The final one

Like in all great adventures, time starts off slowly and before you know it, the end is at your door (or tent?) step. For us, our time in the Congo basin had to come to an end.

Our days exploring Lango bai in wet, dry and muddy conditions were followed by a night at another clearing where the beautiful Mboko lodge sits. Surrounded by beautiful and enormous termite mounds, there is a dramatic beauty to be found in this camp in the rainy season. It was here where we were caught in a furious storm while doing one of our hikes and fully understood the meaning or the term RAINforest, and confirmed that truly there are no Bongos in the Congo.

On our last afternoon, we embarked on a boat cruise down the Lekoli River once more. Water systems are fascinating and the amount of life that can be found around them will always leave returning for more. On our last boat cruise we were particularly silly, having summed up the pros and cons of the trip, we had now all decided and re-affirmed we felt happy and honoured to have had the opportunity to explore such a pristine piece of wilderness.

Being the more sensible one at the silly hour, Adam asked us all for a minute of silence down the river, somewhat reluctantly we agreed. When you focus on being silent, nature unravels itself better, allowing you into her secrets.
It was in this 60 seconds of silence that we came across a sight we had all been hoping to encounter: a forest elephant. We had patiently waited for them at the Lango River deck, looked for them on our hikes and walked on their footsteps to no avail. As if by magic, as we came across a corner, there he was. Unaware of our presence until our gasps and camera clicks gave us away. He was deep in the water looking for minerals. When we got a little to close he let us know that was enough and we eventually retreated to give him his privacy. Adam’s request for silence couldn’t have been timed any better.

Giggling away in a fashion you can only do when your heart is full, we gave thanks to the Universe for this gift. This was a much-awaited sight for us; one we had been looking for since the very beginning of our adventure. We had only heard stories of the mythical forest elephants, a creature that for us had proven to be so elusive and mysterious.

Laying eyes on the forest elephant touched Tristan and I, and we couldn’t help but draw comparison from the Savanna elephant we had come to know so well and had spent hours with.

“What struck me the most were their eyes”
“Yes! Did you notice they are of a honey colour?”
“So silent, I never expected to see one in the river like that”
“We got lucky”
“We did at last”

Intoxicated by our encounter, Jeremy proposed we take a chance and departed early on a last boat cruise the following morning. When rationally thinking about the alternative of sleeping in seemed silly not to go on a last expedition even if it meant travelling back wet. Adventure was calling and we had to answer.

My adventure partner

So, early in the morning the river was mesmerising. Maybe because the caffeine hadn’t kicked in, we gently drifted down the river in silence – something that had become unusual for our group.  In this last morning, we saw a side of the forest we hadn’t seen before, a much more awake, active and spirited side of it.

We found a small breeding herd of elephants feeding close to water; they nervously retreated back into the safety of the forest without a sound, in contrast to the noisy birdlife and the moustached monkeys.

We then found two more elephant bulls in the water, enjoying the coolness and calmness of the water. In between these two sightings perhaps we had the most unexpected encounter of them all: a hippo. We had seen no signs of them around and it was surreal to see such a creature in the rainforest. It quickly went under water and navigated past the first elephant we encountered. According to our guide, this was only his second sighting ever of a hippo in the 5 years he had been there.

Our final sighting was perhaps the best. The second elephant bull we encountered was not bothered by our presence. If anything he seemed curious about us and – dare I say – almost playful towards us. While searching for mineral at the bottom of the river, he would casually find the time to flick some water in our direction.

Being late for breakfast and for our flights back, we reluctantly bid our goodbye to the elephants and the forest where it dwelled.

 ____________________

Writing the series about Odzala has been a bit of a mammoth task (Hallelujah it’s done!). It’s perhaps the longest series of posts I have ever written and I would like to thank everyone who has followed this adventure. It has been challenging to put into words this experience but after reliving these moments again I feel more certain that Odzala – Kokoua National Park needs to be protected, celebrated and visited. Few places in the world, like Odzala and the Congo Basin, need tourism so crucially to carry on existing and preserving all life within it; we will not get tired of promoting this treasure we have found within Central Africa’s rainforest, as it is our duty as naturalists to protect such ancient treasures.

