Monday, April 15, 2013

All plans are written in Jell-o

The title of this final post is a mantra I learned early in my Outdoor Education career. It's always good to have plans, but things rarely go exactly as planned. Take the final week of my trip, for example.

Be careful what you wish for

My flight out of Douala was at 3:50am. Awkward. For some reason many of the flights in and out of Douala are in that odd time period between sunset and sunrise when you can't quite decide whether to call it "ungodly early" or "really freakin' late." Us travelers are then left with a crucial decision: stay up all night or get up early?

1am? Stay up late. 5am? Get up early. 3:50am? Let's play it by ear...

Bad idea. After a "last" night of fish and beer with Evan, Lisa and Elvis (the new owner of my motorcycle), I realized that I was too tired to stay up all night, so I'd try to take a quick nap before heading to the airport. As can be expected, the next thing I know Evan's standing in the doorway and it's 4am. Oops.

Regardless of the fact that it was well past departure time, I decided to make a run for the airport and try my chances. I believe my thoughts were somewhere between "Well, it's Africa, maybe they run their planes like they run their buses and it won't leave for another hour or two?" (forgetting that it's an international airport), and "Well, it's an international airport, so there's bound to be another flight soon or someone I can talk to to get this cleared up." (forgetting that it's Africa).

Once at the airport, I found it empty of anyone save security guards and sleeping taxi men. All of the airline personnel had left promptly after check-in and would not be returning until Monday, more than 24hrs later. Dejected, I hopped back in a taxi to Evan and Lisa's, tail between my legs. Going off a security guard's suggestion, I tried to visit the downtown airline offices first thing in the morning, only to be reminded that it was still Sunday and they probably wouldn't be coming in, although they might in the afternoon (they didn't, I checked). Without anyone at the office or answering the phone, my next plan was to just show up at the airport again that night and hope it was a daily departure.

More time for science with Mr. Murphy!

Long story less long, there wasn't. All I got was another shortened night of sleep, some more time hanging out in Douala, and another suggestion to go to the downtown offices the next day, where I was charged a ridiculously large fee I'd rather not dwell on and given a new flight for Tuesday morning (5am, thankfully).

When I crossed the river from Congo I said I wished I had more time in this trip to explore Cameroon. This isn't quite what I had planned...

Wedding plans

Om nom

The original idea, with the Sunday departure, was to spend a few days in Morocco visiting my friend Sue (another PCV, but this time one I knew from before) and attending the wedding of her friend. On the plus side, Moroccans apparently also write their plans in Jell-o (couscous?) and the wedding was delayed indefinitely, pending the arrival of the groom. Downside: my 3-day visit with Sue was down to 24hrs.

Even the 24hrs was lucky, though, as Sue lives near Agdz in southern Morocco and my flight was in and out of Casablana. The main route between the two is a 7-hr bus ride over the notorious Tichka pass (buses tend to fall off from time to time), but I got some comfort knowing that I'd be taking the safer, official CTM bus. Wrong again. CTM was sold out, leaving me to wander into the melee of the Gare Routiere to find a souk bus (for those east-coasters reading this, it's similar to opting for Fung Wah over Bolt Bus, but without any real schedule or rules).

In the end, I was able to find a bus, get over the pass and give the finger to the fates who seemed determined to keep Sue and I from hanging out (Anna and I had tried back in December, too).

So after a fourth night in a row of shortened sleep, I got to spend a day eating Tajines and sandwiches, drinking tea and coffee and debriefing long international experiences as only two Outward Bound instructors can. Then, it was back on the night bus to Casablanca for a fifth sleep-deprived night.

The home stretch

I was in the airport a solid 4 hours before my flight left (not making that mistake again), quickly whisked away to Madrid for a short stop (long enough to realize that Spanish is a different language than French and they don't seem to appreciate it if you try to speak bad African French to them), then lobbed across the ocean to JFK, 282 days after I last stepped foot out of the US. Customs was quick and painless (I was expecting interrogation after all the spy accusations in Kazakhstan) and I was soon back with good friends, good food, good coffee and good beer.

