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)

A Gorilla encounter

We have just returned from an amazing expedition to Odzala – Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo (aka Congo-Brazzaville not the Congo where Virunga is). Before I get into downloading, editing and combining images and videos and posting about what an experience this was and how our adventure unfolded, I wanted to share something real, something unedited, something that will as much as possible reflect what was happening in a particular moment in time.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what seeing gorillas for the first time meant to me. I have never been particularly attracted to primates (blame it on looking after baboons for a while) so I was curious to see how I would feel when faced with one of them.

For the first few glances through the thick Marantaceae leaves my feelings were mostly unchanged.. I was there for the rainforest, gorillas, I thought would just be a bonus… that was until I saw the scene below unfold… It is by far not the best video, scene or capture but some moments are better kept raw.

As I was filming through my trusted D600 it all suddenly dawned on me: the movements, the attitude, the physiology, all these characteristics were just too shocking, too familiar.. too alike. Having been lucky to explore the wilds of Africa and observe quite a range of species in their natural environment, feeling such sense of closeness to another animal species was.. unexpected, intimate, powerful, humbling;  it instilled in me a sense more than ever that we are not alone in this world, nor does it belong to us only. This realisation struck me to the core, as it deepened even more my understanding that coexistence is nature’s most beautiful and most difficult gift; this planet doesn’t belong to one, but to us all. When you feel this, your life will forever be changed.

What’s in a name?

One of the most fascinating things I have encountered in Africa are people’s names. I have found them fascinating because they are so very different from the names I encountered in my “western” life. I have met someone called Orange that worked in the same team as someone named Juice; I have met Happiness, Pretty and Remember, I have known a Wax; and I will always remember Mylord, the barman.

You see, for some African cultures, particularly for the Shangaans whom I’ve spent most of my time with, names aren’t just a “something” to identify children from other children. A name is important and more often than not, earned and carefully considered; a name must speak about your identity and you personality.

Giving a name is normally something reserved to the mother of the child and the name chosen is based on circumstances around the child’s birth, blessings the mothers cast upon the child, wishes for their lives, or it can be based upon a child’s personality. This is all part of the complex task that will be influencing someone based purely on the name they chose to give him.

“A name is considered a precious and marvellous gift while a person without a name is regarded as a non-human being,” writes Mkhacani Chauke of the University of Venda in the journal Anthropologist,

Anyone that has worked in the lodge industry know that their personality and their behaviour will or has enticed them to a Shangaan nickname, chances of you ever knowing that nickname however, are pretty rare. You might know someone else’s nickname but no one will tell you yours. This is how I found out that a couple in one of the lodges I worked in, had started being called Hawk Eagle. This nickname was given due to this couple’s ability to work together to screw people over in order to climb the power ladder.

As luck would have it, there are certain conversations in life that will automatically send you on a name quest. If there is something I have learned from Shangaans is that there is much more to a “name”. I can still remember the missed call and the ensuing message “are you free to talk?” that sent me on this quest after a mild panic attack, as the last time she texted me with such urgency it was only to convey the saddest news.

“Hola Gaby”
“Hola Ale”
“What’s wrong, what happened?”

“Nothing wrong. Well, just phoning to tell you you’re going to be an aunt”.

I believe they heard me screaming for joy all the way in Tanzania

Gaby and I grew up together and like sisters we learned how to fight like cats and dog, how to defeat all the monsters of Yoshi’s story, divide equally all our McDonald’s chips, how to lean on each other when boys broke our hearts but more importantly we learned that the fiercest of loves knows no boundaries.

“When, how, what?” were some of the many questions I blurted out with teary eyes.

After an uncontrollable bout of tears and giggles that only girls know, she then blurted out:

“It’s a girl”.

Sometimes when a statement is made out loud into world, it carries a powerful message felt only by those who are willing to listen. The power of this statement and everything it conveyed was a powerful as it was tacit between the two of us. I believe it couldn’t have been any other way, Gaby comes from a line of strong women, to even fathom the idea that her first born wouldn’t have been a girl was impossible, Tia Nery, I’m sure, had something to do with this (sorry Jose, you had no chance).

“What are you going to name her?”

