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INTO THE 'HEART OF DARKNESS'.


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johnweir

PREFACE

 I am obviously fully aware that @optig has already posted some information and images regarding this trip. I recently informed him that I would be posting a slightly more expansive report and he was more than happy for this to take place, had he had any objections I would not have considered posting. I would welcome any comments he may wish to make as the report develops and thank him for his contribution to a fantastic trip.

 

Following a highly successful trip to Zakouma N.P. Chad last year several of the group members including myself who had never met before that trip kept in touch and began planning a trip for 2019. Initially a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo to observe Lowland and Mountain Gorillas and also the possibility of climbing Mt. Nyiragongo was under serious consideration, however planning didn't get far before security issues in the country became a very real concern. The project was abandoned. A visit to Sangha Lodge in the Central African Republic was high up on everyone's wish list so that became our chosen destination. Busanga Safaris would be our operator which was convenient as Tyrone McKeith was amongst our group. The date and duration of the trip took a long time to finalise, we eventually settled for 7 nights with the trip starting on Saturday 20th April 2019, two of us would travel from the U.K. and meet up with Tyrone and @optig in Nairobi and our final member would meet us at Sangha Lodge, he would transfer by plane and boat from Odzala-Kokoua N.P., Republic of Congo where he was spending some time. I believe he was one of the first tourists to make this transfer.

I flew from Newcastle to Heathrow and immediately into complications. At the Kenyan Airways desk at Heathrow I was asked if I had a visa for the Central African Republic, when I told them I was buying one at Bangui Airport (C.A.R.) an official vanished with my passport only to return 10 minutes later to advise me was I aware I was flying into and I quote 'a war zone'. I replied I was aware the country was politically unstable but several U.K. tourists had visited in recent years and I would shortly be joined at the desk by another one. I then pointed out I had a Letter of Invitation provided by the C.A.R. government which I had received from my tour operator, without that I feel I may not have been allowed to fly, off he went again and eventually returned saying he taken a photocopy of my LOI and my passport and that I was free to travel. The Nairobi to Bangui flight would also be with Kenyan Airways so my luggage would be checked right through.

Bangui International Airport proved interesting, it was a God send to be met by William, Sangha Lodge's representative, he secured our visas (€50) and steered us safely towards our private plane which would fly us to Bayanga airstrip, without him the normal airport formalities would have been extremely slow and I am of the opinion based on our experiences that we could possibly have been exploited. (It was interesting that @gatoratlarge indicated in Owen's report some earlier concerns regarding Bangui Airport). The flight from Bangui to Bayanga which took around 1 hour 20 minutes was in a very modern light aircraft manned by a highly professional crew.

After about 30 minutes into the flight all signs of human activity on the ground ceased and we flew over vast areas of what appeared to be pristine virgin rainforest which was a wonderful experience, it appeared to go on forever, it was bisected by the odd logging road. However most of the observed deforestation I saw appeared to be around Bangui, although Palm Nut plantations were visible well into the flight.

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As we started to descend to land at Bayanga, the world famous Dzanga Bai came into view, a visit to this iconic wildlife location was my main reason for doing this trip. Forest Elephants are just about visible in the clearing.

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This is the mighty Sangha River as we swoop over Bayanga preparing to land.

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Safely on the ground (Sunday 21st May), Rod Cassidy, world class ornithologist, conservationist and the owner of Sangha Lodge was there to meet us. (Right of image with beard). He proved to be a wonderful host and I feel proud to have spent a few days in his and his wife's company and shared their vision for sustainable tourism. The arrival of the plane is quite a social event and although everyone looks quite affluent, please don't get the wrong impression, C.A.R. is one of the poorest countries on the planet and her people endure daily hardships that are very difficult to relate to others, who have not visited the region.The guy in the brown suite (left) collected our passports and we got them back at the lodge the following day. The lodge makes a very positive impact on the local economy and major conservation initiatives in the region. The drive from the airstrip to the lodge takes around 30 minutes and is a good introduction to the quality of roads you will rapidly need to adjust to being driven on.

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This is Sangha Lodge from the river. What a setting, I never thought when I read Conrad's short novel 'Heart of Darkness' in the 6th form at school  (x years ago) that I would follow in the footsteps of Marlow and discover Cassidy not Kurtz in the Congo Basin, a very much more pleasant experience. The larger building to the right is the bar/social/dining area the others are all guest accommodation.

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This is a relatively new bit of kit for the lodge and enables very pleasant trips to be taken on the Sangha River we used it several times during our stay. It is pictured here moored close to the lodge at the confluence of the Babongo and Sangha Rivers.

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The Babongo River, a tributary of the Sangha River, it runs along the side of the lodge as you approach and has to be crossed on a pontoon.

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Inside the social chalet, the bar must serve the best cold beer (€3 for a large bottle) in Central Africa, it certainly tasted that way after a long day in the forest. The quality of food and service when one considers exactly where this lodge is situated was outstanding. Rod and Tamar bought the lodge just over 10 years ago, previously it had been a hunting concession, which is hard to believe when one considers today it is at the heart of conservation in The Congo Basin, with plans for further expansion. What they have achieved in such a short period of time is surely a miracle and appears at times to go almost unnoticed, just 80 guests in the last 12 months seems a poor return for their efforts. Considering the unique wildlife viewing opportunities available at this lodge it is vital that more enthusiasts visit to preserve its long term future. A visit is certainly no more dangerous than a trip to London, if I listened to The FCO's over reactions, I would not have visited Zakouma N.P. Chad or Western Sahara in recent years.

