Not ready for prime time
"LOOKING UP AT THE FAT, GRAY SKY, it was hard to tell when, or even
if, dusk had arrived. Looking down, it was easy. One minute the water
beneath our paddles was the color of tea; the next, it was black. We
pushed on around a few more bends, then beached the canoes on a
riverbank at a clearing in the forest. Only Morgan GnoundouMor-GAHN,
he pronounced it, à la françaisehad any energy left. He cleared
space for the tents with his machete, got a fire going, put a pot on
to boil, and then bounded down to the river to dredge for crevettes
little shrimp with which to bait his fishing line. Sprawled on our
Therm-a-Rests, the rest of us watched in awe.
It was early August, dry season in Gabon. That morning, eight of us,
in four canoes, had set out from an abandoned logging camp on the
upper Djidji River not far from the Congo border. The plan was to
paddle downstream 100 or so miles to a take-out just above a
spectacular cataract called Djidji Falls. In the process, we'd
traverse the entire roadless expanse of 1,158-square-mile Ivindo
National Park. Like all 13 of Gabon's national parks, it was created
ex nihilo just over four years ago, largely at the urging of the
Wildlife Conservation Society, the international nonprofit
headquartered at the Bronx Zoo. No one, to our knowledge, had ever
paddled the length of the Djidji before, but our real mission was to
evaluate the river's touristic potentialsomething the WCS program
director for Gabon, English-born biologist Lee White, was banking on.
"It's not a whitewater river; it's a wildlife river," White had told
me a few days earlier, at his office in Gabon's capital,
Libreville. "And I think it could be the premier wildlife river in
Sitting by the fire that first evening, I had my doubts. We'd seen
animals, all right: monitor lizards, unidentifiable monkeys, and a
large red forest antelope called a sitatunga, head up and stock
still, as if posing in a diorama at the American Museum of Natural
History. And we'd seen fantastic birds: sapphire-blue kingfishers,
dinosaurish hornbills, flocks of gray parrots, and a huge, honking,
iridescent thing called a hadada ibis.
But, truth be told, what we'd mostly seen were treesfallen trees.
Every 50 yards, it seemed, another giant mossy trunk lay across the
river, blocking our path. Sometimes there was nothing to do but lift
and shove our vessels straight over the top, Fitzcarraldo style. With
two of the canoes, slender plastic things improbably mail-ordered
from L.L. Bean, that was at least a semifeasible proposition. But the
other two were big aluminum johnboats with square transomswider,
more heavily laden, and about as portable as cast-iron bathtubs.
Sometimes it took five or six of us, balancing precariously on
branches and slippery trunks, to heave them over. We took to calling
them "les vaches de mer"the sea cows.
Then there were the snakes. The day before, while on a short pre-trip
reconnaissance cruise, Gnoundou and Christian Mbina, a Gabonese
environmentalist, had been hacking their way through a brambly snag a
few hundred yards from the put-in when a fat black-and-tan snake
dropped into the canoewhereupon Mbina leaped out. Malcolm Starkey, a
WCS project director for two of Gabon's parks, and our designated
naturalist, was too busy laughing to identify the beast. "But," he
said cheerily, "I'm 90 percent certain it wasn't venomous."
Less than reassured, we'd approached our first log crossings with a
certain delicacy. But as the day wore on, it got harder and harder to
worry. Ninety percent was good enoughthe main thing was to keep the
boats moving, a point that was driven home the first night as we sat
sipping Scotch by the fire. "So, how far did we get?" our nominal
leader, Bryan Curran, the director of projects for WCS Gabon, asked
our navigator, Mark Boyer, a map specialist from the WCS office in
New York. Boyer punched a few buttons on his GPS and raised his
eyebrows dramatically. "It looks like we've covered a grand total of
4.8 kilometers," he said. "Of course, that's as the crow flies; we
probably did twice that over the ground."
A stony silence ensued. We'd planned on spending a week on the river
which meant making 20 to 25 kilometers (12 to 15 miles) a day.
