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GBE

“And you’re OK with this?”

 

That was the question Terese would get as we shared with friends and family our plans to visit the Congo basin.  Trekking through the jungle, wading through swamps, motoring 5 hours up the Sangha river into the Central Africa Republic, net hunting with B’aka pygmies…  For many that have not been on safari it is difficult to understand, much less appreciate the draw.  And yes, Terese is game for just about any adventure... at least we haven't found one yet that she's said no to.

 

I started thinking about this trip back in 2017 after visiting Virunga (we owe that TR).  But we had another safari well into the planning stage for 2018 (we owe that TR too!).  It wasn’t until October of 2018 that I started looking into this trip.  About this time a year ago we’d pretty well mapped out our plan and settled on booking directly with the Congo Conservation Company.  The CCC has the exclusive concession in Odzala, had recently started a relationship with Sangha Lodge, and between them they had started a flight/boat transfer between the parks. 

 

The connection between the CCC and Sangha Lodge is fantastic.  While there are some similarities, they are worlds apart in the experience.  The river transfer is an experience unto itself.  Plus, it eliminates the need to choose one park over the other or face the expense in both time and $ to backtrack and fly between Brazzaville and Bangui. 

 

Following is the itinerary that was booked… We’ll share ‘on the fly’ changes as we get to them:

1/5 – morning flight from NBO to BZV with connection in ADD

1/6 – afternoon shared charter BZV to Mboko airstrip (Odzala NP) and drive to Ngaga Camp

1/7 – Gorilla track

1/8 – Gorilla track

1/9 – Gorilla track

1/10 – Drive transfer to Lango Camp

1/11 – Paddle/wet walk Lango

1/12 – morning shared charter Mboko to Kabo – boat transfer Kabo to Sangha Lodge, Bayanga, CAR

1/13 – Dzanga Bai

1/14 – Gorilla Track

1/15 – B’aka hunt

1/16 – Valley of the Giants

1/17 – Dzanga Bai

1/18 – Gorilla Track

1/19 – Waterfall walk

1/20 – Dzanga Bai

1/21 – Gorilla Track

1/22 – morning boat transfer back to Kabo – afternoon shared charter Kabo to Mboko

1/23 – morning shared charter Mboko to BZV

1/24 – Brazzaville

1/25 – midnight flight BZV to NBO

1/26 – Nairobi NP – drop off at NBO for midnight flights home

 

Here are a couple images.  Will start uploading the TR proper in the coming days.

                                                       

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gatoratlarge

Can't wait for more!  Thanks for starting this TR!

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pault

Oh, this looks good. No half-measures in that itinerary. Six visits with gorillas!

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wilddog

Lovely:) a 'just pre covid emergency' TR. Looks an amazing trip. 

 

A new TR is our life blood. 

 

We can all savour it slowly as you share it with us. A bit like sharing a very fine and rare wine..... 

 

Thank you

 

 

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Treepol

This looks like a real adventure, look forward to reading along.

 

The river transfer sounds like a magical link between these 2 destinations.

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michael-ibk

Very cool, Pangolin and Bongo, what a teaster! Looking forward to this very much.

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ForWildlife

Epic itinary!

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JayRon

Really looking forward to this !! :) :) 

 

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kilopascal

Can’t wait. Have looked at doing this!

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GBE
Posted (edited)

1/5 – NBO to BZV

5am flight out of NBO.  We were early enough to ‘politely’ wake the immigration agent to get into the gate area.  Our Ethiopia Air flights were on time, planes clean, food good, and service great.  Connecting through ADD was simple.  upon entering the arrivals area there are signs directing you to immigration or the international connections terminal.  While the terminal lacks signage and the electronic reader boards were blank, there were staff everywhere to assist.  As soon as we stepped off the escalator into the terminal we were met, asked in English where our connecting flight was bound, and provided with both directions and the gate number.  The gate was at the other end of the terminal (10-minute walk) and we were greeted a couple more times and our gate number and location confirmed each time.  We only travel with carry-on so there were no issues with bags.

