowly into the bush as I fumbled around for my camera. Riding a natural high, I turned back to Sheri to celebrate our encounter. She was still on her way back after having jumped halfway to the moon! Having nearly stepped on it’s head, it was a bit too close for comfort but incredible none-the-less! Our second such experience in less than 24 hours.

After breaking camp, we headed back into town to load up on water before setting off for Sette Cama. While filling up at the town well, Bas stopped by to say hello. As it turned out, the researchers that had gone in the opposite direction last night located six turtles. We’ll have to try again.

Using directions provided by Bas, we departed Gamba for Setta Cama. Outside Gamba the track turned to soft sand as it passed through dense forests and flooded savanna. Like Gamba, signs of wildlife were everywhere, the soft sand dotted with fresh buffalo, elephant and hippo tracks. It was a drive no doubt as epic as the park itself.

When we arrived in the tiny village of Setta Cama, we found the place deserted. With a population of about 20, the sandy track led us past a handful of houses and a small primary school before we arrived at the WWF brigade on the other side. The Brigade is a well maintained collection of wooden huts situated between the beach and a large estuary. After meeting a couple of the resident park rangers, we went about setting up camp. With the whole place to ourselves, we selected an excellent location beside the estuary. Perfect!

Shortly after we settled in, we were met by Didierre, the tracker Bas had arranged. An expert guide, we worked out a plan for the next few days. Tomorrow we’d track gorillas in the morning, hippos in the afternoon, and dwarf crocodiles at night. The following day (Christmas Eve), we venture into Loango’s rainforest in search of forest elephants, buffalo, and if lucky, surfing hippos. We’d celebrate Christmas with another walk in the park and an evening spent camping on the beach. It seemed like an excellent plan.

 
 
 
  Sette Cama Bush Camp - December 23, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning got off to a rocky start. We were scheduled to meet Didierre at 7am to track western lowland gorillas – a bit of a long shot we all knew, as it’s not fruiting season in Loango and therefore the chances of seeing them is greatly reduced. Regardless, we were all willing to give it the old college try. At 7pm Didierre arrived right on time. Problem was, he’d failed to tell us that we’d be using our trucks rather than the pirogue we’d hired. This little omission cost us thirty minutes of prime wildlife viewing time as we packed away our tents and reorganized our gear to accommodate another passenger.

From the brigade, we headed south in the direction of Gamba. Not far outside of town, we located a herd of buffalo just on the edge of the forest. We stopped the trucks and Didierre told us to wait while he disappeared into the forest. As we waited on him to return it began to rain again and the buffalo headed for the shelter of the forest. Didierre returned a short time later and, without explanation instructed us to get back in the trucks so that we could continue south. A short drive along a sandy track and we reached another track that cut into the rainforest. We followed the track deep into the forest again, spotting prolific signs of wildlife. Eventually, the track led to an opening that was filled with birds but no mammals. On the other side of the clearing Didierre turned to me and asked me what I wanted to do, saying it was now too late to track game. More than a little confused, I consulted the others and they were equally perplexed. Nobody understood exactly how our gorilla tracking expedition had ended before it ever really got underway. The only explanation Didierre offered up was that he saw no signs of fruit in the forest and therefore no gorillas.

So back through the soft sand we trudged towards Setta Cama, fording several sections of deep water along the way. Back at the brigade we prepared to go in search of hippos. Using a pirogue, we traveled into a forest-lined estuary, where we spotted yellow-billed egrets, great white pelicans, and red-capped mangabeys before locating a herd of hippos feeding along a small mangrove lined channel. It was a rewarding experience as we anchored our boat a short distance away and watched as the herd lazed about, feeding and caring for their young calves.

Back at the brigade we took some time to relax and explore the nearby beach. Like Gamba, the beaches around Setta Cama are covered in every manor of animal tracks from elephant to leatherback turtles and civets. Just back off the beach is wild forest that’s home to a variety of monkey species, elephants, and buffalo.

By sunset, the sky was dark with ominous clouds that warned of an approaching storm. At 7pm, Didierre arrived with the pirogue and we discussed the weather. With a storm on the horizon, tracking dwark crocodiles seemed like a bad idea so we postponed until the following day. We’d just have to relax at our wonderful camp and listen to the call of the wild.

 
     
  Sette Cama Bush Camp - December 24, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning we woke up with cause for celebration. It’s Christmas Eve! At 10am we met Didierre and setoff in the pirogue for Loango, following the same route we’d taken yesterday. Again, the ride took us into the forest, where we spotted hippos and a variety of bird life. 45 minutes after leaving the brigade, the boat driver dropped us off at an isolated spot deep in the forest. Under the canopy, we entered a dark world, shaded from the bright sun we’d just left behind. For the next two hours we trekked through pristine rainforest in search of forest elephants, buffalo, and primates. Surrounded by the sounds of the forest, it felt as if we’d stepped into another world. A very beautiful world few people will ever know. High in the canopy, we heard the fleeting sound of monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Below, on the forest floor we followed in the footsteps of elephants, buffalo, and duikers. To our right we heard the rustle of a rare dwarf crocodile that stopped briefly to check us out before heading for cover in a nearby stream. To our left, the sound of hoofs on dead leaves directed our attention to a duiker as it darted out of sight.

As we marched on, the sound of waves crashing on shore grew louder as we slowly worked our way towards the beach. As we emerged from the dark forest we were nearly blinded by the bright sun beating down on Loango’s palm lined beach. As our eyes began to adjust, Didierre tapped me on the shoulder and pointed down the beach where a large forest elephant was grazing by a tranquil lagoon.

We passed the midday hours on the beach, relaxing under the shade of high palms. At 4pm, we setoff again, this time down the beach. Along the way we spotted a herd of forest buffalo grazing on a grassy hill, overlooking the ocean. Not long before dark, we arrived at our rendezvous point, where we loaded into the pirogue and headed back to camp as a blazing orange sun disappeared into the sea.

Back at camp, Didierre suggested that we rest a few minutes and then setoff again in search of crocodiles. As tempting as the offer was, Sheri and I had different plans. It was Christmas Eve and we were ready to slip into the holiday mood. While I pulled out a Christmas CD we’d packed away for the occasion, Sheri pulled out the ingredients for our favorite bush meal – Pasta with peanut sauce. It was a wonderful celebration that went a long way towards getting us into the spirit of Christmas, no small task when you’re deep in the Central African rainforest. Dining on our special pasta, we reflected on how fortunate we were to be in such a beautiful place and how much we’d love to be celebrating with family and friends back home. It’s the paradox of such a journey.

After dinner, we settled in to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. We were in the mood, as best we could be in steamy Gabon, and fell asleep with visions of elephants, gorillas, and mandrills dancing in our heads.

 
 
 
  Sette Cama Bush Camp - December 25, 2006
(Sheri Writes) Merry Christmas! This morning we woke up relaxed and happy on the heels of an enjoyable Christmas Eve celebration. Our plan for today called for us to take a relaxing walk on the beach followed by a much anticipated pancake breakfast (a rare treat we’d been saving for the occasion). At 2pm, we’d meet up with Didierre to hike into Loango, where we would setup our tents on the beach and spend the night, something we’ve wanted to do for several years.

Our morning walk was quite enjoyable. A relaxing stroll along one of the more remote beaches on earth. Along the way we stopped to investigate leatherback nests, recently robbed by scavenging civets. It was an enjoyable start to the day.

Back at camp, I promised Jim that I would make a special pancake breakfast. Since it’s almost impossible to find pancake mix in Africa, pancakes are a rare treat, reserved for very special occasions. Since Ghana, I’d been saving a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix and our mouths had been watering every time we saw the box tucked away in the back of the truck. In eager anticipation, I rummaged through the drawer in search of the box, pulled it out, popped open the lid, and prepared to measure out the mix. As quickly as Santa can down a plate of cookies, our bubbles were burst. Inside the box, our once white, just-add-water mix had turned pink and was filled with tiny bugs feasting away. We were both completely silent. ‘
Sharikay overheard our plight and offered up some of her Bisquick in an effort to save the day. It was a generous offer that we really wanted to accept. I just couldn’t. We knew how cherished it was and I just couldn’t accept it without knowing when we might find another box to pay her back.

