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Central African Republic: On the Edge of Adventure


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gatoratlarge

I have been fascinated by the equatorial forests of central Africa since Michael Fay's National Geographic sponsored mega-transect captured my imagination some 15 years ago. In fact, soon after I booked a trip to Gabon and visited Langouie Bai and Kongou Falls in Ivindo National Park in hopes of seeing gorillas and forest elephants. Somewhere that trip report is floating around on SafariTalk. It's a good place for both however I was unlucky with the gorillas and returned missing out on our western lowland cousins...so it was on here and through Facebook that I linked up with Rod Cassidy, owner/operator of Sangha Lodge in the Central African Republic and followed events very closely. I was heartened to hear how he stayed through the uncertain political upheavals, but crestfallen when he and his wife had to evacuate, the slaughter of elephants at the bai by Chadian poachers, and then after his return, the seemingly inexplicable brief closing of the park! I was determined to visit for many reasons: one, I know tourism helps protect wild places like Dzanga Sangha. Two, the presence of ex-pats and tourists help to protect the bai as I believe that connection to the outside world dissolves when we're gone and ivory, logging and diamond prospecting interests take precedence...three, it is without doubt the Greatest (Elephant) Show on Earth. Four, it's one of the few places on earth with habituated western lowland gorillas (two groups with two more being habituated in the coming years) and Five, the best place in the world to see the forest antelope, the bongo.

 

I just returned less than a week ago and I can report that the experience surpassed all of my very high expectations! It lives up to its World Heritage Site status and I added rare animals and birds to my " list" you'd only find in a place like this. It is Heart of Darkness Africa at its best!

 

Getting There:

 

That's the tricky part...it's not safe to travel by road via the capital of CAR Bangui so you most likely have to get to this (safe!) remote southwestern corner of CAR via Cameroon. If you are traveling two or more you'll be fine as a shared plane from Yoaunde, Cameroon (the capital) is reasonable. As a solo traveller it was a bit trickier (I asked several to join in the journey but none of my friends pulled the trigger) so lucky for me Rod worked a shared arrangement with two tourists visiting the Baaka forest people and Louis Sarno ( an ex pat that went to record the music of the Baaka pygmies and never returned but stayed behind to live). I was also able to cost share on my return via plane. Otherwise there's a two day journey via private vehicle that most anyone would want to avoid (although I was willing should the plane sharing not work out). But my point is that Rod Cassidy helped me every step of the way as that's one of the main challenges is getting there.

 

One thing that continuously struck me was what a privilege to be the only tourist in Dzanga Sangha but then it struck me what a shame that was too. Selfishly I had it to myself. But this is the best place on earth to observe forest elephants, the best place for bongo, i shared the observation tower with Andrea Turkalo, the foremost authority on forest elephants in the world-- a fascinating time I'll never forget-- the Baaka experience whether net hunting with them or listening to their unique polyphonic ( think yodeling) singing , or experiencing the completely unique wildlife of the area (Rod and his wife are frequently rehabilitating orphaned creatures whose mother has probably been eaten) like pangolin and duikers, or tromping around the forest or bai with a family of western lowland gorillas, or fishing for Goliath tiger fish (think a tarpon with two inch dagger like teeth) well, it's too remarkable of a place to have it alone and to myself.

 

The destination works best in small groups. It'll never be Kenya (thank God?!) but it is in its own right, a fantastic safari destination -- take that for what's it's worth but this was my 12th trip to Africa.

 

My pictures tell the best story. I'll try to link my Facebook album ( elephant pics start in the second half of the pics) but I'll also try to post them in this trip report directly as well...I'm no renowned photographer as I don't even have the lenses to interchange but I imagine the potential is immense in the bai for elephant pics. Also, if the gorillas are in the forest and not in the bai, the lighting was very tricky for me. At any rate, I wanted to report, the tourists are trickling back into CAR and it's an astounding place.

