Lopé National Park Gorillas
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999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
The road winds along the banks and eventually crosses the boiling whitewater of the Ogooue River over a monster bridge. The town of Lopé is little more than a tiny general store and a collection of houses built to service the two luxury lodges here. Gabon has excellent infrastructure, and Lopé has train station, making this possibly the easiest National Park to access in the entire country.
I pull into the massive luxury lodge and immediately feel under-dressed and out of place. The manager is extremely friendly and is happy to show me around, even though I am slightly muddy after a couple of days without a shower. While we chat I learn a night in the lodge is 500 euros, meals are about 30 each and a tour into the park is well over 100 euros. Ouch. The lodge is extremely beautiful, with manicured laws all the way down to the river, a pool, bar and many luxury cabins with electricity and air conditioning. Meals are prepared by an internationally trained chef, I am told.
When I explain my trip and situation, the manager is extremely honest and kind, explaining that it’s forbidden to drive my own vehicle into the park and I must get a tour of some kind. At this entrance the most likely animals to see are elephants and buffalo, which to be honest I don’t really want to pay big money to see. He soon suggests that if it’s gorillas I am hoping to see, this is not really the best place. Further down the road there is a completely separate entrance to the park where a research station used to operate, watching a troop of gorillas. He knows a guy who can guide me, and so I set off back into town armed with a name and a phone number on a scrap of paper.
On the edge of town is a military checkpoint, and the friendly guys there are quick to say the man I am looking for is actually here in Lopé, so I shouldn’t drive further down the road now. After waiting five minutes I am introduced to Ghislain, an extremely polite and gentle man who has just been out picking wild lemons with his six smiling children. While discussing back and forth I quickly see Ghislain is thoughtful and patient, and I can tell immediately we will be friends. The price for his services starts out at around 100 dollars, though I manage to negotiate it lower by removing everything possible. I will drive us both there, cook us all meals, I can camp in the Jeep and I only need to stay one night in the park. In the morning we will search for gorillas, then drive back to the town of lopé in the late afternoon, outside the park. Ghislain is more than happy to tailor the trip to meet my budget constraints, and so we shake hands on a deal to go into the park in search of gorillas. I feel extremely good about spending time with Ghislain.
While driving further down to Mikongo we chat back and forward about anything and everything. Ghislain has lived here his entire life, and worked for the gorilla research station we are visiting, which shut down a few years ago. For three straight years Ghislain would hike into the jungle alone hoping to glimpse the gorillas, who would immediately leave whenever he was within one hundred yards.
After years of adjustment the gorillas eventually came to tolerate his presence, and after five straight years it was possible for him to spend five to ten minutes within thirty yards of the gorillas. Because of his years of work he knows where they will likely be and how best to find them.
I had no idea I was setting out with the Gorilla whisperer.
I was told earlier this road was washed out, and I can see why. In a few places rivers have completely blown out the road, and I am just able to squeeze the Jeep through narrow parts of the road where locals have moved rocks. Ghislain explains that probably only one vehicle per week drives here.
After paying a small fee to the local community we branch off onto a seriously overgrown jungle trail and drive a further five miles into the actual gorilla research station, now abandoned. The site is supremely beautiful and I can’t help but feel sad at the lack of maintenance and upkeep. With just a little work this place could be magical. After a mountain of pasta for dinner we crash early, just as the jungle chorus comes to life.
We are up and hiking through the jungle early the next morning. Ghislain explains there is a huge network of trails through this region of the park, used by the researchers who were monitoring the gorillas. Now many are overgrown and abandoned, and others are still in use, mostly by the many forest elephants that live in this region of the park. Quickly I see the skills of the Gorilla whisperer in full force. Looking at broken twigs, footprints in the mud, half-eaten fruits and stopping to listen every five minutes, Ghislain leads us deep into the thick jungle, continually taking turn after turn on the muddy tracks. He assures me he knows the way back by heart, and I believe him.