In an effort to save the day, I attempted to make some homemade batter using a NOLS recipe. Ask Jim and he’ll tell you it was pretty good. Jim’s like Mikey and will eat anything and I’m sure he was just trying to make me feel better as I thought the pancakes were terrible! Like eating raw flower!

With our botched breakfast behind us, we shifted our focus to our upcoming camping trip. Something we were really looking forward to! After a quick lunch, we readied our packs and sat on the side of the estuary waiting for Didierre to arrive. At our 2pm scheduled pickup time there was no sign of Diderre or the pirogue. As we waited and waited, 2pm became 3pm and 3pm became 4pm. They were a no-show. Knowing that the boat had to run into Gamba earlier in the day, we figured that it must be delayed. Soon it would be too late hike to our camp, as we’d be walking in the dark. After talking it over, we decided that 4:30pm was our cutoff time. If Didierre and the boat didn’t arrive by then, we’d call off the trip. Instead, we’d camp on the beach in Setta Cama. An excellent alternative.

At 4:10pm, the pirogue arrived. Didierre wasn’t on board. A few minutes later it departed again, returning just after our cutoff with Didierre. Didierre was apologetic, saying the boat had been delayed in Gamba. Regardless, it was now too late. We’d never make it to the beach before dark. Our only option was to take the pirogue to the edge of the park and camp just inside the forest. With our hearts set on camping with elephants along the beach, we decided to bag the trip. Instead we’d camp on the beach in Setta Cama.

After saying goodbye to Didierre, we shouldered our packs and setoff for the beach to setup our tents. As we searched for a suitable (read: Safe) spot to camp, we watched as mangabeys played in the trees above. By dusk our tents were erected and we were in need of a little pick-me-up after suffering two major blows on Christmas day. With our dinner of canned tuna, Laughing Cow cheese, bread, and cookies not likely to do the trick, we grabbed our headlamps and setoff for the Setta Cama Lodge, the fancy eco lodge used by tourists who fly into the park. It offered a delightful reprieve as we downed overpriced drinks and soaked up the safari style atmosphere.

Back at the beach, we enjoyed a more humble meal, as we sat on a fallen log, munching on tuna and bread. A little concerned about the risk of our camp being trampled by elephants, we sat in total darkness to avoid attracting any unwanted attention from the resident elephants. Just as we were finishing dinner, the heavens opened up and it began to pour rain. As we dove for cover we realized that the window was open in the top of our tent. By the time we could close it, it was already too late. Our tent was soaked inside, the water mixing with the sand from our boots to form a goopy mess. Back outside, Jim put on the fly and we hunkered down for what turned out to be a very hot and stormy night.

 
     
  Gamba Bush Camp - December 26, 2006
(Jim Writes) Up at dawn after a restless nights sleep, we were uncomfortably damp, but relieved not to have been trampled by elephants. After breaking down camp, Sheri and I found the entrance to an elephant trail that lead into the forest and we spent the morning following the maze of tracks that lead to small room-like opens, completely hidden from the outside world. We were in the elephant’s lair. An eerie labyrinth of tracks leading deep into the forest. As we explored the tracks, ever cautious of the elephants that made them, we were accompanied by mangabey’s dancing from tree to tree and a variety of bird life. What a wonderful way to start the day.

Back at the brigade we used our last remaining water for a quick bucket bath before packing up the trucks and setting off for Gamba. On the drive back, Sheri and I talked about the past few days. Our much anticipated visit to Loango was rewarding but left us a bit unfulfilled. It had been an unforgettable experience, well worth the effort required to get there. We’d seen many amazing things from hippos, to dwarf crocodiles, to elephants, buffalo, and duiker. Yet, overall, luck wasn’t on our side. Out of season, there was no opportunity to see gorillas and the surfing hippos and close encounters with forest elephants was not to be. Moreover, we were saddened to see that, in this “Garden of Eden,” the otherwise pristine and very isolated beaches were soiled by oil, no doubt washed ashore from refineries in Gamba and beyond. I guess that no place is truly perfect and, in today’s world, no place is immune from the corrosive influences of the outside world.

The drive back to Gamba was uneventful, our only snag coming from a washed out section of road, just outside of town, which had grown worse over the past few days. With no clear route across, the safest bet seemed to be to fill in the steep drop off with a few medium sized rocks and then go straight across. This plan worked perfectly and I easily made it to the other side. Instead of following me across via a now proven route, Eric ignored everyone’s advice, going instead through a soft bottomed section of the stream just to the right of the road. It didn’t work. As soon as his truck went into the water, it sank down to the chassis, with water up to the doors. He was hopelessly stuck. After attempts to dig out and use a tow rope failed, we decided the only option was to pull out our now very tired winch. Within minutes, he was free.

Back in Gamba, we headed back to the beach to have another go at locating leatherbacks. At 9:30pm, we once again met up with the research team and setoff down the beach, this time splitting into two teams to double our chances. As soon as one group spotted a turtle, they’d signal to the others. After walking all the way to our turn around point yielded nothing, we began to loose hope. On the return however, our luck changed as we located a 400kg (800lbs) leatherback just starting to dig a nest.

Watching the turtle was a memorable experience as she worked so hard, huffing and puffing, to dig a nest and lay her eggs. As the researchers measured her and recorded data, we watched in awe. She was a giant, her head larger than ours. After laying her eggs and carefully covering up the nest, she lumbered laboriously back to sea. As soon as she hit the water, she was gone, quickly disappearing into the night. Amazing!

 
 
 
  Tchabanga - December 27, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning we packed up our beach front bush camp and setout to tackle the water logged road to Tchabanga. After debating the best plan of attack, we ultimately decided to head back across the first ferry and wait on the other side to see who came along. The general feeling was that our GPS tracks weren’t accurate enough to safely guide us through the deep sections of water. On the other side of the river we sat down for a beer while we waited. An hour or so later, a Troop Carrier arrived and we asked if they’d be interested in convoying. Fortunately, they seemed as interested in going together as we were, so we setoff together to tackle the 36k stretch of water.

Heading back through the flood plain proved every bit as nerve racking as the trip out. The water was so deep, frequently washing over the roof, and I was nervous that we’d stall and our engine would be flooded. When we arrived at the second river, a couple of shell employees offered to stay behind to help us pull our trucks across. The only problem was that they had no more experience working the raft than we did, which made loading and off loading our trucks a major challenge.

Since I was in the lead, I crossed first. With the guys from Shell trying to hold the raft steady, I attempted to get onboard. The first attempt failed miserably. The raft still floating too far out, the narrow tracks to steep to get up, Betty slammed into the front of the raft, bullbar first. I directed Eric and our helpers to pull the raft closer and our second attempt was a success. Once on the raft, we quickly worked to get to the other side. Getting off proved almost as difficult, as the raft was once again too far out and I drove Betty off and into the water with a loud thump as our long range fuel tank came crashing down on the steel tracks. It wasn’t pretty, but we were safely across.

As difficult as it was for me, Eric faired even worse, as a couple of failed attempts to get onto the raft pulled two of his tires off their rims. Off came the shredded tires and on came both spares. Another attempt and he was on. Finally! Getting off the raft proved difficult as well as his wheels slipped off the tracks on the way off, leaving his truck stuck half-on and half-off the raft. A quick recovery with our tow rope and finally we were all back on dry land.

The delay getting across the river cost us so much time that it was dark before we made it back to the tiny village that marked the main dirt road to Tchabanga. Once on the main road, the going was no faster as the heavy rains had left the road in a far worse state than when we’d driven it several days earlier. As we slowly worked our way towards Tchabanga, we caught up to the truck we’d followed across the flood plain, now stuck in a long stretch of mud. A quick stop to give them a tow and we are all on our way again.

By the time we arrived in Tchabanga it was 10pm and we were totally spent. The end to a long, difficult day of driving.

 
     
  Tchabanga - December 28, 2006
(Jim Writes) Liberated from Gamba’s bad road, we found ourselves stuck in Tchabanga, the only gas station out of diesel. We’d filled up with gas at Shell’s refinery in Gamba, but only enough to get us back to Tchabanga, not wanting to carry the extra weight on the bad road. After a search for alternate options turned up nothing, we estimated exactly how much fuel was left in our tank. I came up with approximately 100 km and according to the locals, the nearest fuel was 100k away in N’Dende. If we decided to go for it, it would be close but worse case, we’d run out of fuel a few kilometers outside of town and could use Eric’s truck to sort it out. It was now mid afternoon, so we decided to depart first thing in the morning.

