Gabon

I got my Gabonese Visa and spent my last night in Yaounde drinking with two other riders I had met outside the Gabonese embassy. Its always good to meet other bikers and Chris (Swiss) and Andrei (Romanian) had traveled almost the same route as me (including the Ring Road) and we had loads to talk about, exchanging stories and discussing the way through Central Africa. I got up before light to make an early start, but also to avoid seeing the lady proprietor of the guest house who I’d had an argument with the night before. The guest house is owned by a Swiss man and his African wife. He is very nice and helpful but she is a complete control freak and demanded that I return home at ten. I decided to completely ignore her and was locked out of the guest house when I returned late, but someone eventually let me in. I later heard from others that I got off lightly and she is capable of some insane behavior (someone should warn Lonely Planet about her).

I was relying on my GPS to find my way out of Yaounde but Google maps can be very temperamental at times and it refused to show the streets in any usable clarity. I rode off in what I thought was roughly the right direction and stopped to ask a security guard for the way to the airport, which was on the same route. The guard turned out to be the manager of the security company and he was driving staff to start their shifts at the airport and I could follow them. I followed the car for what seemed like quite a long time, with many stops to drop off and pick up his guards. His truck badly needed some new piston rings and I was in his smoke cloud most of the way. When we got to the airport, the manager had written out the route to the border for me and gave me his details in case of any problems. The route he gave me was superb and although I didn’t realise it, I had made great time by exiting Yaounde with his help and I made it to the border for midday. The border is a bridge over a river and it was so peaceful that I had to ask if it was the border.

I had to double back a few kilometers as I had missed the main customs office to get my carnet stamped. All in all it was a very easy border, with no money being demanded. On the Gabonese side, customs wanted to use my carnet again and wouldn’t sell me a laissez passer. The main immigration was about 20 km further down the road in the town of Bitam. Everyone was very friendly. I got my passport stamped by an official who wanted his photo taken with me and I found a small restaurant were I had my first taste of Gabonese food and the nice waitress took me to buy a mobile phone card.

The roads through north Gabon were fantastic. All Sealed and in excellent condition, twisting through the forests and jungle. My only complaint was that they had deep drains on either side making it difficult to pull off the road to wild camp. I asked a guy from immigration at a check point if he knew anywhere where I could camp and he told me to ask the Gendarmerie at the checkpoint before the junction were I turn for Libreville. I was tired having been on the road for 9 hours at this point but I rode on till I found the checkpoint where the gendarmerie, as well as customs, commerce and conservation officials were happy to put me up for the night in a spare room. I sat around drinking beer while I watched the various traffic coming through. There was quite a community amongst the different officials at the checkpoint and with the exception of some pretty agitated people who had problems with their paperwork, the general atmosphere was one of fun and laughter. The checkpoint was manned all night, and in the morning the guys were all drinking red wine. The gendarme offered me a glass but I declined, pointing out that I had 500 km to ride!

Riding on to Libreville I passed a sign saying that I had crossed the equator.

I crossed the equator again about 100 km down the road as the road headed north again towards Libreville which is back in Northern Hemisphere, so I guess it was all a bit premature really. I’ll be passing the equator again in about a years time when I go to Colombia.

I had arranged to stay in Libreville with a French couple I had contacted through Couchsurfing. Guillaume and Anne have been working in Gabon for 4 years and they had a spare room for me in their apartment. Guillaume told me to meet him at the airport which was very each to find.

Libreville is very developed. In contrast to other African cities, there are hardly any bikes on the roads and those that are, are ridden by ex-pats. There is a lot of money in Libreville and it is common to see people driving around in Hummers and other expensive status-symbol vehicles. The cost of living is high in Libreville and some travellers avoid Gabon cos it is too expensive. However, the many National Parks and reserves here are frequently empty and I will have them all to myself. Guillaume and Anne’s place is a gorgeous luxury apartment and I made the most of having hot showers and long lie-ins in a comfortable air-conditioned bedroom.

