Marievale in March

March is late summer on the Highveld in South Africa. We visited Marievale, an important bird sanctuary in Gauteng, in March to do some birding and for me to practice my bird photography. Marievale is well known to birders and bird photographers alike.

What makes this area unique is that it is a protected wetland. It is a Ramsar site which is a wetland designated to be of international importance, especially as a waterfowl habitat, under the Ramsar Convention.

What is interesting about this area is that it is a wetland amongst old gold mines. There are mine dumps in the background and although most of the mining activity has now stopped, the water is still polluted by the mining activities of yesteryear. The water pollution does not seem to have unduly affected the wetland vegetation or the birdlife.

“It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom.” ~ Aristotle

Marievale is just outside Nigel in Gauteng and about 45 minutes drive from Johannesburg. The idea is to get there by sunrise as the bird activity seems to be best for the first few hours after sunrise.

“In that dawn chorus one hears the throb of life itself.” ~ Rachel Carson

Marievale is known for its waterfowl, but all the grasslands around it provide a wonderful habitat for herons and seedeaters.

Cape Shovelers can be found, but not always seen at Marievale. They are dabbling ducks, meaning they swim in shallow water and feed by tipping headfirst into the water to graze on aquatic plants on the bed of the waterway. They also eat lavae and insects when available. This duck is cryptically brown coloured and has a characteristic large spatulate bill and yellow eyes and legs.

You are not likely to go to a wetland or open grassland and not find a lapwing. On this particular trip to Marievale we saw an plethora of blacksmith lapwings. Not just the old pair but hundreds. Lapwings play an important role as alarm systems for other birds and animals. Adult blacksmith lapwings have unmistakable black grey and white markings. You can hear them from afar.

The one thing you can be sure of at Marievale is that you will see a base of familiar wetland birds but there will always be a few interesting characters which pop out of the reeds. One such surprise was this lone juvenile African Purple Swamphen.

One of the aspects about bird photography I have found is that you can spend hours trying to get a image of a species of bird that is skittish and always moving around. Then all of a sudden one specimen just stops and provides the perfect photographic opportunity. This juvenile African Purple Swamphen knew we there, it could see us, but was not phased by our presence at all. these birds are normally very skittish.

This was a juvenile blacksmith lapwing, one of the hundreds we saw that day. This youngster was resting. Lapwings like storks and herons sit with their legs bent forward from the knee.

I have been to Marievale many times over the past ten years and this was the first time I had seen a South African Shelduck. It looks like a small goose and sounds like a goose. They have very distinctive markings with ruddy colored body feathers and wings strikingly marked with black, white and green. The male has a grey head, and the female has a white face and black crown, nape and neck sides. The only other times I have seen this shelduck has been in the Kalagadigadi and Etosha.

There are numerous black headed herons at Marievale. They occupy the grasslands adjacent to the open water in the marshy areas. These birds are supreme predators capable of eating anything from a frog to a fish, rat, rabbit or terrapin. This black-headed heron had its neck retracted during flight for longitudinal stability.

In March it is still summer in Marievale and this was a red-shouldered or fan-tailed widowbird. It looks like a long tailed widowbird without the long tail. The red-shouldered widowbird does not grow a long tail and it has a pure orange-red shoulder with no white border to its red shoulder. This widowbird prefers swampy areas so Marievale was ideal.

One of the most common plovers in Marievale is the three-ringed plover. This is a very small bird with the characteristics three rings on its collar. It also has distinctive red eye ring.

All plovers and lapwings are in the same family and are all considered wading birds. There are eight South African ‘lapwings’ which are easily identified by their larger size, bold colouring, active habits, and very loud calls. They are often found in grasslands away from water. There are ten Plovers in southern Africa and all are small waders which are found along the edge of water.

The southern red bishop looks like a jewel in the golden grass waving in the breeze. The southern red bishop has a red crown, neck, back, rump and a black belly, chest and face. The southern red bishop is not to be mistaken for a fire-crowned bishop which also has both a red crown but it has a red breast band. The male of this species is hyperactive during breeding season trying to solicit females. As one passes by or comes close he puffs his chest out and fluffs up his back feathers

Marievale is a wetland in amongst disused mine dumps from the surrounding gold mines.

This Levaillant’s Cisticola posed beautifully for a few seconds on the end of a dead reed stem. This little cisticola has a ruddy coloured cap and buff coloured breast and heavily streaked back feathers.

This is one of my favourites, a golden crowned bishop. This male is, like the red bishop, hyperactive when females are anywhere near in breeding season. It flies around like a little golden bumble bee.

Don’t confuse a golden-crowned bishop with a yellow bishop. The latter has an all black head.

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

A red-billed teal flying over some open water with reeds in the background.

A male golden crowned bishop in full breeding plumage. He was perched at the top of a dead reed, looking out for passing females.

A yellow billed duck. They are usually seen in pairs. These are also dabbling ducks. It is much bigger than a teal and more the size of a mallard duck.

It has taken me ages to get some decent images of a long-tailed widowbird displaying in flight. On this particular occasion the light was behind me and the widowbird must have been about 30 metres away and its was around 8h00 in the morning

The long-tailed widowbird puts on a spectacular plumage display in flight. The display consists of a slow emphasised wing flaps with its tail between its legs. Its tail comprises around eight or nine long luxuriant black feathers which it fans out. This widowbird has broad black wings with red shoulders underlined by a white stripe.

“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Widowbirds are so called because they are all dressed in black.

These widowbirds are often found communally with bishops and weavers. They are all seedeaters.

The breeding male regularly performs slow display flights low over his territory. The flight displays are aimed at attracting females. Each display comprises slow and erratic wing flapping, while extending and pushing down its long tail feathers between its legs.

The luxurious black tail feathers of a male long-tailed widowbird in breeding plumage must be three times longer than the body of the bird.

“At the heart of art is learning to see.”~ Seth Godin

A long tailed widow bird with a degree of backlighting to illuminate its wing and tail feathers.

A reed cormorant drying itself on a dead reed. Once you look closely they have very attractive colouring on their faces and backs.

A southern red bishop in breeding plumage perched near the top of a dead reed stem on the look out for female and ready to chase away other males in an instant.

We always see a black headed heron on the narrow track from the Duiker hide down to the old Marsh owl hide. I am always impressed by these voracious predators. Herons are carnivorous and the black headed heron seems to be capable of devouring the most surprising mammals, birds and reptiles. It clearly had swallowed something large. Herons just swallow their catch down their flexible esophagus’s and into their loose and stretchable stomachs. They do not have a crop like most birds.