 

I spent eight nights at a Sangha Lodge. The first two days I spent at the bai watching colobus monkeys, forest elephants, giant forest hogs, forest buffalo, bongo (dramatic appearance at dusk) and flocks of African grey parrots. Hours of the time with legendary Andrea Turkalo!

 

When I returned to the lodge I joined Swedish ex pat Thomas and two WWF workers on a brai and fishing expedition up river. We traveled in a motorized 40' dugout pirogue.

 

The next day I visited Bai Houkou and spent time with western lowland gorilla silverback Makumba and family. We walked the saline bais (crossing a herd of forest Buffaloes) and followed a troop of agile mangabeys who were also habituated to humans. A lot of fun as there are 200 in the troop!

 

The next day I went net hunting with the Baaka who are still hunter gatherers -- modern pressures threaten their way of life for sure. Another fascinating character of CAR is Louis Sarno a U.S. ex pat that has lived among the Baaka for three decades, married into the Baaka and has a son. There is nobody that has wound up in this remote corner that is not full of fascinating tales!

 

That night I returned the the Baaka village ( nearly running into an elephant on the dark roads) to see if they would continue to celebrate as the moon increased. Louis told me they had the previous night danced to summon the forest spirit Ejengi. I wouldn't miss that for the world! Not many places where you can sit in an actual baaka village, drums beating, singing and dancing in hopes a forest spirit would appear. I stayed for two and a half hours but pygmies are known to dance for weeks at a time!

 

The next day I hiked the waterfalls up river in hopes of seeing the rare picathartes. Rod said it was unlikely as its not nesting season. The nests were his discovery. But two picathartes hopped down from behind the falls and flew off---another gift of the forest! I watched the Sundown on the Sangha on our return. And the following day I tried to bag the River Monster known as a Goliath Tiger Fish ( I didn't) but sitting on a sandbar on the wide sangha river ( which flows into the Congo river a couple hundred miles to the south) well, there would be no complaints from me.

 

In the in between times I accompanied the Baaka and volunteers (Rod and his wife had to be in South Africa on important business during my dates in CAR) taking care of a couple orphans: a black bellied pangolin, and blue duikers. I watched them collect blossoms and seeds for the duikers to eat and find ants for the pangolin to feed. There was never a dull moment. I was constantly struck by the sounds of the forest. So full of life, a constant cacophony ! A hundred African greys or a turaco in the distance.

 

The food is good. There is not tremendous variety in the area but they do a remarkable job. Lasagna, fish, beef and chicken. Avocado salad. I didn't go hungry. The staff Rod has assembled is terrific. The rooms clean and neat. Basic not luxurious like some of the lodges in east and Southern Africa but it's very comfortable and the mattresses and pillows good quality. The lodge sits on a great vantage point overlooking a bend in the river. I spent a lot of time on the deck sometimes in the moonlight. I'd watch the occasional dugout with a fisherman paddle past. Apparently a couple hippos had been around a couple nights before I arrived. They prefer to go up a side river that flows into the sangha but sometimes are seen as well as the occasional croc.

 

This time of year is considered the dry season and is a bit buggy. Sweat bees were an annoyance a couple times and I put on the protective netting but it was only twice I felt I had to do that. The temperature was hot but tolerable especially from someone who's from Florida!

 

I hope that's a decent shot at a trip report. I am happy to answer anyone's inquiries as I've sort of spewed it all out! Lol

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I have been fascinated by the equatorial forests of central Africa since Michael Fay's National Geographic sponsored mega-transect captured my imagination some 15 years ago. In fact, soon after I book

There are many many more elephant pics and I can hardly choose to show which ones...numbers swelled to about 100 elephants in the bai at its peak late afternoon/ dusk but groups drifted in and out thr

Well I can't seem to post a link to my Facebook album like I used to be able to but I'll add some photos as they always tell the story best:  

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gatoratlarge

Well I can't seem to post a link to my Facebook album like I used to be able to but I'll add some photos as they always tell the story best:

 

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gatoratlarge

More from Dzanga Bai:

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gatoratlarge

Elephant babies:

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gatoratlarge

More elles-- I took about a 1000 pictures in the bai. The action is nonstop!!

