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Gabon

20th March-2nd April 2005

A quick question, why is a ski rack a very popular accessory for the Toyota Starlets and Corollas here in central Africa? May be we should have brought some snow chains. But I digress a little. We are now in country no 11 and it’s been 8 months since we left London and we are still on the move, we now have all the visas we need to get to South Africa including the visa for Angola. The visas have taken a very heavy toll on our budget but with any luck should be our last.

We are now in Gabon were the roads are suppose to begin to get a lot worse with a lot of mud and water. This is the time of the “small rainy season” and everywhere is suspiciously green! So saying the road from Ambam and the border with Cameroon was supposed to be particularly bad, but is in the process of being renewed thanks to the European Union and was excellent. Maybe they could sponsor some road repairs in London!

We continued on to Mitzic and the Catholic mission there and our first night in Gabon. There is thick rain forest everywhere, hot and humid with rain every now and again but none of the violent storms of Yaounde. At the mission we recived quite a different welcome from that at Ebolowa, in Cameroon, despite all brother Roberto’s efforts. Here the priest was very welcoming finding us a nice spot on the grass and making his quarters available to us to shower, etc, all this despite his obviously busy pre Easter schedule. The church was packed when we arrived and onward late in to the night, when one group left another arrived. Beautiful singing surrounded us as we prepared our evening meal and later lulled us to sleep. The church goers seemed so happy there and in fact appeared to be quite reluctant to leave.

Having found the novelty of good ashfalt a little tedious with the inshala navigators struggling to keep awake, the Germans suggested a “short cut” that would save us 60km. I should have spotted the warning signs when Blanca said she had been considering the same route! The piste to Sam according to the map was suppose to be bad but at Sam it connected to the main piste which was marked as partially improved but likely to be impracticable in bad weather. But it’s the main piste so how bad can it be……..!

The route to Sam was very promising and freshly graded, but the main piste hadn’t seen much traffic and was in a poor state with grass actually growing on the road, usually not a good sign. The route got smaller and smaller the further we travelled and in places was wet slimy clay as a result of the recent rains. We of course were in front and had to stop every now and again to let the Germans catch up. After a particularly damp section with forest and swamp on eather side we stopped to wait.

After a while and no sign we turned round and went back to try and find them. Further back along the piste we were greeted by the terrible sight, with the Ifa once more in a ditch but this time it was a small stream. Ralf who for some strange reason had been driving in two wheel drive at the time had lost control of the front and slid off the road. It looked an almost impossible task to get the truck back on the road. Luckily Ralf had a “Trifor” type winch aboard with a very thick cable. He attached a long strop around a nearby tree but not before disappearing up to his knee in the swamp! We started to winch and slowly but shorly the Ifa was dragged back on to the road. Another close shave for the Germans, but this time the only damage done was pride. We followed along behind and at the next village after an appalling piece of road the Germans said enough was enough and turned back to take the ashfalt road to Libreville. I decided that it would be a pity to turn back, it can’t get any worse, or could it? So we would continue alone! Of course the piste go worse and worse and to add to our problems it had been raining heavily. At one point rounding a particularly steep banked slimy section the back of Grommet started to slide and “let go” but fortunately I had enough time to steer in to the slide before Grommet “fell over!” a particular week point of the 101. Unfortunately this luck wasn’t to last, while making a slow descent down a particularly wet slimy section with a deep gully in the centre, one of Grommets rear wheels slipped in to the gully taking the front with it. Grommet was almost on his side, two wheels in the slime at the bottom of the gully and the other two barely making contact with the track. Could this be the end of the journey! Blanca and I had to exit submarine style through the passenger door to survey the damage. Here we were in “deep shit” alone and no trees to winch from and it was too late to turn back. Blanca was so scared that she had to take a shit!  There was nothing for it but to get the spades out and dig, well more like remodel the piste and fill in the gully. Two hours and a lot of digging later, a little help from the sand ladders and a lot of luck Grommet was back with all four wheels on the track. Amazingly with no damage done! Pity there was no one about to record the scene as we were both digging! We were both muddy, hot and sweaty but pleased to have extracted Grommet from a nearly impossible situation on our own. Two rescues in one day had taken its toll and we were both exhausted and it was also getting too dark to continue. Two hundred meters down the track was a small house, 3 small children had been watching the recovery, but it was strange that there were no parents about. Blanca being slightly more presentable went to investigate if we could park and camp in front of the house. The grandmother who was in charge said that it would not be a problem and just at the same moment the parents arrived to confirm the fact. After a quick snack of Chinese noodles our “emergency rations” we collapsed in to bead satisfied with our days work, and hopping it didn’t rain any more that night. Strangely the piste improved a little a few kilometres later and was ok all the way to Medouneu the main village. They even had an airport and a helicopter. Um! We wondered what the next 163km would be like can’t be any worse. But no more deep gullys especially at the entrance and exits from the villages, collapsing and collapsed bridges and lots and lots of deep mud holes. Perfect practice for the coming Congo.

