It’s November 2018 and I’m in Libreville, Gabon’s capital, joined by my good friend and fellow sound recordist Stijn Demeulenaere. Over the following month we will travel over two thousand miles, hike in the rainforest, be charged at by gorillas, swarmed on by bees and other insects, cross rivers on logs and most importantly, we will record so much natural soundscapes that it will take us months or years to go through it all.
Do check out my Patreon page and my sound effects libraries if you want to support me.
I’ve been planning this expedition for more than 6 months now, alternating between excitement at the prospect of such an ambitious undertaking and being daunted and disheartened by the lack of tourism infrastructure. Most of the local guides and car hire companies that I approached never got back to me. Others got back to me a few times and then completely stopped replying. Only one guy seemed to take this more seriously but he asked for astronomical amounts of money and insisted that we plan the entire trip in advance. I was not convinced I wanted to work with him before landing in Libreville so it felt a bit like jumping into the unknown, with very low chances of success.
Libreville was supposed to be a quick stop for provisions. Ghislain (our supposed driver and guide) takes 3 days to arrive so we have plenty of time to explore the city. Unfortunately it’s not nearly as exciting as Dakar or Addis Ababa and positively overpriced. It is a good opportunity to get used to Africa time, where previous commitments and punctuality are rather lax ideas though.
After two days of negotiations, first with Ghislain’s team and then with himself we agree on a sort of all-inclusive deal. He will hire a 4x4, drive, guide, sort out National Park and ranger fees, arrange for accommodation and meals and basically act as a fixer for the entire duration of out stay. We pay him about half of the money in advance with the rest to be transferred sometime mid-trip. We’re happy to have secured a vehicle but also a bit worried that Ghislain doesn’t want to let us pay for lodging and meals ourselves. It seems like a way to make more money off us but we let it slide for now.
Lope National Park and Mikongo village
After a long and exhausting drive we arrive at Mikongo village in the dark. We get a little sleep before we continue our trip to Lope National Park where Ghislain works as a guide. We arrive here around noon and set off on a forest walk with a couple of trainee guides and another tourist.
We don’t see much in terms of wildlife since it’s the wrong time of day for that, but we see plenty of spoor and we hear a decent amount of birds and insects. The most exciting part is crossing the rivers on rather narrow logs, something I realize I’m quite good at.
The accommodation at Mikongo Vision is pretty basic. It’s actually a disused research station with wooden shacks and some insect netting at the windows. Only one shack has most windows covered in netting while the others are a paradise for mozzies and bees. There are disused toilets in one of the houses. We sleep on mattresses on the floor in popup tents. Food is basic as well, omelette, canned beans and a bit of chicken or fish. Incredibly tasty and filling after a day spent gorilla trekking though.
This is a great opportunity to get acquainted with the local bees. In the rainforest most of the minerals are washed away by rain so wildlife has to go to great lengths to find salts. As a consequence insects swarm on anything that sweats, especially humans. The bees themselves aren’t aggressive but they get angry when they end up underneath clothing and they invariably sting. And their venom is more potent and painful than Eurasian bee venom. I had a few chances to test this for myself.
The most important aspect at Lope NP is the natural soundscape. We spend 3 days here and we don’t hear any man-made sound! This is probably the first time in my life when this happens. No aircraft, no distant traffic, no industry. Just insects, birds, distant water, rain, wind. This is more than worth the money spent to get here, the minor annoyances, the long flight, the even longer drive, the bees, anything!
Since it’s the rainy season we also get to record some pretty powerful storms. Stijn gets acquainted with the rain more intimately as the roof directly over his mattress starts to leak and he is woken up at midnight. He takes it in stride though, even recording a quick video that makes us both chuckle the next morning.
Overall this place feels completely disconnected from the rest of the world. The team at Mikongo Vision (which includes Ghislain) seem to be doing a great job protecting this place from outside encroachment. The forest is secondary but there are no signs of logging in the park. Of course, the lodging could be improved, at least by adding full mosquito net coverage. I can’t complain though, we weren’t expecting any level of luxury.
