192-Part Guide To The World: Gabon

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Official name: Gabonese Republic

Official name: Gabonese Republic

Language: Don't expect a simple answer to this one, given that we are dealing with a country whose population comprises about 40 Bantu groups, including four major tribes (Fang, Eshira, Bapounou, Bateke). The country's official language is French, but a command of Fang, Myene, Bateke, Bapounou or Bandjabi would come in handy.

Size: 267,670 sq km, or nine times bigger than Belgium, which is amazing considering how small it looks on the map.

Population: 1,320,000

National dish: Manioc paste (or rice) served in a spicy sauce alongside a selection of "bush meats". And watch out: these include antelope, monkey, porcupine and snake.

Best monument: The Palais Présidentiel right in the middle of the capital Libreville bears witness to President Bongo's lively sense of grandeur. Construction in the 1970s, mainly by Italian companies and using the finest Italian marble, cost over $1000 (in today's money) for every man, woman and child in the country. Tourists, in case you were wondering, are not allowed inside.

Most famous citizen: Without a doubt, President El Hadj Omar (formerly Albert-Bernard) Bongo, who has now been running the country for over 30 years - longer than most Gabonese can even remember.

Best moment in history: The 1970s, believe it or not, are referred to in these parts as the time of the "Gabonese miracle". It was a decade which saw not only the processing of very large manganese and uranium deposits, but also the rocketing of oil prices. Colossal oil revenues saw the country leap from the jungle (in some cases, literally) to caviar and champagne in a few years.

Worst moment in history: The early years of the 20th century, when French companies more or less enslaved large sections of Gabonese society to work for them. The result was a series of revolts, which were quashed with violence. In the process, the French managed to destroy forests and other natural resources, and the result was a disastrous economic slump.

Essential accessory: A pirogue: very useful if you want to get off the beaten track and see the wildlife. Boating up the Nouna river, for example, will enable you to see large numbers of forest elephants and possibly gorillas.

What not to do: Drive during the rainy season, (which lasts for eight months), when Gabonese roads are extremely slippery and dangerous.