In the meantime, we headed to a local bush mechanic to sort out the two broken bolts we’d identified on the beach in Gamba. Luckily, Tchabanga has one of the best bush mechanics in Africa. A short Frenchman with a curly mustache named Martial Landreau who’s spent 20 plus years in Africa. Fortunately, for us, he dropped what he was working on, climbed on top of a tall box that in placed beside the engine, and dove right in, working like a man possessed to remove the broken off bolts. The work was slow going and we were able to gauge his progress by the number of curse words streaming from him mouth. Most were words we’d never heard in French, so Sheri and I had a little fun standing beside him with a French dictionary looking them up as they poured out. “Sh@T! Mother F&c@$#!...... I think I learned more French profanity in one afternoon with Martial than I could have learned on a four year tour with the French Foreign Legion. He was an excellent mechanic however and did a first class job on our truck!

By the time he was finished it was well after dark and Sharikay and Eric were waiting on us to go to dinner. Paying Martial for his serves however turned out to be a challenge as he was more interested in sharing a bottle of gin than, getting paid. Half a bottle of gin later and Sheri was the only one fit to drive. Fortunately, our hotel was just across the street and we were still able to make it to dinner before they were completely out of food.

 
  Lambarene - December 29, 2006
(Sheri Writes) This morning we got an early start, keeping our fingers crossed that we could make it to Ndende before running out of fuel. More importantly, we could only hope that Ndende had fuel. If we thought that it was slow going getting here, it was even slower going back. Low fuel on top of an ailing transfer box isn’t a good combination when climbing mountains. Repeating the same process over and over again, we’d creep up the side of the mountain no faster than a slow jog and would coast down the other side like the Jamaican bobsled team. It was agonizingly slow. After about 50k our fuel warning light began to flicker on and off and we knew it was going to come down to the wire. We made it however and fortunately Ndende had fuel. As Jeff Watts always says “Happiness is a full tank of gas.” and as we rolled away, we breathed a sigh of relief, happy to not deal with one more hassle.

As we bounced our way north towards Libreville, we passed our millionth broken down bush taxi and stopped to talk to a couple of the passengers who were waving us down. They approached us desperate for a ride. One man in particular seemed more desperate than the rest as he had to be in the next town before noon to attend to a very important matter at the bank. Explaining that we had no room inside the truck to accommodate him, we offered to let him either ride on the roof or on the side rails. An offer regularly accepted without hesitation anywhere else in Africa. This however is Gabon, and he wasn’t about to be caught on the roof of a truck, no matter how desperate he was for help.

By late afternoon, we’d reached Lambarene, a relaxed and friendly town, where we headed for the Catholic mission in hopes of finding a place to stay for the night. At the mission we were met by Sister Elva, a delightful Argentinean who invited us to camp on the mission’s beautifully manicured law. Reminiscent of our stay in Bafut, it was a wonderful place and Sister Elva did everything she could to make sure we were as comfortable as possible. After getting settled, we made a delicious dinner of sweet ‘n sour chicken and retired to the tent for an evening of sitcoms on the laptop.


 
  Libreville - December 30, 2006
(Jim Writes) Before leaving Lamberene we paid a visit the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, a living symbol of his commitment to aid the people of Africa. From the hospital we stopped for a quick lunch by the Ogooue river before departing for Libreville.

Just outside of town we were stopped by the police, who decided to hassle us about not having a “Controlle Technique.” Whatever it was, I know that we didn’t need one and so Eric and I hunkered down for what we anticipated would be a long fight. Fortunately, discussions were cut short when they realized we were headed for Libreville. Apparently their friend was going there as well and needed a ride. Problem solved. The best part however was that their friend was Gabonese and, as we’ve already discussed, Gabonese have a very un-African like aversion to riding on the roof. So he refused the ride and we were on our way.

And we continued on our way for about 3k before Eric’s tires started shaking so badly that he could hardly control the steering wheel. Turned out that he’d put tubes in the tires he’d damaged while trying to board the raft two days earlier and had then put the tires back on the truck. Now the tires were starting to come apart. A pit stop to change both tires and we were on our way again.

We arrived in Libreville shortly before dark and headed for the Catholic Mission while Sharikay and Eric headed to the airport to look into flights to Sao Tome, where they planned to spend New Year’s.


 
  Libreville - December 31, 2006
(Jim Writes) New Year’s Eve. This morning Sharikay and Eric prepared to depart for Sao Tome while Sheri and I caught up on a few admin items. Shortly before we headed over to Toyota to drop their truck off, a sister from the mission stopped by to tell us the mission was too full and it wouldn’t be possible for us to use the showers. This came as a bit of a surprise and we figured it would be best to find more suitable accommodations.

After dropping Eric’s truck off, we went in search of another mission. On the recommendation of a friend form Holland we went to the Catholic Mission des Lourdes, a small compound located high atop a hill overlooking downtown and the ocean. Not accustomed to having visitors, they weren’t really setup to handle us however the head priest invited us to camp on their back lawn and said that we were welcome to share their shower and laundry facilities. It was a perfect setup. A quiet location, with a beautiful view of the city, sheltered from the rat race outside.

Having found a place to stay, we turned our attention to finding a place to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Finding a place wasn’t easy. Libreville is one of Africa’s most expensive cities and the expat restaurants in Quartier Louis were charging astronomical prices for their special New Year’s Eve menus. Instead, we found just the place... a wonderful little Vietnamese restaurant located within walking distance of several bars. Before heading to dinner, we had a couple of beers at a trendy club. Dinner was excellent, by far the best Vietnamese we’ve had in Africa.

We left the restaurant at around 10pm anxious to get home. The mission was less than 4k away but we knew Libreville’s reputation for police corruption and were concerned New Year’s Eve would bring out the worst in an already bad lot. After we readied ourselves for the short drive home, we hit the road. All we had to do was take a left out of QL onto Boulevard de L’Independance. Then another left a block later onto Boulevard Monseigneur Bessieux and then go straight a couple of kilometers and we’d be home. We only made it as far as Boulevard de L’Independance before literally being run off the road by a taxi full of club wielding police officers dressed in their tell-tell purplish blue camouflaged fatigues. As soon as we stopped, four clearly intoxicated officers jumped out and rushed our truck. They were extremely aggressive and immediately accused me of running a light (I didn’t) and not wearing my seatbelt (I was). They demanded our passports and when we handed them over, they demanded that we pay 96,000 CFA ($200) to get them back. A large discussion ensued in which we employed all the standard tactics including not understanding French, hoping they’d grow tired of the game and let us go. They didn’t. Instead, they became increasingly aggressive and I was growing concerned that one of their clubs was about to crack me over the head. In the middle of our discussion, they disappeared behind our truck and a couple of moments later I heard Sheri call out that they’d just jumped back in their taxi and were speeding away with our passports. Not knowing exactly what to do, I fumbled around for my keys so that we could give chase. As I struggled to keep up, Sheri and I discussed what to do. This was new territory for us. We were now on a wild goose chase in an unfamiliar city late at night on New Year’s Eve. Completely lost, our first thought was to make sure our GPS tracks were turned on so that we could find our way home.

Eventually, the taxi came to a screeching halt on a dark street and the officers got out and approached our truck. This time, I only cracked the window, afraid for our safety. The gruff officer that seemed to be in control demanded that we get out of the truck. We refused. Now very agitated, he demanded we hand over 96,000 CFA or we could forget about our passports. All we could do was continue with the naive tourist routine and say that we didn’t have that type of money with us. This routine continued until finally I heard the head guy say to the others “Time is money!” A few theatrical minutes later and we’d talked them down to 10,000 CFA.

We’ve dealt with our share of drunk cops, but this was by far the most threatening situation we’ve been faced with. Honestly, we were glad to get out of it unscathed as we later learned that such behavior is not uncommon in Libreville and there have been plenty of situations in which things got much worse. Francois, the Service Manager at Toyota, told us that one time they were servicing a police vehicle and found a box inside filled with passports, carnets, and ID cards.