Watching the East River from Brooklyn after a hipster-soaked food festival with BJ and John

The end

282 days, 12 countries, 2 continents (ignoring Madrid), countless new friends, cups of tea, shots of vodka, plates of plov, bowls of Ndole, bottles of lager, uncomfortable seats, cold nights, sweaty nights, new experiences and some very worn-out travel clothes. I'll never be able to fully quantify the events of my life since I left home last summer, nor what I have learned, nor how I have changed from it. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "A mind, once stretched by a new idea, can never return to its original dimensions." Mine's been stretched quite a bit over the last year and I'm sure I'll be continuing to learn from this trip for the rest of my life. I'm glad I at least got to share some of it with you all along the way.

So, that brings an end to my publicly-broadcast life of the past 40 weeks. I'll spare you from the details of my American experiences from here on out, although hopefully many of you'll be there to share them with me. Thank you all for your support and friendship during this trip, I couldn't have made a trip around the world alone like this without knowing that I wasn't truly alone in the world. See you soon!

A welcome-home from Kenny and Julia in NYC

Saturday, April 6, 2013


After my last post from Congo, I explored Brazzaville, hopped a bus up to Ouesso, met some French folk, explored a logging camp and soon crossed the river back into Cameroon:

Leaving Congo behind...
I often get the question "which country is your favorite?" from people interested in my travels. Usually it's a tough question to answer, since each country tends to offer its own unique blend of intrigue, beauty, deliciousness, annoyance, hardship and dullness. Within Central Africa, however, these three countries have left me with a clear favorite: Cameroon. Expense is the most obvious factor (Congo and especially Gabon are way more expensive), but here are some others:


They always look like this
After six weeks on my own and making new friends, it was nice to get back to Douala to spend some time with some good old friends, Evan and Lisa. Staying here provides me with a taste of home and teacher life without all the hassle of flying back to the states and getting a job. Plus they have lots of maps to look at.

My motorcycle

Foumban kid testing out my gear
Back across the border also meant I could get back to Douala to pick up the bike and get back on my own road, instead of dealing with the joys of public transportation (see the past two posts). Unfortunately, my own road isn't necessarily safer than the public route, and sometimes accidents can happen when other drivers don't keep an eye out for guys like me:

wah wah. They had it fixed for me within an hour, though!

My shoe took the brunt of the damage. Amazingly, my foot (and the rest of my body) was fine
Unlike in the states, the entire ordeal was dealt with on a personal level (police would likely have only complicated the matter) and I was back on the road within a couple hours of impact. Don't worry, the bike no longer belongs to me now that I'm back in Douala again.

Moto taxis

reflective vests help to identify in some places

When moving around town and not wanting to ride my own bike, Cameroon has the convenient option of hopping on the back of someone else'e motorcycle to zip through traffic.


Being back to the network of Peace Corps Volunteers was also fun. Instead of showing up in a new town, finding a hotel and sitting at a bar waiting to find out what the town had to offer, I was supplied with a network of Americans who'd spent time getting to know the people and area in which they live, and some deep conversations about international development (not a strong suit of PC), personal growth, world news and life. Plus, free place to stay!

Steph, a PCV in Batouri, showing me the school that Lisa helped build during her PCV days in Lisoi, a tiny town en brusse

Fish mamas

Om nom
Everywhere you find bars, you find fish mamas. Pick out your fish, barter your price, choose your complement (manioc, plantains, rice, beignets or frites, generally) and she'll deliver it to you wherever you're sitting. Wonderful people.

Bar culture

Garoua's street bars (note the beans and puff puff...)

 Bars line the streets with tables and chairs laid out in front, filled with men and women lounging from dawn to dusk with big bottles of Castel, 33, Regab, N'gok or whatever the local brew might be. They usually only serve beer, so that's where the aforementioned fish mamas along with their friends the soya dudes and chicken mamas come in to fill the role to deliver their wares to your table at the bar. Kind of like taco trucks bringing your burritos directly to your booth at the bar next door. To be fair, this exists across Central Africa, but in Cameroon you don't need to spend your life savings (Gabon) or worry about getting tear gassed (Congo - that actually happened to us).

Beans and Puff Puff (Or haricots et beignets)

For 40 cents on the street, this meal is one of the highlights of coming back to Cameroon, along with spaghetti omlettes (60 cents as a sandwich).