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The Sangha River from the balcony of the lodge. We ate our breakfast here, marvelling at the view every day.  

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My home for seven nights, spacious, clean, possibly the best and most reliable hot shower I have yet experienced on a trip and the quality of laundry was definitely the best. Because of the high humidity the laundry became quite an important service provided by the lodge.

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A room with a view, I still miss this and I have been home for several weeks. The lizards and birds I saw from here were numerous most of which never got identified or recorded.

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 This was the track from the lodge leading towards Bayanga, the debris on the road in the middle of the image is in fact hundreds of butterflies. I have never been anywhere with so many different butterfly species or such a concentration of butterflies. This was my first real experience of staying in a rainforest, other than Madagascar and there it wasn't on the same scale or appear quite so dense. We spent a lot of time in the forest and the diversity of plants, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals was staggering. I loved every minute of it, even if it was hard work at times. Bird identification in the forest was very hard even Rod acknowledged it was a difficult skill to master.

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How many?

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Close up.

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This image was taken opposite the lodge and shows the chosen method of transport, the pirogue, these guys are possibly going fishing. Fishing activity was seen on a regular basis, so presumably fish forms a significant part of the local's diet.

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This image hopefully shows the density of the forest right up to the river, it was taken 100 metres from the lodge. The river can run much higher than shown in this image. The weather we enjoyed during this trip was warm to hot during the day, mild but pleasant at night. Humidity was high at all times up to 98% during the day. We had very little rain, just a couple of showers at night and a great electrical storm with some wind one night. 

 

Next: The first visit to Dzanga Bai.

 

 

 

 

 

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Kitsafari

What a fantastic introduction to a place I hav dreamt of visiting.  I had almost jumped on this trip last year but decided to do the Gabon trip instead.  I'll now travel through the eyes of you and @optig. Looking forward to more. 

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Towlersonsafari

Very impressive intro-certainly whets the appetite and leaves one something in awe! 

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marg

@johnweir...what an adventure!  I am looking to following along with your trip report.

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lmSA84

Great opening! Really looking forward to this - it’s a part of the world I would love to visit

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Atravelynn

Exciting and remote destinations!  Looking forward to your findings.

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twaffle

How lovely to see this report.  It sounds like the trip was exceptional and I look forward to reading more about it.

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johnweir

When you stay at Sangha Lodge several excursions/activities are included in the package price. On this trip they were as follows, 1 Gorilla tracking activity, 1 Mangabey tracking activity, 1 visit to Dzanga Bai, 1 visit to Bai Hokou (usually combined with the Mangabey trek), Net hunting with the Ba'Aka (Forest people), a boat trip to the Picathartes nest site and waterfalls, 1 evening river cruise and 1 night walk.  Other activities that are available as an extra are Kayak Safaris, a night in a Ba'Aka village and I am fairly sure it is possible to make arrangements to sleep overnight on the platform at Dzanga Bai. On a 7 night stay (10 nights are possible) that leaves you with one free day and on that day I chose to revisit Dzanga (€120), on the day scheduled for Bai Hokou two members of our group chose instead to do another Gorilla trek. (Second trek price circa €220).

 

The day at Sangha Lodge starts around 06.00 with breakfast at 06.30 and guests are on the road by 07.00,  evening meal is around 19.00 and guests are in bed by 20.00 when the electric goes off. Unless you decide to join Rod in a nightcap, to a Scotsman the chance of enjoying a wee dram in the middle of the Congo Basin was just too good an opportunity to turn down. Camera battery charging facilities are available, I took the wrong adaptor but Rod came to the rescue. Sleeping in the rainforest was a wonderful experience the sound of Tree Hyrax and Hammer Bats calling virtually all night I will never forget nor will my ears.

 

Monday 22nd May Dzanga Bai.

Dzanga Bai had been on my wish list for years like lots of people I had marvelled at the diversity and density of wildlife it attracts in such a picturesque rainforest location, but never dreamt that one day I would stand in the Bai. The documentaries I had enjoyed on TV didn't even get close to the actual experience of being there. I feel so lucky to have been able to visit this iconic wildlife viewing location. It was funny the day after I got back from the trip the BBC documentary 'Earth from Space' episode 2 was airing, I couldn't believe it when footage from the bai appeared. I had actually been there less than a week earlier.  

The track to the bai is rough and the journey by pickup takes about an hour, we stopped enroute at the WWF headquarters (as we did everyday) in the park to pick up our guides/trackers who on this occasion were late, so we didn't start walking from the trail head until around 09.45. 

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One of the official park signs.

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The official start of the trail to Dzanga Bai.

The walk to the Bai takes about 45 minutes and is not a particularly arduous walk, most of which is on the flat with several short uphill sections. At the start the track is muddy and wet and then as you approach a small bai  you have no option but to wade in the steam that passes through it. At the worst the water is knee deep, but is very clear and the riverbed is of sand, the experience is very pleasant, the removal of shoes and socks is essential.

