Some call them hairy elephants, some African yetis. And plenty of the people you meet in Gabon will claim to have seen these giant, shaggy, orange-haired behemoths yet none has a picture. But the existence of a hitherto unclassified species of giant pachyderm residing deep in the country may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. The West African nation is one of the last tropical wildernesses 80% of it is covered by the world's second biggest rain forest and is home to around 64,000 elephants, 20,000 gorillas and 320 different species of orchid. Scientists regularly discover new species of plants, fish and animals here and new behavior. A few years ago, National Geographic photographer Mike Fay was astonished to observe hippos surfing in the sea.
Until now, Gabon's economy has been almost entirely dependent on oil and logging. But Fay's epic wilderness films persuaded the government of the virtues of ecotourism. In 2002, it set aside 10% of the country as a national park, and tours are already running.
Expect serviceable jungle camps or well-appointed tents rather than luxury. And also expect one of the most pristine wildlife experiences in Africa. From November to March, visitors will see turtles on the beach; from April to June, the lack of vegetation makes it easier to spot gorillas and chimpanzees; July to September is the time migrating whales appear offshore; and there's unbeatable sport fishing in Iguéla Lagoon from September to April. Nearly all tours run through Operation Loango, Fay's company, which plows its profits back into conservation. www.operation-loango.com