Finally, Starkey spoke. "Hmmm," he said, trying to sound
chipper. "Where are we on the map?" Before the trip, Boyer had
laboriously created and laminated a set of custom maps by combining
some old topos from French colonial days with more recent data
gathered by a NASA shuttle mission. He pulled the first sheet out of
his daypack, squinted at his GPS again, and laughed. "We're not yet
on it," he said.
IN SEPTEMBER 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in
Johannesburg, South Africa, the famously diminutive president of
Gabon, Omar Bongo, made a startling pledge: His Colorado-size nation,
long known for its oil fields, would create a system of 13 national
parks that together would constitute more than 10,000 square miles of
equatorial rainforestbetter than a tenth of the country's total land
Gabon's virgin forests and indigenous wildlife, including the world's
largest remaining population of forest elephants and the second-
largest of gorillas and chimpanzees, had lately come to the world's
attention via the exploits of WCS biologist Mike Fay, who traversed
the country on foot as part of his 1,200-mile Megatransect. Unlike
most of its neighbors, Gabon seemed to be in a position to afford its
parks: With proven oil reserves of 2.5 billion barrels and a
population of fewer than 1.5 million, the country enjoys a per capita
income of $5,900 a year, approximately four times higher than the
average for most sub-Saharan nations. Still, no one had expected
Bongo to make such an extravagant gesture. Percentagewise, a WCS
press release noted, only Costa Rica has set aside more land for
conservation, though its total park acreage is much smaller. WCS
committed more than $12 million over three yearsabout half of it
foreign-aid money drawn from the $53 million that the U.S. government
gave for the Congo Basin Forest Initiative in 2002to help Gabon with
the project. No logging or mining would be allowed in the parks, and
development would be limited to small, eco-friendly tourism ventures
and research facilities.
"By creating these national parks, we will develop a viable
alternative to simple exploitation of natural resources that will
promote the preservation of our environment," Bongo said. "Already
there is a broad consensus that Gabon has the potential to become a
natural mecca, attracting pilgrims from the four points of the
compass in search of the last remaining natural wonders on earth."
Given the press coverage that Bongo's country has received ever
since, you might be forgiven for thinking that the floodgates had
opened. Gabon's parks have been glowingly written up everywhere from
The New York Times to O: The Oprah Magazine, whose editors put it on
the list of "Five Places to See in Your Lifetime." In short, it's
hot. So hot that, according to White, within ten years the country
could conceivably see more than 100,000 visitors annually.
If you do actually get to Gabon, howeverand that's not easy, given
the distance, exorbitant airfares, and the inconvenient fact that the
national carrier, Air Gabon, shut down last Marchyou'll come away
with a slightly different take.
"Right now, there are 1,500 real tourists a year, maybe 2,000," says
Patrice Pasquier, a Frenchman who runs Mistral Voyages, one of the
country's few full-service travel agencies. "Let's be frank. I don't
see 100,000 or even 50,000 in ten years' time. How many rooms [in the
parks] would that take? Fifteen hundred? How many are there now? Not
even 100. And let's not even talk about the state of our
The problem isn't limited to a lack of planes or rooms or roads. The
Gabonese themselves may not be ready for the service business. "We
envision a top-of-the-line client, but first we must identify the
levels to which people must be trained," says Franck Ndjimbi,
marketing chief for the Conseil National des Parcs Nationaux.
"The long-term success of the parks is linked to the success of
tourism," says White. "We're going to have to change the mentality,
to the point where the Gabonese actually smile at you. That's our job
over the next ten years."
It's not just the Gabonese who need convincing. A couple of months
before we set off down the Djidji, I went to the Bronx Zoo to listen
to White and another major player on the Gabon project, John Gwynne,
make a lunchtime presentation to the WCS staff. White, 41, was one of
the driving forces behind Bongo's decision to create the park system;
his 2001 proposal to protect important Gabonese wilderness areas was
adopted by the president virtually in its entirety. Gwynne, 58, is
not an Africa specialist at all, nor even a trained scientist, but an
artist and landscape architect who runs the zoo's Exhibitions and
Graphic Arts Department.
