Mondah Forest

A beautiful rainforest experience is only a short drive up the coast from Libreville.

Between Libreville and Cap Estérias, Mondah Forest occupies approximately 10,000 hectaires of protected equatorial rainforest. Because of its proximity to the Libreville population, most mammals have been hunted out of existence, but the forest itself contains some magnificent stands of okoume, ozouga, alep and ilomba trees.

Students from schools in the Libreville area benefit from an environmental experience in Mondah Forest.

There are many hiking trails through the forest. Access and parking is along the route, at the sign for Bois des Geants entrance of Aboretum Raponda-Walker, between Libreville and Cap Estérias. The route is in very good condition, having been repaved recently. It is to your advantage to make arrangement before scheduling a visit. For a safe experience, a guide is required. Parcs Gabon administers the area.

Contact Anne Marie Ndong Obiang: amndongobiang@parcsgabon.ga, or Mathieu Ducroc, 07 98 29 75, email: mathieuducrocq@gmail.com to schedule a visit. Guides available by appointment include Fabrice Nzengue, tel: 05 57 71 36, and Narcisse Lembomba, tel: 04 69 49 73, and 02 14 63 84. There is no fee required to visit Mondah Forest, but if guides have facilitated a rewarding visit, a gratuity will be appreciated.

Future planning will include a canopy walk of several hundred meters between towering trees in the forest interior. Construction is possibly already underway, but will take several years to complete.  Nearby Cap Estérias is a pleasant, sleepy village worth a stop for a quick lunch or dinner at Ikenga Restaurant, located just off the main road through the village.

Guides from ANPN (Agence Nationale des parcs nationaux) work with botanists to classify trees in Mondah Forest.

Mondah Forest spills out to the Atlantic Ocean between Cap Santa Clara and Cap Estérias.

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Gorilla. Twice.

Hazy, soft lighting of dry season creates a more delicate rendering of tones in the forest.

The morning drive across Vera Plaines was cool, the hazy light of the dry season shifting the landscape to a palette of pastel blues and grays. Elephants, genets, and some kind of cat, larger than a domestic, have left their prints in the soft sand from the previous night. We puzzle over the cat tracks–young leopard? Golden cat? A mystery for now.

It is 8:30 when we finally arrive at the trailhead. Some unknown bird with a beautiful three-tone whistle calls from the forest edge. I haven’t heard this before. There is always something new to be seen or heard, and today is no exception.

It hasn’t rained for some time, and footprints from my last visit, though faint and pockmarked, are still visible in the sand along the trail. Sometime within the past 24 hours a herd of forest buffalo made a mess of the trail, tearing up the sand with their prints and leaving dung for us to avoid. The usual chimpanzee, gorilla, elephant and duiker prints were evident on the trail, and a recent set of leopard prints of impressive size follow the path. These are the first leopard prints I have seen on this trail in the few months I have been walking here.

Leopard prints, coming and going, in the sand on the track.

A Hinge-back tortoise eyes us with suspicion early on our trek. Had we been hunting, it would likely have ended up in a cooking pot. Deeper in the forest, Gianna spots a Galago along the trail. The agile little primate is off leaping through the trees before her camera can focus.

About 4 kilometers into the forest, Gianna feels the need for a bit of caffeine, and stops to pour a cup of tea from her thermos. The forest has been unusually quiet on this morning, and I can hear the metal “tink” of thermos to cup behind me. My attention is on a tree alongside the trail just ahead. A smallish tree ascends, tall and straight with no branches to a thick crown some 30 meters above the forest floor. I can hear a subtle rustling in the branches and what sounds like fruit dropping through the understory. Gianna becomes intrigued and leaves her tea to move in for a closer look. The canopy of this tree is exceedingly thick, with clusters of buttery-yellow fruits hanging heavy. Suddenly we see a hairy arm reach out from the leaves and return with a fruit.

A gorilla feeding on fruits in a tree canopy, shortly before he realizes we are watching.