I will be heading again in June 2019 to this magical place and we only have 2 more spots open. To book your spot you can email me on ale@wanderingthru.com or have a look at the itinerary link here

The year in review

I was supposed to write something memorable for the start of the New Year. I was supposed to have words and feelings flowing so that I could put in writing the wishes for a new year. The exact words never came as the end of the year was a tumultuous time. Many experiences, many feelings came rushing back in a time of the year where feel nostalgic and vulnerable and just as a good year ends we feel the memorable times can be eclipsed by regrets, missed opportunities or things we wished we had done differently.

After the rush of the holidays, real life settles in, you materialise new projects and look over your shoulder to the year that was. My overdramatic self settles down a you are able to weigh the experiences past and set an intention for what’s to come. I finished the year in my yellow underwear and my yellow backpack for good luck, for travel and good fortune; and while I leaped into the year by the hand of someone that doesn’t believe in superstitions (but jumped with me nonetheless just in case), I realized more than ever that we are the forgers of our path, a path that cake take many twists and turns in only 365 days. 

I welcomed the New Year with my big girl panties on being thankful for what I’ve got. I have lead a life I had never expected and while I wouldn’t change it, I sometimes feel I have let down a younger version of myself for not achieving in time certain milestones I thought were meant to come naturally. While 2018 started with a threat, I decided that I would take care of myself and not let the circumstances decide for me as I had previously allowed.

When I look back at that threat now, I realise that I was my biggest problem. I had to threaten the Universe and blame my luck to defy and change my stars. A rebel loves nothing better than a cause.  I decided to let go. I took the plunge. I worked hard, extremely hard. I put what mattered first. I put who mattered first. Way too many times I was out of my comfort zone. Way too many times I walked away. Way too many times I found hope.

2018 might have started with a threat, but it ended with no regrets and a big smile on my face. Sometimes we need to take ourselves out of the equation and get some perspective of what we’ve done, who we’ve met and where we’ve gone. Connecting the dots looking back fills you with a sense of purpose and on some mornings where everything is quiet, also pride. 2018 was one of the most fulfilling years I have ever had.

This year in turn didn’t start with a threat but with a promise: to never stop looking for the magic around us. 

Smells like Christmas

The first Christmas tree ever is said to have been put up in Riga in 1510 by a group of professional merchants. These merchants were known to celebrate twice-yearly holidays, amongst which decorating and then burning down the Christmas tree. Testament to the oldest writing in the subject, in Riga (the capital of Latvia) the city center still marks the place were the first Christmas tree was put up and decorated for this festive season.

Christmas and traditions go hand in hand with Latvians and this is perhaps why at Christmas I feel more Latvian than some other times of the year. Growing up in a mixed household traditions flew all around. We were Latvian, Italian and Venezuelan.

My grandparents escaped the USSR after the Second World War and returned to Latvia only in the beginning of the 1990s. Since Latvia’s liberation and proclamation as a sovereign nation, I’ve had many family members that have returned to a land they were once forced to flee.

In moving to Venezuela, a country across the world from everything they knew, my grandparents adjusted in a way that has forever marked my own life: to be grateful and to embrace the cultures of the country you live in, even it’s a different one, no matter how much you miss your own. During Christmas this is when I realised this the most.

Christmas is perhaps the time of the year were perhaps the Latvian side was the more prominent one. Lead by my grandmother and then by my mother and my aunt (only because they became too bossy) and eventually by me (I am my mother’s daughter after all), the beginning of the month of December always signalled a time that smelled like pine trees, tasted like pirags and was embraced by family.

As soon as the school holidays started an endless affair of baking began at Omi’s house. She had the biggest kitchen that would fit all grandchildren and children. When we were little we were allowed to participate only in doing the fun bits, playing with the dough, pouring the flour, using the pastry brush for the egg wash before being pushed to “go outside and play” – no doubt more to the adults benefit than our own.

Growing up I remember Pumperniks were always the first set of cookies we tackled. To this day, these are the best raw cookie dough there has ever been made on the face of the planet – so much that my mom had to bat us off the dough to be able to prepare it. I remember how successful and modern we felt when we convinced Omi to change the raisins for chocolate chip in our pumperniks. We could never completely eliminate the raisin option, but chocolate chips are to this day a win.

After the pumperniks we always made the Mandeļu radziņi– forever my least favourite ones. An almond base cookie dusted in icing sugar. My mom’s forever favourite that we are never allowed to take off the menu.

