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City Guide: Libreville, Gabon

Often described as the true Eden of Africa, sitting along the Equator, Gabon is a place where not everything comes easily or comfortably. However, the rewards for your hard-earned travel will be immeasurable – if you’re willing to put in the effort.

The main challenge any traveller will face is the daunting and expensive task of manoeuvering around a country that only has about two million inhabitants, the majority of them living around the one and only city centre of Libreville. Founded as a town by freed slaves in 1848, this central African port city has grown into a bustling metropolis that lies astride the palm-fringed Komo River.

There are all the signs of luxurious five-star hotels, fine-dining restaurants jammed with expats and UN workers, as well as wide boulevards for the profitable jet-set to drive their hummers on. These are contrasted by ramshackle, tightly-packed neighbourhoods housing one-third of the country’s population that ekes out a living in small shopping matukis and dusty streets, a middle class all but absent or hard to locate.

The driver of the Gabonese economy is oil and, unfortunately, despite many organisations’ attempts, the tourism industry hasn’t really flourished because there’s never been a great need for it to do so.

Libreville, Estuaire Province, Gabon: old Saint Mary’s cathedral – Notre-Dame de Neiges – photo by M.Torres

What that means for the traveller is that traditional tourism facilities aren’t as ample as you’d find in other countries that are geared for tourism – but this is probably why I’m utterly charmed by Gabon. Here you have to work for your wildlife, as 80% of the country is forested jungle, and public transport – while it exists – is an adventure in every sense of the word, so be prepared to rough it if your pockets aren’t deep. Your accommodation options can be limited to one incredibly high-priced lodge and staying for next to nothing in local village rooms, with nothing in between.

Visit the forests to view the gorillas. Image courtesy iStock.

However, if you can forgo creature comforts and manage your expectations with a positive attitude, you’ll reap the rewards of a different kind of exploration travel that will save your wallet and fill your diary. Prices go down once you start hitting the local villages and markets outside the city centres – and such areas beyond Libreville are where the real adventure starts.

Some of the main villages, like Tchibanga, can be reached via small-prop plane flights, but these are heavily weather-dependent, or (as I find out) delayed if your plane hits a wandering forest buffalo while attempting to land on a patchy gravel runway. The train service is usable, but don’t expect any sleeping berths and a 4×4 is a necessity when you take on the bumpy and potentially muddy road systems that carve their way into the national parks, weaving between police stops, tiny villages and logging trucks that kick up clouds of rich, red dust painted onto the infringing jungle. But it will be worth it.

The 13 different national parks established in 2002 are home to a variety of species including gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants and mandrills, while their waters are replete with migrating humpback whales, manta rays and four different species of turtle.

Leatherback sea turtle

 

City Guide – Libreville, Gabon

Getting there 

Libreville’s Léon M’ba International Airport is well connected to major African cities, to Europe and to towns in Gabon.

 

When to go 

Libreville is a coastal city and it experiences a tropical monsoon climate with a lengthy wet season and short dry season. The best time to visit Libreville is during the dry, cool season between June and August or the short dry season between December and January

 

Language

French is the main language in Libreville and 80% of the country’s population can speak the language competently. One-third of residents of Libreville are French speakers. 32% of the people speak Fang as a mother tongue. Do not expect people to speak English.

 

Currency & Costs

The currency is the Central African Franc (CFA; sometimes XAF). Cash is king, so bring plenty with you, and certainly take more than you need everywhere you go outside of Libreville or Port-Gentil, as you won’t be able to get more cash outside these cities. There is a national change shortage so ask for small notes wherever possible. ATMs in Libreville and Port-Gentil usually only work with Visa cards, although MasterCard sometimes works at branches of UGB. Note that ATMs start to run out of cash on Thursdays as people withdraw money in time for the weekend, particularly at the end of the month. This phenomenon is worse in Port-Gentil than in Libreville. US dollars and Euros are the preferred currency for exchange; other currencies are generally not possible to exchange. You can change money at banks and exchange bureaus. Credit cards are only accepted at top-end hotels, not in restaurants or shops. You cannot withdraw money against a credit card over the counter in banks. Stall-holders in the the artisanal markets would be surprised if you didn’t haggle a bit over your souvenirs.

