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.

Gorilla gorilla gorilla trekking

Like many things this year, our first gorilla trekking started with… rain. We were after all in a rainforest at the beginning of the rainy season. Waking up at 4am and hearing the pitter patter on the leaves, the roofs, and the wooden boardwalk however doesn’t make it any easier.

“We will leave half an hour later, let’s see if it stops” our guide informed us.

As a guide of African savannahs’, I found that I had many questions about what the correct procedure is in the forest. This constant comparison on how to look and approach animals was without a doubt one of the things that I found most humbling about this expedition. The in-depth knowledge of an environment, and following those who know how to manoeuvre around it is always key. It would be arrogant and unwise to pretend otherwise.

The rain did subside and following the previous nights’ instruction we split into two different groups. We were to get on the car for a short ride to the last known location of the Neptuno group and start walking from there. Once we arrived to the spot we prepared ourselves to what could have been a potentially long walk, we were warned the previous treks had been long. The trees weren’t fruiting and gorilla movements ranged over longer distances to find food.

The start

Calvin, our skilled tracker, stood at the head of the line with our guide Alon second. Calvin was leading us to the last place where he had left the gorillas the previous day, which would be the first place for us to start looking for them.

As we walked in the thick forest, with the marantaceae leaves towering over our heads we heard it. An unmistakable bark, that clear alarm wildlife gives when something unusual is spotted

In hushed voices they whispered “Neptuno saw us, they know we are here, put your face masks on”.

As if to signal who we were Calvin snapped his secateurs a few time, pruned a few leaves. This small signal has become the way humans announce their presence to the gorillas. We heard them chest beat in return.

Excited, nervous, we walked as the forest hid all its secrets from us.
The noises, that’s what gave them away. We used our hearing to find them, to figure out where they were coming from when the big walls of green camouflaged them. Suddenly someone pointed up to the canopy of the trees.

“There”

A dark silhouette was moving in the tree tops, balancing meters above the ground and displaying an uncanny resemblance to a human.

“Keep moving, come this way”

It felt surreal. I had just seen my first great ape, and my first free-roaming wild gorilla. All this information wouldn’t settle into my brain until long after this experience was done. The forest, the sounds, the smells, the experience, it all becomes overwhelming and so I chose to focus on the task. Keep moving, follow Calvin, scan the forest.

We kept retreating, moving away from their path, as we didn’t want to impact on their morning wander. As they moved we had glimpses of them moving through the forest, on the ground, in the trees.

“There, at the end of the path”
“There, on top of the trees”

Jumping around in the tree canopies (I know, noisy but it’s as far as my camera would go)

Neptuno and his family weren’t stopping and so we had to keep on moving, going around their way just to see them cross and carry on moving. Even though we tried to stay clear or their paths a cheeky young male, who we learned afterwards was named Caco, came to inspect us as he was no doubt curious of us, as we were of them.

And there we were, face to face with a great ape.

Caco came to greet us and as the adrenaline of the sighting rushed through us, all I remember thinking was “he has the strength to rip me apart”. He didn’t display any aggressive signs whatsoever but seeing a “young” male gorilla face to face, does remind you how small and weak we can be a species when compared to the creatures that roam the wilds of Africa.

As Caco and the rest of the family carry on with their movements, we were signalled to follow Calvin back towards the road, towards the edge of the forest.

Restricted, as we weren’t to speak in case we disturbed them, we stood on the road waiting for further instructions.

“There is a chance they might cross the road. Do you want to wait for them?”

“Yes, let’s give it a chance”. The decision was unanimous. We kept our voices to a minimum and waited for the gorillas to cross the road.

After a short wait out in the open, one by one the gorillas walked across and let themselves be swallowed once more by the green forest that awaited them on the other side. Females, young males and Neptuno himself.

Caco

Once they disappeared into the sea of green that is the rainforest, and with our emotions bubbling, we then turned to our guide.

“Let us know when we can start asking you questions”.