An adult African Purple Swamphen. This bird is part of the rail family. It is a skulker. It is found in swamps and reedbeds. This swamphen has especially large feet which helps it to spread its weight across the reeds making its movement easier. It is also very dexterous with those feet holding stems of water-based plants while stripping the outer layers to feed on the soft inner pith.

The African Purple Gallinule has a new name the African Purple Swamphen. It is a beautifully coloured bird with blue and purple feathers on this head, neck and body. Its back and the top of its wing feathers are an olive green. It has distinctive red bill and frontal shield and pink legs with exceptionally large feet with long toes.

This is a skittish waterfowl and not often seen clearly but for some unknown reason this adult wandered around in the open in front of us for about half an hour. The African Purple Swamphen has white feathers under its tail which it flashes regularly by flicking its tail up.

Wetlands play a vital role in our hydrological systems. It was only in Dr Steve Boyes video “Into the Okavango” that I begun to realise how important these wetlands are in controlling the flow, for storing water like a sponge and clean up the water flowing through them. These wetland areas also provide a vital sanctuary and food for a diverse range of waterfowl, seed-eating birds and numerous insects, reptiles and small mammals.

“For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.” ~ Sandra Postel

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness, and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Odzala’s Mboko- all good things come to an end

Our last day in Odzala-Kokoua National Park. At a civilised time we walked down to breakfast in the main dining/entertaining area of the Mboko camp. It was warm and the morning was lighting up giving us a great view across a section of savanna down towards the Lekoli river. Breakfast was a sumptuous affair and once sated we drove down to the boats to cruise down the river and walk in a few areas of the forest we had not yet seen.

“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”~Eleanor Roosevelt

The light was low down among the trees where the boats were moored. About fifty metres upstream of the boats, were heard an elephant breaking branches.

“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.”~ Oprah Winfrey

We quietly made our way up the river on foot to get a decent view of this forest elephant bull without disturbing him. After seven days in Odzala you do not get precious about getting wet.

We watched this one tusk forest elephant bull happily feeding undisturbed at the edge of the river. This must have been paradise for him with abundant food, water and protection of the reserve.

After watching the bull elephant for about half an a hour we left him in peace and wandered back down the river to the boats. From there our Odzala guides, Daniella and Adi, took us by boat down the Lekoli river to explore further. The forest was alive with wildlife. This male Forest buffalo heard our boat and looked up to ensure we were just passing.

“One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure.”~William Feather

We stopped at one of the small inlets along the river to go walking in some of the drier parts of the forest. There were forest openings, not quite the size of a bai, but do not be fooled, these marshy areas can be problematic if you do not know what you are doing. This next image shows Adi wading through the marshy area which got deep and difficult to get through in places .

Further on in a drier section, the walking was easier and the area opened up into beautiful glades.

It was clear to see that Wild Eye’s Andrew Beck was in his element.

We carried on walking through the open sections along the side of the forest finding these stunning areas with grey parrots calling all around us.

Around lunchtime, much to our surprise, Daniella and Adi produced a picnic lunch on some rocks by the edge of a beautiful open area next to the forest. We spent a happy hour or so relaxing and chatting over lunch. The bird life all around was spectacular with many Grey parrots and different species of hornbills continuously flying past.

After lunch we walked back towards the boat but this time through the long savanna grasses. I am no entomologist but even I was intrigued by the variety of insect life we found on the way. One species of insect that caught my imagination was a stunning rainbow shield bug on some yellow berries on a shrub along side the path.

Along the animal paths there were sprinklings of shrubs with beautiful wild flowers such as this Melastromastrum segregatum.

Verdant vegetation overhanging the river. This looked to be a species of wisteria fighting for light with another tree with beautiful white flowers. There is so much food for the monkeys, parrots and nectar feeders. The forest also provides abundant fruit resources for frugivores such as parrots, hornbills, turacos and barbets.

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” ~John Steinbeck

Once back in the boat we travelled back upstream towards the Mboko camp. When we drew level with the Lango bai entrance, Adi got a fleeting glimpse of a Forest elephant. He reckoned that we may be able to get into a position where we could see the Forest elephant in the open and get some good images. We went up the Lango tributary as far as we could and it soon got too shallow for the boat so we hopped out and proceeded on foot through water. Adi was 100% right we got to see this bull Forest elephant come into the open.

This bull immediately saw us and was not happy. After walking a few paces he stopped and accessed what we were doing and decided to give us a mock charge. It was just for show as we were not close to him and there was plenty of thick mud between us.

After telling us that he did not want us any closer he backed away and walked through the bush and made his way down river. We walked back to our boat and managed to get some decent images of the bull crossing the Lango tributary.

“There is a language going on out there – the language of the wild. Roars, snorts, trumpets, squeals, whoops and chirps have meaning derived over eons of expression…we have yet to become fluent in the language – and music – of the wild.”~Boyd Norton

Not far from where the bull crossed the Lango tributary there was a feeding frenzy in an adjacent small section of the swamp which attracted Little egrets, Yellow-billed egrets, and a Palm-nut vulture.

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.”~ Aldo Leopold

After the the sighting of the elephant bull, the light was starting to fade as the evening quietly crept in. We celebrated the end of what was a fascinating day sitting in the boat with a sundowner and watched mother nature’s spectacular light show at sunset.

“Man is but part of the community of nature on our blue planet. Our arrogance and ignorance blinds us into thinking we are superior. Humility and inquisitiveness reveals that we have much still to learn about the natural intelligence in our wild community and how to live in harmony with it.”~ Mike Haworth

A special thank you to the team at Odzala for your hospitality and showing us your incredible wild place. To our guide in Odzala, Daniella Kueck thank you for showing us around your vast piece of tropical heaven. Your knowledge and enthusiasm were inspiring. To Andrew Beck from Wild Eye, thank you for putting together an absolutely fascinating trip which turned into an adventure with cameras. Many more to come.

“If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”~ Maya Angelou

I am always so impressed by the quality of people, their dedication and clear conceptual approach to building a tourist destination without compromising the wildness and balance of the area. To the Congo Conservation Company and African Parks you are doing wonderful pioneering work in combining conservation, tourism, wildlife research and community integration into what looks to be an effective sustainable model and blueprint for recovering many of our decimated wild areas in Africa. Hats off to you for your great work!!!

https://www.africanparks.org/about-us/our-story

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Odzala’s Mboko

From Lango we moved to Mboko camp, the third and last leg of our Odzala adventure. We drove through a section of savanna to a drop off point on the opposite side of the Lekoli river to the Mboko camp. The vehicle bridge had been swept away by the previous year’s rains so access to Mboko was via a boardwalk and over a wooden pedestrian bridge. This walk was about 20 minutes through thick vegetation next to the Lekoli river. The boardwalk was necessary because it was very marshy. As we walked across the wooden pedestrian bridge, in the water below us was a Tiger fish hunting. The light shining into the crystal clear water showed the Tiger’s colours beautifully.

