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.
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.
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.
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.