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Exploring Africa

A trip report from Congo and the CAR by NWS David

This blog focuses on David's travels in the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. Click here to read about the previous part of David's trip, which took him to Madagascar.

Day 21

I had a full day available to explore Addis Ababa, since the flight connections between Nosy Be and Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo – where the next part of my trip starts – made it possible. I wasn’t feeling very well today, so I decided to take it easy and try to restore some energy, since I will for sure need it for my next destination. However, I couldn’t spend a day in a new city and not explore it, even if it is only a little.

I chose to visit three of the main attractions of Addis: the Orthodox Cathedral, the National Museum of Ethiopia, and the big market area of the city, the famous ‘Merkato’. A day is obviously not enough to explore a huge city such as this one (or pretty much any big city in the world), but these visits, topped up with a local restaurant dinner with traditional Ethiopian dancing, gave me a good sample of what Ethiopia’s capital city has to offer.

Day 22

Finally the day that I’ve been waiting for for so long arrives: today I travelled for the first time to Central Africa, and I couldn’t be more excited. Very early this morning I was transferred from my hotel in Addis to the airport, in time to catch my flight to Brazzaville. Once in the Congolese capital, the group that will share this amazing adventure with me were waiting for me at the airport, ready to board our small 12-seater aircraft and head towards Odzala-Kokoua National Park, the crown jewel of the Republic of Congo’s protected areas.

It is very difficult to imagine the size of the forest lands in Congo, and after having seen it from above, on the other side of a window of a small plane, I can say that any description doesn’t do it justice. Almost from Brazzaville, Congo is an endless sea of trees and vegetation, and for hundreds of kilometres (as far as the aerial view allows you to see) you can see only trees and forest. The Congo Basin forest system is the second-largest expanse of forest in the world, eclipsed only by the Amazon. And you can definitely see it from the plane.

On our arrival to the park we were quickly transferred from the airstrip to our first camp, in the Ngaga Concession, and the base for our gorilla tracking experiences over the next two days. But before then, we were honoured to share the evening with Marga, the main primatologist of the reserve, who has been working on research in this area for many years. She relocated to Ngaga after the big Ebola outbreak a few years ago killed the unbelievable number of 5,000 western lowland gorillas. Today we had the pleasure to share dinner with her, and then listen to her speak about conservation and her work in the gorilla community. It was a fascinating talk, and so far one of the best experiences of my whole trip.

ROC Sl Congo Brazzaville Driving Andrew James

Day 23

Today was finally gorilla day. Definitely my highlight of the whole trip, for me and pretty much everyone else in the group. In the surroundings of our camp there are an incredible 38 western lowland gorilla families, with an average of 11 individuals per group (this totals more than 400 gorillas – almost half of the world's population of the much rarer mountain gorilla – and that is only around the camp). Out of this 38, there are three groups that have been habituated to human presence, so we split into two groups of four in order to track two of them.

These gorillas are absolutely wild, and they live in a completely unenclosed habitat. As opposed to mountain gorillas, who have a very small area to live in, western lowland gorillas have potentially the whole Congo Basin forest system in which to reside, and they choose to live only in this region, due mainly to the abundance of natural food sources.

Another big difference with their mountain counterparts, is that here the forest is much denser, with very few openings, so the tracking is more challenging. However, these demanding conditions make it a much more authentic and special experience, making you feel like a true explorer when you are tracking these gorillas, and when you finally find the group within the dense vegetation, the privacy that it gives them allows them to behave in an unconditioned manner.

It took us only 25 minutes of walking from the camp to start hearing the first gorilla sounds, and before we could realise, a sudden sound of vegetation rattling on our left and a black blur crossed our path a mere 10 metres ahead of us, too fast for us to actually see anything, not to mention pull out the camera. In that moment, our tracker signalled me to advance to his position (since I was at the head of my group), and I did so in time to see my first gorilla.

He had just stopped a few metres ahead, on our right side, a young adult male. It was just a few seconds, but for that small amount of time it was just him and me, looking each other in the eye, and I will never forget this moment while I live. There was something in his eyes, a mixture of human curiosity and comprehension, something that you can’t find in any other animal’s eyes apart from ours.

After checking me out, he then turned around and left running, just before the rest of the group made it. I only had time to take one single picture, without even the best focus, but it didn’t matter since I will always remember his eyes. After that, we did catch up with the rest of the family eventually, and we all enjoyed the interaction and took fantastic pictures of the group, but that first moment was only mine. Well, mine and his, of course.

