The sound of the waves wakes me up. I draw the curtains, and see white sand, palm trees and lizards. Looks like the beach in the TV series Lost. Unfortunately, no time for a swim. Back to Libreville airport, the taxi driver accompanies me until the AfricAviation counter to help booking my flight ticket for Franceville. There is no online reservation system for domestic flights in Gabon. “No more seat available for today’s flight, Madam, we are full […] At the best, I can add you to the waiting list. Come back in 2 hours.” says the woman. Anyway, I first need to withdraw money to buy any ticket. None of the official exchange money counters accepts my Japanese yen. They only buy euros and USD. I try to exchange money on the black market, same. Alright, let’s withdraw money to the only working ATM of Libreville airport... Not working anymore! Argh.
I grab my 2 big bags and walk along the sunny-dusty road to the nearest bank. The bank ATM only accepts Visa credit cards. No luck, I have a MasterCard. I take a break, and go back to the airport, try another hidden ATM, which aspires my card for 10 long minutes before saying that I can’t withdraw money. In front of yesterday’s night working ATM, few persons gather trying to help. There is an emergency contact number on the ATM, but the security guard says it might take days before an operator comes and fix it. Welcome back to Africa. No money, no cellphone, not even a phone number, no Internet. I pause and think. Hmm, there is necessarily an ATM accepting MasterCards and working in the capital of Gabon! I spot some white skin at the AfricAviation counter, and ask if they know, where in Libreville can I withdraw money with a MasterCard. They aren’t sure. One says he would have lent me money if only the ticket price was not that expensive... (150 000 CFA = 230 euros). I go back to the ATM, drop my bags and stand, looking around. The passengers for the last flight Libreville – Franceville of the day are passing the customs. A sturdy man near to me, who followed my problems between two phone calls is now pronouncing these words in French: “I will lend you money. How much do you need? Is 300 000 CFA okay (450 euros)?” S-A-V-E-D. He signs a check, makes a phone call, we wait ten minutes, and he receives the 300 000 CFA cash that he gives to me apart. I want to show him my passport, give him my contact card at least. He just says: “I trust you. Once, I was in the same situation in Douala [Cameroon] and a businessman helped me. I reimbursed him later and invited him for dinner at the end of my stay.” I thank him and run to the AfricAviation counter. I wait that all passengers passed to the waiting room and then a man makes a sign that I can go. I pay my flight ticket (150 000 instead of the 200 000 if you are on the waiting list) and join other passengers. The small plane is filled with businessman, businesswoman and light skin. I can count at least 10 empty seats around me and I don’t believe that 10 persons have missed the delayed flight today… Seating next to me, the director of Fonds Forestier National, a program that aims to dynamize the wood industry in Gabon. He is making campaign for the 2016 presidential elections. We discuss all flight long about Gabon, its resources, biodiversity, and national parks. Arrival at Mvengue, Franceville airport: all passengers have apparently a colleague or a driver waiting for them. There is only one room, the one where you collect your luggage. No control, nothing, and no transport as well. All have already reserved their 4x4. The director of FFN asks me if somebody is coming to pick me up. “No…” He offers the service of his driver, to drive me to the CIRMF. In all this mess, I am lucky. Thirty minutes later, we pass the CIRMF gate. When I told him, that my host is Dr. Barthelemy Ngoubangoye, he says that he is his little brother (- I learn later that little sister and little brother can be extended to the very extended family!). The 4x4 arrives at the Centre de Primatologie (CDP). It is 4 pm and I can recognize Barthelemy, standing with other people in front of the CDP. I jump out of the vehicle: “Hello! I apologize for not being able to contact you, it’s a long story… but it’s me, Cecile.” Barthelemy says he was almost going to call my university because of the lack of news. At the end, I am relieved and it would be fair to add 3 men to the list of 3 that helped me making my way till the CIRMF (see Gabon 0.0): the station manager of South African Airways, the man who lent me money at Libreville airport, and the director of FFN.