 

On our first safari several years ago we experienced "OMG we're in Africa" as we landed in Nairobi. 

On this trip it was "OMG the CONGO river"

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Entering the Republic of Congo (the other Congo-Brazzaville) -

Republic of Congo VISAs are not issued on arrival.  Yellow Cards are checked.  Additionally, there is a combination health and arrival form that needs to be filled out prior to going through the health check and immigration control.  All and all pretty quick and easy.  We were surprised to be met by Net, the CCCs Brazzaville guide/facilitator. - We’d informed the CCC that we would be staying at the Radisson Blu hotel as well as our flight information, but we didn’t anticipate seeing them until the following day at the airport.  This was unexpected but much appreciated and reflects their attention to serving their guests. - Net rode with us to the hotel, waited while we got checked in, made sure we had no questions or issues, provided some informational pamphlets, and let us know what time to meet him the following morning. 

 

We had the entire afternoon and following morning to relax and get acclimated.  The Radisson Blu is on the Congo river, has beautiful grounds, and is next to a broad walking/riding path along the river.  We enjoyed an hour or so walk but found the heat, humidity, and direct sun to be quite draining.  That said, watching the people along the bank, walking, fishing, and certainly gazing at the Congo river was quite enjoyable. 

View from our room

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Some of the grounds.

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A funny thing happened on the way to… the departure gate - For many of you that have spent time in Africa this is par for the course.  For those of you going for your 1st or 2nd time we share this as an example of ‘the way it is.’  No need to stress.  Just enjoy the process as part of the adventure.

 

Maya Maya International airport is shiny new, massive with open space, and for the most part relatively straight forward.  The 26+- ticket counters are visible from curbside but, like most of the airports we’ve been through in Africa, you need flight documents to get through initial security before getting to the ticket/check-in/baggage check counters.  Private Charter… hmmm… no documents.  It was almost comical watching Net explaining to the security team that we did have a flight.  Though we speak no French, we could understand the gist of the discussion: There are no flights (no commercial flights) scheduled for several hours.  We have no tickets, boarding passes, and there is no one at any of the ticket counters.  We learned later that “Odzala” is a magic word that smooths most issues at the airport.  It probably wasn’t more than a minute or two and Net had us moving through initial screening.  Net couldn’t go through with us, but he told us to go to #24 to check in…  - Protocol is a funny thing.  It must be followed even if it serves no real purpose. – So, we get to the counter and are met there by a very pleasant person that apparently spoke as much English as we spoke French.  Now, we were flying with 2 others, an employee with the German Embassy and his father.  They had enough grasp of the French language that we figured out the agent was insisting we must only carry 1 bag and check all others.  We tried to explain to her that we didn’t need to check any bags, that our plane (Air Tec L420) was carry on.  C’est la vie (we did learn the most important French phrases😊), we checked bags.

 

With bags checked we go through another security check, document check, and yet another security check.  On the 3rd  check we had to open one of our bags to show the snub nose bandage scissors…  I guess 3’s a charm.  Good thing! I felt safer already…. LOL.  Down we go to our gate.  1 hour until our flight became 1 1/2.  But the terminal is relatively comfortable, with clean washrooms, and what difference does it make to us if the flight is a little late.  We did chuckle a bit as we saw our checked bags on a cart being driven out across the tarmac.  And, they were sitting on the tarmac waiting for us to pick them up and carry carry them onto the plane for storage.

 

Wheels up - 

For us, the trip starts back in the planning stages, the adventure starts when we leave home, but we’re not quite sure where that visceral excitement begins.  It is a little different for both of us, but I think for me it is wheels up on the flight into the bush.  There is a certain 'bidding good-bye' to civilization (or urban world at least) and anticipation of landing in a place that has its own wild rhythms that are truly a world apart.  While the flight is about 1 hour 40 minutes, I felt this as we lifted off the runway and looked out at the urban sprawl of Brazzaville and Kinshasa across the river, then thinning buildings and growing expanse of green, then up into the mist… our next view was as we banked in toward the Mboko landing strip…  Giddy with excitement!!!

