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Gabon's rare and somewhat perplexing wealth, earned through the country's oil trade, has a dramatic effect on the West African country's modern day life. Though issues of poor health care and public education plague Gabon's reputation, the nation has invested heavily in propelling a rich image to the world, with the big city vibe of its capital, Libreville, as well as the fashionable restaurants, bars and cafés of towns like Port-Gentil. Heart-wrenchingly high everyday expenses are a further result of Gabon's pursuit of modernity.
Due to this first-world mindset, traditional Gabonese culture has pretty much been tossed out the window. Instead, travellers look to the country's ideal rainforests, where the abundance of wildlife is enough to match the abundance of wealth in the national purse.
The earliest inhabitants of the area were Pygmy peoples. They were largely replaced and absorbed by Bantu tribes as they migrated.
In the 15th century, the first Europeans arrived. The nation's present name originates from "Gabão", Portuguese for "cloak", which is roughly the shape of the estuary of the Komo River by Libreville. French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza led his first mission to the Gabon-Congo area in 1875. He founded the town of Franceville, and was later colonial governor. Several Bantu groups lived in the area that is now Gabon when France officially occupied it in 1885.
In 1910, Gabon became one of the four territories of French Equatorial Africa, a federation that survived until 1959. These territories became independent on August 17, 1960. The first president of Gabon, elected in 1961, was Léon M’ba, with Omar Bongo Ondimba as his vice president. French interests were decisive in selecting the future leadership in Gabon after Independence; French logging interests poured funds into the successful election campaign of M'ba, an 'evolué' from the coastal region.
After M'ba's accession to power, the press was suppressed, political demonstrations banned, freedom of expression curtailed, other political parties gradually excluded from power and the Constitution changed along French lines to vest power in the Presidency, a post that M'ba assumed himself. However, when M'ba dissolved the National Assembly in January 1964 to institute one-party rule, an army coup sought to oust him from power and restore parliamentary democracy. The extent to which M'ba's dictatorial regime was synonymous with "French Interests" then became blatantly apparent when French paratroopers flew in within 24 hours to restore M'ba to power.
After a few days of fighting, the coup was over and the opposition imprisoned, despite widespread protests and riots. The French government was unperturbed by international condemnation of the intervention; and paratroops still remain in the Camp de Gaulle on the outskirts of Gabon's capital. When M'Ba died in 1967, Bongo replaced him as president, and continued to be the head of state until his death in 2009, winning each contested election with a substantial majority.
Gabon is located in the southern part of West Africa, along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and is bordered by the Republic of Congo to the east, Equatorial Guinea to the northwest and Cameroon to the central north. Much of the land in Gabon is tropical rainforest, totalling almost 85% of the country. There are 3 distinct areas: the coastal planes, the mountains and the savanna, from west to east. The Ogouué River is the most important and longest river system in the country, over 1200 kilometers. Much of the land, 11%, has been designated national park since 2002 and there are 13 magnificent national parks to visit.
Gabon is opening up to travellers wanting to experience one of the last frontiers of Africa. It still comes at a price though, as flying to Gabon, hotels in the capital Libreville and lodges in some of the national parks are just expensive and budget options are very limited, if not absent. Add to that expensive domestic flights you sometimes have to take, and you will see while there still not many visitors in Gabon. In the 21st century, many national parks have been formed to protect the large quantities of virgin rainforest and animals. There are now 13 national parks, totalling 11% of the landmass in Gabon, one of the highest in the world. One of the most famous and best is Loango National Park.
One of the last tropical wilderness areas in the world, the Loango National Park deserves a place in Africa's top 10 regarding safari opportunities. Where else in the world can you see chimpansees, elephants and hippos living so close together in one habitat. The elephants and hippos, among other people can even be seen on the Atlantic beaches, which form the western border of this magnificent park. The Land of the surfing hippos it is called sometimes and the park is also famous because this is where Dr. Michael Fay ended his MegaTransect across Congo to Gabon, right there on the beach. In the waters just offshore there are good opportunities to see dolphins and whales as well, making the combination of animals you can see even weirder.
The Lopé-Okanda National Park was the first protected area in the country and contains mainly rainforests and some grass savanna areas. It was recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the area is one of the best places in Central Africa to experience the African rainforest, teeming with mostly smaller animals. There are many bird, monkey and butterfly species. The Zoological Society of London is involved with the Lopé National Park and has some further information on their website.
Akanda National Park is located in the northwest of the country, along the coastline containing the Mondah and Corisco bays. Mangrove and tidal beach habitats are the main ecosystems here and the area protects especially birds and migratory birds.
Located on the equator in Africa, Gabon experiences a typical tropical climate with hot and humid weather year round. Temperatures average around 30 °C during the day and 22 °C at night, the coastal areas being a bit cooler during the day and a bit warmer at night (Libreville for example is just a few degrees cooler at night than during the day). Also, the difference between the slightly cooler June to September months and the hotter months of December to May is just a few degrees. The country has one of the wettest climates in the world and from October to May there is long and rainy season. October and November generally are the wettest months, followed by March and April. Still, June to September is fairly dry and combined with somewhat lower temperatures makes it a better time to visit.
