Excerpt from the African Icons Book chapter: Odzala Conservation Area, Republic of Congo.
“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Welcome to the Jungle
Flying over the mist-shrouded green expanse of the Congo Basin our pilot dogged billowing storm clouds. “It’s so green down there because it rains a lot,” he quipped. For us the flight re-enforced the fact that we were entering a kind of dream realm. Descending towards the dense textured forest of Odzala-Kokoua National Park (where gorillas hide), I experienced the kind of travel jitters I have not felt for decades, the jungle is after all so much more mysterious than the African savanna.
We were headed to Congo Conservation Company’s Ngaga Forest and Lango Bai camps, the first of their kind in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville). They are not easy to get to, and you have to work for your pudding, so to say. But this surely must be the future of conservation and safaris in Africa, far more intriguing, revealing and fulfilling than any other on this continent.
The Congo Basin is the richest area in Africa for animal diversity; it has 409 mammal species and 1,000 bird species. The forest receives up to 1.5 metres of rainfall a year and plays host to about 10,000 varieties of plants. There are four seasons: long wet, short dry, short wet and long dry. The area can become oppressively humid in the wet seasons and as one writer rather aptly put it “Hiking through this claustrophobic hothouse is like being passed through the guts of the forest and being slowly digested.”
This is a place where you have to walk to find out what the jungle shelters: small duiker antelope of exuberant variety, as well as massive bongos, gorillas and many kinds of monkeys, forest elephants and red forest buffaloes, forest hogs, pottos and anomalures (flying squirrels), bushbuck and fanged deer (water chevrotain), distinct from a deer mouse. Of the approximately 30 primate species found in the central African forests, the putty-nosed monkey is surely one that only a putty-nosed mother could love.
But it is the western lowland gorillas that are the undoubted stars of the show. This is the only place where you will find habituated troops, a result of years of tireless work by the local researchers and their trackers, and where sightings are virtually guaranteed. Even if it means traipsing for several hours through the humid, tangled forest as your trackers cut a trail.
Have a look at our video below:
We stayed at Ngaga Forest and Lango Bai Camps while photographing and researching this chapter.
At Home in the Jungle.
Luckily at Ngaga and Lango no-one has to endure the kinds ofprivations suffered by Fay and French explorer Paul de Chaillu,where iced drinks, overhead fans and scented bathroom products are de rigueur. However, as our guide pointed out, the only time he gets to dry out his feet is when he goes on leave and then he goes to another forest, in another country, to visit family.
Both camps blend expertly into their surrounds, the look and feel of both taking inspiration from the local B’aka Pygmy settlements. Each has fabulous communal areas and six exclusive guest suites, all made from locally sourced materials. Ngaga camp is particularly enthralling as it is located in a marantaceae clearing, each suite raised three to four metres above the forest floor with vistas at the height of the tree canopy.
Lango camp is situated close to the Lekoli and Mambili Rivers and has elevated decks connected by timber walkways. It looks out over Lango Bai where various animals, particularly forest buffaloes congregate. The elusive forest elephants also visit but usually at night and can be heard feeding on the trees next to the walkways in camp.
We were rather spooked by tales of tsetse and biting flies, and mango worms, not to mention western lowland gorillas and forest elephants. However, the Odzala Discovery Camps offer you the chance to explore the Congo Basin rainforest in safety and comfort and in truth we found a safari to Odzala to be no more grueling than a visit to the Serengeti or just about any other safari destination.