I found the Embassy for the DRC quite easily and in a complete contrast to the embassy in Yaounde, the official, Pascale, was very friendly and helpful. He didn’t seem to bother that I wasn’t a resident or that had I only half filled out my application form, and he certainly didn’t ask for an invitation letter. The visa cost 40 K CFA and would be ready in 3 days, but I bunged him an extra 20 K to get it in 24 hours. As you know I’m not into paying more than I have to for visas and the like, but I felt flush with the free accommodation and I could use the extra time to investigate some national parks, and it also helps if the person demanding the bribe is friendly and charismatic!

To further prepare myself for the water-logged muddy roads of Congo and the DRC, I bought some support for my leg and an off-road front tyre for my bike. Things are very expensive in Libreville and I paid over twice the price in Europe for them.

Since I had got the visa so quick, I decided to go and see some more of Gabon. I had passed the most popular national park, Reserve de Lope, on the way to Libreville and I decided to double back and go visit it. I didn’t get out of Libreville till after 9 as the cash machines weren’t working. Actually, I found Libreville quite a difficult place to get money as the none of the popular Gabonese banks liked any of my ATM cards. Eventually I was back on the road to Lope, crossing the Equator again, but turning off the main road about 40 km after Ndjole onto a 100 km dirt road to the reserve. The road was a good, flat piste, but covered in gravel making things a bit slippery. I was apprehensive about riding on it but I soon got back into the swing of things. It was just what I needed, and once I had got some confidence back, I got to further develop my off road technique with some pointers I’d pickled up from the riders in Yaounde. The scenery through Lope is fantastic.

When I got there I saw that the yellow overland bus i’d seen in Limbe was there and I hadn’t been off the bike ten minutes before I started drinking beer with all the guys. They were kind enough to invite me to join them for food (they always self-cater) and the evening’s drinking got a little out of hand.

One subject that kept coming up was that of Angolan visas. As I’ve mentioned before, Angolan visas are notoriously hard to get and many travellers have had to change their plans to accommodate. My current plan was to get the visa in Dolisie in French Congo as I had heard that people had succeeded there in the last few weeks. Worryingly though, some others had heard that people had started to get knocked back there too, so I had to think of what my plan B would be. The people from the bus would try for their visas in Libreville, which had been suggested to me when I was there, but I had dismissed the idea because all places that have issued visas for Angola in the past always issue them starting from the date of issue and Libreville is just too far away from the border for this to be practical. I now think that I was too hasty in this reckoning as I have no idea how much time they may give in Libreville. Anyway I have the phone numbers of people on the bus so I will see how they get on. Another possibility, for me anyway, is to go to Kinshasa in the DRC, where a friend of a friend who works for the United Nations will be there and may be able to help me get the visa. I also have to point out that you need a letter of invitation to go to Angola and I’ve sent out a load of begging emails to people on coach surfing, people in travel agencies and tour groups in Angola. Guillaume has also contacted his friends who work in Angola to help me out (Merci monsieur!). The implications of not being able to go through Angola are huge. Look at it on the map. To ride around it would take me deep into the DRC, a country with a knackered infrastructure and rampant corruption during rainy season. Not ideal!

The situation has been playing on my mind just a bit and of the many possibilities that have been running through my head while riding, these are the most likely:-

1) Get visa in Libreville. As I’ve said above, its at least worth me hanging back a few days to find out if the peeps on the bus have any luck in Libreville.

2) Get Visa in Dolisie/Kinshasa as Congo/DRC resident. If they won’t give me the visa because I’m not resident there, I may try to apply for residency in Congo. The people on the bus did this in Togo to get their DRC visas (its not possible to get Gabonese residency).

3) Get Visa in DRC with loads of help from UN. Large businesses and organisations tend to have someone helping them with their immigration matters, perhaps I can use this to my advantage?

4) DHL passport home – With a 4 week turnaround at the Angolan embassy in London, I really can’t be arsed with this one, but this is what some of the people on the bus have done and it came through for them just in time.