Both of us whisper under our breath “gorilla!?” Hard to believe a gorilla could be so close and not have seen our approach. Eventually he shifts further out on a branch and his head comes into view. He is looking in our direction while sucking the flesh from a fruit. Within seconds he sees us. A scream shatters the stillness of the forest, not human, but somewhere between the squealing of a pig and the braying of a donkey. He explodes across the canopy, leaping through branches of a neighboring tree to forest floor, gone in the blink of an eye. We are left in an adrenaline fizz, wondering what was dream and what was reality. Taking a few moments to recompose, Gianna retrieves her tea and we slowly continue down the track, scanning the treetops with a new appreciation for how well concealed such a beast can be.

A fine mist begins to settle through the forest, hard to see without looking to the sky, making the trail on the clay hills slippery. The forest has grown older here, massive trees tower above and dominate the canopy. The enveloping mist increases to a light rain, and soon the forest is overcome with the constant drip-plop sound of water falling through leaves. A few butterflies take refuge beneath vegetation, popping out as we walk by. We find shelter below the canopy and enjoy a quick lunch before beginning our hike back to trailhead. The rain and accompanying sound-effect diminish our ability to see or hear wildlife in the area, and we return in quiet conversation. Passing the fruiting “gorilla tree” we agree to make a few pictures of the fruit for identification later. Gianna stops to make a note and I continue to search for a vantage to see the fruiting canopy better. Shortly into our quest, this same canopy explodes once again. A screaming, obviously bothered gorilla shimmies down the trunk, crashing off through the undergrowth. Again. We watch in disbelief, frustrated with our careless (and unprepared) assumption that he wouldn’t return.

Papilio butterfly at the side of the trail.

The rain is diminishing, and butterflies begin to appear in the freshened air above the trail. The intoxicating smell of lush vegetation has been revived and released in the brief rain. We strain to hear any shuffling and scampering in the forest, but the crunch of leaves has been dampened by the rain. A few Yellow-billed Turacos begin a cascade of call and response across kilometers of forest, and a Black-casqued Hornbill announces his presence with a rusty-hinge call from a nearby treetop. Our return through paradise, though never dull, is without further excitement.

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chimpanzees in the forest

foggy sunrise on N’dougou Lagoon

We were on N’Dougou Lagoon shortly after sunrise, on our way to Sette Cama village to meet Kassa, our guide for a morning forest walk. The forest was interspersed with savannas, where in the past we have spotted elephants and buffaloes. Crossing the third savanna of our walk, Smithsonian interns Philip, Caitlin, with Lisa and myself, following Kassa, stopped to listen to a distant wailing series of calls in the forest before us. It was difficult to tell whether primate or bird. We entered the forest and the wailing resumed, and with addition of a few hoots, we realized it was chimpanzees we were hearing. They were now close enough to divert our walk, and Kassa led us through the thick forest toward the chimpanzees. Of course they heard us coming and fled before we were able to get a glimpse. We turned back, but something held my attention for a moment longer.

A chimpanzee in the canopy of a large fruiting tree near Loango National Park.

A slight rustling in the large tree overhead sounded suspiciously like a primate. Thinking any monkeys would have left the area well ahead of approaching chimpanzees, we continued to listen while searching the branches. Two chimpanzees suddenly blew their cover as they realized they were trapped and proceeded to scream bloody murder from the canopy. Receiving no response from their departed brothers, they reconsidered their strategy. Quietly shimming down to the forest floor, they stole away through the underbrush. One of the chimpanzees, not clear on where we were standing, ambled along in our direction, popping out of the vegetation a few meters in front of us. The look of astonishment on his face (and ours, no doubt) was priceless as he realized his blunder and hastily galloped away through the forest.

Philip and Caitlin follow Kassa through a swamp in the chimpanzee forest.

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Mandrill

A galago bounded across the road at broken bridge, probably coming down from the trees for water. Resembling a plump gray squirrel, the little primate froze momentarily facing the car in the middle of the track before better judgement prevailed, and it scampered back into the trees and disappeared.

Mandrill digging into the earth at the side of the road.

