‘Une deuxieme!’ I whisper half to myself, half to my guide, stretching the extent of my French. I open the door of the Land Rover quietly, slipping to my feet from the high seat.
Getting to Lopé
I reach Lopé, perhaps the finest of Gabon’s 13 national parks established in 2001 by the late president of 42 years Omar Bongo. It is certainly the easiest to reach while relying on the country’s potted transport infrastructure. With stunning beaches (and surfing hippos) lining Gabon’s Atlantic coast, and forest stretching all the way to Rwanda to the east almost everything in Gabon is imported (predominantly from France, the former colonial power). It can make Gabon a more expensive destination than others in the region, so making savings by using the regular transgabonaise services across the country makes financial sense if in search of a less-well known central African destination.
Aboard a heavy-set train (lightly padded seats in second class; deep never-get-out-again seats in first) I rumble through Gabon’s hinterland from its chic capital Libreville. I disembark at Lopé, but the train continues for another eight hours to the distant hill-strewn town of Franceville.
The Lopé Hotel
The Land Rover is waiting for me beside the rail tracks in Lopé for the free transfer along the bare iron-red roads to the Lopé Hotel. Sitting within the confines of the reserve the hotel’s main locale sees the individual chalets and perfect en suite facilities overlooking Mount Brazza, Lopé’s tinkling river, and the outdoor pool. Bats hang from the overhanging eaves of my chalet showing me just how connected with the park the hotel is. Besides lounging beside the pool, making use of the bar, or sampling the best bolognaise this side of Africa in the restaurant, there are various optional activities on offer.
I decide to first go on the archaeological trail; sold more for its boat trip along the Lopé River. From the shallow stream beside the outdoor pool the river opens out into a fully fledged watercourse. Having studied stone age abstract carving on the few exposed rocks among the grasses and returned to the boat we manage to startle a full-sized and completely wild bull forest elephant nibbling fruit overhanging the river bank with the boat’s outboard motor.
Rather than lessening my exhilaration this short sight enhances my desire for more wildlife, so I turn to the walking safari. It takes me, guide leading the way, through high grasses and into the forest. I struggle to get used to the shadows at first, missing many of the antelope, such as duiker, and birdlife pointed out to me.
Even I can’t miss the rust-red hides of the herd of forest buffalo, smaller than their savannah cousins but just as tetchy; and heading back we come close to seeing chimpanzee, the guide pointing out a ‘nest’ of still-fresh leaves about 10 feet into the branches of a stumpy tree where one of the animals would have spent last night.
It is from a vehicular safari that I get my best views of the reclusive forest elephant, causing my earlier French utterances. We keep back, watching the animals raise their trunks to check out our scent. Unlike the animals of the Masai Mara and Serengeti these elephants remain almost completely unused to humans; a result of low tourist numbers and the animals’ love of the forest. And unlike safaris in Kenya or Tanzania sightings like these cannot be guaranteed. The adventure of just getting to Lopé is half the fun.