 

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Wheels Down - 

We were met at the Mboko airstrip by the CCC team with cold beverages and snacks.  We met Clem, our driver/guide and soon to be fellow adventurer, friend, companion, and 'butterfly whisperer' for the next 17 days.  It is about a 2 – 2 ½ hour drive from Mboko to Ngaga Camp.  Passing through savanna, forest, Mbomo (largest village/city in the area), and then into what we envisioned as ‘proper jungle’.  Along the way we’d stop for explanations of some of the flora and fauna.  We'd stop and Clem would pick something up off the road or a branch and bring it back for us to taste.  Among other things we tried some wild ginger and a fruit that tasted a little like dark/burnt caramel. 

The expressway...

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The last 20 – 25 minutes, once off this two-track expressway, is like an amusement park ‘off road experience’ ride. The jungle is so lush that we couldn’t see the lodge where we were dropped off, though it is no more than a minute or two walk.  We were met with the customary cool and moist washcloths and fruit drinks, though driving in the jungle is a relatively cool experience and there were times I think we would have enjoyed a warm cloth.

 

The camp is everything we expected but even more impressive having experienced the track and distance just to get there.  The dinning, lounge, and community deck is at a high point looking out over the canopy. 

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Bar and Lounge          64539386_3.10NgagaLodgeresized.JPG.f2dbbaddedf4eec96acc629e76e7043a.JPG

     Dining and extension to community washroom1549148447_3.11NgagaLodgeresized.JPG.0894d405f812b6377133daa53a5b037c.JPG

 

 

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The individual rooms are completely out of sight and along a path lower down the hill.  The rooms are elevated, on a slope, and nestled in the trees.  They are virtual tree houses. 

View and steps down from the community lodge

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From the base of the stairs, looking down the path to room #1

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All rooms are en-suite with the washroom on the same deck but in a separate, open and non-screened room.  Hot and cold running water on demand but not potable.  Filtered water is provided in reusable bottles.  We were concerned about monkeys getting into our toiletries if we left them in the washroom.  They had soaps and such sitting out.  Unlike monkey hi-jinks in east Africa camps, because they are hunted for meat in this area, they stay clear of humans.  This proved to be true throughout our trip.  While each camp seemed to have their own habituated monkeys, we never experienced an issue.

 

Very comfortable beds with netting.  Comfortable chairs, armoire, cabinet and good space inside.  Chairs, space, and a nice view into the canopy on the deck.  Turn-down service each evening included a thermos of hot water for coffee in the morning.  Our room had power for lights and charging batteries.  

 

 

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We had time to settle into our room, freshen up, and relax a bit before heading up for dinner.  Dined with Clem and Imassy (camp manager).  The menu is presented on a chalk board and orders are placed earlier in the day.  Food here and at every camp, without exception, was very good to great.

 

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We discussed the following day's schedule and plan.  Essentially, meet for breakfast at 5:30am and be ready to leave at 6am.  As the only guests we were able to spend the entire evening getting to know each other, sharing experiences, and talking about expectations.  We were all so relaxed none of us realized we'd skipped the official orientation until several nights later when another family arrived and we heard Biff and Alice give them the spiel.  No loss and the time we took getting to know each other paid off.  In fact, we think Clem might have started scheming a schedule change but held back his thoughts until we’d spent a few days together.

 

Tomorrow we venture out on the first of our western lowland gorilla tracks...

 

 

Edited by GBE
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GBE

@pault We like to book extra days whenever we can.  This protects against the occasional day when we don't get a glimpse.  More so, it frees us to put our cameras down and just watch.  Once our guides and trackers understand we aren't looking for 'that shot' it takes the pressure off and we can all sit and enjoy.  As will be come evident in the TR, each day was very different and worthy.

