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michael-ibk

Into the Heart of Madness - This is Gabon!

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Galago

I've been so looking forward to this TR and you already have me on the edge of my seat to find out What Happens Next!  Such an ineresting juxtaposition of beautiful surroundings and major hurdles in trying to see them!

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Game Warden
On 9/18/2019 at 6:02 PM, michael-ibk said:

psychedelic

Should we as the readers partake as well in order to really appreciate in full this report? To enhance the already vivid colours in the prose and photos? 

 

;) 

 

Seems to be somewhat of a "Magical Mystery Tour" already...

 

Matt

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Kitsafari

@Sangeeta reading that chat back had me in stitches! ahhh the first of many mysteries in Gabon.

 

@Game Warden that's such an apt name for the tour.

 

"Roll up Roll up for the Mystery Tour

Roll up Roll up for the Mystery Tour

....

The Magical Mystery Tour
Is waiting to take you away
Waiting to take you away"

 

And on that note... let's continue the tour into the world of Libreville, the wonderful train rides of Gabon and the insane things including a mini hijack that can only happen to you on a Gabon safari in Lope National Park.

 

Our journey to Lope National Park was scheduled for 5pm, so we had a bit of time in the morning to do a quick tour of Gabon's capital city Libreville,  which is located in the west on the Komo River, by the Gulf of Guinea. Libreville's population is 704,000, just 33% of the total population of 2.13m. its waterfront properties were gorgeous mansion-like buildings.

 

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The main highlight was the the visit to the L'Eglise St-Michel or the St Michel Church. Made of timber, the church contains 31 wooden pillars each carved with different scenes and images that depict more than bible scenes and included things and events of their day-to-day lives. The sculptor of the pillars is artist Zephirin Lendogno of Lambarene. The internal chapel was beautiful, well ventilated and airy. 

 

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Right at the corner of the grounds was a statue of St George killing a dragon. The church was ringing with some high-spirited hymns and singing prayers at the back of the church. It was quite a fascinating building, not quite the church you would expect in Europe, but very much adapted and styled to the Gabonese and African tradition. 

 

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Edited by Kitsafari

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Kitsafari

The train station in Libreville was about a 1-1.5-hour drive from where we were to Gare d'Owendo (where the train station was located). There were a couple of baggage helpers who very quickly took our bags,and very skillfully wrapped out bags tightly with cellophane wrap. I saw my bag magically shrank into a smaller bag, perhaps that 's what I should do for the lighter planes that are always stressing small soft bags are compulsory for their tiny cargo hold. 

Then we went into a VIP room to wait,  and soon it was time to check our passports and IDs before we boarded the Trans-Gabon train. 

 

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The nicknamed Bongo Train runs on the country's only train line that traverses across the country from Libreville in the west to Franceville in the east. There's a bit of history behind the 670-km railway line. Construction began in 1974, a result of then President Omar Bongo, who went ahead with the project , determined to complete it to show the World Bank which had rejected any funding support for what it deemed an economically unviable project. Now the railway line is the lifeline for the economy and the population, the most efficient and fastest means of transport in an infrastructure-lacking country. By day, the freight trains bring precious manganese and logs from the forests and mines, and by night, passenger trains ferry humans. 

 

The main problem was for humans that you are highly likely to arrive at your destination smack in the middle of the night which means less sleep and getting off the train in almost total darkness. 

we were in the First Class which was very comfortable and relatively quiet. We found out there was a VIP class later with very cushy seats and very plush and serene. There are two restaurant cars on the train,and we would often see ladies carrying trays of food up and down the train, and I wondered if there was a party somewhere to which we weren't invited!

 

The train ride to Lope took about 5 or so hours. The evening soft glow that faintly lit up  villages and towns along the rail line soon gave up, and darkness swallowed the outside scenes. it was a pretty smooth ride and the chair was comfortable enough to have a snooze if you could. I forgot to take photos of the internal car - maybe one of the others might have. 

The long train has outgrown the original platforms.When we reached Lope at around midnight, we found we weren't getting off at the platform but a way off it. The drop from the last step to the ground was at least a metre which made getting off with bags in tow a bit of an art to make it look graceful. We abandoned gracefulness for practicality and the guys were all on hand to help the ladies down. 

 

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Edited by Kitsafari

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Kitsafari

Lope Lodge, where we were going to stay 3 nights, was only about a 10-min drive or less away.

 

It sits on the fringe of the Lope National Park. At 4,900sq km, it is the largest of the three parks we visited. This was the first park protected in Gabon in 1946, and is made up mainly of forests that always threaten to claim back the savannahs that dot the park. I found it quite pretty with rolling hills and patches of savannahs bordering the forests. Fires - both controlled and wild - would sometimes expand the savannah areas but the forests would quickly grow over. But in terms of game density, you cannot compare it with the Mara or Tanzania or South African parks - i think even Tswalu with its semi-arid land had more game. 

