Lambaréné, Gabon * January 9, 2009
Until Gabon, I had counted as among my favorite adventure motorcycling roads the Top of the World Highway in Canada’s Yukon Territory and the spectacularly desolate route across the Bolivian altiplano, south to a small town on the Chilean border called San Pedro de Atacama.
Now I had to add the 70-mile piste east into Gabon’s Lope National Park to my list. Gravelly and hilly and fast, the dirt road snaked up past alpine lakes and twisted through dense rain forest and vaulted past stunning inselberg rock formations to emerge on a green plateau that looked entirely unlike Africa.
It resembled instead Tibet, with that top of the world feel that I have always found so enchanting. Verdant savannah sprawled out on all sides, punctuated by the occasional solitary copse of trees and low mountain peaks in the distance. It was easy, atop this roof of Africa, to imagine that I was back on Bolivian altiplano at 16,000 feet.
The elevation here was only about 3000 feet, but it seemed deceptively high. I relished the feeling of altitude. It was getting into late afternoon, and the descending sun at my back balmed this majestic landscape with golden hues. This was the arresting scenery that I had I hoped to see in Cameroon, but which I had found disappointingly obscured by the windblown harmattan dust storms from the Sahara.
I tried to quiet my mind and fix myself in this extraordinary time and place. Once in a while, the immensity of the Africa ride concentrates itself into a singular moment. This was one of those moments – piercing, poignant, and unforgettable. I regarded the motorbike with particular affection, because getting here on it made the journey uniquely special.
I knew that gorillas and mandrills and forest elephants and other wildlife lived in the rain forests that sloped down from this crowning terrain. I would see no gorillas or mandrills or elephants, but simply knowing they were in the vicinity was somehow enough.
We didn’t have to come here. We could have remained on the good paved road south to the Gabonese city of Lambaréné, and towards our border crossing into the Congo. You choose the piste because it’s difficult; you know by experience that the gratification of getting to somewhere off the map via the hard road will be commensurate to the challenge.
By the end of the day, we had reached the tiny town of Lope, a settlement of a few hundred people perched atop a high plain near the mighty Ogooué River. The town had a remote and rough-hewn feel to it, with a dusty dirt main street anchored by a general store selling everything from fried doughballs to cheap padlocks to laundry detergent. It felt like the Wild West. A small hotel was just down the street.
The spectacle of three adventure bikes and their ruggedly attired riders pulling into town drew an immediate crowd. I relaxed and enjoyed the celebrity and admired the hardscrabble downtown and the expansive Gabonese wilderness that surrounded it. Twilight descended steadily. Across the street, men sat drinking beer at a small open-air restaurant.
I loved little middle-of-nowhere Lope, and loved the ride to get here. I felt as if I was on top of the world, literally and figuratively. I was dusty and sweaty and irrepressibly buoyant. My friends were not.
Migo fretted over fuel. The 22-liter tank his KTM will get him maybe 150 miles on a piste before it needs refueling, and Lope had no fuel station. Black-market fuel was said to be available, though, and negotiations were set in motion to locate Lope’s lone fuel entrepreneur and refill Migo’s tank and the jerricans he keeps lashed up on the rear.
Geoff wasn’t happy, either. We kicked about in front of the general store and he glugged on a bottle of Castel beer and cursed his motorbike. Its rear shock had failed catastrophically on the ride to Lope, and now the rear end of the Yamaha squatted forlornly, rather in the attitude of the bowel movement.
“C’mon,” I told Geoff. “This is what adventure riding is all about. Broken bike, broken down little town in the middle of nowhere. I bet you look back on this as one of the happiest days of the trip.”
“Yeah well, I would have enjoyed the ride a lot more if it wasn’t for the bike,” he said. “That blown shock is a bugger. The bike is barely rideable. And this, this is a one-horse town. We shouldn’t have come here.”
He was, I thought, almost right. Our ride here had come at a price. For Geoff, the price was the blown shock that would bedevil his passage through Gabon and the Congo. Migo would suffer his first crash of the journey, leaving an unseemly gouge in the sleek black fairing on his KTM 950 Adventure.
