Saturday, September 29, 2007


Today is my good friend Suzanne Tarr's birthday and she's a dragonfly fanatic, so in honor of her, here are a few pics of some pretty ones I saw on the Rembo Bongo!

Happy Birthday Suzanne!!! Miss you!!
The Rembo Bongo

On Thursday morning my guide and I packed up our gear and a lot of fuel into a boat and headed across the lagoon to the Rembo Bongo (Rembo means river). The boat is basically an open hull, but it has a covered storage space in the bow so gear can be out of the rain. It's been overcast for the past few days- the rainy season seems to be trying to get going in fits and starts. But every time I go camping in Gabon it rains, so I have assured everyone it will start to pour as soon as I get out in the forest and unpack my tent.

At the south end near Gamba and all the way to the eastern side, the lagoon is bordered by dense forest and only a couple villages, so as soon as you leave Gamba you are suddenly in a remote wilderness. On the eastern part of the lagoon, big green rolling hills rise up behind the forest and off in the distance are the mountains of Moukalaba-Doudou National Park. Moukalaba-Doudou is one of the parks that is still mostly completely wild- only a few logging concessions, no tourist infrastructure and a whole lot of elephants! Bas tells me that in this N’dogo area of Gabon there are 7,000 people and approximately 11,000 elephants. The Rembo Bongo forms the western border of the park.

We headed into the river and spent most of the afternoon traveling up at a leisurely pace. The habitat changes from papyrus and palms at the mouth to dense jungle with elephants paths at the river’s edge every 100 feet or less. White, orange, yellow and blue butterflies flit everywhere, as do many amazing species of birds: hornbills, parrots, 5 species of kingfishers, bee-eaters, etc. The other really cool creature in the river are the crocodiles. There are 3 species: Nile (these get huge), Dwarf (very small) and False Gavial (medium sized). The Gavials bask on logs during the day so we saw quite a few. The biggest was about 5 feet long and they are shy- if you get too close to their perch, they flop into the river. The other 2 species are nocturnal.

Faux Gavial (Crocodylus cataphractus)

Along the western side of the river are 5 lakes which are known for manatee sightings: 2 small followed by 3 large, in that order as you travel north. There is one main village along the river, Ingoueka, and my guide DeDe grew up there, so he knows the area well. DeDe works for Ibonga, a small NGO in Gamba that does sea turtle nest monitoring and environmental education in the schools.

The water levels are still low from the dry season, so the first two lakes looked almost like fields; tall grasses with narrow channels of water. The first of the larger lakes, Lac Gore, had a deep channel leading from the main river with a high mud embankment. The water will rise at least 10 feet in this upper part of the river in the height of the wet season. The water will overflow the banks and flood the forest, which then allows manatees to feed there, as well as on all the grasses on the lake beds that become submerged.

Entrance to Lac Gore (pronounced Gor-A, I don't have a French keyboard to put the accent over the "e")

We arrived at the village of Ingoueka and ate lunch, then went to meet the chief. He and his family told me manatees are plentiful in all the lakes here, but only seasonally. They arrive in October and leave in April as the water level falls. So this partially explains why we didn’t see any feeding sign on the grasses in the lakes. It seems I’m a bit too early to find them here, but these are the things you only learn by coming and talking to people and it’s great to see the habitat and familiarize myself with the area. We pitched our tents on the front porch of the hospital (which was very clean but didn’t seem to be in use), and as I predicted, it poured all night. Starting around 4am we were also treated to the chipping of thousands of bats coming to roost under the tin roof above us.

On Friday morning we continued north to Lac Mafoume, the second large lake. This one also has an entrance channel about 1 mile long leading in from the main river. Along this stretch Victor, the local manatee hunter, has his fishing camp, so we stopped in to talk to him. He was very friendly and was wearing a shirt that said Florida on it! Of course he has absolutely no idea where Florida is. Anyway, he had a lot of good information about manatee use of the lake, group sizes (he’s seen up to 10 individuals together), etc. He now only kills 1 per year, for the village festival in October. He sees them in all the lakes and also confirmed their seasonality. After talking with him and his family, we went up to the lake, which was about 2 miles long, placid and bordered by grasses everywhere. We saw 7 forest buffalo bathing in the lake.
Lake channel in front of the manatee hunter's camp. You can see there are alot of fallen trees that the boat must be maneuvered around.
With Victor at his camp

Elephant footprint

Bathing buffalo. We could've gone closer, but I didn't want to spook them.

The final lake was inaccessable because of fallen logs in the river, but I have a picture of the area now. When I asked people where the manatees go when they aren't in the river, everyone said "to Sette Cama" (town in the northern end of the lagoon). Luckily, that's where I'm headed next!