 

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The first morning, @michael-ibk and @AndMic were heading out for the mandrill experience with Dr David Lehmann, while the rest of us would do a game drive this morning and do the mandrills the next morning. 

 

The start of any safari trip is always tinged with lots of optimism and excitement at what we would find. It got deflated a little because the safari vehicle appeared only at 9am, and we got into the park at 9.20am - a bit late really to find animals or birds. we stopped along the way to the park to pick up a local guide, then at the park station, picked up a ranger. 

 

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A group of black colobus was our first sighting. They were way up in a tree, but moved off when we stopped to see them. They were large monkeys. Part of the old world monkeys, the Black colobus is listed in IUCN as vulnerable. Lope is thought to hold the highest density population with a 1998 estimate at 50,000-55,900. This was the only time I saw them. 

 

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an awful shot but just to show the length of its tail 

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we saw some African quailfinch and as we were leaving the park after a three-hour drive of really emptiness, I finally saw my first forest elephant - a very young male who knew we were around, and very very cautiously came out into the open for a little mud-bath.

 

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Evening game drive yielded forest buffaloes and forest elephants. The elephants were extremely cautious and while they did not take flight, they didn't want to be in the open too much either. 

 

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SafariChick

@Alexander33 actually the restaurant/hotel at which we were to have lunch, Cap Caravane, provided the boat that took us on the mangrove tour and the boots. They actually had a huge variety of boots and just asked our sizes and brought them all out (after quite a long wait of course, like everything else in Gabon!) 

 

@Sangeeta and @Kitsafari  I was laughing so hard reading that exchange again about Kenya (the country or the woman?!) Great job describing everything getting to Lope Kit, and beautiful photos of the church! I think that our morning drive was the one (while @michael-ibk and @AndMic were searching for mandrills) where we had a most surprising sighting, though brief. As Kit said, we were having a very quiet drive for the most part when suddenly what ran out on the track ahead of our vehicle? A big male chimp!! It was the first one I've ever seen in my life, and while it was a short sighting, it was very exciting as we were totally not expecting to see any chimps on this trip. There are no habituated groups in Gabon that are open to the public at this time. They are working on habituating at least one group but it is not ready for the public to see yet. So this chimp ran out to cross the road - saw us and stopped and kind of half stood and looked back at us for a few seconds, then continued and ran on across the road into the forest. We raced up to the spot but we could not find any sight of him. Unfortunately, it was so quick none of us managed a photo.

 

By the way, before we left on the train to Lope (which I thought was closer to 6.5 hours - I think we left at 5:30 and arrived about 12?), we'd met up with the man who would be our guide through the first two parks we'd visit: Vianet. That's his name you saw on the tape on one of the bags and he was helping with the wrapping and then writing his name on all our bags. It would come in handy later in the dark after unloading our bags and half asleep stumbling off the train to determine which shrink-wrapped ones belonged to our group. Before we departed for Lope, Vianet was helping Josep exchange his train ticket for one that would go the following night as he had decided to wait a night in Libreville hoping his luggage would show up, and then he'd take the train alone to meet us in Lope the following night. It was taking a long time and we were a bit worried waiting in the VIP lounge whether Vianet would make it - the train people kept urging us to get on board and we may have been the last people to do so but we thought we'd better wait for him! But it all got accomplished and we got on board in plenty of time.

a few more photos from LIbreville:


These guys (and gals, I presume) were EVERYWHERE!

 

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As always @michael-ibk was trying to make a birder out of me - each trip I take with him maybe i get a tiny bit closer but ... can't say I'm really there yet. Though towards the end of the trip, I WAS seeing and ID-ing a few birds!

 

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The kids hanging around at the church were cute - probably their parents were in the singing practice, I think. 

 

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and a few from Lope:

 

 

 

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In the little village in the park:

 

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Scenes from Libreville and from the train station and train and also more from Lope - these are mixed together because I can't figure out how to put them where I want to in relation to the text when I add the pictures straight from my computer rather than from, say, Flickr but it's too late at night to upload these all to Flickr which I hadn't done yet! I'm sure you can figure out which are from Libreville and which from Lope!

 

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Edited by SafariChick

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Kitsafari

@SafariChick that chimp sure provided some minutes of real excitement for the morning drive!

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michael-ibk

Lope Lodge is a pretty absurd place. Its location is wonderful, right by the Ogoué River, and the well-kept garden attracts a lot of birds, I really liked hanging out there.

 

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But "service" is very "different" - Gabonese to extremes. Most of the time spent at Lope Lodge involves waiting - waiting for food, waiting for cars. Give or take two to three hours after ordering lunch or dinner. We tried to be clever and ordered dinner at noon for a specific time which was semi-successful - it arrived only 90 minutes late. It has a very governmental-run "Do really not care what you want/Stupid tourist from Europe why are you bothering us" feel. I tried my very best to get a smile out of the chief waitress who also seemed to kinda run the place - but failed miserably. I really was a bit afraid of her, her looks could freeze water. :ph34r: If there was a manager we never knew. To be fair food (when it came) was actually fairly decent to very good. The pricing was insane though: We ordered Spaghetti Bolognese twice since they did that really well - they charged no less than CFA 12,500,-- for it (more than USD 20,--!).