“I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
-Eric Roth,

Once we got to Mboko, we found a camp with wide open spaces – something different after having been in the rainforest. Mboko looked over an open section of savanna grassland with the Lekoli river flowing along its right hand side.

The beauty of this camp was that it was open to all the breezes which float by in this humid forest environment. Mboko boasts 12 comfortable bungalows all linked to the main dining and bar area via gravel paths.

As with all the camps in Odazala, Mboko’s cuisine was excellent and even more impressive given it was so far from civilisation.

Around Mboko camp there are numerous termite mounds. These are a feature of the savannas. These termite mounds play a vital role in the ecosystem as thickets of vegetation start to develop on or around them helped by the concentration of nitrates accumulated in these nests. In turn, the vegetation attracts the elephants who deposit their dung which is filled with germinating seeds and they also start to grow nearby.

After wandering around the waterways you are likely to be wet and muddy but never cold. There is nothing better than a hot shower to wash away the day’s bushwacking. Refreshed, we met for sundowners which developed into story telling around the camp fire on one of the ample elevated wooden decks.

In 2010, park management was taken over by the Odzala Foundation, a partnership between the not-for-profit African Parks and the Congolese government. The lack of tourism infrastructure in the park was addressed by the Congo Conservation Company, an initiative of German businesswoman and philanthropist, Sabine Plattner. Two new camps (Ngaga and Lango) were constructed in the park, and an existing camp (Mboko) refurbished.

Primate research at Ngaga embraced a new approach with the support of Sabine Plattner, African Charities, and the Congo Conservation Company. The philosophy was to join communities, science and tourism on the grounds of conservation. Then, two more camps were built within Odzala- Kokoua National Park, each within a distinct biome. A part of the gorilla research was opened to tourism. The combination created an unique destination rooted in conservation, creating awareness and spiced with adventure.

On our first afternoon at Mboko we went down to the river and climbed aboard a flat bottomed aluminium boat to wander down the Lekoli river.

Sections of the Lekoli river had the forest bulging into the waterway.

“While Newton seemed to draw off the veil from some of the mysteries of nature, he showed at the same time the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy; and thereby restored her ultimate secrets to that obscurity, in which they ever did and ever will remain.” ~ David Hume

A few kilometres down the Lekoli river there are patches that opened up. Here you were likely to see herons, Palm-nut vultures and kingfishers.

The water in the Lekoli river is crystal clear but has a brown hue to it. This comes from the tannin and organic acids released during the decomposition of the vegetation in the river. There are sections of the river bank with groves of wild Date-palms overhanging the river.

From the boat we saw a small family group of Forest elephant browsing on the grass near the river. We were careful to go downwind and got out of the boat and walked along the edge of a marsh area to where the elephants were feeding on the grasses. After we were watching them for a while, this bull forest elephant must have picked up a swirl of our scent and he quickly turned around and crashed through the grass back into the forest. You will notice that the forest elephants eyes are much lighter than their African elephant cousins.

Traditionally, the Forest and Savanna elephants have been classified as subspecies of the African elephant. The two have very different DNAs. They also look very different. The Savanna elephant weighs on average 7 tonnes which is about double the weight of the Forest elephant. A team of scientists looked back into elephant ancestry and found by comparing their genomes that the Forest and Savanna elephants diverged into separate species about the same time as African and Asian elephants split into separate species, according to lead author on the study, David Reich who is a population geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.

According to our guides Daniella and Adi, the female Forest elephant can be altogether more dangerous than the male, especially when she has a calf. Once they get your scent they have been known to follow it and are persistent. Needless to say once she was alerted, we quickly got out of the way of this now wide awake female Forest elephant and left her in peace with her youngsters.

“It is impossible to meditate on time and the mystery of nature without an overwhelming emotion at the limitations of human intelligence.” ~Alfred North Whitehead

After being encouraged to leave the area by the female elephant we climbed back on board our boat and started to slowly wander our way back up stream towards our camp. On the way we came upon this small family herd of Forest buffalo who were enjoying a late afternoon bath.

The buffaloes have nothing to fear from the crocodiles in the Lekoli river . There are two types of crocodile found in the rivers and bais of Odzala, the Long-snouted crocodile and Dwarf crocodile. The Long-snouted crocodile can grow up to four metres in length but eats mainly a fish, snake and small mammals. When we were walking around in the water in the rivers and bais this was one of the first questions I asked, coming from southern Africa, where we humans are definitely on the Nile crocodile’s menu. The Dwarf crocodile is nocturnal and rarely seen during the day..

We followed this family herd of Forest buffalo for a hundred metres or so along the edge of the river before they disappeared down one of the small tributaries.

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

It was getting progressively darker. At a particular section of the Lekoli river we found a herd of forest elephants blowing bubbles in the water. Elephants do this to obtain essential salts,deficient in their diet. The salts lie in solution at the bottom of water-filled holes. The elephants access these salts by digging or blowing air into these underwater holes to clear out any debris then they can suck up the mineral-rich water using their trunks.

As it got even darker, the nocturnal wildlife started to reveal itself. Below is a White-backed Night heron. We only had a fleeing glimpse of it as the spot light disturbed it.

Evenings in Africa are usually spectacular. Odzala was no different. After some of the overcast and misty weather and the gloom of the forest it was perfect to sit on the boat having a sundowner. It was still hot and the air was still. There was hardly a ripple on the golden water surface and just the sounds of the forest all around – sublime!

“Man does not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” ~Chief Seattle

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Odzala’s Lango bai and Bongo Saline

On our second morning at Lango we set off early into the bai. It was very misty which gave the place a mysterious feel. Everything around Lango is accessed by walking through the bai.

“The answer is simple. If we lose the world’s forests, we lose the fight against climate change. Rainforests are our Earth’s greatest utility – our planet’s lungs, thermostat and air-conditioning system.” ~ Michael Somare

This particular morning we set off towards Bongo saline in the hopes of seeing one or more Bongos and Red river hogs. Sadly our hopes were not fulfilled as we saw neither. The particular area of the bai we walked in was to find a rare antelope called Bongo. I am not sure why it was called a saline but I presume it had a geomorphological origin and was probably the more saline section of the bai.

The Bongo is an antelope of the genus Tragelaphus which are spiral horned antelopes. They are in the same family as the Greater Kudu, Mountain Nyala and Sitatunga. The Bongo is a large solidly built antelope not too much smaller than an Eland. The Bongo is a nocturnal ungulate and browses on leaves, bushes, bark, pith of rotting trees, grasses, roots, and fruits. Bongos require salt in their diet so come into the salines to eat the mineral rich soil for the same reason the green pigeons and parrots.