 

@wilddog We were very, very fortunate to make this trip when we did.  We are very fearful about the impact on life everywhere and particularly gorilla given their susceptibility to human viruses.  Interesting parallel to our trip into the DRC back in 2017 (we owe at TR on it) but we got in during an open window but had to cut our stay short because of Mai Mai activity.  Turned out to be OK because it gave us a chance to compare gorilla tracking in Virunga NP vs Volcano's NP.  Love your wine reference.  Our guide was French and our last night we dined with a guest insistent South Africa wines are the finest in the world.  I was quite comical.  Besides, we know the finest wine comes from the US...LOL.  At the risk of  the TR rambling on, I am taking a bit of a 'novelist' approach to this TR as we all have time.  Besides, people can skip ahead.  

 

@Treepol The river transfer very much added to the trip in direct and tangential ways.  Similar to the sense of escaping to the wild on a bush flight, the boat transfer extends this sense of escape in a mesmerizing and almost numbing way.  The process of crossing and clearing boarders, parks, and districts adds to the experience.  I expect I'll spend some 'words' on this when we get to it in the TR.

 

@kilopascal  When travel restrictions abate, GO!  :-)  I expect this goes without saying, but don't hesitate to message me or otherwise ask questions.  We did considerable research prior to going and certainly learned and discovered other things while there.  We're happy to share.

 

@gatoratlarge @michael-ibk @ForWildlife @JayRon Thank you for your interest and encouragement.  I hope to not disappoint.

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xelas
5 hours ago, GBE said:

I am taking a bit of a 'novelist' approach to this TR as we all have time.

 

And time is what we have! Make it as long as you can ... days are long ... and fill it with photos. Merci beaucoup!

 

 

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Atravelynn

Great intro photos.  Your itinerary mixes and matches the bai and gorilla tracking nice.

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gatoratlarge

Odzala looks quite plush!  Very excited to read more and see more photos :D

 

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Sangeeta

I was also intrigued by the number of your gorilla treks, @GBE, and looking forward to hearing the details.

I am amazed at how comfortable these camps look - it isn't easy to run an operation of this quality in the middle of a rain forest. Good on Odzala and CCC for keeping it all up - it looks wonderful.

Novelist approach is as it should be :) 

 

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GBE

1/7  Jupiter’s Group

Up around 4:30am.  Being our first morning we didn’t have a routine and we didn’t get to breakfast until just after 5:30. But, we were still ready to roll by 6 as planned.  This morning we planned to track Jupiter’s group.  We emphasize ‘track’ vs ‘trek’ as tracking gorilla at Ngaga is very, very different than trekking mountain gorilla in Virunga or Volcano’s NPs or chimpanzee in Mahale NP for that matter.  This is not to suggest one is better than the other, only that they are different.  Below is what was shared with us and what we observed.  I’ve highlighted in bold what stands out in notable contrast.  Tracking at Ngaga:

·        is a minimum human/gorilla exposure experience.  Only 4 guests, 1 guide, and 1 tracker are allowed with a group.  There are no rangers, porters, or others.  6 humans is it. 

·        the opportunity to see Jupiter and/or Neptuno’s groups is secondary to the active research.  The trackers have been with their groups for over 10 years and their commitment to both gorilla             and research over guests is apparent (particularly when juxtaposed with our experience mountain gorilla trekking). 

·        the trackers intimate knowledge of each group and the area creates a unique opportunity for them to share their forest and their gorillas. 

·        There are no trackers in the jungle radioing back to guides with directions as to where the groups are.

·        The previous evening the tracker would have noted where the group was, what direction they were heading, and generally where and what they were doing over the past several days.  They               will place Marantaceae stock across common paths (at least a path to a gorilla).  These will serve as clues in the morning.

·        As we head out in the morning, the tracker will head toward where their experience tells them they will either find the group or signs indicating where they are.

·        They will use hearing, smell, and watch for signs such as a Marantaceae stock being moved, telling them there is a good likelihood the gorilla have been through and in what direction.

·        They track and then predict where the gorilla will be.  They move us to that position and wait for the gorilla to arrive (or not).  There is no following (chasing) them through the jungle.