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Part of the team negotiate the stream, after a short walk on the bank everyone had to get back in the stream as the banks of the stream and the bai consisted of glutinous mud. Once back in the forest the track was damp and slippery in places. As you would expect in a rainforest the vegetation was dense but the path was well worn .The equatorial climate can be a challenge in itself, but the shade provided by the rainforest means that you are walking under direct sunlight on only a few short sections. The humidity however is an issue, you don't have to walk too long before your clothes become damp, on this trek it was not too bad, the longer Gorilla Trek was much more challenging. After we had been walking for about 40 minutes the sunlight became much stronger and then suddenly the steps up onto the platform came into view. A quick peep into the bai revealed some Bongo, possibly the animal I most wanted to see on this trip, lots of Bongo. The platform is possibly 6 metres off the ground and has quite a large floor area, it is on the western side of the bai approximately in the middle. I was speechless as I took in what I was looking at it was everything I expected and more. 

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Right hand side of Dzanga Bai from the platform.

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Central section of Dzanga Bai from the platform.

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Left hand section of the Dzanga Bai from the platform. It is interesting that the surface area of the bai has not changed since aerial images of it were first taken over 40 years ago. The clearing is approximately 10 hectares in size and consists of a sandy pan bisected by a permanent stream. Dzanga Bai is an Elephant bia, basically a natural forest clearing which has been modified and enlarged  by the action of Elephants over hundreds of years digging for minerals. Such an attractive habitat clearly attracts other forest adapted species. On our arrival Forest Elephant, Forest Buffalo and Bongo were in attendance.

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Lowland Bongo, this was one species I really wanted to see, I am aware that they are not always seen on a visit to Dzanga Bai. They really are a beautiful antelope. I counted 38 individuals when we first arrived, including several calves. Rod thinks they are doing much better now hunting has been reduced in the area and the 'trophy specimens' which tend to be the males are not being shot as regularly.

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Forest Buffalo. Completely different to Cape Buffalo and also less so, but still different to the Buffalo I saw in Chad last year. I counted 18 on arrival at the bai although more arrived during the day.

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Forest Elephant. I counted 72 on arrival they tend to be smaller than their savannah cousins, have smaller ears and straighter tusks. They are still pretty large mammals, we were at the bai for about 5 hours and most of that time was spent observing the antics/ behaviour of the different individuals/groups. During this time many Elephants left the bai and several entered the bai, it was a rapidly fluctuating population.

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If you are interested in Elephants I can recommend this book which I found at the lodge. Although full of lots research material it is a very easy and interesting read and contains some good images. It costs €19.50 plus postage, however it is not easy to get hold of I got mine direct from reave.de, be careful to order the English edition.

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The Elephants have dug deep pits mainly in the centre of the bai in order to extract minerals, there was some squabbling over who's turn it was next to drink the elixir.

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Another Elephant activity at the bai was applying sunscreen, particularly during the hotter part of the day. 

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Before and after.

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Possibly a related group.

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This I think is quite an old individual and is a good example of how their  tusks tend to be straighter than the Savannah Elephants, the colour of the tusks is also much darker which apparently is even more highly sort after than white ivory. (often referred to by dealers as pink ivory, it is also harder). In May 2013 26 Elephants were shot by Seleka rebels in the bai. I have seen images of the aftermath of the attack they are horrific. Andrea Turkalo spent a considerable amount of her lifetime study of Forest Elephants (1990-?) sat on the platform at Dzanga Bai making her notes. One thing I did decide during my time on the platform was that tusk size is not related to age.

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Another group.

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Just before midday this family of Giant Forest Hogs appeared on the outskirts of the bai, they spent an hour in the bai but never ventured into the central area. Red River Hogs were not seen on this trip they used to be common in the bai but have not been seen for over a year. Somebody did suggest they may visit at night.

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A magnificent specimen.

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A minor disagreement.

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Another beauty.

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A variety of ages,  I took literally hundreds of Elephant images whilst on the platform it has been very difficult deciding which to post. 

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The Elephants eventually moved the Forest Buffalo out of this wallow. The Buffalo found in the bai are apparently a resident herd.

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More Bongo.

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More Forest Elephants.

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Elephants entering the bai from the forest, late afternoon.

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This was the last image I took in the bai on this particular visit. We left the platform at 16.00. 

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A very happy man enjoys a paddle on the way back to our transport and then the lodge. We arrived back at the lodge had a quick shower, evening meal and slept soundly. No malt whisky this night.

 

Next: The Gorilla Trek.

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Kitsafari

your second photo of the bai was a wondrous thing - the mixing of forest elephants, forest buffaloes, and those beautiful stunning bongos relaxing, lying down or seeking minerals - it's magical. like you, i've seen this in the docus and such an image has remained in my mind. 

so thank you for sharing it. 

 

I'm curious why you came to this conclusion -  One thing I did decide during my time on the platform was that tusk size is not related to age.

 

 

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Galago

This is fascinating, John. Really looking forward to seeing more and I'm also very envious! Like you and Kit I remember seeing footage of the bai on tv and thought how amazing it would be to go there. Btw, I'm planning a return to Zakouma next year - got to make up for what I missed!

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Towlersonsafari

Wow!

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johnweir

@Kitsafari, thanks for the question. I would point out that my statement, 'One thing I did decide during my time on the platform was that tusk size is not related to age', is purely based on my own observation of numerous Elephants across two visits to the bai. The catalyst for my interest was a young Elephant which had huge tusks in relation to its size.. Close by was a mature adult Elephant with very small tusks.  I asked one of our group to give me their impression of my thoughts and they agreed. We did locate several Elephants during both visits which supported this statement. I am sure there will be a scientific paper somewhere that disproves my hypothesis I just found it interesting.

