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Travelling south through Cameroon the countryside becomes noticeably wilder, with more and more evidence of rainforest. The border is a big new concrete bridge over the River Ntem, an old pontoon car ferry visible below, disintegrating on the riverbank. The formalities were straightforward – my carnet, or customs document for the bike, stamped – and I was into Gabon. Immediately it is evident you are in a different country. The road is perfect, white markings tidily painted down the middle. Wide grass verges keep the heavy growth back from the road. Beyond them is the wall of damp smelling and dark equitorial rainforest. The village clearings are also kept tidy and verges cut – was that a garden lawn? The impression was of a wealthy country able to afford comprehensive road maintenance.

Oyem is the first town of any size and finding the Catholic mission I was offered a place to pitch my tent on the grass, before an administrator insisted I move the tent into an empty classroom because of the threat of thunderstorms during the night. A friendly visiting priest from Libreville offered the use of his shower. The next morning was an early start, and it was that cool I had to don my jacket liner. This was supposed to be the jungle! I hadn’t realised the roads had gained some altitude.

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I was surprised this far south of the Arabic sphere of influence, at the presence of a mosque in a few of the towns and learned later the president, Omar Bongo who had been in office over thirty years already, had converted to Islam, completing the ‘Haj’ to Mecca, setting an example to many of his subjects. There was a certain cynicism that his conversion had more to do with promised development aid from the Middle East than any spiritual calling. After the town of Mitzic where I had a breakfast omelette and coffee, the road dropped down towards the river Muni and in no time it was back to the familiar muggy, humid conditions.

Heat is a difficult thing to describe – all I can say is that when I slowed down or stopped it was uncomfortable. My choice of riding gear was a BMW Rallye 2 suit, designed for and worn by Paris Dakar competitors. Its main attractions were obviously its protective qualities – it had all the necessary body armour – and it was made of cordura, which as well as being abrasive resistant in the case of a spill, allowed the body to breathe. This, along with ample zip vents in the suit, seemed to suit my needs well. I made the wrong choice. The weight of the suit made it unwieldy and uncomfortably heavy in these tropical conditions. However, much as I was tempted to leave off the jacket, I persevered.

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On the February 28th, my brother Brian’s birthday, I crossed the Equator (wearing his cast off orange t-shirt on the day) with some sense of achievement at having got this far. A sign on the side of the road notified vehicles of the significance of that particular spot in the middle of the thick rainforest. Fairly soon after that the road disintegrated, before getting really badly potholed, very slowly winding its way alongside the river Ogoué into the hot, dusty and to my eyes dirty, unpleasant town of N’Dolé, or Sh’tholé as it became known in my mind. The town had turned its back on the river, and my attempt at getting past some of the wooden structures on stilts to the shore was foiled by the stench. Any gap between buildings was used as a public toilet and refuse dump. Unable to find a cold drink – the usual story, fridges of expensive tepid soft drinks – and fuelling up, I continued on.

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This was a magnificent ride, one of the most enjoyable of the trip to date, the well sealed switch back road climbing above the surrounding forest offering glimpses of hilly jungle stretching to the horizon. Despite the regular tracks opening off into this denseness, it seemed the logging couldn’t make a dent on the abundance of it all. I was to see a constant presence of logging trucks through Gabon, and indeed the Congo, and couldn’t help but imagine the scale of it all. I was one person, at one particulat moment in time, seeing all these felled trees. And this had been going on for decades!

Further down the road I was stopped at one of the many checkpoints encountered through West and Central Africa. It could be a pain pulling up, being asked some vague questions about origin and destination, then production of passport. Many times I could see it was more a case of curiosity about this strange road user, rather than a matter of national security. In Nigeria, where the road blocks could be frustratingly close to each other – sometimes less than half an hour – in response to the halt hand going up, I would raise my hand in a return greeting and continue. This ruse seemed to work a lot of the time, but obviously I wouldn’t ignore a road barrier or more obvious demand to stop. I would greet the officer and ask how he was, shaking his hand, always polite and showing respect. I would leave the engine running unless asked to switch it off, and my helmet on, not wishing to invite an interrogation or conversation. Frequently my finger pointing to the front of my bike indicating the Ireland sticker would satisfy them and I’d be waived on.

