Part 1: INTRODUCTION, ODZALA-KOKOUA NATIONAL PARK

By Bert Duplessis

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BEHIND A MASK IN THE CONGO

If you had asked me to nominate my favorite animal 6 weeks ago I might have said cheetah.  Ask me now and the answer is Western Lowland Gorilla.  Over the course of a 7-day trip to Odzala-Kokoua National Park the gorillas predictably stole the show.  Finding them, hearing them, and then -finally – seeing them was the best African wildlife experience of my life to date. This was the thrill I expected to feel upon seeing the mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda but never did.  Neither of my two gorilla treks there even remotely matched the spectacle of Odzala’s gentle tree-climbing giants.  Gorillas are awesome animals anywhere but put them in the trees, add motion, movement – up, down and side-ways – and you have a wildlife experience without equal.

Admittedly, we got very lucky with both our gorilla treks.  The first one came pretty close to being very disappointing, before a couple of obliging animals decided to make themselves available to the admiring and ever grateful visitors.  Had that not happened, we may have had to return to camp with nothing more than a few glimpses, some hairy faces peering around tree trunks and dark blobs moving through the leaves.

Our second gorilla trek was good almost from the word go with a decent look at the dominant silverback (in a tree) and very good to superb views of a couple of the other family members.

Gorillas being gorillas, a rainforest being a rainforest, one has to assume that there is a possibility of one or maybe even both of the treks being below par.  It could happen.  My sense is that the tracker and the guide will do absolutely everything they can to make sure that everyone gets a good look at a gorilla.  During our visit the trackers (who keep the stopwatch) were very liberal with  time management and I certainly never felt rushed.  When they called time we were all quite happy to call it a day.

By contrast the wildlife experience at Lango Camp was somewhat disappointing. Perhaps we were just not there at the best time of the year.  There were good numbers of forest buffalo around and the bird-watching was a lot better than at Ngaga.  We did have a sighting of a small group of hyenas, some bushbuck on the edge of the Bai and a couple of fairly good sightings of forest elephants.  But not much else. It was fun walking in the Bai down the Lango stream where we witnessed some impressive flocks of African Grey parrots and Green Pigeons flying right by us.  Unfortunately our boating trip on the Lekoli River was extremely quiet with I think one glimpse of a couple of monkeys and a far-off view of some elephants.  And fewer birds than I had anticipated, the highlight being an African Finfoot.

Clearly it takes luck – or a longer stay – to see some of the more elusive species such as sitatunga, bongo and giant forest hog, not to mention the various forest duikers or water chevrotain.  We dipped out on most of the other primates as well, with decent views of only colobus and putty-nosed monkeys.

Would I go back to Odzala-Kokoua and would I encourage anyone else to make this long and expensive trip?  Definitely yes – in fact I am already planning a return trip to neighboring Gabon to explore some venues to combine with an Odzala trip.  At this stage the most promising candidate is Loango National Park in Gabon.

I had previously experienced tropical rainforests in East Africa but the Congo basin is a whole new world.  ‘Congo’ is a very evocative word infused with adventure, exploration and excitement and the reality of it is no less romantic than the notion.  It is an intriguing area simply bristling with life and energy and for avid African wildlife enthusiasts it offers a rich and diverse experience which should be filled with many firsts.

THE PREQUEL

Tell someone you’re going to the Congo and you might get all kinds of reactions, depending on how well you know them.  All the way from ‘Are you nuts!’ through to ‘Are you sure that’s a safe place?’  During the lead-up to this trip this would be the cue for my discussion of the ‘good’ Congo (i.e. Republic of Congo aka Congo Brazzaville) and the ‘bad’ Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo, aka DRC or Congo Kinshasa).  Some parts of the DRC are definitely off-limits including the eastern region – others are probably worth exploring but perhaps just not quite yet.

By contrast the Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville) is quite stable and safe and we never felt even a twinge of unease or apprehension.  The  people we met could not have been friendlier and more welcoming of our presence.  It might be different if you were to travel there on your own, but with a good local operator it was really pretty uneventful, in terms of logistics.