Three trains, 3 planes, 3 cars and 3 doxycycline later, I’m finally at the CIRMF (Centre International de Recherches Médicales de Franceville) in Franceville, Gabon. I wish I could have polluted less and have done it all by bike but neither the 3 years of my PhD nor my supervisors would have allowed me. Anyway, here is my first story in Gabon, and I hope it will provide useful tips for future travelers…
"Dieu merci, vous êtes tous arrivés sains et saufs !" (Thanks God you all arrived sound and safe!), yell a yellow jacket in charge of welcoming us down the stairs of the plane at our arrival in Libreville. I first wonder if this man is joking or if he knows some passengers in the plane - but he doesn't. He seems sincerely relieved. Sure, we have 2 hours delay and it's past midnight but who cares? I'm trying to imagine the same situation happening at Roissy Charles de Gaulle in Paris. I laugh, no, impossible. I realize that it's not because the news announced a "missing plane" between Kinshasa and Libreville but probably more because of some Gabonese customs that I'm not used to yet.
A good start: I got my luggage and I have my yellow card (vaccination records, essential to enter the country - what I didn't know). The customs are not too curious regarding the content of my bags - good for the hundreds of chimpanzee and mandrill faeces I'm planning to collect and for the hundreds of fake plastic poops I carry. Once outside, nobody with my name on a board - normal since the hotel didn't respond to my pick-up request and since the CIRMF agent in Libreville was not reachable. Alright, first mission: to withdraw money. I didn't expect that neither Osaka nor Istanbul airport would sell Central African Francs. So, I try the first ATM, broken; the second: broken; and the third: bingo! At this point, I'm still hoping to exchange my yen at an exchange money counter the next morning, so I only withdraw 50 000 CFA for the hotel and a taxi.
This time, I booked a hotel online to avoid having too much adventures while on a research trip... "Excuse-me Sir, do you know where VillaFlora is? It's a hotel, it shouldn't be far." "VillaFlora? Hmmm, let me ask." After few taxi drivers and security staff around the airport for whom, the name VillaFlora didn't make any sparks fly, the station manager of South African Airways himself drives me around Libreville, trying to find my hotel. "VillaFlora, I would see it that way..." After 10 minutes, we arrive in front of a bunch of apartments, with written on the grid: "Residence Floria". Not quite the same and not looking like a hotel. We still get down the car, wake up the watchman sleeping on a piece of cardboard on the marble floor and ask whether there is some kind of hotel around. He just says that there are some French living here and that perhaps they know. Waking up some people I don't know in the middle of the night to ask whether a hotel exists? Not a good idea. I have to come to the fact that this VillaFlora was probably a trick and that a B plan has to come in action. I remembered the name "Tropicana" from the last email of a friend familiar with Libreville. Tropicana isn't a cocktail - not in the mood right now, but the name of a hotel near the airport. Again, the station manager drives me there. "We just have one room left, Madam." "How much?" "70 000." Shoot. "Ok, I have 50 000 CFA and 19 USD" "Ok." I give all my money left (I could have got the room half price from what I learn later...). The station manager makes sure I'm okay, leaves me 2000 CFA for internet, and his business card. Having no cellphone, the 2000 will be either for Internet, to inform my collaborators that I arrived in Gabon or for a taxi back to the airport the next morning. I opt for the latter. Tomorrow will be another mission: go to Franceville…
As we track the chimps through the dense forest, Mugisha leads the way with his machete, followed by Hodaka – the camp manager, and me. The chimpanzee Black is now on sight but a big dead tree trunk blocks the way. It’s my turn to pass it. While looking for where to put my feet next on the trunk, I realize that something appends to my shoe. Something, that my brain took quite some time to identify. Something, that slowly moves its head up. A head with a black triangle and with horns on it… A rhino viper! Here it is – always when you don’t expect it! Not sure it will appreciate that I take my camera out so, at this point I just yell: “Oh, WAOOO, there is a rhino viper right next to my shoe! What should I do?! Should I jump or should I freeze?” Stupid question. Hodaka and Mugisha: “Juuump!!” So, did I.