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ELEPHANT A.

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ELEPHANT B.

I include a couple of images which hopefully support my point of view. Elephant A appears to be a mature young adult and has large tusks. Elephant B is an old fully mature adult and has very small tusks. This pattern was a common occurrence in the relatively limited number of individuals observed. 

 

In my posting I should have included the highly disturbing fact that Forest Elephant numbers across their range have declined by 65% between 2002 and 2013. (WCS study). The worrying thing about this acute decline is that although poaching has reduced significantly in the park, recovery is likely to be very slow and will take several decades and could well never be realised.

Turkalo (2016) IBT. " Female Forest Elephants in the Dzanga population typically breed for the first time after 23 years of age, a markedly late age of maturity relative to other mammals. In contrast Savannah Elephants typically begin breeding at age 12.  In addition breeding female Forest Elephants only produce a calf once every 5 to 6 years, relative to the 3 to 4 year interval found for Savannah Elephants".

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Kitsafari

An interesting observation that there is such a mixed development.  I understand that in south luangwa n in gonarezhou, poaching and hunting of elephants have resulted in elephants who either have no tusks or very small tusks. But it had been pointed out that in south luangwa, poaching had been of adult elephants with big tusks, so those left behind are still rather young elephants which are still growing. 

 

Anyway,  don't want to detract from your excellent TR. Waiting for your next installment. 

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gatoratlarge

Wow!!!!  How I love to see these pictures of Sangha Lodge and the bai!    It remains one of the most incredible safaris of my life----these pics take me back.  And the bongos!!!  I was grateful to see seven meander into the bai late in the day, but to see 38???  That's just beyond incredible!  They do need more visitors so it's great to read that Bangui is a safe option now.  Coming in through Cameroon was more onerous but the reward is waiting for you in CAR!  It's really one of the most special places...keep the pics coming! :D

 

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johnweir

@gatoratlarge, thanks for your posting. I think Bangui International Airport would be a very negative experience if it wasn't for the fact that on your arrival you are met by William, Sangha Lodge's representative in Bangui. Without his presence I think things could have been quite difficult.  Sangha Lodge is apparently not accepting bookings from clients who wish to drive to the lodge from Bangui. I am not sure if they still allow clients to access the lodge the way you did from Cameroon. As already mentioned one of our group enjoyed an air/river transfer to Sangha from Odzala, which is not often done. At the end of this report I will add some news about possible wildlife tourism developments in this region. 

 

Tuesday 23rd May:  Western Lowland Gorilla Tracking.

Possibly after a visit to Dzanga Bai this was the second most important reason for my visit to Central African Republic, the opportunity to observe Western Lowland Gorilla. We left camp at 06.30 instead of 07.00 as it is a 2 hour journey to the Gorilla Trekking trailhead. The tracks are very rough, possibly impassable in wet weather and prone to blockages from fallen trees. We had experienced a storm during the night so we had to stop several times to remove debris from the track.

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Throughout the trip my group used two of these pickups, one of which we all tried to avoid because of the constant ingress of diesel fumes into the cab. It was more pleasant but less comfortable to drive in the open section at the back when it was your turn to use that pickup. 

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Fallen trees were quickly dealt with, with the help of our guides and the biggest chainsaw I have ever seen.

 

Eventually we arrived at a WWF outpost hidden in dense rainforest which I assume is home to the researchers and park staff, a number of new buildings are presently being constructed on site.  Two groups of Western Lowland Gorillas have been habituated in the area, one is only available to researchers. The group we were to try and locate was the Makumba Group, which consists of 8 individuals, 1 male silverback (Makumba), 2 mature females, 2 juveniles, young twins (rare) and a very young baby. The Gorilla here are exposed to human contact for far less time than those in Uganda and Rwanda. As in Rwanda trackers had gone out before us and we kept in regular radio contact with them as we walked. To reach the group took I hour and 25 minutes of reasonably challenging walking, not as steep or slippery as in Rwanda but it was very warm and humid (98%), after about 15 minutes my clothes were wet with sweat. Taking on water became very important. En-route we passed through several small bias and usually single Buffalo or Elephant were present. The going was definitely harder than the walk to Dzanga Bai, but we all enjoyed it.

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Single Forest Buffalo in one of the smaller bai. 

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They were usually curious and then beat a hasty retreat, unlike their cousins in Southern AfrIca which I am fairly sure would have encouraged us to climb the nearest tree. Later in the trip I inadvertently got up much closer to one of these gentle giants!

 

As we approached the Gorilla family we were asked to wear masks and as there was five of us we were split into two groups, a 3 and 2, only 3 persons are allowed to approach the Gorillas at any one time, the observation period is one hour. The group of 3 including me went first the other 2 went back down the hill in an attempt to get out of the clouds of Sweat Beas we had attracted. This was my first experience of Sweat Bees. They were a huge problem and remained with us throughout the observation period. We used nets, but possibly too late and with the mask they just added to the almost impossible challenge of taking reasonable images. Lowland Gorillas are difficult to photograph, unless you are very lucky (they occasionally appear in bias but not on this trip) they rarely enter open spaces, spend lots of time climbing trees and are constantly on the move usually behind vegetation. I therefore apologise for the quality of the next few images, but the most important images are my memories.