Our walk to the Bongo saline was along the waterways in the bai which the wildlife use. These underwater paths are firm underfoot from years of wildlife traffic. Although misty, it was warm and so humid. When we went for our walks around the Lango bai area we were accompanied by a Congo Conservation eco guide, Mathieu.

The mist was thick and only lifted quite late in the morning. It gave an altogether more mysterious sense to the place.

As you can see moving away from the game trails involved getting through thick mud, the kind of depth mud that wants to suck your shoes off your feet.

Ann got well and truly stuck on occasions and lost her shoes deep in the mud which Mathieu managed to find each time. Just as well because there were thickets of thorn bushes at the edge of some of these muddy patches. Getting stuck led to all sorts of comments and great humour.

“Bais are an inbetween place in the forest. Not forest, not savanna but rather swamp lands. This inbetween place reveals some of the forests secrets. It is a feeding and gathering place for many creatures in the forest community. It displays a blaze of greens, spiced with swirls of multi-coloured wings. You can wander through these bais along elephant boulevards. Here you are a visitor.”~ Mike Haworth

Once we got onto an “elephant boulevard” it was easy walking. Although you walked through the water it was firm underfoot. The “elephant boulevards” have been formed over hundreds of years of elephants walking in and out of the bai.

A bush lily on the verge of the elephant boulevard.

The “elephant boulevard” can be quite wide in places but sticks to the central sand paths. If you stray to the edges you are likely to sink calf or knee deep in mud. One of the things I love about the bush is that the locals come up with romantic expressions to describe some of the features of the area such as “elephant boulevards”, it is highly evocative.

The elephants seem to play a similar role in the Odzala rainforest that the hippos do in the Okavango delta. They create waterways and game trails which other wildlife follow. These game trails also seem to function like streams and help drain areas of the forest. These “elephant boulevards” also attract plant life which seek the sun such as the plant below which I think looks like an ipomoea or morning glory creeper.

“The more we urbanise, the more we grow out of touch with the natural systems and rhythms. The more we leave libraries of natural intelligence undiscovered. It is only in adventures back into the wilds we reignite our senses and become spellbound by the wonder and beauty of mother nature’s community.” ~ Mike Haworth

As you walk along these “elephant boulevards” you expect to see a forest elephant or forest buffalo or one of the antelopes any moment step out from around the corner. Like all game trails they do not follow a straight line but meander through the forest.

These Swamp lilies made a colourful display along the “elephant boulevard”, nature’s natural colourful garden.

For part of the walk we wandered through the close canopy forest. This was one of the immense African Greenheart trees which reach heights of 40 to 50 metres and have their characteristic large buttresses at their base. These buttresses can extend out over four metres. It is a sight to behold to look up into such a large old member of the forest community.

After walking through the dry closed canopy forest for a while we came to this waterway. This was the way back to Lango camp.

Later in the morning the mist cleared and the sun came out. The air was still and the reflection in the water was perfect.

“I see the day in our own lifetime that reverence for the natural systems, the oceans, the rainforests, the soil, the grasslands, and all other living things will be so strong that no narrow ideology based upon politics or economics will overcome it.” ~ Jerry Brown

We walked waist deep along this water way for about a hundred or so metres. It was exquisitely beautiful.

At the end of the waterway walk we disturbed a forest buffalo bull who was munching on some succulent vegetation below the water surface.

He stood and looked at us for a few seconds wondering what to do then bolted for the water’s edge at which point he stopped to turn around and have one last look at us.

Our morning walk did not serve up Bongos or Red river hogs but it was a fascinating and a beautiful, mysterious walk through the elephant boulevards, closed canopy forest, waterways and the thick mist and sunshine.

After exiting the waist deep waterway and short walk through the forest the path opened out onto the bai giving us a wonderful view of Lango camp and its surrounds. Lango and Ngaga camps could not have been more different and the experiences and walks could also not have been more different. The bais provide a very different view of the forest.

“The world’s forests need to be seen for what they are – giant global utilities, providing essential public services to humanity on a vast scale. They store carbon, which is lost to the atmosphere when they burn, increasing global warming. The life they support cleans the atmosphere of pollutants and feeds it with moisture. They act as a natural thermostat, helping to regulate our climate and sustain the lives of 1.4 billion of the poorest people on this Earth.” ~ Prince Charles

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Odzala’s Lango bai

On the third morning, after a special hour spent with the the western lowland gorillas close to the Ngaga camp, it was time to decamp and move onto our second camp.

“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”~ Ernest Hemingway

Our trip to the new camp was split into two parts. The first stage was a drive by game vehicle to the Mboko camp where we were given a superb lunch. We had no idea what was coming next. After a short relaxation time, we started the second part of our journey to the second camp. From Mboko we drove down to the Lekoli river where we climbed onto kayaks. Daniella, our Odzala guide, took us down the river to exit some distance further down at the entrance to the Lango bai.

We had a wonderful hour gliding down the Lekoli river in peace and quiet watching all the wildlife along the river. The forest bulges right onto the river bank. We had fleeting glimpse of several kingfishers, Palm nut vultures, hornbills and a few Cattle egrets.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”~ Saint Augustine

We paddled part the way up a tributary into the Lango bai until it got too shallow. We then beached the kayaks on a sand bank and started to walk deeper into the bai. All our kit had been taken by vehicle via a back route through the forest and along the edge of a savanna opening. After walking for about half an hour this was the view in front of us – Lango bai.

A bai is natural forest clearing which is unique to the lowland of central Africa. It is a swampy grassy like meadow in the middle of the rainforest. These bais have several important roles to play from a wildlife, forest and human point of view.

These bais are effectively swamps. To course your way through the bai you must follow game trails. You will walk knee deep in water, mud and decomposing vegetation. The marshy water has slightly sulphury smell due to all the rotting vegetation but its coolness is refreshing in the tropical heat. It was like walking into a Jurassic unknown. After some time we entered the main open area of the bai and there on our right hand side was a camp nestled on the edge of the bai in the forest.

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself .”~ Viktor E Frankl

The Lango camp overlooks the Lango bai. The main area is an elevated wooden deck with a large viewing area, spacious dining and a very comfortable open air lounge. The building’s superstructure is made of natural materials with the roof made of interwoven local raffia palm fronds.

These areas in the camp need to be open because the rainforest is hot and humid. The elevated deck catches every passing breeze and in the evenings with a gentle sundowner in hand together gazing over this opening in the forest the experience is magical.

The camp has six separate rooms all connected via elevated wooden deck walkways

These walkways were elevated about 15 foot above the forest floor. This gives you an opportunity to see the resident birds and monkeys.