 

 

The rooms did have electricity, AC, and a somewhat working shower (with very low pressure). Comfy? Well, see the picture, servicable but nothing more. Needless to say nobody ever came to tidy up. :)

 

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I did not mind the waiting for breakfast and lunch that much since the premises were very nice, and I did enjoy walking around looking for birds. Like this Copper Sunbird.

 

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This incredibly cooperative Yellow-Throated Tinkerbird.

 

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White-Crowned Lapwing.

 

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Or the abundant Long-Legged Pipits

 

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Vieillot´s and Village Weaver - cheating here, a picture I´m smuggling in from Cape Caravaine, our "Wait for Akanda" outpost.

 

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Andreas ran down to the river to use the 10-minute window the sun was giving him, so don´t be fooled by the nice light. Dry season in Gabon means almost constantly very cloudy weather. Which is good since it´s not too hot and humid, temperature always was between 20° and 30° Celsius (so much cooler than in Europe the same time). 68 to 86 Fahrenheit for you folks using that weird system btw. A pleasant temperature but also very challenging for photography since the light was mostly very, very dull.

 

Like this:

 

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This was actually as good as it got:

 

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I will be honest and give Lope gamedriving a maybe 3/10 rating. The park has its nicer areas but is incredibly empty. A few elephants and a few Buffaloes, that´s pretty much it. There are no grazers in this area, so one can literally drive for hours and see nothing. I remember we went 90 minutes on our morning drive and did not even see one single bird. It was a very dry year so that probably factored in as well, I don´t suppose there was much nutritious stuff left out in the open so everything probably hid in the forest patches.

 

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The few somewhat swampy patches sometimes produced Elefants and Buffs but mostly pretty distant.

 

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Sometimes we´d see monkeys (like this Putty-Nosed Monkey) but they are pretty shy and never allowed a closer approach.

 

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This Moustached Monkey was seen close to the Hotel, Vianet spotted it from the breakfast table which is still totally incomprehensible to me, it was about a km away!

 

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We saw a Finfoot at this nice little creek but were unable to get a photo.

 

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IDing Squirrels is way too tricky for me, my best (uneducated) guess is Gambian Sun Squirrel for this one.

 

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Yellow-Throated Longclaw, the only noteworthy bird photo I took on game driving. Our lack of sightings might also have to do with the ridicolous timing - as Kit and Jane have already pointed out they started at about 09:30 in the morning even though we pushed for an earlier start. Since we all were underenthused about Lope NP we all decided to skip the second afternoon drive and rather hang out around the Hotel. For our first afternoon drive, one of the most outrageous things I´ve ever experienced happened before we got going but I will let the others tell that tale, I´m still too baffled to believe that actually happened. B)

 

All in all, while I did get excited about seeing Forest Elephants and some Monkey species for the first time, appreciated the Buffalos and had fun running after birds in the garden I probably enjoyed Lope the least from all the places we visited. But of course it delivered one big highlight - see the very first picture of this report! But more about that later.:)

 

Edited by michael-ibk

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Treepol

@michael-ibk I'm so enjoying this refrshing TR from a little visited to say nothing of 'edge of the seat' destination - expect the unexpected indeed. 

 

Beautiful photo of the weavers...

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solpics

Quite an adventurous and exotic trip. @Kitsafari@SafariChickLove the young elephant flinging mud photos.

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gatoratlarge

Well I'll pick up the ball here for a bit---my recollection is that we drew straws of some sort on the train so Michael and Andreas were the first to go mandrill trekking with David Lehmann, and group 2 (me) would go the next morning.  @Kitsafari and @SafariChick covered our morning drive well.  Certainly the chimp was the highlight for me before he disappeared into the forest leaving behind a half eaten piece of fruit---no one got a clean pic, it seemed to happen so fast, but the famous sasquatch pic sort of reminds me of our last glimpse, the chimp looking over his shoulder:

 

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The black colobus was also nice as it was a new species for me.   But allow me to get to one of the most bizarre episodes of the trip, indeed of perhaps any safari I've ever been on...

 

I usually don't pay much attention to other groups staying in lodges along the way. I think being friendly but also respectful of privacy and space is the way to go. The dining room at Lope Lodge was pretty expansive and tables were far apart anyhow.  At first there was another group of tourists similar to ours as I noticed a couple people with those giant boom lenses chasing birds around the garden besides @michael-ibk  :D but they departed.  There was also a family of ex-pats, perhaps two families eating meals together.   They laughed loudly, drank heartily, played pool and other games.  It seemed more like a family holiday than a safari.  The Lope Lodge has a nice pool that overlooks the river below which they used as well.