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Curious juvenile Western Lowland Gorilla.

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One of the two adult females.

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The 2nd Juvenile.

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One of the twins.

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Makumba, (male) silverback.

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Makumba again.

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Makumba wanders into the forest, I just wish he had been walking more towards me. I actually like this image as it gives a very real impression of just how little light there is in the rainforest.

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This was the last image I took at the sighting, the hour simply flew by, we left the Gorilla family and the other two members started their observation period. I felt Mukumba was as big as the Mountain Gorilla silverbacks I had seen in Rwanda, the two females however appeared smaller than the adult females seen in Rwanda and had more Chimpanzee like heads?

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The Intrepid Trio, I only post this image to demonstrate the hardships wildlife enthusiasts are prepared to go to to satisfy their passion. If you are not wearing a net Sweat Bees get up your nose into your ears and worse still into your eyes, our guides were experts at getting them out. Fortunately the Sweat Bees found in this region do not bite, if they did it would make this activity very hard indeed. Throughout the whole trip very few incidents of individuals being bitten by any insects were mentioned. Note also how damp our clothing is. However once we set off back within 2 minutes the Sweat Bees disappeared! Two members of our group did a second Gorilla trek, (same group) later in the week and it took them 2.5  hours to locate them, apparently they were nearly in the Republic of Congo when they found the group and the trek was reported as being arduous and once again the sighting was accompanied by Sweat Bees. On that day as a group we split and I decided a Sitatunga sighting (a species I had never seen) should take priority. 

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This lone Elephant was spotted in one of the smaller bai as we walked back to our vehicles, we always gave them a wide birth as they can be unpredictable.

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A typical small bai this one involved more wading to cross it and  the water was quite deep, it was very close to where our vehicles were parked. The largest bai in the area is Hokou Bai which was visited later in the week.

Having now visited both Mountain and Lowland Gorilla it seems a natural question, 'Which experience did I prefer'?, despite the Sweat Bees I would go for this trip, the time spent with the Gorillas  just the three of us seemed more personal and intimate, also this region definitely has the true wilderness factor. I certainly feel lucky to have seen both however.

We all arrived back at the lodge at 18.30, showered and enjoyed our meal in the company of all those involved in the projects the lodge supports. We were the only group of guests at the lodge during our visit. 

 

Next: Hunting with the Ba' Aka and The Pangolin Project.

 

 

  

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Kitsafari

awesome time spent with gorillas, especially since it was an intimate group of just three gawking visitors! the photos show how natural and comfortable the habituated gorillas seem to be in the presence of humans. 

 

did you have to specially buy the face nets for the sweat bees? you didn't mention leeches so I must assume there aren't any to talk about? 

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michael-ibk

Just wonderful John, this is one of my dream destinations. Fantastic report and pictures, eagerly waiting for more.

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johnweir

@Kitsafari, the face nets were provided by the lodge, most of our group had their own. I have bought one since I got back, they take up so little room in a rucksack. Never saw a single leech on the whole trip which amazes me as we spent quite a lot of time wading in water and damp grass and the forest tracks were always wet. Snakes were in short supply also you will be pleased to hear. We saw two on the trip, an Emerald Snake (harmless) in the lodge grounds, which had just caught a small lizard and a very small Viper on one of the walks.  

 

Wednesday 24th May: A Hunting Trip with The Ba' Aka and The Pangolin Project.

The hunting trip with the Ba' Aka was one part of the trip I wasn't particularly looking forward to but buoyed on by the statistic that only 40% of hunts are successful (Rod Cassidy) it seemed that the probability of not catching anything was on my side. The Forest People of the region are the Ba' Aka they are hunter gatherers and have lived in this region possibly for thousands of years. They lead a very hard life indeed, the 21st century has hardly touched them yet they appear a very happy people with a strong sense of community. Although communication was difficult they were very friendly and I thoroughly enjoyed being with them. Their reliance on bushmeat was sustainable until relatively recently but outsiders are now having a very negative impact on the amount of wildlife in the forests. I am reasonably well travelled and have seen a lot of poverty over the years, but it doesn't get much worse than that I experienced generally in the Central African Republic. The people have a very difficult time which is not helped by the very volatile political situation.

We left the lodge at 08.00 and drove for about 30 minutes to Bayanga which is the nearest town and picked up our guides en route. The purpose for visiting Bayanga was to pick up some 'essentials' as payment for the Ba' Aka taking us on one of their hunting trips. The hunt lasted about 2 hours and was possibly to a degree stage managed, I believe when they go hunting for the village/ family they can be away for several days, it was however a very authentic experience. In Bayanga we were advised not to take photographs but I did get some in the meat market showing a considerable amount of bushmeat, Duiker ssp. and Porcupine. Some hunting of certain species is allowed in the park so this meat would I think be legal.

Leaving Bayanga we headed to one of the Ba'Aka villages to pick up the hunting party. When we stopped in the village hundreds of people immediately surrounded our two vehicles. The WWF Head Guide assured me they had a system and that there was a rota. It looked to me like complete chaos and how they sorted it out I will never know.

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Chaos rules.

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The Head Guide manages to get his message across, exactly who is going and who is not going on this hunting trip.

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The 2nd vehicle experiences similar problems.