We drove away trying to put some distance between the sweat bees and our faces and then when our guide gave us the green light, and endless flow of questions erupted from us

“What is their social structure?”
“Are they territorial?”
“What’s their feeding behaviour?”
“What is a rooting site?”
“What is their mortality rate?”
“What is their population estimate?”
“Why do the locals protect them”
“What happens when two groups come across each other?”
“How is the research done?”
“How do you recognise individuals”

We spent a good 45 minutes grilling Alon with questions about the Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and the research that is being done at Ngaga before we decided to head back the camp to sort through our emotions of the day.

We joined the others for lunch and shared our experiences over lunch while preparing for the afternoon’s excursion. Gorillas are the draw in but Ngaga and the forest have s much more to offer, little did we know that that same afternoon we would conclude our short walk to have gin and tonic – spiced with forest ginger, on the river deck and walk back to camp barefoot.

All this in the space of day. My word of choice? Sublime.

Sundowner in the Congo

Ngaga Camp

It’s very hard to even begin to wrap all the thoughts, feelings, ideas, effort and sensory cues that are involved in gorilla trekking. How do you even begin to describe an experience that can provoke so many reactions in people? It’s not an easy task and it’s perhaps the reason why I’ve been putting this off for so long. I doubt anything I say or write will do it justice. How do you explain the luck that is to be able to find a habituated family of gorillas in a rainforest? How do I even begin to explain the crucial role of the communities in their conservation? How do I highlight that it is a set of circumstances that involve a Spanish researcher and her husband the reason why viewing them is even possible?

The Gorilla trekking experience is defined by the camp as: “(an experience) led by skilled local trackers, and with expert guides to interpret the sights and sounds of the forest, you will use the network of forest trails to get close to some of our nearest living relatives in the wild, and observe their behaviour as they go about the daily business of being a gorilla” (Odzala Discovery Camps, 2018).

Although a great short explanation, I have so many more thoughts, so many more words to add.

I suppose I can only start by telling the story of Ngaga Camp and Dr. Madga Bermejo, in order to explain the immense task that it was to establish and now maintain the “Gorilla trekking experience”.

Marantaceae leaves that dominate the forest

Ngaga is a small camp nestled in the middle of the thick marantaceae (arrow-root) forest, a primary food source for the gorillas. Ironically the camp is located outside the borders of the park, about 7 miles from the Mbomo Village and about a 2.5 hour transfer from the closest airstrip. Built from local, sustainable materials and inspired by the designs of the Ba’Aka Pygmy groups, the camp was built in 2013 as an eco-luxury camp with the lightest possible environmental impact to the surrounding forest; perhaps the reason why it feels in harmony with the forest. The main area is posed just above the tree line giving a welcomed breath from the walls of green that is the rainforest and from the camp theres a network of small trails that allow you te explore the vicinity.

Such stunning camp only exists because of a courageous Spanish woman, that at 22 decided to come to the Congo Basin to study primates; two decades later Dr. Magda Bermejo has become one of the world’s leading experts on Western Lowland Gorillas and heads the research team at Ngaga. Indeed initially defined as the “Ngaga Research station” the camp only came to existence thanks to Magda’s research, her team, and their efforts in gorilla habituation and conservation. Not even the trackers for work the lodge, they work for Madga and her research.

“If Magda leaves, we all leave” – were some of the jokes we heard from our guides.

Magda came into the area only in 2009, after having led some of her work in Senegal, DRC and the Lossi Gorilla Sanctuary in the Congo. It was the Ebola outbreak and the death of about 90% of her study group in Lossi that lead the search into a new study area. Besides the Ndzehi concession carrying high density of gorillas, it was the attitude of the people at the Mbomo and Ombo villages that became the game changer and what made Magda decide to set up her new base in this part of the Congo. In this part of the Congo Basin gorillas are venerated for their resemblance to humans and protected. Unlike some other areas, here in these villages they’re not sought after for meat, their killing is almost considered taboo – perhaps due local stories talking of gorillas turning into people.

“At Mbomo gorillas are respected as they are considered very close to humans” our guide Alon explained “They don’t kill them, they don’t eat them here”.

