Wildlife of the Congo Blog, Jonas Tonboe

Jonas Tonboe

06 Apr 2016

the journey begins...

Arriving at Brazzaville it took some time to get out of the airport due to immigration checks and Yellow Fever checks. Even though I had a visa already I had to fill out two huge forms to get into the country. I was stopped in customs and it took at least 20 minutes to get through customs because I brought a big lens that was covered in a camo neoprene cover. The customs officers thought it was a spy lens - only when they called in a senior officer he confirmed that it was a perfectly normal lens!

In the arrivals area I was met by the driver from the Radisson Hotel and then driven to the hotel. I relaxed the rest of the day at the hotel which is brand new, it’s been open for less than 6 months. It’s has nice views of the Congo River and Kinshasa on the other side of the river.

The next morning I was met by a Congo Conservation Company representative at the hotel. We did a short walk by the Congo River before leaving for the airport. Here I met Stephanie from Odzala Discovery Camps. The domestic flight to Ollombo was a nice, short and comfortable flight.

At Ollombo we were met by the ODC driver and started the four hour drive on sealed roads to Etoumbi. There were cold drinks in a cooler box. The drive was very comfortable in the minibus. In Etoumbi we met up with guide Adam from Ngaga who drove us to Ngaga Camp in the open Toyota Landcruiser car. The drive took about 3-3.5 hours driving on rough roads like so many other places in Africa. 

It felt very adventurous because the road was very narrow at places and completely overgrown by tall grasses and dense vegetation.

ngaga camp

At Ngaga I was met by camp manager Conrad and his wife Rita and got a welcome drink, then dinner and afterwards I was shown to my room. It was a pleasant surprise that there was power available 24 hours a day which made charging batteries quite easy (they have 24 hour power at all camps). The room was very comfortable and had everything that anyone could need. Due to gas shortage in the Congo the gas canisters that they use for heating water for the shower were almost out but I managed to make my canister last for my entire stay at Ngaga Camp.

The next days I did at least two activities every day.

Typically a gorilla tracking in the morning and a forest walk in the afternoon. Some days we did a night walk to look for nocturnal animals.

The gorilla treks were quite easy and it never took us more than 3-3.5 hours before we were back at camp after the tracking. The trackers are exceptionally good at what they do and we went straight to where the gorillas were observed making a nest the previous day and then tracked them from there. It never took us more than about 1-1.5 to get to the gorillas. We left camp at 0600 so we were often at the gorillas before 0730-0800. For photography this was challenging because the light was very sparse in the dense forest at this time of the day. I talked to Magda about this, and as they do afternoon tracking as well. We arrived to the conclusion that if guests are at Ngaga for at least 4-5 days they should probably do 3-4 gorilla treks to make sure they get good sightings and at least one tracking should be in the afternoon. The gorilla behaviour is slightly different in the afternoon but still very interesting - they might be slightly less active which is actually good for photography. I did four gorilla treks (got an extra permit at 260 USD), all in the morning. 

The final tracking was the best for photography as the gorilla family was at the main road so there was plenty of light.

Besides we had challenges finding the gorillas that day because they had crossed into the neighbour logging concession (where they haven’t started logging yet, luckily) and here there are no pre-cut paths so the vegetation was very dense. Anyway, we found them by the road sitting in the vegetation and climbing trees so that was good for photography. Some of my other sightings were interesting but bad for photography - the first sighting was of the gorilla group in a tree eating fruit but we couldn’t get really close to the tree and were probably 15-20 metres from it so the quality of the sightings definitely differs a lot.

The other activities were walks in different parts of the forest using pre-cut trails that the trackers have created for observing the gorillas. The forest is incredibly beautiful and full of butterflies and monkeys. There were birds as well but they were very difficult to photograph. The butterflies and insects are amazing. On the night walks we walked mainly on the road between the main road and Ngaga Camp. One night where some people from WCS stayed at the camp we did a night drive.

We saw galago, potto, flying squirrel etc.

I had Adam as a guide. He’s from Durban, South Africa, and has been guiding at Ngaga for a couple of years. He’s very knowledgeable and curious about everything nature related. We had some great walks.

One evening we had our sundowner at the Ngaga Sundowner spot in the little stream behind the camp where they built a little wooden platform. Here, we sat on chairs placed in the river and had our cold drinks and snacks. Very nice!

As for the gorilla related activities I spent half a day with German going hiking through the forest to get to a root digging site that the gorillas use. They did have a camera trap here but as the site is close to the road it was stolen by hunters. We set up the camera trap and positioned it correctly and did some test footage and then secured it to the tree trunk with a wire lock and chain. On 2-3 nights/afternoons I had talks with Magda where she showed me some of her research results, footage from the camera traps etc. We also talked about the use of technology in her research, e.g. the use of facial recognition software to identify individual gorillas from the camera trap footage. Today, Magda does a lot of manual work going through the footage to identify the gorillas. Her research assistants are not yet so familiar with all the focus group gorillas that they can easily identify individuals. We also talked about her challenges with funding and working in countries like the Congo, DRC etc. It was very interesting. She seemed to be very happy that I was so interested in the gorillas and already knew a lot and she asked me for feedback on the whole experience. They would definitely prefer guests to stay for more than 3 days, probably 5-6 days is ideal - then there would be time for people to learn more about the gorillas and the research.