 

When it was time for the evening safari I entered the dining hall when a large, blockish, bald-headed man (the father)  approached me visibly upset.  In fact, he was so angry he was almost in tears!  He said the lodge staff told him there was no vehicle for his family so there would be no evening game drive for them---they would have to skip---he flew his son from France for $3000 for this holiday he cried---he had been working in conservation for three months in this country!  The ingratitude!  Why you (us!) and not us (them!) he implored!  I'm a softie, empathetic to the core.  I think most of us (because he had made the point to approach each of us) felt pretty badly for them as we climbed into the apparently lone working safari vehicle at the lodge...after all, we had experienced as you've read already some unusual "hospitality" since we had arrived, shoot, it could have been the other way around!  My thought was that perhaps they had not booked in advance like we had (they said they had) or maybe it was having a "local guide" like Vianet that aided us...selfishly, I was sad, but "better them than us?"  So maybe it was karma...

 

At any rate, the wait in the vehicle began to drag on....the plaintive cries of the ex-pats continued...the other father stood alongside our vehicle arguing and pleading with our driver...this was getting a bit much!  Out of the side of my eye,  I noticed the "other" father tossing something in the air...he'd catch it, then toss it in the air again, and catch it again...our vehicle's KEYS!!!  He had snatched them out of the ignition!  Vianet came to the vehicle and explained that we were now hostages and the expats were now making demands!!!   For the keys to be returned all of their expenses including drinks must be FREE!  All the empathy and compassion I felt drained away, replaced by indignation and fury!

 

Negotiations were heated.  The word "GUARANTEE" was uttered over and over!  Another vehicle was summoned but it was enclosed and not satisfactory to the ex-pats!  Half the family would cram into our vehicle and one of the wives would go in the enclosed vehicle but it all must be free!  The bald headed man was so disgusted, he would refuse to go at all!  

 

Now THAT my friends was one uncomfortable safari drive in all ways possible.  I must say the two kids were the most well behaved of all and put their parents to shame.  Others may elaborate further but that's how I remember "The Evening Game Drive I'll Never Forget"!

 

But the "Main Goal" of visiting Lope was always to see the elusive and rare mandrill found only in Gabon,  parts of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea...and the country's head researcher for Gabon Parks, no less than David Lehmann, would be our guide!  To be clear, these are not habituated mandrills...they have collared a couple females and the group numbers more than 700!  No other primate gathers in numbers of this size I was told.  Another nearby troop numbers more than 1250!  So the goal is to intercept the troop as it feeds and moves along on the forest floor.  David noticed that the troop was particularly skittish during our stay and speculated a leopard was following them which is common.  A troop of mandrills can keep a leopard well fed for life...at any rate, we stopped the vehicle atop some granite covered hills to use the antennae to locate them.  Sweat bees were quite annoying in this place but not really bad  in the forest or for the rest of the trip as far as I remember. 

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Once David caught a signal we plunged into the dense forest.  We were briefed on safety as there are many perils...buffalo are dangerous but nothing more dangerous than surprising a forest elephant.  David says at least once a week they have a close call/encounter with an angry forest elephant!  The terrain at time could be steep and it was always a tangle of roots and vines...soon we began to hear the screams and grunts of the females and males, the shuffling of leaves.  We were close.  But these ghosts of the forest remained but shadows!

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Finally we began getting glimpses through tunnels of vegetation but the mandrills are similar in height to a lot of the undergrowth,  It was much more difficult than I had imagined.  I made out the shape of a large male and saw the body shapes of other individuals moving past an opening but a clear view was not to be had this day...I attempted no pictures.  David was very concerned that we have the proper expectations.  He wants the experience to be the adventure of it all, the sounds,  the trek itself, the glimpses through the brush.  He clearly wants people to enjoy it for what it is.  And that I did.  I did not really expect an experience like the mountain gorillas of Rwanda...maybe I had hoped for it but I did not expect it.

 

At this point @SafariChick decided to go back to the vehicle accompanied by David's assistant , Joel, and we decided we were going to make one more attempt at intercepting the troop.  No more than five minutes after we last saw @safarichick we heard a loud whooshing noise!  Branches splintered, limbs crashed---I thought a massive tree had fallen in the forest---but what strange timing!  David had a concerned/alarmed look on his face and began immediately to radio his assistant.  Now, another whoosh coming our direction!  David said it was a charging forest elephant---one that we never saw---the assistant reported he and safarichick were OK and we quickly began moving away.

 

We soon crossed a road and it was when we plunged into the forest for a second time that we were rewarded with our best sighting of the mandrills...about twenty females with babies shimmying down a tree!  The only thing I could grab was my cell phone which I promptly dropped! I retrieved it in a panic and began punching in my pass code which seemed to be one digit off...once I got it right, I had to turn on the camera, adjust to the forest and for a while I was focusing on the wrong tree!!!  I'll never make National Geographic like this! :D But that was the magic Mandrill moment for me...unobstructed, a conga line of mandrill mommas!

