First Impressions: Libreville
Libreville International Airport
Flying to Libreville was really quite painless. Ironically, the most stressful part was making the flight to Paris from London on time! Heathrow had some trouble at 5 a.m. processing 4 flights within 10 minutes of each other. We were there on time, but because of people travelling with overweight luggage, the queue moved rather slowly. We made the flight with minutes to spare! The flight to Libreville from Paris was relatively relaxed. Only 6 and a half hours in the air, during daylight, spent catching up on the movie scene. We arrived with no jet lag and ready for a holiday.
Paul knows a guy called Franck who met and greeted us. He was on hand throughout the process through the airport to translate where necessary. A very handy arrangement! We had to show our yellow fever certificates and hotel bookings. As Africa goes, it came as a shock to my tame European system when I stepped off the plane: into the humid air, the hustle and bustle that feels totally chaotic, and the only French in my vocabulary is ‘oui’! On the luggage belt when we finally arrived, were many shrink wrapped cooler boxes, which left me quite puzzled. Paul explained that this was the preferred luggage in these parts of the world as it gives the most protection and is very light. It makes perfect sense!
We chose to stay in a local hotel on the beach, very close to the airport and a bit outside of the city. It was a total little gem and I loved its authenticity (after looking past its imperfections). We were greeted by lazy geckos everywhere! They sat on walls, trees, the beach, quickly scampering away when you came too close. Don’t expect it to be the same kind of experience as the Radisson up the road. Once you chuck everything you know about hotels out the window, and immerse yourself in Africa, it’s a brilliant experience. It was a rather wonderful beginning to our tour.
Rooms are basic, neat and clean, with a hot shower and toilet. On our way back to the UK we had a rather long lay over (done on purpose to avoid possible missed flights) and booked a room here again for the day. The other option would be to pay per person for entrance at the airport restaurant which includes free wifi and sandwiches. We preferred to be on the beach and have a shower before our flight. However, there was a broken water pipe somewhere in Libreville which caused the water supply to be cut off at the hotel. We thought this was rather inconvenient, until we talked to a local surgeon who told us there was no water all day at his health clinic, putting things quickly back into perspective! And the hotel staff was great, supplying us with a large bucket of water:)
The bar is open plan, with tables and chairs underneath thatched umbrellas. The connecting restaurant is roofed with corrugated iron (with lots of heavy rocks on top to keep it in place in case of strong winds!). There is a communal telly, showing sports mostly, in the bar area, which gets locked up in the nearby craft shop.
The restaurant serves great food and you really get a taste of the local cuisine. The local fish soup is fantastic! Friendly staff is around all day taking drinks orders, breakfast, lunch and dinner. But you won’t get food any other time of the day. The kitchen staff saunters in at around 7 p.m. in the evening and light the fires. Orders for dinner aren’t taken before 7:30 p.m. You can put away your watch here, as everything runs on Africa time! What better way of starting your holiday and getting out of rush-mode.
The weather during August, the dry season, is a balmy 24-26C, and just a little on the humid side. There is very little fluctuation between day and night temperatures. The air conditioned rooms are a welcome, although noisy, addition. Also keeping the mosquitoes at bay at night. I was still covered by mosquito bites, even sprayed from top to bottom with DEET 50%! I never even heard the little buggers coming! Malaria tablets are therefore a must.
Things to do
We had half a day in Libreville before catching our afternoon flight to São Tomé, not a lot of time to explore the city. So after a leisurely breakfast on the beach, a long beach walk, we did want to spend a couple of hours getting a few gifts. The hotel staff arranged a guide with a car for us and with our extremely limited French, we tried to explain to him that we wanted to visit the craft market. He was on his way to the supermarket, when I spotted the sign and we tried again to demonstrate a market! Paul mimed ‘mask’ and our guide finally got it. Note to self: brush up on French!
Our guide brought us to a building with small, dark, and dingy, backrooms. These were wall-to-wall with old traditional Gabonese masks. It all looked very authentic. The guys manning the stalls desperately want to make a sale and as soon as you showed interest in any object, they almost jump on you with enthusiasm: ‘I make good price for you’, ‘take two, take two’. It’s never ending and they don’t leave you to browse in peace, which I found a bit off-putting. I quickly learned not to pick up anything, because the hawker would only push another in your hands!
But it was still wonderful walking over the rickety floorboards in an upstairs room, looking at the statues and masks. Mostly all too large to take away in a suitcase on a plane anyway. And then the downstairs, low-ceilinged cramped space, with little trinkets and even more masks. The seller tried to explain to us some of the different tribes and masks each belonged to – I wish I knew French. Gabon has a rich culture to explore.
After this our guide brought us to a more commercial craft market – the hawkers aren’t nearly as intimidating and let you walk through and browse undisturbed. The items on offer were definitely more commercial and mass produced, but with a large variety of things to choose from, you can easily go away with quite a few things to remind you of Gabon.
Upwards and onwards
You might ask yourself at this point, what about the fishing? This is after all, the point! Well, not this time unfortunately, because Libreville only served as a gateway to São Tomé & Príncipe. The fishing spot is situated south of Libreville in the Luango National Park and it’s another short flight to reach it. This little glimpse into Gabon only whetted my appetite to see more though. I would love to go where the elephant roam the beaches, or even go into the jungle to spot gorillas. But for now, we had to bid goodbye to Libreville.
Franck picked us up at the hotel again and brought us back to the airport, right on time to catch our Ceiba flight to São Tomé. At this point I might add that the aircrafts got increasingly smaller, the further we travelled! First time for everything though, and this was my first time on an aircraft with propellers. The service on these island flights are random, but they’re all under an hour, so it’s actually fine if you don’t get anything.
So, off we went to São Tomé and the chocolate islands!!
Salty Dog Crew
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