By Bert Duplessis

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There are similarities between gorilla trekking at Odzala-Kokoua and in Uganda and Rwanda, but not many.  There are no formalities, no bureaucrats, no groups being randomly allocated  to guides or a dance troupe entertaining the tourists before they are driven to the trailhead.  It is very much a scaled down operation which adds immensely to its appeal.  No porters either, in an attempt to keep the groups as small as possible.

You walk right out of camp with just a single tracker leading the way, the only other non-visitor being your Wilderness Safaris guide.  Unlike the East Africa trips, there are no huge slopes to be tackled although on both days we had to resort to a bit of scrambling down steep embankments here and there, and there is a limited amount of slightly more difficult walking through swampy, boggy areas where waterproof boots come into their own.  At worst one could describe this as moderately difficult.  It is not quite a walk in the park but as long as you are capable of walking – with minimal resting – for up to an hour or two – you should be able to tackle this.  Unlike the mountain gorilla habitat the forests of the Congo basin are about 900 to 1,500 feet above sea level so there are none of the high altitude issues encountered in places such as Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

The way the gorilla trekking works at Ngaga is that there are two main habituated gorilla groups, headed up by two silverbacks – Jupiter and Neptuno – respectively.  Currently each group is assigned a tracker who takes a small party of 6 persons to see ‘his’ group on two consecutive mornings, currently Friday and Saturday.  Once the camps reach full occupancy there will be a second group of up to 12 in camp arriving on Sunday and doing gorilla treks on Monday and Tuesday.

The two gorilla treks – to the Jupiter and Neptuno groups – are done simultaneously with the visitors switching out trackers and gorilla groups (but not their Wilderness guide) on the second day of tracking.  On both days with guides Zephryn and Calvin we walked for about 45 minutes to an hour until we made contact with the gorillas. This does not mean that we went very far, less than 2 miles from the camp to where the gorillas were hanging out.

On the afternoon of the day prior to the gorilla trek, the tracker locates the spot where the gorillas will be spending the night.  He then uses that as his reference point the next morning, taking the trekking party to this last known location.  This is one of the reasons for the gorilla treks starting as early as they do:  the aim is to reach the gorillas while they are still fairly close to the nest and while they are still feeding.

Western lowland gorillas rarely move more than 3 kilometers (less than 2 miles) per day, but in the event of a disturbance – such as the presence of a leopard – or conflict they can move quite rapidly through the forest.  All the more reason to admire the tracking skills of the Odzala trackers who work solo and have to tease out clues about the whereabouts of the animals in a very tough tracking environment.  Rarely is it as easy as seeing footprints in mud.  Mostly the clues are subtle: a few broken twigs here and there, some discarded half-eaten fruit or a torn Marantaceae leaf.  When there is ripe fruit available the gorillas seem to favor it over other vegetation such as the Marantaceae leaves.

As I mentioned in my introduction, we got lucky with the gorillas on both days, finding them relatively quickly and ending up with some good views. Photographic conditions were never ideal with significant back-lighting issues.  An animal or bird  in a tree can be a photographer’s worst nightmare particularly if the background lighting is bright or harsh.  There is just no way to properly expose a very dark object like a black gorilla and not burn out the sky or light behind.  We do the best we can and hope that the object will move to a position where it has a dark leafy background.  Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.  Over the course of the two outings I made perhaps half a dozen useful captures.  Once or twice I might have done better with a longer (500 mm) lens but I would say 80% of the time the 70-200mm 2.8 lens with a 1.7 tele-converter worked quite well.

It is essential for the group to remain quiet and calm and to limit conversation and rapid movement.  We managed that both times and the results were remarkable.  After a while one or more of the gorillas moved closer – out of curiosity – and started to look at us.  The tables were turned – we were being tracked!  This resulted in the best views on both of the outings with a couple of curious gorillas descending quite low and either just sitting there looking at us, or even lying upside down in what seemed to be a very comfortable positioning, checking us out.

All in all having the gorillas up in the trees and moving about added a whole new dimension to the gorilla trekking outing.  On my two gorilla treks at Bwindi in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda I did not observe much activity beyond the gorillas stuffing their faces with big handfuls of bamboo shoots and other vegetation.  Not so in the Congo.  It was vibrant and dynamic – at one stage a fairly big branch snapped under the weight of a gorilla and the whole shebang came crashing down, much to our and the gorilla’s surprise, one would think.

I think all 5 of us felt that it was an exhilarating experience.  A good pair of binoculars is essential as the gorillas are rarely seen close-up.  Once contact has been made with the gorillas, all visitors have to wear face-masks.  A protective head-net is optional – I did not personally find the sweat-bees to be annoying enough to don the headgear.

We also did a couple of forest walks at Ngaga in the afternoons and while they were mostly rather quiet we did see a few interesting birds and some putty-nosed monkeys.  And lots more Marantaceae.

A brief outing to a local village was interesting but also a bit depressing – unfortunately there is nothing idyllic about poverty no matter where in the world it is observed.  I’ve become a little bit cynical about this but I think the point is that a short walk-through in any African village does not provide visitors with even the vaguest of clues as to the real issues and challenges faced by the inhabitants.  Yes there will be some smiling kids dressed in rags, chickens and goats and skeletally thin village dogs roaming around but there is nothing bucolic about it.  And an hour or two later you will still know practically nothing about the inhabitants.


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