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‘These eclairs are fresh?’ I ask in faltering French, pointing at the meal-sized pastries bulging with piped cream and topped with a thick coating of chocolate. ‘Of course, sir!’ comes the reply from the patient proprietor. An odd question to ask, perhaps, but then I hadn’t expected to stumble upon a Parisian-style patisserie on the Atlantic coast of Central Africa. Often claimed by guides to be more French than France itself, Gabon still maintains tight links with its former colonial ruler with many of its cultural aspects - from its main language of business to its cuisine - stemming from that relationship. One obvious exception is the Transgabonaise, or trans-Gabon railway, which dates to the years after the country’s independence in the 1960s. Stretching for 670 km across Gabon, it was the largest building site in the world at the time of its construction and came close to bankrupting the country.
Gabon, a country I am not afraid to admit I knew almost nothing about prior to visiting, is one of Africa's lesser known success stories. Straddling the equator on its western coast, Gabon is one of the most stable countries on the continent. Abundant petroleum and manganese reserves and stable institutions have seen an influx of foreign capital, and Gabon now boasts Africa's fourth highest GPD per capita. In the 1990's a new constitution allowing for multi-party democracy was adopted. At least some of the country's resource income was spent building infrastructure (including quite elaborate stadiums), expanding health care and education and improving the lives of the Gabonese people, which has seen Gabon climb to boast a UN Human Development Index score similar to that of Indonesia and significantly higher than its neighbours.
In Africa, no nation can be simply categorised as a success or not. Whilst on paper Gabon preforms well, there remain issues. Whilst a new democratic constitution was adopted in 1995, elections have been maligned by accusations of voter fraud, by opposition party boycotts and more recently by violence. A referendum in 2003 removed term limits and prescribed Omar Bongo, a veteran of almost 40 years at the time, the presidency for life. When Bongo passed away in 2009, his son Ali Bongo Ondimba was elected. Ondimba was re-elected in August 2016 in elections marred by irregularities, arrests, human rights violations and post-election violence. Gabon's relationship with France has deteriorated significantly following a French led corruption investigation into the Bongo families assets. After Ondimba was rumoured to have suffered a stroke in 2018 the Military staged a coup. While Gabon’s GPD has benefited greatly from its oil and manganese reserves, in 2019 Gabon’s unemployment rate was estimated to be over 20%, one of the highest in the world. According to the World Inequality Database in 2019 Gabon's top 10% account for over 40% of the national income, whilst the bottom 50% account for only 15%. Gabon is a success story - it is safe and, compared to its neighbours prosperous - but there is still room to grow.
On first impression, Libreville, Gabon's palm fringed beach adjacent capital that is home to just under a million citizens is clean and well kept. Streets are well maintained (by African standards). The drive from the airport along the new divided ride gives an impression of modernity - the road, lined with luxurious villas, glass clad buildings and luxury hotels was somewhat unexpected. The boulevard follows the beach into the city centre where people play soccer and relax - people engaging in recreation in my experience is a sign that a country is doing better than a lot, especially in this region.
After exploring the Bord de Mer, the city's main seaside promenade (at times forgetting I was not on on an Eastern European Rivera) I was interested to learn that Libreville's African heart isn't hard to find and not long after arriving and recovering I found myself exploring one of the city's street markets. Both aspects of Gabon are easy to see - the oil wealth is unmistakable, but so unfortunately is the poverty. Libreville is a safe city to explore, and I was welcomed just about everywhere I ventured.
Libreville is interesting, but the reason I've travelled all the way to Gabon isn't to relax on the beach - it is to ride one of Africa's most interesting trains - the Transgabonaise - from Libreville to inland to mineral rich Franceville. So, the next day I was excited to, in broken French, ask to be driven to "Gare Owendo". We drive out of the centre of Libreville, away from the villas of the oil rich and along the coast. Africa returns to the road with motorbikes and stores appearing with increasing frequency. My taxi continues driving along the Bord de Mer until the city fades into the new port area near the railway station - which is impossible to miss in its distinctive SETRAG (Société d'Exploitation du Transgabonais - the train operator) yellow and blue livery.
The 669km Transgabonaise route is one I've always wanted to ride - it crosses the equator, runs through some of the dense equatorial jungle that covers three quarters of Gabon and stops remote villages as it makes its way from the coast to the vast Gabonese hinterland. I'll be venturing well off the beaten path disembarking in Lopé to experience Gabon's largest national park before continuing to Franceville. The Transgabonais has no Colonial history. A narrow gauge railway never snuck its way into the jungle to be left to decay. Instead, it was constructed in 1987 to transport ore from the vast inland deposits to the coast for export.
Despite arriving almost two hours before departure to ensure a ticket, it seems that most of Libreville's residents have already congregated at the station. Porters in orange florescent vests carry luggage on their heads towards the gated platform, while others use what little floor space remains in the station to seal bags and battered cardboard boxes with tape before they’re checked by train staff. When an announcement rises above the hubbub to declare that there will be no restaurant car on this evening’s overnight service no one so much as flinches. I hunt down a baguette of unspecified ‘meat’ and a bag of imported chips as I decide to join the huddle of people amassing around the entrance to the platform, the long line of refurbished German-built carriages, painted in SETRAG's distinctive blue and yellow visible beyond. I'd done my research but didn't expect to see a train that could well have pulled out of Paris's Gare du Nord. The gleaming, newly refurbished German carriages would be at home on any western European railway. Tonight I'm taking the local - the Omnibus L’Equateur - for the first part of my journey on the railway - the six or so hour journey to Lopé. I always relish the chance to take the local - you meet people that you don't on an express. The unexpected stops, often bypassed by premium expresses, give opportunities to connect with the people that depend on the line. The Omnibus L’Equateur is no exception.
I somehow get funnelled to the front of the slowly shifting group. Only one person at a time is permitted through the narrow gap between the metal gates by the tough-looking policeman checking tickets. I clamber up the steep metal steps of the closest carriage with an open door to find my specified seat number. The train is still largely empty.