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Travel involves trust. Travellers put themselves in the hands of professional strangers, for a fee, expecting safe passage. Those professionals open their arms to assist the travellers, assuming sensible behaviour, in return for payment.
In developing nations, where infrastructure, let alone tourist infrastructure, is scant, never more so has the need for trust and safe passage been required.
Alas, at some point, such good fortune was bound to run out.
Mikongo Vision, as seen in the Bradt travel guide and elsewhere, is a one man operation run by Ghislain Ngonga Ndjibadi offering attractive sounding trips deep into Lopé National Park.
Given that he his but one man and often deep in the forest, his ability to communicate is sporadic. I requested to take his standard three day package, based at Mikongo Camp, some weeks in advance of my arrival.
Ghislain required full payment in advance, due to the relative expense of acquiring all the food and arranging transportation, with the risk of a client not showing up. I put my trust in him and tried to transfer the money.
Bank transfers to Africa are a tricky thing and I failed to get the requisite funds to his account. His rare appearances on email resulted in a bizarre night in Libreville where I was peppered with missed calls from different numbers and emails into the night.
02:11 “Bonjour Stuart, OK, demain matin a 5h30 je vais envoyé un guide pour prendre de l’argent avec toi a l’hôtel ok. Ghislain”
Hello Stuart, OK, tomorrow morning at 5:30 am I will send a guide to take money with you at the hotel ok. Ghislain
I stirred at around 03:30 and replied, a little grumpy.
03:38 “Fine, I can pay you in GBP in full but I will not be out of bed and ready to pay your guide until 06:30. How much (in GBP) are you expecting, if I am paying the Lopé hotel directly? Thanks, Stuart”
To my surprise, a child turned up at Ghislain’s request at 06:30. I paid him £300 in cash to which he complained he had no money for a ride home. So, I gave him a generous fistful of West African CFA notes to boot.
A few days later, despite having taken the overnight train to Lopé, I ensured I was up and ready for a prompt departure with Ghislain.
07:51, “Hi Ghislain, I am here at the Lopé Hotel. Can you give me an update on what the plan is, please?”
08:33, “Bonjour je suis entrain de venir vers toi pour le programme. A toute. Ghislain.”
“Hello, I am on my way to you for the programme. Ghislain”
08:36 “OK, see you shortly.”
10:00 No sign of him. So, I got a lift to the station, to change my train ticket.
The average arrival times of the Trans-Gabon train into Libreville at the end of the journey are so delayed, that I risked missing my mid-morning flight home. So, I intended to leave a day earlier but hoped to have a full and enjoyable 24hrs or so before departing Lopé.
I had paid Mikongo Vision for three days of food, water, transport and guiding and was, by now, down to only one day with them. So, I was hopeful that the day would be full, action packed, with as much as we could squeeze in.
Having waited some 30 minutes to change my ticket, in walked the lean and relaxed figure of Ghislain, who introduced himself. I explained my desire to leave a night earlier but to fit in as much as I could.
And so we proceeded to wait. The locals at the train station had some significant business to transact with the solitary ticket office attendant. Oddly, I think they were settling up their electricity bills for themselves, friends and family. The process was slow and involved much bureaucracy and forms filled in triplicate.
Ghislain was happily holding court with the locals. After an hour of waiting, I implored Ghislain to assist. Could he, as my fully paid up guide for that day and the next two, see if I could quickly change train ticket in between the laborious electricity payments.
Somewhat surprised by my call to arms, he asked the ticket office attendant, who had been perfectly clear of my intentions from the moment of my arrival an hour ago.
“Come back later,” was the response: “the computer isn’t working.” A wasted hour. Oh well. I asked Ghislain what the plan for the day was. He recommended that I rest up, as it was nearly lunchtime, and I could have something to eat the Lopé Hotel.
I was a bit perplexed. Was he not going to take me to somewhere for lunch? Had he not bought food for the trip? Was there not a car laden with supplies and equipment, ready for our three day adventure? He obfuscated marvelously. Everything was unreachable somewhere else. He was a master of disappointment.
