Underneath the bare night sky, the bar’s courtyard was standing-room only. A febrile throng of Congolese, Angolans and variegated expats moved to a surging fusion of African and Latin beats. The band’s insistent, reckless melodies played out as a waitress circulated purposefully, her tray glistening with tall bottles of Primus beer. It was late, and at La Bodega de Brazza anything could happen on a sultry Brazzaville night. It had been a heady introduction.
Earlier, I had dug my toes into the golden sand of Brazzaville ‘beach’ and stared across the river to the high-rise centre of Kinshasa, capital of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I’d already acclimatised enough to exist uneasily in present-tense French; to count the cost of a cold beer and the price of an Airtel SIM card.
But only under the starry sky, my head swimming with careless rhythms, did I feel I’d truly arrived. An initial sense of disbelief is not an uncommon reaction among those first setting foot here.
All too often, people wrongly equate the Republic of Congo (commonly known as Congo-Brazzaville) with the chaos that encircles the region: the troubled Central African Republic to the north, the disputed Angolan exclave of Cabinda to the south, and its largest, noisiest neighbour, the DRC, to the east. That’s not to say the history of this former Marxist state is unblemished.
Back in 1997, civil war engulfed the nation, with peace only being brokered some three years later. Today, tribal political divisions are still entrenched and poverty, sadly, remains rife. However, for its visitors, the city of Brazzaville is a calm antidote to many of Africa’s better known capitals, and visitors are arguably safer wandering here than in, say, Kenya’s Nairobi or South Africa’s Johannesburg. But I hadn’t come all this way to explore a concrete jungle.
Beyond Congo-Brazzaville’s capital, in a country almost one-and-a half times the size of the UK but with fewer than 4.5 million citizens, the rainforests of the north-western Congo Basin are justly famed yet little seen by travellers. I was bound for Odzala-Kokoua National Park, a 13,600 sq km stretch of forest and one of the most botanically diverse regions on Earth.
Here, over 4,400 plant species have been recorded, alongside 444 species of birdlife, wild elephants, buffalo and leopards. It’s the park’s primates that make all the headlines though, and in the forests of northern Congo Brazzaville it’s said that western lowland gorillas outnumber people. With newly relaunched lodges deep in gorilla territory, I was to leave the thrills of Brazzaville behind for a real-life planet of the apes.
Buffalo in national park, Congo-Brazzaville (Dreamstime)
A 40-minute Equatorial Congo Air flight from Brazzaville to Ollombo Airport broke the back of the journey. From here, Odzala’s Mboko camp lay north, across the equator and a further eight hours by road. It wouldn’t be exactly smooth going, though. From Etoumbi onwards, the final part of the journey was off-tarmac and under a blanket of darkness, my rear feeling every jagged contour.
“It’s a helluva drive,” declared my guide, whiskered man of the wild Allon Cassidy. He wasn’t exaggerating, and for the first time I wondered if it might have been wiser to have opted for the direct flight that had been available. A cable-hauled raft of rusted pontoons carried our 4WD across the Likouala River. Alongside us, the skeleton of an unfinished bridge divided the current – a pre-election promise that had served its purpose. I asked the ferryman about it. “Who knows when it will be finished. Maybe never…” he smiled.
Allon kept radio contact with the two trailing vehicles of our convoy as we ploughed on. Soon the red-earth track narrowed as elephant grass and foliage began to encroach on both sides. We fishtailed through mud, crashed through puddles – “We’re lucky there hasn’t been much rain lately,” Allon reassured – and were periodically bounced off our seats.
All the while, our world, as defined by the narrow twin beams of the car’s headlights, filled with indignant-looking owls and surprised giant forest rats. At a village clearing, a barrier fell across the track. Men carrying AK47s roused themselves. “Eco-guards,” whispered Allon. Inside, a scattering of huts and small fires suggested other souls were still awake, and over our heads the Southern Cross and Plough hid behind a brilliant silvery mist that had drifted in from the Milky Way, with Mars and Jupiter now the only reliable beacons.