At the time Bongo created the parks, White noted, Gabon's oil
production had peaked and the government was beginning to think about
the transition to a diversified economy. "Like it or not," he
said, "they've decided it is an economic project."
Then it was Gwynne's turn to speak. The first step, he said, was to
create a new "global destination": the African Rainforest. "Yes, at
first it's a wall of green, and we have to part thatit's critical to
see animals," he said. "But we have to look to Costa Rica's success,
presenting the overall experience as much as the animals." There was,
he added, one more challenge: "This is a place where chimps and
gorillas haven't seen people. They're not afraid. How do we bring
thousands in without screwing up the Garden of Eden?"
An hour went by, and only a handful of people left. The crowd seemed
intrigued but skeptical. It was a big step, a conservation-and-
research organization taking on a tourism project, welcoming Mammon
to the temple.
"How do you bring in investors and not lose control?" someone asked.
"What are your standards for ecotourism?" another wanted to
know. "It's like the word healthy on a cereal boxwhat does it mean?"
Those were the specific questions. The bigger question, the one that
hung in the air as the meeting broke up, was the same one we'd be
asking two months later on the banks of the Djidji: Are we getting in
over our heads here?
TOWARD NOON on day two, as Bruno Baert, the director of logistics for
WCS Gabon, and I were attempting to force one of the vaches through
yet another snag, we looked downriver to see one of the faster green
boats signaling to us. Something was happening around the next bend,
but by the time we caught up, it was all over.
The two lead canoes had noticed a great gray boulder set back in the
high sawgrass. Suddenly the boulder had exploded in a full-on charge,
right down to the edge of the rivera bull elephant with flared ears
and magnificent tusks that had somehow escaped the poacher's knife.
Then, with an imperious snort, he'd disappeared into the forest. The
four had been just 20 feet away and were still reeling from an
experience that, as Boyer put it, was "so real it seemed fake."
Baert and I groaned and resolved to paddle harder. But an hour later,
the same thing happenedanother elephant sighting, with us just out
of range behind. No charge this time, the green-boaters assured us.
Nothing special. Baert stood up. "I want to see an ay-lay-phant," he
said. "I need to see an ay-lay-phant."
By the end of the day we'd covered five miles as the crow flies and
nine over the groundalmost twice our first day's total but still not
nearly enough, we thought, to squeeze the Djidji into a single week.
And yet at some point that evening my attitude changed. It helped
that our campsite was perfect, an old poacher's camp on a promontory
above the confluence of a small tributary. The bloodsucking tsetse
flies that had plagued us all day had vanished, and the eerie daytime
silence of the forest gave way to the amazing cacophony of the
African night: the pounding chorus of a bat colony, the scream of the
tree hyrax, and a distant timpani-like sound that Starkey and Curran
said was a gorilla pounding its chest. The hissing fire; the soft
grunts of Baert and Gnoundou as they hooked and landed perch,
catfish, and the primitively scaled capitaine; the unbroken wildness
beyondthis was what camping in the equatorial rainforest was meant
Alex Tehrani, the photographer, must have been similarly inspired by
that exquisite moment, because he jumped up, grabbed a tripod out of
the tent we were sharing, and walked a few feet into the forest to
take some long-exposure shots. A minute later I heard him call out
"Ow," he said. "Damn! Fuck!"
Then, a moment later, the one phrase I wanted to hear even less
than "snake in the boat": "They're all over me!" Tehrani came
sprinting back to the fire, slapping madly at the army ants on his
"They're all over me!" Tehrani came sprinting back to the fire,
clutching his camera and tripod in one hand and slapping madly at his
legs with the other. "Army ants, also known as driver ants," Starkey
said helpfully, before zipping himself into his own tent. Curran
laughed. "Welcome to the Congo Basin," he said.