Day 24

After the wonderful sighting we had yesterday, we all had big hopes for today’s tracking, and the day definitely didn’t disappoint. Continuing with the two groups (it is a strict rule imposed by Marga, the primatologist, that no more than six people will track the gorillas, including tracker and guide), we switched families in order for everybody to have the possibility to see both groups. We didn’t have to walk much today either, but in this case we were well warned by the presence of the gorillas by all the signs and sounds on the way.

As opposed to yesterday, today we were able to make our way silently and observe them from a distance, without them knowing we were there for a while. The gorillas were just on one of their rest/feeding periods, and we could see young males playing with each other, a mother with her baby on her back, a blackback male and the silverback, all in a relatively small area.

These lowland gorillas are much more arboreal than the mountain ones, and they don’t hesitate in climbing tall trees in order to search for food. The best moment of the interaction is when a young male decided to climb a low horizontal branch, very close to our group, and study us for a good 20 minutes. He not only watched us with curiosity, but also seemed like he was looking for a reaction from our side.

The gorilla kept bumping his chest, being very vocal and even trying to impress us by jumping around and putting branches and leaves on his back. It was simply fantastic the way he behaved, and even our trackers were impressed and surprised that he was offering us that kind of show. After our second and final tracking was finished, we all walked silently back to our camp with huge smiles on our faces, all reliving the fantastic moments spent with these magnificent animals.

Day 25

It is difficult to imagine a day as exciting as the last two, especially for a gorilla-lover such as myself. However, the Republic of Congo (and more specifically Odzala-Kokoua National Park) has so much to offer that it makes every day as special as the one before, if not more so. Today it was supposed to be just a transfer day, only dedicated to move from one camp to the next one, and from the Ndzehi Concession to Lango Bai, our next destination.

But as I just mentioned, in Congo things are always more special than they seem. Instead of an ordinary car transfer, we made our way to the close-by Lekoli River and got into our kayaks for a beautiful and very relaxing trip down the river. We needed almost only to let the kayak drift and let the current take us all the way, using very little effort, while we focused on the wildlife on both shores of the river. When the water became too shallow, we just tied our kayaks and continued our way walking through water and mud, almost having to zigzag to keep a safe distance from forest elephants and buffalo, the main inhabitants of the area.

And when we thought it couldn’t get any better, right before arriving at our night stop, a herd of around 30 forest buffalo were just resting in the middle of our way to the camp. Being extremely careful, we walked around them, quite close to the animals since we didn’t have much space to pass, and made our way to the camp. Forest buffalo are often underestimated, but they are quite dangerous animals; in fact, they are the cause of most of the wildlife-related deaths in Odzala, and while I was walking near this magnificent group I could feel the adrenaline pumping and my heart beating much faster than normal.

Day 26

Today was our day to explore Lango Bai, and the other beautiful bais surrounding it. A bai is an opening in the forest, with some kind of fresh water source (sometimes a small stream, but it could also be just flooding water from rainfall), and very rich in minerals, such as salts and calcium.

The animals in this area – forest elephants, buffalo and hogs being the most common – come to the bais to obtain the necessary minerals for their survival. Elephants, for example, look for a soft spot in the mud and dig with their trunk in search of mineral-rich pockets. You can see them with their heads almost all the way in the mud for minutes at a time, searching.

Lango is an unusually big bai, right in the footsteps of our camp, and it is frequented by a large amount of wildlife. You can hear the elephants greeting each other from your room during the night, and even the hyenas with their characteristic calls, waiting for their chance to hunt under the cover of darkness.

Today it was a day to get dirty, so we all put on a pair of old shoes (some even decided to go barefoot) and walked through miles of sand, water and thick mud. It was tiring but an absolutely fantastic hike, with amazing elephant and buffalo sightings, and an authentic bai experience. After exploring three different bais, we made our way to the vehicles that would transport us to the next camp, in the savannah-like area of Mboko.

Day 27

We didn’t have a lot of time to explore the savannah areas of Mboko, unfortunately, since today was the day when we made our way to the Central African Republic, and Dzanga-Sangha National Park. And the way to get there couldn’t be more exciting. First, a short flight from Mboko to Kabo, a small logging town on the shore of the Sangha River (one of the Congo River’s tributaries), and then a 6-hour boat ride upstream to the CAR.

The Sangha River is a wide body of water, with a calm and constant current, ideal for cruising peacefully. It serves as a border between Congo and Cameroon first, and then between Cameroon and the Central African Republic. We could only see a very small amount of houses and villages during our whole boat ride, and the rest was forest, right and left, for hours.

