A trip to Mayumba is not the easiest one to plan. Getting there from Libreville is complicated enough (although Mayumba airport is supposed to re-open soon), but organising activities which will let you see more than just the stunning Mayumba beach - that's a real challenge. There is no tourist base in the Park of Mayumba and you can only try contacting the park itself or WCS, who work within its grounds. We were lucky to have contacted the local boss of the latter, who was awfully nice and agreed to organise our stay. Here's what happened.
A day in Gabon profond
We arrived in Mayumba by taxi-brousse, which had left Tchibanga three hours before, making just one brief stop for palm wine, which we dutifully drank. We left our luggage in the Mbidia Kou-Kou hotel, which consists of bungalows located practically on the beach. The place is recommendable, in spite of the obnoxious receptionist, and so are the lobsters, a local specialty, cheap, delicious and abundant. We also took a turn around the town, which proved to be extremely calm. As we walked to the city centre, having been slighted by one of what seemed to be three town's taxi drivers, we felt as if we'd been transported to a different country. This was not the Gabon we knew, where even small towns like Fougamou aspired to something more than a village made up of wooden huts. Mayumba seemed more like São Tomé... peaceful, slow, with sheep trotting down the main street. This really was as far as you could get from Libreville.
From the town of Mayumba, we were taken to the National Park in a boat belonging to one of the local guides, who works with WCS. In about two hours we reached our destination: a turtle-technicians' camp, consisting of a sleeping bungalow and a kitchen (with a gas stove!), set between a lagoon and the ocean. The bungalow was of course taken by the technicians themselves, but we boldly camped on their terrace, which gave us excellent protection in the case of rain. Having set up our humble abodes, we headed for the beach, the magnificent beach of Mayumba, which goes on and on for miles. Four people in the middle of nowhere, enormous waves and golden sand. Bliss.
Clearly, however, it was not for the beach that we came to Mayumba. We were after exciting hikes and that's exactly what we got, the excitement increased by the guide's rapid pace: it was so difficult to keep up with him that we were constantly wondering whether he was trying to lose us. Luckily, he did slow down after our third remark on how unbelievably fit African bodies move much faster than only humanly fit European ones.
During our first trip, in the afternoon, we marched - fast - through savanna, swamps, swamps and more swamps, and finally we stumbled upon the beach. Result: one sitatunga and a huge varan, who was peacefully devouring turtle eggs when we disturbed him and made him run away towards the sunset, taking a dip in the ocean. Romantic.
After dinner and attempted rest (too hot to sleep in the tent!), around midnight, we set off for our turtle trip. We walked along the beach for an hour or so and there it was, our first turtle! We saw a huge Maman luth digging her nest. Fascinated, we watched her in the moonlight, a stunning, graceful animal. Soon enough, three more turtles appeared nearby. We strolled from one animal to another, observing the whole process of laying eggs: the struggle when the tortoise leaves the ocean, the digging of the nest, the actual laying of eggs (50% real ones, 50% empty), the covering the nest with sand... the huge effort of reproduction, which takes about two hours. Accompanied by the turtle technicians, we even got to touch the turtles and let me just say that their skin is surprisingly soft.
Enchanted, we continued along the beach. We walked until around 3:30 am, and then we simply slept on the sand - something I'd never done before. Two hours later, at the break of dawn, our guide woke us up, pointing towards two buffaloes which were strolling at the beach, quite close to our improvised campsite. We followed them onto the savanna, where we saw the most beautiful sunrise ever. The walk back was exhausting, I admit. We'd had hardly any sleep and many kilometres ahead of us. But it was worth it, even though I might not have fully agreed at the time!
Back at the camp, we sunk onto our brand new inflatable mattresses and slept soundly for three hours, waking up just in time for our scheduled afternoon visit to the Senegalese village. We'd seen many of these before but here, thanks to the kindness of the village chief, we could take photos to our hearts' content.
At night, we were promised to go and see the crocodiles. That means hours of wading in knee-high waters, surrounded by the musty smell of swamps and complete darkness. The turtle technicians were kind enough to supply us with wellington boots - while our guide walked barefoot - but we soon found out that in each pair one boot had a big hole. Not at all discouraged, we continued, and were rewarded: after spotting a few pairs of eyes, which belonged to gazelles, hypnotized by the light of our torches, the guide told us to wait, only to emerge from the swamp a minute later holding a small crocodile. We got to touch it, photograph it and hold it, before we released it into the swamp. For a moment there I thought: very well then, we are now strolling through swamps full of crocodiles in the middle of the night. Instantly, I made the thought go away. From such silly considerations the road to a very real panic attack is short enough.
Even though we only spent two nights in the park, the trip turned out to be full of things we'd never done before: We witnessed the actual process of luth egg laying and touched the turtles. We spent the whole night at the beach. We saw the sun rise over the savanna. We were shown the hallucinogenic iboga plant. We saw and held crocodiles. We walked in the jungle at night. We followed a varan. We nearly died of heat and exhaustion. We could not have asked for a better way to say goodbye to Gabon!
Pictures from Mayumba are here.