 “I was amazed at how protected these gorillas were when very little kept them from the village,” Magda remembers. “But the elders had decided to defend them. One day a gorilla was sitting in the middle of that road, and a village woman was scared. So I sent a tracker to help her cross, and when she got to the other side, she turned and waved to the ape. That’s when I knew this was the right place to establish the new camp” (James Sturz, 2013).

 

Although the project has been running since 2009, Magda and her husband had a tough time to gain access to the gorillas– there are no fairy tales in conservation research. When they first came into the area and made their intentions known, the local community tested their interests and perseverance. Many times had foreigners come with empty promises only to hunt, trade and sell their gorillas to zoos.

“When Magda and German first arrived they made them walk in circles for days without seeing on single gorilla. Can you imagine what it was must have been like?”

Some of these stories are now laughable and regarded almost as an initiation ritual, but were a critical part in establishing the pureness of their intentions. Once these were established, the research began, the research station was developed and the habituating process started. Magda and her husband German were the first people to habituate western lowland gorillas to human presence in Lossi; a slow and demanding process that requires daily human “interaction” (by this I only mean of people approaching and viewing them, not interacting/touching the gorillas in any way). In 2009 this process started again just outside Odzala, not far from the Mbomo village as the key step in the research process – because, how can you study an animal without being able to see it?

In the thick marantaceae forest, this is no easy task. A network of forest trails divides the area into blocks that allows us, humans, to navigate through the forest and gain access to the gorillas. Western lowland gorillas have no problem navigating through the forest’s canopy and undergrowth. Much smaller than the mountain gorillas (their Ugandan and Rwandan cousins), they take to the trees and are often referred to as to be “swimming” through the forest.

Constant human presence is then required for gorillas to accept “observers” (and tourists) and it can take up to three years of daily interaction for a family of gorillas to become comfortable with our presence.

It takes three years (1095 days) of daily hard work, glimpses of them and small victories to create a new “normal”.

Just let that sink in. Three years. Every day. All year long.

Because of the immense pull viewing gorillas in the wild has, itineraries to explore the rainforest begin at Ngaga Camp and the gorilla trekking experience. Odzala Discovery Camps and SPAC believe that the pull of the gorillas is enough to get tourists focused on the rainforest they live in; once you see the gorillas you will be more interested in taking an interest in the conservation of the rainforest that houses them.

The stunning main deck

To me, it was the pull of the forest that made take an interest in gorillas. But I recognize I am biased to anything green.

When we arrived at Ngaga camp in the late evening, and as we sat around to have a glass of wine, the very same Dr. Bermejo came to greet us and speak to us about the gorilla trek experience. Although one the main interests of the current research project is to investigate the outcomes of human-gorilla interaction and any potential human-wildlife conflict and its implications for conservation, Magda was also interested in assessing our gorilla trekking expectations for tourism purposes. She was keen to hear the expectations of those who had never gone gorilla trekking before, and the expectations of those who had seen other species of gorillas and already had a trekking experience.

In house decor

After hearing some of the horror stories of the treks done by friends in Uganda or Rwanda, all I expected was long hours of walking in the forest.

“You will be divided into 2 groups of 4, plus a guide and a tracker. One of you will go to the Neptuno group, the other to Jupiter. Eat well for breakfast, as there is not telling in how long your trek will last. We’ve had some difficult treks lately. The trackers will meet you at 630am sharp to depart.”

“If you’re not ready on time they will cut our head off with their machetes” –added our guide.

It is the passion and dedication of Magda and her husband German, combined with the inherent respect of the villagers of Mbomo for gorillas, and the pioneering views of a German philanthropist, that unlocked a set of circumstances that made the birth of Ngaga camp possible and that allowed us the opportunity go in search and spend time with an animal species that is considered Critically endangered – next classification on the Red List is “Extinct in the Wild”.

