©Kyle de Nobrega
Rare | Gabon

An emerging destination

The lasting influence, argues pro guide Kyle de Nobrega, of a now legendary image has meant most of what Gabon has to offer remains something of secret.   

In a late 1990s issue of National Geographic Magazine, the front cover showed for the first time an elephant on the beach. This wild and now famous image of a forest elephant in Gabon caught on a camera trap against the deep hues left behind by the setting sun over the Atlantic conjured up in the imagination of the world an Africa where wild animals live on the beach.

Fast forward 25 years and not much has changed. The idea of Gabon and that of ‘wildlife on the beach’ are synonymous: it’s impossible, when viewed through the lens of mainstream tourism, to conceive of one without the other. More’s the pity. It is true, of course forest elephant and other animals’ habitats in Gabon do include the beach and sea but there’s so much more to the country’s wildernesses than the image might suggest. Indeed, there are secrets that, when unpicked, make this emerging wilderness wildly different to that of the rest of the Congo basin. Having spent several weeks there on a guided research expedition in June 2022, I would argue that ‘enormous potential’ suits the Gabon conservation-orientated travel report card best.

Unlike any other country with vast tracts of wilderness and where there are still healthy and high numbers of wildlife, Gabon’s full forests are far from the eyes of almost any tourism. Key protected areas range from the Congo-Guinean forests in the east to the Atlantic infused forest-savanna mosaic in the west. Offering an exceptional array of species, one would have thought that Gabon and all its glory would – in fact, ought to – feature on the front pages of the likes of NatGeo again and again and again, though every time in an entirely different way.

Challenge and protector

The geographical location and low human population in Gabon are the key driving forces behind the biomass’s pristine condition. The protected wilderness are hundreds of kilometres from each other with little in the way of roads, let alone airstrips. In much more commercialised parts of Africa, this is no issue as a $250-seat on a Cessna aircraft will get you from destination A to B in as seamless a fashion as possible. In Gabon, not so much: thankfully and beautifully, the constructs of modern-day conveyor-belt tourism yet to reach the shores of Gabon. The challenge for travellers, therefore, is both debilitating and stimulating. The feel of the ‘frontier-ness’ is palpable upon arriving at the Cessna-less airport to connect onwards to destination B with private military helicopter as escort.

©Kyle de Nobrega


Although the image of wildlife on the beach remains for tourist operators a huge selling point, it’s clearly also misleading, and for several reasons. This coastline in Africa is a far cry from that of the relative plastic-less beaches of Sao Tome and Principe there’s a lot to be done before Gabon’s beaches reach standards set elsewhere. Meanwhile, it’s important to note that wildlife is only attracted to the country’s coastal savannas during a small seasonal window, a fact hardly conveyed by the timeless iconic feel of that original NatGeo image. Finally, while forest elephant, forest buffalo western lowland gorilla, and even red river hog are reasonably equally well represented in several key locations across the Congo basin, nowhere else can you see the mandrill in such extraordinary numbers in this respect, Gabon is utterly unique.

Bonus points

During the mandrill season, the coastal gatherings of animals are few and far between. The beaches devoid of nutrition at this time of the year, the animals migrate back into the forests, largely to the eastern edges of Loango, which provide the ‘lushness’ they seek. Alluvial floodplains that are exposed when the water is low provide excellent peat-bed foundations for an array of grasses to grow, drawing forest elephant out of the green abyss into the open. The remoteness and inaccessibility the swamps provide have inadvertently been a saviour: protected by nature, elephant here have not to the same degree as elsewhere experienced poaching, know the area is safe, and consequently show their trust when you approach within a few feet by boat. Very few places in Africa offer forest elephant experiences of this kind.

Adventure zones

Wildlife experiences in Gabon can be broken down into several zones. Remote Ivindo National Park has the famous Langoue Bai, which is best reached by helicopter. Here this magical forest clearing is one of two of its kind where both gorilla and elephant meet. As seen, in the gallery forests of Lope National Park at a certain time of year, mandrill gather in huge numbers. On the coast, Loango National Park is a more ‘all-round’ destination, with excellent resident wildlife and the most comfortable options of lodging. Further to the south, Moukalaba Doudou National Park is again an area where helicopter access will provide the best gorilla viewing in the country. Come year end, Pongara National Park offers excellent turtle viewing when these Atlantic giants emerge from the waters to lay their eggs.

Harnessing potential

On paper, then, Gabon has it all. Which doesn’t, as seen, mean it’s easy. It takes an extraordinary amount of pre-planning to ensure a Gabon safari is seamless, and a healthy bit of homework to ensure reward. The effort, however, it takes to design a Gabon expedition reassures you that this is far from the noisy charter plane skies of the Masai Mara. In theory, the harder it is to plan a safari and the longer it takes to formulate, the deeper and more remote you’re going.

For those in search of an African forest experience where wildlife numbers outweigh that of humans, few places top Gabon. It’s still right at the start point in terms of tourism, and in the years to come the landscape will change. Current plans to connect the dots between protected areas are underway, which in truth is what the country needs. However, in its current form, you feel that ‘frontier-ness’ and it ensures a truly stimulating experience.

Given all this, journeys into this forested wilderness are best designed on a case-by-case basis, as there are no blueprints to work from. Careful planning and patience are essential for a Gabonese adventure, which is as things should be. The numbers of animals and miles and miles of ‘broccoli’ are a testament to the country’s relative inaccessibility and to its enlightened forest conservation policies. Long may it all continue.

If you are thinking of travelling to Gabon, please do get in touch with Kyle de Nobrega, whether simply to find out more or to plan your safari. 

All images © Kyle de Nobrega

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