 

 

 

David had a lot of knowledge, some of it pretty funny about the mandrills.  It takes the males nearly ten years to get in prime condition and they will sacrifice a youngster to preserve themselves.  Chivalry is dead. Once, he darted a mandrill and as it lay there unresponsive the others walked casually past and stole the fruit it had been eating!  :D  They haven't impressed David as particularly empathetic sorts!

 

We came back exhausted, but happy...

 

On the drive back we passed an abandoned village.  Many of the huts sported a bright orange satellite dish, gifts of a Chinese logging concern I believe he said.  Only there's no electricity in the village rendering the gifts useless except as bright decorative pieces :D

 

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Always the logging interests :( 

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Edited by gatoratlarge

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Kitsafari

Ahhh the hijacking of our vehicle. who would have thought this would happen, but then again, it's Gabon! @gatoratlarge related it well. I too at first was sympathetic but became infuriated that these guys deliberately held us hostage to get free stuff from the lodge. I was about to get off the vehicle to confront them and scold them for giving such bad press to "conservationists" when more level-headed Michael hauled my ass to my seat.

 

Way to go to give a positive impression to conservationists, fellows!

If they had asked us, I doubt if any of us would have said no, especially since the kids were very well-behaved, unlike their seniors. Bear in mind there were five of us (Josep was on his way to Lope), and then there was Vianet, the driver, the local guide and the ranger. so when three of them joined us, we were 12 in the vehicle. 

 

For me, the highlight of the entire Lope section was the mandrills. I had expected the trek would be ardous but had no other  expectations. The trekking was exhilarating -  just crashing into the jungle to keep up with extremely fit David, trying to be quiet and fast at the same time climbing over fallen logs, scrambling over hillsides, rushing through branches and leaves and avoiding pitfalls. and all the while, stopping for few minutes here and there to catch glimpses of a brilliant male looking over his shoulder at us, or a female peeking through the leaves, or an adult squatting to forage. The group kept rushing way ahead of us. David was initially puzzled why the mandrills were so skittish, commenting that our group had it worse than other groups (including michael-ibk and AndMic's experiences the day before).

But when the mandrills, obviously huddled at the top of the tree, rushed down the tree one by one, he concluded a leopard was following them. Just our luck. and of course, though we saw nothing, the two thunderous crashes added drama and adrenalin to the entire experience! 

 

Despite the lack of opportunities to see the mandrills at close range, and I took no photos, only a video clip like Gatoratlarge - I had thoroughly enjoyed it and learning from David about mandrills. 

 

I don'[t have any new photos to add to the others', except a few on Lope Lodge, which was located in a very scenic area. 

 

 

 

 

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Galago

Just extraordinary! A scary waitress, hijacking conservationists ..... who needs charging forest eles to keep the adrenalin pumping. Perhaps the long waits for everything were deliberately designed to give you downtime after all the 'situations'. The key thief reminds me of Piggy in Lord of the Flies (sweat bees?) crying 'I've got the conch! I've got the conch!' :unsure:

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monalisa

I love the choice of header photo :lol::lol::lol:

 

Such great sightings already. I will definitely be following this thread as before this I had no idea what was even in Gabon! 

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SafariChick

The mandrill trek was well described by @gatoratlarge I found the hiking challenging and just before I decided to go back, I had started to not feel well - nauseous and shaky. My husband, who is a competitive cyclist, describes that feeling as bonking. I didn't feel hungry, I'd had a good breakfast and I was drinking plenty of water but it was very humid and in the forest there was not a breeze. That combined with what was for me difficult hiking was just a bit too much for my not in the best shape body! And I realized I would have to hike back out of the forest too so if I went any farther, that would make it that much longer I'd have to hike out. So it was decided I would head back with David's assistant - who really didn't speak much, if any, English and I don't speak much French. As Gatoratlarge said, very soon after we parted from the rest, we suddenly heard this incredibly loud crashing sound and the assistant put his arm out immediately to stop me from walking. To be honest, he looked terrified. He said something that indicated to me it was an elephant (he may have said elephant, I'm not sure, my adreneline was rushing so high!) He made frantic motions at me to run back towards a tree and get behind it. Then he stayed forward and was looking around and listening, still looking pretty scared.

 

Eventually things quieted down and he motioned that we could move on. But he seemed to be taking us on a different route than the way we got there (although who knows, I have no sense of direction and there were certainly no paths, just wacking our way through the forest!) But on the way back, he kept stopping to consult a compass and deciding which way to go. He also helped me by giving me a hand on the hard parts (of which there were many). I was really really disappointed to learn I missed the best sighting of the mandrills which happened after I went back (the mothers and babies shimmying down the tree). But the others explained it was at least 15 more minutes of hiking before it happened and that they had picked up the pace quite a bit after I left, so it would have been really hard for me and I had no way of knowing they would see anything more than we already had seen.

