Diary of our travels through Gabon

Day 135: Wednesday 26 January

Just to continue where we left off in Cameroon, here is our route from Libreville into the Republic of Congo (small Congo to us, as opposed to the big one, or DRC or Democratic Republic of Congo, in which we plan to spend very little time indeed).

It had started to rain as we crossed the border from Cameroon into Gabon, which was something of a relief as it drops the temperature somewhat. The border formalities for entry into Gabon don't take place at the border, but about 30km into Gabon in Bitam. By the time we got there, it had begin to rain a bit harder and was dark, but the police station and douane were easy to find. The formalities were unproblematic (a smile helps) although many details were required on a form not quite big enough for them.

At the police station we found a 'guide' - or he found us - but this was fine because he found us a cheap hotel (Hotel Voyageurs: N2º04.791 Eº11 29.707), for CFA 5,000 per room (just over a fiver). Our guide also took us to a couple of restaurants until we found a reasonable one for some simple fayre, i.e. CFA 1,000 per meal, including such delicacies as a spaghetti omlette, I kid you not!

After that, we filtered water for all four of us for the coming days, had a shower and went to bed, having discussed the plan for the next leg of the journey.

Day 136: Thursday 27 January

Jungle & rain
Civil engineer anywhere?
This should be banned!
Either side of the equator
And here's proof
Supper at Bushcamp GA

Up at 6am, had a quick breakfast and left by 7:15. The road out of Bitam was excellent at first, that is to say brand new tarmac. After some distance it became potholed and then there were sections of piste, which were often preferable to pot- holed tarmac. The piste sections were in fact incomplete road, or soon to be completed tarmac. As folk will see from any atlas, and indeed from the map to the right of this page, the road crosses the equator twice between Bitam and Libreville. We decided to stop for lunch on the equator, on our first crossing thereof. Below you will see a couple of photographs, one of which shows the two vehicles, with Land Rover in the northern hemisphere and Land Cruiser in the southern hemisphere, as confirmed by two GPS recievers, held within 0.001 of a minute apart.

Lunch was great form a culinary point of view, although we were on the menu for hundreds of tiny fly / ant type creatures, which meant we were not keen to hang about that long. The road soon became very windy and hilly with many trucks laden with large logs passing us or requiring to be passed by us. We concluded that there was no chance of reaching Libreville today, so drove on for about 3 hours until 18:00 and found a place to bushcamp - among some pretty hardy thorns and near a village that provided singing and drumming entertainment, though without knowing we were behind the forest(?). After a quick meal of cup-a-soup and a cheese & tomato baguette, it was time for bed, faling asleep to the sound of drums form the village and thunder from above.

Day 137: Friday 28 January

Well the outside of the tent was wet ... We were fine though. It was a misty start and we left at 06:30 to avoid the logging lorries on the bendy bits of road. Said bendy bits lasted until Oyan, and then it got a bit more level and straight, although this did not mean no potholes, oh no! We had breakfast en route in order to make good time to Libreville, which we reached at 9:15; which was nice.

We drove straight to the Angolan Embassy (N0º25.283 E9º25.825) to get a visa for that country. Although we had heard many stories about having to have photocopies of all visas in one's passport, it being hideously expensive and a double entry (for Cabinda and for Angola proper) being impossible, we managed to sweet-talk the woman with a Portugese greeting and a bit of German (she was proud to have learned it at school in Libreville!) and eventually got a double entry visa valid for 30 days after entry into the country, for CFA 60,000 (about £65), which is pretty reasonable if the stories are to be believed.

We were told to return at 13:00 to pick it up, so went off to try and get money while Hendrik Jan & Julian went to find the Mission Lieberman, in the grounds of which we intended to camp. Finding money proved to be a bit difficult - again because of having cash Dollars and Dollar travellers' cheques. Even places that say that TCs are welcome will not cash them, but eventually we found a bureau de change attached to a bank that would do so and changed as much as we thought necessary to get us through Gabon, the Republic of Congo and into Angola as far as Luanda - although at an apalling rate of CFA 450 to the Dollar. This is despite Libreville being a very well developed city in the European sense, with new and nearly new suburban 4x4s everywhere and loads of money in evidence by what folk were wearing, doing and driving and the new office block for parliamentarians - combined, of course, with shanty towns in the valleys of Libreville ...

We met the others back at the Embassy and collected our visas, before going off to a very Western supermarket and to a cyber cafe, before meeting them again at the Mission Lieberman (N0º24.386 E9º26.925) at around 18:00. It was a great place to stay, for a mere CFA 2,000 per person per night, or around 2 quid, with hot water, clean showers and nice gardens to rest in or eat one's breakfast. It is also a couple of hundred yards from a market and, as it happens, from a spot where mechanics work from on the street. This was to become important later.

In the evening we left the others at the mission and went to a bar called Planete Holywood for a beer - research, of course. We had a beer called Régab, which was the only genuinely Gabonese beer we were to find during our short visit to the country. It is very malty, close to a real ale though with more fizz and with a good nose and taste - though at 4.6% alcohol it is on the low side for Africa / a lager beer. After that we went back to the mission for a quick supper of baguette and cheese & tomato.

