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March 8, 2013 / samwilson60

A home from home

Once in Libreville, having re-crossed the equator to the north this time, we frantically started trying to get our act together. The priority was finding a local SIM card and/or an internet café, so as to make contact with Simon, the man we have to thank for us getting into Gabon but who at this stage didn’t have a clue we’d left Cameroon, let alone that we were already in Libreville. We’d underestimated the difficulties we’d have finding any means of communication on a Sunday and really didn’t know what to expect when we did finally make contact. In hindsight, that seems ridiculous. When Cat finally did call, she started by trying to ascertain if anyone was free to meet up at such short notice; she was promptly but warmly scolded for not having got in touch sooner and given instructions to head their way straight away. We were greeted so lovingly and generously, it was soon as if we, not just our parents, had known Simon and his children for years. From our air-conditioned apartment, above most the plentiful supermarket we’d seen in a very long time, we caught up on family ties and current events, in between trips to the most fabulous restaurants to date (trying all the while not to think about the Laughing Cow and Ketchup pasta that would await us when we left).

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If it wasn’t for the small matter of an Angolan visa, a South Cape and a job back in Europe, we might have been tempted never to leave. But while the reality of returning home was still a relatively distant prospect, Angola was not. We were well aware of the difficulties travellers in our situation have getting visas on the road for this country in particular, so were all the more bowled over when Simon offered to lend us a hand on that front too. We genuinely couldn’t believe our luck when we returned to the embassy the final time, and the security guard clearly couldn’t either. When we reappeared with pristine, 30-day visas, he was bouncing around his office as much as we were in the car on the way back to the flat, already picking our brains for all the ways we could repay everyone who had helped us.

During our week in the city, while waiting on the Angolan consul, we spent a lot of time researching Angola and what would follow, but we also took a drive out to Cap Esterias, just north of the city. The idea was to take our minds off officialdom for a day, but this theory was thwarted at a checkpoint before we’d even made it out of the city.

99% of checkpoints in Gabon, before and after Libreville, were effortless. Most didn’t even stop us, those that did were polite, and in town the police seemed genuinely more interested in traffic management than tourist harassment. There were two exceptions – one on the south side of Libreville, who accepted defeat after 10 minutes of checking for things we may not have, and one to the north, who stopped us on our way to Cap Esterias and was clearly not letting us go anywhere until we’d paid a fine for something of other. He asked to see everything he could think of, resorting to wheel chocks after the usual warning triangles and car documents had posed no problem. He eventually went with the argument that our fire extinguishers had both expired (despite the complete lack of an expiry date on either) and for this there was a hefty fine. After talking ourselves round in circles for ages, we tried, for the second time on this trip, to show him that even if we’d wanted to pay, we didn’t have the money he was demanding. For the second time, this backfired. He escorted us to the cash machine, by which point we had no choice but to pay a hideously trumped up but allegedly discounted fine. With hindsight we should have gone to the station and risked paying the full whack, so as to at least get a receipt and a glimmer of hope that it wouldn’t all go in his pocket, but we were fed up, on a back foot and desperate to get this guy out of our faces.

After that we struggled to enjoy our day out at the Cap, but we persevered and eventually found a nice picnic spot by the sea, where we feasted on Camembert (very rich after six months of Laughing Cow, but absolutely delicious!).

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After that, and after getting our visas, we had all we needed to head on south, but were reluctant to leave so abruptly. We were also conscious that our sightseeing in the rest of Gabon would be hampered by the inevitable price tag. We’d earmarked some really enticing national parks south of the equator (surfing hippos anyone?) but our more recent research confirmed that if you didn’t have the budget for a private jet and luxury accommodation, they were literally and financially off limits.

Once again, Simon had the answer and shipped us off to Point-Denis, the tip of a peninsula a short boat ride from the city. There we found the finest (and squeakiest) sand we’ve ever walked in and the clearest, calmest sea we’d swum in in quite some time. In between dips (and while keeping a vigilant eye out for wayward hippos), we braved the somewhat inevitable sunburn and walked right the way round to Turtle Bay, a beautiful spot even outside nesting season, then at nightfall we were ‘blessed’ with the most spectacular thunderstorm. It started out on the mainland, but after the lights all went out over there we realised it was heading our way.

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We’d talked about staying on Pointe-Denis another night so that Simon, Leila and Serge could join us on their day off but two days and a night on the beach was enough and we were eager to get back to our adventures (and wary of the need to get south before the storms got the better of the Congolese roads).

The boat ride back to the mainland was hair-raising – crazy motorists we’ve grown accustomed to, but being on water provided a new twist. The boat itself seemed water-tight, but that was almost academic in the circumstances.

Back in Libreville, we readied ourselves for the off and, after a last air-conditioned night’s sleep, stopped in on Simon and Co. for a lovely farewell brunch. We were sad but ready to go. We knew it would be weird to be back on the road, just the two of us again, but we were excited about the next stage of our voyage and happy in the knowledge that we’d made some great friends whose generosity we look forward to repaying once back on home soil.

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