After five weeks in the jungles of Gabon and Congo, I started to get the feeling that not only was it expensive, but it's also all rather similar. The natural environment was almost the same as southern Cameroon, except for a few pockets of savannah and plateau, and even the human environment didn't change too much from place to place, whereas Cameroon has over 250 different tribes ranging from jungle pygmies in the South and East to various fufulde-speaking desert tribes in the North and Extreme North to the Anglophones of the mountainous Southwest and Northwest and myriad other examples in between. It helps that Cameroon has over 20 million people, whereas Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville each have ~3 million. The concentration of different things to see in Cameroon, however, left me wishing I had another month or two of my trip to explore the reaches of the country that were missed on my first pass through.

huts in the desert of the North
The Sultan of Foumban, his is one of the larger of 250+ tribes
Although the human diversity doesn't change much place to place, I have been surprised at the diversity within any given place throughout all of Central Africa. It tends to be about the same mix in any village or city: The majority are Bantu (black Africans, generally speaking), who can be seen everywhere and generally function as the moto taxi drivers or restaurant mamas or farmers or unemployed people. Nearly every small shop is owned by Malians, Mauritanians, Chadians or other more northern Africans. Larger shops, boulangeries or businesses are owned by Lebanese, who fled this way after their own civil war way back when. They fill some niche somewhere in between the western/Japanese expats (oil workers, aid workers, diplomats), Chinese expats (construction workers/engineers, Chinese shop/restaurant owners) and the northern Africans.

diversity on display in northern Congo while we're stuck on the road. Left truck is broken down, Right truck fell over while trying to pass Left truck, blocking the road to all but motos.  A crowd of locals with machetes ended up cutting a swath through the jungle to the left for our bus to pass by.
Chinese driver of Right truck is on the left (with friends, also in camo), French researcher/volunteer in center, Bantu all around, not pictured: Pygmie locals and crazy American tourist.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

To get to Congo (and beyond)

From my last posting in Gamba, I continued south into the 12th and final new country of my trip: The Republic of Congo. For those of you who may make a similar trip someday, here is a rough schedule of what to expect:

Day 1

The much lighter ride back to Tchibanga

06:00 - wake up, eat, say final goodbyes to A/C, internet; mexican food and host.
07:30 - ask around in town for a ride back to Tchibanga
08:30 - miraculously leave almost immediately on the back of a truck to Tchibanga. Feel grateful that there is little luggage in the back, so sitting is possible (see last post for alternative)
13:30 - arrive in Tchibanga, nurse blisters and bruises from the ride.
14:00 - visit first hotel, decide it's too expensive, ask directions to next
14:45 - arrive at second hotel soaked in sweat. Find out it's more expensive than the first.
15:30 - arrive at third (and cheapest) hotel, bucket bath and pass out in the shade until dusk.
18:00 - venture outdoors to the nearest bar, enjoy a beer while fendng off "friendly" scammers trying to get you to buy them one.
18:08 - power cut. Sip beer in complete darkness.
19:30 - get bored of darkness, go to hotel.
19:35 - realize hotel also has no power, thus the fan in the room does not work. lay down and begin soaking the sheets with sweat. Eventually pass out.


Day 2

 06:00 - wake up, wander to find breakfast.
 06:30 - discover everything is closed. Eat bread and wait for lunch. read. shower.
 11:00 - go to find bus to Ndéndé. Discover it doesn't exist.
11:30 - take taxi to edge of town. Find 30 people waiting to hitch rides to Ndéndé, get in line.
13:00 - negotiate a ride with a truck. Get excited about hitchhiking again
13:15 - find out truck charges the same as the taxi, get less excited about hitchhiking again.
13:45 - finally get in truck, discover it has air conditioning. Relax.
13:50 - air conditioning breaks. Sweat.
16:00 - arrive in Ndénde. Go to cheap hotel from before
16:15 - Cheap hotel is full. Get directed to other hotel
16:35 - other hotel is expensive. Get directed to Case de Passage
16:50 - Arrive at case, look for owner
17:00 - call number on the door, wake up owner. Dump luggage in room.
17:05 - run across the street to immigration to get exit stamp for tomorrow morning.
17:10 - chat with immigration officials, wait for them to ask for bribe.
17:30 - get released with exit stamp without paying bribe. Smile. Find food
18:30 - return to case. Get invited to a drink by case owner. Oblige.
20:00 - go to bar with case owner, meet up with immigration officials and other local travelers.
20:30 - try to learn to dance. Fail miserably. Succeed in becoming source of entertainment
21:15 - turn down offers of women. Accept offers of beer.
23:45 - collapse in bed. Sleep.