However, as soon as we drive for about an hour from camp we reach a logging road. There is occasional traffic here, some trucks parked in one spot and a bit of litter around it. In the nearby village of Mikongo there are a few families living in basic shacks and of course more traffic. It looks like these people are fine without much development, living in reasonable peace with the environment. It doesn’t feel like the logging and mining has improved their livelihoods at all. If anything, it has scared away the wildlife they rely on for food and other needs.
As we drive closer to Lope village we start seeing more traffic. There’s also more elephant spoor including tracks and dung, sometimes right in the middle of the road. On one of our regular outings we spot a small family of elephants grazing peacefully on the side of the road, merely a few miles outside Lope. It is refreshing to see that they aren’t scared of us, which generally means poaching is not (yet) a problem around here.
Back in Lope we take half a day off to unwind, charge batteries, backup data and explore the village. We share a very basic guesthouse with cockroaches and other happy insects. There are no windows and the shower is just a pipe in the wall above the toilet. The rooms are sort of en-suite though and there is a very rudimentary form of air conditioning! Most importantly, there are mosquito nets so overall not a bad deal.
Unfortunately it looks like floods and storms have caused several bridges to collapse so loaded trucks can’t reach the village anymore. Slowly the food available at shops and ladies who cook becomes less and less varied. No more fish, no more chicken, just rice and oxtail stew. One of the ladies who cooks fails to understand how bad Stijn’s allergy to fish is and serves him chicken cooked together with the fish. Luckily Stijn spots it and only gets blue swollen lips, a headache and minor exhaustion.
The collapsed bridges also keep us from returning to the wilderness at Mikongo. Fortunately there is a mango grove close to Lope so we just leave the rigs out overnight and get some pretty good elephant recordings and footage. Eventually we manage to transfer Ghislain the rest of the money and we can subsequently arrange a trip to Ivindo National Park.
Ivindo NP and Langoue Bai
Ivindo is my main focus in Gabon, and this warrants a bit of an explanation. This unique location in the world is where Langoue Bai can be found, a huge clearing in the rainforest where elephants, gorillas, sitatungas and many other mammals come to bathe and dig for minerals. It was discovered less than 20 years ago by Nat Geo explorer Mike Fay and few Westerners ever ventured here with cameras. Probably none brought microphones until we get here.
On top of cameras and mics I also brought my trusty Mavic Air drone and got a few good shots and some nice footage. I am later approached by National Geographic Spain and one of my photos makes it into the printed magazine. I must say I’m pretty chuffed about this!
Getting to Ivindo and Langoue Bai proves a bit trickier than expected. We have to take a train that is scheduled to arrive at midnight but ends up being 4 hours late. Somehow Ghislain gets gasoline all over our backpacks and bags so we have to put up with that aroma for a few weeks. We eventually reach Booue where the rangers pick us up, and after many more hours of driving we arrive at another collapsed bridge.
Collapsed bridge means no vehicle access, so from here on we’re on foot. Apparently it’s about 5 miles or 8 km to the jungle camp, of which the first mile or so is uphill. I quickly realize this is not going to be a walk in the park, especially since I also carry about 30 kilos (66 lb) of gear.
The bees and other bitey/stingy insects don’t make our jobs easier. They land on us and stick to the sweat so we end up bitten and stung quite often. I realize that I’m not as fit as I had hoped for when I have to stop and rest every few minutes. The rangers have to slow down and wait for us quite often but they don’t seem to mind it. It still feels like the most gruelling physical activity I’ve ever done in my life though.
After about an hour of ascent we reach level ground and the trek becomes easier. I even start to notice birdsong and monkey calls. The soundscape is pure and wild as expected. There is a wall of cicadas through which occasional Hornbill calls penetrate. Every now and then a troupe of chimps or small monkeys become alarmed at our trespassing and make a ruckus.
It takes us a few more hours to reach camp, which is basically a bunch of wooden shacks in the middle of the forest. There is a good amount of mosquito net coverage but annoyingly not 100%. We’re too tired and we like the remoteness too much to complain though. After a quick meal and a short listening session we drift away in a deep sleep interspersed with midnight chimp calls.
The following few days pass in a blur. We hike to Langoue Bai several times, leaving unattended rigs so we can capture the elephants overnight. We get caught by the occasional thunderstorm while out trekking and we find these showers very enjoyable. We spot gorillas, one of which even mock charges us to show who’s boss. We find a beautiful snake (probably a pit viper) right next to our water bottles in the grass.
