Elizabeth Gordon grew up in Paris and lives in New York, but she’s never stopped pining for her native Kenya. “The sunset in New York is just not a magical moment people stop their days for,” sighs the wistful-beyond-her years 23-year-old. The Stanford grad and would-be management consultant or investment banker has traveled in Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and of course Kenya. In December, she’d like to return to Africa for another visit, but she’s bent on going somewhere new. “Oh, and I looooove elephants,” she says.
“Do you smell the gorillas?” Ludovic asked, stopping in a small clearing and sniffing at the air.
“They must have been here only a few minutes ago.”
I couldn’t smell them. It was my first day in Gabon’s equatorial forest, and I was overcome by heat, humidity, and two days of travel. As I followed French elephant researcher Ludovic Momont through the tangled vegetation, I could focus on little more than keeping my boots on the steep trail.
Our destination was Langoué Bai, a swampy, mineral-rich clearing in the middle of Gabon’s new Ivindo National Park. Forest elephants use Langoué Bai as a sort of outback pub: a center for sustenance, socializing, and occasional brawling. Our path was, in fact, an elephant trail, one of thousands that form networks through the otherwise impassable forests of eastern Gabon. These tracks offer the paths of least resistance for gorillas and other animals—including the few humans who venture into this remote corner on Africa’s northwest coast.
If conservationists have their way, Gabon’s forests will soon host more two-legged outsiders, as the country swaps a future based on oil and logging for one that will rely on sustainable tourism. Gabon’s president, Omar Bongo, recently signed a decree establishing thirteen new wildlife-rich national parks, protecting some 11,000 square miles—a whopping 11 percent of his country’s land area. Bongo’s dramatic move stunned conservationists around the world, who have begun touting Gabon as an African Galápagos—the ecotourism capital of Central Africa.
If conservation and ecotourism can work anywhere in Central Africa, certainly it’s here. Gabon is accessible and lightly populated, with forests covering roughly 75 percent of the land area. The country hasn’t been plagued by the insurrections and anarchy that have ruined tourism—and daily life— in neighboring countries. In fact, no other peaceful country on the continent can offer so many opportunities to see African forest animals in their natural habitats.
But the forests have never been Africa’s easy option, and wildlife thrills in this claustrophobic environment can be hard-won. Unlike savanna countries such as Kenya and Tanzania—where the animals seem to perform on cue for freshly showered vanloads of tourists—there’s no way to sanitize the jungle. Expect to get wet and muddy and bug-bitten as you search for gorillas, mandrills, or forest antelopes.
Ivindo National Park is undeveloped, but two other national parks, Lopé and Loango, have an established tourist infrastructure. Lopé National Park, located in the center of the country, is a patchwork of old-growth tropical forest and savanna. In July, troops of several hundred mandrills gather during mating season; in October, huge herds of buffalo congregate on the savanna.
The new Lopé Hotel’s tastefully built cabanas are set on a hill above the Ogooué River. With its view of the half-mile-wide river, towering Mount Brazza, and network of hilly forests and savannas, the hotel must be one of the most spectacularly situated in all of Africa. The Lopé offers daily outings with naturalists and will arrange stays at the Mikongo Camp (about $200 per person), a research station focused on gorilla habituation. Rooms at the Lopé (around $160 per person) are best booked through English-speaking tour operator Mistral Voyages.
Located on the tropical Atlantic coast, Loango National Park is a microcosm of all that Gabon has to offer. The Dutch-built Loango Lodge is a luxurious hideout with seven bungalows surrounded by nature, plus a good French-inspired restaurant. This is one of the few places on Earth to see elephants and hippos on the beach, even in the surf. Camping is the only accommodation option in Ivindo National Park’s Langoué Bai, which is, for now, accessible only via a jarring drive and a steep hike.
A few hours after Ludovic smelled the gorillas, we descended a hill and the trees parted like a green curtain, revealing a clearing nearly a mile long, bisected by a small river. We had arrived at the bai. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I took in a spectacular array of animals mingling and cavorting. There were long-tusked elephants and gorillas, buffalo, and wild hogs. Sitatungas (large forest antelopes) browsed on the grass, and small crocodiles splashed in the river. Monkeys and parrots wheeled and chattered through the trees.
Over the few days I spent at Langoué, my senses began to sharpen, regaining some of the edge that had been hammered dull by life in New York. I quickly learned to discern the musty, vaguely human scent of gorillas. And each time I walked through the forest, I picked up on some new detail of the staggering diversity in the tangle of vines and branches.
Just before sunset one night, I climbed to an observation platform in a tree at the edge of the clearing, equipped with a mattress, a mosquito net, and some leftover lentils. I dug out the lentils and scrounged for a spoon as the sun settled to the tree line and my dinner guests began to arrive.
From the left, a pair of sitatungas entered, followed by a troop of a dozen red river hogs, the ridge of hair along their backbones glowing orange in the setting sun. A couple of forest buffalo sauntered in from the right, each carrying a white heron on its back. A pique eagle glided home to its nest, high in a tree opposite my own perch.
But it was the elephants that stole the show, as they congregated at a collection of mud holes the researchers had dubbed the place principale. A big tusker swaggered assertively into the mud, followed by a smaller male who lingered at the clearing’s fringes with his trunk uplifted, sniffing nervously at the air. Two juveniles arrived and set about showering, rolling in the mud, and engaging each other with mysterious, but no doubt meaningful, gestures.
Man’s largest companions on dry earth were good company, and I sat watching them until the light faded. The sounds of the jungle grew into a chorus of grunts, chuckles, eeks, orks, caws, gee-ops, and erk-erks. Somewhere nearby, one gorilla talked—ugh, ugh, ugh—to another. Unseen monkeys leaped past me in the trees, and bats fluttered by so closely that I could feel the air move through my whiskers.
I could no longer see the elephants, but as I bedded down I could tell from their conversations that they had become more numerous. Some time after midnight, a scuffle broke out; the elephants’ brutal roars jolted me awake just in time for an incoming storm.
The wind arrived first, shaking the lashed-together platform. Next came bursts of lightning, which strobe-lit the elephants at the mud holes and a loner walking near my perch. Finally, the rain hit, throwing itself against the platform in horizontal torrents that rendered the overhead tarp useless. I tossed on my poncho and drew my knees up tight, taking in the storm’s invigorating assault on the forest—and feeling, honestly, like the luckiest man on Earth.