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Always a friendly welcome. After about 20 minutes we acquired 7 hunters in the back of each vehicle and then drove for about 30 minutes into the heart of the rainforest, the hunting party and one of our group were in fine voice, it wasn't a chant I was familiar with, she had clearly done this before.5H1A7173.jpeg.3aac63b89546e461a42ee3b00aa2ebbf.jpeg

We followed this track for several miles and eventually stopped in an area which was deemed to have possibilities.

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Spot the tourist.

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The above two men seemed quite important in developing the strategy for the hunt and were very happy to be photographed. On the second image one of the nets to be used can be seen, they are made from a plant found in the forest. The wooden hook is used to secure the net to an available tree. We dispersed into the forest at speed, the Ba' Aka hunters took some keeping up with. Several times during our two hours with the hunters we stopped and the nets were positioned in a tight arc, the hunters then began making lots of noise (stealth was not part of the strategy) and moved through the forest towards the net. Any animals were thus driven towards the net and then caught. Two Brush-tailed Porcupine managed to escape through holes in the nets on the first two attempts, they can move very quickly when they have to. The third attempt drew a blank and then on the fourth a Blue Duiker was caught.5H1A7185.jpg.140d6e759c0e112e7f35b8dc03edc3ca.jpg

Setting up the nets.

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A Ba' Aka demonstrates how they get water whilst on a hunting trip. The plant involved is a forest vine. We all sampled the water it was good. 

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More net erecting.

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The unfortunate Duiker.

After the hunt we returned to the village where the spoils were shared amongst the hunters. Certain organs were eaten raw. Not a particularly pleasant note on which to return to the lodge for lunch. Later in the afternoon we were to experience the work being done by the lodge to support The Pangolin Project, this activity I did enjoy. 

 

Sangha Lodge has an excellent record or returning injured or distressed animals and birds to the wild successfully. Rod and Tamar when they first took on the lodge very soon found themselves almost running a small wildlife clinic. Pangolins very quickly became the focus of their attention and they proved to be very successful at rehabilitating them back into the wild following trauma. The project developed and is still run from the lodge and now has its own dedicated facilities, I am sure Rod and Tamar will continue to be highly involved. During this visit the project was being managed by Maja a Swiss veterinarian with the support of a relatively recent addition to the team from Austria. We enjoyed a lot of contact with them both and I am sure they will enjoy great success with the project. I thank them both for giving so freely of their time. Pangolin are cared for and then returned to the wild, Ba'Aka are employed to track the Pangolin (manually) and record data about how they are doing, the Pangolins that end up at the lodge tend to have been abused so it is amazing that the project enjoys a high degree of success. I believe the project now has some limited external funding. At the time of our visit three Pangolin were being tracked in the wild, all three had been cared for at the lodge, including one that had been badly burnt. One Pangolin was being cared for at the lodge. The Pangolin we saw in the forest were all Black-Bellied (Long-tailed) Pangolin, other than being monitored they were feeding successfully on their own and living freely in the forest, they are completely wild individuals. 

We left the lodge at13.00 with Maja, walked about 0.25 of a mile up the track and bumped into two of the Pangolin Trackers.  They indicated that a Pangolin was in some bushes to our left, there was some delight as this particular animal had gone missing for a few days.

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A BLACK-BELLIED PANGOLIN.  (Phataginus tetradactyla). We were very lucky with this sighting as this species of Pangolin very rarely come out into the open or approach the ground. This is a female 3-4 years old. They tend to be active during the day. This particular species is a very placid animal and would make capture once located very easy.                                                                                                                                                        (6 images, same Pangolin, 1st sighting).

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She stayed on the ground for a few seconds and then found a tree and headed for the canopy.

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This was the last sight we had of her, they are very accomplished and speedy climbers.

We watched her vanish and then headed into the forest and made contact with another 3 - 4 year old female Pangolin but she decided to remain in dense vegetation during the sighting. This was the one that had been badly burnt, a third of her tail was missing, she did however appear healthy. 

Further into the forest we came across a third individual this one did come into the open eventually and spent a few seconds on the ground and then headed for the nearest tree. Maja could not remember the Pangolin ever spending so much time in the open and at ground level, we weren't complaining.

5H1A7370.jpeg.be8a0557fcc011f4442bde5eda22c321.jpegThis was a more typical sighting. This is a one year old male and our third sighting of the day.                                            (4 images same Pangolin 3rd sighting).

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Not a mammal found commonly on the forest floor.

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They are very hard to find and blend in very well with their background.

After this sighting we headed back to the lodge around 18.00 and enjoyed a Sri Lankan meal prepared by one of our group. She had brought half of the ingredients from the U.K. with her, unbeknown to any of the group. It proved a huge success and was enjoyed by everyone. She even got the offer of a full time post at the lodge, she was sorely tempted. 

Footnote: Whilst we were at they lodge a Wood Owl and Servaline Genet were being prepared for life in the wild. If you are interested in Pangolins there is wonderful short film available on YouTube, 'Eye of the Pangolin, The Search for an Animal on the Edge', it is well worth watching but does contain some distressing footage. If you are so inclined it is possible whilst staying at Sangha Lodge to actually sleep in a Ba'Aka village, as an additional activity.

 

Next: Bai Hokou and a second visit to Dzanga Bai.


 

 

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michael-ibk

Fantastic Pangolin encounters. I understand the discomfort about witnessing the hunt but a fascinating experience nonetheless.