By the time we got our passports back it was almost midnight and wrung in the new year while trying to find our way back to the safety of the mission. Be assured, I hope to never ring in another year the same way!

 
  Libreville - January 1, 2007
(Jim Writes) Today, like much of the world, we woke up with throbbing hangovers. Unlike much of the world however, our hangovers weren’t alcohol induced. We were still reeling from the psychological fallout of our run-in with a bunch of thugs. We’d been warned about Libreville’s rampant corruption, and now having experienced it first hand we weren’t eager to stick around and wait for it to happen again. Unfortunately, for the next several days at least, leaving wasn’t an option as we still had to replace our transfer box and get visas for Congo and Angola. A not so pleasant start to the new year.

With Toyota and the embassies closed for the holiday, there was nothing to do but relax and decompress. Not overly eager to tempt fait once more, we spent the day at the mission doing laundry (using a washing machine—a first in many months!!) and overcoming our hangovers. Tomorrow is another day.

 
  Libreville - January 2, 2007
(Jim Writes) This morning we got up early, our goal being to get as much done as possible so we didn’t have to spend any more time in Libreville. First stop was Toyota to check on our parts shipment. Unfortunately, the holidays had caused a delay and the parts hadn’t arrived yet. According to the parts supervisor they’d be in tomorrow. She was sure of it. With the parts due in tomorrow, we headed over to the service department to schedule an appointment with Lauren, Francois’ right hand man. He said no problem. They’d do the job on Thursday. Before leaving Toyota we ran upstairs to see Astrid, Francois’ assistant, to ask her if our new International Driving Permits had arrived yet. They hadn’t. Worse yet, it had already been ten days and the tracking number said they hadn’t left San Francisco. Ugh!

From Toyota we headed back to the mission to drop off the truck before catching a taxi to the Angolan Embassy to look into visas. We headed over to the embassy expecting the worst. We’d started researching Angolan visas back in Yaounde and knew that Angola, for whatever reason, had more or less stopped issuing them back in September. This presented some potentially serious problems for us. For starters, there was no getting to Southern Africa without going through Angola. Moreover, our plan from the beginning has been to go from Gabon to Point Noire, Congo, to Cabinda, Angola, a tiny sliver of Angola sandwiched between the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. From Cabinda, we’d cut through a tiny 64k sliver of war torn DRC before entering Angola again. No multiple entry visa meant no possibility of going through Cabinda, and no going through Cabinda meant we’d have to go through Kinshasa, DRC. A war ravaged and unstable city, currently occupied by 17,000 UN troops, struggling to keep peace.

That said, our plan called for us to first try the Angolan embassy in Libreville, then Brazzaville, and then either Point Noire, or Kinshasa. If all failed, our last resort would be to head to Matadi, DRC in hopes of getting a seven day transit visa. And if that failed? Well, we hadn’t sorted that out yet. Others we knew had been forced to commandeer a boat to ship around Angola all together. Only time would tell.

When we arrived at the embassy, we knocked on the gate but nobody answered. We knocked again. Still nobody came to the door. As we stood at the gate waiting for someone to receive us, a sedan drove up and the gate opened to let it in. We walked over to the man opening the gate to inquire about visas. Before I could say a word the man looked at us and said, “Are you a tourist?” We responded that we were. “We don’t issue tourist visas. Please leave!” We approached, in an attempt to get more information. As he started to close the gate he said again, “Go away!” Just as the gate was closing, we asked why they weren’t issuing visas. “I don’t know.” he said. “Go to Point Noire.” “But they aren’t issuing visas in Point Noire.” Sheri said. “Go!” he said. And with that he closed the door.

From the Angolan embassy, we went around the corner to the embassy for the Republic of Congo. Unfortunately, they were closed. We’d have to come back tomorrow. From the Congo Embassy, we headed across town to the U.S. Embassy to report our run-in with the police. No luck there either. The U.S. Embassy was closed as well.

With our parts delayed, the embassies closed, and Angola not eager to open its doors, we were going nowhere fast. I can only hope tomorrow will bring better luck!

 
  Libreville - January 3, 2007
(Jim Writes) This morning we headed for the Congo Embassy to apply for visas. Everyone we met, from the guard at the gate to the chief, was friendly and seemed pleased that tourists were interested in entering their country. A pleasant surprise for a country still recovering from a devastating civil war. A few minutes to fill out the application, a trip across the street for some copies, quick conversations with two consular officials, a short interview with the chief and an application fee of 50,000 CFA each, and our applications were submitted. Tomorrow we can return at 2pm to pick up our passports.

From the embassy, we made the 45-minute pilgrimage on foot to El Saigon, the Vietnamese restaurant we’d discovered on New Year’s Eve. It was as good as anticipated as we devoured a load of summer rolls and two orders of Pho.

From El Saigon, we headed for DHL to check on our carnets, which surprisingly had arrived. From the internet, we did a couple more quick errands before hailing a taxi back to the mission. Finding a taxi was easy. Getting one to take us to the mission was a challenge, as nobody wanted to face the corrupt police at the Gare Routiere. We went so far as to offer double the fare. No luck. Our driver didn’t want to deal with the hassle. We’d have to go the last remaining 500 meters on foot.

 
  Libreville - January 4, 2007
(Jim Writes) This morning we returned to Toyota to check on our parts order. Finally, the gears had arrived! It seemed almost too good to be true. We’d suffered so many setbacks. So much bad luck. We thought the day would never come. I went to find Lauren and let him know he could start work on the truck. Betty’s heart transplant was finally underway. With any luck we’d have the nightmare behind us by the end of the day.

Once we were comfortable that things were moving along, we headed back to the Congo Embassy to pickup our visas. When we arrived, the consular officer handed us our visas but said that the chief was on his way to the embassy and he would like to meet with us. 45-minutes later, the chief arrived and waved us into his office. As it turned out, he had no important business to discuss. He just wanted to make sure we were taken care of and offer us some advice on road conditions. It was an excellent introduction to such a war torn country.

On the way out, I asked the guard at the gate if he could direct me to a place to buy some water. He directed me to a service station just around the corner. At the service station, Sheri was inside buying water when I noticed a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Troop Carrier fueling up at one of the pumps. It was a stroke of luck as we’d been trying to locate their office to learn about their conservation efforts at Lope and Ivindo National Parks. I approached the driver and asked for directions to their offices. The drivers name was Hector and he said that it was only a few blocks away and he’d be happy to give us a ride.

At the WCS office we met Narissa Chen, a young conservationist from London, with a masters in Zoology, currently based at Lope. Narissa was extremely helpful, providing us with a wealth of information about Langoue Bai, Lope, and Mikongo Camp. In the course of talking with her we also learned that she was the head of a mandrill project. This came as exciting news to us, as our primary objective in Gabon was to track mandrills. Narissa went on to say that she was headed back to Lope on Saturday and that we were welcome to stop by the WCS field headquarters at Lope to discuss further.

From WCS, we raced back to Toyota to pickup our truck. When we arrived, Lauren greeted us with a concerned look and asked us to follow him into the service area. As we walked toward the truck I could only imagine what must be wrong... we’d ordered the wrong parts, there was another problem, who knew what it could be. Well, what it turned out to be was that they weren’t finished with the job. All was going well but Betty wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow. This was both good and bad news. Good (great actually) because there were no major snags with the parts. Bad because we needed it to camp at the mission.

A quick trip up to Francois’ office and everything was sorted out. After declining his half-serious offer to sleep in is office, he called a wonderful little boutique hotel in Quarter Louis and reserved a room. The hotel was located beside El Saigon! After a pleasant chat with Francois in which he told us several stories about the city’s corrupt police, and gave us a demonstration of his stun gun, he gave us a ride to our hotel.

After checking into the hotel, we walked next door to El Saigon for dinner. The perfect way to end a productive day.

