"Crack, craack, craaaack," booms the sound through the rain forest. As the yellow 60-ton bulldozers smash ahead, one 70-ft. okoume tree after another trembles, then teeters and finally topples. With each fall, the jungle itself seems to shiver: venomous black and green mambas slither to safety through walls of vines; gorillas caper away in terror; mauve, violet and golden butterflies settle like confetti on the dozers, or bulls, as the workers call them. Finally, as dusk settles in, a single tree remains in the clearing, a majestic 120-ft. hardwood. Their 450-h.p. engines screaming, shrouded in black smoke, the monsters of steel advance. Bleeding at the trunk, mortally wounded, the century-old tree collapses with a crash.
The building of the Transgabonais, a railway through the nearly impenetrable jungles of Gabon, in West Africa, is one of the largest public works projects under way in the world today. At a cost of $4.5 million a mile, it is also one of the world's most expensive. In terms of technical difficulty, the Transgabonais rivals the 1,966-mile Baikal-Amur rail line that the Soviets are pushing across Siberia. The eight forest-smashing bulls and their crews are backed by 120 more bulldozers, 450 heavy trucks and 3,800 workers who shift and terrace earth to carve out a 300-ft.-wide right-of-way. A state-of-the-art rail-laying machine, "the dinosaur," brings up the rear.
Begun a decade ago, the project is less than two-thirds complete. When it is finished, the single-track railway will cover 542 miles and form a giant Y across Gabon. "The main problem is that it is so big, so enormous," says Robert Clark, a Californian from a firm of consulting engineers overseeing the task. "It is an earthmoving job on a gigantic scale."
The whole grand scheme is the dream of President Omar Bongo, who came to power in Gabon 18 years ago. A trip from the capital, Libreville, to the coast and back again then took up to 40 days by car. To unify his domain and its population, estimated at 1 million people, Bongo was determined to create iron paths through the jungle. The railway would also, he decided, give access to valuable hardwood and deposits of manganese and uranium.
When the World Bank refused in 1973 to contribute to the $2.5 billion project because it deemed the budget unrealistic, Bongo resolved to go it alone. This year Gabon will devote nearly half its investment budget of $722 million, drawn mainly from oil revenues, to the Transgabonais. "Now we can go to Libreville instead of dreaming about it," says Maria Ovono, a resident of Booué, 210 miles east of the capital. "Now we can see our country--all thanks to President Bongo."
The route through the forest is being carved by 3,400 Gabonese workers and 400 expatriates. Drawn from 19 European construction companies and working for a consortium called Eurotrag, the expats are, for the most part, the kind of tattooed roustabouts who wander from job to job, now building dams in Iran, now forging roads through the Amazon. In Gabon, they live--some with families, some alone--in five camps near the work site. The bases have medical clinics, schools and swimming pools; fresh vegetables, meat and delicacies are flown in.