“We don’t know yet. It’s complicated. We don’t want to use a name that’s been used in the family before. It’s gotta be a name easy to pronounce in English, Spanish and Portuguese”

“Oh dear lord. And you’re vetoing all the family names already used?”

“Yip”.

To put it into perspective for you dear reader, we have quite a unique and large family spread across the world, and in many different languages. This task won’t be easy.

“Any ideas?”

“No, but if you find names you like you should send them to me”.

After suggesting a few western names, I decided that the way forward was actually share some of the local African names. The world could use some variety.

Her stunning hand made crib mobile (to become the favorite aunty) from Project Have Hope which seek to empower women in the Acholi Quarter of Uganda. Link in image

This is how I started thinking about the importance of names and sending Gaby all the cool names I would hear around. Pretty, Gift, Remember, Thandiwe, Lindiwe, Thandi (hihi),Kelego, Glory, Patience (God knows we need one in the family!), etc.

Gaby liked Waxela (which means alive in Tswana) however names also have to be pertinent to life, being called Wax in Washingtong DC might not have been the easiest for this little human that’s coming into the world. So we vetoed that one too.

My most favourite one of them all has always been Happiness as I believe the name in itself yields power and a promise of goodness. This was however not a name for me to give. Although she wasn’t planned, Gaby’s little girl showed us all that her soul was done waiting for her parents to find the right moment. Just like Gaby, she decided herself that she was ready to conquer the world and everyone else would just to deal with her timing. Whatever name her parents chose, I will give her African nickname once I’ve met her…we already have a sense of personality of this feisty little human that is coming like a hurricane.

What her name will be, we don’t know, I don’t know, but I’m sure the wind will whisper it to us once we meet her.

If you want to have a look at some more names, because they are really interesting perspectives of life, you click here

 

Not meant to be

Every now and again my inspiration runs dry. The ideas in my head are endless but the right frame of mind to sit down and put it down in that word document in my computer has been put aside briefly mainly due to physical exhaustion.

I complain, but can I really?

After telling everyone about my scorpion incident and recalling that my relationship with them has never meant much to me, I couldn’t help but remember the first time I was faced one-on-one with their kind.

The first time I seriously looked for scorpions, I was just trying to find something cool to talk about on my interview drive. My interview drive was potentially the scariest drive I have ever taken in my life, preparing for it was nerve wrecking. As girl, and as a foreigner, I have always had to prove my worth more than some of my friends and colleagues had to do. In order to try and impress my potential employers, Allan suggested that I stop at the rocks on Puzamanzi and started flipping them to find a cool critter to talk about. The idea behind it was to get guests off the vehicle and involve them in that dam holistic experience lodges preach about.

“I don’t know” – was my answer to Allan’s suggestion.

If you’ve ever met the Ronch, you will know he doesn’t take well to ever hearing the word no in any context. So after he threw his toys , I started flipping rocks to look for scorpions. With him, I learned to chose my battles.

Should have stuck with what I knew best

“Fine we can try, show me how to catch one”.

With these last famous words we started flipping all the rocks with Ash and Sly to try and find any scorpions. Normally it’s not that hard but thanks to Murphy when you looking for one, there are none.

Finally it was Sly who found one.

“Go Ali, grab it”.

Ajá.

“How?”

“By the tail you ninny”.

Right. This multilegged things are not my strong.

Awesome. Got it. I’m queen of the world.
Got it by the tail. Big pincers, small tail – nothing to worry about here.

“It’s so cool. I mean look at it. Wow I didn’t know that they were actually this flexible. I wonder if humans could bends their backs this way like a u”

Ey.. it’s getting really close to my fingers.

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH LET ME GOOOO!!!”

Was the title of the song that came out of my mouth when the little disgraceful creature used its pincers to pinch the skin between my finger and my fingernail. How did it even manage?! He was so intent in showing me who was in charge that even when I let go of its tail, he was still pinching my fingers like its life dependent on it.

When he finally released me and bungee jumped to the ground again, Allan, Ash and Sly were having a laughing fit that was borderline hysteric. When I calmed down between the shock, the pain and how absolutely ridiculous the whole situation was that I also started crying of laughter.