At this particular checkpoint, the officer stayed behind his desk at the side of the road and sullenly gestured for me to come over. Dismounting and taking off the helmet I joined the queue of people waiting for his attention and noticed the man was drunk. In a sinister manner he was threatening one driver with some reprisal should he not be patient and wait to be dealt with. Money changed hands from another driver before he was on his way. After more of these power games and abuse of authority, my patience wore thin and I greeted him firmly and politely, asking what he would like from me. Things seemed to stop as he concentrated on my request, not looking at me, before demanding first my passport and then the bike document. He scanned them without returning them, and turned to deal with someone else. I regained his attention, asking him again if everything was in order. He didn’t answer, slurring something about having to pay. I pretended not to understand and began describing my journey “from my country, through Africa”, emphasising the charity angle. With an audience, this seemed to have some effect and while he hesitated, I reached forward presuming on him handing me back the documents, which he did a little reluctantly. I got back on the bike and took off, with some relief. An unpleasant fellow.

A few hours later I arrived at the island town of Lambarene, further down river on the confluence of the Ogoué and Ngounié rivers. Very picturesque, the stilted houses were lined up on the river bank, the town stretching up to a high point on the mid river island. In the nineteenth century the Italian explorer Brazza, in the employ of the French, sailed upriver the few hundred miles from the coast and established a base here. At the time Stanley had claimed huge areas of land - now the DRC formerly Zaire - south of the river Congo, for his employer King Leopold of Belgium. The town is latterly better known as the place the Alsatien Albert Schweitzer started his hospital in the jungle at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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Finding my way to the Convent of the Immaculate Conception, I was allowed pitch my tent there for the equivalent of about €4. This was a fair deal as Gabon was known to be fairly pricey, and Lambarene - with its lakes, fishing and birdwatching an attractive destination for holiday breaks from the capital Libreville - had hotel prices reflecting that. Sister Eva, a handsome and tough Argentinian in her forties, showed me around the washing and ablution facilities. The water from their own spring was delicious, and would save on the expense of bottled water, my general source. When I asked her how she dealt with the serious presence of malaria in these parts, she detailed how having come down with malaria at least twice a year every season, and four times last year, she tried chewing shredded papaya leaves. She did this for five days the next two times as an antidote. According to her this not only worked in dispelling the disease, it hadn’t returned yet! The conversation turned towards other natural remedies – she was an advocate of the hygiene benefits of drinking and washing in one’s own urine – and gesturing towards their fenced garden, described how she cultivated aloe plants, using it as a treatment for many forms of skin tissue damage. According to Sister Eva it is effective not only in treating burns, infections, and promoting healing of wounds, but ingested has various advantages. Local people would always use traditional medicine, and she would offer it to any as long as they didn’t believe they had some ‘bad spirit’ and this was some ju ju from the church.

That evening while at an internet cafe, I had been having a bit of a good natured dispute with the young Senegalese guy on duty over the price of a phone call to Ireland. A little later, while reading my emails I couldn’t help but notice the entrance of a very attractive young lady who, catching my glance, coyly returned my smile. When leaving I mentioned to the young guy behind the desk to tell her I’d be dining up the road if she wanted to join me after she’d finished. Up I went to the restaurant where I had wild gazelle from the bush, which I found very tender though a bit too rich and gamey in flavour. There was no show from the young one and I was getting ready to leave, when up to the table stepped a woman awkwardly saying she had a message I’d invited her to join me. I had indeed noticed her in the internet, but more because of her size – she was a very large woman! I blustered something in my poor French about mistaken identity, the other girl was known to me blah blah, hoping not to offend her. Back at the internet office I confronted the Senegalese guy who denied any mischief, trying to keep the smile off his face. Of course the bird had flown at this stage. Also present at the desk was a wheelchair bound Belgian with a ready grin, as I detailed the prank in mock annoyance to him. This paraplegic I had disbelievingly seen speeding across the main bridge earlier that afternoon, white hair swept back, one hand clutching the side of a taxi!

While dining I had chatted with a couple at the next table, Laurent De Souza a rugged looking fellow in his late thirties and his beautiful girlfriend. He was impressed with my bike, having owned four BMW’s, the boxers. His father, a forester, had come over from Portugal in the sixties and was working as a hunter when he met Laurent’s mother, a conservationist visiting from France. A strange pairing, they fell in love and have been here ever since. Laurent became a timberman, though now worked for an oil company planning routes for pipelines through the impenetrable rainforest. They fly over first then recce it on land. As he said, he grew up here and knows the territory well. I imagine he would be a very valuable asset. I expressed surprise at an oil company’s involvement inland, believing Gabon’s resources were off shore. “I have seen, in a village about three hundred kms from here, oil bubbling up from the ground,” he said in his heavily accented English. “They paint it on their boats and their roofs against the rains. But they don’t want to tell anybody about it.” He maintained, as this would mean they would lose their land to the oil company. I was told the wooden houses I’d seen daubed black, had just used waste motor oil!