 
  Libreville - January 5, 2007
(Jim Writes) Today’s my birthday and I received a most wonderful present... a new transfer case. Our saga, which had begun nearly two months ago in Nigeria, was finally over. Our gearbox now repaired, Betty was ready to hit the road. In our quest to get our transfer case fixed we’d dealt with some pretty unreliable folks. Fortunately however, since arriving at Toyota Gabon, things had taken a turn for the better. Francois had gone far beyond the call of duty, his staff taking care of our every need. And when it was all said and done he gave us a large discount. It was a level of personal service like nothing else we received at other Toyota dealerships. Not in The US. Not in England, or France, or Portugal, or Spain. And definitely not in Africa! His efforts were very much appreciated and, while I know that they say hindsight is 20/20, I sure wish we’d just gone straight to Gabon!

Before leaving Toyota we received one final surprise. While chatting with Francois, Astrid stopped by to deliver our IDP’s which had just arrived in the mail. Perhaps our luck was starting to take a turn for the better.

Back at El Patio, we got down to the business of celebrating. After all, there was much to be happy about. It was my birthday, our truck was fixed, and tomorrow, we’re getting the hell out of Libreville! It was time for one last trip to El Saigon!

 
  Njole Bush Camp - January 6, 2007
(Jim Writes) This morning we finally hit the road, not bothering to look back at Libreville, which was now only visible through the rearview mirror. The drive was gloriously uneventful. A couple of police road blocks, a pothole or two, or three, or then thousand here and there and that’s pretty much it. By dusk we’d made it to Ndjole where we decided to return to the bush camp we’d used on the way into the country. There we spent a restful night, the only sounds coming from the rumble of passing logging trucks and the voices of two hunters who showed up around midnight to checkout our camp.

 
  Lope National Park - January 7, 2007
(Jim Writes) After breaking our relaxing rainforest bush camp, we headed for Lope National Park. The four-hour drive to Lope was a rough and tumble affair along a dirt road that winds through rainforest before the scenery shifts to open savanna broken up by patches of gallery forest. Along the way, we stopped at the Mingoue river to pickup Jacques, a 60-something gentleman from Lope who’d been sitting by the side of the road for the past 24-hours looking for a ride home. With little room to spare, Jacques happily accepted our invitation for a first class seat on the roof and then grabbed hold of our spare tire like a rodeo cowboy as Betty bucked her way through one large hole in the road after another. When we finally arrived, I can honestly say that I was a bit surprised he was still up there! On the outskirts of Lope Village, he climbed down, completely covered in dust, thanked us for the ride and gave us directions to the WCS field office before disappearing down the road.

At WCS, we met with Narissa and her longtime boyfriend, Julian (a friendly Brit, also with WCS who’s responsible for developing Ivindo’s fledgling tourist infrastructure – perhaps the coolest job I’ve ever come across as he spends his days mounting expeditions down the Ivindo River and into the forest in search of tourism opportunities), to sort out our plan for the next week. If at all possible, our goal was to track mandrills in Lope National Park and western lowland gorillas at Mikongo Camp, and go deep into Ivindo for a visit to the research platform at Langoue Bai.

After discussing our options with Narissa and Julian, we decided that we’d need to sort out the logistics for Langoue Bai first, as getting in/out of such a remote location on short notice would be difficult, if not impossible. Once we’d sorted the Bai, we could work everything else around it. Communicating with Louise, Langoue Bai’s manager, through a sat phone email data link, we worked to sort the logistics.

First there was the matter of getting there. From Lope, getting to the Bai was still a lengthy journey in which we’d have to take an overnight train deep into the rainforest. From the train, a Land Cruiser would take us another two hours into the forest and from there, we’d have to go another three hours on foot to reach the main camp. Then it was another hour on foot to the Bai. Because of the limited train schedule and logistics involved, the only option was to take the overnight train on Wednesday. That meant that the earliest we could be in the Bai was Friday. Getting out was a bigger challenge still, and the earliest we could make it back to Lope Village was the following Wednesday. This presented a major problem as we’d already agreed to rendez-vous with Sharikay and Eric in Franceville on Monday, January 15, and getting in touch with them wasn’t guaranteed. There was also the matter of costs, which when you add in evacuation insurance, was approaching $1,500 for just three days in the Bai. For that type of money we could spend a couple of weeks in Madagascar. Despite all of this, we were very interested and agreed to touch base with Louise again tomorrow to get some additional information.

In the meantime, we discussed the mandrill project with Narissa. As she explained to us, researchers have been studying mandrills in Lope for several years, using radio collars to track their movement through Lope’s expansive network of gallery forests. Narissa went on to say that, if we were interested, we could join her team in the field as they tracked a group of approximately 600 females and sub adult males. For us it would be a once in a lifetime experience to view these majestic animals. For Narissa and her team, it was an opportunity to test a pilot program to integrate tourist into their research program. All we had to do was coordinate what day we wanted to go into the field.

From WCS, we headed into town to find Jean Remy, Mikongo Camp’s driver, in hopes of getting in touch with Martine, the camp’s resident wildlife vet and manager, about tracking gorillas. After a brief search, we found Jean Remy at his house, where we tried to contact Martine on a VHF radio. Finding a strong signal was difficult and we spent the better part of 30 minutes radioing from various points including the roof of our truck. When we finally got through, we explained to Martine over the static, what we wanted to do and she was very helpful in trying to accommodate us. If only Mikongo, like everything in Gabon, wasn’t so incredibly expensive!

Back at the WCS office, with it getting dark, Narissa asked us where we were staying and we said that we were probably just going to bush camp outside town. Narissa responded with a strong word of caution. As she explained, Lope had suffered a major rash of crime recently including several murders. Apparently, most of it revolved around the recent elections as candidates believe that they can gain special powers through human sacrifice. It was a serious issue, not unlike what we’d heard in Ghana while staying with James and Angela. It was dark, and with few options (and not wanting to impose), we decided to first try the Casse de Passage in town. Unfortunately, it was closed. With no other options, we checked into the Lope Hotel, a wonderful safari lodge on the banks of the Ogooue river. Tomorrow we’ll have to find more affordable accommodations.

 
  Lope - January 8, 2007
(Jim Writes) Today our goal was to finish working out our plan for the next several days. First we got in touch with Louise at Langoue Bai to finish discussing logistics. As much as we wanted to go, we just couldn’t make it work. We’d committed to Sharikay and Eric that we’d be in Franceville on the 15th and there was no way of getting back from the Bai before the 18th, which would put us in Franceville on the 19th, at the earliest.

With our calendar now clear, we turned our attention to tracking gorillas and mandrills. A quick radio call up to Mikongo and we were all set. Martine would be expecting us tomorrow. We’d be tracking gorillas on Sheri’s birthday!

With everything worked out at Mikongo, we headed back over to WCS to talk to Narissa about tracking mandrills. A quick discussion and we were set to join her team on Friday. Perfect!

On the recommendation of Narissa and Julian, we headed to see the “Fish Lady” for dinner. The fish lady was a woman named Dede from Cameroon who ran a little restaurant in town. Every night Dede stands behind her grill on the side of the road and cooks up a wonderful fish or beef and rice. She’s widely regarded as the best and, perhaps the only restaurant (other than the Lope Hotel) in town. At Dede’s, we met up with Julian and Hector for a couple of beers and dinner. It was a surprisingly excellent meal and afterwards, Julian invited us back to WCS to camp inside the compound.

 
  Mikongo Bush Camp - January 9, 2007
(Jim Writes) Today’s Sheri’s birthday! What better way to celebrate than tracking western lowland gorillas.
We got a later start than planned this morning as Jean Remy was supposed to meet us at 8am so that we could drive to Mikongo together. By 9am he was MIA, so we decided to go without him. 45 minutes later, we reached the turnoff for Mikongo, a narrow muddy track leading deep into the rainforest.

By 10:30am we’d arrived at Mikongo camp, a collection of seven wood huts nestled in a small clearing in the rainforest. Unaccustomed to self drive visitors, our arrival at Mikongo was met with a warm welcome. Having lost precious tracking time while waiting for Jean Remy, there was little time to spare, as our pigmy trackers were anxious to hit the trail. A few minutes to load our packs and we were on our way.