Almost 5 years after the birth of this camp, we sat around a dinner table listening to the sounds of the forest, envisioning what was to come the next day. Come the morning we would consummate years of hard work in just one hour, thanks to the work of all kinds of people that thought there was something valuable and worth protecting in this rainforest. As for me, I didn’t know what to expect when facing the first big ape I would have ever seen.

Brazzaville

We all knew someone, but only one person knew us all. Three live in their homeland, five do not. One is married, but wasn’t part of the two couples. Two are exes. Three are girls, five are boys. Of eight, 6 landed together in Brazzaville.

Brazzaville is the name of the capital of the Congo. It’s a name that in my head has always resonated with a movie-shaped idea of what European colonies in the African forest could have looked like. I imagined colonial buildings, trucks, street markets and a city engulfed by green.

Brazzaville was not, in many ways, what I expected.

Upon landing at the airport, the excitement was palpable. Happy thoughts of “We’re in the Congo baby!” were soon replaced by worry when we were rudely greeted by immigration officials.

“Ok. Clearly a country that doesn’t get too much tourism”

Even though we went smoothly through customs after that initial shock, our group clung onto the representative that was there to meet us.  Everyone assessed their surroundings and took in the sense of the place we were in while the representative gave us instructions as to where to go and what car to get onto.

“Yes you can walk around no problem,

Nobody will trouble you,

There’s an exchange house right across the street, you can walk there.

You can go to the rapids for lunch, just grab a taxi as it’s far to walk.”

None of these were really answers we were expecting to hear; we knew it was safer than the “other” Congo but being presented with such freedom felt odd. All these answer were however true – the part that everyone forgot was that all this had to be done in French, as English isn’t a very-often-used language.

“Oui, c’est l’heur de parler en Francais. Mamma mia!”

As a group formed of guides, photographers, naturalists, and lodge managers, we decided that after a very long trip (inter-African flights have a habit of departing at 3am!), we would let ourselves enjoy the view of the Congo River from the hotel after a very long trip.

Here we discovered large sized beers called Ngok (one of the first discoveries) while we started to discover each other’s personalities: the birder, the one that’s always hungry, and the one that is always cold were the first three to stand out.

The first of many Ngok o’clock

Upon chatting, we discovered that the group was divided into 2: those who had done (some) extensive pre-trip research about what to expect, and those who had left it all to the Universe. Tristan was in the first group, I in the second.

Upon calling on the rejuvenating powers of the Ngok o’clock, we decided to explore Brazzaville on a walk.

As we meandered through the alleys of the city, we came across a beautiful building, deciding to explore and find out what could possibly be open to public in a part of the city that seemed dominated by military building, we went in. This is how we came across the Pierre de Brazza Mausoleum, where we found out more about the history of the city and its name. Italian-born French explorer (what is it with the Italian blood that we can’t stay still?!) Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazzà, then known as Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de Brazza, was tasked to explore tributaries and rivers in Equatorial Africa. The different expeditions that lead him onto the Congo River eventually lead to the creation of a French protectorate, and the city that centuries later, still carries his name.

Remembered for his pacific approach and gentle temper, history has portrayed him as man who was actually liked by many Africans; this is perhaps the reason why the name of the city has remained unchanged through the centuries. In 2006 the remains of de Brazza and his family were returned to Brazzaville to mark 100th anniversary of his death. History has portrayed him in a certain way but even them a part of the modern Congolese society did not agree with the construction of this building, seeing it as reinforcement of colonial times.

We found the history of ancient explorers like De Brazza fascinating but the building felt odd and almost out of place, we later found out that the Mausoleum is now rumoured to be a centre of black magic, were shadowy African elite plots the future of the continent and casts powerful spells on its leaders.

I felt no mojo-jojo when I was there, but again, I own no countries.

After leaving the Mausoleum we continued our stroll towards the great views of the Congo towards the brand new “Route de la Corniche”. Although immaculately clean, we continued to pass many government and military buildings. We didn’t feel threatened, and military presence was sporadic. There is however a lingering taste of unsettlement in the air, a feel of yearning, anticipation and ambition that leaves an aftertaste for those who have experienced the disturbance that seeps in a country because of politics. In Brazzaville it feels there is more than meets the eye.

