By Hannes Vorster
IF you are anything like me and have an insatiable urge to fish wild and remote waters, to create your own magic, then a trip to Gabon may be for you.
Growing up in Matatiele, I knew no other holidays than fishing in the surf, from the rocks in the remote parts of the Transkei coast. There is something special about shore fishing — I find it more challenging catching large fish from the shore than from a boat. However, after my family and I moved to Abu Dhabi 15 years ago, I spent more time fishing offshore even though I still use every opportunity I get to do some rock and surf fishing.
Over the years I’ve done a fair bit of travel to Accra in Ghana for work, and even though I never got the chance to fish there I was intrigued about stories of large billfish doing the “Atlantic Migration” between the east coast of America and West Africa. However, what excited me even more were the stories about catching tarpon in the surf in Angola and Gabon.
Gabon — officially the Gabonese Republic — may not be on many people’s radar, but this west African country is progressive and extremely tourist friendly.
A while back I met up with a group of friends who I often fish with locally in the UAE, and they told me about trip they did to Gabon in 2019. Listening to their stories and seeing the photos had me lit up like a sailfish chasing a teaser! Of course that went straight onto my bucket list, and when my old university mate Ross Urquhart from Ballito suggested I join him on a trip to Setté Cama Camp in Gabon, there was absolutely no hesitation.
We quickly made up the required group of eight with our tickets booked for February 2021. Of course Covid put a spanner in the works and our trip was eventually delayed by a whole year. The next mission was finding new dates that would work with the tides, seasons and work commitments, but fortunately the tarpon season in Gabon only ends at the end of April and March 2022 worked for everyone. Even more special was the fact that our new dates coincided with the school holidays, and I was able to take my youngest son (a very keen and able fisherman) with me.
Some folks say the destination is the the most important feature of a trip, others say the journey or the company are more important. Well in this case, I can truly say that it has been a combination of all the above.
Our group of eight eager anglers consisted of AJ Pretorius and his father Bertus (Springbok freshwater fisherman), Werner Rooseboom, Carl Herbst, Riaan Botha, Eugene Venter, my son Liam and me.
I have never prepared as much for any fishing trip as I did for this one; there were just so many things that did not fall into the remit of a “normal” fishing trip. I guess the remoteness accounts for much of that, but the type of lures, the gear, the conditions, the logistics, the weather, the water colour and the uncommon species all made for a unique planning experience.
Travelling to Setté Cama Camp is part of the excitement. The logistics around Covid played a part in that, but getting a group of people from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein, all to meet up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for onward travel to Libreville in Gabon was challenging to say the least.
The main routes to Libreville seem to be via Addis Ababa, Istanbul and Paris. From Libreville there are weekly helicopter flights between Port Gentil (smaller airport in Libreville) and Gamba, and depending on availability there may be an option to make use of the Presidential flight (ATR 72 twin-engine turboprop). The other alternative is to use the military Pumas which could take you straight to Setté Cama Camp.
Anglers thinking of going there need to understand that none of these options is ever guaranteed. This is Africa, and one needs to be prepared for logistical changes and challenges at short notice.
The most reliable of these three choices are the helicopter flights, but then the amount of gear you can take is greatly limited. There are for example restrictions on the length of rods, but if you’re stuck the camp has all the required gear available for rent and it’s top quality.
From Gamba, there are two options to get to the Setté Cama Camp — either by boat down the scenic Ndogo River with sightings of elephant, crocodiles, hippos, monkeys and an abundance of bird species, via the bouncy 4×4 drive through the rain forest with sightings of various game species including red riverine hogs, forest sitatunga and numerous forest duikers.
I have used both options and found them both equally adventurous and rewarding.
If you are lucky, you may even see chimpanzees, lowland gorillas or forest buffalo. The area is also world famous for its unique birds, with a chance to see vermiculated fishing owls, chocolate-backed kingfishers and white-crested tiger herons amongst many others.
