Safari Special: Hush, the natives are still a bit shy

Gabon is only now opening up its forests to tourism, and the gorillas haven't learned the drill. Philip Sweeney steps into virgin terrain Animals in Gabon are still wary of humans with a taste for bushmeat, finds Philip Sweeney at a rehab unit for distressed creatures
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The Independent Travel

If you want to challenge African stereotypes, visit Gabon. A haven of tranquillity in the strife-torn Congo Basin, it once held the world record for per capita champagne consumption. That was in 1985, a decade and a half after oil was discovered off-shore and the former French colony of just over a million people got rich. Petro-francs oozed downwards from the ruling clan centred round President Omar Bongo's great concrete palace on the Libreville seafront. Poorer neighbours - Cameroonians, Togolese, Brazzavillois - flooded in to man the kitchens and drive the trucks and taxis, and no one bothered with tourism.

Then, five years ago, the oil began to run out and other statistics assumed a more pressing significance. Gabon is 85 per cent forested and rich in wildlife, with elephants, buffalo, hippos, chimpanzees and almost half of the surviving lowland gorillas of the Congo Basin - 35,000 shy, fruit-loving primates, distant relatives of thetourists who pay handsomely to get near them in Rwanda and Uganda. In 2002, Mr Bongo saw the eco-tourism light and declared 11 per cent of Gabon a national park. Of the pioneers exploiting this almost virgin space, the best is my destination, Operation Loango.

Libreville airport is a nice introduction to Equatorial Africa - small, open-fronted and devoid of the scrums of bribe-extractors endemic to bigger, rougher cities. An almost polite official sticks a pleasingly garish visa in my passport - for €55 (£38) you don't want discreet - and it's out into the warm, musty night air.

Gabon's capital is a classic of Franco-Africana. Legionnaires play boules and old-fashioned restaurants serve harengs pommes à l'huile and pichets of rosé. The nightclubs play Congolese hits while trendy young blades do the latest dance craze, the cranning,hands in pockets.

Time flies when you're cranning, but big game calls. Soon Operation Loango's sturdy Dornier is droning over the lagoon to Omboué. Then it's two hours by Landcruiser to the main lodge on the edge of a majestic lagoon at Iguela. We arrive just in time to dump the bags in one of the dozen roomy, air-conditioned wooden cabins and head off for an early evening game drive. As we roll slowly across the savannah, the guide's binoculars scan the forest edge: 200 yards away, a dozen buffalo pause to return our gaze. A mile on, a sitatunga antelope melts quietly into the marsh reeds , then a collection of low rust shapes trots briskly across the middle distance: fearsomely tusked red river hogs.

Back at the lodge, we have drinks on the verandah and a three-course dinner, featuring fresh snapper. The company is interesting: a young woman helicopter pilot from the oil rigs, an American vet and his wife, seasoned East African primate viewers, and Rombout Swanborn, the Dutch owner of Operation Loango, who spent his childhood just down the coast with his father, one of the first Shell oil engineers. In the old days, oilmen came to Iguela at the weekends with a rod and some female company for a spot of F&F - fishing and fornication. Things are more decorous now, but one F still flourishes - the best on the continent, apparently, with threadfin, barracuda and our huge and delicious African snapper.

The next day we're going to see gorillas, but not, unfortunately, wild ones. We board a launch and glide over the Fernan Vaz lagoon to Evengue, a small island where we install ourselves for the night in tents on platforms. The chef gets to work on dinner while a guide leads us into the woods. Evengue's gorillas are in rehab, confined to a large, electric-fenced copse, readjusting from a litany of gorilla trauma. Mabeke, the big male silverback who stands guard over the group as we approach, was released from years in the cages of a medical research centre, as was his mate, Kessala. Oendja, a three-year-old orphan, was confiscated by rangers from a nearby village, where he was found tied up, surrounded by barking dogs and screaming children, his mother having been snared and killed for bushmeat.

The corollary to the game widely on sale, from monkeys to pythons, is the fear of humans of many species, but, happily, this doesn't apply to the birds. As we sip coffee and nibble brioches on our flat-roofed houseboat, pied kingfishers hover and dive, palm nut vultures and fish eagles soar overhead, lily-trotters live up to their name, and pairs of brown hammerkops flit like giant moths above the water.

Loango's people are eye-catching too. An hour's boat ride from Evengue lies the old mission village of St Anne, tumbledown colonial buildings and a spacious metal church designed by Gustave Eiffel. On Sundays, villagers in best shirts and dresses arrive for Mass in wooden boats called pirogue.Gabon's indigenous cults range from animist to sorcerous (whose adepts prize primate parts like saints' relics).At a Bwiti ceremony, in the village by Iguela Lodge, initiates chew the bitter roots of the iboga bush to induce hallucinations. Through the night, painted raffia-draped dancers swirl amid showers of sparks over resin-burning braziers to the sound of drums, chants and a tolling school bell. In the morning, I wake with soot-filled nostrils and a charred notebook to coffee poured by one dancer, back on duty at the lodge.

Over at Omboué, the Dornier's waiting. Gorillas In The Mist it isn't, but as a slice of Congolese reality made safe, and a way to advance the cause of beleaguered wildlife, Operation Loango could hardly be bettered.

Give me the facts

How to get there

The author travelled to Gabon with Royal Air Maroc (020-7307 5800; www.royalairmaroc.com) via Casablanca. Return fares start at £507.

Where to stay

Philip Sweeney was a guest of Operation Loango, which offers tailor-made trips to the Petit Loango National Park and flights from Libreville to Iguela. Flights cost €130 (£92) each way. Accommodation costs €295 (£210) per day, inclusive of meals and all normal excursions. For reservations contact SCD BV in the Netherlands on 00 31 26 370 5567 or see www.operationloango.com.

Further information

UK nationals need a visa to visit Gabon. Operation Loango can arrange a visa on arrival in Libreville or contact the Gabonese Embassy (020-7823 9986). It is necessary to show evidence of a hotel or tour operator booking in Gabon.

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