On the day of my transfer to Lango Camp Adam drove me to Lango, a drive of probably 3.5 hours. We had cold drinks and sandwiches in a cooler box. At Lango I was met by Kerri who was my guide at Lango. She’s from Zimbabwe and an excellent guide. She’s very knowledgeable and like Adam also really curious about everything in the forest. She had her own GoPro camera and camera trap that we set up at different places around the bar over the coming days and then checking the photos and video in the evening.

The staff at Lango knew from speaking to those at Ngaga Camp that I was interested in snakes so they had caught a small green snake that had been hanging out at the camp deck. When trying to move it to a branch Adam was bitten by it. Luckily it was non-venemous...

The next few days I did a lot of forest walks with Kerri and a park ranger Serge (at Ngaga I walked only with Adam as we were outside the park, at gorilla trackings we of course had the tracker as well). We also did kayaking at Lekoli River which was very nice. Later we did a boat ride at Lekoli River - we went downstream as it is currently not possible to go upstream to Mbouebe Bai because trees have fallen down and blocked the river about 50 metres upstream. On our kayaking trip we picked a lot of wild lime fruits that we brought back to camp, probably 10 kg. They use the limes for lime juice (super delicious!), cakes, in drinks etc.

One evening we had a sundowner with snacks and cold drinks overlooking the savannah with a perfect sunset. Magical!

The walks out of Lango were more interesting that those out of Ngaga (with the exception of the gorillas). At Ngaga the forest is mostly Marantaceae forest but at Lango the vegetation is so varied - super dense riverine forest, dry forest, Lango Bai with Lango Stream surrounded by a wall of forest, savannah with 3 metre tall dense grasses. I just loved the walks here - so adventurous, walking through rivers and swamps waist-deep. The forests are full of forest elephant and forest buffalo. We had a few interesting encounters - once we had to run from a charging elephant that had been hiding really well. We were never in real danger but it was exciting! I saw bongo, sitatunga, bushbuck, forest elephants, forest buffalo, several birds - hundreds of grey parrot and thousands of green pigeon (when a flock took off at Lango it made the most incredible and powerful sound). On the walks at the Lango Bai we got really close to both buffalo and elephant. One day we did a long walk, probably 6 hours where we walked through an incredibly dense and beautiful forest - on the way we walked through a river waist deep - it was a fantastic experience!

During the entire stay at Lango I saw six different snakes, among them water cobra and green mamba. Fantastic!

For the last night I was transferred to Mboko Camp as we had to leave early the next morning. Leaving from Mboko instead of Lango we’d only have to leave at 0400 instead of at 0300.

I loved all three camps. The room at Mboko Camp was very nice, somewhat newer than Lango and Ngaga, but the standard of all three camps was very high, especially considering the location. The camps are so different but each camp has some very interesting surroundings (Ngaga, the Marantaceae. Lango, the bai and savannahs and different types of forest. Mboko, savannahs and Lekoli River). My favorite camp was Lango Camp. Located at Lango Bai - it was perfect. The only “negative” thing was the incredibly noisy elephants that came at night to drink the mineral rich waters of the bai.

I’ve never heard elephants so vocal, the trumpeting was very strange indeed. They were clearly having a party!!!

On my day of departure from Odzala we had coffee at 0345 at Mboko, then left at around 0400. Kerri did a great job getting me to Etoumbi at 0730 even though it had rained heavily so the road was covered in deep mud puddles. I transferred to the minibus at 0745. On the way to Ollombo the driver stopped at an Equater Crossing monument. We were at the airport at 1200, and my driver waited with me until I was checked in. Uneventful flight to Brazzaville where I was met by the CCC representative and the Radisson driver. Got to hotel and relaxed the rest of the day. The next day I went to the airport at 1145, and the CCC representative waited outside the glass walls until I had checked in and gone through security. Unfortunately my Ethiopian Airlines flight was delayed which caused some trouble going home but that’s outside the scope of the tour.

I was really impressed by Odzala Discovery Camps. All the logistics of transfers etc, the camps, the staff, the meals, the guides, the forest experience was just perfect. I want to go there again!!!

I was especially impressed by the guides, they were so good.

The navigation by GPS was done in a very professional way. They even carried two GPS, one primary used for navigation and a secondary more advanced one for backup and safety - this GPS had extra batteries plus a solar charger and can be used for navigation but also to broadcast a distress call with coordinates and for sending messages in case of an emergency.

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