When I mentioned I had read that Gabon had a commendable approach to conservation, commiting ten percent of its land mass to protected reserves, Laurent snorted in derision. He was scathing of the government’s selling off the country’s timber rights. The Chinese and Lebanese companies were the worst he claimed, indiscriminate in their logging, paying no heed to the diameter of the trees. “It is killing the forest!”

The road south towards the Congo, he informed me, was in a bad way and was going to be very slow, observing it wouldn’t be great for the bike. A friendly guy, he said his parents lived in a town in that direction and suggested they would welcome a visit from me. He also insisted I visit a Dr Benoit, now retired, who had worked as a doctor in the Gabon equivalent of the Social Welfare system in a village further south again, and was a great repository of stories of life in rural Gabon.

The evening before departing, I met a couple of French ex-pats and discovered one of them was employed as an engineer on the roads! Obviously the one to ask for advice, I simply got a sideways wagging finger when I mentioned my route. It had been tarmac but now was so potted with holes it would be very slow and uncomfortable. Not wanting to put my bike through that, I took his suggestion of heading east across Gabon towards Franceville and down into the Congo an alternative route. In truth, it sounded more of an adventure, into the dark interior.

Before leaving I had breakfast in a roadside stall I’d discovered, offering the ubiquitous omelette on half baguette with various garnishes – varying from spicy to poisonously spicy. At the communal table outside there was great banter, and a bit of slagging, me being the butt of one joke. On enquiring I discovered of the eight diners, only one was Gabonnais – the others from Niger, Burkina, Togo, Cameroon and Chad! Because Gabon is a wealthy country, the highest income per capita in Africa it is said, it is a desirable destination for work. And difficult to get into. A mechanic across the road was from Togo but hadn’t been home in fifteen years in case he couldn’t get back in. When I was ready to leave and went to pay, I was told my bill had already been taken care of by the departed Tchadian!

I had company for the first time on my journey. Two KTM 940’s had pulled into the mission the day before ridden by Tomas and Stellan from Sweden (www.tour-afrika.se), and Casper the Latvian on an 1150 GS Adventure. They had shipped their bikes from Lomé (in Togo) to Libreville and were headed for Brazzaville to apply for an Angolan visa before continuing south. We set off together, back north the way I had come a few days previously. Stopping a half an hour later at a road block, I told the guys I would go on ahead. I was anticipating the glorious switchbacks over the hills to Sh’tholé and wanted to enjoy it at my own pace. Three months riding on my own meant it was a little strange adjusting to the company of others. Then after eating, fuelling up, and getting a few provisions there, thirty kms later we crossed the bridge over the Ogoué and took the dirt road heading east into the interior.

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It was 115 kms to the next village – three hours of standing and full concentration on the dirt, sand and loose gravel. Strangely the countryside began to open up into savannah and grassland. An enjoyable though very dusty ride at a brisk pace, we were tired pulling up to the entrance to the Lopé Wildlife Reserve and got permission from the park ranger to pitch our tents by the river outside town. It was perfect - a wash and short ride into town for a few cold ones and something to eat. The something to eat consisted of chewy baguette, with a can of sweetcorn, a can of tuna and an onion – bought from a small store owned by two cousins from Nema in the eastern Mauritania desert! A long way from home. It was enjoyable to share the company, swapping bike talk and stories from the road. Casper hadn’t much experience with bikes – his pace was a lot slower and more careful – and had bought his GS Adventure second hand in Germany already kitted out for travel. Planning to tour around West Africa, he found it easy enough, met the lads in Lomé and decided to take the boat to Gabon as well, intending to head to South Africa! I admired his attitude.

The next day I decided to join the two Swedes in visiting the Wildlife Reserve, while Casper wanted to continue at his pace, the lads probably catching up with him in a few days. The morning tour on the back of a 4x4 into the Reserve turned out to be a disappointment. The three hour walk, slow stroll, through forest was pleasant though quiet. Any chance of seeing wildlife was destroyed I think by the noise of our group – five others up from Libreville, expats working for a multinational on a team building weekend – crunching through the very dry undergrowth, although we did catch a sighting of an elephant, making even more noise than us! The rains we were told by our very shy and not very informative guide were late this year. With the prospect of a few more days ahead of me of Gabon dirt roads into jungle, this suited me fine!

Lopé was a stop on the Trans Gabonnais railroad from Libreville on the coast to Franceville, on the eastern border with the Republic of Congo, where Omar Bongo the President was from and had his main support base. It had a daily passenger service – twelve hours long – though was mainly used for transporting freight from the interior to the coast for export. Is was said he wanted to rival neighboring Congo’s railroad from Brazzavile the capital to Pointe Noire on the coast. This had been built in the previous century, infamously costing 14,000 lives, or as the visiting writer Georges Simenon observed “… one Negro per sleeper, one European per kilometer.”

