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Why is Congo gorilla trekking one of the best primate experiences in the world?

Nicola Shepherd By Nicola Shepherd
17 Oct 2018
Congo Odzala safaris  western lowland gorilla eating - KAMILI.jpg

I have just returned from the most wonderful, adventurous gorilla trekking safari in the Congo’s Odzala-Kokoua National Park. There are not many places left in the world where one arrives with a frisson of excitement and spirit of adventure, (and certainly not when you come from Africa and have been traversing the continent for around fifty years!).

But here it is so - where tourism is minimal and one feels like a pioneer. My fellow colleague and friend, Kate, had travelled here to see western lowland gorilla two years ago and waxed lyrically to me, saying it was one of the most beautiful places on earth she had ever visited. I asked her whether she still feels this way two years later. Absolutely! The answer was a resounding “Yes”!!

  

 

The experience is undoubtedly adventurous and rewarding, the way that travels to Africa used to be in the 19th century. Reading Travels to West Africa by the incredible scientific researcher Mary Kingsley, where she embarked upon her voyages to this part of the continent in the late 19th century, solo, much of her descriptions remain the same and resonate with my own experiences!

 

Why should you visit Odzala National Park in the Republic of the Congo?

Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo is one of the last great intact strongholds of the African rainforest which holds a global value for its rich and abundant bio diversity and forms part of the Congo Basin.

 

  • Congo Odzala Safari aerial view of the rainforest.jpg

It is part of the second-largest coherent rainforest on earth and has a significant impact on our global climate. It holds over 100 different mammal species and over 400 birds have been recorded. It is also one of the few places that one can see the critically endangered western lowland gorilla.

Odzala’s three main biomes comprise forest (both forest fringe and primary), savannah with swampy grassland and bais, and then of course there are the mountains. The bais are wonderful to traverse and mainly on foot as wildlife including giant hog, elephant and buffalo come here for the salt licks.

The Odzala Conservation Company, who run a private concession and the lodges that we stayed in, have an incredible selection of dynamic, young and knowledgeable guides who transform your experiences! The format here is fabulous as one has the same guide throughout the 7-10 day journey which ensures flexibility and continuity.

 

Gorilla trekking from Ngaga Camp with our guide

  • Congo Odzala safari - Ngaga camp in the forest -ODC Scott Ramsay.jpg

The first camp that we stayed at was Ngaga, situated within the home range of several groups of western lowland gorillas. It is a two hour charter flight from Brazzaville, followed by a two hour drive to the private concession in which the camp is located.

The rooms are in the style of the pygmy beehive style huts, fashioned from local materials and set within the forest. There are circular decks with chairs where one can sit immersed within the forest and listen to the abundant bird life and watch the myriad of butterflies that abound.

 

  • Congo Odzala safaris  western lowland gorillas - KAMILI.JPG

One tracks two groups of gorilla (they have three habituated groups – two for tourists and one for researchers). There are then 38 wild groups of Western Lowland gorilla which reside around the camp, which is startling.

What really comes into sharp relief is the quality of the trackers, who are ex-hunters and have been with Magda, the gorilla primatologist for the last 17 years. They can determine exactly which tracks belong to which group, although the ground is covered with dry leaves. It is quite extraordinary.    

 

  • Congo Odzala safari Western lowland gorillas tracks KP.JPG

What is western-lowland gorilla trekking really like?

The trek starts with a wake-up call at 5.00am. On the first day, we simply walked out from camp and one the second day, we took a 20 minute road journey to a narrow path and started our trekking. The walking is easy, and mainly on straight paths and we were delighted to track the gorillas in around an hour.

 

  • Congo Odzala safari - Gorilla eating flower - KAMILI.JPG

We watched them through the Marantaceae forest. It was incredible. We simply sat on the other side of the bush from them and listened to them beating their chests, clapping and frolicking through the trees.

We then followed them, to the sound of chimpanzees shouting in the trees. We managed to get fairly close to them and watch them as they swung from branch to branch before disappearing into the undergrowth. The excitement of trying to keep up with them whilst on foot, their screams reverberating through the forest, will stay with me forever!