When we arrived to the famous bridge, we decided we had been walking long enough and that it was time to head back to the famous Mami Wata Restaurant where we had decided to have dinner. Walking close to the river is a must experience for anyone that visits Brazzaville. Kinshasa (DRC) towers on the other side of the river; while utterly green and farmed patches can be seen in all the floodplains the river can no longer submerge. Every patch is a commercial opportunity and hard working Congolese people know how to maximise their opportunities; a true testament to their resilience.

As we arrived to our dinner destination, we couldn’t collectively decide how we felt about the city. We did all however feel very lucky to be able to have dinner by the river where the African skimmers fly at night.

Brazzaville, for me, was the start of the mysterious feel of the country, a feel of secrets and whispers along buildings of well-maintained but old-fashioned architecture. If anything, Brazzaville added more to the unravelling mystery that the Congo was slowly becoming.

Introducing Odzala

One of my friends is a life coach and she is constantly talking about the Law of Attraction and the power of manifestation – that is attracting what you want by changing the energy you put out into the world. I feel this is perhaps a more formal way of saying I like to cast my wishes into the Universe. I have learned recently that apparently there is a lot more thought that has got to go into “putting good vibes out there” and hoping for the best. You have to imagine achieving it, revel in the feeling of actually obtaining it to let your energy attract what you desire by living in a way that says you’ve already received it. Although I’m sure there’s much more to it, I doubt I can explain it better, so for the sake of abilities, I will just say that getting to Odzala was a wonderful coincidence where al my the stars aligned at the right time, with the right people.

Central and West Africa have always been of major interest to me, however they do not seem to be the safest places for a girl to travel alone. While I’m all for independence and wandering thru the wild, I think we also need to know our place in the world and be careful of what we do, where we go, and how we go – nobody wants to walk into the lion’s den.

“I’ve contacted these people from a park called Odzala, they say we can go and I can organise it all, would you guys be keen?” Adam asked one evening in May while in Kenya. Rain was pouring and we were facing the weather by having curry and chapatis.

“You joking” – Tristan smiles knowingly and winks at me. “Ale has been talking non stop about Odzala for the last year, we’re in”.

After following this national park for a while, and in particular the work of the Discovery Camps, Odzala had been quietly calling me for the better part of a year. While I knew close to nothing about it, the pull of the rainforest was too big to ignore. I was in desperate search for something different, for an adventure that would take me away from all environments I knew and show me a new one. I was in need of breaking free and getting lost in nature to remember what got me living in this continent in the first place; the woods’ and roots’ call grew louder as this became a real possibility.

The forest

While our plans became more real, it was time to start doing some research as to the area we were heading into: the North-Western corner of the Republic of the Congo. I wish I could say I was diligent about this. But the more I thought about, and the more shape our plans started taking, the more I was convinced that I didn’t want to have any expectations about the rainforest we were going to explore.

Even though I decided to stay ignorant until after our expedition there, the country itself did warrant its own kind of pre-trip awareness.

This is how we started looking into the feared word “Congo” which is normally associated with political instability, corruption and savagery. The word “Congo” is as powerful as it can be feared in general conversations and in order to prepare ourselves for the adventure ahead, it only seemed fitting that we uncovered some of the general perceptions around it.

The first thing to establish around our trip to “The Congo” is that “the” Congo isn’t just one country; it is in fact two very different nations with distinct colonial ruling and a very different reality.

Confused much? We were.

The Republic of Congo (where Odzala is), was initially known as the Kongo Kingdom when the Portuguese first came into contact whit the people that ruled these lands, after the Portuguese ruling, it was the French who colonised and ruled until it obtain its independence.

Back in the 1960’s when both countries gained independence from their colonial rulers, things were a little easier to understand. The Belgian Congo became Zaire in 1971 (a poor Portuguese adaptation of the Kongo word nzere which means river) while the French Congo became simple the “Republic of The Congo”.