I had just started my walk into the forest when a Blue-headed wood dove cruised into a tangle at the edge of the trail. This was a new sighting. The ruddy-colored bird with a steel-blue head paced along a branch looking agitated before fluttering off into deep forest. Crowned monkeys, their golden flanks and tail reflecting the sun’s rays, leapt into the air between trees, weightless, scrambling up the closest liana to retreat through the canopy. Countless Black-casqued Hornbills sailed overhead on hissing wings, constantly squawking amongst themselves. A clan of White-crested Hornbills swooped through the forest in their usual silence. First one, then the next would vault from tree limb, sailing through the air like on a trapeze, looping down through the understory before gliding back up to the canopy. They were following the retreating Crowned monkeys, on a hunt for insects and reptiles disturbed in the ruckus of departure. A small flock of  Rufous-bellied Helmet-shrikes were busy in the canopy above the trail, in the midst of a dazzling melody of buzzing, whistling, clacking, all the while spinning through the treetops from perch to perch. They reveal a black and white pattern in their wings that flickers like a strobelight when they take flight. It was turning into a brilliant day for spotting wildlife. The plethora of chimpanzee and gorilla prints along the trail were amazing, including a set of gorilla prints where a silverback appeared to be walking upright. What a sight that must have been.

 It wasn’t until late that afternoon that I saw, turning a corner, what looked to be a large bird at the edge of the trail 20 meters before me. I didn’t know what else to think as I froze in my tracks in front of this gyrating blue motion with what resembled a pink neck and head thrown back. My first thought is a strutting cock guineafowl of some kind in a courtship dance. The colors might have been right, but the shape, not so convincing. It took several seconds before the blur of fur began to take shape of the backside of some primate digging in the earth. A mandrill! What an incredibly fortunate sighting. And to see it while still unaware of my presence. It must have been my father’s guidance long ago that brought me so close to this encounter, telling me how to step quietly while walking through the woods of my Minnesota youth. “Roll your foot from the outside in, don’t thump your heel” as he would demonstrate so effortlessly. I quietly knelt to watch the activity, not sure what might happen should the mandrill turn in surprise. He was cautious, constantly stopping to scan down trail. Perhaps he could smell that I had passed by earlier in the day, maybe he was picking up on my scent now. Then all of a sudden, he caught me in a sideways glance and without any hint of surprise or alarm, vanished without a sound….

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deep forest

Trail leading deep into the forest.

The trail comes alive at the edge of the forest, where the savannas of Vera Plaines crush against the trees. You can drive no further, for the track turns to eroded clay, deep crevices full of shadow, sand washing out to form flat pans on the bottoms of  rolling hills and valleys.

Gorilla knuckle-print left in the wet sand along the trail.

We search between fallen leaves for prints of chimpanzees, gorillas, duikers and elephants where they press into moist sand following recent rain. It rains here often. The hills beyond N’Dougou Lagoon wring the sea-clouds of their moisture as they gather, rising on heated thermals above forests carpeting the Doudou Mountains.

Bark of a red tree covered in lichens and moss.

This trail we walk today was once a logging track cut into forest to topple the tallest, straightest Okoume trees, the stumps that remain of the selective extraction now covered with mosses and ferns. Butterflies dart along the track, clusters of white Larinopods congregate on feces left by the mangabey, a pair of metallic Euphaedras court in trailside leaf litter, a solitary orange Cymothoe peers down from high in the sun-warmed leaves. Several elephants tear into vegetation a few meters off the trail, their fanning ears and softly glowing ivory points fragmented through the undergrowth. A touraco’s blue feather lies among darkened leaves carpeting the forest floor like some piece of cobalt sky broken loose from above.

Kilometer after kilometer, the forest becoming more wild, more pristine; what appears at a distance to be a view onto savanna reveals an overlook from a ridge above a green sea of rainforest canopy. Monkeys conceal themselves above our heads as we pass beneath trees towering 50 meters toward the heavens. Lush epiphytes and emerald-glittering ferns hang languid from lianas tethered beneath the canopy. And everywhere the crickets, the cicadas, the hum of bees wafting down from some flowering canopy hidden from view.

Lianas guarding the buttresses of a massive tree.

After several hours of walking we happen upon a hunting camp. A crude construction of poles and branches, the charred remains of a long-dead fire above which rests, on a platform for smoking meats, the polished skull of some primate, now stilled, silent as death. We linger for a moment, wondering what the forest must feel like under cover of night, barely illuminated beneath starlight dimmed through the towering canopy. Beginning our trek back out of forest, we are arrested by the screams of a gorilla family resounding deep within the forest beyond the reach of today. Likely too far away to be reacting to threat of our presence, we are hopeful, closer to an encounter, and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck tremble with anticipation.