 

  • Congo Odzala safari - Gorilla in the forest - KAMILI.jpg

How does this differ from mountain gorilla tracking?

The main differences of this experience to seeing mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda can be said as such:

  1. This is a private experience for no more than 8 people in total in 2 groups of 4 maximum.
  2. The quality of your guide is unparalleled and one doesn’t get this in the other countries unless one pays for a private guide.
  3. The western lowland gorillas are arboreal herbivores and therefore they are always on the go. This makes watching them far more interesting as they seek out the trees and plants with the best fruit, frolicking through the canopy.
  4. One can see wild chimpanzees here too, a real bonus.
  5. One walks out straight from camp – no being driven to forestry departments and congregating with hordes of other tourists.
  6. One again is contributing hugely to the survival of this species and of the park itself. One is supporting the Congolese parks, including African Parks, the NGO which operates here.
  7. One gets the opportunity to have an evening speaking with Magda, the primatologist expert which is fantastic and a privileged opportunity. One can discuss all the aspects of gorillas, whether it is the size of the groups, the average lifespan of a gorilla, whether inbreeding takes place, the effects of Ebola on gorillas and the effect of AIDS and how these viruses are transmitted. The point being that it is fantastic to be able to discuss all your questions that you have always wondered about with somebody of this ilk!

 

  • Congo Odzala safari - lowland gorilla tracking in the forest - ODC Scott Ramsay.jpg

Why should you embark upon a gorilla safari in the Congo?

The IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has classified the Western Lowland Gorilla as a critically endangered species. Our relatives are in great danger, from human encroachment, deforestation and hunting.

The worst case scenario is as follows: within the next three generations up to 80% of the entire population will disappear. Hence it is all the more important for Odzala to remain a safe place for the animals living there.

African Parks has embarked upon a joint project with the Congo Conservation Company (CCC), so by visiting here you are certainly contributing towards an extremely worthwhile cause.

The long term plan is to combine the three regions of the Park in the Congo, (Lango, Mboko and Ngaga) with the Central African Republic (Sangha Lodge).

 

  • Congo Odzala conservation education programme KP.JPG

This project also involves working hand in hand with the Sabine Plattner African Charities (SPAC) foundation, which aims to enable and empower children, women and men to act independently and sustainably for a future in the rainforest that is worth living.

We simply have to make this work, or risk losing the western lowland gorilla forever.

 

Travelling to Lango camp feels like a pioneering adventure

Leaving Ngaga camp and transferring to Lango camp is an adventure! After roughly a two hour drive we arrived at a boat station on the edge of the river, from which we enjoyed a two hour kayak down-stream past numerous beautiful trees until the water became too shallow.

 

  • Congo Odzala safari  african grey parrots - ODC.jpg

We saw many species, including:

  • Lots of palm nut vultures,
  • African grey parrots,
  • Green pigeons,
  • Giant kingfishers
  • Chocolate backed kingfishers amongst many other birds.

We then walked to a point that used to be used by the salt traders 1800 years ago. In the past thousands of clay pots were filled with the salt and when placing your hand in the river, one can still retrieve handfuls of these ancient broken pots today.

 

  • Congo Odzala safari Lango camp arrival drinks -ODC Scott Ramsay.jpg

After a refreshing swim, (although despite my expectations, the humidity was that of rainforest but certainly not unbearable) we walked through the clear, clean water for another hour or so, past fabulous wildlife, such as herds of brown forest buffalo which are incredibly beautiful. We arrived at Lango lodge on foot, wading through water and were met with cold cloths and a drink.

Sitting out on the jetty in front of the buffalo, with glasses of beer and botanical gin and tonics, we watched the sun set while a number of herds of forest elephant all congregated at the bai.

 

  • Congo Odzala safari  forest buffalo - ODC Christian Neuherz.jpg

The bais are a distinctive feature of Odzala. Like islands these clearings lie in the middle of an ocean of trees: marshy areas typically between one and ten hectares in size. Even the shiest inhabitants of Odzala come here to drink, and gorillas and forest elephants leave the protection of the forest in search of the precious minerals and salts contained in the bai soils.