From Mikongo Camp we descended a narrow elephant trail into the rainforest. At the bottom of the trail was a broad river, which we walked along for 50 meters or so before crossing a huge log to the other side. As we walked along, trying not to make any noise, I stared at the ground in front of me. In the soft gray mud were elephant, and gorilla prints and inside the elephant prints were the footprints of duikers and bush pigs. Above, gray cheeked mangabeys and black colobus monkeys thrashed from tree to tree, their sound almost drowned out by the deafening cry of locust. We were now in another world, our senses in over drive as we scanned the forest for signs of life. Periodically, our pigmy trackers would stop and we’d all stand dead quiet for a minute or more before moving again. Occasionally, they’d spot fresh gorilla dung or a recently abandoned nest. We were close. Very close.

By midday, we’d made it to a limestone clearing high above the forest. The view of the surrounding rainforest was stunning and we stopped for a quick lunch. Taking off our packs and grabbing something to eat was enjoyable… for about five minutes, until we were overrun by sweat bees, crawling into our eyes, ears, noses and mouths.

By late afternoon, we’d covered what felt like the entire Gabon rainforest and our excellent guides had brought us close to gorillas several times. But it was late and we needed to get back to camp before dark. We’ll continue our hunt tomorrow.

Back at camp, we took quick showers and then joined Martine and a couple from Italy at the camp’s open air lounge for drinks as we watched a troop of gray cheeked mangabeys put on an aerial ballet a short distance away. Seated in comfortable chairs, cold beer in hand, and surrounded by the sounds of the rainforest, it was an idyllic setting, the perfect place to Sheri’s birthday.

By 11pm we were getting tired. As a way to save money, we’d opted not to stay at Mikongo. Instead, we headed 15k back towards Lope Village to a bush camp Fred had passed on to us. Getting there in the dark was challenging. Fortunately, Toyota Gabon had fixed our spots, which definitely helped shed a little light on the otherwise pitch black road ahead. Driving back along Mikongo’s muddy track was difficult as we struggled to spot the muddy ruts and elephants standing in the track. Back on the main dirt road, we had to stop twice – the first time for two duikers and the second for five giant cane rats. It was like being on our own night safari.

We eventually made it. It was an excellent spot located on a hilltop with a 360 degree view of the surrounding savanna and gallery forests.

 
 
 
  Mikongo - January 10, 2007
(Jim Writes) By 7:30am our tent was down and we were on our way back to Mikongo. Again, we joined our trackers, who lead us into the forest in search of lowland gorillas. And like yesterday, it was a hard slog along narrow elephants trails. By early afternoon we were close. So close in fact that the trackers located a pile of dung so fresh it was practically steaming. A little further along and they found a nest, which the broken vegetation indicated had been used within the past couple of hours. We were so close but in the dense rainforest we just couldn’t quite find them. Perhaps they were up in the trees or just quietly watching us close by. In the rainforest they could be a couple of meters away and we could still miss them. By 4pm we were back at camp. Having come up short of our gorillas, it was still a successful day. We’d seen mangabeys, and colobus monkeys, duikers, and bush pigs. Just no forest elephants and no gorillas. We’ll try again tomorrow.

Back at Mikongo we showered before grabbing a couple of cold beers and settling in for the mangabey’s evening aerial ballet. With the Italians now back at Lope, the camp was empty so we had the place all to ourselves. It was an enjoyable evening in which we chatted with Martine for hours about our collective experiences, her adventures as a wildlife vet in Costa Rica, South Africa, and Gabon, and her aspirations for the future. With much in common, we immediately hit it off and found ourselves talking well into the night. Another great day at Mikongo.

 
  Lope - January 11, 2007
(Jim Writes) This morning we headed to Lope to tend to a flat tire, which we’d blown (mud between the tire and bead) on the drive back from Mikongo, and go on a game drive into Lope National Park.

Repairing the tire proved painless, as the WCS referred us to a bush mechanic in town they call the Michelin Man. The Michelin Man was short on tools but proved an expert at using a hammer and three triangles of wood and in short order our rim was clean and our tire back on again.

At 4pm we met a driver at Lope Hotel for our afternoon game drive. Using a modified 70 series Land Cruiser, we headed into Lope NP, picking up our guide along the way. Currently under evaluation for a World Heritage designation, Lope is an amazing wilderness of rolling savanna and gallery forests, teaming with buffalo, elephants, and gorillas. Within minutes of entering the park we had our first sighting of forest buffalo. Unfortunately, our driver and guide weren’t on par with Lope’s UNESCO ambitions, as they seemed to know as much about the resident wildlife as a ride operator at a petting zoo. Regardless, Lope’s abundant wildlife was hard to miss and we spotted herds of buffalo at every turn. It was a pleasurable experience, the highlight of which was spotting a family of forest elephants at sunset.

By the time our driver dropped us off at Lope Hotel we were already 30 minutes late for our dinner engagement with Narrisa, who had been kind enough to invite us over to her house for a home cooked meal. Fortunately, Lope Village is a tiny place, and getting from one side to the other doesn’t take long. When we arrived, dinner was already ready. Not having the opportunity for much home cooking, it was a wonderful treat that included homemade pasta and fresh salad. Again, it was an enjoyable evening, in which we spent hours chatting over good food and cold beer.

 
  Lope - January 12, 2007
(Jim Writes) Mandrill Tracking. This morning we arrived at WCS at 7:30am. Narissa and her team were already busy loading the radio tracking equipment into one of WCS’s fleet of Troop Carriers. Before departing, Narissa briefed us on our plan. As we studied a topographical map of Lope, Narissa pointed out that light sections on the map indicated areas of savanna while dark areas represented gallery forests. As she explained, Mandrills typically stick to gallery forests, often traveling several kilometers per day along the forest floor as they forage for food. She then pointed out the known locations of the group from the past several days, connecting the dots to project the groups rate and direction of travel. Using this information, Narissa and her team were able to project the group’s general location.

Using their projected location as a starting point, we drove to the top of a nearby hill, where we setup the radio transceiver and searched for a signal. By slowly moving the antenna from side to side, we located the signal’s direction. We then took a compass bearing, which we marked on the map. We repeated the process again from another point in order to triangulate the group’s position.

The next step was getting to their location. This required us to leave the track, traveling through the savanna’s chest high grass. Once inside the triangle, we stopped the truck to check the signal. The signal was strong. They were just on the other side of the savanna. Inside the forest, they were making one hell of a racket, their unmistakable cries and thrashing around easily audible from our location several hundred meters away. To the uninitiated, it sounded like hell had opened up!

With the group only a few hundred meters away, Ed, Narissa’s head researcher, studied the topo map, searching for a suitable location to setup a blind. The trick was to locate a narrow, but not too narrow, section of the forest where the group was likely to be traveling on the ground and where it would be possible to blend into the surrounding vegetation. After a couple of minutes looking at the map, Ed located a suitable spot a couple of kilometers ahead of their current location.

When we reached the designated spot, we hiked in and went to work setting up a small blind between three trees. Once sufficiently camouflaged, we crawled inside, setup our camera equipment and waited. On Narissa’s advice, we were dead quiet and didn’t move an inch.

About 20 minutes later, the first rumblings of the group could be heard a couple hundred meters away. As our excitement began to build, the group slowly moved closer. Then the first one came by. Then another. And another. Then 10 and 20 and 50 and 100. They were everywhere. Then we heard a coughing noise, followed closely by others. Narissa whispered to be dead still. For all of our camouflage, they’d picked up that something wasn’t right and they were sending out a warning cry to the others.

All at once they took off. Like the running of the bulls, a stampede started. Some stopping to check us out while most raced by. And then I saw what I’d been waiting for. A mature male!. Nervous, he only stopped for a moment before continuing on. Too quick to photograph. He was amazing. A portly fellow, much less lanky then the females, with a bright red and blue face! Incredible. As a photographer, it felt like the big one that had gotten away. But at least I’d seen him. If only he’d stopped for just a second longer!!!

45 adrenaline filled minutes later, the last members of the group had past and the forest was quiet again. What an incredible experience. Definitely a highlight of the trip!

Back at WCS, we received an email from Sharikay asking if it would be possible to move our rendez-vous date back a day or two so that they could visit Lope. Apparently, they’d run into some snags fixing Eric’s truck and were now running behind schedule. Still on a high after our wonderful experience tracking mandrills, we gladly agreed, knowing they'd love Lope and Mikongo. If only we’d known a few days earlier we could have gone to Langoue Bai. After firing back a quick email letting them know it was OK to delay a couple of days, we had a quick chat with Narissa and Martine to setup trips to track Mandrills and gorillas once Sharikay and Eric arrived.