Night storms in Ndéndé

Day 3

05:30 - wake up, begin search for a vehicle to the border.
09:00 - still looking and waiting for a vehicle to the border.
10:15 - find a truck, agree to a price, point out that the truck currently has a flat tire.
11:15 - leave vulcanization shop after watching tire get fixed, prepare to leave.
11:45 - make last shopping and passenger stop in Ndéndé, prepare to leave again.
12:30 - actually leave
13:15 - stop at Gendarme checkpoint. Hand over passport. No problems
13:30 - stop at another Gendarme checkpoint. Hand over passport. Watch Gendarme flip through visas and pretend to be satisfied without having found the Gabon or Congo visas or the personal information page.
14:00 - stop at border control checkpoint. Hand over passport for stamp, get asked for $20 "departure tax". Assume it's a bribe, refuse to pay. Make a scene, realize locals are paying, too. Maybe it's not a bribe. Try to get receipt. Get 3 tickets instead. Hope that won't cause future problems
14:30 - leave border control checkpoint
14:35 - stop at police checkpoint. Hand over passport. No problems.

The border

14:45 - cross border.
14:46 - stop at Congo border checkpoint. Hand over passport. No problems.
14:50 - walk to Congo customs (the guy next door). Hand over passport. No problems. Cursory bag search. No problems.
15:00 - walk to Congo police checkpoint (across the street). Hand over passport. Comment on "BARACK OBAMA 2008" poster on the wall. No problems.
15:15 - walk to Congo immigration checkpoint (again across the street). Hand over passport. No problems. Get told there are no vehicles until tomorrow.
15:30 - meet Bruce, the Congolese traveler from the car. Book a room at the hotel to share
17:00 - realize there is no food in the border village, eat sardines with Congolese beer.
17:45 - swim in border river. Hope the parasite count is low.
19:00 - crawl into bed next to Bruce. Try to sleep.

Bruce and the local brews

Day 4

05:00 - wake up, ask about a truck, discover there is none.
05:15 - go back to sleep.
07:30 - wake up, go outside, realize there is no truck. Sit in a chair.
09:00 - Truck shows up, says it will leave soon. Prepare to leave.
09:30 - truck driver is sleeping. Eat manioc and sardines with gendarmes and Bruce.
11:00 - get bored with waiting. Take a nap
12:00 - get woken up, truck is leaving
12:30 - truck actually leaves. Prepare for 10-hr journey.

Inside the truck

13:30 - truck driver demands everyone gets out. Truck turns around to go back to the border.
13:35 - begin waiting at village bar with everyone else. Watch young men play cards while little kids stare

17:45 - truck comes back. Now it's filled with jugs of gasoline. Throw bag inside and climb on top. Settle in for long ride.
20:30 - truck stops for dinner. All restaurants are closed. Eat sardines and manioc on the sidewalk with Bruce and new guy.

21:30 - truck leaves again
22:00 - try to sleep on top of truck. Realize it's equivalent to trying to sleep on vibrating wooden pallets with an occasional buck. Sit up straight again and stare forward at the road.

Day 5

03:00 - start falling asleep on top of truck again. Fear falling off of truck. Crawl inside
03:30 - finally find a semi-comfortable spot on top of gasoline jugs between other bodies. Pass out.
06:00 - wake up in Dolisie at destination. Find out the jugs were leaking and butt is soaked in gasoline.
06:15 - go find breakfast and SIM card with Bruce.

Dolisie view

11:00 - find taxi to Pointe-Noire.
12:30 - taxi finally leaves Dolisie for Pointe-Noire. Realize the bumpy truck roof was more comfortable than being crammed into the front seat with wide-hipped African woman.
15:30 - Arrive in Pointe-Noire. Eat beans and chicken with Bruce.
16:00 - Accept Bruce's help to find a taxi to Couchsurfing host's neighborhood
16:45 - realize Bruce expects to be hosted , as well. Have awkward conversation in bad French.
17:00 - Meet CS host. Part ways with Bruce.
17:15 - Arrive in air-conditioned, western-style apartment. Shower. Discover bruises and blisters from truck. Tend to rash on gasoline-soaked butt. Wash clothes. Hope the next leg of travel will be easier.