For me, the price would very nearly be my life.
I first saw the log trucks earlier in the day, as we made our way to Lope after a night’s lodging in Oyem, Gabon. I rounded a corner to be confronted by the spectacle of a half-dozen log trucks parked off the road in a little village. Their flatbed trailers were laden with colossal rain forest timber.
I stopped and wandered about the trucks. A man approached me. He was a truck driver and from Cameroon and spoke good English. The logs, he told me, had been harvested from the rain forest in the interior by Asian companies. The trucks were bound for the Gabonese capital of Libreville on the Atlantic Coast for sea transit to Asia.
“My God,” I told him. “These trees are huge! The only trees I’ve ever seen this large were in the redwood and sequoia forests of California, United States. That’s where I’m from.” We spoke briefly about my ride to get here, and he told me about the trees.
“These are okoume trees,” the man told me. “We also take others, but not as many of them. They are very old. The wood is very good. Very strong.” I examined the hundreds of rings on the wood. Identification codes had been spray-painted with a stencil on the bottom of the trunks. I touched the wood. I tried to dig a fingernail into it, and then a key. It was nearly as hard as a rock.
Proceeding south towards Lope, I would see more than 40 of these log trucks. The road was freshly paved and fast, and I passed at least a dozen log trucks trundling deliberately along. They were virtually the only vehicles on this road. Dozens more were parked alongside the road. Population density here was incredibly light. The only reason this road was freshly paved, I imagined, was to facilitate fast transit for the log trucks.
We stopped for obligatory photos at the sign for the equator, only to be harassed by swarms of tiny insects. Down the road, at the junction of tiny Alémbe, where we would turn for the 70-mile piste to Lope National Park, another half-dozen log trucks were parked. One of their drivers, an English-speaking Cameroonian, approached us.
The piste to Lope would be good, he told me. It is all dirt, no pavement. It will take you about three hours. Be careful, though, he said – lots of log trucks run this road.
East from Alémbe, the piste ascended dramatically. It corkscrewed through dense rain forest and past placid lakes and up rocky inclines. Cornering was fairly tight. I didn’t need the driver’s reminder to be mindful of oncoming trucks on a twisty piste. Around each bend, I bore in mind the mantra from my near-collision on a dirt road in Honduras back in 2004 – here comes the school bus.
Twenty miles in, I found Geoff and Migo parked alongside the road. Geoff’s chain had jumped off the rear sprocket after he hit a deep horizontal rut at speed, and he had loosened the rear tire to refasten it. He had been lucky to avoid a wrenching crash, and now he was concerned. Why had the chain jumped off? And why, after he had refastened it, was it so loose?
And another complication: I took a close look at the chain, and saw no rubber O-rings on it. Geoff examined it as well – it was not an O-ring chain. It was a cheaper and inferior chain, lacking the O-rings important to lubrication and preventing metal-on-metal wear.
This was Geoff’s spare chain, purchased from a motorbike shop in the U.K. He had installed it back in Yaoundé. He had never looked at it closely, but rather assumed that the dealer had supplied him with the top quality O-ring chain he had requested. “Bollix!” he exclaimed, after confirming his chain was a cheap knock-off. The chain was usable, of course. Its durability would be suspect.
I sympathized with Geoff. The preparations for a long adventure ride are so intense, so devilishly complex -- how can you possibly button down every last detail? You try. You work like hell. You brainstorm for months. You know that details will become magnified on the road, and the smallest oversight can come back to haunt you. You can bust your butt on preparations for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, toiling until 11 p.m. every night, and still miss a detail such as the fact that your dealer sold you an inferior chain.
We rode on. Geoff and Migo sped ahead, carving up this piste and challenging their technical riding skills. I lingered behind, stopping for photos and watching the diverse scenery of jungle and inselbergs and lakes and grand plateaus unfurl almost cinematically. I crashed with the violence of a lightning bolt.
