You’ve probably never heard of Loango National Park in southern Gabon. Yet those, who came here do not spare superlatives: last paradise, African eden, land of the surfing hippos, place of incredible biodiversity and beauty. National Geographic authors Mike Fay and Michael Nicols, revealed this place for the general public in 2001 in series of articles about megatransect walk through “Last place on Earth”. Last place, where nature is completely untouched, uninhabited and not disturbed by mass tourism. You come here and you have it all to yourself – forests, savanna, mangroves, beaches, hundreds of elephants, shy sitatunga antelopes, buffalos with hairy ears, swimming hippos, a colony of birds and prototype of ourselves – wild chimpanzees and lowland gorillas. Within radius of 40 km, there will probably not be another tourist. How easy it is to forget and think that this whole paradise is there for you. Almost like once Adam and Eve must have.
Boat trip to Akaka river area with wild forest elephants
First a motor boat you will take you through idyllic Iguela lagoon into southern Loango. During the dry season (May-September) water level in the rivers drops and strips long green shorelines ideal for all-day elephant grazing. The grass is juicy and you will find yourself soon just a few meters away from these majestic giants. Forest elephants are smaller than their cousins from savannah, but more cautious, active and aggressive. They dont wait to give you a worning, that you are on their territory by waving their ears, and trumpeting. Adrenaline rushes to your vains, but the wise guides can tell if there is any real danger or not. They laughed at me many times, when I begged them with horror in my eyes, not to come any closer. We observed individual males and females with their young. Elephants are also wonderful swimmers, only their trunk remains above water, when they are crossing a river. To spend the night in the Akaka camp is also a wonderful experience. The trail, which leads from the tents to the dining room is also an elephant trail. At 8 pm a lonely elephant appeared only 2 meters from my tent, with considerable noise ate an entire tree and then dissapeared into the darkness.
Akaka is also suitable for viewing of sitatunga antelopes, giant kingfishers, crocodiles, monkeys and many bird species.
2. A walk through the jungle with the chance to observe monkeys, chimps and gorillas
The forests in Loango are primary jungle and that is on this planet a really rare thing. It means that they were never logged and animal populations are not significantly affected by hunting. Such sites are probably not left even in the Amazon today. The canopy of the forest is made up of huge 200-300 years old trees, they overshadow virtually the whole the undergrowth, which is surprisingly sparse and criscrosed with a rather wide elephant trails. Even though, you cant see more than a few meters around you. Catch a glimpse of any animal is equal to a miracle. The forest is full of them, but they will probably see you first and leave quietly. Their fresh prints and droppings are everywhere. Mud for bathing elephants, almost-human handprints of gorillas. Cracking branches give away jumping monkeys, flapping wings of hornbills resembles sound of a helicopter. When you hear any cracking, you pray that it is, or rather isn’t, an elephant. Too close encounter could be dangerous. Hooting spreads through the forest – unmistakable proof, that we are on a chimp trail. Step softly, telephoto lens prepared, hope, that they dont spot us and run away. Luckily, in a few minutes we can see a mother with her baby laying lazily on two crossed branches. Mother only occasionally reaches her hand for the nearby fruits.
3. With hippos in the Iguela lagoon
Lagoon is mainly surrounded by mangroves, which form ideal animal refuge. On the highest branches there are eagles on patrol, monkeys run over thin roots as well trained acrobats. Surface of the water is calm, only small bubbles reveal life in the water. And then they emerge, first one, then another, finally, the whole family of hippos. Although they spends most of the day in the water, paradoxically, they are not great swimmers. Shallow water in the lagoon suits them well. They are one of the most dangerous species in Africa, but luckily our presence is tolerated. Where the lagoon meets the ocean, on the beach, marching in the golden light of the sunset are giant crabs and a flock of birds with red beaks rises and flies over our heads for today’s latest quest for food.
4. Large animals on the savanna Tassi
Loango is a true mosaic of ecosystems. In addition to the lagoon with mangroves and forests, there are also stretches of open savannas near the beach, in the area of Tassi campsite. Especially in the rainy season (November-April), the plains here turn green and the inhabitants of the jungle are attracted by green juicy grass. For a visitor it is virtually the only way to observe these animals in the comfort and safety of an off-road car. I’m here in the dry season, but still the sightings are generous. Only a few dozen meters from the camp roams a solitary male forest buffalo, in a short distance, by a small lake we see a shy sitatunga antilope and her young. Another vigilant herd of buffalos and forest hogs don’t leave us waiting. The beach is empty this time of the year. I can only imagine the surfing hippos in the Atlantic Ocean, who made this park famous. The guides are comforting me, that even in the right time of the year, it is quite difficult to see them. I spend the night in the Tassi camp semi-open hut with warm breeze and sounds of the ocean coming in.
5.Trekking habituated lowland gorillas
Meeting with our closest relatives in their natural habitat – the jungle – is always very powerful or even “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. It is possible in Loango to see absolutely wild gorillas and chimpanzees, however as they are very shy, if you are lucky enough to find them, they will flee as soon as they spot you. Thats why different national parks in Equatorial Africa run habituation programs. It takes up to 5 years of continuous work of the scientific teams to get primates used to non-violent human presence and prepare them for usually very expensive touristic activities. In Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania you can see countless groups of habituated chimps. In Rwanda and Uganda, there is already a large number (more than 25) of habituated groups of mountain gorillas. But habituated lowland gorillas are still very hard to find. Although there are considerably more lowland gorillas than mountain ones, they are scattered on a much larger territory, in more difficult terrain and mostly in unstable countries such as DR Congo, Congo and Central African Republic. The only group in the world that you can visit without a risk of civil war, expensive charter of private planes or many days in 4WD on muddy roads is only in Loango, Gabon! From Loango lodge it takes only one hour to cross the Iguela lagoon to the camp, where you will meet the best guides of the jungle – pygmy trekkers. Under their guidance, you may shortly begin, your one hour in the company of these “gentle giants”.