Reading Time: 4 MINUTES
Ilse Ferreira shares her adventure deep into the Congo Basin in lyrical prose. Her quest: to sit quietly with a family of western lowland gorillas but what she discovered was so much more …
Passport? Check. Yellow Fever? Check. Destination: Odzala-Kokoua National Park in Congo-Brazzaville, an unfathomable 13 600 square kilometres of life-sustaining rainforest. We were in the heart of the Congo Basin. 6 guests. 7 nights. 3 camps. Bucket lists are made of this.
Our first stop and the biggest anticipation – western lowland gorillas. Trees grew taller, thickets thicker, leaves larger and we found ourselves in heavy tropical forest, entirely unknown, yet pleasantly familiar, conjuring thoughts of Tarzan.
Introductions, a casual evening and lightly-excited sleep later, we gathered early for a reminder of the strict protocols before departing on our first trek. Only four guests per day are allowed at either of the two habituated gorilla families. Joining our guide and tracker we took a brisk walk via a network of pathways surrounded by walls of prayer plants (or Marantaceae) following the trail of a gorilla family on the move: broken branches, fruits, sounds, movement. Less than 40 minutes from camp and there they were. Masks on. Quiet. Slow movements. Just them and us. We slowly drew closer but always keeping a respectful distance, shadowing them for the next hour, and finally, breathlessly, making our way to a safe distance where our awe could be made audible. A drizzle started, and it was not long before we returned to camp soaked but elated. Oh, what a glorious feeling. The others were waiting, bursting to share their quest while we relayed ours. So few guests, so close to the gorillas.
The second day’s trek was equally emotional and conversely physical. The day flew by: a forest walk, drinks in the stream, evening festivities and deep sleep preceded a morning of goodbyes, thank you’s and singsongs in the 4×4. Before long we arrived at the savanna of our next camp. Aah, open skies.
We settled in and enjoyed our first encounter of the Lekoli River, drifting downstream in an aluminium boat past putty-nosed and colobus monkeys, palm nut vultures, forest elephants grazing on the banks, and a western sitatunga in the distance. Our hearts were full – what could be better than this? We puttered gently upstream into a magical sunset. We clambered into the 4×4 and by sheer luck encountered a small bongo family on the way back to camp. Yes, it rhymes – we saw a bongo in the Congo …
The rain altered our next morning’s plans and we took a short walk and drive to reach our final camp. That main deck looking out over the bai was paradise found. We walked through the mineral-rich saline, overflowing with life. A red river hog, a lone harnessed bushbuck, shards of pottery from ancient days, it was energising. Evenings brought flocks of green pigeons swooping past, all eluding my camera’s focus but capturing my heart.
Day broke as we retraced our steps to the previous camp, eager to kayak down the Lekoli River and up the Lango stream. We left the kayaks on a bank and continued on-foot into the bai back towards our camp. A herd of forest buffalo had the same idea, but our guides collaborated to steer us past the buffs and keep us in awe. Once again, arriving at camp had us brimming with excitement. It was only fitting to end with a BBQ party, sharing stories, newfound knowledge, and deep feelings of connection. Odzala is a place only few get to visit, but no one should ever pass up the opportunity to discover.
Note from the Editor: If you think you know Africa, go to Odzala-Kokoua National Park for a perspective-altering experience. The sheer vastness of the Congo Basin will leave you without words and you will breathe the freshest air in the world. Explore rainforests, savannahs, rivers, mineral-rich baïs and swamps on an adventure of gorilla-trekking, game drives, boating, kayaking, forest walking and river-wading discovering rare and endangered species.