“Where the h*** is that?” was the first comment I got on Facebook when I mentioned my upcoming trip to Libreville and Gabon. “It’s in West Africa, right?” others asked me. Except for an American arts collector living in Mlolongo, few people seemed to know much about the country at all.
With its population of 1,5 million people, this small, oil-rich West African state takes a laidback attitude towards publicity and tourism: A business visa will set you back with $200 ($240 for tourists), and it has to be obtained in advance from a consulate, whose contact information in the Nairobi case , were a well-kept secret. With its oil wealth, the country seems to be in no hurry to attract more visitors than necessary.
After sorting out the visa, the remaining arrangements were the same as for any trip abroad. Like many African countries, Gabon actually requires a vaccination card. Unlike many others, they actually check if you have it. Those travelling without one, will have a delightful encounter with the airport vaccination services – an experience that will set them back with XAF 15000 (USD 30).
My first impression of Libreville was that of a clean and well-kept town, with nice, decent roads, and modest, yet modern buildings in the central areas.
The Gabonese will complain how jams are horrible and that people drive like crazy. For someone used to Nairobi, that is an exaggeration! Compared to most African capital cities, Libreville is calm, orderly and seemingly well-governed.
In Libreville, the menace of minibus taxis, the scourge of many African cities, has been successfully phased out. This contributes significantly to a somewhat orderly traffic situation. Travelers may however get surprised by the fact that most taxis operate on a sharing basis, so don’t think you’ll have a taxi for yourself unless you’ve specifically agreed so with the driver, at a premium price.
Being a coastal town, Libreville has a rich variety of seafoods to offer. Most of the best restaurants in town are concentrated on the Montagne Sainte, where, among others, you can find the only, yet quite classy sushi restaurant in town.
Le Meridien hotel, one of the best in town, has a nice poolside restaurant by the sea, where the waves and the fresh sea breeze offer a perfect atmosphere for a nice seafood meal. The grilled prawns are highly recommendable.
That Libreville does not match Paris, London or Dubai when it comes to shopping, is an understatement. However, the Mbolo mall offers a good, modern supermarket, and some good quality shops for electronics and clothes (including a Hugo Boss store).
The Marché Artisanal offers a wide selection of local handicrafts and souvenirs, some of them high-quality. This is a good place to buy souvenirs, however, not cheap ones. Remember to bargain hard, as the starting offer you will get, is likely to be at least twice to three times the right price.
Unless you like getting disappointed, shed your expectations for airport shopping when leaving Libreville. They do have a few single malt whiskys, and some of the standard booze you’ll find in any airport tax-free shop. Some seriously overpriced perfumes are also available.
All in all, Libreville was a pleasant experience. There is only so much one can do when passing by a town for a few days on a short business trip. In any case, I will make sure to see more the next time I visit Gabon.