On several occasions I just stopped on my way to my room or back to the lounge area just to listen and take in all the sounds and the sense of being immersed in the canopy.

Several members of the Lango community came out to greet us. These nimble Guereza Colobus monkeys managed their way through the trees with breathtaking ease, stopping to pick edible leaves and ripe fruit. The forest is bountiful for these vegans.

The Guereza Colobus monkeys were as interested in us as we were in them.

My friend Ann contorting herself on the shoe drying rack to get the shot. After a walking session in the bai we took off our shoes and socks and left them to dry of the rack ready for the next walk in the bai.

After lunch we sat for a while chilling on the deck just gazing out over the bai and watching the world go by. This lone female bushbuck was quietly grazing on this side of the the Lango river when something spooked her and she skipped across the river and disappeared into the bushes on the far side.

I took this next image to illustrate the height of the trees in the forest relative to a forest buffalo bull grazing in the bai opening.

A view of Lango camp from the middle of the bai. The camp has been carefully built so as not to protrude into the bai.

Our group walking in the bai. The game paths that we followed were shallow and under foot the sand was firm compacted by years of nature’s traffic. Interestingly, if you ventured off these pathways you stepped into very soft bog like conditions.

The open bai is an swampy forest clearing which provides not only a gathering ground for animals and birds alike but also provides some important nutritional ingredients for animals and birds.

” It is you, inquisitive, in a wild world that is older than man, seeking greater understanding and finding not only an endless interest but a tranquility that comes, most of the time, to all nature?s wild creatures.” ~ Lee Wulff

I was very interested in seeing flocks of grey parrots and green pigeons which are a feature of the Lango bai.

We were not fortunate enough to see these large flocks of grey parrots land in the bai. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to see this flock of around 1000 wild grey parrots doing what they are supposed to do in the wild. I will never be able to look at a pet grey parrot the same way again.

Only once we were parked in the make-shift hide waiting for the grey parrots to land did Daniella start telling us of the plight of the grey parrots in the Congo Basin. Every year, poachers steal tens of thousands of grey parrot fledgings and chicks from their nests in Africa’s rainforests to meet international demand. Even more disturbing is that only a small fraction of those young grey parrots harvested from their nests survive. This practice started aggressively in the 1990s. The population collapsed as a result. The flocks of a thousand or so grey parrots that you can see flying wild in Odzala today is less than a tenth of what was seen 20 to 30 years ago.

While we only got to see the historically small flocks of grey parrots from a distance, our patience in the hide was rewarded and we were privileged to see a large flock of green pigeons. They landed in the bai to feed on the mineral rich soil for nutrients certain times of the year. This behaviour is called geophagy.

Geophagy has been found in a number of bird species, but its adaptive functions remain much debated. Avian species showing geophagy can be broadly divided into those feeding on grit and those feeding on clay.

There are two main hypotheses as to why birds practice geophagy — the intentional consumption of soil. The first is that clay is a natural detox treatment. Fruit eating birds such as parrots and green pigeons regularly eat seeds and unripe fruits containing alkaloids and other toxins which make the seeds and fruits bitter and even lethal. When food is limited and safer plants are in short supply, clay could help birds eat the more toxic plants that remain. Laboratory experiments have shown that clay could bind to toxins, keeping them out of a bird’s bloodstream.

The second hypothesis is that clay contributes vital minerals that a frugivore’s plant-based diet lacks. Parrot and pigeon geophagy is amply evident in moist tropical forests areas where sodium is flushed from the ecosystem, but retained in hard clay. Sodium is needed for nerve function and muscle contraction.

To see this enormous flock of green pigeons is spellbinding. When not breeding, African green pigeons gather in flocks referred to a passel of pigeons.

While the male and female of many bird species look different, both sexes of the African green pigeon wear the same colourful feathers. The juvenile birds are somewhat duller without the lilac carpal patches.

I only really began to understand why bais and wetlands are so important after watching a video by ornithologist Dr Steve Boyes and his research team who went in search of the source and course of the water that flows into Okavango delta to better understand its sustainability. Only then did I realise the vital role these wetland areas play in the ecosystem. They control floods and act as sponges allowing water to flow consistently long after the rain has stopped. They form a crucial component of the flow control and water purification of the hydrological system of water catchment areas.

These bais also provide an opening in the thick rainforest for animals and birds to gather. This gives researchers and tourists a chance to catch a glimpse beyond the ‘green curtain’ into the lives of the forest dwellers. In this regard, the forest elephants have a vital role to play. They create game trails in the waterways, romantically called “elephant boulevards’. These are paths ways created over hundreds of years. The sand under foot is firm, albeit underwater. If you were to step a metre to one side you would probably sink down to your knees or even deeper in bog like conditions.

Along the rivers and in the bai openings you will frequently see Palm-nut vultures. They have distinctive colouring and red facial skin quite unlike an African Fish eagle. They are large vulturine raptors but what makes them unusual for birds of prey is they feed mainly on the fleshy fruit-husks of the oil-palm and on the palm-fruits. These fruits make up over 60% of the adult bird’s diet. The balance of these diet varies from crabs, molluscs, frogs, fish, locusts, small mammals, even reptiles’ eggs and even carrion.

“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.” ~ William Blake

The fresh water is continually draining from the bai via the many rivulets and streams. The water in these streams is crystal clear.

Another first for me was seeing a small herd of forest buffalo which ventured out onto the bai to graze on the grasses in the late afternoon.

The African forest buffalo is the smallest subspecies of the African buffalo. Although related to the Cape buffalo, West African savanna buffalo and Central African savanna buffalo, it is much smaller.

The African forest buffalo is distinguished from the other subspecies by its reddish brown hide that is darker in the facial area. The shape and size of their horns are more like water buffalo that African buffalo and they have glamorous ear tuffs.

“My wealth is not measured in how much time I have to do what I want, rather, how much meaning I’m able to derive from the time I have.”

The forest buffaloes rarely venture from the forest into the open areas but they do so to graze on the grasses and sedges in the bai. They also like to wallow in the waterways.

At the end of our first day at Lango camp we were walking back to the wooden jetty which leads via a wooden walk way back to the camp. We had been watching the forest buffalo herd but we noticed they were progressively wandering in our direction. If these were African buffalo we would have got out of there quickly. Our Odzala guide Daniella and Andrew from Wild Eye suggested we stop at the jetty. The light was fading so we decided to sit waist deep in the water next to the jetty and see what the buffaloes did. The next image was of the matriarch who was very inquisitive. She brought the whole herd up to within 10 metres of us. We were very still and quiet and they seemed not to be able to figure out what we were. At no time did any of the forest buffalo show any aggression towards us. After a short while the buffaloes lost interest in us and wandered passed us upstream. During this encounter in the fading light with hot humid temperatures, it was if time stood still. It was a remarkable experience and one which I will never forget.