 

 

With that, let’s start again.  Our tracker believed Jupiter’s group was probably within a couple hours of the lodge, so we set out on foot from the lodge.  A few minutes up the track we turned onto trail.  Clem explained that the trails were loosely setup in a grid that the trackers and researchers used for both access and charting movement.  Shortly we turned off the trail onto a path…

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At times it seemed we wouldn’t even be on an animal track much less a path.  And the Marantaceae is thick…

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Minutes later we would pop out on another trail or path and be on our way.  Progressively we slowed and stopped more often so our tracker could listen.  Often times we’d stop because he and Clem smelled them…  On only a few rare occasions were we able to catch a scent and then it was only because they called it out.

 

As the images show, visibility into this forest was limited.  Clem hoped we’d find them in a root site, a clearing created by the group digging up roots, as this would provide the best viewing.  We did walk through a site with recent digging, but no gorilla.  We continued on and after about 75 – 90 minutes we were instructed to put on our masks.  We were still very much in the Marantaceae, so we followed by sound but staying on what path there was. 

 

After about 5 minutes our tracker motioned us to come along at a brisker pace.  It seemed to us we spent 10 minutes going further and further away and could no longer hear them.  In actuality, we’d looped around to where he expected the group to emerge and cross another path.  Once in position, he did cut away some foliage, but for the most part no more than would be typical for keeping the path open.  We waited.  It’s quite exhilarating to be positioned along a path with undergrowth so thick we can’t see through most of it, and yet we could hear the group.  Sure enough, our positioning was right for some of the group, but others passed behind us or only stuck their heads out for a look but then disappeared back into the underbrush.  While sight lines weren’t wide open, there were some less dense areas and the group did linger for over an hour munching on the Marantaceae and moving back and forth across the path. 

 

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As warned, Jupiter is shy and as such his group is as well.  Most of our viewing was through the foliage and more peekaboo than grand head shots…

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When our hour was up we started working our way back down the path and were treated to one last view for the day…

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I

This was a great first day.  We had better than an hour with the group.  While sight-lines were fractured, we were able to stay put for most of the hour and experiment with our gear, i.e. playing with exposures, video, mono-pod, phone cameras, etc.  While the morning was relatively cool, it had definitely warmed some and the humidity was palpable.  This was a good shakedown for our gear and us! 

 

Returning to the lodge was much more direct with no need to slow for tracking or cutting through the underbrush.  That said, our tracker did place Marantaceae stalks across several openings along the trail.  We also stopped for interesting insects, fungus, termite nests, and general conversation about the forest, tracker, research, et al.  And still, we were back at the lodge around 10:45.

 

We loitered around the lodge and rested a bit until 12:30 lunch.  Then we rested some more until around 3 when we met Clem for tea before setting out on a walk through the forest.  This is a nice walk down, up, over a creek, around a hill… We saw another root site and learned a bit about some of the plants unique to these sites.  We were introduced to a tree with a red powder on the branches that’s used for dye but with a poisonous latex sap on the inside.  We saw many different types of termite nests and quite a few butterflies: Go figure, Terese and I have been married 29 year and were together for 3 years prior and I had no idea her fascination with butterflies.  Clem was thrilled as they are one of his primary areas of study.  We also walked through several different forests from the dense Marantaceae we experienced in the morning to open space with just tree trunks and single or double canopies above, to various combinations of both.  And of course, some incredible vines.

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After about 2 hours we arrived at Ngaga creek and the crew from the lodge.  Not a bad spot for our sundowners!

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A short 10 minute walk up the hill to the lodge and dinner.  Over dinner we discussed a possible change to our itinerary.  Clem suggested we leave Ngaga after tracking on the 3rd day and go to Mboko for the night.  He thought this would be a better use of time, giving us more time at Lango Bai.  Honestly, I wasn’t sure why more time at Lango would be worthy… more on that later.  So I wasn’t too keen on the idea but said we’d think about it.  We our start time the following morning set, breakfast at 5:30 and leaving at 6, we headed back to our room and were in bed by 9.