 

The key-stealing incident was absolutely crazy! I remember the bald man when he was finally returning the key was handing it back to the driver but as the driver reached out to take it, the man hung on to it so they were both holding it and said "Mais GuaranTEE! Guar-an-tee!!!" (But guarantee!) still demanding a guarantee that they would get everything free. Of course, the driver didn't have the power to guarantee that I'm sure. Oh and I think the bald man claimed he'd been working on conservation for 3 years not 3 months - not that it really matters! Vianet later told us that the management of the Lope Hotel had come to him the night before and told him they had this problem and asked him that we would not take a game drive since the other family reserved one also. But Vianet absolutely refused to concede. He said they have another vehicle but it just needs repair and his theory is they don't want to spend the money to repair it!

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kittykat23uk

Unbelievable! How utterly outrageous for you all to have been held hostage like that! That man should have been ashamed of himself! 

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michael-ibk

Indeed, asking us if they could join us on our car would have been the more sane option but admittedly the far less interesting one. B)

 

We initially expected to arrive at Lope not before 2 or 3 in the morning, the train´s reputation for punctuality is pretty dire. And Vianet told us we´d get going by 7 o´clock for the Mandrills, so nobody was particularly eager to go on the first day. We decided to do straws, and Andreas and me lost. (It would not have been possible for all of us to go, 4 persons is the maximum for a Mandrill visit). But it worked out nicely, since the train was in Lope before midnight, so we did get a good night´s sleep, and of course - in true Gabonese style - our 7 o´ clock departue became 9. :)

 

Seeing Mandrills, the world´s largest monkeys, was one of the main reasons for doing this trip. They have always been one of my favourite animals, looking so unreal with their crazy colours, much more like a creature having escaped from a cartoon than a regular, real-life mammal. There are only occurring in in Nigeria, Southern Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Congo. Mandrill distribution is bounded by the Sanaga River to the north and the Ogooué and White Rivers to the east. They are classified as "vulnerable", deforestation being one of the most critical issues. But also bushmeat hunting, the Kingdon Field Guide states that in Gabon their meat is more highly prized than imported beef.:( So protected areas are vital for them, and Lope is a major stronghold for the species.

 

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Our trek started at the same spot as the others´ - at least I think so judging by the pictures.

 

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This is quite a different affair from trekking Gorillas - for once, there is no trek! We were macheting our way through the jungle, hacking and slashing through the vegetation. Evading thorny trees, climbing over roots, holding on to liana, jumping across little creeks, wade through mud, crossing ditches - we really worked off our breakfast big time!

 

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My only picture of a Grey-Cheeked Mangabey from the trip. B)

 

After a while David told us the Mandrills were close - and we definitely could hear all the shuffling around and became very excited. We had no clear concept of how this would go - Guillermo, the ground handler in Gabon, had told me I should not forget to take down my camera and watch. Well, that really was no issue, I rarely put my camera up! I had somehow expected we would go into the forest, sit somewhere, and watch them pass - after all it´s a horde of many hundreds. But that´s really not how it works, at least not for us. The Mandrills were always on the move, which is moving away from us, and following them we mostly got glimpses of moving shadows. Which is not surprising given the line of sight was pretty much this:

 

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After a while we realized this was what this was gonna be - very Gabonese: Difficult - but a pretty cool and exciting thing to do. Sometimes we had reasonably good views of some Mandrills, but given the darkness deep under the rainforest canopy taking photos was pretty much impossible, especially since they never held still.

 

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Some youngsters.

 

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Females. While they look very reminiscent of Baboons Mandrills are actually closer related to Mangabeys.

 

I was thrilled when we saw two or three full-grown alpha males, the red and blue clearly visible through the foliage! They were pretty far away, on the other side of a ditch and this was all I got:

 

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But what a privilege to see this incredible animal in the wild!

 

For everyone who thought my choice for intro photo for this report was slightly tacky there´s a simple explanation - it´s the only decent photo of our Mandrill outing I got. But I´m happy I got this one, and it helps me cherish the memory of this highly unique experience!

 

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Did we have a typical experience? I think so, David thought it was fairly good visibility-wise, and it was very important to him people understand this is not like Gorilla trekking but more about the experience of trying to trek wild animals in the jungle. The group present in Lope went the day before, they told me they did not get any usable photos. But it´s entirely possible to be more lucky, I heard Chalo´s second group had one pretty photogenic outing, I´m looking forward to seeing the results myself. BTW, there´ one other park in Gabon where you can see Mandrill - Lekedi.  It seems to be a totally different experience though - there the Mandrills are a mixture of wild-born and introduced animals. The rangers feed them bananas and peanuts so they are completely habituated and photo opportunities are much better. But does not really sound like a wilderness experience at all. So I much preferred our  "wild" Lope trek.B)

 

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"Second Joel", Andreas and David - for at least one of our group members I think the Mandrills were not too important, walking after him was enough. ;)

 

Edited by michael-ibk

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Atravelynn

A big male chimp suddenly running across the road without warning seems to be very much in line with how your trip is going.  The Sasquatch re-enactment is hilarious.

 

Those chocolate and caramel buffalo are attractive and Forest Elephant #1 had to be exciting despite all you endured with late starts, late food, etc., not to mention "hijacking!" 