Deadly dangerous but also in dangerous decline, population estimation of B. nasicornis across western and central Africa, where it is found, remains scarce. Because of its reputation and not because of its attacks frequency (at least in Kalinzu forest), some humans would prefer to kill it to prevent potential attacks; a practice that doesn’t support the conservation of this still mysterious animal.
Two days ago, Natsumi – Master student at KUPRI researching on mother-infant relationships in Kalinzu chimpanzees showed me a video of a massive rhinoceros viper! The latter was crossing the path while Natsumi was observing the chimpanzees. Bitis nasicornis is flat and large like its close relative, the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica). Its skin patterns are, however, more colorful and geometrically different than B. gabonica. In addition, it owns two distinctive small horns at the extremity of the head. One bite and a lot of pain later (due to the hemotoxic and neurotoxic venom), your heart might just stop beating. Encounters are apparently frequent in Kalinzu forest. But, it has been almost a week that I’m here and so far, I haven’t seen any…
“Robert, Robert, over?” It’s early morning in Kalinzu forest, western Uganda. The Vieillot’s black weavers sing as if it was their last song; the weather is cool; and the camp life awakes slowly. Robert is a chimpanzee tracker working for the Kalinzu Primate Research Project, led by Dr. Chie Hashimoto, assistant professor at the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University. We connect with him from the camp via walkie-talkie to know whether he located the chimps already – and yes, he did. By recording with their GPS where they left the chimpanzees the previous day, the trackers have a rough idea of the area where they should look for.
Dr. Hashimoto, Mugisha – another chimpanzee tracker and I, start walking from the camp in the direction indicated by Robert. One hour and half later, we are deep in the young secondary forest, and Robert tells us that the chimpanzees just started hunting. My excitement overcomes the bites of the Dorylus molestus that invade our entire bodies. There is no red colobus in Kalinzu, and other monkey species (red-tailed monkey, blue monkey, and l’Hoest monkey) are supposed to be too fast for the chimpanzees to catch so, unlike other communities, Kalinzu chimps go for black-and-white colobuses. When we reach the scene, chimpanzees already circle a Ficus tree where a group of colobuses was feeding. Suddenly, I see a subadult male chimpanzee getting down the tree trunk… chased by a colobus vocalizing! Male black-and-white colobuses are quite imposing and very defensive so, chimps have better to watch out! In fact, the targeted preys are the white infant colobuses, but a successful hunt is rather opportunistic explains Dr. Hashimoto. This time the hunt lasts for 30 minutes, after which the chimps give up and move away on the ground. Over the past two days, the group attempted 3 times to catch a colobus but none was successful.
Flight Dubai-Entebbe. On my right, the window, I can admire the landscapes slowly taking shape. On my left, a Ugandan missionary priest working in Australia and going back home for some vacations. For him too, it is a long journey. Few more hours and we will be delivered. As he jokes about African politics, I start laughing, with my eyes full of erupted blood vessels and my hair looking like Edward Scissorhands. Then, he asks me questions and we end up talking hygiene in non-human primates. I explain him all the theory about the origins of hygiene without pronouncing the word "evolution". He finds it interesting. As the plane lands in Entebbe, we exchange contacts, I give him my card (with an illustration of myself picking up a macaque poop…) and he invites me to the East of the country – where he comes from. “[…] If you come, you will discover real Ugandan life, everybody will dance and we will kill the goat!” “Ah… great… Thank you! I mean you won’t need to…” I accompany him till the customs, we shake hands and then, we split. Two hours later (30 since we left Japan), I finally hear behind the glass of the customs: “Welcome to Uganda CecilÉ, enjoy your stay with us!”