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)

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