By Bert Duplessis
A ‘PYGMY’ VILLAGE AND THEN ON TO LANGO
Our 4th day in Odzala-Kokoua National Park unexpectedly turned into a very long traveling day. The usual 4-hour or so journey from Ngaga to Lango Camp dragged on to 7 hours due to a couple of stops along the way at a church service and then again at a pygmy village which turned out not to have any pygmies. Or pygmy huts for that matter.
It was interesting nonetheless as the villagers – who had to date not received many or maybe any visits from Odzala tourists – tried their level best to entertain us. There was a dancer with what seemed to be leopard spots painted on his skin dancing away to the rhythmic sound of a couple of drums, and lots of kids and adults enthusiastically cheering him on. A few of our group were more enthusiastic than others to join in. We took some photographs and departed wondering whether this was a good idea or not. Was there any tangible benefit to the village – and would this lead to any long-term association with the inhabitants? Probably not.
Finally we made it to Lango where our vehicle promptly got stuck in a quagmire of mud just a few meters from the front entrance of the camp. The entire camp is elevated on a boardwalk which is set inside of a small forest on the edge of Lango Bai which is an open clearing or saline. The view from the open fireplace or for that matter from anywhere in the lounge and dining room area at Lango is pretty spectacular. In the early morning when there is some fog around, even more so.
We were hungry and perhaps a bit crabby after such a long journey. As a result some housekeeping issues at Lango assumed bigger important than they might have otherwise. The fans in the dining room did not work and it was really quite stiflingly hot on the day. The warm water apparatus in our room (a paraffin boiler) was ridiculously ineffective. We never knew if we were going to get just steam, a sudden rush of scalding hot water, cold water or nothing at all. As far as I know this system has now been replaced with the same very effective units as at Ngaga. Also – our shower had a leak (they were waiting for the silicone sealant) and the mosquito net was really dirty with stains all over it. Very surprisingly, the entire back ‘wall’ of the room at Lango was open. I have stayed in several rooms on safari which were open to the outside such as at Sand Rivers in the Selous – and it can be a very effective design element. At Lango it just makes no sense. The camp is built right on the edge of a swamp with a heavy insect presence day and night – there is no way it should be partially open. We were told that the materials to cover the back of the rooms were en route.
Everything else I said about the size and scope of Ngaga being ideal for the setting also applies to Lango. This is indeed a light footprint and it clear that sustainability is taken seriously here.
ON A RIVER IN THE CONGO
This morning we reverted to our early start regime. Up at 05:00A, breakfast at 5:30A and off on a river cruise just after 6:00A. The actual river trip didn’t start until about 08:00A because it takes more than an hour to get to the boat ramp which is near the as yet un-opened Mboko Camp. In truth, we could have gotten there a lot earlier if we had not stopped for several animal and bird sightings along the way including Forest Buffalo, Palmnut Vulture, Forest Elephant in the distance and spotted hyena.
At the boat dock our skipper ‘Rock’ had to bail some water from the aluminum skiff (which can take up to 8 passengers) and it took a while before we were underway, mostly drifting down the strong current of the Lekoli River.
It was quite exciting to be in a boat on a river in the Congo. For a minute there we felt like explorers of old, traveling into terra incognita. Any romantic notions of stepping into a Joseph Conrad novel were soon dispelled by several tsetse flies who were hitching a ride. We were well-prepared with a Dettol mix and I had applied Peaceful Sleep before getting dressed and also on the outside of my clothes. Almost nobody got bitten & the TF were reduced to just a nuisance. One did make it to an unprotected spot low on my ankle below the edge of the boot. So to repeat: spray the ankles and feet liberally, wear long, thick protective socks and tuck your long pants into the socks.
The trip down the river did not deliver a lot in the way of game sightings. We saw a couple of elephant in the distance and had brief sightings of puttynosed and colobus monkeys. We did enjoy a very good sighting of the rarely seen African Finfoot (male). Several other bird species were either seen pretty well (a few) or just glanced before they flew away or ducked into the undergrowth (most of them). Just another day in the life of a bird-watcher in a tropical rainforest.