It isn't.
First this gendarme told us we needed to stop for the night to avoid bandits on the road. Then he bought me a beer. Then I slept on the ground and woke up covered in dust with a torn shirt.

Then I was reminded of home (and this is not an unusual sight...)

Then we got a flat tire. Then the driver drove on it.

And kept driving on it for 10km more

it's hard to jack up a van without a tire, it's easy to get it off the jack!

Then they got the van stuck in a ditch

Then we had to start walking and hitching rides on trucks

Then we hitched a ride on a truck

This is what one looks like after two days on the road between Pointe Noire and Brazzaville.

Next time maybe I'll join these British tourists in their Africa overland battle truck.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Gabonese Transport, Part 3

Near the beginning of this trip I took a bus ride in Mongolia. I described it in the blog like this:

Imagine a mechanical bull. That's right, the kind they have at those rodeo-themed bars. Ok, now imagine that you're sitting on that mechanical bull. Now, imagine that you're sitting on that mechanical bull in a closet. Now make that closet about half the size that you were just imagining. Maybe a little smaller. It's not just any closet, but more like Mrs. Trunchbull's "chokey" from Roald Dahl's Matilda. You know, with the sharp bits of metal sticking out of the walls so you can't lean against them. Ok, got it? Now, it's not just you on this bull.  It's you and your new friend, Sanjay, sitting sidesaddle. In the closet. Well, maybe it's more of a cubicle. You  can see over the walls a little bit. Now imagine that you take another 20 cubicles just like the one that you and Sanjay are in and pack them into a room of about 200 sq ft. Now put that room filled with all 43 of you on wheels. Now turn on all of those mechanical bulls. Now try to sleep. Welcome to the last couple of days of my life.

Oh yeah, and add in a puking kid, a couple of plastered old timers and three flat tires.

Since that day back in July, I´ve been bent and squeezed and crammed and prodded and strapped and balanced on all sorts of trains, planes, buses, boats, cars, trucks, motos, bicycles and even my own motorcycle for a bit. The roads have run the gamut from brand-new tarmac to a vague directional bearing across the steppe. I thought I had had some rough rides, but then I came to Gamba, Gabon.

Most sane people fly here. In fact, most of the westerners here either work for Shell (like my host), or are well-off tourists who are happy to pay upwards of $200-400/day to explore the nearby Loango National Park, so an extra couple hundred for the hours´ flight from Libreville isn´t so bad. I opted for the other route, described as a ¨route dur¨ (hard road) by locals. Psshh, no problem. I´m all about the ¨route dur¨

The vehicle

I fit behind the big blob.
When I bought my ticket, I had the option of ¨cabine¨or ¨derrière¨. Derrière was cheaper, so obviously that was my choice. I had a vague notion that this probably meant riding in the back of a pickup, but that´s not so bad. In fact, one of my best rides was in the back of a pickup in Cambodia a few years back with 25 sacks of rice, 15 dining room chairs, 2 other Americans (Dave and Elena, for those who know them), 13 Cambodians, all of our luggage, and a dog. The photo from that day actually is the background photo for this blog. On that day, however, our truck bed was slightly larger and I had just enough room to wedge my butt onto the edge of the truck, tuck in behind the cab with my center of gravity solidly within the vehicle, and hold on tight to some solid chunks of metal as we zoomed down the paved road.

In Gabon, ¨Derrière¨ means you get to share the space on a 2x6 strapped across the very back of the bed of the truck with three Gabonese dudes, grab onto whatever tarp or rubber straps you can bunch into your sweaty little fists and hope you don´t fall off the back. On the relatively smooth bits of road, that meant sitting was an option, as long as we didn´t hit any big potholes. Unfortuntely, there were very few ¨relatively smooth bits of road¨.