The more you get to understand the ecology and dynamics of these bais the more fascinating they become. They are a gathering place, a source of vital nutrients and a crucial hydrological feature of the ecology of the rainforest. Best of all they provide us humans get an opportunity to see the rare and unusual wildlife which is normally hidden in the rainforest.

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimension.” ~ Wendell Holmes

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Odzala’s gorilla gorilla gorilla

Odzala-Kokoua National Park sits in the Congo Basin in Central Africa and forms part of the second largest rainforest on earth.

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”
~Franklin D. Roosevelt

The first camp we visited in Odzala was Ngaga Camp which is located just outside the park boundary in the Ndzehe concession. The camp overlooks an open glade of marantacae within the primary forest above a forest stream. Ngaga is situated within the overlapping home ranges of several groups of western lowland gorillas, two of which are habituated.

There are two gorilla species, the Eastern and the Western. The scientific name for Eastern Gorillas is Gorilla Berinngei, and for Western Gorillas is Gorilla Gorilla. There are four gorilla subspecies. The two western sub-species are the Western Lowland (Gorilla Gorilla Gorilla) and the Cross River (Gorilla Gorilla Diehli). The two eastern subspecies are the Eastern Lowland (Gorilla Beringei Graueri) and Mountain (Gorilla Beringei Beringei).

The size and colouring of the two species is slightly different. The western lowland species appears slightly smaller but may be because the eastern species has much longer hair to keep warm at the higher altitudes. The western gorilla subspecies is also a brownish-gray, while eastern gorilla subspecies tend to be blacker. The two species live in Central Africa, separated by a vast swathe of rainforest.

Both species are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The western lowland gorillas are more common than their relatives, the mountain gorillas. With the western lowland gorillas living in deep rain forests it is more difficult to estimate their population because they are harder to follow. They are known to exist in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To give you a sense of how thick the rainforest can be, this was the main road from Odzala to Gabon. The track was wet because there had been a heavy afternoon shower a little earlier.

“Healthy rainforests absorb up to 10% of man’s carbon emissions each year.”

There are two types of forest structures in Odzala-Kokoua, the first being a closed-canopy forest with an open understory and second an open canopy with a very dense marantaceae understory. We walked through the second forest structure to find the gorillas.

Western lowland gorillas are the main species of wildlife and are the main attraction around Ngaga Camp. They are tracked on foot from the camp itself. There are no fewer than seven groups totalling 105 individual gorillas in the extended 30 square kilometre (11.5 square mile) Ndzehi forest area around Ngaga camp.

The Ngaga research team follow three gorilla groups every day. Two of these groups, Nepuno and Jupiter, are usually observed by guests while a third, Pluton, is a control group observed primarily for research purposes. There are also a number of unhabituated gorilla groups but they tend to be skittish and are not often seen.

The permanent research team at Ngaga has three highly skilled Mbeti trackers, Okoko Zepherin and Okele Gabin, and one other whose name I cannot remember. Our tracking expeditions usually ranged around 4 to 6kms on the out leg and lasted around three to four hours, including the one hour spent observing and photographing the gorilla group. Gorilla viewing is strictly permitted and follows IUCN guidelines, meaning the maximum viewing duration of any gorilla group is one hour. The gorillas may only be observed in groups up to four persons, and the maximum proximity is seven metres (we usually view from around 10 to 15m). 

It was clear the the Mbeti trackers were highly skilled and finely tuned to the signs and sounds in the forest. They were able to interpret barely visible tracks and signs, and stopped regularly to listen for vocalisations. These trackers had an remarkable ability to anticipate the gorillas’ direction and speed through the Marantacae thickets. Each time they got us into good viewing positions.

As usual we assembled for coffee and a rusk at 5h45 to leave camp by 6h00. Our tracker led us up the hill and through a now familiar section of the forest. After our experience the day before we now knew what to expect. It was still a healthy walk along the forest paths and over fallen logs, enough to ensure that by the time we got close to the gorillas our clothes were soaked in sweat by 7h00 in the morning.

After the difficulties encountered during the first day of photographing the gorillas, the second morning held greater promise. For starters after some discussion, it was agreed that we could pull our masks down to just below our noses so as to cover our mouths. That way my glasses would not mist up as much.

“Rainforests are made of carbon. When the forest is destroyed, this carbon is released as climate warming CO2. The world’s forests store 638 gigatonnes of CO2 “

The movements of both groups are dictated by the seasonal availability of different forest fruits and other forage such as marantaceae leaves and stems.

Our tracker, Zepherin, beckoned us to stop and be still so he could listen for the gorillas. We could hear them moving through the marantaceae thicket. This time is was not just a case of waiting for them to cross the path. This time our guide set off into the marantacae with his panga and secateurs. We followed the troop through the marantaceae for what seemed like half and hour. Finally we got to an opening deep in the marantacae thicket. Sure enough the gorilla troop came to the opening and lingered there for about half an hour.

The open area had been cut by the research team to be able to observe the gorillas otherwise it would be impossible to see them and observe their behaviour and socialisation in the thick marantacae. The whole troop moved into and around this clearing. It was not long before we saw this female gorilla stand up and start walking.

Gorillas are able to walk on their hind legs but they are built to be knuckle walkers. The reason why this female was walking is that she had a broken or crippled hand so found it difficult to knuckle walk. Gorillas (plus chimps and bonobos) are specialised knuckle-walkers. This is not because they can’t carry their weight upright – they can walk bipedally when necessary.

We had quite a treat. While we were watching one group another group moved to join in, so we got to see the Neptuno and Jupiter groups mixing. As to be expected, the youngsters were effervescent and playful with each other. As one point, Jupiter, the one silver back, came thundering through the opening making an almighty noise which sent gorillas scattering. There was no overt aggression between the two groups just one silverback displaying his dominance.

An important plant species for western lowland gorillas is marantaceae – a shrubby plant that grows in profusion on the forest floor. It is also used by gorillas for cover and to build nests. Seeing the gorillas clearly through the marantaceae, even from close range is difficult. You have a better chance of witnessing different types of behaviour e.g. play and tree-climbing (especially when trees are fruiting) in clearings or up in the trees.

This species favours areas of marantaceae vegetation which is a staple food source. According to WWF, gorillas are mainly herbivorous; their staple foods are pith, shoots and leaves. Fruits are also an important component of western lowland gorillas’ diet and are consumed according to their seasonal availability. Over 100 fruit species have been recorded in their diet. In drier months, gorillas supplement their diet with roots, leaves and bark, and even termites and ants.