I had begun to maneuver a right-hand bend in the piste. I had the motorbike as far to the right side of the road as possible. I had already encountered four or five oncoming log trucks. I didn’t trust them at all. The foliage alongside the road was dense. A six-inch earthen berm edged the right side of the piste, meaning no escape path. Suddenly, on the wrong side of the curve, aiming squarely at me, came a hard-cornering log truck.
I slammed on both brakes. The front tire skidded on the gravelly piste and put my Suzuki down in an instant. I leapt off. Prone on the triangulated sliver of piste between the truck’s path and the edge of the road, I watched in slow-motion horror as a white Mercedes 3340 cab bore down upon me with the purposeful malice of a tank.
I could see the malignant black tire on the driver’s side churning inexorably towards me. The leering grille on the front of the cab. Its implacable silver Mercedes logo. The huge cloud of dust churned up by the truck’s passage. The sound and the fury of the awful machine.
I rolled like a barrel towards the edge of the road. Move! Now! I grabbed the back tire of the fallen Suzuki and yanked myself in the dirt around the rear end of the motorbike, and watched almost dispassionately as the horrible length of the 18-wheel truck trundled past in a cloud of dust, a matter of feet from me and my downed machine.
Once the truck was past, I leapt up immediately. “HEY!” I hollered. “HEY!” The driver stopped. He looked back at me quizzically. “Get over here!” He did.
I had the driver help me hoist the motorbike. He was in his early 20s and from Cameroon. He spoke English. His expression was shy and sheepish. He knew he had nearly run me over. I might have been furious, but I found myself in an odd state of extreme clam.
“You’re a very bad driver,” I told the man. “Very bad. You almost ran me over – you almost killed me! Why are you driving all the way over on the wrong side of the road, and on a corner?”
The driver looked at me apologetically. On this particular corner, he said, the proper side of the road was badly sloped. He pointed to the other side of the piste. If he drove on that incline, his whole load could topple over. On the wrong side of the road, the terrain was relatively flat. I looked at his parked truck. Its flatbed was laden with nine massive okoume logs.
The driver shrugged. He was sorry. I took his photo. Then he asked me for a cigarette.
Geoff and Migo were waiting for me a few miles ahead. I switched on my turn signal as I stopped. Its amber lens cover had fallen on in the crash. The bare flashing bulb signaled that something was wrong. “Problem?” Migo said.
“Somebody crashed,” I said. “Me.” I recounted the details of the accident. When I was done, Geoff had his own tale to tell. He had a new problem with his Yamaha XT. He’d had to wait until I was done talking because, sort of as in poker, an accident trumps a motorbike problem any day.
“Well,” Geoff said. “My rear shock is screwed. Blown out. Lookit the bike.” It sagged badly in the rear. This was why his chain was loose and had jumped the rear sprocket earlier in the day. His shock was made by a Britain-based aftermarket provider called Hagon. It was believed to be stronger and more durable than the stock shock on the XT.
Now Geoff bitterly cursed Hagon and recounted how the company had refused to guarantee its product for the rough roads of Africa. We rode on. I could almost see a little black cloud hovering over Geoff’s helmet. Lope was thirty miles to the east.
A woman I called Mama ran the only and best restaurant in Lope. She was a large, portly, gregarious woman in her mid-30s and wore a colorfully patterned orange dress. She had three young children. She liked that I called her Mama. She liked to cook, too, because the generous chicken and rice and cassava meal she prepared for us for less than $4 USD each was delicious.
We ate dinner and drank Castel beers at an outdoor plastic table and plotted our next steps. We were bound for the Congo. I had in mind to continue southeast on this piste through Gabon, towards a town called Franceville in the interior and a border crossing into the Congo at a burg called Akou, to Gamboma.
It would be roughly four days of traversing remote and mountainous terrain through the wilds of Gabon and the Congo. From Gamboma, it would be another two days on piste south to the Congolese capital, Brazzaville. The Michelin map showed but a few small towns on the route. It sounded like a great adventure. But Geoff’s blown rear shock foiled the idea.