The Road

An hour after we pulled out of Tchibanga on the way to Gamba, we turned off of the ¨main road¨ and onto the road that ¨dances,¨ as my comrade on the bumper described it. Those of us on the back spent six hours on our toes with knees bent in an athletic, shock-absorbing position for the next six hours as we drove through some of the most loosely defined ¨road¨ I´ve seen. It ranged from bumpy dry riverbed to sloppy muck to actual currently running river:

Average bumps

Average muck

Average straight road

At least the hood is still above the water, even if the bumper isn´t...
In fact, out of all of the types of travel I listed above, there is one type that I was most reminded of as I balanced my way across the Gabonese countryside with a death grip on fistfuls of tarp: Dogsledding. It turns out, riding the back of this truck is very much like riding a light sled behind a strong team through a particularly rough portage trail, except with no handlebar or brake. One is constantly shifting weight from one foot to the other, thrusting hips from side to side to keep from falling off or tipping, and knowing all along that if a fall does happen, it might take a while for your ride to stop to let you catch up. On the plus side, hypothermia is the furthest thing from your mind, except as a seemingly nice alternative to the heat stroke that seems imminent from hours of exposure on the back of a truck in the equatorial sun.

Bridges are overrated
Occasionally we got breaks from our balancing act to maneuver the vehicle across two of the bigger rivers. One we got to bring ourselves across on the barge/raft shown above, and the other we had to wait for a larger, powered barge (which, in turn, we had to lift and push out of the mud by hand before it could start moving).

In the end, 8 1/2 hours after leaving Tchibanga, I arrived in Gamba, about 90km away as the crow flies.  The best part is, I get to do it all again on my way back! Here´s a bit of video from early on to give you a taste.

Oh yeah, and for the guys with me on the back, this is their ride to work.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"It's on like Gabon"

And then it wasn't. Then it was again.

Leaving Cameroon

When I found out that I wasn't going to be able to bring the moto to Gabon, I'd already gone through the trouble of getting a Gabon visa, and paid the associated exorbitant fees, so I was going. Conveniently, Evan and Lisa had a 5-day weekend around the same time that I was going to be heading down, leading Evan to utter the above quote before we left Douala.

Inspired by my 6-hour Gabon visa turnaround time, the plan was to go to Yaounde (Cameroon's capital), apply for Evan and Lisa's visas, get them that afternoon and cross the border the next morning. We'd then do a quick 4-day trek across the country, ending in Libreville (Gabon's capital, where I am now), where those two would fly home and I'd continue on my adventure. 

Unfortunately, international diplomacy and bureaucracy is incredibly fickle. As fickle, in fact, as the person sitting across the table from you when you sit down at the embassy. Regardless of most international regulations or any written rules (if they exist, and then if you can find them), whether or not you get a visa and how much you pay for it seems to be entirely up to the whims of the man or woman with the stamp. It was a good day for the Gabon lady when I showed up and handed over a pile of potentially useful documents (there was no list online, as the embassy has no website, and they don't answer their phone). Evan and Lisa, however, met the same woman on a worse day and, despite having far more documents than even I did, were refused the ability to even apply for the visa because they were missing one copy of a document (of which they showed her the original) that I did not even think to mention when I was there. C'est l'Afrique.

Mr. Murphy on vacay

On to plan B. Intent on a vacation, Evan and Lisa decided to head to the beach to relax for a day before returning to Douala, so we hopped on another bus (at this point I was very much missing the moto) and crossed the country again. I spent the day with them eating fish, drinking Cameroonian beer and enjoying some time with good friends in a far away place, then we parted again; I went back east to Ebolowa and the border (by bus. Again), and they returned home to Douala.

Pagne party

Solo encore

So, I was back on my own, back on public transport, and back into the uneasiness and excitement that comes with entering a new country. This border crossing I knew by far the least about, other than that I would at least be able to keep my currency (Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, CAR, Equatorial Guinea and Chad all use the Central African Franc CFA). After a quick stop in Ebolowa, where I stayed with another PCV, Annie, I hopped a bus, then a moto, then a taxi to the tiny border town of Bitam in Gabon.

Another visit to a PCV! And an example of Cameroonian buses

Since I didn't really know what to do in Gabon, I decided to spend the day relaxing and planning the next three weeks that I had in this new country. I'd heard that Gabon was more expensive than its neighbors (implying more well-off people, as well), and after seeing three or four cyber cafes in a town with only a single paved road with some side trails and a consistent supply of electricity, I was impressed. Little did I know that this would be the last time that I would see either of those things until Libreville.