Libreville Leon M'ba International Airport (LBV) near the capital Libreville is where all international flights depart and arrive. Gabon Airlines flies to Paris and Pointe-Noire. Avirex Gabon flies to and from Bamako, Brazzaville, Cotonou, Douala, Lomé, Malabo, Ouagadougou and Pointe-Noire. Air Service Gabon flies to Brazzaville, Sao Tomé, Douala and N'Djamena. Other destinations include Johannesburg among a few other regional cities.
Royal Air Maroc flies to Paris via Casablanca, Air France flies directly to Paris from Libreville.
Not all of the crossings mentioned below are doable by car, but you can cross into most countries at one border post at least. The crossing with Cameroon is easiest, the one to Congo is located in a little bit of no-man's-land but doable, the ones to Equatorial Guinea are possible but include a lot of hassle, suspicious official and you will need your visa arranged before arrival!
Also, have everything regarding car and insurance in order. Even the, the customary bribes are unavoidable.
To Cameroon you can cross at the Ntem River between Bitam (Gabon) and Ambam (Cameroon). From Ebolowa in Cameroon there is a regular bus service to Yaoundé and Douala and visas are available at the border.
To the Republic of Congo, the main crossing is between N’Dendé (Gabon) and Doussala (Congo). From here go to Loubomo to connect with the Pointe-Noire to Brazzaville railway.
Crossings in the east include Léconi (near Franceville) and Mékambo (the only crossing where visas might just be available).
To Equatorial Guinea, crossings are at Cocobeach (Gabon) by pirogue to Cogo and Acalyong (Equatorial Guinea), or otherwise via via Oyem and Bitam (Gabon) to either Mongomo or Ebebiyin (Equatorial Guinea) overland. It's about 4 hours from here to Bata by taxi along good paved roads.
There are boats between Libreville and Cotonou (Benin), Sao Tome & Principe and Cameroon sometimes, but ask at the port authorities in Libreville first to check if and when they are running. It's long and uncomfortable.
Note that Port Gentil is not reachable by bus, car or train, only by plane or boat from Libreville or inland towns along the Ogoué River.
There is the so called Trans-Gabon railway travelling between Libreville/Owendo and Franceville, stopping along the way in Ndjole Booué, Lastoursville and Moanda. Although services are limited (3 times a week) and slow, it makes for a comfortable journey and train enthusiasts will love it.
Less than 10% of the roads in Gabon are tarred and even the tarred roads can be impassable after heavy rains from October to December and February to May. If you do decide to rent a car, make sure it is a high clearance 4wd one and if you don't have any experiene driving in these circumstance, rent one with a driver. It's very expensive. Traffic drives on the right and you need an international driving permit and international insurance.
Most public transport takes place in shared bushtaxis or minibuses. Fares are expensive for African standards and connections are slow and uncomfortable sometimes. Daily minibus services run from Libreville to Lambaréné, Mouila, Oyem and Bitam, some of them involving an overnight stay.
There are ferries between Libreville and Port Gentil, taking about 4 hours each way on the fastest boats and almost 8 hours on the slower ones.
There are also riverboats along the Ogoué River between Port Gentil and Lambaréné, taking anywhere between 10 and 24 hours, depending on weather and going upstream or downstream. Some boats continue on to Ndjolé.
All national, except South Africans (for a stay no longer than 30 days) require a visa. See details about the processing at the Gabonese Embassy website.
Also check the nearest Gabonese Embassy for further details.
See also Money matters
Gabon uses the CFA Franc as a currency. The CFA Franc is divided into 100 centimes. Coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 500 francs while banknotes come in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000 francs
The exchange range is fixed at aproximately 656 CFA Francs for one Euro.
In Gabon the Central African CFA Franc (XAF) is used which has the same vallue as the West African CFA Franc (XOF), but it's not possible to use both currencies in the same country.
Fourteen countries in Africa use this currency, eight in West Africa and six in Central Africa. The West African CFA Franc can only be used in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo, while the Central African CFA Franc can only be used in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
A visa and letter of invitation are required for foreigners working in Gabon.
French (official), Fang, Myene, Nzebi, Bapounou/Eschira, Bandjabi. Very few people speak English in Gabon, so some knowledge of French is an asset.
Outside of the capital there aren't that many international restaurants. Local food is quite filling and cheap. In the parks, you generally will be catered for.
There are three international name hotels in the capital: Le Meridien, Intercontinental and the Novotel. Apart from these, there are several other budget and economy hotels.
Long term lease on apartments is also an option.
The cheapest local beer is Regab, it costs XAF500-2000 and comes in a 650 mL bottle. There are fantastic fruit juices available: "D'jino" Pampelmousse (grapefruit), Ananas (pineapple), Citron (Lemon) in 300 mL bottles at XAF400 and in a 1.5 L bottle at XAF900 if bought in a shop.
See also Travel Health
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is required upon entering Gabon. You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don't have that desease) when entering overland.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Gabon. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Libreville can be a little dangerous sometimes, especially in darker areas at night. Stay in the main areas and take a taxi at night. Otherwise, take normal precautions elsewhere.
See also International Telephone Calls
The country calling code to Gabon is 241.
To make an international call from Gabon, the code is 00.
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