 

Between videos, stills, and sightings with your own eyes, the mandrills were a success!

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pedro maia

Quite an adventure this Gabon trip, I think that game drive issue with the bald man steeling the car keys and blackmailing the lodge is absolutely surreal, I don’t know how I would have reacted in a situation like that.

 

And great mandrill EBC’s B).

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gatoratlarge

One thing I might comment on while we're still in Lope is that many of us going to Gabon got quite excited about the possibility of seeing giant pangolin there. @Anomalure 's recent TR mentioned they had seen TWO on their visit to Gabon in addition to other rarely seen mammals like the water chevrotain. Of course this sent our hopes (not expectations, but hopes none-the-less) soaring...word was that David had placed a gps device on a male giant pangolin and we hoped we could convince him to seek it out on our visit. We found out that it's more complicated than that (isn't it always!??)

 

The giant male pangolin covers a much larger territory than anyone knew before and that fella really made some tracks. The other group had several things going for it including incredibly good fortune. Also, they stayed longer and visited Mikongo Camp deep in the park---I think I have that right. David plans to track a couple more females which are believed to have much smaller territories by gps so he hasn't given up but he described a potential five hour slog to find one and then there's the pesky slog back...just not very practical at this juncture. 

 

One thing's for sure, he has incredible energy and stamina. I love meeting people with his kind of dedication on safari. He collared red river hogs as well which revealed tracking them is pretty impractical too :D he said he and an assistant followed the giant pangolin down into his den (15 meters!! Or 45 feet in for Americans) before aborting.  I can't imagine crawling into a hole too small to turn around, pitch black, with the potential of coming face to face with a python or worse!

 

i guess you have to be nuts to have that sort of curiosity or dedication.  They found there are multiple entrances and "rooms" in the den. Just fascinating stuff. We caught up with him later on the train headed to Lambarene where he was attempting to solve an issue of hippos getting too comfortable near human settlements. His job is certainly an exciting one that's for sure!

 

i found this description of his title and duties...all the more impressive:

 

Dr David Lehmann is a wildlife ecologist, working as Director of Research at the Station for Apes Ecology (SEGC) in Lopé National Park, Gabon, for the National Park Agency (ANPN).

Besides overseeing most of the research projects in forest ecology and its resilience to global environmental changes, David is directing evolutionary research on:
- the sociality and sexual dimorphism of wild Mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx),
- spatial and feeding ecology of red river hog (Potamocherus porcus),
- and developing novel methods of accurately following and protecting endangered animal populations through the use of new technology.

In 2019, David launched a much-needed and anticipated research project on the ecology of the Giant Pangolin (Smutsia gigentea). So far he has been very successful in gathering pioneering information on this cryptic species.

Pangolins are being poached to the brink of extinction, and David’s team is dedicated to providing information critical to effective conservation and effective global pangolin conservation policies.

#EyeOfThePangolin #TeamingUpToSaveASpecies #SaveASpecies #ProtectPangolins #BehindTheLens

 

 

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SafariChick

One more photo from Lope - this was when we were on our way to see the mandrills - we being group 2 - everyone but @michael-ibk and @AndMic - and we stopped at a scenic spot while David and his assistant Joel were trying to locate the mandrills.  David told us this rock was really really old, like one of (or the?) oldest rocks in Africa if I'm remembering correctly. 

 

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pault

This is hilarious stuff. I thought I was patient but you all put me to shame. And to realize that this is the well organized way to travel! 
 

I think the “conservationists” sound like they have been there a little too long and haven’t quite adjusted, although they think they have.
 

They played you like violins though -  

b————ds! I would have let you go, Kit! Right behind you. :P Just as well Michael was there though. 
 

Brilliant stuff all. One thing absolutely necessary after such a trip is a classic trip report. This is that.

 

 

Edited by pault

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Atravelynn

I needed that picture of an old rock just to decompress a little and compose myself after all you have been through.

I too would love to meet someone who has collared river hogs.

 

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Alexander33
8 hours ago, michael-ibk said:

For everyone who thought my choice for intro photo for this report was slightly tacky there´s a simple explanation - it´s the only decent photo of our Mandrill outing I got. But I´m happy I got this one, and it helps me cherish the memory of this highly unique experience!

 

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Michael, I feel your pain. It is never easy to photograph primates, especially in these conditions. I think you did quite well under the circumstances. At the very least, this deserves an “Honorable Mention” in the “Show Us Your Bums” topic in the Photography forum.  

 

That  @AndMic was still smiling in the photo at the end of the trek says a lot.   What a trip. We’re continuing to follow. 

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SafariChick

Thanks @pault - it would have been fun to have you along with us for sure - despite all the craziness (or perhaps because of it), there was a lot of laughter. And more than once, someone said, hoo boy, this is going to be some wacky trip report!