The French invented and perfected the ‘art’ of bureaucracy and even though their former Congo possessions have long been independent, those old bureaucratic ways have persisted. So, as a result, you need an official letter of invitation from the Republic of Congo (ROC) Government to visit the country.  Your tour operator (Wilderness Safaris in this instance) handles that on your behalf.  This signed letter, plus several other documents including proof of Yellow Fever inoculation, needs to be sent to the ROC Embassy in Washington DC to get your visa.  We used Travisa for this & they did a great job – it was pricey though.

Anyway cutting to the chase, on the day we arrived in Brazzaville on a Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi  a very surly French-speaking immigration official demanded to see our letters of invitation.  He wasn’t interested in my explanation that we had sent the letter of invitation to the ROC Embassy to get a visa, and that the fact that we had a visa in our passport ‘proved’ that we had letters of invitation.  We just did not have them on us…

We were pulled out of the line and made to stay back with two Dutch businessmen (Heineken employees) who were getting exactly the same treatment.  I pretty much just shrugged my shoulders and looked befuddled – and after a while – when he learnt that we were ‘touristes’ en route to Odzala – the official handed back our passports and curtly waved us through.  Whew!  A rather bumpy introduction to the Congo.  There was more to come.

The driver from Mikhaels Hotel who was supposed to take us to the hotel never showed up.  They knew we were coming and had our arrival details, basically just a screw-up on their part.  Which caused an unnecessary delay and much grousing from me.  Eventually we got into a taxi and was driven the few miles to Mikhaels Hotel in Brazzaville.

MIKHAELS HOTEL, BRAZZAVILLE

At first glance the Mikhaels was a nice place:  imposing lobby, great coffee while we waited for our room and a friendly manager who took time to answer all our questions.  Unfortunately an overnight stay exposed several flaws.  For one thing, everything is over-priced.  Notably the restaurant, but also the drinks with the exception of local Congolese beer (Ngok or Primus, made locally by Heineken).  For example, we paid as much as US$12.00 for a mediocre glass of wine and nearly $50.00 for a rather plain dinner (Saka-Saka – a local vegetarian dish – rice & pomme frites with 2 soup starters) for the two of us.  We had a few other minor gripes about the hotel: very small rooms – or at least some of them – tiny showers, and very slow internet/wifi.  All in all an okay choice in Brazzaville – but we may try a different hotel the next time around.

By the way the Saka-Saka  is made from plantain leaves – otherwise known as manioc or yuca – ground up with palm oil and some seasonings.    Served with plain white rice it is quite delicious and definitely worth trying if you are an adventurous diner.  It has an an earthy flavor reminiscent of Marog, a wild spinach dish from South Africa.   [Marog might be a species of amaranth – I will definitely have to follow up on that].  I was not at all impressed having to pay $4.00 extra for a ‘condiment’ platter with hardly more than a dab each of of ketchup, mayonnaise and what looked like mustard.

And don’t get me started on the poor excuse of a laptop in the business center.  In typical French fashion the rather important @ key is non-functional.  To get an @ symbol into an e-mail address you have to do ‘control’ and zero at the same time. Very logical and totally intuitive.  Right.

ACROSS THE EQUATOR TO ODZALA-KOKOUA

On the morning of our departure to Odzala, it was raining in Brazzaville.  A lot.  Clearly a big tropical storm had moved into the area and wasn’t going to clear out soon.  And so it was.  Our flight out of Brazzaville was delayed by about 90 minutes.  No problems with that; the local representative of Wilderness Safaris smoothed things over considerably by having us wait out the delay in the airport’s comfortable business lounge.  We enjoyed some good coffee and got to know some of the other members of our group – all of whom were seasoned Africa travelers.

When we finally took off it was towards the south and we could see a couple of landmarks near our hotel, the one being a very ugly cell-phone tower. The pilot then banked to the left and made a gentle 180-degree turn pointing us pretty much due north.  Just to our right and below was the Stanley Pool of the Congo River, an almost lake-like widening of the river which also marks the first navigable stretch of this major waterway.  From the air the volume of water and the strength of the current were impressive.  If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the Congo River was in flood stage, but of course its rate of flow is fairly constant, having catchment areas in both the southern and northern hemispheres.