Why two Congos then? The easy distinction changed after the civil war in Zaire with Laurent Kabila’s victory and conquest of Kinshasa – Zaire’s capital – in 1997. Kabila changed the name of Zaire back to original independence name of “The Democratic Republic of Congo” thus adding more confusion to some of us.

Tale of Two Congos

What’s the fuss about the word “Congo” anyway? – you might ask.

Ah! This is where it boiled down to, the source of greed, the source of power, the source of colonial interest: the Congo river, the second longest river in Africa after the Nile is what holds everyone’s interest.

Why does the river matter so much?

In a land of thick forest and no paved roads, the river was and continues to be the main artery that keeps the trade alive. Both Congo capitals Brazzaville (RC) and Kinshasa (DRC) where founded in lowest navigable pool of the river – the last stop before a series of waterfalls that prevent direct access from the continent’s rich interior to the Atlantic Ocean.

Although of similar histories and struggles, it would seem that since obtaining its independence the Republic of Congo has experienced an overall more “stable” political climate than its neighbour and it’s currently deemed “the safer” of the Congos – if you look closely enough however, there is more than meets the eye.

After flirting with communist ideals for a while, The Republic of Congo became a democratic republic in the early 1990s, only to be then plagued by a civil war from 1997 due to internal conflicts. The tally on human lives, natural heritage and economic wealth was huge when it finally came to an end in the early 2000s; in 2002, during “democratic” elections Sassou-Nguesso was elected president of the republic – a position he still occupies 16 years later.

The irony still remains that Brazzaville (capital of the Republic of Congo) and Kinshasa (capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo) are just separated by the Congo river and because of politics and logistics, it remains simpler for a tourist to take a 4min flight from one capital to the other, rather than facing a lengthy and slow ferry across the two.

Viewing Kinshasa from Brazzaville

It is amidst such a complicated and war riddled country that Odzala – Kokoua National park, one of Africa’s oldest national parks – exists. First protected in 1935 and officially designated as a national park in 2001 by president Sassou Nguesso, Odzala is now currently managed by African Parks. Odzala’s wellbeing, like much of the history of the Congo, was neglected for years not only because of the civil war and ensuing political instability, but also due to Ebola outbreaks (which decimated about 90% of the gorilla population), and heavy poaching; because of this, tourism was mostly limited.

In 2011 only 50 tourists were recorded to have visited the park.

In 2012 however, following the efforts of German philanthropist Sabine Plattner, Odzala became officially open for tourism with 3 luxury lodges. Since 2013 the park, as well as the surrounding local communities, have been supporting tourism thanks to the work of the Sabine Plattner African Charities (SPAC) and the Congo Conservation Company.

Why did they get involved?

 

“Taking over responsibility for our common living environment means making possible the survival and coexistence of present and future generations in a respectful symbiosis of man, animals and nature.”

 

This was the place we were headed into; a place that had been forgotten by time and overlooked by people, a place someone deemed special enough to protect, a place that is in need more people taking an interest to survive. This was the place we had been granted the opportunity to explore.

I know this isn’t the post I usual write, but upon contemplating how to begin to explain what the Congo and Odzala felt like, I realised that more than ever I needed to start by the beginning. I have found fascinating how our lack of knowledge and misconceptions of history and geography – even my own – can have an impact in the way we perceive some of the wild areas around us and how far we chose to go.

Although the rainforest was calling, I must admit, I knew little of this place I had been dreaming to go to. Perhaps it was an inherent fear of finding out it was more dangerous than I though that kept me from researching it further. Perhaps it was laziness. Perhaps it was the fear of being disappointed. Truth is I went into the Congo knowing very little about its history, its people and its rainforest. I felt like a diver, holding my breath for that instant before taking the plunge and immersing myself in it. As the days passed, I was not disappointed and Odzala quickly became everything I had been looking for: a green escape, a wild affair.

No expectations and no preconceived ideas is normally the way I like to travel – during our visit to the Congo we discovered a hidden gem we weren’t expecting: the green heart of Africa, nestled in the rainforest.

(stay tuned for next week’s post on the Odzala series)