If two cookie recipes weren’t enough, we also made an endless supply of the ones that became my favourites: the piparkukas. The “pepper” cookies were always a favourite of mine after discussing with my aunt one day how such a strange recipe we so many different ingredients came to be: 

“We always used to joke that perhaps during the war someone stumbled in the pantry and knocked everything down; because you wouldn’t through anything away someone started mixing things until something edible came out”

The piparkukas always took the longest to cook as Latvian quantities are always meant for a feast of giants. We would decorate the first hundred (like gingerbread cookies) but give up with the ensuing 300. When the food crisis hit Venezuela, this was one of the recipes that became optional, as we couldn’t always find all the ingredients.

Mandeļu radziņi

Pirags were without the doubt the highlight of the Christmas preparations. On the pirag baking day everyone would come around during lunchtime in fear of everyone else finishing them all before having a chance to eat at least 10. Pirags are little breads that are filled with a mixture of smoked ham and bacon and they are everyone’s favourites. Tico and Vilis caribbea-nized them by instituting the tradition of having them with “guasacaca” (the Venezuela guacamole). There were no complaints on the Latvian side as avocado is one of the best things Venezuela offered.

After pirags came the longest and most daunting task of them all: making hallacas. Hallacas are the Venezuelan traditional Christmas dish. True to the Venezuelan culture, the hallaca is a mix of many different things. The hallaca includes elements of the European culture (such as raisins and olives) indigenous ingredients (such as the corn meal colored with annatto seeds), and African ingredients (the smoked plantain leaves used for wrapping and cooking). The broth of the hallaca was the first step of the process, one that I always stayed clear of as a bad broth could ruin the quality of the hallaca. The making of the hallaca on the other hand was a process that saw us lose a number of shirts and pants; the annatto used to color the white cornflour is powerful enough to ruin any cleaning will. As I got older the hallacas became a tradition of us women of the family. It was a nightmare to cook as it was long, but no self-respecting Venezuelan household would serve anything else to guests during a december dinner party or have anything else for Christmas dinner. I first learned how to squash the dough on the plantain leaf, add the broth, “forget” the raising when no one was watching, and add an extra piece of ham. I felt I had been accepted into the next level of womanhood when I was allowed to started wrapping my own hallacas in the plantains leaves and then tying them with the string before boiling them.

It was always a long affair that lasted a good full day, we always made arepas while enjoying some good eggnog “Ponche Crema” which became my favourite Christmas drink (because in Venezuela we make proper rum).

Venezuelan Hallacas made by Arepa & Co in the UK

Christmas in Venezuela always felt like a rush of baking, cooking and celebrating the so called “Christmas spirit” during the month of December. There was a chill in the air (Pacheco) that lingered on the houses every night, that made Caracas an even more pleasant city to be in, even as the city itself emptied out leaving only a few of us behind.

To this day I only truly feel like Christmas when the smells of that Astral kitchen come to me. I may live far away, my family scattered across the globe, but they taught me that the traditions you are brought up with will always live in your heart and it’s up to us to keep them alive. Because of this every year I try to bake a little bit more of what feels like home.

