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Published: November 2nd 2006
Albert El-Hadj Omar Bongo. Proud ruler of the country since 1967. He has a private army with French and Moroccan soldiers plus a huge stab of international military advicors to help him maintain his power. What a gentleman.
Last time I crossed the equator I got robbed, threatened, tricked, fooled and deceived
(all in the town of Muarabungo, Indonesia ), so I felt a bit reluctant to leave the safe homely northern hemisphere for the southern one.
The road from the Cameroonian border post heading south was an impressive showpiece in advanced engineering.
Through the dense, sticky and humid rainforest, along raging rivers and over jungle strewn mountains - the European funded road snaked.
Along the roadsides the few dwellings sold petrol, alcohol and bush-meat. Snakes and monkeys hang next to the road and are seen almost as often as all the military check points one encounter on the road.
As soon as we’d crossed the equator and stopped for dinner in Ndjole
we got ripped off.
The southern hemisphere
, I knew it!
The road turned back north and we continued to Libreville
, crossing the equator once more then arriving there at midnight.
For some time we stumbled around disoriented until enough people had warned us about the security situation and we found a taxi driver kind enough to over charge us for a ride. He dropped us off outside one of the Catholic
Giants of Lambarene
In the garden at the nuns Chatolic mission there was a plethora of flowers that the nuns were more than willingly to show us. In the background is our Spanish friend that has done the same journey as us, but on a bike..
missions that was closed so we had few other options than to spend our first night in Central Africa sleeping on the street.
The next day one room was vacant at the nuns mission and as we paid we realised that perhaps we hadn’t been so badly ripped off earlier, it’s just that everything is a little (read a lot) more expensive here than in neighbouring Cameroon
Libreville is a modern city with air-conditioned shopping malls, graffiti, high-rises, traffic lights and a high presence of French expats. Every second face you see on a Saturday in one of the popular and expensive malls is a French face. The country still feels like a French colony.
The president, Mr Omar Bongo
has held the power for the last 39 years (he’s going for the world record), but the puppet masters pulling the strings are the French oil companies (these companies are constantly under fire for allegedly unethical behaviour in other countries.).
Libreville is an obvious bottleneck for the few travellers that choose to cross the continent from north to south on its west coast. People get here to stock up on supplies, buy spare parts
for their vehicles
The guesthouse owner's daughter playing outside the house. Ndende.
and to arrange visas. And so did we too.
It took us three days of interviews before we got our Congolese visas, and the visas to Angola
we were blankly refused.
Our Spanish friend on his bike showed up, we hadn’t met him in five months and now he’d become a local celebrity in Gabon
, doing interviews for TV and the local newspapers. Everywhere we went with him people called out and waved to us.
It was nice at first to have access to all the comforts of the modern world, but at a too high price, so after a week we were tired of the city that lacks soul. It’s organized and westernized, but it doesn’t have enough colours nor bustle to feel African. And for some reason that goes for the whole country, not that it's particularly westernized nor organized in the interior, but it felt like the country lacked soul which made Gabon leave very light footprints down my personal memory lane.
We headed south to Lambarene
, a beautiful town with its centre built on an island in the middle of the huge Ogooue River
. Then, connected to the mainland by two rusty bridges
Cruising on the Ogooué River at Lambaréné.
it spreads out along the mainland’s river shores.
A most pleasant setting for sundowners, watching the market women pack their trade in a cacophonous mess of bags and sacks splitting at the seams with groceries and dried fish.
On the other side of the river at the mainland, kids played at the discontinued ferry that had turned into a deteriorating steel skeleton after the construction of the bridge was finished many years ago.
It lays half sunken on the river shore with vines climbing onto it from the land, and algae climbing up from the water.
The kids laughed and screamed as the sun set over the thick green forest.
The following night was spent sleepless next to a local bar playing the same 20 songs on a deafening level, throughout the whole night.
In the morning as we packed our belongings, the prostitutes were drunk and disappointed and had apparently not had any customers during the night.
A young man tried to pick a fight with me by first harassing Aili and then trying to harass me too. Luckily to me he was so drunk that we could easily walk away from him.
It’s thick black
Some spectacular architecture is to be found in the capital. The president has of course built himself a massive showpiece down at the waterfront. This is one of the banks in the diplomatic neighbourhood. Libreville.
oil that pumps through the veins of the country’s corrupt economy, but it’s alcohol that flows through the veins of the population.
Gabon has a big and growing problem with alcoholism, especially in the countryside. People
start drinking early in the morning and don’t mind driving drunk.
This makes the encounters with the logging companies huge trailers not only sad (because they chop down the rainforest in a merciless tempo) but potentially dangerous too since the huge monsters sway back and forth along the dusty roads and don’t care much about other traffic.
A long journey later we crawled out from the dirty and overcrowded bush-taxi in the village of Ndende
Two bars, two restaurants, one immigration office and one junction is all there is, which was more than we needed, a tranquil village to rest in for a night and some relaxed countryside-atmosphere to soak up.
The big laughing woman at the immigration office was happy to help us, and changed the departure date according to our visas, so we would get less trouble the next day at the actual border crossing.
Back at our room at the squalid “chamber de passage”
that we were staying
A monkey hanging along the roadside, probably on the southern hemispere..
in, we first paid for our room then heard a loud wailing scream from the next door. An older man opened the door and walked out of the room, on the floor was an old woman screaming in spasms every now and then and on the bed was a young man. Not more than 25 years of age he lay completely still with a calm facial appearance.
Quickly a big crowd gathered outside the room, awaiting the doctor to come and say what everybody already knew.
He was dead. The southern hemisphere
, I thought.
Another bad nights sleep followed and in the morning we hurried to find a vehicle that would take us the last 58 kilometres towards the border.
A 16 year old boy turned up in a battered bush-taxi that filled up fast with the few passengers that were going to the border for the day.
The road was extremely bad and the small driver had no control at all over the vehicle. After 38 kilometres I asked him to stop the car and as we all stepped out of the car we saw a long trail of oil behind the car.
The engine was leaking oil
Decline in extreme poverty?
Thanks to Gabons small population it enjoys a per capita rate four times higher than the average Sub-saharan African countries. But because of high income inequality, a large proportion of the population remains poor.
and the driver was clueless. To wait for the next car would be to wait until tomorrow so our only choice was to pack our stuff and start walking.
Eight kilometres later we arrived at the first border post.
Everybody was very exhausted but the border police were friendly and showed us a place to rest and gave us water.
Stayed there for an hour as I tried to mobilize the others to continue the last twelve kilometres to the Congolese border.
It didn’t really work; only one poor guy joined us as we continued our trek under the baking sun, embracing us from its position at the side of zenith.
At the border post we didn’t have any problems, but our newly met companion had to stop at the border negotiating his forced bribes, in the totally worn out state he was in after the strenuous walk.
Just before we arrived at the Congolese border we passed a stream full of women washing and children playing in the water.
It was too tempting not to splash in the brown, warm water.
After some time the women carried away their kids on their backs and went back to
cocoa, coffee, sugar, palm oil, rubber; cattle; okoume (a tropical softwood); fish is all being sold in the market.
their villages to cook food for their men.
From the stream we could see the Congolese border post and the military awaiting us.
It had been a long day.
We dressed slowly as the apricot sun sank in a bow towards the horizon. The Congo was calling.
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