With our plan for the next few days set, Martine, who’d come into Lope for the day with Jean Remy, and Narissa, joined us for dinner at Dede’s. Some wonderful fish, a few beers and good company made for a great Friday night out in Lope Village.

Afterwards, Martine grabbed a tent and joined us at our bush camp a few kilometers outside of town. It was great having her along as it seems that the more time we spend together the more we find that we have in common. A very pleasant end to a great day in Gabon!

 
 
 
  Mikongo - January 13, 2007
(Sheri Writes) We awoke this morning to the sound of buffalo grazing on the savanna a short distance away from our tent. Our plan was to get back to Mikongo Camp early so that we could track gorillas. Unfortunately, Jim woke up with a full-blown eye infection and his vision was a starting to get a little blurry. Lucky for us, Martine’s a veterinarian and who better to treat Jim than a doctor that specializes in primates. Back at Mikongo, Martine opened her medical kit and pulled out a tube of tetracycline cream. As Martine explained, all I had to do was squirt a line of the Neosporin like gook onto Jim’s eyeball three times a day and he’d be as good as new. What she didn’t realize was that Jim’s a bit of a baby when it comes to putting stuff in his eyes and in the past, I’ve had to pretty much hold him down as he squints and squirms, blinking every time the dropper gets close to his eye. That being said, I figured Jim was more likely to go blind than let us squirt a thick gooey cream into his eye.

That’s where Martine’s experience really came in handy. Grabbing Jim like Curious George, she used one hand to hold his eye open and the other to pin him to the chair. Within seconds, she’d squirted cream in both eyes. Now all we had to do was pull the tranquilizer dart out of his butt and release him with the other monkeys.

The balance of the day was pretty low key as we lazed about camp taking in the call of the wild and watching the resident mangabeys leap from tree to tree.

For dinner, I served up our favorite camp dish, pasta with peanut butter sauce. I must admit, Martine seemed skeptical. But in the end, we made her a believer and she even helped herself to seconds! It was another wonderfully relaxing evening in one of the world’s most wonderfully wild settings.

 
  Lope - January 14, 2007
(Jim Writes) Today we learned that, even in a tiny town like Lope, it’s possible to get lost. Or at least, it’s not guaranteed you’ll be found. Not having actually talked to Sharikay and Eric, we were guessing that they’d pick up our email in either Libreville or Njole and would arrive in Lope by Saturday afternoon. Once in Lope, we figured they’d head for WCS to talk to Narissa, who would pass along the message that we were in Mikongo. That was yesterday, and by this morning we were starting to wonder what had happened to them. Not having heard anything, we decided to head into Lope to find them. Martine, eager for a little R&R, decided to join us so that she could check herself into the Lope Hotel for an afternoon of indulgence.

In Lope, a quick search turned up no signs of them. At Lope Hotel, the attendant at the front desk said he’d seen them yesterday but that they’d decided not to stay. Next we checked with Narissa, who said she hadn’t seen them. Hmm. Now we were a bit concerned. Confused, we headed back to Lope Hotel where we parked ourselves for the rest of the afternoon in hopes they’d turn up. They didn’t.

Shortly before dark, we got a room at the local casse de passage and then headed across the street to Dede’s, where we joined Narissa, Martine, and Boo, a WCS field manager based at the Lope research station, for dinner. At dinner, Boo told us that Sharikay and Eric had stopped by WCS twice yesterday afternoon looking for us. Unfortunately, Boo was the only person at WCS that we hadn’t met yet and Narissa was in the field at the time. Boo went on to say that she was on the phone the second time they stopped by and didn’t have a chance to talk to them. All she knew was that they’d left.

With little to go on, Sheri and I speculated that they’d probably continued on to Franceville to meet up with us as originally planned. If so, we figured they’d probably send us an email soon to touch base. After dinner, we followed Narissa back over to WCS to see if Sharikay had emailed us. Fortunately, she had. They were in Franceville as we’d suspected.

This was a bit of a bummer as we’d already made all of the arrangements for all of us to track mandrills and gorillas and, while we’d been waiting for them to arrive, Martine’s trackers had located a gorilla group and were tracking them with two teams to insure they didn’t loose them before Sharikay and Eric arrived. Ugh!

 
  Mikongo - January 15, 2007
(Jim Writes) We woke up this morning eager to get to Franceville to meet up with Sharikay and Eric. Unfortunately, Betty had other ideas. All the rough roads in Cameroon and Gabon were starting to take their toll and Betty’s growing list of mechanical woes was reaching the breaking point. Over the past several days we’d repaired a flat tire and fixed our air compressor while searching for a welder to repair a cracked exhaust mount, nursing an increasingly ornery starter, and scouring nearby villages for diesel as our long range fuel tank was no longer pumping over. To put it simply, Betty was in an increasingly sad state and it was all that I could do this morning to get her to turn over.

That said, we decided we’d better sort out the truck before making the 420k rough and tumble drive to Franceville. As it so happened, Hector, WCS’s mechanic. was still in Lope after having delivered one of WCS’s Troop Carriers from Libreville. Busy keeping WCS’s generator and other Land Cruisers running, he had little free time but said he’d be happy to take a look at our ignition problem later today. A well trained Land Cruiser specialist, Hector’s presence was a stroke of luck as our next best option was the local bush mechanic.

In the meantime, using a length of picture hanging wire, I fashioned a temporary fix for our exhaust. It wasn’t pretty and in truth, it did nothing to keep our exhaust from banging against the bottom of the truck. What it did do was alleviate some of the strain on the other mounts and, with any luck, would keep our exhaust from being ripped clear off the truck.

Next, we went in search of a solution to our fuel problem. Having already exhausted the possibility of finding a barrel of diesel at one of the nearby villages, we decided to extend our search further afield. Our first stop was a chat with a couple of the WCS drivers. They all agreed that, if the surrounding villages were dry, the nearest fuel was in Lastoursville, which they said with total confidence, was 80k east of Lope. By applying our “Rule of Three,” which states that the actual distance between two points is three times the local estimate, I determined that the distance to Lastoursville was more like 240k (which turned out to be pretty consistent with our Michelin Map. Unfortunately, this was about 100k further than I estimated we had left in our primary tank. That left us with two options: 1.) Move to Lope permanently, or 2.) Take Max, WCS’s Lope Manager, up on his earlier offer to use some of WCS’s reserves. This was our last resort as we knew WCS needed the fuel as much as we did.

With two problems solved, we met Hector around 4pm to work on our ignition problem. A few quick checks and Hector narrowed down the probable cause to corroded contacts inside the starter (not hard to believe given all the water Betty has been through). Unfortunately, there was no time left to fix the problem today, but he said that if we returned tomorrow morning he would take the starter apart and make the necessary repairs.

In between jerry rigging our exhaust, finding fuel, and diagnosing our starter problem, we met up with Narissa and her research team to take advantage of the mandrill tracking trip we’d reserved for Sharikay and Eric. Like before, we triangulated their position and moved a couple of kilometers ahead to setup a blind. This time we selected a particularly narrow section of gallery forest with a stream running down the middle. On the bank of the river was a large tree in which we were able to setup a small blind inside the buttress roots at the bottom. It was an ideal blind except for two tiny problems: 1.) The space inside was so cramped that Sheri and I were packed in like sardines and 2.) The tree was teeming with black ants. Not the most comfortable setup but it was well hidden, the only thing exposed was the hood on my 400mm lens.

Once situated inside the tree, we began the waiting game. And what an agonizing wait it was. Crammed together, with my tripod wedged tightly between my legs, we sat there dead quiet and motionless as ants slowly enveloped our backpacks, cameras, and finally us. It was sort of like being a contestant on Fear Factor Gabon only instead of being covered in bugs for a few minutes, we sat there for what evolved into three hours.

