In mid-February 2019, three of us, a long standing family friend, Ann Nichols, Wild Eye director and guide, Andrew Beck and myself went to Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo. None of us had undertaken a trip like this before although all of us are seasoned travellers throughout Africa.
We left Johannesburg on Sunday morning 17 February around midday and flew to Nairobi in Kenya. After a several hour stopover we caught a flight to Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo arriving around 22h00. It was hot and humid as you would expect. On arrival at Maya Maya international airport in Brazzaville, it was clear that the immigration officials do not see many tourists. The immigration officials only spoke French so it was wonderful to have Ann (who is fluent in French) with us to help facilitate and smooth the way.
The next morning (we were only scheduled to fly out of Brazzaville to the Odzala-Kohoua National Park later that morning) the three of us decided to take a walk on the esplanade along a section of the Congo river. At this point Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, and Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are separated by the two kilometre wide Congo river.
The Republic of the Congo is bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo on its east side, Gabon and Cameroon on its west side and the Central African Republic on its north side. The next image is a view from the Brazzaville esplanade across the Congo river to Kinshasa.
“The earth is what we all have in common.”~ Wendell Berry
Walking along the esplanade we found it to be clean and we never felt unsafe, even with our cameras in hand. On the left hand side of the image was the mighty Congo river.
There is minimal unemployment in the Republic of the Congo and everyone seems to make a living one way or another. This was an example of a street vendor who had used some of the spare ground along the esplanade to create a nursery.
All of us were pleasantly surprised by what we saw during our short sojourn in Brazzaville. We left Brazzaville around midday aboard a Russian Let L410 Turbolet. There are about 40 of these aircraft flying throughout Africa. It was a no frills but comfortable aircraft which took about three hours to fly the 800 or so kilometres north to the Cuvette-Quest province where the Odzala-Kokoua National Park is located bordering on Gabon. We landed at the Mboko airstrip and were met by wonderful Odzala staff and our guide, Daniella Kueck. All three of us have undertaken many photographic trips throughout Africa, but little did we know it that this one would turn out to be absolutely unique.
The Odzala-Kokoua National Park, or Odzala for short, was officially proclaimed in 1935, making it one of the oldest national parks in Africa. The 13,546km2 of land, now protected by African Parks, is part of the TRIDOM Transfrontier Park which extends from the Congo into Gabon and the Central African Republic. Within this are some of the last tracts of contiguous rainforest ecosystems in the world. The rainforest in the Congo Basin is often referred to as one of the world’s lungs.
Daniella drove us through the rainforest for about an hour to get to the Ngaga camp. Around the Mbojko airstrip there are open tracts of savanna. There are open grasslands with bushes and small trees which is quite different to the thick vegetation of the rainforest. This is due to the poor quality of the soil which can only carry savanna vegetation. It was not long before we were truly immersed in the rainforest.
“Forests are the world’s air-conditioning system – the lungs of the world – and we are on the verge of switching it off.”~Prince Charles
All the roads are sandy tracks and they weave through the forest as if they have a life of their own. As we made our way to the Ngaga camp, the forest was still but for the sounds of many birds which we could not see.
“What an irony it is that these living beings whose shade we sit in, whose fruit we eat, whose limbs we climb, whose roots we water, to whom most of us rarely give a second thought, are so poorly understood. We need to come, as soon as possible, to a profound understanding and appreciation for trees and forests and the vital role they play, for they are among our best allies in the uncertain future that is unfolding.” ~ Jim Robbins
We finally arrived at the Ngaga camp. One aspect which impressed me immediately was that the drop off point was simple and unassuming with minimal invasion of the vegetation. After a short walk to the main camp area we were assigned one of the six available rooms. The next image shows the view from the balcony in front of my room. I looked out over a open area of marantaceae which after about 100 metres transformed into thick rainforest.
The rooms at the Ngaga camp were very comfortable with all the necessary amenities. Surprisingly, the ablutions were walled in sheet copper. I was astounded at the luxury of the camp given its remote location.
It was a short walk along sand paths to the main dining and lounge area at Ngaga camp. It was positioned high up on a wooden deck to provide an impressive view onto the rainforest. It was very comfortable as there were no walls in front and on the sides to allow any passing breeze through. There was a decked boma area which was a perfect spot to tell stories about the days sightings with a “bitterly” cold drink in hand.
The Ngaga camp has a unique atmosphere. Even the walk way to the toilet off the dining area was impressive. Anyone who has been to bush camps will know that there is a rope, or in this case reed chain, which is pulled across the walk way to signal that the toilet is occupied.
The inside of the Ngaga camp main dining and lounge area it was spacious and had a wonderful feel about it. The one side wall and roof were made of unbroken thatched raffia palm leaves, a method used by the local Ombo tribe. It looks like a work of art.
A view from the walkway next to the dining area looking down and out over the marantaceae and rainforest. It was verdant and alive with sounds of birds and monkeys.
“Silencing of the rainforests is a double deforestation, not only of the trees but a deforestation of the minds music, medicine and knowledge.”~ Jay Griffiths
In front of the main dining and lounge area at Ngaga camp is the boma with a fire pit made of worn brass with intricately carved wooden chairs positioned around it. Needless to say it was so hot in February that we did not need the fire but did need the chairs and ice cold drinks.
A view from the lounge area looking down onto the boma area and beyond were stairs which led down to the rooms.
Thankfully we did not come across many mosquitoes and it was very pleasant sitting out on the deck and chatting. There were surprisingly few bugs in the rooms and main lounge and dining room area considering we were in the middle of a dense rainforest.
Our first day in Odzala and Ngaga camp gave a sense that we were in for a real adventure with meany new things to see and learn about over the next week. The Ngaga camp is the point from which the guests trek to find and observe the western lowland gorillas. Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered. There are an estimated 22,000 of this species of gorilla in Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Ngaga also has a research station were Dr Magda Bermejo and her team are based. Dr Bermejo has been studying this gorilla species since 1991.
“Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.” ~ E. O. Wilson
The next day we were going to walk into the rainforest with a tracker and guide to see these critically endangered gorillas up close.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than one seeks.”~ John Muir
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.
Have fun, Mike