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I went down to the rail yards to look for something to eat, finding very reasonably priced rice and fish at a lean-to frequented by the few railroad workers here or from a passing train. In the siding were acres of stacked logs, a metre or two in width, waiting to be loaded onto carriages. A manganese ore train slowly click clacked past for what seemed like an age. Three kilometres in length I was told. Along with a mine in Russia, Gabon supplies most of the world’s manganese, and uranium too.

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And what magnificent rainforest the next day brought. It is everything I could imagine it would be heading into the interior. The road is a fairly well graded logging track and as it wound its way through the remainder of the Reserve, it was all I could do to keep my concentration on the riding it is so dramatic. Massive trees and dense undergrowth up to the road’s edge – it is real unspoiled equitorial rainforest. A few times I would stop to take a photo and, switching off the engine, would let myself be drawn into the atmosphere. Hoots, birdcalls, the odd animal scream, and always the heavy heat. I felt so fortunate to be in the middle of this with independent transport. All I had to do was get on my bike and continue. To be here years ago would have involved a serious expedition on foot.

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There were very few signs of human habitation, the odd small settlement. I did see a hunter on the side of the road, gun in hand, a monkey slung over his shoulder. Pulling into Lastoursville – named after one of Brazzas explorers – there was an exotic feel of the interior about it, strung out along and above the banks of the river. We had been told there would be petrol here, but there was only diesel available. The two Swedes had passed up the chance to get some from a barrel in Lopé, and now they were in trouble. I could afford to give them a few litres, possibly enough to get one of them to Moanda, a bigger town where there would be fuel. Of course with money, you can get anything and they ended up paying double the normal price for some. Further east now, the forest was less intense, and we began to pass quite a number of settlements. One village was called Manamana, which had the unfortunate effect of planting that ditty from The Muppets in my head the rest of the day!

The roads weren’t bad, rutted at times. You had to be careful not to be caught on the wrong side of the ruts down a slope, as a rut always deepens as it makes its way to the lower side. Stellan ended up being pushed into a concrete drain at the edge of the road, very lucky not to come off. The gravel like surface very often felt like riding on ball bearings - coming around bends in particular was fun. I found sitting well forward on the bike gave a slightly better sense of control.

Moanda, about half an hour before Franceville, was where I was planning to part with the two lads, as they wanted to continue to Brazzaville and I wanted to turn south into the Congo towards Dolisie and Pointe Noire. Approaching the town in the late afternoon, we were pulled over by a road block in front of the police station. After the usual request for passport, the senior officer asked for bike insurance. Of course they knew we wouldn’t have any – its not worth the paper its printed on after leaving Morocco. The last insurance I had was from Mali, which didn’t seem to bother him, the fact that the expiry date was two days previous on February 28th was his triumphant discovery. The two Swedes were even less prepared. After a standoff for a while, playing at not understanding, and realising OK, how much will he settle for, another person came along, conferred with the two police and left. It turned out there had been a traffic fatality up the road which they had to attend and we were to await their return. We waited. After 40 minutes, the evening closing in, I scribbled a note to cover ourselves, pinned it on the station door across the road, and we took off. Of course we expected to encounter them a little further down the road – and we did. The two of them just stood there with shocked looks on their faces not attempting to stop us!

Fifteen minutes later, nervously entering the town, a blue police van pulled in behind us from a side street, its lights flashing. OK, well they’d obviously radioed ahead and these were intercepting us. Turning into the centre it followed, but as we pulled into the Shell station it just continued on! The town was extremely busy - we later found out there had been an African Club Championship match between a Gabon and Algerian club, the Gabonnais winning - and that’s what the police van seemed to be there for! It was quite extraordinary. It was maybe the first police van I’d noticed on the whole trip, certainly the first with its lights flashing, and it was following us – directly after our fleeing the ‘scene of the crime’!

The match was just finished as there were throngs of people traipsing through the station and queues of cars suddenly forming. While getting petrol in the pressing, shouting crowds, bizarrely a microphone was thrust under my nose as a reporter for the national radio asked me where I was from and about my journey. At the same time as talking to him, I was trying to avoid the attendant overfilling my tank, while a violent argument broke out next to us about queue jumping!

The three of us shared an air-conditioned room for about €6 each at St Theresa’s parish church, where on the coolness of the floor I had a sound sleep. It had been a very full, and strange day.

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