Bitam. They also had people who actually came out and picked up trash!

Instead, my next week and a half in Gabon would be more dictated by the natural and village life around me than the developed, connected town and city life I had come to know in Cameroon. That being said, the expense of Gabon was not an exaggeration. 

This is how much fun I have in expensive, jam-packed minibuses.

My first stop was Makokou and Ivindo National Park, in the NW of the country. This is a park known for its jungle and the Kongou Falls, so I thought I'd try to go on a bit of a trek to see both. After overcoming the initial sticker shock, I decided to tag along with a couple of Austrian brothers, Ulrich and Clemens on a 3-day trek with the staggering price tag of $360 (This amount of money is almost equivalent to the amount I spent in my entire 3+ weeks in Tajikistan). Gabon was starting to look like Mongolia: expensive to get anywhere, expensive to do anything, hard to travel alone and especially on the cheap, but rewarding if you were willing to shell out a bit of cash here and there.

An example of a Gabonese hotel room. My back was against the opposite corner when I took this photo.I could see the neighbor's room through cracks in the boards. Still, more expensive than air-conditioned hostels in Central Asia.

The Jungle

So, after a day of exploring the city, we were off! The three of us were loaded into a taxi, brought into the park, separated from our cash, then plopped in a pirogue (dugout canoe) for our 2-hour ride down the Ivindo river, deep into the jungle.

Our guide preparing for the mini-rapids

Immediately after setting foot in our camp, our guide pointed out some elephant footprints on the shoreline. This was just the first in many sightings of sign (elephant, boar, gorilla and panther tracks and scat) and live animals (mandrills, other monkeys, a type of otter, many birds, countless species of insect, spider and millipede, and eventually two live elephants!) Here are some of the few I was able to document, along with some vegetation. I apologize to the nature photographers and artists who read this (Floris and Jess in particular) for the quality of these photos.

Elephant footprints!

Grasshopper. I should have put a finger in for size comparison, as they are equivalent lengths.

Crazy vines. This one was over a foot thick in places and felt more like a tree trunk.

La mante religieuse

Fungi! It was tiny, size of a quarter each

Panther poop!


Antfest. There were so many different kinds of ants in this jungle...

earthworm writhing to escape the ants (unsuccessfully) 

flowering vine

Crazy roots. Apparently they provide good shelter when an elephant is charging you.

Crazy buttress roots. Not so helpful with the elephants, but good burial spots, apparently.

Army ants in formation. The column is about 2in wide.

Gigantic caterpillar!

Part of the Kongou Falls

The platform overlooking the falls with Remont, Ulrich and Clemens
Leo, Remont, Clemens, Ulrich and I at another set of Kongou Falls

Eventually, our time for adventures was over and we had to return upstream. We settled into the pirogue for a 3-hour ride back up the river. These hours were punctuated only by shifting position to hide from the sun, occasional bird sightings, and almost swamping the boat in a few rapids. Then, just as we thought we were out of the park and back on the road, we (almost literally) ran into two elephants! One was on a marshy island in the river (pictured below), while the other was on the bank. We watched them for several minutes before their huge bodies disappeared into the seemingly impenetrable forest.

Sleepy, sun-beat pirogue-ers on the way home


Back to the "main" Ivindo NP camp

Gabonese Transport, part 1

Once back in Makokou, the Austrians and I spent one last night together before parting ways (although I'll be meeting up with them again later this week when I go to Lambarene). My next stop was the town of Lope, a little equatorial village on the edge of another Gabonese National Park of the same name.

The minibus, and the roads.

Thinking that transport here would be like other places I'd visited, I assumed that I'd be able to get some sort of bus or taxi or car or train from one tourist destination (Makokou) to another (Lope). Wrong. It turns out most tourists in Gabon either a) don't exist, or b) are rich enough to drive themselves, hire a car entirely for themselves, or fly wherever they want to go. Since I surely existed and was sorely short on cash (turns out only Libreville and Point Gentil have ATMs), neither of these applied to me. Instead, I was told to take a minibus to Booue, then hop a train from Booue to Lope. Easy enough.

