Leaving the Olympics behind for a taste of Gabon


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It’s been a while since I left the shores of England on a data collection trip but I’m back on the trail here in Gabon. In the meantime I’ve managed to successfully navigate America’s Route 66 (without eating any pizza!) and have been fortunate enough to get swept up by the Olympic fever which has put a smile on everyone’s faces in London. Even though the weather has been far from perfect in London there has been a welcoming celebrative atmosphere and for once the headlines are mostly of a positive nature.

Evidence of oil activity off the coast

Evidence of oil activity off the coast

It was a shame that I had to leave while the eyes of the world are on London but leave I did and now I’m not so sure I can get back! I arrived in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, where I was soon told that I couldn’t fly to my final destination of Port-Gentil – the centre of Gabon’s oil industry. The airport in Port-Gentil is “fermé”, I kept being told. My back-up option of getting a boat from Libreville was also scuppered as the two that sail daily were both full. So after much frantic asking around and hopping in and out of dilapidated taxis to meet various hopeful leads I managed to get a ticket for the next day. It was all very underhand as a shady looking man appeared around a corner at the main port and produced a scrunched up piece of paper which was apparently a valid ticket. I say ‘after much asking around’ but I actually didn’t do any as my grasp of the French language leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately a local guy who spotted me at the airport saw an opportunity to use his English skills to make a bit of money. He did all the chasing and asking for me although I refused point blank to pay him the 100 Euros he wanted for his help and after it was all sorted out I got him down to 40 US dollars.

This is not the London Olympics!

This is not the London Olympics!

So I spent my first night in Libreville and turned up early at the seaport hoping that my ticket was indeed valid. After more running around and photocopying of passports and visas I was eventually let on to the boat, which left three hours late. The 200 kilometre journey took over four hours, not the two hours I was told, and the rolling waves were making more than a few passengers rather ill. After sailing over the Equator in mid-afternoon I did eventually wind up here in Port-Gentil and surprisingly with all my luggage!

Port-Gentil is a strange place in that it wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for the presence of oil off the coast. The city (it’s more of a town) has grown rapidly over the last sixty years from the 1950 population of a few thousand to today’s figure in the region of 150,000. It’s a pleasant enough place, with welcoming locals and a peaceful and laid back apperance. However, I wouldn’t fancy being an expat out here as there is very little to do. From what I’ve heard talking to those who live here the two expat leisure activities of choice are the expansive beach and the expensive nightlife. I say nightlife, but it’s just a smattering of a few nightclubs and restaurants in reality.

Is this Normandy?

Is this Normandy?

Port-Gentil has done very well for itself on the back of the numerous oil companies located here and strolling through the streets is certainly a far less intense experience than in many Western African cities. I don’t feel like eyes are following my every step and everyone drives rather sedately with not a tooting horn to be heard. The supermarkets are also a step up and the main supermarket Super CKdo could be transplanted in to a suburban Normandy town and no one would know. Well, not until you get inside and see the prices that is. Everything is imported here and some of the day-to-day goods are extortionately priced. Here are a few choice selections with their US dollar equivalents of local currency:

–          10 USD for a half kilo loaf of bread

–          11 USD for a 4 pack of small yoghurts

–          10 USD for 6 eggs

–          25 USD for a kilo of chicken

–          22 USD for a kilo of tomatoes

–          92 USD for a box of Scrabble

–          25 USD for a pack of playing cards!

Obviously these prices are at the top end but your weekly grocery shopping bill here is going to come as quite a shock if you’re used to shopping in Carrefour.

A rare sight with a touch of 'real' Africa

A rare sight with a touch of ‘real’ Africa

After getting to grips with the local shops I now have the small dilemma of getting back to London. This, however, is not going to be as easy as I’d hoped. I have a flight from Libreville booked for tomorrow but I can’t seem to get back to Libreville. There is no road access out of Port-Gentil and I’ve been told that the airport here is still closed and the next boat with available spaces is not for another five days – oh to be an international data researcher! So, after much frantic asking around and pleading with the hotel staff that I need to get back to the capital it seems I might be in luck. Apparently they can use their sway to get me a seat on a plane – tomorrow! Hooray! Well, I’ll believe it when I see it and hope that this comes to fruition else I’ll be reading lots of books and lying on a beach for the foreseeable future.

About wanderingmark

World traveller, researcher, photographer, collector of interesting facts and cost of living data research for ECA International (www.eca-international.com).
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