In the sixteenth century Setté Cama was a major European colonial sea port trading in timber and ivory. Long declined, the village is now home to a museum and an airstrip. The Setté Cama Camp lies on the edge of the Loango National Park (aka “Africa’s Last Eden” and one of the world’s best wildlife destinations) and on the peninsula between the Ndogo Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean.
Perfectly placed on one of the longest and wildest stretches of untouched coastline on the African continent and alongside a massive estuary system, this combination offers the wild-at-heart saltwater fisherman an opportunity to target many unique species of West Africa, with both spin and fly tackle. The experience is complemented by Africa’s most pristine tropical rain forest that creates the backdrop to a one-of-a-kind saltwater fishing experience. It is hard to put into words how special and unique Setté Cama really is.
Accommodation in the camp takes the form of rustic chalets with twin bed configuration, each equipped with its own toilet and hot shower. It is not a five-star lodge experience, but the camp is comfortable and guests will want for nothing more. Meals are enjoyed in the main living area, which includes a stocked bar and a deck overlooking the estuary.
The deck area is where you spend most of your time if you’re not sleeping or fishing. Here you can relax at night, take in the local wildlife and watch the awe-inspiring African sunset before you get your head down, just to be woken up by the sound of the African fish eagle, ready for the next day’s adventure!
One of the wildlife highlights is the local elephant population. Elephants regularly enter the Setté Cama camp and are seen on most days while travelling to and from the beach.
Guests at Setté Cama also have the opportunity to experience guided walks through Loanga National Park with an abundance of African wildlife on show. Gabon has also been described as “the land of the surfing hippos” after a National Geographic photographer captured photos of hippos playing in the ocean just off the beach in Loango National Park.
When we finally arrived at camp we were welcomed with a cold beverage by the friendly African Waters hosts and soon started preparing for our first trip out into the estuary later that afternoon. The air was vibrating with our excitement.
Soon everyone was showcasing their latest kit and the expensive lures they believed would catch the biggest fish. The next few hours were filled with laughter and fishing stories of the ones that got away and those which were not so lucky but got released anyway.
This trip is all about targeting species in the estuary from the boat or from the shore with medium to large spinning or flyfishing gear. There is an abundance of large and aggressive gamefish, all eager to attack a well-presented lure or a well-fished fly. Species such as longfin- and crevalle jacks, giant African threadfin, colossal Cubera snapper, Guinean barracuda, sand shark, Senegal kob and tropical garrick are all found here.
Giant African threadfin are one of the main trophy fish in Gabonese waters. They are very strong and can grow to well over 50kg in these waters. These fish will strike a lure or plug, but can also be caught on bait. The more rain the better, as they prefer the fresh tannin-stained water that flows from the river mouth into the sea.
And then of course there is the jackpot — giant tarpon. This is one of the only destinations in the world where it is possible to target these iconic fish from the beach on spinning gear, and the only one where you do it in the company of forest elephants, buffalo and gorillas.
It is not uncommon to hook 200 lb-plus tarpon, but the added challenge of trying to land it in the middle of the night during a tropical rainstorm is the ultimate test of angler and equipment. Not to forget the abundance of Zambezi sharks around you which are just too eager to “tax” some of your hard-earned trophy.
Whilst fishing Setté Cama, you are guided by local fishing guides who have fished the area for many years and have valuable insights into where the fish will be and when. There are two guided trips planned daily, all determined by fish movements, tides, sunset/sunrise, and weather conditions. This invariably means that at least one trip a day is in the dark.
There is also the option to either fish the estuary by boat or fish in the surf at the river mouth from the beach. Both of these are very rewarding and target similar species. Cubera snappers, jacks and barracuda are abundant and it’s not uncommon to have triple hookups among the three anglers sharing a boat.
Generally the estuary trip is recommended as the first trip out, as this allows the anglers to get accustomed to the boats, the skippers, the environment and the general lay of the land. Both trips require entry into the Loango National Park which is charged at a fee of 50 Euro per person per day.
ON THE WATER
Eventually 3pm arrived along with the voice of our professional guide calling us to board the boats; it was music to our ears.