 

Oh, we had a visitor in our washroom.  Funny how we weren’t concerned unless we didn’t see her.  I’ll admit, I always looked under the seat!

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1/8 – Neptuno

 

While eating breakfast we learned that Neptuno was clear out beyond the expressway and we’d be driving to the start point.  Despite the drive they anticipated several hours of tracking; the previous days they’d been moving away and showed no signs of a change.  20 – 25 minutes out to the expressway and then another 10 minutes or so until we pulled to the side of the track.  I had to chuckle a bit when I saw the ‘hole’ in the brush that was our entry into the forest!  After crouching through the hobbit hole, we let out at ‘tracker speed’.  There was no apparent trail or even path for that matter.  But once clear of the Marentaceae along the road and with occasional swings of the machete we hustled around, under, over, and through at a pace I wasn’t sure I’d be able to maintain for an hour much less several.

 

And then, very abruptly and just 45 minutes in, our tracker stopped and listened, and listened, and shushed Clem, and listened some more.  Neptuno had turned the group around and we were very close.  We huddled for a few minutes as our tracker listened.  Then we started to work our way down into thicker and thicker brush and Marantaceae.  There was almost despair in Clem’s posture as he watched Terese follow the tracker deeper. 

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To a certain extent my heart sank thinking there would be no way to see much of anything through this mess.  We didn’t have to.  They were up in the canopy!  At first, very hard to spot…  In fact, I didn’t even shoot into the canopy at first. figuring there wasn’t much point…  -Move on, we still can't find any in this image, but it does give some perspective-

 

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Terese did shoot while I simply enjoyed the show, and what a show!  From tree to tree, down to the ground, back up another tree, over the top of us: For the next hour we moved maybe two or three times, but no more than about 50 – 100 yards total.

swinging

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from tree to tree

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walking along the branches

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going up                                                                                               hanging out

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coming in for a closer look

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and just munching

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We’d been warned that, as shy as Jupiter was, Neptuno was the opposite and that he was known to false charge.  Good to be warned and prepared… What a thrill!!!  No pictures as sight-lines were challenged and as he came within feet of us it was so fast, thunderous, and his vocalizations and flailing near heart stopping.  He retreated to about 5 yards and simply watched us.  We recovered our breath and shared our exhilaration through smiles and nods of our heads.

 

We watched them head back up into the trees and it was then time to go.  Despite the drive and prospect of a long trek, we were back to camp by 9:30am.  Picked up WiFi, rested, napped and then lunched at 12:30.  

 

We met Clem for tea around 3:30 and were off to Ombo village.  Plan was to visit the local family and then night drive back.  This is no commercial ‘boma’ experience.  There were genuine smiles to greet Clem and our driver (we had a driver so Clem could night spot on the drive back).  While we followed along, Clem got caught up on the recent events.  They shared palm wine and roasted nuts.  Clem saw a crossbow and asked for a demo.  Maybe too much palm wine, but fun to watch the process.  We got explanations of daily life/what they were doing.  All and all a good and interesting experience.  Terese took a few phone pics.  I’m still not comfortable taking pictures of people even though we were told it would be OK here.

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On our way back to camp we took a side trip to an open with nice view sun-downer location.

 

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I’ve never been a big fan of night drives.  That said, this was very interesting as we did see lots of Galago and Potto… high in the canopy, but still visible moving from branch to branch.  All good and back to camp for dinner around 7.  During dinner Clem brought up the schedule change he’d suggested the prior evening.  Seems things changed over the 2 days together.  I think the biggest change was Clem understanding that Terese and I approach each day with the expectation ‘we will see what we see’ and ‘experience what we experience’, that the journey is as interesting and fulfilling as achieving the primary stated objective, and that we especially enjoy coloring outside the lines. He changed his suggestion of leaving Ngaga after the following day's gorilla tracking.  In fact, he suggested pushing our next tracking to the day after…  What?  That will really cut into our time at Lango, which at the time was fine with me, but what was it Clem was more excited about than Lango?  Well, when you return from a trip are you asked, “what was the coolest thing…  what was most fun… what was the highlight?”  The change of plans was one of those days.

