FACE-TO-FACE: TRACKING GORILLAS IN THE CONGO BASIN

To stand face to face with the one and only Gorilla gorilla gorilla, travel into the jungle heart of the relatively unknown Congo Basin. No expensive permit needed – just a good dose of adventure spirit and a giant splash of mosquito repellent.

Before I packed my jungle-proof safari bag and left on the Air France flight to Congo-Brazzaville, I had to answer the same question from friends and family probably five times: Why on earth would anyone travel to an unknown, non-touristy African country like the Republic of Congo, a.k.a. Congo-Brazzaville? The answer is simple: To feel a bit like a pioneer and to be one of the first to quietly discover the treasures of this former French colony.

It’s Africa, but not as many know it. Treasures in the form of endangered species – such as the western lowland gorilla, the western chimpanzee or the African forest elephant – all live peacefully together in the unspoilt setting of the vast Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest after the Amazon. There’s a reason why a growing number of international travel magazines have put this African ‘black hole’ (which is actually a fairly stable and trouble-free country) on their hot list for 2017. Their advice? “Go now, go quickly, before everyone else discovers it.”

A young gorilla from the Neptuno family

SAVE THE CONGO BASIN

The buzz around Congo began at the end of 2012 when the safari company Odzala Discovery Camps and its two luxury bush camps, Ngaga and Lango, opened up. Big news, because the arrival of this operator represented the first, major tourism investment in Congo – until then a country only visited by scientists and the occasional die-hard adventurer. Odzala-Koukoua National Park in northwest Congo, close to the border with Gabon, has existed since the 1930s and extends for 13,600 square kilometres. The park is now managed by the Odzala Foundation, a joint venture between African Parks and the Congolese government.

Ngaga Lodge
Ngaga Lodge

Tourism initiatives like Odzala successfully exclude sharks in the form of Chinese concerns: in other words, mining companies that demolish whole sections of the Congo Basin rainforest, destroying the ecosystem, fauna and flora completely. Before Odzala Discovery Camps came here, the park also suffered from poaching, uncontrolled agriculture and illegal trafficking of ivory and bush meat from all forest-dwelling animals, including gorillas.

But there’s more good news. Small-scale ecotourism initiatives in unknown places, such as in Congo, also bring income and opportunities for locals and for international scientists, who come here to conduct their research.

LOW-PROFILE DIANE FOSSEY

On my first evening in the thick, untouched jungle of the Odzala-Koukoua National Park, I meet the renowned Spanish primatologist and anthropologist Magdalena Bermejo, who – together with her husband, German, and her team – has been here studying the western lowland gorillas since 2000. She lost her first study troop in Losi to the Ebola epidemic (Ebola is no longer a threat here) and following that disaster had to start again from scratch. Now Magadalena works together with Odzala Discovery Camps to take guests staying at Ngaga Lodge to observe gorillas in a safe, animal-friendly way, meanwhile continuing her research.

Dr Magda Bermejo

At present, there are around 20,000 gorillas in this area. A couple of troops are regularly tracked from Ngaga Lodge and generally found. “This is a unique opportunity for guests to observe the only true Gorilla gorilla gorilla sub-species in the early stages of them becoming familiar with humans”, explains Magda. “It is a completely different experience from in Uganda or Rwanda, where mountain gorillas are accustomed to seeing groups of people every day.” Travellers pay a serious amount of money per person per trek to see highland gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda; each day, hundreds of tourists spend a fortune on overly short treks to spot these animals. 

DREAMING OF GORILLAS

It’s a completely different story in Congo. No permit is required and you can go gorilla trekking or chimpanzee spotting every day from Ngaga Lodge, with no other tourists in sight. The Ngaga Lodge trackers all come from nearby Mbomo village, where locals coexist harmoniously with the gorillas. The animals are not hunted and their habitat is respected.