We split into three smaller groups and myself, my son Liam and Riaan Botes were together on the first trip . It soon became clear why everybody raved about fishing this place. Liam landed a large jack crevalle literally on his first cast. We all looked at one another and without a word being spoken, agreed this was going to be a trip to remember!
The entire week turned out to be a massive success with teammates landing personal bests nearly every day. A fair mix between spinning and flyfishing produced some great rewards made for incredible stories later that evening when we were back in the camp relaxing on the deck with a cold beverage overlooking the estuary.
The highlight and absolute sensory overload was standing in the surf line, waves crashing and water tumbling around you in the dark, with big fish coming up to hunt their prey in a few feet of water only metres from the beach.
At the same time, we knew that our arrival there literally chased the forest elephants from the beach back into the thick growth behind us, and that leopard tracks had been spotted at the same place on the beach earlier that morning… Only in Africa!
A typical evening on the beach started with watching the gorgeous orange and red sunset fading away in the west as the sky turned a dark grey. Your eyes battle to adjust at this time as it is not dark enough for the moonlight to have an effect and not worth using your headlamp.
That was the window we had been waiting for — the magical 30 minutes after sunset when the big tarpon roll in to ambush the baitfish still outside on the playground.
The guides all lined up on the bank searching and listening for signs of the tarpon. The anglers would be lined up below, each one convinced that he had the right lure and was ready to make the cast that would entice one of these West African poons to eat.
On average, our group caught between 30 and 40 fish each day, and apparently this was one of the least successful trips to Setté Cama ever. If that is the case, I would love to see what a “good” trip produces.
As far as tarpon are concerned, we were not as successful as we would have liked, but we did see them come into the territory, rolling and splashing after baitfish. If this does not give you an immediate injection of adrenaline into your system, then fishing is not for you!
We did get a few hookups but only two were successfully landed, both by AJ Pretorius. The aerial display of these magnificent fish after a hookup and the enormous battle they put up after realising they are in trouble, is something one cannot fully describe or capture on paper.
Unfortunately, on the night they turned out to be really active in the mouth of the estuary, I had asked one of the guides to accompany Liam and me further down the beach to try our luck on some other species. I was rewarded with a beautiful kob that we kept for dinner.
Riaan Botes was very fortunate to catch a prime specimen of the elusive Gabon leervis aka garrick or “liche” as they are called in Francophone Africa.
These are all considered to be the same species (monotypic) across their distribution which ranges from Southern Africa all the way up into the Mediterranean Sea. Most leervis look identical, whether they’re caught in Angola, Morocco or South Africa, but those caught in Central West Africa look remarkably different.
The West African leervis has a more compact and stout body, much like the jacks. It also has a few spots running along its sides, smaller dorsal and anal fins, and a much fainter lateral line when compared to the other leeries we know.
Although classified as the same fish (Lichia Amia) across their distribution, it doesn’t take an ichthyologist to see that is not the case. Little to no research has been done on the West African leervis, and one would hope that in future genetic samples would be collected from these specimens to shed more light on this amazing gamefish.
Carl Herbst also caught a number of new species including a really large barracuda on his well designed handmade lures, especially his flagship lure the Tapajera.
All credit to the professional guides from African Waters — Ewan Kyle, Teddy Coulter and Mike Dames — who made this trip an unforgettable one with lasting memories imprinted on our minds forever.
Setté Cama Gabon is a world-class fishery, but this experience, is far more than a fishing trip, it’s a true adventure into the heart of Africa — truly a destination like no other.
PASSPORTS : All visitors require a valid passport with at least six months’ validity. All nationals require a visa which should be obtained before departure. For South African passport holders, a stay of 30 days or less does not need a visa. The process is easy and requires little input from guests.
INNOCULATIONS & HEALTH: Valid yellow fever certificates are required by most countries. Please enquire with your local travel clinic. Gabon is a malaria area, so please consult your doctor before travelling.
COMMUNICATION: There is sporadic cell phone reception and wifi is available in camp at a fee.
CURRENCY: Gabon’s currency is Central African francs (CFA) but the euro is widely accepted and can be used to settle bar accounts, etc. in camp.