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gatoratlarge

There are many many more elephant pics and I can hardly choose to show which ones...numbers swelled to about 100 elephants in the bai at its peak late afternoon/ dusk but groups drifted in and out throughout the day. Here are some of my admittedly inferior gorilla pics. I still have not mastered forest light and the camera :

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Game Warden

@@gatoratlarge Fantastic: I chat with @@Rod every now and again via social media and Skype. Someone I'd like to meet and he has become my go to authority about Pangolins. Just how impressive is his beard in real life? Thanks for posting this report and images...

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gatoratlarge

Other interesting mammals included:

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gatoratlarge

Well I guess butterflies aren't mammals but lord do you see lots of them! Some baaka scenes and others from the forest:

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gatoratlarge

Some from the Sangha River, the waterfall and the lodge:

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gatoratlarge

@@Game Warden. That was my only regret! Rod and Tamar were in South Africa I think at the behest of some of his backers as he has probably needed outside support through the difficulties in CAR. I tried to re-schedule but had to stick with my original dates. I've skyped with him and by all accounts he is a great host and has assembled a terrific staff at the lodge. I, too, wanted to see that magnificent beard in person! LOL he was a great help in getting me there and arranged for me to do all I wanted to do while I was there at Sangha Lodge

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gatoratlarge

 I'll give that a try. That way if folks have a keen interest they can see all 200+ pics --- I've set the album to "public" LOL there's no guarantee to see them (bongo) of course and someone told me that a woman had been visiting off and on for two years and had just seen them for the first time the week before I got there but most of the folks that I've seen that have visited have been lucky enough to see them. The seven I saw waited until late in the day so I was sweating it! Andrea Turkola told me that the day before 70(!!!) had come into the bai in single file!

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Caracal

@@gatoratlarge

 

 

 

I never realised bongos could be seen in such numbers and your report is fascinating in all respects.

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gatoratlarge

Here is the link to all the pictures from the trip for the super interested :) it's hard to rank safaris but I can tell you that it's an adventurous destination with wildlife opportunities you likely won't get anywhere else.

 

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153457726443488.1073741865.610038487&type=1&l=d4bab2b280

 

Hopefully this link works or copy and paste it to your browser. It is one interesting place!

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gatoratlarge

@@Caracal I heard two numbers -- I could have sworn Andrea said 70 but my guide said something about 48 so whether 48 or 70 that's an unbelievable number of bongo and would be one very special sighting!! Interesting enough it had been about one month since sitatunga had been seen which used to be a staple.

 

 

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pault

@@gatoratlarge Well done! Great that you got there and what an amazing set of experiences and photographs. I will be looking at your Facebook photos but I have no idea why you think we wouldn't want to see 200!

 

How did you decide what you were doing while you were there? Did you have options every day or did you need to let them know in advance (or let them plan for you in advance)? Also, if you have time please tell us about your journeys to the two bais that you mention. And when you say you were out at the bar for two days did you sleep there?

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gatoratlarge

@@pault I had eight nights at Sangha Lodge and there is a list on their website as well as the park website as to the various activities you can do. Dzanga Bai in my view is a main attraction and you should spend at least two days there and I contemplated a third. It's just where a lot of magic happens. The clearings are really the best opportunity to see wildlife and the elephant activity is arguable the greatest (elephant) show on earth. Photography possibilities are endless. To get to Dzanga is probably an hour or so drive on rough dirt roads, then there's about a 40 minute hike ( non-strenuous) to get to the bai but it does involve wading through a stream which can come up a bit in the wet season. A part of the adventure. Bai Hokou is about 30 kms further via truck and takes about two hours as the roads are tough. Then it depends upon the location of Makumba and his family as to the length of your trek. I only visited the one group but there is another larger group I did not go see. I Wanted to see them for certain but I've seen mountain gorillas a couple times so I didn't spend the money to see both groups. I basically told Rod what I was most interested in doing while I was there before I left and he got it arranged although I think there's flexibility to change things while you're there. If the tourist numbers pick up that might be more difficult but as of now, you kind of have the run of the place.