 

Safety tips

Petty crime, such as pickpocketing, purse snatching and vehicle break-ins, is common, particularly in markets, transportation hubs and areas frequented by tourists. Do not show signs of affluence. Resisting a robbery can lead to further violence. Although rare, violent crime occurs, including business and residential robberies and armed attacks, particularly in Libreville and Port-Gentil. Remain alert to your surroundings and avoid walking alone after dark, even in places visited by tourists. Avoid walking alone in isolated areas, including beaches, particularly at night. There have also been occurrences of theft from parked cars targeting foreigners. Keep car doors locked, windows up and your belongings out of sight. Cases of attempted fraud are frequent. Fraud involving the use of a credit card or automated banking machines (ABM) occurs in Gabon. Credit card holders should be cautious when making a payment with their credit card and monitor their transaction statements regularly. Use ABMs located in well-lit public areas or inside a bank or business, avoid using card readers with an irregular or unusual feature, cover the keypad with one hand when entering your PIN and check any unauthorized transactions on your account statements.

 

Getting around 

Driving can be hazardous. Outside urban areas, road conditions are poor and there are very few road signs. Insufficient lighting and overloaded vehicles also pose hazards. If possible, use a four-wheel-drive vehicle, particularly outside urban areas. In the event of a traffic accident, proceed to the nearest police station to avoid possible confrontations. Cooperate with local authorities and avoid travelling after dark.

Public transportation such as trains or buses are available and are generally safe. The Trans-Gabon Railway offers a passenger train service that runs from Libreville to Franceville and includes stops in Ndjolé, Booué and Lastoursville.

If taking taxis in the cities, negotiate the price before getting in the cab. Taxi drivers may at times pick up more than one fare at a time. Drivers may charge more if they don’t pick up any other fares during your ride. Most taxi drivers automatically double their fares after 9 pm. Avoid taking taxis alone, particularly at night.

A taxi to yourself is called a ‘course’ and will cost about CFA2000 or CFA5000 per hour. One seat (‘une place’) in a shared taxi around town costs CFA300–500. Make sure you are on the correct side of the road for your destination. When you hail a taxi, tell the driver where you’re going and how much you’re prepared to pay for ‘une place’. If he doesn’t know the destination or doesn’t like your price, he’ll simply drive off without a word. Street names are rarely used by taxi drivers, so it’s better to know a significant roundabout or a prominent building such as the Presidential Palace or main post office, close to your destination. Libreville suffers from significant traffic congestion, so you’ll need some patience.

 

Mobile phone & Internet access 

Gabon has good internet connectivity. Most hotels and some cafes and restaurants offer free wi-fi.

 

What to eat 

You’ll eat well in Libreville in a wide range of restaurants serving mostly European cuisine. It’s worth seeking out the restaurants that specialise in African flavours. There are also some smart boulangeries (bakeries) that wouldn’t look out of place in France, where you can indulge in croissants and good coffee for breakfast.

 

Where to eat 

Dine at the utterly bizarre, but charming Waptey (Montée de Louis), with its array of bridges over indoor ponds. Meat-lovers should head to Joyce African Dream (BP 452, near the Embassy of Ghana) for a hearty night out.

Crêpes and croissants from La Parisienne (Rue Ndendé) are a must and stellar pizza and ice cream can be bought at La Dolce

Vita (Port Mole), overlooking the waters of the city.

Enjoy great food and live music at Le Lokua (Glass Quarter) and dance the night away at the No Stress Bar (Montée de Louis).

L’Odika

La Dolce Vita

Jacky Cochon

 

Where to stay 

Hôtel Le Cristal: BP 1017, Libreville. Tel: +241 01 722 778.

Hôtel Le Patio: Quartier de Louis – Descente J Ebori, Libraville. Tel: +241 01 734 716.

Résidence Hôtelière du Phare: La Sablière, Libreville. Tel: +241 04 120 000. Email: residenceduphare@yahoo.fr

Royal Palm Hotel: L101, Quartier Glas, Libreville. Tel: +241 01 770 322.

Lope Hotel (for Lope National Park): Ange MBA St Office, Libreville. Tel: +241 01 720 596 or 01 770 217.

Loango Lodge (for Loango National Park): Email: info@africas-eden.com

Ogooue Palace Hotel, Lambarene: Tel: +241 221 106 or 581 864.

Safari Club: Tel: +241 07 900 929.

Le Leet Dorian

 

Tropicana

 

Where to go 

Visit the popular weekend escape of Pointe Denis beach (boats leave from Michel Marin port), but don’t expect blue waters, as the ocean in Gabon is rich with tannins, so visibility isn’t good.

Attend the Sunday service at the St Marie Cathedral (off the L101 at the CKDO) or view the impressive woodwork carvings etched in columns at L’Eglise St-Michel (off Rue Léon Mba).

Take a turn past the imposing Stade d’Angondjé (Angondjé suburb), where Gabon faced Brazil in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.

 

 

by Linda Markovina

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