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JayRon

Great stuff so far.... It must been so special seeing the gorillas! And it sounds like you really had to work for it :) And I think you really did a great job of getting some good pictures of them (I saw mountain gorillas in Bwindi in 2003 and I only have "proof"-photos of that. :( ) 

Looking forward to the next chapter ....

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kilopascal

This is fascinating and a great read with my morning coffee. 

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GBE

1/9 – Dzebe Bai

 

Over dinner the night prior, Clem laid out a possible new plan.  Instead of 3 consecutive days tracking gorillas at Ngaga followed by sleeping in and a transfer day, we would push the 3rd day of tracking and start the transfer after whenever we got back.  This would open the opportunity to visit the ‘not yet commercial’ Dzebe Bai.  To visit the bai would mean breakfast at 4:30, departing at 5, and upwards of a 3-hour drive.  He explained there is a gorilla research camp near the bai but that the groups being studied were not habituated and there would be no tracking.  Instead, there is a makeshift hide/viewing platform at the edge of the bai that we could use with the hope gorillas would come through at some point during the day.  He had such luck on a previous trip and was anxious/excited to go back.  Despite the low probability of seeing gorillas we were all in.

 

At 5 am we climbed into the cruiser and were surprised to see another driver and Clem riding shotgun.  Our driver was one of their supply drivers and was very familiar with the road; and as we learned later, he was along for another reason as well.  He seemed to anticipate every soft spot, rut, curve, low hanging branch, et al, such that he could maintain max speed, getting us to the start point in less than 2 ½ hours.  We drove through Mbomo, several other villages, and a mix of savanna and forest on the way.  There were a couple of semi-repaired washouts requiring some experienced driving technique, but overall a good drive and much to see.

 

We left our driver and started off on a series of boardwalks (planks) over creeks, through a swampy forest, out across a small clearing and then back into the forest along a well-established trail to the research camp.  Just before the camp we turned onto a lessor path.  It was a pleasant path meandering under a heavy canopy with limited under brush.  But for an occasional thorn and muddy spots, it was quite enjoyable.  I expect everyone that has been on safari has had at least 1 talk about behavior, especially on foot.  One key point is to always do as your guide tells you.  Another is not to run.  Well, Clem was out in front, followed by Terese, then me.  Out of the quiet we hear Clem shout RUN!  We understand we are supposed to do what our guide tells us, but we were a moment reconciling his call to run with the standing rule not to run.  In fact, Terese stepped slightly off the trail in a somewhat startled way looking toward Clem as we both were looking for a confirmation.  We see Clem high step galloping down the trail.  Not only was he running, he was slapping at his legs.  It would have been comical but for our confusion, concern, and the feeling of ants biting our legs!  He again shouted for us to run, but by that time we were both on the go!  Seems we’d walked onto a carpet of ants.  The nice trail of ants that’s fun to watch, and maybe put an obstruction in the path to see them clear it, had spread out into a full carpet searching for their next food source.  But for a little irritation, on we went and in a short 45 minutes from the vehicle we reached the… platform?

 

It was a platform; in that there was a sitting area about 6 feet up.  And, it was a hide; in that it was built to be unobtrusive and provide viewing cover: Though the blue tarp over the top might have been a bit of a give-away.  Intended as a place for the researches to sit and observe, it was built and bound with the forest materials at hand, the blue tarp notwithstanding.  While it swayed a bit, it was also tied off to the nearby trees, so the sway was limited and all in all sturdy enough and roomy enough for the three of us:  It got us off the ground, gave us a good view, and the blue tarp served its purpose when thunder and rain came and went.  Having access and use was pretty cool in and of itself.  And you can see the bai was lush and beautiful…

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Clem and Terese to provide some perspective.  The sitting/viewing 'bench' is the 4th row up.