The bites hurt, but the sting didn't last. "They're not really a
problem unless you're tied to a tree," Curran said. So once Tehrani
had de-anted himself, we crept back to the edge of the clearing for
another look. The column had by this time overrun our unzipped tent
there was nothing to do but pick it up, shake everything out of it,
and then hold it over the fire and let the smoke drive out the last
of the interlopers. A particularly gruesome tableau was formed by my
muddy Tevas, which were completely encrusted by a wriggling layer of
antsapparently there was something in the river clay they had to
Later, lying in the tent, I could hear the army moving over the
leaves of the forest floora million crinkly footsteps, like high-
pitched rain. In the morning, we awoke to find my sandals picked
clean and the ants long gone.
WHILE WE MIGHT HAVE BEEN the first team to attempt a complete descent
of the Djidji, we were hardly the first people to travel on it.
Downstream of the put-in, we'd noticed old machete scars and bits of
cord on some of the overhanging branchesan indication that workers
from the logging camp had likely come this way in search of meat.
Another good indication: On the floor of one of the abandoned cabins,
we'd found a photo of a grinning Congolese worker holding a bloody
pair of elephant tusks. And then there was the mysterious Joseph
Okouyi, a Gabonese doctoral candidate studying red river hogs, who
had recently established a research camp halfway down the Djidji, at
the very center of Ivindo National Park, and who, in fact, had been
scheduled to join us but dropped out at the last minute.
Curran was anxious to make it to Okouyi's camp by the end of day
threecrucial timing, he figured, if we were going to make the train
back to Libreville by week's end. But the log crossings were starting
to take their toll, and we managed to rack up only nine over-the-
ground miles before collapsing, exhausted, on a sandbar at dusk.
Still, paddling in one of the green boats, I had seen my first
elephant: just a glimpse of grimy tusks and an ancient gimlet eye
staring out through leavesbut thrilling nonetheless. And I'd caught
the biggest excitement of the day when an eight-foot crocodile came
shooting out of the high grass and down a sandbank, heading directly
for the canoe in front of me before diving beneath it at the last
About noon on the next day, we arrived at a placea wide spot in the
riverthat felt somehow different. There was more sky, and shrubs
instead of trees, and the banks of the river were littered with a mad
profusion of tracks and dung, including gorilla and leopard, Starkey
said. It was an obvious crossroads, and after we'd floated through
it, he pulled over to the side and motioned for the rest of us to
"The wind is in our favor right now," he said. "If we go back
upstream and sit behind those trees, I think the chances are good
we'll see something within the hour."
It was the perfect call. No sooner were we out of the boats and
installed in our impromptu blind than two elephants materialized out
of the brush about 50 yards downstream, a mother and a baby whose age
Starkey estimated at one year. They stood on the bank for a moment,
then swayingly moved into the river. The place was a "saline,"
Starkey explained; there was some kind of salt in the clay soil that
the elephants loved. Rather than eat the soil, they sluiced a slurry
of it back and forth in their trunks to extract its briny essence.
We crouched cautiously out of view at first, but when it became clear
that the elephants couldn't see us, we stepped forward boldly,
cameras snapping. A few minutes later, another mother and calf, this
one about three, appeared and joined the first pair in the river, and
then, perhaps more remarkably, the sun came out for the first time
all week. Gnoundou took a canoe and paddled down to within about 20
yards of the grouping. The two cows looked up, sensing something, but
then went back to their sluicing. Gnoundou waded in even closer, and
Tehrani followed him, his camera out. "This is crazy," he said,
glancing back at the rest of us and grinning from ear to ear.
This was it, and we all knew it: the primordial Djidji experience
that White had been talking about. The canoes, the sweet-flowing
river, the elephants' fissured gray flanks glistening like wet stone
in the warm sun.
That afternoon, as the Djidji whisked us westward, we analyzed the
tourist potential of what we'd already dubbed Plage des Éléphants
("Elephant Beach"). It was an obvious attraction within the park, a
riverine version of Langoué Baithe vast, grassy clearing in the
southern part of the park that was famously frequented by elephants
and gorillas. The first issue was how to get people there; the only
alternative to three and a half days of log-hopping hell seemed to be
a road. But of course a road would mean access for everybodyand
everybody, Starkey pointed out, "means poachers."