Day 138: Saturday 29 January

A very busy day, although it started well with coffee & baguette and the newspaper, albeit a three day old Herald Tribune. The tasks for the day were many, mostly occasioned by the bad roads that had left cooking oil where it shouldn't be in the inside of the car and broken bits outside the car. While Moira set about sorting out the food and other boxes which we had removed from the Landy, Murray went off to get the spare wheel bracket welded and three bushes changed. It was also necessary to get a new mirror for one of the wing mirrors, which had broken against a truck when Murray swerved to avoid a taxi that was clearly playing chicken. OK, bad call, but we didn't need to involve the police, now did we?

To accomplish all of this, Murray met up with a chap called Nickéz, who is a mechanic but was able to take him to a welder and then to others for the mirror and bushes. It was interesting to take Nickéz for a beer by way of thanks and chat to him about life in Libreville, although the chat was slow on account of the lack of French on Murray's part. It was also interesting to chat to Charles, the mechanic, because he spoke English on account of being Nigerian. He was able to explain what the police were doing in the area, rounding folk up and 'repossessing' their goods. It turned out that they were looking for people's identity documents and extorting money from them if they didn't have them. So not far off apartheid South Africa, bar the levels of violence and the race card. The mechanics in the area called the police and the officials from the Mayor's office 'armed robbers', as they 'repossessed' equipment from dealers in the area who were allegedly not supposed to be trading there. It was considered no coincidence that the equipment would look pretty good in their office, being radios, cabinets and the like.

So that was a very interesting experience, as is so often the case when we are able to interact with folk in various trades, particularly in our case with mechanics - a paradoxical advantage of having the vehicle we have being that we get to meet the 'person on the street'. In this case, Murray really didn't feel 'white' as much as merely 'foreign' probably because of a combination of folk here being very accepting and partly because of how many ex-pats live in Libreville (about 100,000 in the country, aparently, in the constriction and road industry for the most part as well as the military).

After what turned out to be a very hot and tiring day getting all things sorted out, we had a simple supper of biscuits and beer that we had bought at the supermarket. We had two bottles of Régab and a bottle of Beaufort 6.9. The latter is called 6.9 because that is its alchol content. It is brewed under licence in Gabon although Beaufort is a Cameroonian beer. It has good body (well it would do, wouldn't it?) and a nice sweet aftertaste - after, that is, a very dark malty taste that gives the impression that the large alcohol content is for its own sake, which overpowers the allegedly large hop content.

Day 139: Sunday 30 January

Interesting church

Up fairly early and had a rush to filter water so that we would be ready to leave ensemble. Left at about 10:30 and drove on the route south towards Lamberéné. On the way out of Libreville we drove by a church which is interesting because of the mosaics towards the roof but more because of the wooden pillars allegedly carved by a blind man, depicting biblical stories. Being a Sunday, we didn't get too close because there was a congregation just coming out and it would have been unseemly to get a close-up photograph.

In the early afternoon, after a bread and cheese lunch, we visited the hospital that was set up on the island of Lamberéné by Albert Schweitzer, he of Nobel Prize fame and author of Reverence of Life . It was an interesting insight into the work of one of the world's great men, philosopher, theologian, organist, doctor, philanthropist, etc., etc., pretty humbling, etc.

Mission Catholique, Lamberéné

In Lamberéné itself we were able to stay at the Mission Catholique de L' Immaculate Conception for CFA 2,000 p.p.p.n., which was pretty tranquil and grassy and generally nice. It also afforded us the chance to use electricity and the computer to write a bit of this site. For those of you following this route, it is beyond a no entry sign (!) at S0º41.525 E10º13.680.

Day 140: Monday 31 January

Ate breakfast on the road after driving back through the town to get a baguette in order that we could have breakfast on the road. The road took us through thick rain forest on tar at first and then on piste of varying qualities with some pretty bad potholes, many of which attacked one unawares. We also drove through many areas of savannah, which caused us to question whether this was a result of many years of eforestation because that's just how it looked. And on we drove, heading for the border with the Congo (small Congo).

Due to the quality of the roads, we got only as far as Ndende, where we understood that border formalities were to be completed. This was indeed the case, although we were later to learn that there are other offices that do the same thing - again. We had to provide photocopies of the front pages of our passports as well as the page containing the visa for Gabon, so that took some time. As for the carnet de passage, we learned that that would be stamped at the border, indeed at S2º43.294 E11º39.299.

We were able to camp on the grounds of the Drugstore Motel (at the Total petrol station, S2º24.105 E11º21.068) and after discussion with le Patron we were able to use one of the rooms for shower and toilet for a mere CFA 3,000 (just over v£3). This was doubly good because we were tired and dirty and felt like new people after a shower and some food, some of which had been bought in town while we were walking sround trying to find the appropriate offices.

Day 141: Tuesday 31 February

Left at about a quarter past seven and set off to complete the 48km to the border with Congo. The road starts well, as is so often the case in villages or towns, and then turns into pretty bad piste with lots of potholes. So it took us a couple of hours to get to the border where we stopped at the gendarmerie. This involved lots of writing down of details in our passports, as well as details of our occupations and of our vehicles. And then we were out of Gabon, feeling that it is a pity that our visit here has been so short ...

OK, click 'back', and click on 'Congo' on the map.