“You’ve never had gazelle?” Aurelien says agog in the driver’s seat of the press car.
No, I reply. It’s not like they’re gaily skipping around Clapham Common, waiting to be snared and served up at the local restaurant. Evidently, one man’s gazelle is another’s Nando’s.
The exotic cuisine is just one difference. Gabon is a long way from London. It’s eight hours’ flight, with a change in Paris, to reach this small central African country, a sprawl of vegetation and greency sandwiched between Cameroon and the Congo.
I’m here for “La Tropicale” Amissa Bongo stage race, dedicated to the daughter of the deceased president.
Getting here was interesting. Well, Paris to Libreville was okay. I’m not afraid of flying: I don’t celebrate like I’ve won the survival lottery whenver it touches down on the runway (I don’t applaud raucously when the Ryanair fanfare comes on either, but that’s for taste reasons).
But I wasn’t so insouciant on our internal flight to Oyam the following morning. Our transport was a sturdy-appearing thirty-seater plane. But once we boarded, what appeared to be rows were in fact red cargo seating, with all our suitcases forming makeshift tables strapped down the middle. All that was missing was a drill sergeant telling us when to parachute out.
The mid-flight call from the pilot of “We’re a little light at the back, could some of you move to balance the aircraft?” had us shifting bums pretty quickly.
Western sensibilities are worth nothing in Africa. Rushing and worrying about timing is pointless. We found this out upon landing in Libreville when we waited an hour for our as two flights’ worth of baggage came onto two adjacent runways, leading to lots of tennis-match-type comedy panning from anxious tourists.
Waiting is natural. So when we got to the pre-race HQ in Bitam and scouted the town for a bite to eat, we were happy to take our time and shoot the breeze with our Gabon host at a local restaurant.
And what a host. With a cold beer in our hands, we were joined by a chatterbox, joke-a-minute man who mentioned his love of Mr Bean, French politics, Gabon’s often-overlooked status and used a mock English accent to mock our French accent during the breathless two hours there.
Gazelle wasn’t on the menu. Lunch was chicken with roasted bananas. The latter tasted and looked so much like parsnips that I didn’t realised till the final bite. The food was excellent – and probably fresher than we realised. A fowl clucked in the yard as we left.
The race started today, with Belgian youngster Frederique Robert (Lotto-Belisol) taking first blood.
Tour de France stars Pierre Rolland and Anthony Charteau are the biggest names (well, apart from Bernard Hinault and Laurent Jalabert, who are travelling in an ambassadorial role).
I’ll try and keep you posted, though internet connection is patchy. The race – and the search for Gabon’s finest grilled gazelle – continues