In the forest’s footsteps

I have never been a person of small and closed spaces. Although I enjoy trees immensely, the rainforest can easily take over and become somewhat overwhelming as walls of green are constantly surrounding you.
“I am a man of the forest” said our guide Alon with his long beard “I’m never going back to the savannah”
As he said this I smiled for myself, I know the essence of my being is his opposite.
The second stop of our Odzala adventure was a camp about 2 hours away called Lango.
 Lango is famous as it sits in a stunning “bai” that greets you as soon as you walk into the main area of the camp. The view is breath-taking and a welcome reprieve from the mysterious forest. “Bai” is the word used to describe the pockets of savannah that dot the forest cover. More formally a “bai” is a forest clearing where animals congregate to drink, socialise, eat and look for minerals. It was because of these bais that we had hopes in this area to come across elephants, bongos, sitatungas, buffalos and so many more creatures.
The view on arrival
This place had our hearts almost immediately. It’s hard to beat the feeling of coming into this open pocket of green and being greeted by a big heard of forest buffalo – a new species in the books for us! Later that evening as we all sat on the viewing deck, we were graced by the presence of a forest elephant who came down for a drink. Its quiet spell was immediately upon us. To come face to face with one of these giants had been on the top of our list. How different these elephants are from their savannah cousins! There is something mysterious about them, perhaps it’s the essence of their secret forest life.
After such a welcome it’s easy to understand why we were immediately captivated by Lango and why we decided to extend our stay here by one night and cut it short at the next camp. Although wildlife is all around the camp, Lango isn’t  a game “viewing” destination. Game drives are futile in the long grass of the savannah and the forest is impenetrable with a vehicle. The best way to explore Lango and its surroundings is either by boat, kayak or– my personal favourite – on foot. Lango provides endless opportunities to explore the forest and the bai through the myriad of walking routes in the swamps, the bais and the forest.
As close as we got to the Cong’s Bongos
Although wildlife is often around, it is finding their tracks and signs in the thick of forest that captured me the most. As a walking guide I felt out of my depth in a new and exciting way; approaching wildlife here in the forest is a much different experience.
Bubbling with excitement, the thing we looked forward to the most was to partake in a “long walk”. It’s a walk like no other. You don’t keep dry, you walk in the footsteps of forest elephants, encounter a buffalo or two and walk through some of the most spectacular swamps and patches of forest you could ever dream of.
The start of our walk
This walk was the moment we had been waiting for; I couldn’t wait to put on my battered pair of faithful yet sacrificial vans (shoes that wouldn’t make the trek back home).
Our walk (go team girl!) started early morning, wet and broken shoes, dry bags and cameras ready we set out to the river deck to start our journey. The boys had done their walk the day before (smaller groups are preferred when walking) and now it was our turn to explore the bai and the surrounding rainforest.
I have always found it strange how as humans we find pleasure in exploring, in wanderingthru different lands just trying to grasp the moment; trying to be present and let ourselves “be” in the moment while attempting to absorb everything we see, everything we feel as we attempt to store it on our memory bank.
The swamps hidden treasures
The long walk at Lango was a bit like that for me. With every step we took into the forest, the more I felt like a child on Christmas morning. Beauty and life were all around us. From the tracks of the elusive bongo, to the enormous flocks of African grey parrots, to the herds of forest buffalo grazing on the banks of the river, we could only feel honoured to explore such an ancient place.
True to any safari experience we had a coffee break halfway through our walk. Because we even had coffee cups from the lodge, we indulged in what Vicki aptly called “the civilized interlude during our rough and tumble”. Seeing our guide had gone through such effort of making the coffee and bringing the cups and muffin, we couldn’t say no.  Nicki was also lucky enough to find a nearby mandarin tree (traces of ancient trades that went through the Congo basin) and she indulged some more, packing her pockets full of this flavourful and exotic fruit.
The part we had been looking forward to the most was “the deep crossing”. With the water waist, this was the last patch of water we would cross before making our way through the dry forest back to the camp. Here of course we bumped into a buffalo who was happily wallowing and wasn’t too happy on moving on. It all resolved in a happy ending (more for us as the buffalo had to leave his spot) and we left the wet patch of the forest behind, heading deeply into the dry areas. We made it to the areas where ancient trees towered upon us and where elephant had left their tusk marks. You walk quietly in the forest, the leaves muffle any sound and you might be surprised at close quarters by any of the inhabitants of this place, from chimps, to elephants, to buffalo, to the odd bongo.
The “deep” crossing
Walking the rainforest of the Congo felt like walking in the land of some older spirit as we came across some naturally beautiful patches that would belong in some of the most curated and acclaimed botanical gardens, making me wonder if fairies were actually real. Although sometimes the forest looks empty, you never feel alone; there is always some secret being watching.
On the dry forest
Being able to explore this part of the world on foot, wading through water and land has been so far an insurmountable experience. One of the highlights of this year coming to an end, and one that I look forward to repeating in the near future!

The second Trek

Sometimes when you travel to remote lands you are exposed multiple times to the same experience. Experiencing a highlight more than once is perhaps the hook that beats the “you are crazy to go there” judgements from those who stay behind. This was the case with the gorilla treks. We were meant to have two and because they’re not as expensive as the permits in other parts of Africa, it was a big draw in for ape aficionados. While I was happy with the first experience we had had, and would have been happy with just one trek, it’s such an overwhelming experience that being able to experience it twice in the same area was definitely one of the best recommendations from Odzala Discovery Camps, as many things go unnoticed if you only do only one trek.

