Brazza & Beyond: A Journey through the Congo and the CAR

Will Bolsover

11 Jan 2019

NWS CEO Will Bolsover returns to the Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic

Like an African Paris – minus the Eiffel Tower, the Parisians, the Arc de Triomphe… in fact, the only similarity is the occasional wild boulevard – Brazzaville offers a sleepy arrival into the Congo Basin. The capital city of the Republic of Congo gives us a warm welcome, with clean streets, calm citizens and the comfort of a well-run Western hotel. This is a stark contrast to the frenetic capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasha, which looms in the distance on the opposite side of the mighty Congo River.

Our first 24 hours are spent acclimatising, catching up, and meeting contacts in preparation for the next 10 days or so. A midday flight takes us northwards to our goal, travelling over green savannah land, dark canopied forest and the odd smallholding.

Met on arrival by the esteemed Karl, we continue by 4x4 along rutted tracks, through marantaceae forest and rain-drenched pistes to the wild and remote Ngaga Camp Located amongst 1,000-year-old primary rainforest, this unique camp affords access to some of the best western lowland gorilla tracking in Africa.
5am rises and tracking through dense rainforest forms the focus of the next 2-3 days as we set off in the capable hands of our local expert tracker. Often ex-hunters, these guys do not have Pygmy heritage like some guides in other areas of Central Africa; these guys track differently and independently, using their years of living and working in the forest to track down the endangered western lowland gorillas...
Our sightings over the three days vary in quality and interest. Day 1 finds the Jupiter family in thick vegetation, moving slowly as they feed off fruiting trees. Adolescents play together swinging from branch to branch, pulling down young saplings along the way.
Day 2 is tougher, a 5-hour trek all-round, but it provides some stunning glimpses into the life and times of the Neptune family. Neptune himself – the dominant silverback – we see climb 50m high into the forest canopy, hauling his huge bulk up wincing trees with his massive forearms powering him to the top, rewarded with the freshest, ripest fruits. Having gorged aplenty, seeing his massive bulk propelling itself downwards – gravity doing the majority of the work – we marvel at the agility of this gentle giant as we subconsciously take a step backwards, making way for his presence.
Day 3 is short but not so sweet. A hugely rewarding experience but a challenge photographically, as we return to the Jupiter family, this time high amongst the branches, feeding, with babies clinging to their mothers. However and whichever way you encounter western lowlands, enjoy, digest, and spread the word...
From here we move northwards and then to an area more centrally located to Odzala-Kokoua, one of Africa’s oldest national parks. Walking along a boardwalk through the centre of Lango Camp, you appear onto a large open decked area that affords stunning views over Lango Bai (“bai” meaning a forest clearing). From here you are treated to documentary-style views and wildlife such as buffalo, elephants, sitatunga and more, all wandering in and out of the bai. Whilst sightings are intermittent and subject to the time of day, this is the perfect launch pad from which to explore this corner of the rainforest.
Our days at Lango are spent on foot. Wading through often waist-deep water, we explore this wilderness haven, walking down the length of the bai (approximately 2km long), winding through elephant waterway channels, tracking through dry forest, and back out into the luscious waters and greenery of Lango. Encounters on foot include elephants only a few metres away, forest buffalo starting as we approach them in the long and thick savannah grass, sitatunga as they tenderly emerge from the forest to graze on lush green bai grass, fish eagles, palm-nut vultures and more.

Lango is a place that is hard to forget. It’s the pure simplicity of it, and the privilege of being allowed that brief glimpse into the heart of the forest. A window into a world of wildlife and beyond.

We leave the Republic of Congo behind with what I would like to say is a quick skip and a jump... but in fact, it’s a charter flight, a 4x4 transfer, and a 5-hour boat ride. It’s worth it though. Crossing the border into the Central African Republic (CAR), we move north along the Sangha River and into the region of the Tri-National Park, where Congo, Cameroon and the CAR converge. Parts of this form a UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet remain largely uncovered by modern-day travel (or civilisation for that matter).

Our long day of travel – involving multiple immigration stops, border stops, visa stops, and registration stops (of which most are held simply in tumbling shacks on the banks of the river as we progress north) – comes to an end as we arrive at the remote yet homely Sangha Lodge. Taken over nine years ago by Rod and his family, this is our home for the next four nights.

Rarely visited, Dzanga-Sangha National Park is home to some of the most unique wildlife on our planet. Still part of the Congo Basin Rainforest (second in size only to the Amazon Rainforest), this forest is home to habituated western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, sitatunga, bongo, flocks of African grey parrots that screech their way across the forest canopy, and more. Our next four days are focused on exploring the region as much as possible.
Our first foray involves a 1.5-hour 4x4 journey along forest “tracks” to the stepping-off point for Dzanga Bai. A 45-minute walk through the forest along elephant tracks – with more waist-deep river wading – brings us to what can only be described as one of the natural wonders of the world. Over 1km long and stretching into the forested distance, the bai opens up to a breathtaking view of a multitude of elephants.
Mini herds, huge bulls, limp-trunked babies, protective mothers and cheeky adolescents all dig, run, play, feed, drink and spray as they zig and zag their way around the bai, tummies rumbling, trunks squealing, flooded mud holes bubbling, as they come together reaping the rewards of this mineral-rich haven. Sitting atop a 20 ft high treeline hide, we spend our days watching, mesmerised by the intricacies of this elephant society, marvelling at the privilege we are afforded in being given this insight into the daily lives of these forest-dwelling greats.
When travelling to these regions it can be very easy to forget the cultural side of these landscapes, but not so here. Although I’m usually wary of “cultural forays”, this one is not to be missed, as we meet up with the local Ba’Aka Pygmy tribe to go hunting. The great thing about the Ba’Aka is that nothing much has changed since I was last here 10 years ago. The frenetic chaos as families jostle for position in the hunting party, the beautiful sonic sounds of their forested songs as we bump along the track to our jumping-off point, spilling out of the car in eager anticipation of the hunt to come.
The hunt is enthusiastic, but sadly unsuccessful. This does not dampen the Ba’Aka’s enthusiasm though. The singing continues, the dancing breaks out, the smiles continue to flourish – it is clear that the Ba’Aka society is not one concerned with possessions and trophies, but about family, participation and society. This is evident in the way they act on successful hunts as well. On these occasions, when a small duiker is caught for example, the duiker is split equally between all families involved in the hunting party. Yes, the person whose net physically catches the prey does get a slightly larger share of the meat, but otherwise it is an equal split.
Continuing on from the hunt, the Ba’Aka also operate on a trade basis. They are one of the only true sustainable cultures left in Africa, living off the forest on a daily and weekly basis, hunting duiker, harvesting honey, picking mushrooms and more. The Ba’Aka then trade anything that they do not need for other items such as sugar and coffee.
The trip through Congo and CAR comes to an end as we fly north, back over the forests and up into Bangui. We transfer through. A harsh place that appears to be left unnoticed by the Western world we return to.

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