I really did not wish to idle away my limited time in Lopé, especially when I had paid for access to the reportedly knowledgeable eco-guide that was Ghislain. I reluctantly accepted his suggestion and asked him for a lift back to the Lopé Hotel. No car, sorry. Now I was perturbed and perplexed. How had he expected to take me to the far reaches of the National Park without access to a vehicle?
No clear answer. Instead, Ghislain showed me his mobile phone was on a few percent of charge, which meant he had to disappear off somewhere and would be uncontactable for a while.
As a parting gesture, he suggested that I give him my prized train ticket to Libreville. He would come back to the train station personally to change it for tonight’s train. A helpful gesture that I accepted, with a modicum of concern, as without it, I was not going anywhere; neither Libreville nor my flight to London.
So, I walked back to the hotel across open parkland where herds of buffalo and elephant roamed. Not the safest travel advice I have ever been given from a tour guide, I might add.
I ate lunch at the hotel, at my own cost, which was very pleasant and likely the best food around. The experience, though, lacked the authenticity on which Mikongo Vision sells itself. In fact, the lunch – like most of my time in Lopé Natinal Park – lacked any involvement from Mikongo Vision whatsoever.
Restless, I was kicking my heels and keen to do something. Perhaps a bit premature, I messaged him:
13:00 “Hi Ghislain, Are you enroute to the hotel? I’m keen to do something this afternoon. Thanks, Stuart”
13:42 “Je suis encore a la maison, après je viens vous chercher pour le safari et a la gare pour le billet de train. Ghislain”
“I am still at home, after I come to get you for the safari and at the station for the train ticket. Ghislain”
13:43 “Thanks, what time should I expect you? Stuart”
14:53 “Any update for me? When will you arrive? Thanks, Stuart”
16:25 “Did you manage to change the train ticket to tonight? Thanks, Stuart”
Sensing Ghislain was not going to turn up, I paid to join the standard Lopé Hotel safari. We drove down towards the station but could not cross the tracks due to a freight train blocking the crossing point. We sat and chatted. The guides knew Ghislain and his reputation: knowledgeable in the forest but unreliable outside of it.
We then saw what was surely his lean frame clamber through a gap in the parked freight train carriages and walk the dusty track towards the hotel. Surely that was him, clutching my train ticket. Whomever it was clocked eyes on me, on us, in the safari jeep ahead of him and promptly turned right into a field of tall long grasses and wild animals. We chuckled nervously as to that indivudals fate in the long grasses. The freight train soon moved off and we continued on.
Though Ghislain had my train ticket in his possession, I heard nothing more from him.
20:36 “Hi Ghislain, I’m not sure what happened today but can you at least give me my train ticket back, please? I should be at the station from about midnight onwards. Thanks, Stuart”
22:31 “Pas encore, mais dans le train oui, ont se vois e gare tout de suite. Ghislain”
Not yet, but in the train yes, have to see the train station right away. Ghislain
Presumably, he was referring to my earlier question about changing the train ticket.
I booked a further full night at the Lopé Hotel though left, with a few others, for the station at midnight.
As I stood on the platform at Lopé station, asking local staff for reassurance that I could buy a new ticket on board, up sauntered Ghislain. My ticket sat in his top pocket. After my asking directly, he handed it back to me. I asked for some form of refund on the £300 but he said no, it had all been spent preparing for the tour I did not take.
I did not have the energy or inclination to argue. I had nothing more to say to him. With that, he wandered off to chat to a couple of other European travellers, as nonchalant as ever.
You can say, “This is Africa,” and, “It was bound to happen at some point,” but I remain sorely disappointed by what happened with Ghislain and Mikongo Vision. There are some glowing reports of him on the internet as well as some that are far closer to my disappointing experience.
When the train pulled in at around 2am, Ghislain approached the guard and confirmed with him that my ticket for tomorrow would be accepted on the train tonight. The guard said yes and with that I boarded. Another professional stranger, but at least the train guard would be able to provide me safe onward passage.
For reference, the website of Mikongo Vision is http://mikongo-vision.info/ and, as you may have gathered, I do not recommend his services.