It was a long way back from the boat to camp. Well over an hour and with not nearly as much to be seen as early in the morning. Lasting impression of the boat trip: amazing riverine vegetation, towering trees, almost mangrove-like conditions. A bit like Louisiana but without any Cajuns. The group consensus on the boat ride was fairly unanimous: too far to drive to the dock and too quiet. Lots of trees, but not enough animals.
We enjoyed our siesta this day and then went out on a low-key ‘Palm drive’ by late afternoon, along the fringe of the wetland area, staying on high ground. We saw lots of birds, some forest buffalo and enjoyed a pretty good sighting of Forest Elephant. It was a small party of 4 or 5 elephants, slowly making their way across an open area, right below and across from where we were parked.
WALKING IN THE BAI
This morning our activity took the form of a walk along the Lango Stream which empties into the Lekoli River. This was a first for most of us. Willingly and purposefully stepping off a small dock into the sandy bottom of a flowing river is counter-intuitive behavior. Our instincts are to stay dry, and certainly not to embrace the water, at least not fully clothed.
On this day the ‘water walk’ was destined for a slow start due to a complication in the form of a small group of forest buffalo. They were standing and feeding exactly where we wanted to go. One male took a particularly keen interested in us, approaching to within 20 meters of us. If it were a Cape Buffalo our guide Justine would not have allowed it nearly that close. These local forest buffaloes were apparently a lot less aggressive. Even so, we were not about to prove or disprove the theory and kept a safe distance.
This necessitated a muddy detour through an extensive boggy area. One or two ous almost lost a shoe and there was a tense moment or two before we were able to veer back into the water, onto firmer footing. For the next couple of hours or so, we were mostly splashing gently through water. Here and there the stream narrowed and deepened. A few times the water came up to mid-thigh level, higher than even most gumboots. There was no way to keep your feet and pants dry except perhaps by wearing a good pair of fishing waders. Better to just go with the flow and use shoes which you don’t mind getting wet. Just be sure that they strap on securely.
The ‘buffalo delay’ ended up being fortuitous because we soon saw a forest elephant crossing the stream not too far from us, walking from our left to our right. This ended up being the best forest elephant sighting of the entire trip.
A bit further on we reached a clearing with some white (salty) patches – the so-called ‘saline’ which attracts a lot of wildlife notably African Grey Parrots and Green Pigeons. For several minutes we seemed to be in the middle of a bird storm with hundreds of parrots and then pigeons flying over in huge flocks, twisting this way and that. The changing angle of the light caused them to change color repeatedly – quite a spectacle. Standing there I realized that I was seeing and experiencing something that is possible in very few places in the world – likely only to be seen in the Congo Basin rainforest. We tried to take some photographs to capture the moment but it was like trying to photograph fish flashing through a breaking wave. An impossible task.
We turned around at a small island where we enjoyed some juice & water and a light snack. Working quite a bit harder – dragging our legs through the current – we slogged back upstream to the lodge. Despite out initial apprehension the stroll in the Baie ended up being the most popular activity at Lango.
As a group we decided to forego a second boat trip. Instead, we opted for a short forest walks which was an uneventful but pleasant outing. We very much enjoyed our last sundowner on African soil, toasting a successful trip with a G & T or some local Congolese beer, with a nice spicy ‘Hot Mix’ snack from France.
It was dark by the time we got back to camp. Our Congolese adventure was almost over. One last dinner with some new-found friends, one last attempt at coaxing some hot water from the recalcitrant paraffin heater system and then we settled down for the night. Safely behind the confines of the mosquito net we managed just a few small pages with large typeface on our Kindles before our room #2 reverted to the utter darkness of an equatorial night.
Even though we couldn’t see our hands in front of our eyes, our sense of hearing made the rest of the night quite exciting. Mostly because a group of Forest Elephant which congregate and apparently socialize in the Baie in front of camp, on a regular basis. Perhaps it had something to do with the waxing moon, but they were out in force this night. Several times they woke us up with their trumpeting and squealing shrieks. We were close enough to also hear their deep communicative rumbling sounds.