“Mate, I need to get to Libreville,” Geoff told us. That would mean retracing our route out of Lope, back to Alémbe and the paved road south to the Gabonese capital
“I’m going to have to have a shock flown in from Europe and get it fitted,” Geoff went on. “The bike is shot. No way can I ride piste for four days. No way can I ride to Brazzaville.” Libreville was said to be extremely expensive, and it was out of the way. We had planned to bypass the city.
Migo and I suggested Geoff could and should press on to Brazzaville. We’d take what we expected would be paved roads. A shockless motorbike might not be fun to ride, but the journey could be done. I would have a new rear tire awaiting me at the DHL office in Brazzaville. If Geoff had a new shock shipped to Brazzaville as well, we could take care of both jobs in one city.
We talked about my crash. It was my second of the journey. I was still strangely untroubled by the near-disaster. The malicious and dusty whoosh of the log truck past me seemed to exist in an abstract, in a vacuum. In fact, since the accident, my spirits had been extraordinarily high. I knew it could have been very bad. It had been extremely close.
Coming face-to-face with my mortality heightened my appreciation for life and the moments that comprised it. It was like a drug. Risk is a narcotic. It was why I had so relished that singular and poignant moment of solitude atop the Tibet-like plateau en route to Lope. For every moment that I breathed, there was another reality in which I did not.
Now the evening Lope air was balmy and sweet and the chicken dinner delicious and the beer cold and soothing. I delighted in the camaraderie of my friends and our great adventures. I shared some local palm wine with a kindly old man who had helped us locate the black-market fuel peddler. I thought of the log truck driver with a peculiar compassion.
“The thing is,” I told my friends, “I did what you’re not supposed to do on a dirt road. I slammed the front brake. It was total instinct. If I had thought about, I might have used just the rear. The front brake put the bike down fast, and that’s what saved me. Sure as hell there was no escape path on the right, not with that high berm and the foliage.
“Luckily,” I said, “neither of us was going especially fast. Maybe 25 miles an hour. If he was going any faster, or I was, I’m pretty sure the result would have been quite different.”
I was up early and persuaded a man at the hotel to boil me water for coffee. Migo was up early, too. He wanted to visit Lope National Park, a few miles down the road. The park was one of the reasons we had ridden here. It was one of the few affordable wildlife sanctuaries in Gabon; the majority were fancy “eco-tourism” spots that demanded $350 USD or so for a visit.
I told Migo to go on without me. Wildlife viewing was not said to be especially good. It would mean a long hike into the park, and perhaps seeing some water buffalo. Chances of spotting a gorilla or forest elephant were slim.
“Enjoy your tour,” I told Migo. “I’m a biker, not a hiker. I’ll probably take off early and you guys can catch up down the road towards Lambarene.”
Sometime after 9 a.m., Geoff rolled out of his room in his characteristically foul morning mood and grunted. I was oiling the chain on my motorbike. Geoff had some wrenching to do himself, and pushed his bike backwards to a more suitable location on the hotel property. I heard a crash and a curse and saw Geoff’s Yamaha on its side once more.
I couldn’t help but laugh. I grabbed my camera for a quick photo. Geoff was on an epic roll with his bike falling over. Two nights earlier, he dumped his Yamaha in the sloped parking lot of our hotel in Oyem. The next morning, as we left the Oyem hotel, he dumped the bike again -- in virtually the same spot!
Now he cursed and kicked his Yamaha’s seat while I chuckled away. “What’s that, like 14 tip-overs now?” I asked him. He gave me a dirty look. Geoff was far ahead of Migo and I with his bike being on the ground, either from tip-over or crash. Migo and I each had two tip-overs. I had two crashes, including yesterday’s. Migo had none.
Later in the day, Migo wold suffer his first crash of the journey. I left Lope first, and Geoff followed an hour later. Migo rode solo, gunning to make time and challenging his skills on the piste, as he likes to do. A vertical rut put him down. He was going too fast and lost control. He was unhurt, but the left side panel on his KTM was badly scratched.
I packed up to leave. A pair of prostitutes propositioned me at the hotel. I declined, and later they would hoot and jeer as I motored out of Lope. Three miles down the piste, I encountered a hard-cornering Guinness beer truck. Like the log truck, this driver rounded a sharp bend entirely on the wrong side of the road.