Not-for-profit conservationists African Parks had taken over management of Odzala-Kokoua in 2010 and offered amnesties to the local poachers, along with the opportunity to re-train as eco-guards.The initiative appeared to be working well, forging links with the local communities that reinforced the value of live wildlife.
But there are limits to their powers – especially when it comes to outsiders. “One eco-guard told me he found a presidential security guy with 150kg of monkey once,” said Allon. “What’s he going to do? Shoot him? It’d be more trouble – this isn’t the DRC.”
Much later, at another checkpoint, there was more activity – a cacophony of competing sound systems at a strip of ad-hoc ice-box bars. This time, the atmosphere was more noisy than lively. “That was the metropolis of Mbomo,” reported Allon, as the music faded and we were once more enveloped by forest. A few miles further on, the lights of Mboko camp finally appeared and I emerged from the 4WD. But as I retired for the night, my guide left me with one last piece of wisdom ringing in my ears. “Keep to the paths and watch out for snakes,” he warned. It was bedtime advice that I did not think to question.
In the light of morning, Mboko’s grassy clearing of termite mounds was a revelation. Allon and his fellow guide, Teske, led walks following animal trails in the nearby forest, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being tested, our reactions gauged for the journey ahead. As we wandered, the drama of the forest played out around us. The strangler figs, termites and fungi all contrasted with the flush of new-growth saplings and ferns that thrived in their wake – standing still for too long here meant becoming compost.
And as we pushed on, the guides pointing out tree trunks gouged by elephant tusks, the tracks and droppings of red river hogs, and shared their own tales. “The funniest thing I’ve ever seen here? A buffalo, its eyes rolling in ecstasy as it rubbed the ticks from its testicles on a low branch,” chuckled Allon at one point. I pondered the tableau for a moment, then quickly pressed on, climbing fallen trees, jumping columns of matabele ants and ducking droning swarms of bees, utterly consumed by the life of the forest.
The following day, we kayaked along the fast-flowing Lekoli River to the neighbouring camp of Lango. As we pulled onto the bank, Allon said that he had a surprise in store for me. “We’re going shopping for limes,” he declared, and from a prickly thicket we quickly filled up several bags. Back on the river, natural drama soon reasserted itself as we paused to spy a pied kingfisher that we were greeted with a bottle of gin and some ice. Thankfully, we had the forethought to bring our own foraged limes.
African grey parrot (Dreamstime)
The next day saw heavy rain, so activities were on hold. But it also afforded a chance to finally breathe in my surroundings, and from the camp’s deck I surveyed the bai. The buffalo had returned and a woolly-necked stork was hot-stepping between flooded channels. More than 100 African grey parrots noisily occupied the tree canopy until a Palm-nut vulture flew overhead and panicked them into the air. I was static but the vista was ever-changing. Then, as if on cue, the grey bulk of an elephant emerged from the forest and made its unhurried progress towards the deepest part of the bai. I felt blissfully inconsequential.
Our last stop was perhaps the most anticipated. Ngaga camp was built on a hillside overlooking the forests of Ndzehi concession, just outside the Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Once accessible only to the super-rich, it has since changed operators and now welcomes those travelling on less aspirational budgets. For many visitors, though, the gorillas here are the reason that they travel to Congo-Brazzaville, even if seeing them requires something of an early start.
I was lulled to sleep that night by a chorus of tree hyrax (whose tortured cries could crack concrete), and four-thirty came around all too soon. At Ngaga’s thatched lobby, our group of four had assembled to be kitted out with surgical masks (gorillas can contract human diseases) and fly-nets. It was there that we met Gabin Okele, who has followed gorillas in Odzala for 17 years in support of its research teams. He would be tracking the park’s two habituated families (primates acclimatised to the presence of humans) for us that morning.