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Galago

Fascinating, John. I would love to meet the Ba'Aka, and what great pictures of the pangolins. Then Ianthe cooked for you. Your luck was really in that day! 

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optig

@JohnWeir I just love all of your photos. I especially love those of the pangolins. Yes I remember Ianthe's cooking well. 

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Kitsafari

Fantastic sightings of the beautiful pangolin. how brilliant it is to meet and watch that mythical creature. It seems smaller than the temminck's subspecies found in Tswalu but it makes sense given that the black-bellied is a tree-climber. Its tail is also longer than the ground pangolin, I suppose that's for aiding the tree-dweller to climb easily. 

 

great experience with the Ba'Aka and I see Ty is grinning rather awkwardly with the people! I would have shared your discomfort at seeing an animal being hunted too.

 

So looking forward to the bai experiences. 

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Atravelynn

The bai is just enchanting.  It would certainly inspire hundreds of photos.

 

A reason for some optimism regarding the bongo:  Rod thinks they are doing much better now hunting has been reduced in the area and the 'trophy specimens' which tend to be the males are not being shot as regularly.

 

Fascinating hunting expedition you participated in.  No raw organs for you?

 

Those were posing pangolins!  How fortunate they came out in the open just for you.  You even got good shots of the eye expression.  That command, "Don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes!" really applied to your pangolin photography.  (My relative from long ago, Israel Putnam, is attributed with that quote, stating "Don't fire till you see the whites of their eyes.")

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gatoratlarge

Fantastic pictures of the pangolins!  Just an extraordinary place!!!

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johnweir

@michael-ibk, @Galago, @optig, @Kitsafari, @Atravelynn, @gatoratlarge many thanks for taking time to read and comment on my report your contributions and thoughts are greatly appreciated.

 

Thursday 25th May: Bai Hokou.

This was decision day for me really we were now at a stage in the trip where group members wanted to do different things which was not an issue on a trip with a flexible itinerary like this one, two decided they wanted to re-visit the Gorillas (which would be an extra), I along with two others opted for the included visit to Bai Hokou, which hopefully would include some time with a habituated troop of Agile Mangabey. I was keen to re-visit the Gorilla myself but was also very interested to try to see a Sitatunga, an antelope I had never seen before.They are often seen at Dzanga Bai but none were seen on the day of our initial visit, so Bai Hokou it would be.

The start for both activities would be the WWF camp used as the base camp for Gorilla trekking and home to several research teams which we had previously visited. A two hour drive  would again be required, so we left camp at 07.00, on arrival those going to visit the Gorillas immediately set off into the rainforest. We with our guides also entered the rainforest walking in the opposite direction, after walking for 30 minutes we received a message that we were heading in the wrong direction and returned to camp as the Mangabey had been located in and around Bai Hokou. Like the Gorilla troop the Mangabey also have their own dedicated wardens/guides. The walk to the bai only takes about 10 minutes, Bai Hokou appears longer but narrower than Dzanga but is very much more overgrown with reeds and other vegetation, clearly it doesn't receive the same number of large mammals that Dzanga does.

The Mangabey were quickly picked up crossing the main stream in the bai, the troop numbered around 40 individuals of all ages and both sexes. We followed then across the stream, through the bai and into the forest. (Wet feet again, bad mistake should have taken time to remove my boots, the stream was much deeper than I thought, a fatal decision).

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AGILE  MANGABEY. Cercocebus agilis, this individual exercised caution when crossing the stream.

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This one literally threw caution to the wind.

Once in the forest we followed the troop for an hour, climbing steadily throughout and then dropped back down into the bai.

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They were totally at ease with our presence and we were able to get relatively close to them.

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The rainforest provides them with a huge variety of food, fruit on this occasion,

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and berries in abundance.

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A mother with her young, this was taken in a particularly dense and dark area of the forest.

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Some members of the troop.

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A youngster.

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Possibly the same individual as above.

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We re-entered the bai to be greeted by a lone Forest Elephant. Note the bai contains much more ground vegetation than at Dzanga. Small numbers of the larger forest mammals were regularly seen in this bai and some of the smaller bais close by. Gorilla very occasionally are sighted in the open here. We walked around the bai for an hour, still no Sitatunga.

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At one of the forest openings a small herd of Buffalo could just about be seen in the centre of the bai.

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As we walked upstream we got a much better view of them. They stood up and calmly walked into the forest. 

At this stage it was around 12.00, it was decided to return to the camp. I however was still keen to find a Sitatunga, the guides were very surprised we had not seen any. An arrangement was made with one of the guides that he and I would follow a different route back and reconnoiter with the others after about 15 minutes. Something clearly got lost in the translation.

We never met up with the others and spent neatly two hours visiting a number of smaller bais during which time we had several exciting wildlife encounters! A tip, never go for a walk in the rainforest with a Ba'Aka guide unless you are Usain Bolt, the pace was relentless, even through waist deep water, I was absolutely knackered when we eventually got back to the camp. The good news was we saw 3 Sitatunga,  2 up close but I was in the middle of a river at the time so an image was out of the question. A single Sitatunga was also spotted in reeds but once again it made a hasty retreat into the forest . They appear to be a very nervous antelope, but at least it was job done. I thank my unknown guide. Whilst out on this very pleasant little stroll we had a very, very close encounter with a Forest Buffalo, dropping into a small stream the guide  immediately stopped and with his finger over his mouth pointed to our left, in thick forest 15 metres away was an adult Buffalo. We remained stationary, it knew we were there, turned to face us for a few seconds and then slowly moved away, it was the closest I have ever been on foot to a large truly wild mammal. My personal guide appeared delighted with the sighting, and as we started to return to camp we had a similar experience with an Elephant although not anywhere near as close so much less worrying. 

