Part two of a five-part series. For part one click here.
Omboué is a small village on the Nikomi Lagoon and the last settlement of any note before Loango. There is not a lot here besides a few houses, a couple of general stores, and a hotel and restaurant. But it is a vital supply center. Logistically, Gabon resembles the Belgium Free State described in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. It is a country of stations that become progressively more isolated as you push into the interior. Only here, there are no ivory traders but oil executives, the river boats are helicopters, and to the best of my knowledge no one has gone full Kurtz.
From Omboué, it’s still another hour and a half through alternating savanna and jungle to Loango Lodge, the only outfit catering to tourists in these parts. Built by Rombout Swanborn, a wealthy Dutch conservationist who made his fortune in the Gabon oil industry, the EUR 15 million Loango Lodge was the country’s premier ecotourism facility. Swanborn’s idea was to finance research at the park through a luxury hotel. But in 2010, Gabon’s civil aviation authority pulled the in-house airline’s operating license, and Loango Lodge shut its doors. It eventually reopened, but financial mismanagement saw the operation put into receivership.
So who exactly is in charge here, anyway? And how were they keeping this place operational? Everyone I asked seemed to have a different answer. Was I about to step foot into the dilapidated nightmare world of an eccentric philanthropist, an Island of Dr. Moreau, perhaps? Frankly, I was ready for anything.
As it turns out, I did not end up an unwitting participant in some ethnically questionable medical procedure but was met by the hotel’s manager, Mathieu, who happily showed me the cylinder bungalow where I would be spending the night with all the comforts of the modern world, including hot water and air-conditioning.
After freshening up, I headed to the main lodge with its veranda opening up to the Iguela Lagoon. The setting is idyllic. A lush jungle surrounds the hotel with the sandy savanna of the park on the far bank. The roar of crashing waves can be heard in the distance intermingling with the gentle lapping of the lagoon’s waters around a small dock. Here the air is fresh, and a slight coastal breeze cools the equatorial sun and disperses the few mosquitos in the area. Even at dusk, you can walk here in sandals without fear of being bitten. This has been called Africa’s Eden, and it lives up to its name.
At dinner, I sat down with Mathieu. The kitchen had prepared gratin de poisson. “We try to use fresh ingredients here as much as possible,” says Mathieu. “Of course, that limits us, so there is no fixed menu. It’s a lot of fish because of the lagoon and the ocean.”
I wasn’t complaining, the fish was moist and delicious, as good as any restaurant in Marseille, but I couldn’t quite place it. Barracuda, Mathieu tells me.
I ask him about the lodge and its ownership. Mathieu smiles and tells me the sordid history of a Dutch investor’s good intentions going awry at particularly every turn. Currently, Loango Lodge is controlled by the Gabonese government as its ownership is worked out in the courts. It had briefly shut down last year for remodeling. “When the legal issues are over we hope to get more investment. For now, we do what we can.”
But if progress at the lodge is slow, the management is doing an excellent job with what they have. The refurbished installations look new, the food is great, and the service is personal and accommodating. They have even opened a new satellite tented camp. It’s a bit more rustic than the lodge but closer to much of the park’s wildlife, particularly, hippos and crocodiles.
After dinner, Mathieu goes over the logistics of my upcoming trip. I was going deep into the heart of the park, up the Akaka River. But before that, I would pay a visit to the Loango Gorilla Project, a small outpost on the far end of the lagoon. Everything would have to be brought with me from the lodge. There were no supplies where I was going.
Part three: I meet the anti-social gorillas who live in trees.