Mad Dogs and Fishermen(women), in Gabon
Gabon travel blog post by Susan Skrupa
It is not down in any map; true places never are.— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
It’s not all about the fish…
True adventure often starts with the road less travelled. So when Paul from Salty Dog asked if I wanted to join a scouting trip to a remote stretch of untouched West African coastline for a mad bit of saltwater shore and estuary based game fishing my immediate response was “Happy Birthday to me!” And, a happy birthday it was!
You see, fishing is in my blood but Africa is in my soul. I had been planning a trip to Africa since my 4th birthday. Back then, my travels were confined to the limits of my own imagination and to the glossy pages of the golden-bound National Geographic magazine. I spent summer holidays exploring the lakes, rivers and forests of the North Country in New York State, stalking all sorts of wild beasts and cold-blooded vertebrates — but I dreamed of Africa. Local plains became savannas, neighbourhood ponds became watering holes, and the family house cat became a cheetah. I even had an African dog! But, the original wild place, Africa, was calling …
‘Africa’s Last Eden’? Something like that … Situated in the tropical rain forest of the Congo Basin on the African equator, between the wild Atlantic Ocean and the dense jungle bush, lies Loango National Park. We came to Gabon for the fish — but were captivated by the wildlife that we experienced. In addition to the obvious requirement to catching fish, for me the trip would not be complete without seeing the hallucinating forest elephants, the legendary surfing hippos and lowland gorillas. Well, two out of three is not bad.
A land for firsts…
Gabon represented a first official visit to Africa for me. I had previously travelled to Morocco but never went sub-Sahara, which is where my Africa begins. When I told friends that I was off to explore Gabon, their immediate reaction was a quizzical expression, followed by a resounding “Where?”. I’ll admit that even I had to look it up on the map initially.
Getting to Gabon
Leaving Europe, we crossed one time zone (+1GMT/UTC), two major circles of latitude (the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator), and the ‘Great Desert’ — the Sahara. We passed over the African nations of Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea before landing in the capital city of Liberville, Gabon — our starting off point for this adventure. From the air, the vastness and geographical diversity of this continent is humbling and you realise what a tiny place you occupy on this amazing planet.
We arrived in Libreville in time to catch our first African sunset and proceeded to check into a local hotel to enjoy our first Régab, the local brew. We were now four fisherman (well, one a fisherwoman), of four nationalities — with enough combined tackle to equip a small nation — drinking beer in a seaside hotel reserved for fisherman passing through — and well, men and women — um, passing through … The hotel seems to have this sort of reputation.
With equal parts exhaustion and eager anticipation, we tucked in for the night as tomorrow would be another day in Africa and undoubtedly the beginning of an epic adventure.
The road to Omboué …
On route to Omboué, we learned our first lesson in Africa — EVERYTHING in Africa is an adventure! It took four planes, three taxis, three capital cities, one hotel, and a safari vehicle to reach the isolated Ogooué-Maritime province (London-Paris-Libreville-Port Gentil). From Port Gentil, we journeyed overland in an open 4×4 on a road that could at best be described as a construction site and at worse, an inland jungle path. The trip to Omboué took over 4 hours giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘comfort break’. The drive by views were amazing: thick forests, tangled mangroves, feral rivers, tranquil savannas … At last, we had arrived!
Little did we know that this inaccessible and inhospitable route would become part of our daily routine, like a commute to work. We travelled it twice a day between Omboué and Olende to catch a boat to our remote fishing spot, wildly bouncing and jostling with each acceleration. The road was rough, and rugged and often flooded by the low wet season rains. But it was an adventure and I loved every minute of it!
The awe inspiring China Road & Bridge Project should cut future journeys down to an hour or two, but I can’t imagine that it will be as much fun! I’m still smiling … It will be interesting to see the impact of this new road on the environment, the wildlife and the isolated communities once it’s completed.
One evening on a late return we encountered a herd of forest elephant crossing the new road, and on another night a troop of agile mangabeys. We even practiced a catch and release of sorts along the route. The new roadworks had interrupted the migratory route for an ancient looking fish known locally as ‘the fish with no name’ (heterotis niloticus). These fish throw themselves up onto the clay path in an attempt to leap the 3-4m span to reach the adjacent stream. During our stay we helped many of them complete their journey.
Mad, dancing, salty dogs — and the BIG fish!!!
For eight nights we called the sleepy Gabonese resort town of Omboué home. This was a friendly and comfortable base for our fishing adventures to come, full of warm smiles and generous spirits. Within an hour of checking in we were geared up, on a boat, and heading up river in search of the big fish. By boat, the journey to the river mouth took about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Within 15 minutes of stepping onto this desolate stretch of beach, we were landing big fish. I was first with a respectable jack crevalle! — pure unadulterated joy at my first ever jack, followed shortly thereafter by a hard fighting white fin jack. Who said fishing wasn’t for girls??? And then the boys joined in — landing jack after jack, cubera snappers and guinean barracudas! The fun didn’t stop all afternoon and there were BIG smiles all around.
White men can dance!!
After an epic first day on the water, with more fish than we’d imagined catching in a week we returned to town wondering how we could could possibly top this? Later that evening, I witnessed something even more extraordinary — and most unexpectedly, on the local dance floor. White men can dance!!! Boy, could these boys boogie!
Hmm … Here we’re off on a wild fishing adventure to remote parts of this deep dark continent — an African adventure of a lifetime complete with wild animals, wild lands, wild fish (and by wild I mean sea beasts bigger than me) — AND, here I find myself at a local discothèque with the three biggest fish of all — three foreign fishermen, arms flailing, hips gyrating — sliding out the moves ‘mirror’ style alongside the stylish local lads. Maybe it was the stoke of the first day on the water, or some calling of the fisher gods, or simply pure African juju — but now, anything was possible and tomorrow we would hunt the BIG fish again.
The one that got away
In the days that followed, we fell into a natural fishing rhythm — rise before the sun, chase the tides, and pass the day hunting the big fish. We established a daily base camp near the lodge, on a remote stretch of sand where the river meets the sea. Here the rainforest gives way to this untouched coastline with powerful surf and such fine white sand that it sings under your feet. And day after day the fisher gods did not disappoint. The fish were powerful and plentiful.
My first jack crevalle may have been small but these are fast and powerful predatory beasts — that come out grunting with a pig-like snort. Collectively we hooked and landed a variety of local gangsters: jack crevalle, white fin jack, cuberra snapper, Guinean barracuda, Senegal kob, and grunter (which we cooked over the camp fire for lunch). We experienced 5 tarpon on, and 5 tarpon off! I hooked 2 tarpon from the beach — the first one nearly pulled me into the sea before it snapped my 130lb leader. Clearly a fish bigger than me. Easily! And completely terrifying. But not bad considering it was my first time surf casting, let alone in dirty waters, for big fish. This fishing adventure fulfilled my wildest dreams and the experience hooked my heart …
Big, beautiful, wild fish
I’ve been fortunate in my life to travel to wild places full of breathtaking scenery, beautiful souls, and amazing fish — but its rare to find it all in one place. Gabon has it all! In all honesty, it wasn’t the romanticised vision of Africa that I had held dear for so long but with experience you realise that if you just let go and recognise that this is Africa, a hardy but heartwarming place opens up in front of you, full of colour and warmth — full of real life. And full of big, beautiful, wild fish! Thank you, Salty Dog.
Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun … So, how long is it until my next birthday? I’m thinking a baby tarpon on the fly at the edge of the mangroves might be the perfect gift.
Images by Susan Skrupa