5) Ride through DRC to Zambia. If I am truly hardcore I should do this, but I’ll be honest with you – this plan fills me with dread! Check the following video (re-posted).

It has been done before. I can think of two guys who did it two-up on a bike. We will have to see, if I can get to Dolisie in one piece then maybe I’ll consider it. A good thing about it is that I can hang out in Kinshasa with Hugo, the UN guy who has been helping me.

6) Ship bike to somewhere else. I’ve heard that it has possible to fly the bike from Kinshasa to Lububashi in DRC, which would cut out the awful DRC roads. Two riders (British I think -pikipikisafari.net) did it earlier this year when they couldn’t get their visas. They got to fly for free! but I doubt that I could count on having the same good fortune and it would be an expensive option.

You may notice that I haven’t considered cutting short the Africa leg of the trip as an option. I would really like to see Namibia and South Africa (and possibly Angola and Zambia too), especially after all I’ve come through to get here.

While I was in Lope, my mobile phone has taken a turn for the worse. I had dropped it in December in Burkina Faso, damaging the screen which was still usable but slowly getting worse and worse. Now the backlight has gone completely and you cannot see anything on the screen unless you’re in a dark room. This is a huge pain. I can’t use the my camera, GPS, phone or make internet calls.

I had planned to stay in Lope a couple of days but the guys told me that all the wildlife tours were very expensive and that they hadn’t seen much, so I decided to head on the next day. I may need to avoid the bus from now on. I’ve only met them twice and both times have ended very drunkenly. Only kidding, I hope to see them down the road, although the bus doesn’t go as fast as I travel and I intend to relay them the info back from Dolisie when I get there. I went back along the road towards Libreville one more time although for some reason the piste had become very corrugated over night and shock the bike for miles (had to replace a few bolts!) The people of Ndjole are starting to know me as I have eaten and refueled at the same place 3 times. This time though, I turned south at Bifoun to take me towards Ndende. I rode on for about 80 km when I felt tired and started to think about places to stay. I eyed up a few places to wild camp but decided that I would try the hospitality of the local gendarmerie once again. I stopped at the next checkpoint, introduced myself and asking if I could camp. The gendarme took me over to an old guy whose house was nearby. Papa L-something (can’t remember his name, certainly wasn’t Lazaru!) was very happy to have me stay and he had a room for me in one of the houses. The room was full of bats flying around and at first I was fascinated with them until I was wondering if they bite or not. Papa L was great and introduced me to others living nearby including a couple of Nigerians who were very impressed that I had been to their country. He has a huge family with 15 kids to 2 wives. I’m very much liking the Gabonese hospitality. To just turn up on someones doorstep and ask ‘can I sleep here’ and to be treated with such care and warmth is great.

I woke up early as the bats were returning to hang upside down from my bedroom ceiling after a hard night of doing whatever it is that bats do. I quickly rode through Lambarene and stopped to refuel and get food at Mouila. After that the sealed road ended and I was riding a very good piste for the 70-odd km to Ndende. The soil was more compacted than the road to Lope and I was able to smash it at about 50 mph all the way. At Ndende I turned west and took another piste (not as good, but still okay) the 80 km to Tchibanga. The weather was looking like it was going to rain so I decided to stay in Tchibanga, although later I was told that I could have made it to Mayumba in another hour as the road between the two is sealed. I rode around for seemed like ages to find a cheap place to stay. In the end I settled for an overpriced auberge as I really wanted to use a shower and recharge my computer.

After a chilled evening of watching Gabonese TV (its shit), I lazily set off for Mayumba. Yet another example of misinformation from the locals, when the route started as a fantastic new sealed road but then turned into piste, then building site, then just a dirt road through the misty mountains complete with puddles of mud.

