At Travel Africa we love learning about tours that reach into relatively untrammelled parts of Africa; trips that offer a real sense of venturing into the unknown, while helping a fledgling tourism industry take root. So when we heard of Secret Compass’ new expedition pack rafting down Gabon’s Ivindo River, we were keen to hear about their reconnaissance trip
ucket-lists, top 10 blah blah blahs, and a never-ending stream of ‘adventure’ selfies. The Internet can be very good at telling us where to go, what to do and how to feel. Frankly, it all feels a little too predictable. But look a little closer and there’s plenty of opportunity to trail-blaze.
On the western shores of Central Africa sits Gabon, home to a network of world-famous national parks dissected by the equator. Modelling the country on the success of Costa Rica, the Gabonese government aspires to turn this abundance of natural resources into a successful eco-tourism product, while maintaining the dense tropical rainforests that account for around 80 per cent of the country. However, a serious lack of infrastructure currently keeps tourist figures minimal.
“I love Gabon”, says expedition leader Paul Taylor. “In terms of tourism, it is still finding its feet so there’s so much to discover. Nothing is given to you on a plate but, in terms of the environment and the wildlife, the rewards are huge.”
In north-east Gabon, the Ivindo River, a 110km-long body of water, snakes through the eponymously named national park integral to the country’s conservation efforts. Flowing south-west through some of the continent’s wildest and thickest jungle, its upper stretch is fairly gentle as it steadily drains Gabon’s eastern plateau, gathering momentum before reaching the town of Makokou. From here, it follows a series of waterfalls and gorges, linked by a string of unchartered rapids, finally emptying into the Ogooué River. Located about 25km south-east of the Ivindo sits the Djidji River, a totally unrecorded watercourse.
With adventure travel company Secret Compass, Paul led the first descent of the Ivindo and Djidji Rivers. Over three weeks, leading a self-supported team, he navigated untamed jungle by foot and unchartered waters by packraft.
In Libreville, Gabon’s coastal capital, the team of nine met each other for the first time at the city’s international airport. Through the double doors of the Arrivals lounge, their bodies simultaneously plunged into sweat as they stepped into the humidity of Equatorial Africa.
Departing at 4am the next morning, they would drive 10 hours to a research station on the banks of the Ivindo, followed by a four-hour journey by motor-powered dugout canoe, to arrive at the river’s first major obstacle, Kongou Falls. One of the world’s strongest-flowing waterfalls, an average of 900 cubic metres of water cascades over Kongou’s 56m every second. From here, they’d trek southeast through the jungle to meet the Djidji River, which they’d follow across the equator to a scheduled pickup at the confluence of the Djidji and the Ogooué.
“The first few days trekking towards the Djidji were supposed to be pretty straight-forward,” explains expedition teammate David Marsh from London. “But we soon realised the route wasn’t going to be so simple and our progress was far slower than expected. The trail disappeared as soon as it began and we were soon hacking through dense jungle on a compass bearing.”
And thus surfaces the inherent problem with pioneering anything — the same reason it’s worth doing in the first place — in that there is no precedent. No recce, no real on-ground info or knowledge of the challenges likely to be faced. Each corner is blind, and each step is taken with trepidation. But therein lies the fun.
After three-and-a-half days of bush whacking, they arrived at the river to inflate their packrafts. “Initially, the going was pretty smooth and we made good progress. “Until we hit the rapids,” continues David. “There were no records or grades for the rapids, so we had to carefully survey each of them. We each stacked up; grabbing any vegetation we could to keep us steady and checked the best route before descending one by one. Each time someone capsized, we were pushed later into the evening. There were a few times where we were setting up camp in the dark, which made for a few wonky hammocks and uncomfortable nights.”
Undoubtedly, against its water-faring counterparts, the humble packraft’s defining features are its minimal weight and its capability to be deflated and inflated at the drop of a hat. Should they find rapids beyond the capabilities of the rafts, the team could simply portage around them or even deflate and continue on foot.
“Even with our heavy packs attached to the rafts they were still manoeuvrable and stable enough to go down some pretty gnarly rapids,” says David, “but there were a few occasions where the rapids were too dangerous or shallow, so we’d head around them. A couple of times, we actually packed them up and trekked through the forest. Being totally immersed in the impenetrable jungle would have been impossible with standard canoes or kayaks.”
Of the little knowledge acquired of Ivindo National Park, diversity of its wildlife population made up a significant portion. Within the first morning on the river, the team had already spotted giant and chocolate-backed kingfishers, slender-snouted crocodiles and African fish eagles.
“At the back of the group, enjoying a calm patch of water, I saw the others slowing down, pointing to the riverbank. The way everyone was beckoning and motioning to keep quiet, I knew it was something pretty cool. Trying to paddle as fast as I could without making too much noise, I caught up,” recalls David. “Coming around the corner I saw an elephant’s head poking out from the forest. This was a real-life wild forest elephant! We weren’t in a zoo or on safari. We were just travelling through the huge beast’s home and just so happened to be in the perfect spot at the perfect time.
“In awe, we floated as the ellie snorted and postured, close enough to get a real sense of its weight and power. It’s amazing that an animal so big and heavy could live in a forest so dense and impenetrable. I have no idea how long we floated there, but after a while, through the tiniest clearing back into the wall of green leaves, the elephant disappeared. Finally, we exhaled, but couldn’t wipe the grins from our faces. I feel so lucky to have been there in that moment. How many other people have had an experience like that? How many people will have the opportunity to have an experience like that in the future?”
By now though, their two contingency days were toast and the teams scheduled pick-up was beckoning — their only shot at extraction. “The going was tough and we were paddling well into the evening, but eventually the rapids calmed, the river was smooth again, and with a huge sigh of relief we glided towards the rendezvous with just an hour to spare.
“We soon forgot the dramas of the past two weeks, dreaming of a change of clothes and anything other than beef jerky and food spooned from a warm orange packet,” laughs David. “I still feel the sense of relief and pride we experienced hitting the first signs of civilisation again, knowing we’d completed such an unbelievable journey. This trip will stick with me forever, full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and stories I’ll never get bored of telling.”
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