One of the most incredible displays of strength I have ever seen was when an adult female gorilla began climbing straight up an exceptionally tall fruiting tree. She put her arms around the tree’s trunk and climbed straight up for at least 50 feet to the first branches in one fluid manoeuvre.

“One tropical tree can store up to 30 tonnes of CO2. That’s around three times the amount one person emits in a year.”

The next image is of a mother and her baby. Looks can be deceiving she was not remotely as cross as she looked. Nevertheless she had a good look at us to make sure we were no threat. As you can see she had sweat bees all around her. They seek the moisture where ever they can find it, from your eyes, ears and mouth – anywhere. They are annoying but do not sting though they can mess up your photography.

With a mother like this I think I would be a placid child too!

“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they haven’t experienced.”~ Sir David Attenborough

The young gorillas get a free ride but are also prone to climbing on and off their mothers to play.

The rainbows colours of fruit are actually a secret message designed to attract animals. For a long time, researchers speculated that the colours of fleshy fruits evolved to get the attention of certain animals, who carry them off and eventually drop their seeds on the forest floor. A new study found the colour of fruits has evolved to attract the animals that eat them. Fruit eaten by monkeys and apes tends to be green, while those eaten by birds is often red. Humans have three types of colour-sensing cone cells in the eyes, each one sensitive to different wavelengths of light, while most other mammals have only two types of cone cells. Birds have four, which helps them see a wider range of colours than humans. With the exception of a handful of other primates, no other animals on earth sees colour the way that humans do, according to a study by co-author Kim Valenta, assistant research professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

One undeniable aspect of gorilla behaviour which becomes abundantly clear after watching them for a while is that they have many mannerisms and behaviours which are similar to human beings.

This female gorilla was looking up into the fruit tree where a female had just climbed to pick fruit. This tree did not have ordinary fruit. Each fruit was around 35 centimetres in diameter and when it was dislodged and fell to the ground all the gorillas scrabbled out of the way because it must have weighted at least 10 kilograms.

The abundance of food also has a direct effect on the density of gorillas in an area. The distribution of staple foods is thought to have a strong influence on gorilla social systems, while the distribution of seasonal foods (especially fruit) is likely to significantly affect the gorillas ranging.

It becomes clear how abundant the fruit and nuts are in the forest from the number of hornbills, turacos and barbets you hear calling in the canopy. Sadly we only got to see fleeting glimpses with no photographic opportunities.

We were very fortunate to have this female gorilla, with the damaged hand, come and sit in the marantaceae right in front of us about 10 metres away. Quite relaxed she happily munched away at the piece of fruit she managed to retrieve.

We only got brief glimpses of the silverbacks. They never seemed to sit out in the open but rather a few metres away from the clearing in the marantaceae. The aggression that we saw was more about display than any physical intervention. A silverback is typically more than 12 years of age, and is named for the distinctive patch of silver hair on his back, which comes with maturity. Silverbacks also have large canine teeth that also come with maturity. On maturity, both males and females tend to emigrate from their natal groups.

Our friendly female decided to relax a little in front of us and lay back to doze and contemplate.

There is a technique to photographing western lowland gorillas. Like all wildlife photography you need the first few sessions to get a sense of the animal or bird’s behaviour in order to begin to anticipate where and how it will move to get that interesting image. Our time with the gorillas was short. I guess you would need to be at Ngaga for a least a week photographing the gorillas each day to get top grade images.

An unexpected but welcome and unique aspect of the Odzala experience was the Ngaga Research station. Dr. Magda Beremejo and German Illera, and their research team were the first to habituate western lowland gorillas which has led to Ngaga becoming one of Africa’s most important gorilla trekking destinations.

“It is humbling to see the intellectual input and sustained research effort that goes into investigating and piecing together the sociology and dynamics of these gorilla troops. Without this understanding we would not fathom their value or connectedness with the forest, nor would we understand their movements and ranging. All these dynamics are needed to protect and cherish our close relatives.”~ Mike Haworth

Dr Bermejo and Illera have been researching great apes in Central Africa since 1991. Their dedicated efforts have led to two gorilla groups being successfully habituated to short spell human visits. According to Magda it can take up to five years of daily visits to habituate a gorilla group. Ngaga provides a unique opportunity to assess the effects of gorilla tourism on broader gorilla conservation efforts in the Congo.

“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.” ~ Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Habituating the gorillas is an add-on to their research. The main thrust is to investigate the human-gorilla interface, competition from habitat overlap with chimpanzees and the potential for human-wildlife conflict.

“Nature, time and patience are the three great physicians.” ~ Chinese proverb

Odzala-Kokoua National Park is managed by the Odzala Foundation – a partnership between African Parks and the Congolese government. African Parks took over the management of Odzala-Kokoua in November 2010 under the terms of the partnership agreement with the Government of the Republic of Congo. The tourist concession is managed by the Congo Conservation Company, which operates a very low volume, high return tourism model. 

‘Each person has a precious and personal thing to learn from the gorillas. It is the rarest of experiences, and one that makes conservationists of us all.” ~ Dr Magda Bermejo

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Odzala’s Western Lowland Gorillas

Our first trek to see the Western Lowland Gorillas started at six in the morning after a cup of coffee and a rusk at the main dining area. Daniella discussed what we were going to do and what was expected once we got close to the gorillas.

“Gorillas are brave and loyal. They help each other. They rival elephants as parents and whales for gentleness. They play and have humor and they harm nothing. They are what we should be. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there.” ~ Pat Derby

There were strict rules, and rightly so, about how to behave when you were close to the gorillas. No sudden movements, no talking, and you had to wear face masks. Gorillas are susceptible to all the human diseases such as tuberculous and ebola so face masks are a necessary preventative measure.

“Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.” ~ Henry Beston

The walk to the gorillas took just over an hour. It was uphill along a maze of paths through the marantaceae thickets. Our Tracker took us to the area the troop had last been seen the night before. Gorillas are diurnal so they go to sleep at night. They make a nest of leaves and branches in which to sleep. This means that the trackers know where they slept during the night and were not likely to have moved too far by the time we got to the area just after 7h00. The paths we followed were through the forest and marantaceae thickets in the under-story and proved to be somewhat of an obstacle course due to the fallen trees. Gabon was our guide and he was incredibly well tuned into the sounds of the forest and knew where and in which direction the gorillas were moving.

“Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans have been living for hundreds of thousands of years in their forest,living fantastic lives, never overpopulating, never destroying the forest. I would say that they have been in a way more successful than us as far as being in harmony with the environment.” ~Jane Goodall

After about a hour of walking, Gabon signalled us to stop. He listened intently and indicated that the troop was likely to cross the path some distance ahead. We put on our face masks and waited for the troop of gorillas to cross the path. Gabon accurately estimated where the troop would cross the path which was about 20 metres ahead of us.