At dusk we came upon a snag that had been chainsaweda sure sign that
we were approaching Okouyi's camp. I'd already conjured an image of
the place in my mind: a small clearing by the side of the river with
a few old canvas tents pitched beneath the limbs of some massive
tree. Instead, we rounded a corner and beheld something truly
shocking: a steep and completely clear-cut hillside littered with
giant brush piles and the trunks of felled trees. Two wooden
buildings had been erected and a third was under construction. Behind
the first clearing was a second of similar size.
Curran was furious. Okouyi had "cut far more trees than he was
supposed to," he said. Boyer was appalled. He'd imagined the camp as
a potential site for one of John Gwynne's eco-lodges, but that seemed
out of the question nowno tourist was going to come to the
rainforest to look at a bunch of stumps.
No one was around, but the ashes in the firepit were still warm. I
proposed that we camp there; it was late, Okouyi and his researchers
would soon be returning, and we could get the full story. But no one
else wanted to stay, so we shoved off and made camp a half-mile
downstream. A short while later we heard a jarring soundthe whine of
an outboardand then a long dugout with six men in it came flying
around the bend. Spotting our canoes, the helmsman cut the throttle
and ducked behind a snag on the opposite bank, then pulled out a
minute later and slowly approached.
It was indeed Okouyi's crew, returning from a day walking transects
in the western end of the park, but Okouyi himself, they told us, was
in Makokou on business. Curran nodded curtly. "Why did you cut down
all those trees?" he asked. "You know this is a national park." The
men stared blankly, not sure how to respond. "And what is the meaning
of that second clearing behind the camp?"
"Plantation," one of the men said.
Curran shook his head disgustedly. "You tell Joseph . . ." He
stopped, then went on. "You tell him we need to talk."
A FEW MILES BELOW Okouyi's camp, a major tributary joins the Djidji
from the north. The river broadens and then begins stacking up in a
series of oxbows. So there were far fewer snags the next dayonly the
biggest fallen trees could block the river's widthand we started to
make up for lost time. I was consigned to a vache with Boyer, and we
fell steadily behind the lead boats, then finally stopped worrying
about seeing wildlife. Boyer took out his fly rod and made some
practice casts under the overhanging boughs along the bank.
On day six I wound up in a green boat with a new partner, Christian
Mbina. We hadn't talked muchhe was a serious guy who avoided the
campfire, instead tucking into his tent after dinner to read the
Bible. He wasn't a WCS employee but ran his own NGO, Adventure Sans
Frontieres, whose main mission was to take schoolchildren to the
beach in Pongara National Park, just outside of Libreville, a prime
nesting site for leatherback turtles. He also had an environmentally
focused show on Gabonese TV called Ça Se Passe Ici ("It Happens
Here"). Still, he confessed, he wasn't altogether thrilled about the
way his career was going. There wasn't enough money in it and, worse,
not enough opportunity.
"I think most people who think about it are proud of the parks,"
Mbina said of his fellow Gabonese. "At the same time, they say, `They
give us the money, the U.S., but what do they do with it?' Look at
the WCS project directors in each of their parksevery one of them is
a foreigner. Why? Aren't there any Gabonese who can do that job?"
Mbina wasn't the only skeptic. "This is a country where we want one
thing but also the other," a Gabonese eco-activist named Marc Ona had
told me in Libreville. "The parks are a good project to show to the
outside world, but to take logging permits away for something long-
term is a huge gamble. It won't pay off for 10 or 20 years, if ever,"
he said. "Andlet's be honestGabon is not Kenya. You can go 100
kilometers without seeing anything."
The next afternoon, the pace of the river began to accelerate. We
were approaching the edge of the escarpment, where the Djidji tumbled
down to meet Gabon's biggest river, the Ogooué. There were more rocks
now and long riffles that gave the best canoeing of the trip, then,
suddenly, real rapids. We proceeded cautiously, lining the boats
through difficult sections and laboriously portaging them around one
thundering six-foot waterfall. The thought that ran through all of
our heads was, If it's borderline now, at the height of the dry
season, what happens when it starts to rain?
