Tuesday 8th September
Still hoping for an Equatorial Guinea visa, I was going to take up the offer of an introduction to the Ambassador, but sadly neither of the people who had made this offer could be reached this morning.
On the other hand, Gabon’s Minister for the Environment, Mme Georgette Koko, who also serves as Gabon’s Vice Prime Minister, had agreed to fit me in at short notice before a meeting of the Council of Ministers. The Director-General of Environment showed me and Anne-Marie in to a beautifully furnished office and perched on the plush sofa, I began to explain about the Year of the Gorilla. Mme Koko responded with a long and passionate statement about Gabon’s determination to protect gorillas and their habitat that clearly came from the heart. “That makes me both happy and sad at the same time,” I said, reaching for my camera-bag. “Happy to hear such passionate support for gorillas but sad that I didn’t get it on video.”
There was an embarrassed silence, which the Director-General broke saying, “We can record a message later and send it to you…” It was only at that moment that I realised he had not been fully briefed on my aim of recording a statement for the YoG website. Gulp! Protocol had been breached. Seeing my disappointment, Mme Koko quickly consented to repeat her statement in front of the camera, which she did eloquently. The meeting ended well, I thought, but it was made quite clear to me that pulling out a video camera without warning in front of a Vice Prime Minister was not the done thing. Straight afterwards I wrote to apologise for my lapse and promised to clear the edited statement with the Director-General. Hopefully you’ll see it soon.
We went on to two travel agents and confirmed that there were no flights to Bangui today, and so there was barely time to get a Cameroon visa before catching the last bus north to Bitam, the town near the point where Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon meet. Libreville does not have a central bus station, so we went from one company depot to another asking if there was still a bus heading north today. Most leave early in the morning, it seems, and Anne-Marie was sure I’d have to wait until the next day. As if to emphasise the point, a dog snoozed curled up beneath the back axle of the penultimate in a line of empty mini-buses parked beside a rubbish-filled storm drain. Then, to her surprise and my relief, we found that the last one was almost full and ready to leave. It was about 3.00pm and they estimated it would leave in half an hour and arrive in Bitam by 11.00pm or midnight. In the event, it didn’t leave until 6.00pm and it was ten to five in the morning when it finally disgorged the last of its passengers (me) in Bitam.
During the night drive, I was surprised to overhear snippets of a discussion behind me with the words ‘gorille’ and ‘chimpanzé’ so I turned round to join in. The passengers were debating whether gorillas or chimpanzees were the more ‘mechant’ (a French word which means naughty when applied to children, and fierce when applied to dogs). Having ascertained that this ape debate was a coincidence, and that no-one knew it was the Year of the Gorilla, I set my video to ‘night-shot’ and passed around a torch with some YoG leaflets and photos of me with Pablo, a silverback I’d known since infancy, grooming him as part of my research into gorilla lice (see picture).
Jaws hit the floor in a satisfying way, and it reaffirmed my view that such images of human-gorilla friendships are one of the most powerful tools in the conservation education toolbox, despite the fear that they might encourage tourists to want to get too close. As long as the context for such proximity is explained, I think most tourists understand why the 7m rule must be enforced.
The driver kindly dropped me last, near a couple of hotels, and I checked in to a 5,000CFA room for three hours kip. Of course the one electrical socket was damaged so I couldn’t give my new phone its first charge, but at least charged my own batteries a bit.
Coming soon: Wednesday 9th September – Last Great Ape in Yaoundé