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Lopé National Park
Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrOne of the most revered, protected site in the equatorial virgin forest. The Lopé National Park, also known as the Lopé Okanda, certainly named after one of the many Portuguese explorers who ventured in the region, stretches over 4,950 km² in central Gabon, Africa. Created in 1946 as the first protected wildlife reserve, it forms part of Gabon’s 13 natural parks, and is on the UNESCO’s World Site Heritage list.
HistoryThe area is believed to have been inhabited already 350,000 to 400,000 years ago. Many archaeological searches in the area have uncovered remains of Paleolithic tools, and Neolithic villages, aged around 4,000 years, as well as an iron metal-working site of 2,500 years-old. These populations were possibly hunter-gatherers, most likely Bantu speaking, coming from the North. They left on the site, a collection of 1,200 mysterious rock engravings.
The site and its archaeological findings are a key point in describing the migration movements of the Bantu speaking people in sub-Saharan Africa. Nowadays, you can still find some villages around the park, mostly on bordering roads built in the 1960s, and the railway that was constructed in the 1980s, which helped connect the National Park to Libreville, the capital city of Gabon.
Today, the southern part of the site is endangered due to logging activities and poaching. Local authorities, and the WWF are fighting closely to preserve this area, which is considered to have remained in the same condition since the last ice age, 18,000 years ago.
FloraThe forest in the park is a combination of vast primary and secondary virgin rainforest, with the existence of a man-made savanna mosaic. The area is a huge gallery of forests and rivers. Bordering the park, north is the Ogoué River , on the east the Offoue River, and on the west is the Mingoue River. Its vegetation is a semi-evergreen, lowland, tropical rainforest.
On the south of the park, the beautiful Chaillu Massif hosts the country’s highest mountain, the Iboundji Mountain (1,575 m). The park has recorded a number of 1,500 plants, among which 40 new species to Gabon (you’ll see a lot of wild orchids), and a total of 4,885 trees and lianas, the most common tree being the Okoume tree.
FaunaThe site is also home to an incredible range of birds, namely 400 to 680 species, 60 different species of mammals, among which are 1,350 Mandrills, and between 3,000 to 5,000 western lowland Gorillas, one of the endangered species in the Lopé. It is home to one of the biggest concentration of elephants in the continent.
The endemic Sun-Tailed Guenon, discovered in 1994, is also found in the park, in La Foret des Abeilles, which is translated to “forest of bees”. There is a very well-known legend concerning this forest, where it is said that once you enter, you can never find your way out. The forest is said by many local indigenous tribes to have mystical and magical powers.
Sightseeing at the reserveTours consist of game drives through the open savanna (around 04:00 PM). Although Gabon has very few savanna animals, you’ll see a lot of forest animals, like the Forest Elephant (which is smaller than the one found in Southern Africa), the Forest Buffaloes, Red River Hogs, and Sitatungas, when they wander out onto the savanna. The scenery is worth the journey because of the beautiful, natural environment, which look so peaceful.
People mostly go to Lopé in hopes of spotting the endemic Mandrill species. You’ll have more luck spotting one when you join the group of researchers who conduct constant Mandrill tracking trips in the forest. On the border of the many rivers that are circling the park, you can sometimes take beautiful pictures of Forest Elephants swimming peacefully.
There are also tours organized to the Mikango Camp, a camp run by the ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and ECOFAC. They facilitate Gorilla sightings because their researches are mainly based on primates, especially the Lowland Gorilla. Gorillas are rarely isolated from other members of their group, so you’ll have the opportunity to spot a good number of them interacting with each other.
Animal sightings are normally done from a safe distance because they are very shy. They rarely see humans, the rare encounters are with poachers. So to optimize your visit, it’s advisable to follow the guide’s instructions and minimize noises so that you don’t scare them away.
The tour also consists of morning climbs to Mount Brazza, a mountain just a few steps away from the resort (08:00 AM), and boat rides along the river, where you’ll discover the bordering villages, and can also have a bite at some of the small local restaurants (from 08:00 AM or 03:00 PM).
Overall, tours start in early mornings at 07:30 AM. The prices for half day safaris are around $ 36 USD , and for whole days are $ 60 USD .
Accommodation and FoodOne of the very popular resorts in Lopé National Park and the only one we recommend, is the Lopé Hotel, situated next to the Ogoue River, and facing the very beautiful Mount Brazza. This hotel, has a beautiful swimming pool, a spacious dining area, and serves three meals a day. Breakfast is mostly made up of French bread, butter or jam, with coffee or tea (sometimes a glass of juice). For lunch and dinner you have mostly grilled fish or fried plantains (it can vary, but the menu doesn't always satisfy the visitors). One advice, bring lots of snacks, because the meals seem kind of overpriced, with no diversity at all.
You’ll have 3 options for accommodation:
Dinner is $ 38 USD , and breakfast is $ 15 USD per person.
The hotel is clean with attentive staff. The only problem is that electricity and water supply are so unreliable in Gabon that the hotel has to rely on a generator for power (which is cut from 12:00 PM to 06:00 PM), and you can also expect to have the water cut, from time to time.
How to Get ThereIt is commonly reached by train from the Owendo train station in Libreville (buy a double trip ticket which around $ 40 USD ). The train is, most of the, time late and you’ll certainly end up travelling for over 11 hours between Libreville and the site, which are approximately 350 km apart from each other. Try to buy your ticket 3 days in advance to prevent any inconveniences, such as lack of seats on the train.
Thankfully, the view of the landscape during the trip is amazing. You’ll have the chance to spot some hippos, waterfalls, lots of trees, and a lot of villages along the railway.
When you arrive on site, a hotel representative will greet you and drive you (in a 4x4 jeep owned by the hotel) to the resort.
You can also chose to travel to the site by car (rented jeep), but the road is really bad and tricky to maneuver with lots of logging trucks. It will take you approximately 5 hours by car. The advantage is that you can stop and buy fresh fruit on the way if you ever need to (there’s a stall after passing every mile). You’ll also see dead animals such as Chimpanzees.
When to VisitIf you want to go to the Lopé Park, and really take advantage of the beautiful sights and animals, it’s better to render yourself there during the months of July to September. It’s the dry season, and animals occupy various parts of the savanna during this time. It is during that period that you’ll get the opportunity to spot a Mandrill.
Some important facts for touristsTrips to the Lopé Park are normally booked with travel companies (locally or abroad), but the site has its own office in Libreville, called Lopé Hotel. You can contact them or travel there yourself during your stay in Libreville for any inquiries.
Travelling agencies normally offer packages, including, rooms, food and any activities offered on site. It can be quite pricey, depending on who you contact for the trip (minimum $ 800 USD per person). The well-known local agencies are Mistral Voyages and Gabon Contact. Their headquarters are in Libreville.
Once at the Lopé, make sure that the guide and driver who are taking you to your excursions are from the hotel, and not another company. This way you won’t be overpriced. It is also recommended to hire a private guide, as they tend to be more dedicated.
Lastly, don’t touch any animals (there's the risk of contracting the Ebola virus, we never know). Don’t leave any rubbish behind in the forest, don’t take anything from the forest, and most importantly don’t get lost, always follow your guide.
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Author: Comasco. Last updated: Sep 10, 2014