When Allan told everyone (of course) this story back at the lodge, he took some creative freedom and slightly changed the ending of the story: “Ali froze like she does when she panicks and instead of putting it on her hand this thing pinched her. Her lip started shaking and she was crying. Hahahaha. Oh Allie, you’re worth your weight, this is gonna make me laugh for days”.

They did laugh for days much to my mortified self.

Thanks Ash Carney for immortalising round 2

What Allan forgot to share about catching a scorpions is that once you grab it by the tail you have to put on your other hand and cover it so that it doesn’t stress out.

Thanks Al – it would have been useful to know this prior to the event!

Two days later I decided to face my demons again. No cockroach with pincers is going to beat me. We spent a good 15minutes looking for and we finally found a tiny little one. This time I had pincers so I decided to use it. Upon further inspection we realised that this little one actually belonged to the Buthidae family – tiny little pincers, thick tails full of angry venom.

 

After these events I retired from a stellar scorpion catching future – little did I know that the universal board wouldn’t have been settled until one of them got me back.

A layer problem

My winter habits are a running joke amongst my friends. Despite me being 50% Latvian and it being logical that I should have some sort of resistance to the cold weather, I have… none. Some girls buy makeup, bags, shoes.. I buy sweaters. In all colours, shape and forms. My soul was born in the Caribbean so any endurance to the cold weather was forever lost upon this choice.

To counter what the weather throws my way I have resolved to wear as many layers as I can. It’s an art I have been perfecting through years of freezing out in Africa. Yes, in Africa. The biggest media lie in the world is that Africa is always hot (and that male lions don’t hunt).

Thanks to JMS for capturing this pic of my “getting warm” routine at 6am

While working in the Khwai area in Botswana I was particularly cold.. all day, everyday. This was due to the fact that the icy winter winds found no barriers in getting to me, I slept in a tent with no front flaps, and worked in an open game drive vehicle. Layering up became part of my survival (along with a hot water bottle for the morning safari).

One particularly cold morning we set out of camp in search of leopards. Our guest was desperate to see one and so when we came across tracks, we had hopes that we would finally get lucky. All of a sudden I felt a sting. The sting was similar to a beed sting, and having seen many bees floating around half empty coke glasses, I assumed that somehow one of them had gotten caught in between my layers. Because I went through a phase where I was always being stung by bees (and develop quite a bad reaction to them), I knew that had this been a bee it had already paid its price and it was likely dead so I didn’t worry too much… until I felt a piercing second sting on my back.

“Stop, no, I didn’t see a leopard. There is something in my clothes I need to find it cause it’s stinging me”.

Confused and searching for a potential mean spider I started stripping off all my layers. One, by, one. When I was down to my last T-shirt and not being able to find anything, the horrified scream from Alex came right through:

“It’s THERE, on your leg!”

To my surprise when I looked down my leg I didn’t find a spider but a tiny, mean scorpion.

“Crap”.

“Throw it away, kill it”.

“No, wait!.” I flicked the little bastard off me (he hurt me first) and proceeded then to take a pic for ID purposes. With so many dangerous and venomous things out there in the bush, rather know for sure than guess as to what it was.

The culprit: Uroplectes vittatus (potentially) or Jack

I had an idea of what scorpion it could be (they have never been my strongpoint) but needed confirmation before letting the panic in the car subdue, and while I waited for Tristan to confirm what it was, the hot water bottle did its trick in easing the pain.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah I’m fine, it only burns”.

Barbara and Alex were clearly worried because they thought I was about to die, which never ever helps. Alex went into full panic attack mode, as he was sure he would witness me die and so in turn we had to stop a few times as his worry made him physically sick, twice.

“Maybe we should call the Okavango air rescue”

“I’m fine, let me confirm what it is and then we can worry”.

Eventually Tristan confirmed: “some uroplectes” – immediate relief as I was not going to die and would just have a sore sting.

When I told my family about it my dad’s wisdom had me giggling.

“I’m sure it was a male scorpion though”

“Huh? Why?”
(I was waiting for some lesson as my dad normally has some random animal information that ends up being really useful to know)

“Because of where it stung you”

– Insert my non impressed face here –

My dad was probably right, after all the little bastard did get me on the love handle, twice.