 

So after our last game drive at Lope, we had dinner once more at the Lope Hotel because our train would not be leaving the Lope train station until midnight. Or I should say that's what time it was scheduled to depart.  But our baggage that wouldn't be in the car with us (the larger bags) had to be sent ahead to get 'checked in' because the check in place closed at 7 or 8 pm, I can't remember. And then we ourselves had to be there about 11 to wait for the train. Why, I don't know. Because it's Gabon. So we arrived, waited for the train, and while we waited some of us chatted with an engineer named "Stevens" I believe. He spoke English rather well and was a pleasant chap but I was not impressed that he was having a beer while on duty. Also, the subject of being American came up and of course, our president then came up. He seemed to believe our president was doing terrific things and helping the world. I did not share this opinion, but fortunately we didn't have too much longer to wait for the train.


The train arrived about 12:15 a.m. and we got on, but then the train sat there for quite some time. My notes say it finally left around 1 a.m.  Our destination was a town called Booué. This was a stop on the way to our next National Park, Ivindo.  We knew that we were not expecting to get a lot of sleep that night but the night turned out even shorter and - of course - stranger than we'd anticipated. Our itinerary said accommodations would be "at Booué Guesthouse on a B& B basis (Simple hotel. Please note that running water will not always work, but a water bucket will be provided)." We arrived at about 2:30 a.m. to the Booué train station. Then there was the usual need to wait a bit to get our 'checked' luggage. Vianet was off handling that when a man with a badge indicating he worked at the train station began talking to @michael-ibkin French. I was not understanding what was being said but I could see that Michael was trying to ask him to wait until Vianet came back. Along comes Vianet and talks to this official and we are told that this man wants to see all of our passports. This was the first time this happened on the trip and we weren't sure if this was normal. But Vianet said just do it and I'll talk to him. So Vianet goes in his office to talk to him. Meanwhile, the rest of us were hanging out in the little train station, noticing a group of women who were very "happy". There was a very lively bar across the street and it seemed these ladies had come from there. After the train left and the other passengers who'd gotten off at this stop dispersed, the ladies went back to the bar. All very interesting.

 

After quite a few minutes had gone by, Vianet came back out, but without our passports. We'd been thinking that he was being asked for a bribe. But no, he said this guy was drunk and seemed to think we should have some kind of papers because we were going to the national park. But Vianet said that really wasn't this guy's concern. There were several employees of the national park there to meet us and they were also waiting to see the outcome of this whole thing. They were going to take us to the guesthouse, apparently, as they would be coming to Ivindo with us. (this hadn't been explained to us but as time went on we figured it out). Viannet said go ahead with the park employees so you can get to sleep, I will keep talking to this guy and get your passports and give them to you in the morning. What could we do? We said ok.  

 

The guesthouse had been pointed out to us as being so close we really could walk there - but since we had all the luggage, we all piled into the cars the park employees directed us to. Then we started to drive, but we didn't go to the guest house. We went somewhere quite a bit farther away. As we got out, we saw it looked like just someone's house in a neighborhood, not any kind of guest house or B&B.  So we asked what is this, is this where we are staying?  the employee told us that yes, we had been supposed to stay in the guest house but a mistake had been made, and no rooms had been reserved and now there were no rooms for us there so "the boss" had said we should stay at this house which was ... his house? That's what I got though that may not be quite what was said. Again, it was 3 a.m. and language was an issue. Uh ... ok. Again, what could we do? So we go inside. We were meant to have single rooms on this trip but this was not to be at this place. Michael and Andreas went to a sort of detached room that was not part of the house and had its own bathroom and AC as it turns out - they actually ended up with the best accoms in this place! Other than that, there were two rooms in the house and one bathroom. One room had a double bed and the other room had a bunk bed and another single bed! @Kitsafari decided very kindly to give me the room with the double bed and she, @gatoratlarge and Josep took the room with the bunk beds and single bed. There was no running water in the bathroom but then we had been warned that there might not be at the Guest house. The mattress in my room was about 2 inches thick. But we were only going to get a maximum of 4 - 5 hours sleep at this point anyway so we all just tried to go to bed! By the way, as you can see in the photo below, my room had an air conditioner - with a short cord hanging down and not plugged in to anything as it was too far away from the plug. 

 

The next morning, the wonderful Candy (pronounced like Con-di) came over and cooked us all eggs in the kitchen of this house and there was plenty of baguette, so that made things better!  Not actually sure where Viannet slept (it wasn't in our house) but he appeared at breakfast time with our passports, so that was good. We later had it explained to us (much later, by Guillermo at the end of the trip I believe or maybe it was Viannet) that it was NOT that a mistake was made and rooms were not reserved for us. Rather, it was that the boss of the national park thought we would be more comfortable in this house because it had running water while the guest house seemed to have deteriorated in that department (actually we didn't have running water in the bathroom in the house as far as we could tell but I guess there was in the kitchen sink and in the separate room Michael and Andreas had). And we learned that this is a house that is owned by the national park and is used by employees when necessary. So all in all, it was another very Gabonese experience!

 

 

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Edited by SafariChick

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