As a photographer, wearing eye glasses, I was quite unprepared for the constant misting up of my glasses. By now we were drenched in perspiration, and the face masks forced our hot breath up, misting up our eye glasses to the point where I could not see at all, so had to put my camera between my legs and clean my glasses, repeatedly. This turned out to be a real problem and was very frustrating because I could not see what I was doing. It was exciting to see the gorillas…. when I could see them!

Guests are allowed to spend around one hour in the morning with the troop. As you can see from the images the light was low so the photography was challenging, but it was what we had been expecting.

“All sentient beings should have at least one right—the right not to be treated as property” ~ Gary L Francione

Members of the troop being naturally inquisitive, and not threatened, stopped in the path once they saw us. The youngsters played, while the older members sat and rested, being careful to watch where the others were going.

This was the first time I had ever seen a wild gorilla. I was mesmerised by their eyes. To me their eyes revealed great sentience. There seemed to be a distinct recognition of who we were and, due to a degree of habituation, they were relatively relaxed with our group.

Our group consisted of Gabon our Ngaga tracker, Daniella our Odzala guide, and Ann, Andrew and myself. One of the magical aspects about this sighting is that we are alone with troop.

“Gorillas are still wild creatures. That’s made very clear when you observe them in nature. They charge and perform other displays that are terrifying by design. But they don’t attack unless they feel threatened.” ~ Andy Serkis

Humans share 98.3% of our DNA with gorillas and around 99% with chimpanzees and bonobos. This makes me question why people kill gorillas for bush meat.

Apart from fleeting glimpses of the gorillas, another challenging aspect was the high contrast in overall low light. The leaves of the marantaceae have a sheen which reflects the available light expanding the dynamic range.

Our first hour with the gorillas ended all too quickly, especially as I spent most of my time with my camera between my legs cleaning my glasses! I was going to have to make another plan for the trek the following morning.

On our walk back to camp, Daniella showed us the incredibly varied and complex world of insects, fungi and unique flora along the path. Daniella was impressively knowledgeable and opened up a new world for me.

Daniella’s story about the Ghost butterfly caught my imagination. We found a male and female Ghost butterfly flying together. They are called Ghost butterfly because their wings are translucent so appear white in light and are see- through in deep shadow. When the female stopped to rest on a leaf the male would fly back and forth above her spraying pheromones over her to “hypnotise” her into allowing her to mate with him. Not only was he persistent but I was fascinated to see the male butterfly flying forwards and backwards over the female. I had never (before) seen a butterfly fly backwards.

Along the path through the forest we found several Ground Pineapples (Thonningia sanguine). They occur on the ground among the tree roots system and looked like little gems in the dark understory.

A climbing species of marantaceae in a fold of the tree which is covered in moss. The marantaceae is part of the Prayer Plant family of the Ginger order which comprises 31 genera and 550 species.

A Robber fly perched on a marantaceae leaf. This fly hunts flying insects.

After a wonderful lunch and some editing of the morning’s images we went for a walk around mid-afternoon. Every activity around Ngaga camp is done by walking. The paths through the forest are open and bordered by marantaceae thickets in the understory. Streams of sun light do find their way through the thick forest canopy but for the most part the light is low close to the forest floor.

Daniella explained the difference between ants and termites and showed us termite tunnels and termite nests on the trunks of many trees. Andrew was intrigued and put his Sony mirrorless camera to good use. The termites build their cities on the tree’s outer bark and do not kill the tree. It becomes apparent very quickly that there is at least as many fascinating smaller things close to or on the forest floor as there are large better known mammals and trees.

The termites are remarkable architects. They build their cities with perfect drainage employing overlapping protruding ledges to facilitate water runoff. The high level of moisture sustains moss on these ledges.

Termites, unlike ants, do not tolerate sunlight, so build earth tunnels up the tree trunk to provide highways to their elevated cities.

We found a patch of the forest, close to Ngaga camp, where the canopy opened up and allowed more sunlight through to the understory.

Instead of fighting the low light, Andrew encouraged us to play with our shutter speed and camera movement. This is an example of a low shutter speed with a partial radial twist of camera.

“Nature is so powerful, so strong. Capturing its essence is not easy – your work becomes a dance with light and the weather. It takes you to a place within yourself. ” ~ Annie Leibovitz

In the same location, with a slower shutterspeed and a quick vertical lift of the camera gave quite different look. The idea was to play and try to get different effects out of the same scene.

With a slow shutter speed and rotating the camera quickly creates an unique tunnel effect giving that enchanted forest feel.

Again in the same spot with a slow shutter speed and this time quickly zooming out gives the sense of high speed movement through the forest.

After playing for a while, time was moving on and what light remained was beginning to fade signalling it was time to begin heading back to camp. We walked down a steep path to a ample stream below Ngaga camp. To our surprise there, in the middle of the clear flowing stream, was a magical setting with Clem, the other Ngaga guide, in animated consversation with his family happily, enjoying sun-downers while sitting in the middle of the stream.

After a drink spiced with animated conversation, is was getting dark. We made our way bare foot back to camp which was only a few hundred metres up the hill next to us. The camp staff had put out paraffin lanterns for us to see along the path. It cooled somewhat in the evenings but was still warm.

Once we had freshened up we all met at the camp’s main lounge and dining area. There we were privileged to meet Dr Madga Bermejo. Madga explained the scope of the research efforts she and her team were undertaking. Magda also gave us some insights into the behaviour and social interaction of the three gorilla groups they were studying. Magda talked to us for about an hour. Not only was it fascinating but only then did I get a sense of how much sustained detailed effort her research team put in to better understand the gorilla troop dynamics and sociology.

“Our greatest human adventure is the evolution of consciousness. We are in this life to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain.” ~ Tom Robbins

The research was being undertaken to shed light on the social dynamics of the western lowland gorilla. Three breeding groups were being studied, one control group not exposed to people and the other two which were exposed to visitors. Magda’s team were exploring inter-group interactions of three breeding groups which were habituated to the presence of observers and were monitored daily in Ngaga Forest. This was one area where a dense population of gorillas still thrived and had not been affected by Ebola outbreaks in the last decade. The social structure and dynamics between groups is thought to also play a major role in spreading infectious diseases such as the highly infectious Ebola virus.

So ended a fascinating first day in the Odzala-Kokoua rainforest. A good nights’ sleep with the sounds of the forest all around would see us refreshed for another day of exploration and adventure.

“Seeing a gorilla for the first time in the wild was shock. I was like being in an evolutionary time warp. I was struck by the sentience in their eyes and their self sustaining way of life. My first encounter left me with more questions than answers.” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike