I'm not sure what we expected from
Gabon. Not much more than a large expanse of unpopulated
rainforest. However, it has turned out to be the most surprising,
and positive, first impression yet.
The border was official
without being officious and the formalities were dealt with
professionally and efficiently. We were then free to sail south on
an impeccable tarmac road. We're not just talking perfect tarmac
here, we're talking freshly painted road markings, European style
road signs, speed restrictions and little lay-bys marked with a P
for parking (or pee, whichever way you choose to interpret it).
Believe me, nowhere else in Africa has anyone thought about
building stopping places on their new roads. Too much tarmac, too
much effort and anyway don't you build new roads so that you can
drive VERY fast on them?
So Gabon, with its P signs was a welcome change. The villages, too, seemed wholly more civilised
than the rest of Africa with some beautifully painted little houses
with gardens and white picket fences.
Otherwise, the landscape was what one would expect of Gabon. The
road wound itself in all its surfaced glory through dense jungle.
Occasionally it would open enough to see hills in the distance or
look down on a fast flowing river but otherwise it was just us and
We made good time and reached Oyem just before sunset. It was a
relaxed, friendly town and we camped in the Catholic Mission, next
to the beautiful church building, with a vantage point over the
town and the hills. We made some food to the sound of a group of
women singing in perfect harmony in preparation for their service
We realised that it was Palm Sunday as
we drove out of Oyem. Many people were carrying palm leaves, which
also decorated the roads signs. We read the story from the Bible
and could picture the setting so much more easily than usual.
had another long but exceptionally beautiful day of driving. I
would even go as far as to suggest that it was the most beautiful
scenery so far. The first half of the day continued through jungle
with the road turning into very good, graded, dirt road. Whilst the
tarmac had been a treat, the deserted red dirt did seem to fit more
sensitively with the unadulterated surroundings.
We have noticed many more elderly people in Gabon than anywhere
else in our African travels. They all seem to be going strong and running the
show. The old women, often very petite, walk along carrying wicker
baskets on their backs filled with wood and often stopped to give
us a warm smile when we passed.
There are 1.43 million people in Gabon. In Nigeria there are 147
million. This means that for every one Gabonese there are more than
one hundred Nigerians. We found ourselves reflecting on this as we
drove along the empty roads and passed the tiny, barely inhabited
villages. A person standing under a tree in Gabon would be a
hundred people under a tree in Nigeria. Three Gabonese drinking
beer in the shade would be three hundred Nigerians. And, for every hundred bandits in Nigeria,
there must be less than one in Gabon and there is no way they would
be on this road…
It is amazing to bump into people that you know in the heart of
the Gabonese jungle. Just as we popped out of the trees and saw a
stunning panorama of savannah and grassy hills, a motorcyclist
appeared on the horizon. It was Costa, our Spanish friend, closely
followed by Thomas and Maria in the legendary 2-wheel drive white van,
against all the odds, is still going. They had decided to change
route after some local advice about the sand across the border into
The landscape surrounding us as we approached Lope was a
complete change from the rainforest. It opened out into grass
covered hills, dotted with trees, rolling as far as the eye could
see. In the foreground was a wide river. Maybe it is because grassy
hills are something that I grew up surrounded by but this new
scenery really made my heart leap and gave us a new lease of
energy. It was so peaceful, so unspoilt and so calming. Desert and
sand can be harsh and monotonous. Rainforest is spectacular but can
sometimes be intimidating. This green openness was just wonderful
and at times resembled a giant version of Dartmoor or the Alpine
We found our friendly and organised campsite just as it was
getting dark and parked the car on a field overlooking the hills.
We felt like we had arrived in paradise.
Not only are we parked on grass. Not
only can I see rolling hills in the distance. Not only did the
light rain in the night give off that reassuring damp grass smell.
All this alone made me feel at home but then I heard the wonderful
sound of wood pigeons. It is a nostalgic sound that takes me back
to the excitement of family camping holidays. I had to remind
myself that here we were in Gabon, in the supposedly scary and
'dark' stretch of our trip and I haven't felt so relaxed in my
surroundings since being in the UK.
We ate scrambled eggs whilst
admiring the view and then got back on the road for the long haul
to Franceville. It was another mammoth day and we finally pulled
into the hotel car park as it turned dark.
After three gruelling driving days it
was time for a rest. We are parked on the lawn of Hotel Masuku,
which has a nice inside area, a pool, a great view of the hills and
We did our usual routine on rest days, which is not to rest very
much but get lots of jobs done – washing, filling water, shopping.
At least my washing experience was more interesting than usual.
When one of the ladies saw me hand-washing, she showed me to the
hotel's laundry room. One thing that amazes me about Africans is
how beautifully turned out they are and how immaculately clean they
manage to keep their clothes. You'll be in the middle of the dusty,
muddy bush and someone will pass you on a pushbike, in a perfectly
white shirt and light pair of trousers. How?? Me, on the other
hand, have dirty clothes by 8.30am and its best not to mention the
state of my feet.
In the laundry room, the women were painstakingly pressing white
sheets. The lady showed me to the sink I could use and, when I
finished with my washing, she showed me the electric spinning
machine. I think she was more than slightly bemused at my reaction.
C: That will spin my clothes and I can use it?
L: Yes just put your clothes in here.
C: Wow, all of them?
L: Yes just put them in like this (starts machine).
C: Wow! This machine is amazing. Look at all that water coming out
of the clothes. This is brilliant. They're almost dry. Thank you so
L: (Looking a bit confused) But these machines are for you white
people. Us Africans don't use them.
She was clearly a bit confused by a white woman who was acting
like she had never seen any kind of electrical device to wash or
spin clothes. What she didn't realise was how much I detest hand
washing clothes and that for four months I have done a very bad job
of it, getting frustrated that I can't get the stains out and
getting frustrated by the way clothes stretch when you hang them up
hand wrung but still dripping wet. The pleasure I got out of seeing
all that water come out of the spinner and then the subsequent
pleasure in the fact that our clothes dried in a matter of minutes,
was undeniably slightly disproportionate. I can't imagine what I am
going to be like the day I actually get to use a washing machine, a
kettle, an oven, a bed side lamp or all the other many, many,
conveniences that we all take for granted.
A frustrating morning turned into a
better afternoon. We decided to update the website but were plagued
with the kind of technological difficulties you have when trying to
achieve anything in an African internet café, even in Gabon. We
ended up paying a small fortune to use WiFi in a swanky hotel but
were glad that we had succeeded in letting everyone know where we
were and what we have been up to. It makes us feel closer to our
family and friends somehow.
We left Franceville about noon to
cover the 90 kilometres east towards Leconi, which is the border
town with the Congo. It was another beautiful drive as we rose up
onto a vast plateau of grass and shrubs, which extends across the
We stopped for a quick swim in L'Eau Claire' – a clear water
river, which the Gabonese believe is a miracle because all their
other rivers are murky with the red earth from the rainforest. It
was refreshing but had an alarmingly strong current.
We found the customs and the police, where we intended to be
first thing in the morning so that we could get a head start on the
sandy 'piste' into the Congo. We decided to ask the customs
officials if we could camp outside and it was no problem. This was
a great option as it meant that we would be on their doorstep as
the dawn broke.