Friday, September 28, 2007


Gamba is a strange place- if it weren’t for Shell Oil, the town wouldn’t exist. Most of the people here rely on Shell either directly or indirectly to make a living. The town is kind of spread out on a grassy plain and it’s divided into different sections. As I flew in I could see the golf course in the Shell compound, and I hear it’s very nice there. The business section of the town is spread along one section of road with small shops and restaurants in low buildings. The people are all very nice, but it is not an especially picturesque place.

I am the guest of WWF and am staying in their Cas de Passage near their office. Bas Verhage of WWF has shown me several good restaurants here, including a Senegalese place that serves salad. Fresh fruit and salad are very hard to come by in Gamba.

My first day here I met folks at the WWF office and made a plan to travel overnight up the Rembo Bongo (river on the SE side of the lagoon) because it is a well-known manatee sighting area. Logistics planning involves buying fuel and food, organizing a boat and driver. Sometimes this can be very slow in Gabon, but on Wednesday it went very smoothly thanks to Bas. In the afternoon I met with Olivier and Annabelle, who run the Smithsonian Institution’s lab here. They drove me over to their lab, which was spectacular. They are inventorying all the fauna for this area (includes southern Loango / N’gowe Lagoon where I was last year, as well as N’dogo Lagoon and nearby Moukalaba-Doudou National Park) and will soon expand their work to the rest of the national parks in Gabon. They have cataloged an astounding number of arthropods, birds, etc. and have produced several books (one for scientists, plus a gorgeous coffee table book). They have a nice display area for schools and tourists. It was a neat place to see.

Entrance to town

WWF Office
some of the Smithsonian specimens... I was dismayed to hear that the 2 biggest scorpions, which are the size of my feet, are common here! Definitely will try not to leave tents at night!

Common local lizard- I'll find out the proper name. Some also have blue on them.

Funky flower!

Ok, time to sign off for the evening. I'll write about my camping trip up the Rembo Bongo tomorrow!

Air Travel within Gabon

Flying here is always an amusing enterprise. You get to the airport an hour an a half before the flight yet no one can tell you exactly where to check in. Some airlines apparently have multiple counters in multiple buildings and it appears to be a good game to see if you can find the correct one on your own, because no one wants to explain it to you. Once there the security guy makes a big show of wanting to look through bags, but then only opens my duffle bag and barely looks in it as he talks to other people. Getting to the airline counter itself to check in is a free-for-all with people routinely barging to the front of the line and men giving an attitude of being too important to wait. Some people are charged for excess baggage weight while others are not. Once on the plane there are no assigned seats and no air is flowing while the plane sits on the runway, so my only goal is to stay perfectly still in the hope that I might sweat less (wishful thinking). But once the plane takes off the flight is quite pleasant. The flight attendant serves water or sometimes juice… in flavors like mango or black currant, which is nice. And since the flights are short, the planes stay low enough for nice views. Planes often stop at multiple airports and people get off and on as if it’s a giant taxi. Stopovers at these airports are quick; planes are in and out within 15 minutes or so. I learned early last year to watch out the window during these stops because baggage handlers sometimes remove whatever baggage they feel like at any stop, so you have to make sure yours stays on if you’re interested in keeping it.

On Tuesday I had a really nice flight from Libreville to Port Gentil and on to Gamba, which meant the plane followed the coastline the entire way and I was able to recognize and photograph the different lagoons and rivers. Seeing it all from the air, it seems daunting to think about trying to find manatees in all these systems.
Tributaries of the Ogooue River

Monday, September 24, 2007

Je suis arrive

It is so nice to be back in Gabon! I arrived very late on Friday night after 33 continuous hours of travel. The six hour layover in Casablanca in the middle of the night felt like eternity- everyone sits around the airport, trapped in a sleep deprivation experiment until their next flight. When I got to Gabon the customs guy waved me right through because he said I looked too exhausted and I think he was afraid I would fall over on the spot. Luckily I had a nice relaxing weekend to recover from it all and didn’t do much except catch up with friends, eat good food and watch birds from the wonderful patio at the Cas de Passage house where I stay when in Libreville. The weather is nice- 80 degrees during the day and 60's at night. The rainy season has just begun but that doesn't mean it rains all the time- like Florida it is actually sunny most of the time and then rains for a hour or so in the late afternoon or evening.

A gorgeous native orchid (Cyrtorchis chailluana) in the garden.

Tomorrow I’ll fly to Gamba which is about halfway down the coast of Gabon, and I’ll spend the next 3 weeks there surveying the N’dogo Lagoon.