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Sangeeta

What a fantastic trip, @@gatoratlarge - and you were definitely spoilt for sightings :)

 

Loved all your photos - the little blue (baby?) duiker caught my attention particularly - but wow, the gorillas, the bongos, the eles all came through for you! I can imagine how interesting it must have been to chat with Andrea and no one in a hurry to get anywhere. Thanks so much for sharing this.

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gatoratlarge

Pleasure to share with all @@Sangeeta they were two baby blue duikers that were orphans at the lodge and I read where another one has come in the last week. A white bellied pangolin orphan arrived on the day I left!

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Kitsafari

@@gatoratlarge what a fascinating trip. I'm glad you followed your heart and visited Sangha Lodge. I've followed them on FB and it's amazing what passion and commitment Rod has to the place. I've also seen some of your pix on FB and you looked incredibly happy which can only mean you had a blast!

 

in post #6, is the second photo that of the silverback? you still got a great picture despite the challenging conditions. and the bongo looks incredible. I'm trying to recall inyathi's lesson on buffaloes - are those forest buffaloes?

 

Can i ask if you were guided or accompanied by one of the staff wherever you went? and I imagine Rod organised everything for you, including accompanying the Baaka on their fishing and "partying" function?

Edited by Kitsafari
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Kitsafari

just checked out the FB link. great pictures!

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gatoratlarge

@@Kitsafari yes the second pic is also Makumba the silverback. His group has diminished to four or five. I think he's getting old and has lost some of his "stuff". I haven't gotten around to video yet but I did get some good footage of the female feeding up in a tree. I think that might be a difference with the mountain gorilla. Rarely do you see them up in a tree?

 

I did not know until I got there exactly how it was going to work but there was an English speaking guide named Christian who accompanied all of my activities in the park including the net hunting with the Baaka, the gorillas and Dzanga Bai. The driver was always the same as you must have a car as well and then a Baaka tracker who in my case was named Grass. The fishing was organized through the lodge so I was accompanied by Sangha lodge staff, also the waterfall/ picathartes expedition. The Ejengi with the Baaka was sort of spontaneously organized through Louis Sarno but the guide, tracker and driver accompanied me there as well.

 

I was thrilled with the whole trip.

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Safaridude

@@gatoratlarge

 

Fantastic stuff. It is good to know that large tuskers still occur in CAR, even if barely. The bongo sighting is precious.

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lmSA84

@@gatoratlarge - thank you for this inspirational TR! You under sell your photography, it is brilliant, especially the photos of the Baaka. One day I hope to follow in your footsteps.

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inyathi

@@gatoratlarge Wow fantastic! I’m very envious of all those lowland bongos it's also nice to see a few giant forest hogs making an appearance and lots forest buffalos and that you went to see the agile mangabeys. After so much depressing news from C.A.R. I wasn’t even aware that it was safe to visit Dzangha Sangha so it’s really great that you went and that there still seem to be quite a few elephants and very good to know that Andrea Turkalo and Rod Cassidy are back there, as long as they are there I feel the security situation can't be bad and the wildlife really has a chance.

 

You took lots of great photos but I’m disappointed not to see any shots of the picathartes I assume you didn’t get any, I saw one bird in Gabon but also failed to get any photos maybe I’ll have to try my luck in C.A.R. someday. Mind you if I got a few shots of a whole herd of bongos I might not mind missing out on a shot of the bird. :)

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