Odzala Safari: "the moments in the forest would stay with us forever"

Cameron Muir

21 Oct 2019

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"Odzala – the beautiful forest with its unique wildlife, and all the amazing people who work to protect it – will stay with us for the rest of our lives"

Day 1

After an uneventful flight from Manchester via Paris, we arrived in Brazzaville and were met by Imelda who efficiently guided us through the busy airport and then drove us to the Raddison Blu Hotel. As it was dark when we arrived, we only had a glimpse of Brazzaville – the capital of the Republic of Congo – and the people who live there. After we checked in, we had a drink in one of the bars down by the mighty Congo River with the lights of Kinshasa in the background.

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Day 2

Having fully rested (an 11-hour sleep!) and eaten a substantial breakfast, we met our fellow travellers, Heather and Greg from Australia. Together we headed back to the airport with Imelda, who guided us through check-in and to our plane where we were met by pilot Matt. The flight to Odzala was smooth and in a cloudless sky we left Brazzaville behind and had uninterrupted views of the forest. As we approached Mboko Camp we were lucky enough to spot elephant and buffalo grazing near the airstrip. We were then greeted by the team from Odzala and had a refreshing G&T while watching an abundance of butterflies and listening to birdsong in the bush, before heading off to Ngaga Camp, driven by Ade and Alice.

On the drive to Ngaga we spotted many birds. Ade and Alice gathered fruits and flowers to go with our sundowners while explaining how the forest is such a unique ecosystem and how the research team work with the locals to protect it and its animals. Upon arrival at camp we were shown to our lovely room which was on stilts overlooking the forest canopy. Before dinner Alice and Ade gave us a briefing on what to expect on our gorilla trek. We then had a delicious early dinner to prepare for our early start the next day.

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Day 3

We didn’t sleep very well the night before our first gorilla trek as we were too excited, however we were wide awake at 5am. We had coffee and a light breakfast before being introduced to our tracker Gabin. The trackers had been out with the gorillas the night before and located where the gorillas had nested – so that was where we were going first. The two habituated groups, “Neptune” and “Jupiter”, had nested close together the previous night. This behaviour (two groups in a co-elision) is one that the researchers were studying. We were going with Alice and Gabin to hopefully find Jupiter, so we set out on foot and in silence so that Gabin could listen for sounds of the group.

Walking silently made the anticipation of seeing gorillas even more intense. We followed an elephant trail for a while before Gabin cut a trail through the marantaceae and we saw for the first time a western lowland gorilla. He must have weighed 200kg and he was balanced on the branch of a very spindly tree, which swayed gently from side to side.

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Gabin soon cleared a small space for us to watch the group. We saw youngsters playfighting and several young adults feeding from a breadfruit tree, including “Lua” – a young male with a deformed arm. Alice told us later that as Lua could not climb trees, the rest of the group would throw fruit down for him to eat. He could not use his knuckles either, and so walked bipedal. The researchers were very interested to see what would happen when he reached maturity – would he stay with the group due to his disability?

After we had stayed with the group for an hour, we retreated back through the marantaceae and headed back to camp. We had just re-joined the main track when Gabin called us to a halt; we were lucky enough to see the whole troop crossing the track, including Jupiter himself. We headed back to camp with a million and one questions for Alice, who answered them all with all her extensive knowledge of the gorillas and the forest.

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After lunch we had a siesta, with the putty-nosed monkeys playing in the trees outside our room. In the late afternoon we had another walk through the forest with Ade and Alice, who pointed out all the fascinating birds, insects, plants and fungus. They also had a surprise laid out for us – evening drinks in a crystal-clear stream with fish nibbling at our toes.

That evening we had another fabulous dinner cooked by Saju, Kamano and Santos, along with some very nice wine. The food is so good here and all the dishes are varied, fresh and delicious.

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Day 4

This morning we headed out with tracker Zepherin and Alice, this time to find Neptune and his group. The two groups had not nested together the previous night but Neptune had stayed reasonably close to camp, so we did not have far to go before Zepherin stopped and pointed into a clearing. Neptune was feeding there with several members of his group. The group had a very different dynamic to Jupiter’s and we were lucky to get reasonably close. Zepherin cleared a space where we could sit on a log and observe the group feeding, and even hear them eating. Neptune was very comfortable with our presence and it seemed to rub off on the rest of the group.