The Goodyear Wrangler tyres had been amazing and Grommet had never faltered once despite the mud on occasions covering the tyres some 35 inches deep! The piste eventually improved and we could make up time. We found a great spot to camp for the night, before a collapsing bridge with a crystal clear stream below and none of the usual small biting flies and mosquitoes that usually dog these spots. I think it was because we both were smelling so bad! Nothing for it but to strip off and take a bath in the stream African style. Oh, it was wonderful to be clean again and not smelling like swamp things! The piste joined the asphalt road at last, it had been very hard on both of us but we had worked together and made it through and the scenery had been fantastic we would both do it all over again.

Once on the main road we began to wonder about the Germans and who should we spot just down the road but Judith and Ralf trying to buy avocadoes. So we set of for Libreville, where the “African Family” were reunited once more. That evening we had a reunion and farewell party as Didi was leaving the next morning and taking a longer and probably more sensible route south in the hope of avoiding all the mud. We on the other hand are joined once more by Heidi and Koen and will be continuing on together. As for Didi we hope to see him again and his yellow submarine surfing a beach somewhere in South Africa.

The Seminar St John was a good place to relax despite the run up to Easter. It is close to the heart of things and the street food cheap with excellent grilled fish. It was also a perfect spot to give Grommet a good check over after the hard days in the bush. It was a relief to see that no damage had been done and that the diffs and various gear boxes were still full of good clean oil. Everything was now set for the way ahead.

Libreville has a large shopping mall with supermarket attached, which proved to be a of a torture as being a bit of a foodie, surrounded by cheeses, meats, fresh fruit and veg, where a single purchase could quite easily blow our annual buget….! It is very hard to resist the temptation but Gabon is such an expensive place by African standards with most things being as expensive as Europe if not more so, I guess you need a very good expense account to survive.

Blanca has decided that she needs some new shoes for the forthcoming mud, so we went to the local market to find some, do I hear you say Wellingtons, waders that sort of thing well no, she now has a small pair of white plastic African shoes…… May be it is snowing in the Congo!

With the visa for Angola sorted, all the clothes clean and the vehicles checked we moved on up the coast to Cape Esterias for some sun, sea and sand. We stopped at the Auberge Du Cape run by Françoise and Jules, what a place, camping for free, white clean sandy beach and superb restaurant. Sitting by the beach watching the sun set over a petrol sea sipping ice cold gin and tonics……heaven. In the morning time to hit the beach, it was incredible, enter the sea to cool off, just to find it as hot as the land. The coast line is literally littered with huge logs of wood that have fallen from ships or have escaped when they have been floated down the river to the sea. Still it seems a criminal waste, all these logs were once rain forest and that’s the really sad part. The food in the restaurant was fab the fish simply melted in the mouth and the steak wonderful. On our last evening there when we really should have gone to bed early to be fresh for the next day, we got talking, Francoise produced bottle after bottle of wine while Jules knocked up fresh clams in pastis, dressed land crab and calamares. Pretty soon it was 3 in the morning and we were supposed to be up at 7!

Back to Libreville to fill up with fuel before heading for Lambarene and on to the border with Congo.

On route, we stopped to take a look at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital on the banks of the river Ogooue. Built at the beginning of the last century, it gave you some idea of what colonial life in Gabon must have been like, very, very hard. And brought to life the feeling that we were entering the Heart of Darkness.

The road, fortunately for us, was good but the further south you travel the more deforestation you see, vast savannas of tall grass were once a rain forest stood and along the road side the depressing site of bush meat, crocodiles, monkeys, pangolin snakes, small deer in fact what ever can be caught and killed is available. It was so depressing that I couldn’t bring myself to stop the truck and take a photo! Also to add further to the sadness are the long convoys of logging trucks pilled high with huge logs thundering down the road. The destruction continues!

Still on a more positive note we have now crossed the Equator, so its down hill all the way to South Africa..!


Border


Farewell to Cameroon


Farewell to Cameroon


Garage at the Mission


Camping at the Mission


The ‘Short Cut’


The ‘Short Cut’


Mud on the short cut


‘Short Cut’


Attempting a rescue


Road gets worse


Bridge!!


Grommet in trouble!


Two hours later


Road repair


Breakfast


Where is the road?


Inshala Bridges


Ford


Nice place for a bath


Butterflies


Farewell to Didi


Didi and the lucky banana


Logs on the beach


Blanca


Lock Ness monsters on holiday (Heidi and Koen)


Where is my Gin and Tonic?


Broken spring repair


Schweitzer Hospital


At the dentist


Glad I didn’t need an opp


Pelican