After a few stops for customs procedures, we finally arrived to Sangha Lodge in a concession next to the national park, where the owner, Rodney, was waiting for us with a big smile and delicious food to recover energy after a long day of travelling. During dinner we had the pleasure to hear Rod’s stories about the area and his long fight together with the local Ba’aka communities to preserve the natural habitat of the reserve and to keep the lodge open.

Day 28

There are multiple activities that you can do in Dzanga-Sangha, from an authentic (100% real, not touristy) Ba’aka pygmy net-hunting experience, to birdwatching excursions, gorilla tracking in the nearby Houkou Bai, etc. However, since we only had one full day in the area, we opted to spend the morning by exploring Dzanga Bai, just 45 minutes away from the lodge.

Dzanga Bai has been described as the best elephant experience in Africa, and after spending the morning visiting it, the whole group unanimously agreed to the statement. This was a group formed by very seasoned travellers, especially experienced in travelling within the African continent. Dzanga Bai has an uncommon wooden observation platform, around five metres above the ground of the bai, built by an American researcher who spent every day for 26 years studying the forest elephants in this bai.

The view from the platform is astounding, almost overwhelming. In front of you there is this huge opening, completely packed with elephants, buffalo and hogs (from March to April bongos can also be seen frequently at the bai). We counted 94 forest elephants and 35 buffalo when we arrived, but the total number would be much higher, since new groups kept coming and others leaving constantly. For the first hour, I just kept taking pictures of almost everything in the bai, until I decided (after almost 250 pictures of wildlife), just to sit, relax and enjoy the “show”.

After almost four hours watching the elephants (which felt like four minutes) we made our way back to the lodge for the rest of the day’s activities. In the afternoon we did some pangolin tracking, during which we were able to see a very rare black-bellied pangolin, and finally a sundowner cruise on the river just before dinner.

Day 29

Today it was a sad day of goodbyes, the first being to Rod and the rest of the Sangha Lodge family, and then to Dzanga-Sangha and the Central African Republic altogether. Our stay in Sangha – though short – has been a wonderful experience, but now it was time to head back to the river for our boat ride back to Congo. Once in Odzala again, a 2-hour flight would take us to Brazzaville, for our last night in the country. But before departing, one last Congolese activity was waiting for us.

For our last evening, we were treated to a performance of ‘The Sapeurs’, a cultural dancing association that dates back to the end of the First World War. A large number of Congolese people fought in that war (since it was a French colony back then), and when they returned to Africa, they did so with elegant clothes and costumes that set them apart from the rest of the country’s population. With time, they created societies in order to gather and show off their customs and dance all together.

After Congo’s independence, these societies were banned, since “they didn’t represent the true Congolese spirit”, according to the new government. However, these reunions continued happening in secret locations, and nowadays, not only are the clubs very much alive, but parades and contests take place all throughout the Republic of Congo, DRC and Gabon, where the Sapeurs are regarded as celebrities and paid big sums of money to perform in the festivities. What a wonderfully fun way to spend my last evening in Congo!

Day 30

As I wait in Addis Ababa for my connection flight to Heathrow, I go one more time through the hundreds of pictures taken over the last 30 days. It is difficult to sum up a month of adventures in just a few lines, but I can confidently say that this has been one of the best trips of my life. Since I flew out of the UK one month ago, I’ve explored two very different areas of the wonderful continent that is Africa: I’ve discovered the unique wildlife and the variety of landscapes of Madagascar, and I have also travelled through the Congo Basin jungle, probably the most impressive extension of rainforest I have ever seen.

In terms of wildlife, I’ve seen lemurs, chameleons, tropical frogs, lizards and geckos, tortoises, countless different bird species, gorillas, chimpanzees, colobus, putty-nosed and moustached monkeys, pangolins, bushbucks, forest elephants and buffalo, snakes, spiders, and I’m sure I’m missing a lot, but it is impossible to remember all of it.

I’ve been privileged to share meals and conversation with renowned wildlife conservationists and researchers, and even helped out with interesting projects, such as reforestation efforts in Kianjavato (Madagascar). And of course, I’ve been able to learn about the cultures and local customs (and of course taste traditional food) of these areas, from the vanilla-farming villagers of northern Madagascar to the nomadic Ba'aka pygmies of the Congo-CAR forest. I am now physically and mentally exhausted, but all I can think of while I fly back home is: What’s next?