The rainy season arrived in Gabon with hypnotic, heavy drops that drummed on the tin roof. Downpours saturated the earth, forming reflecting pools in the garden. Leaves faced skyward, unfurling on their branches to catch the water like outstretched hands.
Afternoon clouds parted, so we walked to the beach behind our compound. The air smelled freshly washed. Kingfishers fanned their wings to dry.
“Elephants live over there,” I told Ramsay, pointing to the isthmus across the estuary.
“Really? Right there?” he gestured to the thin, blurry line of trees on the horizon.
I understood his confusion. Although the strip of land across the water looks fairly close, our house is nestled in a congested, urban area inhabited by a few bats and birds, but not by pachyderms.
“Yes, it’s Pongara National Park, accessible by boat. We’ll go there.”
I’d made the half-hour crossing across the Gabon Estuary only once before. It was a day trip with friends to the lovely Baie de Tortues resort, where a woman greeted us with a welcome drink and then gave us a tour of the property.
On the boardwalk, she stopped abruptly. “Une paonne,” she said, pointing. Rolling the word around in my mouth, whispering it slowly, pa-onne, I flipped through my mental Rolodex of French vocabulary and came up blank. Then I saw what she meant; a live peacock on the porch of a thatched-roof bungalow.
The vastly different landscape felt further away than the thirty-minute journey from home. Here, the sun danced across clean water that spilled onto unpolluted, powdery beaches. Palm fronds arched over the sand, casting long shadows like the arms of a ballerina.
We soaked in the salty sea until the scent of grilling meat and fish lured us to lunch.
Two months later, I crossed the estuary once more; this time with Brad and Ramsay. Cresting silvery-jade waves, our roofless motorboat rose and fell beneath an encroaching storm.
Maybe we should’ve wrapped our overnight satchels in a clean trash bag, I considered as I envisioned drenched clothes from the threatening skies hovering above. But the weather held, and minutes later, we sighed a breath of relief when the woolen wall receded.
The hosts of Pongara welcomed us into their spacious lodge, decorated with carved animals and tribal masks. Looking like a watercolor painting, the open-air, wooden structure blended into a backdrop of savanna grass, forest, and sea.
We were offered a late breakfast of croissants, mango, passion fruit, and Gouda cheese. The coffee was good and strong. When I commented on this, the chef brought out the bag from the kitchen, proud to show me the beans were African, from Cameroon.
The boys played mancala, a strategic game not unlike backgammon, that involves taking your opponent’s seed pods.
At the nearby lagoon where we were told, “There are crocodiles, but they are small and not offensive,” we kept vigilant just in case, stepping gingerly through the shade.
Inside our bungalow, the air conditioning unit fogged the nearby window. Beads of evaporation made slow trickles, like veins on the glass. An optical illusion formed; one window reflected in another, creating a nature collage.
On the sunny porch, it was hot. Ants were plentiful- on the ground, on the wall, on the lounge chairs. I gently brushed them in another direction and focused on the lovely bird calls and rhythmic waves.
On a beach walk, the birds were elusive to photograph, so I focused the lens instead on patterns of bark, designs in the sand, and watery reflections.
Beneath an abandoned, overturned barge, water lapped and clanged eerily against the rusty metal.
On an afternoon hike, birds, locusts, frogs, and crickets chattered simultaneously, adding to the mystique of trekking deeper into the shadowy wilderness. I swatted away a thick swarm of mosquitoes, grateful for anti-malarial meds.
A bird in the forest made the exact two-tone squeak of a rusty swing, momentarily transporting me to childhood.
Movement in the bushes on the far side of a field caught our eye. A baby elephant! The guide, Abdul, explained it wasn’t young; rather, forest elephants are smaller than the ones that roam across East Africa.
Abdul paused to show us tree sap from an Okome tree. The sap is flammable and can be used in villages as a torch. Its smoke is a natural mosquito repellent.
“It has a soul,” he said, patting the tree. “It takes our carbon dioxide and turns it into the oxygen we breathe. Nature gives us much.”
A monkey flung itself from a branch, its mischievous face changing from intently curious into a comical grin. I got a blurry shot from the camera lens, steamy from humidity. Chimpanzees screamed to one another in a faraway canopy.
We stopped to examine an elephant print and Ramsay found an iridescent beetle exoskeleton in the leaves.
After lunch, we kayaked through the mangroves to the mouth of the river where it touches the sea. Gnarly brown roots bent like fingers and clawed at the brackish water, creating mirror-like reflections. As a “goliath” heron glided over the river, it’s silhouette chased behind.
The next day, toting binoculars and cameras, we clamored into an ATV for a safari. The small truck chugged through muddy trails and over rough terrain. A breath caught in my throat as our tires crossed a rickety, wooden-plank bridge over a rushing river. We ducked to avoid vines dangling like thick, twisted ropes.
A clearing appeared. In the bright green grasses of the savanna, buffaloes stood with birds on their backs. A vulture lorded over the field from a barren tree, keeping a watchful eye on a leaping antelope.
Our overnight adventure ended too soon. As an unexpected gift before leaving Pongara, Ramsay found a discarded pinwheel. Under fair skies, it spun wildly in the wind like a celebration.