 

Ngaga Lodge

At Ngaga Lodge, I quickly forget I am sitting in the middle of one of the most impenetrable jungles in the world. After a thorough briefing on the dos and don’ts of tracking gorillas, it’s time for a good old G&T or a glass of champagne (after all this was a French colony) in the lounge and a gourmet meal prepared by the French chef Jerome and his wife-cum-assistant. To enjoy these creature comforts in such an absolutely remote place feels almost surreal. But the night comes, despite the G&Ts and all the good food. It’s time to go to bed in the comfortable huts, build safely on stilts and surrounded by the enigmatic, never-silent jungle.

Ngaga Lodge

I dream of colossal gorillas, huge chimps, even bigger ants and a handsome Tarzan, until all of a sudden, around dawn, one of the guides wakes me up to go and see the real deal. Com’on Jane, be brave: mouth masks on; spritz a double layer of mosquito repellent; don a silly head net to protect against ‘sweat bees’, a.k.a. those damned fanatical black flies that hover into your eyes, ears, mouth and nose in search for much-needed minerals. In the jungle, it seems everything is always looking for something; but this time it’s us in search of the gorilla gorilla gorilla.

Etienne, our Swiss guide, surrounded by hundreds of sweatbees

INTO THE BLONDE

Thank God for our tracker Gabin, guide Etienne and their giant machetes, who lead the way in search of the silverback Neptuno and his family. The trackers know beforehand more or less where the gorilla troop is likely to be; but the animals move around so fast one might spend hours hiking through the jungle before the much-anticipated close encounter.

Our tracker, Gabin

Idem ditto for us. After several intense, and above all, humid hours in the thick vegetation, we come across part of Neptuno’s troop: the silverback and his wife Roma with her one-year-old baby, which she carries slung around her like a precious Vuitton handbag. I try to remember the basic rules of keeping a mandatory seven-metre distance and never running away if charged (not that easy when in the company of huge gorillas who are only recently accustomed to humans). The atmosphere is much more charged and unpredictable – let’s say spontaneous – than gorilla encounters in Rwanda; like the moment when Neptuno demonstrates his might with a nerve-shattering roar to warn us off. I look at the guide: What now? Apparently this smart animal is intrigued by blonde hair and feels threatened by tall people. We observe them, they observe us. We learn, they learn. “Just don’t run away”, I keep reminding myself.

Roma with her one-year-old baby
Silverback Neptuno

FROM JUNGLE TO SAVANNAH

After seeing gorillas, chimps and a whole list of other amazing animals, I realise the Congo Basin is diverse and vast. Take the second Odzala camp, a four-and-a-half-hour hop away by jeep. After a short drive, we swap dense jungle for wide-open savannah and a landscape accented with gigantic termite mounds.

Lango Camp is built in open, swampy land
Buffalo are at home in the land surrounding Lango Camp

Lango Camp is built in a bai, an open, swampy piece of land that is teeming with life. The setting is completely different from Ngaga Lodge. The almost-identical huts stand on stilts and everything is connected by walkways raised high above the muddy earth. Experiences at the Camp include hikes to spot chimpanzees, safari rides to observe the exceptional forest elephants and buffalos, and boat trips to discover the park’s teaming waterfront.

Lango Camp offers boat trips to discover the park’s teaming waterfront
Lango Camp safaris offer the chance to observe forest elephants

I am constantly aware that we are, as good as, the only tourists in this endless stretch of Congolese nature. At night, the magical silence is interrupted here and there by jungle calls and a solitary, hungry hyena that keeps returning to our camp – perhaps to nibble through the leftovers of Jerome’s exquisite dinners? It’s small-scale ecotourism in the dark; but the wonderful heart of Africa has advantages for everyone – even for the epicurean, lonesome hyena.

Lango Camp 

Debbie Pappyn and David De Vleeschauwer are a freelance travel writer and photographer duo working as partners in crime for several newspapers and magazines worldwide. Read more about them on classetouriste.be.