 

Lango camp is a world away from the last camp

  • Congo Odzala safari Lango camp lodges in forest -ODC Scott Ramsay.jpg

There are just a handful of rooms at Lango, and the camp has a completely different feel to Ngaga. Our rooms had a spectacular view, and one walks through the forest to each room which is raised on a wooden deck. The main sitting and dining area is open sided and there are seats outside for looking out over the bai.

 

  • Congo Odzala safari Lango camp deck -ODC Scott Ramsay.jpg

The accent here is more on the birdlife and mammals. The birdlife is excellent and we also saw sitatunga, a herd of elephant which we followed on foot to the periphery of the forest, rare bongo antelope, and forest buffalo.  We could hear spotted hyena calling at night.

This place is all about walking – and although it is not vital to get wet, many of the walks do encompass walking through the river. It is in fact wonderful and liberating to wade through rivers devoid of hippo and crocodiles which are safe for you to walk. It is also incredibly pretty, rewarding and fun!  

 

  • Congo Odzala safari walking in the Bai - ODC Scott Ramsay.jpg

A sense of humour and an adventurous spirit is required, but this is fabulous and feels like pioneering Africa – something that is harder and harder to achieve these days in a world where urbanisation and homogenisation sadly seems to be the norm!

Many times we came across either buffalo or elephant whilst on foot and spent time simply observing them. Of course, the flowers and the trees are simply magnificent too.

 

Mboko camp was different again, overlooking savannah plains

Mboko camp is beautiful, situated nestled in the forest but overlooking the most magnificent Savannah plains.

 

  • Congo Odzala safari Mboko camp aerial -ODC Scott Ramsay.jpg

This is definitely the most rustic of the three camps, but it has its own traditional charm. The rooms have open verandahs with mosquito netting where one can sit on the sofa and just look into the forest and possibly see bush buck or putty-nosed monkeys.

We also managed to see a long crested pangolin here in the tree coming to camp – the rarest of the three pangolins they find in this area! It was incredibly exciting! The main sitting area and dining area is wooden, raised on stilts and overlooks the savannah plains.

In the afternoon we went out on the river by boat for bird watching and general wildlife spotting. We saw a lovely small herd of three elephant including one calf and we watched them cross the river behind us.

 

  • Congo Odzala safari Mboko Camp overlooking  savannah KP.JPG

Later, dinner was an amazing BBQ feast on the deck. Then – the most extraordinary thing happened! We heard a pack of hyena cackling around us and literally metres away, in the dark, we listened to a pack of hyena bringing down a buffalo.

 

How can you extend your Congo safari?

For anyone with a passion for meeting Africa’s great apes face-to-face, I would combine Odzala in the Congo with seeing mountain gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda, for the best primate experience imaginable.

 

  • Uganda Mountain gorillas adult and baby - KP.JPG

After your experience in Odzala, you can either finish your safari there by flying home via Brazzaville, or you can continue on to the Central African Republic and the magnificent Sangha (Dzanga) Bai, with a river wider than the Zambezi and the greatest concentration of wild elephant.

I, myself, flew on to the Central African Republic, which will be the focus of my next instalment. Brazzaville is well worth some of your time too. Wow! Wow! Wow! The capital city of the Congo exceeded my expectations. Even the name evokes this truly funky, fabulous city! No crime, a certain amount of sophistication and surprisingly good restaurants overlooking the Congo River.

And then – oh my – the Sapeurs! Have you ever seen the Guinness ad? It’s perfect! Congolese dandies parading the streets with their exquisite outfits and dance and joie de vivre! Go out to one of their clubs and see them in the streets. Extraordinary!

This journey in Odzala was extraordinary, amazing, and it is a must for those who yearn for adventure and don’t want to trammel the well-worn tourist trail. I know that should you travel, you too will feel that it was a complete privilege to witness this pristine region filled with beautiful wildlife. Contact me here to discuss your dream gorilla trekking safari!

 

Images kindly supplied by and copyright to:

Odzala Discovery Camps, Scott Ramsay, Christian Neuherz and Kamili safaris. 

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