The recordings we get here are by far the cleanest and most important of the entire expedition. While I had previously seen a few photos and some footage taken here, there are virtually no other sound recordings of this place available as far as I can tell. I feel incredibly privileged to have had this opportunity and I like to think I made the best of it.
Evelin and the other rangers do an excellent job making us feel at home. While the Libreville staff at Gabon Parcs do a good job organizing these trips and keeping the location available for tourism, the most important job belongs to the rangers on the ground. They seem to know the forest like their own backyard and they treat it with respect and humbleness. I can say I learned a lot just by observing and talking to them during our short stay at Ivindo.
It would be difficult to put into words how connected and alive I felt at Ivindo. Having grown up in a rather wild landscape in eastern Europe, this truly felt like going back to my childhood in a sense. My only regret is that I didn’t take more time to immerse myself in the land- and soundscape because I was always concerned I wasn’t recording enough. I did take a few moments to just listen but I feel like I need to go back sometime to do it properly.
Balimba, Makokou, Mohoba and other rural areas
In between our stints at national parks we stay in villages and towns around Gabon. The locals are generally friendly and welcoming, some of them hosting us in their houses or on their porches. It is interesting to see how the standards of living compare between rural and semi-urban locations. Without fail the more rural and poor are also the warmest and most welcoming.
The recording opportunities are also pretty good in these locations, even if we’re far away from protected areas like the national parks and reserves. There’s hardly any traffic overnight, although in Mohoba the loggers start working with the dawn chorus which is quite frustrating. Most interesting though, the birdsong is way more lush and varied than in the deep primary rainforest. I wouldn’t say it’s better or more enjoyable, but it’s clearly easier to identify as typical jungle.
At any rate, this is probably due to the birds flocking at rubbish dumps which are mainly made up of organic refuse. It’s another example of how well these remote communities integrate with the ecosystem. Even if they do hunt, they generally do it in a sustainable and respectful way.
You can listen to some of the recordings we made in the rural areas in this Bandcamp album that I put together: https://wildaesthesia.bandcamp.com/album/congo-jungle-iii. For comparison, check out this album recorded in the extremely remote primary rainforests: https://wildaesthesia.bandcamp.com/album/congo-jungle-i
Leconi National Park
After having seen rainforest and jungle for three weeks, we start seeing woodland, savanna and even bare hillside as as we get closer to Leconi. It’s a welcome but weird sight, causing a mild form of wide spaces phobia in me. It took me a while to get used to the lack of a horizon, but now I realize I find it difficult to reverse it. My eyes keep searching for bushes or tree trunks to hang on to for a few days.
As expected, the soundscape changes too with the landscape. Leconi NP is rather small compared to Lope or Ivindo but it’s still large enough for anthropophony to die out by the time it reaches the remote areas in the park. Having said that, there is sparse agriculture happening between the town and the park so at times we have to keep driving for a bit before we can drop our rigs to do some recording.
On one occasion we stop and record the sound of the open landscape, far away from woodland or forest. Once we turn off the vehicle’s engine there’s not much to listen to. After a few minutes of getting used to the natural silence we start noticing subtle sounds like insect calls, distant birds and wind rustling through vegetation. As my ears get accustomed to the lack of loud sounds I realize how much I overlook this sort of experience, mainly because I can’t find it as easily anymore. Distant traffic, aircraft, people, pets all seem to conspire against natural quiet in the “developed” world.
We initially plan to only spend a few days at Leconi but we soon realize there is quite a lot to record and explore here. On top of this, Ghislain doesn’t want to move to a new location and keeps making up excuses so we end up spending about a week here. We find a few good patches of savanna and woodland with ravines where we can drop rigs overnight so it’s not such a bad thing. On top of this we are pretty exhausted so being based in one place is a definite plus.
One of the most interesting locations of the trip is the so-called Pink Canyon at Leconi. This is actually a huge crater about 7 miles outside town. There’s no way to descend into it without proper climbing gear so we can only drop our rigs just below its edge. We somehow manage to get caught by a storm while setting up the equipment as seen in this video I put together. While the wildlife isn’t that varied, the acoustics of the place are just mind blowing.