“Sometimes it takes a while,” warned our guide, Andreas Boussiery. “Gabin will stop and listen, and perhaps we won’t hear what he hears. These guys know the forest. They know the gorillas. We need to be patient, so give him space and ask questions later.” Machetes in hand, Gabin led us off into the forest at a deliberate pace. We followed, but not too close, as Andreas pointed out pangolin excavations, colonies of arboreal termites and signs of forest hogs.
“There’s been little research on the trees here,” said Andreas. “There are no books. We use a couple of Central African Republic guides. That’s it, though some are currently being written.” The most prevalent vegetation was the marantaceae – broad-leafed stems that grew up to 2.5 metres high and resembled aspidistras on steroids. “The stalks are prime gorilla food. Try it,” Andreas prompted. I did, and decided they would benefit from chilli sauce.
Ahead, Gabin paused and listened, then began cutting through the undergrowth. We followed. It was early but hot, and the humidity was intense. Sweat bees swarmed our faces and we deployed our fly-nets. Suddenly, Gabin pointed two fingers to his eyes and then to the forest. There next came a crashing through the undergrowth, and Andreas motioned us to pull on our masks. I narrowed my eyes and a dark shape part way up a narrow tree trunk slowly resolved into a female gorilla, a youngster on her back.
Western lowland gorilla in Congo-Brazzaville (Dreamstime)
The group stopped and we took turns to observe, as another female, called Roma, emerged from the undergrowth. Both were members of the Neptuno group (named after its dominant silverback) and looked relaxed in our company. Roma reclined and started dozing, perhaps dreaming of something tastier than marantaceae stalks. Then a male crashed through the undergrowth, in and out of sight in an instant. It wasn’t a silverback, but a feisty juvenile making his presence felt.
Our allotted hour was up all too soon, and Andreas signalled it was time to leave. Back on the trail, we removed our masks and gulped down some water. I also took the opportunity to ask Gabin about the relationship between the locals and the gorillas. “The people who have work and have money, they like the gorillas. The people who have no work, not so much,” he said. “Now it is okay. Things are fine. Hunters come here and take some species, but not the gorillas. If the economy changes, the situation might change too.”
That night, Magda Bermejo, head of Odzala’s primate research, called in for a pre-dinner debrief. I was curious as to how this all started. “We were the first to habituate gorillas in Lossi, south of Odzala,” said Magda, “but Ebola infected the area and 5,000 gorillas died – almost 95%. So why not begin afresh, close to the communities, so they understand what we’re doing? In Lossi, it was hard – often ten hours’ walking to find gorillas.
Here, there are three-to-four gorillas per square kilometre. It’s unique.” I peered over her shoulder to see video footage from the forest’s camera traps showing the 23 other (non-habituated) gorilla families. Gorilla trekking anywhere is not a cheap day out, and Odzala is no exception. Such are the logistical rigours in Congo, even a high cost, low impact tourism model isn’t yet commercial.
The camp doesn’t make a profit. Its purpose is to provide a focus, a link with the local communities, and through employment of guides, cooks, waiters and other staff, together with the purchase of local produce, to reinforce the value of the forest and its wildlife. For visitors, the true lure of Congo-Brazzaville is that it remains a genuine adventure.
Away from the cafés and clubs of the capital, the Odzala’s forests, rivers and wildlife are a world apart. Safari chic it wasn’t (insects will bite and pungent black mud is guaranteed), but as an experience that captured the thrill of exploration in one of the wildest, least-visited parts of Africa, it was remarkable.
A number of Africa specialist tour operators offer variations of this itinerary. A seven-night itinerary similar to the author’s, including full-board accommodation, with two nights at Mboko Camp, two nights at Lango Camp and three nights at Ngaga Camp in Odzala; charter flights from Brazzaville, all meals, gorilla permits, boat/walking tours, a kayak safari and road transfers, costs around £6,500. To take the road transfer, inquire with your tour operator.
Main image: Gorilla in Congo-Brazzaville (Dreamstime)