Our Gorilla trekkers returned to camp an hour after I got back, they had walked significantly further than on the first Gorilla trek, around 2 hours, to quote, 'We were virtually in the Congo when we found them, and the Sweat Bees were just as bad'.

We got back to the lodge around 18.00 had a shower and a meal and did a guided night walk around the lodge grounds, there are several tracks which can be followed. I enjoyed it despite being daft enough to wear sandals and socks due to my boots being wet and I was also starting with blister problems caused by wet feet and sand earlier in the day. Consequently I received several ant bites, which fortunately were not too bad but could have been avoided. During the walk we had good sightings of Africa's largest Bat, the Hammer-headed Bat, the males are capable of very loud vocalisations, which sound like a pneumatic hammer and carry over long distances, we also saw two species of Galago, high in the canopy.

 

Friday 26th May : Return to Dzanga Bai.

This day we all decided to re-visit Dzanga Bai as an additional activity (€120) so the format of the day was identical to that of the first visit other than we got to the platform earlier around 10.00.

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More wading to get there, we were becoming quite used to this element of virtually all our walks. Image courtesy of, Ianthe Weerasooriya. 

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 On our arrival something spoofed the Elephants and most headed for cover in the forest, we were hoping it was a Leopard, a German tourist had a good sighting of one in the bai a few weeks prior to our arrival. Talking of cats, Rod is the only person I have ever met who has seen a Golden Cat, he saw one in Gabon. One of our guides had also seen one but it was very unfortunately dead in a village market. It is interesting that one has been camera trapped recently in N.E.Tanzania. I digress. 

The above image also supports my theory on tusk size, that in this population of Elephants tusk size is not dependent on age, front row left juvenile, quite large tusks. Front row right, young adult, very small tusks.

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The Buffalo and Bongo were still in attendance, when we arrived I counted 43 Bongo, 15 Forest Buffalo and 72 Forest Elephant. The Bongo and Buffalo tended to stay in the bai throughout the day the Elephants generally doing the same although small groups left periodically and others entered the bai particularly in the late afternoon. They always announced their arrived. 

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Lots more Elephant shots I'm afraid, I have heard Dzanga Bai described as the best Elephant viewing experience available anywhere. That I am sure is open to debate, but the setting, number of Elephants and the fact that you are able to watch their behaviour relatively closely is pretty special and unique. Mind you 47 in the Silale Swamp in Tarangire N.P. was quite a spectacle too. This female demonstrates just how deep they go to retrieve the minerals that keep them so healthy.

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Bongo at the far side of the bai. We certainly saw lots, prior to our visit none had been seen for quite a while. When  we were arranging this trip I was very much of the opinion, based on reading several trip reports that February was the best time for Bongo, clearly not.

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The Forest Buffalo seemed to enjoy sitting in the mud, I would point out that on this bai visit the weather was very much overcast but still warm and very humid. 

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WESTERN SITATUNGA. Tragelaphus gratus, Suddenly just for a few seconds we had brief sighting of a female Sitatunga. This image really just records the sighting it was taken from a considerable distance. A great spot by one of the guides.

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During the visit a guide was available to take you down the platform access stairs which would allow you to take some images of the Elephants from almost ground level.

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They appeared curious and relatively calm. They certainly knew you were there however.

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WHITE-THROATED BEE-EATER. Birding was quite difficult on this trip, in the forest following an ID it was almost impossible to get an image, around the bais it was not much easier although there was quite a few birds about they were usually well out in the bai. The best place for birding was around the lodge and having Rod with you was a great help.This Bee-eater was taken next to the platform at Dzanga Bai. The birding highlight of the trip for me was a sighting from the balcony of the lodge one evening as the light was fading of a flock of 30+ Cattle Egrets flying down the Sangha River in formation, wonderful I can still see them now. During the trip using Tyrone McKeith's bird list 79 species/ssp were recorded. Other highlights for me was seeing four new species of Hornbill and adding four new Raptors to my list, I did however expect to have added more. The Great Blue Turaco was pretty impressive and the Grey Parrots which used to be seen in large flocks in the bias but regrettably not any more. The Red-fronted Parrot and the African Green Pigeon were also beautiful, the list goes on. I'm just sorry I haven't more bird images to share. 

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An impressive individual, as the afternoon became more sunny so the use of sun screen appeared to increase. 

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Another impressive young adult.

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Just before we left at 16.00 some Giant Forest hogs arrived I am fairly sure they were a different group to those seen on the first visit. They always stayed on the periphery of the bai and I noticed they usually attracted birds as they were feeding. Hammerkop and Egrets were often in close attendance presumably picking up the spoils as the Hogs dig for tubers etc.

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My last image of Dzanga Bai before returning to the lodge. The main attraction of the visit for me did not disappoint it must rank as one of the most outstanding and beautiful wildlife locations on the planet.

 

The Final Posting: The Last Day and a Few Thoughts.

 

 

 

 

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