A DAMP GOODBYE FROM ODZALA
On the day of our departure – Wednesday Nov 13 – we woke up to the sound of heavy rainfall at around 05:00A. It did not let up until past 07:00A – fortunately we had protective plastic bags for our camera gear and other sensitive equipment. Shortly after breakfast we got onto our game-viewers and splashed through the mud and water to the airstrip, a trip of about 90 minutes. I think we were a bit apprehensive about taking off under less than ideal conditions but once again the Caravan demonstrated its suitability for rough terrain. It took to the skies in a burst of power and we all exhaled, turning our thoughts to the last phase of our journey and the trip home. We were damp and a bit tense but as the aircraft inched closer to Brazzaville one could sense the mood improving. Soon enough the usual banter resumed as we discussed our various plans. Some members of the party would go on to the DRC and other African destinations.
We would be going home to Texas but not until late that night, so it was very convenient to have a day room at the Mikhaels Hotel. We enjoyed a late lunch at the Mami Wata restaurant which was a fascinating spot overlooking the wide Congo River with Kinshasa clearly visible across the water. There were a couple of interesting things on the menu (pizza and Saka-Saka amongst others) and the local ‘special’ cocktail – with quite a bit of Curacao and hence very blue – was definitely palatable. Yes the joint is over-priced just like the restaurant at the hotel, but by then we were inured to silly prices. I would recommend doing this – and it is just a short $2 or $3 taxi ride from the Mikhaels Hotel.
A FEW AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
As I said in my introduction, Odzala was all about the gorillas for me and I would happily have spent all 6 nights at Ngaga and spent more time with them. At other times of the year Lango is likely better – it was just not nearly as exciting or productive from a wildlife perspective, as Ngaga.
One hesitates to be critical of ‘nuts and bolts’ issues at camps located in a remote area like this. I realize that operating conditions are far less than ideal. Obviously getting anything into and out of Odzala – or the Republic of Congo for that matter – is a logistical nightmare and involves a lot of bureaucratic obstacles.
However, if the operator wants to position Odzala-Kokoua in the same ‘basket’ with North Island in the Seychelles and Abu Camp in Botswana, they are going to have to step up their game significantly. There was an unfinished, somewhat improvisational feel to several of the elements of the experience, notably the accommodation and some of the activities such as the village visits. Unlike practically every Wilderness Safaris property I had ever been to in Southern Africa, everything did not work well. Sometimes very little worked – like at Lango – and there was no apparent sense of urgency to get it fixed.
The level of service at Lango leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps it was just a training issue but the local staff just did not seem very guest-friendly, if one could put it like that. Little things like not enough coffee in the morning and an apparent reluctance to make more, or just not being available at the right times. I also had some (vegan) food catering issues at the camp, particularly with breakfast when sometimes the only option was fruit and a piece of toast. Nobody at the camp seemed to realize that our group hardly touched the selection of cold meats which was put out every morning. The same platters kept re-appearing with the same result. The food was generally palatable and perfectly fine but the presentation was not the best. Plenty of pizza but not enough pizzazz.
Not including the gorilla experience which was phenomenal I thought the two properties were too focused on delivering just the basics such as accommodation, food and activities. Yes it is admittedly much more difficult to do that in a hostile environment like the Congo, but the aim should always be to delight and surprise guests with little extras, going beyond the expected or the mundane . At Odzala-Kokoua the setting, the novelty of visiting the area, the exotic wildlife and of course the gorillas overshadow any shortcomings but at this price-point visitors are going to expect more. Hopefully these are teething issues which will be dealt with promptly.
Would-be visitors to the Republic of Congo should print a color copy of the ‘Letter of Invitation’ and have it ready on arrival.
- You will be asked for proof of Yellow Fever inoculation on arrival.
- At Mikhaels Hotel, restaurant proportions are gigantic. So order for one, it is more than enough for 2 persons.
- Visitors are not encouraged to give away items like pencils or other small gifts to village children; it leads to enmity and creates expectations which cannot always be fulfilled. The camps buy items like baskets direct from the villages.
- If you do want to reward someone for a job well done, consider bringing a soccer ball for the camps or a bird-book or other guide for the trackers.
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