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The Rembo Bongo

On Thursday morning my guide and I packed up our gear and a lot of fuel into a boat and headed across the lagoon to the Rembo Bongo (Rembo means river). The boat is basically an open hull, but it has a covered storage space in the bow so gear can be out of the rain. It’s been overcast for the past few days- the rainy season seems to be trying to get going in fits and starts. But every time I go camping in Gabon it rains, so I have assured everyone it will start to pour as soon as I get out in the forest and unpack my tent.

At the south end near Gamba and all the way to the eastern side, the lagoon is bordered by dense forest and only a couple villages, so as soon as you leave Gamba you are suddenly in a remote wilderness. On the eastern part of the lagoon, big green rolling hills rise up behind the forest and off in the distance are the mountains of MoukalabaDoudou National Park. MoukalabaDoudou is one of the parks that is still mostly completely wild- only a few logging concessions, no tourist infrastructure and a whole lot of elephants! Bas tells me that in this N’dogo area of Gabon there are 7,000 people and approximately 11,000 elephants. The Rembo Bongo forms the western border of the park.

We headed into the river and spent most of the afternoon traveling up at a leisurely pace. The habitat changes from papyrus and palms at the mouth to dense jungle with elephants paths at the river’s edge every 100 feet or less. White, orange, yellow and blue butterflies flit everywhere, as do many amazing species of birds: hornbills, parrots, 5 species of kingfishers, bee-eaters, etc. The other really cool creature in the river are the crocodiles. There are 3 species: Nile (these get huge), Dwarf (very small) and False Gavial (medium sized). The Gavials bask on logs during the day so we saw quite a few. The biggest was about 5 feet long and they are shy- if you get too close to their perch, they flop into the river. The other 2 species are nocturnal.

Faux Gavial (Crocodylus cataphractus)

Along the western side of the river are 5 lakes which are known for manatee sightings: 2 small followed by 3 large, in that order as you travel north. There is one main village along the river, Ingoueka, and my guide DeDe grew up there, so he knows the area well. DeDe works for Ibonga, a small NGO in Gamba that does sea turtle nest monitoring and environmental education in the schools.

The water levels are still low from the dry season, so the first two lakes looked almost like fields; tall grasses with narrow channels of water. The first of the larger lakes, Lac Gore, had a deep channel leading from the main river with a high mud embankment. The water will rise at least 10 feet in this upper part of the river in the height of the wet season. The water will overflow the banks and flood the forest, which then allows manatees to feed there, as well as on all the grasses on the lake beds that become submerged.

Entrance to Lac Gore (pronounced Gor-A, I don’t have a French keyboard to put the accent over the “e”)

We arrived at the village of Ingoueka and ate lunch, then went to meet the chief. He and his family told me manatees are plentiful in all the lakes here, but only seasonally. They arrive in October and leave in April as the water level falls. So this partially explains why we didn’t see any feeding sign on the grasses in the lakes. It seems I’m a bit too early to find them here, but these are the things you only learn by coming and talking to people and it’s great to see the habitat and familiarize myself with the area. We pitched our tents on the front porch of the hospital (which was very clean but didn’t seem to be in use), and as I predicted, it poured all night. Starting around 4am we were also treated to the chipping of thousands of bats coming to roost under the tin roof above us.

On Friday morning we continued north to Lac Mafoume, the second large lake. This one also has an entrance channel about 1 mile long leading in from the main river. Along this stretch Victor, the local manatee hunter, has his fishing camp, so we stopped in to talk to him. He was very friendly and was wearing a shirt that said Florida on it! Of course he has absolutely no idea where Florida is. Anyway, he had a lot of good information about manatee use of the lake, group sizes (he’s seen up to 10 individuals together), etc. He now only kills 1 per year, for the village festival in October. He sees them in all the lakes and also confirmed their seasonality. After talking with him and his family, we went up to the lake, which was about 2 miles long, placid and bordered by grasses everywhere. We saw 7 forest buffalo bathing in the lake.

Lake channel in front of the manatee hunter’s camp. You can see there are alot of fallen trees that the boat must be maneuvered around.

With Victor at his camp

Elephant footprint

Bathing buffalo. We could’ve gone closer, but I didn’t want to spook them.

The final lake was inaccessable because of fallen logs in the river, but I have a picture of the area now. When I asked people where the manatees go when they aren’t in the river, everyone said “to Sette Cama” (town in the northern end of the lagoon). Luckily, that’s where I’m headed next!

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