They are building a road, and in another 3 years or so it will be be a great twisty route to do on your sports bike but for now it was more off-road practice for me. I was really starting to get my mojo back. I was picking my lines well and giving it some speed. the bike was taking a pounding though and I had noticed the night before that the luggage rack, which is made of steel bars, had cracked under then stress of the corrugations and extra weight of the tyre. I arrived at Mayumba expecting to see a bridge to the peninsula but it turned out that they were in the process of building that too, so I had to settle for the ferry, which was free and I got talking to loads of friendly locals.

On the peninsula, I looked for a place to stay. It had been my intention to just wild camp on the beach which would have been great if I was just chilling, but with repairs to do as well, I wouldn’t be happy leaving my things unattended. As I rode around I found the airport, which was a knackered old building with some guys working on it. On the other side a single-engine passenger plane sat on the tarmac. I went over to talk to the pilot because I was curious to see how much it would be to fly to Libreville. Turned out that he was American, and he only flew the odd flight to Mayumba from Port Gentil, the big commercial area with loads of ex-pats that has no land links with the rest of Gabon. He offered me a free flight to Port Gentil but sadly I had to decline and I went to the hotel next door, where I sat down and had a beer.

At the hotel, the women working there acted all offended when I said that 25000 cfa for a room was too expensive for me and that there are never no mosquitos in Africa. The owner came out and joined me while I was drinking my beer. He asked me if I had been to Senegal and I started a tirade about how difficult Senegal is for tourists, when I asked him ‘vous ette senegalais?’ to which he said he was. However this was a good thing as he was impressed that I had been there, especially that me and Laas had passed through his home town. I said I wanted to camp on the beach but he found me one of his slightly dilapidated rooms to stay in. I got a two bedroom beach house complete with kitchen and bathroom for 5000 a night. Like most hotels in Africa, the room looked like it had been neglected for a long time, with broken windows and knackered air con, but it was big, clean and by the beach so I said yes. Later he cooked me a big plate of fried fish rice and sauce for free. Perhaps its was because I had given Senegal a slagging off, although I prefer to think that he was a just a nice guy and it was African hospitality (or ‘Teranga’ as they say in Senegal!). I went off to find a welder to sort out my luggage rack. The local gendarmerie came to my aid again and one of them sat on the back of my bike while he directed me to a welder’s house. With the repairs done, I went back to the beach house to chill out. There had been no water when I left but it had been turned back on while I was out and my kitchen had flooded cos I’d left the tap on. I told the owner who got straight on with sorting it out, but I felt bad cos it had been my fault so we both worked at it as a team for 20 minutes until the place was dry again. I’ve just been chilling at Mayumba. Going to beaches always seem like a good idea, but when I get there I get bored very quickly, but still it is a nice place to recuperate after the ride here and I feel much more confident for having the riding practice.

I decided to return to Libreville for a couple of days. Partly so that I could try for the Angolan visa (although I had heard that the overland bus had been unsuccessful) but mainly cos it is completely doing my head in having no phone, camera or GPS. I saw the same phone on sale in a shop in Libreville a week ago I was thinking of splashing out and replacing it. I needed my back tyre changed over to a knobbly too. Libreville is turning out to be a very expensive place for me. I can’t stop shopping!