The hour spent with Neptune went very quickly and at one point a youngster came to join his family by walking right up behind us – he was unfazed by the close encounter.

We were all too soon heading back to camp, buzzing from being so close to Neptune and his family.

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After lunch Ade and Alice had planned to take us to the local village en route, where we would stop off at an abandoned cocoa plantation and see what wildlife we could see there. We were joined by camp manager Sylvie and Bonchance. There was palpable excitement at what we might find at the plantation. However, when we arrived the road was so overgrown that we could not get to the plantation. Ade was the most disappointed but it showed the forest was quick to reclaim the abandoned land.

As we approached the village, a group of young men were singing and dancing in the road. Sylvie told us that there was a circumcision ceremony happening, and that she knew one of the young men who would go through the initiation and ultimately the circumcision. We were introduced to all of his family and shown what the young men would have to endure – several challenges over four days. The young men had all decided to undergo this themselves and it is seen as a rite of passage to becoming a man.

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I got invited to help with the preparation of one of the dishes, although I am unsure of how helpful I was! We enjoyed a beer with the locals and some of the children thought us taking photos of them was hilarious.

On our way back to camp we stopped off and picked some sweetcorn which Bonchance had grown. Then Alice and Ade had another surprise up their sleeves: a fire and sundowners. We cooked the sweetcorn and some wild asparagus which Ade had found.

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By the time we headed back it was dark and we took our time spotting the nocturnal wildlife. Ade and Alice were amazing at spotting tiny nocturnal primates high up in the canopy. We saw four different primate species in total, as well as some amphibians which were singing as we drove by.

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Day 5

This morning was to be our last gorilla trek, so we headed out with Gabin again to locate Jupiter and his group. This proved a challenge; they were moving quickly through the forest and Gabin’s repeated attempts to get us close to the groups were fruitless, as they had moved by the time we had got through the thick marantaceae. Eventually Gabin and Alice said that they would give it “one more try” and took us to a clearing that Gabin thought the group were heading to in order to dig for roots.

On the way we saw putty-nosed monkeys and I tried to photograph them – no mean feat, as they move very fast, high up in the canopy. Eventually we came to the clearing and Gabin had been right: Jupiter was there with all his group. We were so privileged; we had uninterrupted views of the whole group and watched their behaviour as they mined for roots. Alice told us later that no-one really knows why they do this, as the roots have no nutritional value. It is thought that it is a social activity, the equivalent of us humans meeting at a bar.

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We watched as Jupiter displayed his dominance over some of the young males and watched a baby (approximately one year old) with his mother. The hour flew by again and we had to return to camp.

We had to then say goodbye to Ngaga and all the wonderful team. We had had an amazing experience there and the moments in the forest would stay with us forever.

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Alice and Ade then drove us back to Mboko for our last night in Odzala. On the way we found a tree had fallen across our path, but Ade made light work of it with his machete. Upon arrival at Mboko we were greeted with a refreshing drink, and after another lovely lunch we bid goodbye to Heather and Greg, as they were heading to another camp with Ade.

In the late afternoon we were introduced to Liam, and with Alice we drove down to the river where we embarked on a river safari. The river was truly beautiful (tsetse flies and all!). We saw forest elephants, but being more skittish than their savannah relatives we didn’t manage to photograph them.

We saw lots of birdlife including a shining blue kingfisher. Colobus monkeys also posed for us beautifully.

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Day 6

We were so sad to leave this wonderful place and we had heavy hearts when Alice took us back to the airstrip where Matt was waiting for us. As we took off Alice was waving to us from the vehicle and again we had cloudless skies and wonderful views of the Congo Basin as we headed back to Brazzaville. Odzala – the beautiful forest with its unique wildlife, and all the amazing people who work to protect it – will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Talk to one of our specialists for further details on travelling to the Republic of Congo.

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