It took just less than 2 hours non-stop from Brazzaville to the landing strip at Mboko in Odazala-Kokoua National Park.  Along the way we peered out from 15,000 feet to stare at magnificent forest patches sliding by underneath us,  sometimes contiguous for many miles.  As we approached Mboko the habitat changed quite dramatically to a more open, mostly savannah landscape with strips of riverine forest and patches of tropical forest.  Mboko is about an hour’s drive from Lango Camp, one of Wilderness Safaris’ two classic camps currently being operated in the area.  We would not visit it until day 4 of our stay.  Our first stop was the other camp – Ngaga.  Ngaga is hardly the most mellifluous of options for a camp name, but that’s where we were headed.

NGAGA CAMP – THE PLACE OF THE GORILLAS

For the three nights you spend at Ngaga Camp, you will never be far from the Marantaceae forest.  Right around the camp it is the most dominant vegetation and on both of the gorilla treks we walked alongside and  through massive stands of this giant herb.  It reminds one a bit of a very dense kelp forest with heavily entangled stems and a profusion of massive leaves.  From above it looks like a thick carpet or even a giant vividly green lawn.  One glance makes it clear that a Marantaceae forest is all but impenetrable.  All you can is to follow the same paths used by forest elephant (where they are present, not the case at Ngaga), forest buffalo, gorilla, forest hogs and other animals.  It is believed that Marantaceae forest is an intermediate stage in the reforestation of the savannah, in this area.

The Marantaceae forest in front of and around Ngaga Camp is most impressive and it totally obscures the walkways from the lodge to the bungalows.  Just 2 metres from the edge of the camp boardwalk you’re way over your head in the Marantaceae – only to re-emerge a the edge of the walkway to your room.

Which brings me to the rooms.  At Ngaga they are elevated several meters above the Marantaceae with the front opening & small verandah with chairs and table, literally just a few meters from the edge of the closed canopy forest.  We spent some time sitting there and just listening to the sounds emanating from the forests.  Several birds which I never saw, some cicadas, frogs and other tropical rainforest sounds which I might never have heard before.  One  bird call in particular was intriguing as it was familiar to me – the very distinctive call of the green coucal, known locally as the yellowbill.

Like I said, I never saw the yellowbill or for that matter many birds at all, at Ngaga.  Which is not unusual in a forest environment. A forest just does not give up sightings left, right and center. It parcels them out slowly and selectively – or sometimes not at all.  You’re not driving up to gazelles in open savannah – you are searching for elusive species – many of which are largely nocturnal or furtive by nature.  Further complicated by limited visibility and limited vantage points.  So take a large dollop of patience and a stiff measure of reasonable expectations with you on your first trip to this area.  You won’t see everything you’ve come to see.  However almost everything you do see will surprise and delight you.  My best advice is not to get hung up on a long laundry list of exotic species.  Make the destination itelf part of the experience, enjoy the magnificent forests, the bais, the rivers and the overall experience of being in one of the last few truly pristine places in Africa.

Back to the rooms at Ngaga.  The elevated location right on the edge of the forest is perfect and the size –  just 6 rooms – and scale of the camp is ideal.  A hotel in the bush would be out of place at Odzala considering the fragility of the environment and the tone of the experience.  The bee-hive styled huts are made of locally sourced materials and minimalist in style and execution: nothing superfluous or ostentatious here.  A very comfortable mosquito-net ensconced bed, a rather odd but functional bronzed metal toilet/bathroom structure and a very effective hot water system.  Not a lot of space to hang or store things, but cozy and well insulated from the exterior.  We never had any issues with bugs.

The low-key yet impressive lounge and dining room at Ngaga is several meters higher than the rooms, on the high side of the Marantacea forest which leads down to the edge of the forest.  It has the same ‘no-frills’ feel and look of the rooms, again quite appropriate for the setting. Looking out from the dining room, the Marantacea has the appearance of an overgrown tea plantation and visually it has the same soothing, pleasing effect.  In the distance is the rain-forest, sometimes partially obscured by mist.

The food and hospitality at Ngaga were impeccable and manager Olivier was a star.  He was entertaining, helpful, friendly and made sure that we were well-briefed and well-prepared for the gorilla treks.  The same can be said about or Wilderness Safaris guide Justine Brown.  She was knowledgeable, very friendly and considerate of our well-being.  Her driving skills were superb too! The other half of our group was guided by Maxwell Muswere (who hails from Zimbabwe) and they had the same high opinion of his skills.

Continue to Part 2

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