By dark, Boyer's GPS told us we were just a few miles, as the crow
flies, from Djidji Falls. We camped at a rocky bend where a lone Cape
buffalo eyed us warily before bolting. Curran got out the sat phone,
waded out into the river for better reception, and called the WCS
office in Ivindo National Park. "We should be at the take-out by 11,"
But the Djidji wasn't quite ready to let us go. The next morning, our
seventh on the river, we funneled into a narrow, rock-strewn channel
a mile below our camp without stopping to scout it. The first three
canoes made it through. The fourth, a vache piloted by Starkey,
flipped and wrapped around a rock, then broke free, pinning Mbina,
the bowman, against a thorn-studded pandanus trunk. I ran back up the
riverbank to help yank the boat loose, then stupidly decided to float
back down to my canoe instead of walking.
The water was only three feet deep, but it was moving fast. I
couldn't stop myself or even get over to the bank. A minute later I
was swept around a bend, pushed over a small drop, and then driven
deep into a holeshockingly deep, because when I stroked for the
surface, I didn't get there. Another desperate stroke and I popped
up, then nearly got sucked down again into a submerged tangle of
conical pandanus rootsa nightmarish scenario that even now makes me
wince. Instead, the current spat me sideways onto a rocky ledge
where, badly shaken, I pulled myself out of the river.
Mbina and Starkey's vache was even worse off. After the boat folded
around the rock, the aluminum weld running along the transom had
partially given way, opening a large gap. We effected a MacGyveresque
field repair, inserting a rubber strap in the hole and pounding the
metal into place with a rock, and then pushed on.
Half an hour later, with the roar of the fast-approaching falls
drumming in our ears, we rounded a left-hand bend and saw a most
welcome sight, a crew of half a dozen park workers in coveralls and
Wellingtons, smiling and beckoning us to shore. The eight of us
staggered out of the canoes, and the trail crew began loading our
boats and gear onto a couple of Land Cruisers. A minute later there
was an excited shout: A snake was nestled beneath a drybag in the
bottom of one of the boats.
It was a short hike down the escarpment to the base of Djidji Falls.
There, we lounged on close-cropped green turf and took a final,
celebratory swim in the Djidji. I couldn't quite focus on the WCS
vision of a nearby eco-lodge; no doubt it made sense, but to me the
place was just about perfecthard-earned, unexpectedly beautiful,
We drove out to the town of Ivindo on an overgrown logging road that,
as soon as we left the park, became as wide and smooth as
Libreville's voie express. Empty logging trucks passed us going the
other way, kicking up great contrails of red dust, and rounding one
corner I glimpsed the rear end of a large, dark ape scrambling into
the woods on all foursthe only gorilla sighting of the trip.
Just before Ivindo, we came upon a solitary figure walking down the
road, a machete in one hand and a bulging sack made of woven plastic
slung over his shoulder. Strangely, for this part of the world, he
didn't bother to ask for a ride or even look up as we passed.
"I know that guy," Mbina said after we rolled by. "We stopped him
last year when I was up here on patrol. He's a poacher."
"That must be crocodile he's got," Gnoundou said. "Anything else
would bleed through the sack."
"Unless it's been smoked," Starkey said. According to Starkey, who'd
done his thesis on the bushmeat market, the price would likely be 300
to 400 CFA francs per kilo30 or 40 cents a pound, affordable for
Gabon's non-elite. "When you compare that to chicken or beef, which
is anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 CFA," he said, "you can appreciate
what we're up against."
Those days and nights on the Djidji stayed with me for a long time
afterwards, and not just because tsetse fly bites itch like nothing
else in the world. There were the army ants, Boyer's maps and
Gnoundou's fresh fish bouillons, Plage des Éléphants and the
waterfall, and not least the bond I'd formed with my vache matesfond
memories all. But the guy with the gunnysack stayed with me, too. In
the end, how different was he from us, with our own booty squirreled
away in our drybagsour notebooks and film canisters and memory
cards? All of us want to have our crocodiles and eat them, too."