After only a couple of hours of this we come across a bunch of leaves pushed around on the ground – this is where the gorillas slept last night. With some careful looking over the whole area Ghislain even produces a hair from one of the animals, and some half eaten fruit. He knows they are close, and I can see he is determined to find them now. We continue on, dropping elevation down to a river, were we can see their tracks in the wet sand. Ghislain does not say much to me, but spends a long time staring at the far bank and walking up and down, his senses on high alert.
When we start to climb the far bank I see him jump up and down with excitement, then punch his fist into his hand in frustration. After making it abundantly clear I must be silent, I follow through the dense jungle as we slowly creep up a small dry riverbed. I have not seen or heard anything yet, though solely from Ghislain’s behavior I know we must be extremely close.
A few times we wait for five minutes without moving, before retreating backwards and trying from a slightly different angle or vantage point. When I hear the gorillas call I am shocked. Judging by the noise they are extremely close, and they are also extremely large.
After a lot of back and forward Ghislain explains the male gorilla is agitated, and does not like us being so close. If we stay here he will lead the troop away, and they will continue to move if we try to follow. We back off and get some high ground to see how they react. After only a minute one of the female gorillas comes to check us out, and I have a clear view to her hugging a huge tree, high above the ground.
I am struck by how big the gorilla is – much, much bigger than any chimp I have seen, and by her face. I previously thought chimps had faces and expressions like ours, and the gorilla takes it to a whole new level. I can clearly see the inquisitiveness on her face and in her eyes.
For five minutes we watch each other through the jungle, until the big male calls her back to get the group moving.
To get down she simply relaxes her grip while still hugging the tree, sliding to the ground. I am struck by how much she looks like a large child doing the same thing.
We move back a few more hundred yards and sit on a rock to eat a snack. Ghislain explains that if I am lucky the big male will bring the group down to have a look at us. They clearly know we are here, and over the next forty five minutes we hear them grunting and calling to each other, though unfortunately they slowly retreat away from us, and we never see them again.
I am absolutely buzzing to have seen them, and Ghislain confesses he is feeling the same. He honestly didn’t know if he would be able to track them down in a single day (usually people pay for a multi-day trip) and he is clearly proud to have done so. He is also proud the gorillas remember him, and the connection is still there.
Slowly we get moving, retracing our steps through the jungle, with Ghislain never once even slowing down at a junction. In one place he stops to point out our footprints in the mud, and the elephant prints that are now over our shoe prints. Oh sure, he says, they are all around. I get giddy like a little kid thinking about mighty elephants walking through this jungle behind us. He is constantly on the lookout and listening so that we don’t accidentally get too close to one, which will almost certainly make it angry and can be very, very dangerous.
Almost on cue we hear an elephant calling out, and Ghislain estimates it is less than five hundred yards away. We freeze and listen for a couple of minutes, before Ghislain explains this is not a good situation at all. Based on how the elephant is calling out he thinks it must be injured or distressed in some way, and we absolutely must not approach any closer. In fact it is not entirely safe where we are now, and so we walk in a huge semi-circle giving the animal as much space as possible. Part of me is disappointed to not see the elephant, though of course I listen to Ghislain’s expertise and do exactly as he says. Each time the elephant trumpets my hair stands on end and I am frozen in place. Even for a little forest elephant he sounds mighty.
On the drive back we are both buzzing, and continue to chat back and forward about our experience, Ghislain’s family, his religion, his training and experience in the park and everything else that comes to mind. His family all moved to the capital city, as most Gabonese seem to do, though he knows the city life is not for him.
Ghislain is an extremely interesting man, and I wish I could spend a week getting to know him better and understanding his approach to life.
Lopé National Park, Gabon – I am impressed!
For anyone interested in visiting Lopé National Park, I highly, highly recommend getting in touch with Ghislain. He started the Association Mikongo Vision – http://www.mikongo-vision.info (though I doubt he has online access very often)
It would be best to get yourself to the town of Lopé by car or on the train, and ask around for Ghislain. Everyone in town knows him, and he lives walking distance to the centre of town and the train station.
Ghislain speaks perfect French and understands English well and speaks a little, certainly enough to make the trip happen.
Please say a very warm hello from me