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Graphium

A flash of electric blue careens across the laterite roadbed. How it can see where it is going in the midst of a wild and jagged flightpath is beyond my grasp. A few seconds later I am surprised to see Graphium policenes resting quietly in the grass at the edge of the roadway. Highly unusual, for I rarely see these butterflies sit still. I manage to make a few photographs while approaching slowly, slowly, until suddenly it is struck by another white butterfly from behind, and off they go like confetti in the wind.

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Vera Plaines, flora+fauna

A Gabon coucal along a roadside entering Vera Plaines.

Jan studies a tree held captive under ropes of lianas in the forest.

In a velvety-rich cloak of orange, Acraea consanguinea comes to rest along a forest track.

A cluster of Cupidopsis cissus butterflies congregate on a mineral-encrusted root exposed on a savanna.

An impressive tree towers over Jan in a Vera Plaines forest.

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Onzan tree, Vera Plaines

Years ago, newly arrived in Gabon, I rode my bicycle to this trailhead and wandered through a most amazing landscape until waylaid by a torrential rainstorm. I sought refuge under this tree for what seemed like hours as the rains flooded the trail below.

Onzan tree, Odyendyea gabonensis, along a forest trail in Vera Plaines.

The oppressive atmosphere, thick with humidity and sweltering heat was transformed as the storm passed. A refreshed breeze danced beneath columns of rising steam. Birds high above filled the forest with melody, with crickets in chorus below. Today, when I see this tree, I think of that day from the past, and I feel like I am back in the company of a good friend.

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in memory, Anne Waerness-Vold

Lisa lights a candle in Vera Plaines for Anne.

A herd of 20 buffalo thundered across the savanna before us as Lisa and I crossed the forests and savannas of Vera Plaines. Our destination was the stunning overlook view across N’Dougou Lagoon to the mountains of Moukalaba-Doudou Park.

Camping back in August of last year was a special memory. The cool night of dry season gave way to the soft light of a hazy sunrise. The quiet of our morning in paradise was soon shattered by the buzz of motorbikes, quads and cars as friends ascended the distant hills to converge on our camp. Luckily we had been expecting company, among them Tormod on his bike and Anne arriving in the comfort of Toyota, bringing a delicious breakfast to share.

A candle in celebration of Anne Waerness-Vold and her time among friends in Gabon.

Lisa and I thought it would be a fitting place to light a candle in honor of Anne, who passed away on Saturday in Muscat, Oman. Our sympathy goes out to Tormod, and sons Mats, Andre, and Aleksander. We keep Anne in our memories and celebrate the time Anne spent in the company of friends here in Gabon.

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herd of buffalo

I could see a piece of light brown, looking out of place at the edge of the forest. Heading back after a check of my camera traps, I was crossing a narrow savanna on Vera Plaines. With nowhere to hide, I sat down in the tall grass and watched as a bull and large female buffalo browsed onto the savanna. Soon after, a scuffle of three juveniles erupted out of the forest in a rocking gait. Two females and a calf followed. Eight buffaloes in total, browsing on the savanna before me, 120 meters away and apparently unaware of my presence as a light breeze put me in a downwind advantage.

A herd of Forest buffalo meander onto a savanna in Vera Plaines.

Soon enough they were having a lie-down after meandering to within 80 meters, barely noticing a troop of chimpanzees in a howling riot down the distant forested valley. The bull rose to his feet as some creature snuffled through vegetation crowding the savanna, but whatever it was moved back into the forest.

The large female began to take an interest in my silhouette crouching in her line of sight and rose to have a better look. She began to approach, more out of curiosity than confrontation, with several of the juveniles following in half-interest. At 60 meters, I began to feel exposed and decided to rise and move off perpendicular to their approach. No sooner, and the whole herd jumped to their feet and made their getaway run back to the forest, the grunting and crash of branches defining their course until they faded from hearing, crickets and grasshoppers filling in the aural void.

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