I loaded my bike up and was ready top go at 8am but my bike wouldn’t start and I ended up staying an extra day as it it took me 5 hours to fix the problem (faulty connector). It was the afternoon by the time that I finished so I settled in for another day of seaside inactivity. The next day I got to the ferry port for 8 am. I went to get fuel but the women at the petrol station told me that there wasn’t any electricity so they couldn’t sell any. I thought that I had enough fuel to get me back to Tchibanga anyway but I had went to fill the tank to take away any doubt. I parked the bike on the ferry and sat waiting for it to leave while one guy was carrying jerry cans full of diesel to fill the ferry tanks. I had been sat there an hour but there was still no sign of the ferry leaving. I went to check the petrol station again, but there still wasn’t any electricity. Eventually the ferry left and after the 5 minute crossing I rode away from the harbour and back onto the dirt road. It had been raining, and in some places I had to slow right down to stop the bike sliding everywhere. I’d guestimated that as long as I got half way, I would have enough fuel in my reserve tanks to take me to Tchibanga, but about 20 km into the 100 km journey the engine spluttered and I had to switch to reserve. The stupid thing was though, that I continued riding in the same direction. Whether through stubbornness or impatiance, I just couldn’t be arsed to turn around and I had a stupidly optimistic ‘It’ll be alright’ attitude even though I knew I didn’t have enough fuel. Luckily I came to my senses a further 5 miles down the road. The prospect of being stuck on a jungle dirt road with no fuel was definitely much worse than having to turn around! I rode back through the mud and I had to switch to my final reserve just when the antenna of Mayumba came into sight. I made it in time to watch the ferry leave to go to the other side and had to wait in the rain for it come back over. The electricity was back on though and I bought fuel and went to get some food. Again the ferry sat there doing nothing for an hour, and it had been raining really hard. When I finally got onto the other side, the rain was still coming down quite hard and I could only manage riding at 20 mph. Some of the roads had turned into rivers and you could see how quickly a dirt road can be damaged by the weather as there were loads of troughs cut into the road that had not been there a couple of days before. After a very slow 20 miles, the rain stopped, the ground firmed up and I was able to smash it to Tchibanga, Ndende and I pushed on into the evening and made it to the sealed road of Mouila before dark. Again, I searched for the local gendarmerie to provide me with a place to camp. I found the office but there wasn’t anyone there. A guy who lived nearby said that he was sure that there wouldn’t be a problem but I should wait for some authorisation before seeing up camp, which was fair enough but a little frustrating because I was knackered and wanted to go to bed. We went to a bar together to kill time and after a couple of friendly beers the guy had returned and I was okay to camp. The road back to Libreville was sealed pretty much all the way and I got to Guillaume’s office for the early afternoon and I set about trying to get more information to help with getting Angolan visas. One of Guillaume’s colleagues suggested to me that I should enquire at the embassy for Sao Tome and Principe as they have very good relations with Angola (both speak Portuguese) and they may be able to request the visas on my behalf.

I thought that this was a very good idea, it certainly seemed plausible enough, but at the embassy I was simply told to go to the Angolan embassy. At the Angolan embassy, the guy at the door told me that it was impossible to get a visa and even though I chatted to him for like 20 minutes or so, the story wasn’t changing. I went off to find Laas, who had arrived in Libreville from Cameroon the day before. He had met up with the other two riders, Chris and Andrei at the border and they had rode in together. Andrei and Chris had also been to the Angolan embassy that morning, but they had been told to return the next day as the embassy was closed for International Women’s day. I went back with them the next day and although this time the guy on the door let me in, the officials inside where having none of it. They said we have to get our visas in Congo Brazzaville or Kinshasa. We all went to Guillaume’s office to check email and further consider our options. I then had received messages from the people on the bus who were in Congo Brazzaville and told me that they couldn’t get the visas in Dolisie or in Pointe Noire.

Its not looking good for getting an Angolan visa at all, but I have one more possibility to check before leaving Libreville. A friend of Guillaume’s happens to know the Angolan Ambassador so we are waiting to see if he can bend his arm for us a little. Failing that I’m off to Congo in a few days. I want to get a move on, as I’ve been in Gabon for over two weeks now, but the others would like to see some of it before leaving, which is understandable. I may wait for them, as I haven’t ridden in such a big group on this trip. It would be a good idea, Congo and DRC are looking to be the most challenging part of whole the trip.

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3 thoughts on “Gabon

  1. Finally spring is here – meeting up with JJ tomorrow for our first trip of the year to Devils Bridge – will get to see how the KTM tackles the Élan Valley! Enjoying the blog – keep the black stuff down! Safe travels…

  2. Andy, Hope your luck changes soon to get the necessary paperwork to get through the next challanges… love seeing the pictures and videos from each part of the journey…all the best
    Chris

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