“Back in 2010, Odzala-Kokoua was in trouble. African Parks arrived to find elephant carcasses poached for ivory while manioc had been planted in bais once rich with wildlife,” Fraser told me. Lango Bai, which the lodge overlooks, still sees little game. “I think in a few years time, when wildlife realises it won’t be hunted, we’ll see elephants and gorillas coming out of hiding in the forest to use this bai.”
Lango’s moonshine cabaret endorsed Fraser’s hopes. Under cover of darkness, forest elephants (a distinctly smaller pachyderm with straightened tusks, engineered for forest dwelling) frolicked and trumpeted in the muddy bai, while hyenas howled – perhaps salivating over airborne aromas of Jerome’s Irish liqueur and chantilly cream dessert?
We were awoken every morning at 5am, and each day featured two wildlife-watching activities, from wading through liquid swamps to savannah game-drives and boat trips outrunning tsetse-flies down the River Lekoli.
In the swamp forests we followed the muddy tracks of elephants, red river hogs and a python with a body the width of a car tyre. We encountered abundant chestnut-coloured forest buffaloes (smaller than Southern African cape buffaloes) while exuberant trogons, hornbills, kingfishers and palm-nut vultures featured among Odzala-Kokoua’s 430 bird species. The park also boasts 31 species of primate. Shaggy black-and-white guereza colobus devoured fruits around the camp while putty-nosed monkeys did great renditions of Jimi Hendrix going ape on his wah-wah pedal.
We eventually intercepted a small she-herd of elephants during a sundowner savannah drive. Being almost submerged by tall straw-coloured bush, the females had their trunks raised like periscopes.
We also got a taster of what lay ahead at Ngaga Camp. Within minutes of entering one rainforest stand, pandemonium erupted. “Listen. Chimpanzees calling,” shushed Fraser.
“What those?” pointed out a guest.
“No… they’re gorillas, small ones!” Fraser exclaimed, as two of them hurriedly shinned down parallel trees, 30m away. The hunt seemed on until elephants gatecrashed the party with rotten timing. Unseen in the tall floppy marantaceae, they noisily forced us into retreat because Fraser couldn’t be sure how close they were.
Man vs forest
But my Central African great ape voodoo was about to be spectacularly exorcised at Ngaga, where the wildest ape encounters on earth awaited.
Ngaga Camp is a four-hour drive west of Lango, towards Gabon, across national park savannah studded with ochre termite mounds shaped like the evilest of Transylvanian castles. The only settlement on route is Mbomo, a mud-brick village where Ebola outbreaks in 2002-3 claimed many lives – both ape and human. It’s a village where the local Congolese exist harmoniously alongside their primate neighbours, which live some 8km away in Ndzehi Forest – where we were headed.
Ngaga Lodge is located in a forest clearing inside Ndzehi and resembles Lango’s set-up. Six huts are linked to the main dining platform by paths cut through the vegetation. The whole camp is surrounded by skyscraper rainforest gift-wrapped by straggly lianas.
Primatologist Magda Bermejo relocated to Ndzehi four years ago. The area has an estimated gorilla population of 105 spread over six families, and Magda has been patiently habituating two gorilla families to human contact. The clans are named after their alpha-males: Jupiter is a reclusive 180kg silverback but star of the show is 27-year-old Neptuno and his 16-strong family.
It was Neptuno we sought early next morning with local tracker Gabin and Swiss guide, Etienne Rochet. Etienne explained that strict guidelines exist for contact with gorillas: you must approach no closer than 7m; you get only one hour with them; there must be no backing off when Neptuno charges – as apparently he always does, egged on by his senior spouse, Roma.