Not long after settling in, we began to hear the characteristic vocalizations and thrashing in the trees that signaled the mandrill’s approach. As the group came closer our anticipation once again began to build. Then, just like that, the noise stopped and it was quiet in the forest. As we waited patiently, trying to ignore the ants, 75 minutes past without another sound. Getting a bit antsy, Sheri and I began whispering to each other about what to do. They must be gone. They’d probably moved into an adjacent finger of forest I remembered seeing on the topographical map. But if they were gone, surely Ed, who was positioned on the savanna a short distance away, would notify us. But then again, Ed was further back and might not know what was going on inside the forest. And Narissa was positioned in another location. Perhaps we were waiting for nothing. Covered in ants and beginning to loose sensation in our legs, Sheri pushed for me (it was easier for me to excavate myself from inside the tree) to climb out and check with Ed. I pushed that we wait a little longer. Another 15 minutes passed without any sign of the mandrills. It had now been over 2 hours. “OK, I’ll check with Ed,” I said, as I began struggling to climb out of the tree. When I finally got free of the blind, I heard Ed on the radio to Narissa. He seemed frantic. In French he said, “ Narissa! We have a problem. Jim has left the blind!” Narissa, told Ed to hand the radio to me. When I got on the radio she said, “What are you doing???” I tried to explain our logic. She replied, “OK, I’ll take another fix on their position but the last time I checked they were just beside you.” I quietly waited while she checked. She came back on the radio a few minutes later and said, “Get back in the blind! They are right beside you! Don’t make a sound.” I climbed back into the blind. Embarrassed, we’d clearly made a rookie mistake. Yet, I couldn’t understand how over 600 noisy mandrills could be less than 100 meters away without making a sound.

Back in the tree, I hunkered down again and soon was covered in ants. It was maddening. A short time later, we heard some vocalizations. And just like that, they were moving again. Headed straight for us. As they got closer I could see that some of them were in the trees above and some were on the ground. We were dead quiet, afraid the slightest noise would spook them. Then the first ones arrived. They were in the trees just above our heads. We were so still that I could feel my heart beating. As they moved overhead we could hear them climbing through the branches. It was as if we were crouched under a wooden deck as someone walked just above our heads. As they thrashed around, bits of debris rained down on us. It was incredible. They were just on top of us and had no idea we were there. Within a few minutes, dozens of Mandrills surrounded us. Most were on the ground. And then we began to hear the coughs we’d heard before. The alarm call. Somehow they’d picked up on our blind and were growing nervous. The machine gun like bursts from my camera didn’t do anything to calm their nerves and another stampede broke out. It was an amazing sight albeit a photographic disaster. For the next 35 minutes they raced past, some stopping, but most just darting by. When the stampede was over and it was quiet again, we struggled to get out of our blind and free ourselves of the ants, which had invaded everything. What a magical day in the Central African rainforest! A wildlife experience we won’t soon forget!

Back at Lope, we met up with Martine, refreshed after 24 hours at Lope Hotel, and headed up to Mikongo where we spent a wonderfully relaxing night. Tomorrow we’ll sort our truck and be on our way!

 
 
 
  Mikongo - January 16, 2007
(Jim Writes) Shortly before sunrise I woke up to a pain in my knee. A closer examination revealed that my left knee was swollen to the size of a small grapefruit. It was stiff and hurt to move. When I crawled out of the tent I found that I could hobble around peg legged but it hurt too much to walk normally. With no obvious trauma or other catalyst, we consulted Martine, who did a quick physical exam, not unlike what she might do to a chimpanzee. As she reviewed several possible causes ranging from gout to arthritis to a torn meniscus, nothing seemed to match up well with my history. A bit perplexed, we decided to wait and see.

The balance of the day was spent hobbling around as we prepared to depart for Franceville. Thanks to Max, we were able to fill up on diesel before meeting with Hector to repair our starter. Watching Hector pull apart the starter and clean the contacts was educational and was yet another example of the damage caused by the recent bad roads (when Hector opened the starter, water poured out).

With our truck patched up and fully fueled, we said our goodbyes and thanked everyone at WCS for all that they’d done to make our stay at Lope NP a unique and unforgettable experience. Then it was back to Mikongo, where we spent one last wonderful night with Martine and Kat, Mikongo’s newly arrived primatologist.

 
 
 
  Mikongo - January 17, 2007
(Jim Writes) This morning I woke up in incredible pain, my knee so grotesquely swollen and I could hardly move it, much less walk. If yesterday my knee was the size of a small grapefruit, today it looked more like a cantaloupe, my kneecap indistinguishable under a mushy layer of fluid. Just recovering from a urinary tract infection and an eye infection, the timing couldn’t have been worse. It was like I was all of a sudden falling apart. Not great considering we were deep in the rainforest, with no medical help at hand.

With my condition clearly worsening, Martine examined my knee again. There was no easy diagnosis. Her concern was that there could be an infection and therefore it would be best for us to get to Franceville as quickly as possible. Unable to walk, Kat assisted Sheri with putting down our tent before we said our goodbyes and sadly departed Mikongo Camp. What a wonderful place indeed!

Unable to drive, Sheri helped me into the passenger seat and then took the wheel. The drive to Franceville was a grueling seven-hour slog along a bumpy dirt track, in which my knee was so uncomfortable I could hardly sit still. It was terrible but alas we made it to Franceville, arriving just before sunset. With Lope’s satellite internet connection down, we’d not been able to communicate with Sharikay and Eric, who presumably were waiting for us somewhere in town. By a small miracle, we happened to go straight to the hotel where they were waiting on us.

Relieved to have finally met up again, Sharikay and Eric told us that they’d already met the WCS staff in Franceville and had been invited over for drinks at Trish and Paul’s house. While I wasn’t really feeling up for making social calls, it was an opportunity that we couldn’t refuse as we’d already heard a lot about Trish (WCS’s field vet) from Martine and Narissa.

Our visit with Trish and Paul was enjoyable. An American couple from California, they’d spent most of their careers working for NGO’s in Sierra Leon and Gabon, Trish as a wildlife vet and Paul (a Ph.D. in Primatology), studying HIV and other viruses in primates. They were wonderful hosts and hanging out in their home felt about as close to American as you can get in Africa and when we weren’t discussing the war in Sierra Leon or close encounters with chimps and mandrills, we were playing with their delightful daughter, Eva.

Trish also took a few minutes to examine my knee. A physical examination and history weren’t enough to identify the cause and unfortunately she said that Franceville lacks the necessary doctors and medical equipment to conduct a more comprehensive battery of tests. As she noted, our only immediate option was to use RICE for a few days to see if it improves. In the meantime, she volunteered to do some research into possible causes and check in on me daily to monitor my progress. Never underestimate the value of good field vets!

 
  Franceville - January 18-24, 2007
(Jim Writes) The next week was spent laid up in a bed at the Hotel Masuku. Sheri was a saint, taking care of my every need, as it was painful to even take a shower. In between dealing with a possible Ebola outbreak in Congo, working on research grants, and taking care of Eva, Trish managed to find time each day to stop by and check my progress. My progress however was slow going, and after nearly a week of rest, the swelling had only gone down slightly.

With little improvement, we were beginning to grow concerned. Clearly, something was causing the swelling. We just didn’t know what. Trish’s concern was that I could have damaged something inside the knee (possibly the meniscus) and leaving it untreated could cause further damage, or much worse, it could get infected, which could be potentially fatal if it got into my bloodstream while we were in the bush. That said, it was obvious that my knee needed medical attention and, with Trish’s help, we started researching our options. While I contacted my triathlon coach back in the U.S. (somewhat of an encyclopedia on knees and friends with some very good orthopedic surgeons), Trish talked with friends and colleagues in Gabon, Congo, and DRC. The long and the short of it was that my medical options in Central Africa were limited to Libreville, Brazzaville, and Kinshasa, none of which seemed to have the necessary medical facilities or expertise for diagnosis and treatment. The only other option was to fly to either South Africa or the U.S. for treatment. Not as easy as it seems since we’d have the added logistical challenges associated with leaving the truck behind and returning later to pick it up and continue on. A story unto itself!

After a lengthy debate, we decided that the best option was to drive to Brazzaville. There we’d have greater access to medical facilities than in Franceville and, if necessary, could fly directly to South Africa. In preparation for our arrival, Trish contacted Ken Cameron, her counterpart in Congo, to let him know that we were on our way. Having thoroughly enjoyed visiting with Trish and Paul, we said our goodbyes and vowed to meet again in the U.S. Tomorrow we depart for the Congo.