Pangolin bushmeat. Yes, these are endangered. Yes, the lady in the car bought it for $5.

Then I remembered that this is Africa. a 4-hour drive to Booue is actually 9+hours of finding a minibus, waiting for it to fill up, driving around town while the driver performs various unexplained errands, finally leaving, then stopping at every bushmeat salesman on the road (plentiful) so the lady in front can haggle for some illegal endangered (but delicious) meal. Once finally arriving in Booue, I figured the train would be easy enough to find. Wrong again. When I asked at the station about the next train, I was told that it wouldn't leave until the next day. Actually the next night. Actually, it left at 1am, so basically two days from now. "You want a ticket?" "No. Are there other options?" "I don't know, I just sell tickets." "Thanks..."

Just before I left to wander in search of a new taxi, a local came up to me and brought me to a couple of police officers. Until this point, all police officers in Gabon had done for me is look at my passport, try to find something wrong, then comment on all of my visas and stamps, so I didn't have high hopes for these two. In contrast, they told me to follow them over to the freight terminal and invited me up into the engine with the conductor to leave 20 minutes later on a train to Lope! Hitching trains suddenly became my new favorite form of travel.

Front row seat!
Since I've already written far too much for one post, I'll limit my description of Lope. In short, it was similarly expensive for guided tours ($60-$150/day), much less jungle, much more savannah, many fewer animals for sighting (by me), and an even tinier associated town than Makokou. On the first day I teamed up with some teachers from the American International School of Libreville (one was a friend of Lisa's) for some overrated tours. The second day I decided to head out on my own to wander some of the trails of the park. I was hesitant to go off trails (I'd heard stories of "savanna vipers") or into the jungle (monkeys are scary...), so I stuck to the ridge trails, read a lot, took a nap, and walked back out of the park around dusk as thunderstorms approached, just in time to get a long lecture in French from half a dozen park workers who were appalled that I had entered the unmarked park grounds without a guide (an unposted requirement, apparently). I arrived back at my tiny hotel room just as the deluge hit.

1500 year old rock carvings

Turtle tracks

Ogooe river

Lope National Park

Fun tracks, let me know if you identify them (finger for size comparison)

Gabonese Transport, part 2

After my 2 days in town, I was out of money and it was time to get to Libreville, A/C and ATMs. I started by heading to the train station, asking about trains (again), hearing about the 3am train (again), asking about alternate options ("les AUTRES trains...") and then a first: The police officers at the train station told me something to the effect of, "Oh, you want to get to Libreville, you don't want to wait until 3am and you don't have much cash? You should just go into town and hitchhike! The trucks come through pretty often, sometimes they'll take you for free, or a little something. They'll  have you to Libreville in no time!" Suddenly, my motivation for travel was rekindled. Hitchhiking in Africa? Done.

An hour later I found myself in the cab of a mercedes truck on its way from Franceville to Libreville. My driver was Cameroonian, so we were able to talk all about my time up there, politics, Central Africa and, of course, family. An hour after that, I found myself here:

How many truckers does it take to escape a mud pit? 11.

One truck was already stuck in the mud (from the night's deluge) and one was crippled with 3 blowouts (probably from attempted tows), my driver managed to power through the pit and come out unscathed, which was lucky because he then got to tow his partner's truck out, then the two successful trucks together towed the original truck out, who then towed the next truck that came along and got stuck out, so finally traffic could move both ways. Meanwhile, the truckers who weren't actively involved in the towing operations were rearranging wheels and spare tires on the crippled truck. La fraternite des chauffeurs


Finally, after being dropped off at a broken bridge near Libreville 6 hours later, I hopped another two taxis into town, met with Nick and Terry, the teachers I'd met in Lope, and settled into their air-conditioned, wifi-enabled, laundry-machine-equipped, beachfront apartment. Luxury is nice, sometimes, even when it's relatively simple. I got to accompany them to their school this morning to explore and remember what it's like to get kids who aren't used to actually thinking about science to actually think about science. It was a good day.

Nick's classroom (SS/LA)

Terry and his classroom (Science)

What's next

I shall soon be leaving this lap of expensive luxury to make my way south to Lambarene, at least one other National Park, and eventually on to Congo! No telling when or where I'll find internet again, so no promises on the next post. Until then!