One other thing worth mentioning here is the accommodation and food. We stay at Hotel Leconi which is generally an upgrade to what we’ve seen so far. There is a form of AC and the rooms are pretty large, even if the rest of the facilities are a bit disused. There are two decent restaurants in town serving absolutely delicious food. I try the local specialty Chenilles au beurre which is a type of caterpillar fried in butter with manioc. It’s not the worst meal I’ve ever had and it tastes kind of like chicken skins mixed with dirt. Yum!
Overall Leconi is the perfect last location on our expedition and feels a bit like a vacation. We manage to chill out, we take things more slowly and we enjoy the local food and drinks. It still takes us two full days of driving to get back to Libreville but it’s more manageable after a week of not so strenuous work.
Ghislain has mostly been an appalling guide and driver on this trip. He’s been moody, sulking and kept asking for extra money even after we paid him more than agreed. He’s been generally late, sometimes not even showing up so we’ve had to find taxis and alternate means of transportation. He’s put us in the cheapest motels and shacks just so he could keep more money for himself, even if we agreed on a mid-tier accommodation level. I’m not complaining, we enjoyed ourselves and made the best out of every situation. He is not the best suited guide for Gabon though.
He has one redeeming quality however: he is very much into conservation, and not just focusing on wildlife itself. He tries to educate people by showing them how much they can benefit from intact ecosystems. He routinely stops and talks to locals in the villages we pass through, explaining that we are there to experience and photograph the forest. He even gives them gifts or small sums of money which seems to make quite an impression.
One occurrence stands out for me. One morning he goes to fill up the tank and comes back with a plastic bag full of baby turtles. He says he bought them from a drunk guy who was selling them as food. We release the turtles in a river and later happen upon the guy who sold them. Ghislain goes to talk to him and gets his phone number hoping to convince him to work as a freelance guide when needed.
This kind of approach is rarely seen in more developed countries, but in Gabon it’s just unheard of. The most a poacher can hope for is to get fined or to spend some time in jail. It seems like Ghislain has done this for a long time and knows exactly what works and what doesn’t. On top of this he trains young people to be eco-guides and to appreciate the environment instead of resorting to hunting. He is even a vegan! So in conclusion I can overlook all his bad qualities just because of this redeeming aspect.
One of the main reasons for wanting to travel to Gabon was the excellent condition of the rainforest and the extensive cover of rainforest and national parks. This is encouraging to read about, but we saw a lot of logging going on just outside the national parks. Huge trains loaded with hardwood could be seen in the village of Lope. The logging roads are also used by poachers and illegal miners who get deeper and deeper in the rainforest this way. What’s worse, the locals hardly ever see any benefit from this.
The trip was exciting and enjoyable but also a sobering reminder that these incredibly remote and pristine forests run the risk of not being there for much longer. I’m happy to be supporting National Geographic who funded Mike Fay’s megatransect (which resulted in the creation of most of Gabon’s national parks). One other initiative that works on the ground in Gabon is the Wildlife Conservation Society. They work on a multitude of projects around the world, but I’ve personally seen the effects of their work in Gabon and I’m happy to support them. You can make a difference too simply by donating. On top of the organizations I mentioned there are many others worth supporting like Virunga, African Parks, WWF, Green Peace etc.
I’m happy to say the expedition was an absolute success. I really couldn’t have hoped for better results. We managed to tick most of the locations on our list, we went through incredible adventures, we met inspiring and lovely people, we saw awe-inducing wildlife and ecosystems and most importantly we made a whole heap of sound recordings (plus photos and videos).
I have since managed to put together a comprehensive sound effects library. For everyone who doesn’t need commercial license with the recordings I have released a few albums on Bandcamp. You’re welcome to check these out and to support me by purchasing them. All proceeds go back into planning more trips, and some of this goes directly to conservation initiatives.
I still have hours of footage from this expedition to go through. Once I manage to do this I will put together a few vlog episodes for my Youtube channel. You can support me in doing this by contributing to my Patreon campaign. There are some goodies included there so check it out. Thank you for reading about my adventures, hope you enjoyed it!