Omigod! I thought. What is the matter with these idiots?! It wasn’t close. He was 50 or so yards in front of me. But if I had been closer, a head-on collision might have been unavoidable, which would have really sucked, on account of I don't like Guinness. Paranoid, I edged around corners in second gear for much of the 60-some miles to pavement, at the junction to Lope.
The paved road we rode a day earlier had been fast and good, but south of the junction, it deteriorated. Its ancient tarmac was either badly potholed or destroyed completely. Log trucks kicked up huge clouds of dust, and opportunities to pass them on this narrow and winding route were rare.
After 25 miles, I stopped to wait for my friends in a town called Ndjole. I bought some chicken wings from a street vendor. Chicken wings can be found all throughout Gabon at streetside grills, and they’re every bit as delicious as the best chicken wings at an American sports bar. I was hungry and ordered 10 and paid a little more than $1 USD. I asked the vendor what the 80 miles of road south to Lambarene would be like.
“The road is very bad,” he told me. “It will take you four hours.” Four hours, I thought, to go 80 miles?! Ah crap. It must be the same sort of badly potholed pavement I had ridden to Ndjole. It didn’t bode well. It was nearly 4 p.m., and the map showed just one tiny town between Ndjole and Lambarene.
Now I heard a heavy mechanical trundling. A log truck was passing through downtown Ndjole on its narrow dirt main street. I looked down the road, and saw more trucks on the move. Several dozen log trucks had been parked on the outskirts of town as I pulled in. Now they were bunched as a convoy to make the 130-mile run to Libreville.
The trucks generated a harmattan-like haze of dust. Great plumes of choking black diesel smoke spewed from their exhausts. The many vendors of chicken wings and other grilled meats that lined the street scrambled to cover their grills with plastic tarp. Some pulled paper masks over their mouths and noses. I sat on a plastic chair and watched the convoy heave by.
Ten log trucks … 15 trucks … 20 trucks, each burdened with enormous loads of rain forest timber. Something more than two dozen percolated past, and when they were through, the meat vendors removed their plastic tarps. “Is it like this every day?” I asked my chicken wing guy, in bad French.
Yes, every day, a few times a day, he said. I asked again, And the road is bad, really? Very bad, he said. Geoff and Migo pulled up, and I told them the bad news: “This guy says it’s four hours on a bad road to Libreville. Oh, and a convoy of two dozen log trucks just went past. “
On a dusty and broken and twisty piste, we’d be hard-pressed to pass a convoy of two dozen log trucks. Given the late hour of day, it might make sense to spend the night in Ndjole. I could see a hotel sign up on a hill.
But you can never trust just one man on road conditions. It pays to ask multiple people, and make your best guess based on prevailing opinion. We did. Others contradicted my chicken wing guy. The road is good and paved, we were told. You can make Lambarene in 1½ hour, no problem. We fueled up and set off.
The road was indeed good – virtually impeccable. It snaked up into low mountains, around tight corners. Within minutes, I had caught up with the convoy of log trucks, took a few action photos and videos, and tore on down to Lambarene, enjoying a fast and spirited ride on U.S.-caliber pavement, carving through twisties and gunning hard on straightaways.
We made Lambaréné before 6 p.m. We found a hotel called Bananas and were enjoying a couple of cold beers at an outdoor bar when the rains came and the winds howled. The storm was torrential. The next leg of our journey would be mostly a dirt road to the Congo border.
“If it keeps raining like this,” Migo said, “that road to the Congo is going to be real bad.”
I knew the name Albert Schweitzer. I had him vaguely lumped in with Carl Jung and Albert Einstein and other Central European figures of accomplishment from the early and mid-20th century. To my discredit, however, I had missed the full greatness of this man’s life.
Albert Schweitzer helped to shape Lambaréné, a city of 20,000 on the banks of the Ogooué River. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Alsatian physician and theologian founded the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné in 1913, and would write more than a dozen books on theology, music, Africa, Indian thought, and the threat of nuclear war.
Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of Gabonese have made arduous journeys to the Schweitzer hospital, mostly by river from the surrounding rain forest, to be treated for such afflictions as malaria and leprosy and dysentery and necrosis and sleeping sickness. The hospital operates still, with Schweitzer buried on its grounds, and a visit to its museum proved rewarding.
Schweitzer’s medical equipment and leather-bound notebooks and pith helmets and other artifacts from the early 20th century are arrayed in the perfectly preserved office and treatment facilities and bedroom that he used. Hundreds of books by and about him are neatly displayed on shelves. I resolved that when I returned to the U.S., I would buy a book by Schweitzer; in fact, I would later find a 1922 copy of his “On the Edge of the Primeval Forest” in Cape Town, South Africa.
I found my visit to the Schweitzer hospital humbling and inspirational. The well manicured grounds seemed to reflect the beauty and generosity of Schweitzer’s towering humanitarian accomplishments, as did Lambaréné itself – “somehow kinder and gentler than the rest of Gabon,” as my Lonely Planet guide put it.
A ferocious noontime rainstorm kicked up as we rode back from the Schweitzer hospital. It would rain every day in Lambaréné – potent, howling storms that sent the locals merrily scurrying for cover, and left us wondering what muddy disasters lay south in the Congo. As the rain raged, I took shelter in an Internet café near our motel and read up on Schweitzer, and rainforest logging in Gabon.
European and now Asian companies had been logging the rainforest for decades. I would read in Schweitzer’s “On the Edge of the Primeval Forest” of how okoume trees were being hauled from the jungle even in the late 19th century. The scale of it was astounding – hundreds of thousands of trees felled over a century, and still more were being removed.
I did the math on the logs. I’d seen maybe 150 logs on trucks each day; that calculated out to 52,000 trees a year. How many had I not seen? I wondered. How large can that forest possibly be? Little of the proceeds the government derived from the sale of Gabon’s natural resources appeared to be routed for public benefit; other than good roads, the towns through which we rode were poverty-stricken and lacked running water and electricity.
It was a sad post-colonial story that had been repeated throughout the continent since the 1950s, when Ghana became the first African country to achieve independence. European powers depart, and newly empowered leaders quickly become corrupt and squander public resources on themselves and their cronies.
Yet Gabon was regarded as an environmental leader among African nations. In 2002, its president, El Hadj Omar Bongo, set aside land for 13 new parks after a presentation by adventure ecologist Michael Fay, who had made an epic trek called Megatransact across virginal Africa. Fay sold the Gabonese president on eco-tourism. Lope National Park was one of the 13 protected, comprising about 10 percent of Gabon’s land.
Migo and I talked about the log trucks. Like me, he found them affecting. “The national parks are being protected, but everything else is being destroyed,” Migo said. “It’s sad.”
South of Lambérené, I would see no log trucks. Perhaps consequently, the road would turn unpaved towards the Congo. Traffic was remarkably light. We percolated through tiny villages of mud-brick homes – no industry, a few shops, a cell phone shack, and people sitting idly about, startled at the sight and sound of our adventure motorbikes, waving at us happily.
The road was in good shape and could be ridden at more than 40 mph. But now another, ghoulish spectacle slowed me. Dead monkeys hung from sticks on the side of the road. This was bush meat for sale. Men with rifles had killed these monkeys in the nearby forests.
I stopped at one bush meat display. A crowd quickly surrounded me and my motorbike. A dead monkey could be had for about $10 USD. Good to eat? I asked a man. Yes, yes, he exclaimed with a sunbeam smile. With a stick, he held a monkey carcass aloft for my better inspection.
Down the road, a hunter approached with a rifle over one shoulder and a dead monkey over the other. The skies south towards the Congo looked slate-grey and pregnant with rain.
Video: Log Truck in Gabon
Laden with rainforest timber, a log truck wends its way on a twisty road in Gabon, bound for the capital of Libreville on the Atlantic coast and sea transit to Asia. We would see well over 100 of these log trucks in Gabon and the Congo.