Our second trek started with us meeting Zepherin, the master tracker of the rainforest who has been working with Magda Bermejo (the leading researcher) for over 20 years. Having met, seen and worked with trackers for years in the savannah environment, this second trek allowed us the possibility of focusing our attention on how to track gorillas in a sea of green – a skill which Zepherin excels at.

Zepherin

We left camp and headed towards the trails that have been made and are maintained solely to track gorillas. We had a head start as Zepherin was leading us to the last spot where he had left them the previous night, which wasn’t too far from the camp. Upon reaching this point, we would then start looking for clues – broken branches, tracks, sounds, smells – as to the direction in which the gorillas had headed since Zepherin had last seen them. This was a very different walk from our first trek, we were deep in the undulating forest, thick walls of marantaceae siding us all along the way and a sense or urgency to find them.

Zepherin pointed to the side – this is where he left them last night. We were now on their trail and through years of skills he determined the direction in which it seemed they were headed into. We carried on walking before we coming across what looked like a tunnel through the forest – we followed it an discover a patch where the marantaceae has been squashed. They had nested here.

Gorilla clues in the forest

Zepherin hesitated – wait here. He came around after exploring a different path, they seemed to have been headed in a different direction and so we head back to the same trail. He cut a maratanceae stem and put it across the tunnel entry to signal we had already been there, we have already checked this spot.

All of a sudden we stopped. It sounded like a gorilla but we are not certain. We could feel the tension in the air. Zephering stopping more often and listening for clues. He look on the ground for tracks, on the trees for dark shapes and to the marantaceae for any signs, any clues that might reveal the gorillas.

What does a gorilla chest beating sound like? Well to me, like an elephant farting.

We reached the top of a hill, the forest extending beneath us. Zepeherin bid us to wait, he wanted to check the bottom of the valley. He believed we were nearing them and that they were probably settling for the morning.

All of a sudden someone points to the leaves moving in the valley beneath us.

“There”

Yes of course… I also saw nothing.

We waited for Zepherin to come back while we put on our face-masks on. When he returned and saw them down below I am almost certain I saw him smirking. Gorillas had played him today. We followed his cautious movements to approach the young males who were playing not to far from us. Our guide asks us to stay put while Zepherin works around with his secateurs.

As if by magic, a young male gorilla appears in front of us. He has been playing and lying around for the last while but he seems he’s ready for a good forest siesta.

“Hustle makes muscle” – I remind myself while trying to hold my camera as steady as possible and capture something I doubt I will be able to explain.

As if taken out of Disney’s Tarzan, I realize I’m about to witness something truly spectacular that sent Jane and her Dad into hysterics: a gorilla making his nest.

In a very lazy manner he started pulling leaves, entire marantaceae plants to create a nice comfortable bed. He pulled the leaves down and clumped them together in a movie like manner.
Out of everything I had ever heard about gorillas, this was the defining moment for me. Such a small act, seeing this male make its nest. As he ripped down the leaves and piled them up to make a comfortable bed, he lied down in the typical nonchalant male-way that young boys do (I have two brothers and I can tell you their poses didn’t differ all too much from this male); this act and his attitude really hit my core. When it laid down, hand resting on top of him, I took in all those details. The pose, the energy, the feel, the comfort, his nature.

Are we really that different from them?

As absorbed I was in this philosophical trance, I failed to realised all the young gorillas having the best time up and down the trees. It wasn’t until Tristan nudged me in that direction that I broke out of it and focused my attention (and hustle) on the little ones going up and down the trees, hanging by one arm and chest beating like big scary creatures. They put on such an impressive show that it made us forget we had to put on bee-nets around our faces to keep the sweat bees (who are stingless) from out nostrils, eyes and faces.


After our hour with Jupiter’s family came to and, we followed Zepherin back to the camp using the same trails to get in and I finally mustered the courage to ask him for a photograph; if only to remember the face of the man who through skill, dedication and hardwork had change my perception of life a little bit more.

To him, I say thank you, because in my wildest dreams I had never expected to feel enlightened in the middle of the Congo rainforest.