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We were as quiet as we could be on arrival and climbing up.  A good thing as there were gorillas in the bai when we arrived!  They were mid-way and lazily moving away.  While we only had about 5 – 10 minutes with them in the bai and in clear view, this was very special to see non-habituated gorillas going about their business. -kudos to our driver for shaving precious minutes off the drive- We learned later that these were not part of the research group as they were a good 20k away.

 

Note:  I shot a substantial amount of video but have no experience editing, or posting for that matter (advice welcome).  That said, I’ve posted some clips on a newly created youtube channel: GnTAdventures   https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoDTjHzamJjeIxv68I9VMRA  I posted a video from the Neptuno group https://youtu.be/CIKFwZ8ttbA .  I'll continue to post and list the individual URLs through the rest of this TR unless someone recommends a better approach.

 

Some stills...

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 https://youtu.be/4V4NBrcoE1c  Dzebe Bai gorilla - On this video you'll see him pulling shoots and rinsing them twice before eating.  As simple as that is, it is really cool to see. 

 

We arrived at the bai at about 8:30. By 8:45 the gorillas had moved to the end of the bai and disappeared into the forest.  For the next hour and a half we continued to watch the edges of the bai for their return.  We listened to thunder rolling ever closer and soon saw raindrops in the bai and heard them ‘ker plunking’ on the blue tarp.  The rains passed and around 10:30 we again saw movement at the far end of the bai.  Alas, not gorillas… but Chimpanzees!

 

We saw 3 enter but only 2 stayed.  Slowly they waded into the bai, stopping occasionally to pull, rinse, and eat some of the shoots.  Every now and then they would languidly look up and around and then go back to eating.  They tended toward the left edge of the bai and eventually worked themselves about mid-way to us, hanging out there for a bit.  It was here we think they may have heard us or gotten our scent.  Their pauses to look around were more frequent, intense, and focused in our direction.  They worked their way across to the right side, eating and more frequently looking our way, and eventually disappearing into the forest. 

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https://youtu.be/3aTH4gJ6GQY  Dzebe Bai chimpanzee When they entered the bai, Clem was off the platform.  Early in the compilation of video clips you can hear a hushed “chimpanzee” to usher him back up.  They spent a little over 30 minutes in the bai. 

 

We closed the previous post with a “What was most memorable about this trip” query.  Wow!  Impromptu.  Not just gorilla. Not just chimpanzee.  Both gorilla and chimpanzee, not habituated, just doing their own thing.  This experience definitely ranks top 5 for this trip.

 

While we could have stayed a little longer, it was a little before noon and we wanted to stop at the research camp before going back to the cruiser for lunch.  On our way back to the main trail we saw several chimps cross the trail in front of us.  Probably from the same group, but not the two we’d seen in the bai.  After a short visit to the research camp and meeting the primatologist we headed back to the cruiser.  But we didn’t quite make it all the way back.  Seems the other reason we had a driver (besides knowing the roads) was so he could pick up some locals to assist in preparing our hot lunch in the forest…  Oh, and cold drinks too.  Nice variation on breakfast or lunch on the savanna but with a nice shade shelter, fresh flowers on the table, and… well, ridiculously wonderful😊  As we learned later, the lunch is part of a preliminary agreement with the local village to provide tourism revenue.

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We gave the locals a ride back to their village.  We also gave the primatologist a ride back to Mbomo.  This afforded us an opportunity to drive around the town and see a little more than we’d seen earlier.  Interesting observations as we drove through:  Started with seeing a child, maybe 6 or 7 years old, carrying a machete.  That, in and of itself isn’t unusual given it is the quintessential tool in the forest, but it still caught our attention.  Shortly there after we saw a group of kids, about the same age, enthusiastically chasing another child… who had a large rat like animal.  Oh, that wasn’t what caught our attention, it was the kid with the meat clever.  Ok, machete we understand.  But a meat clever?  And then, a little later, we saw another child with a Pulaski!  Societal differences…

 

It was an easy drive back to camp with a couple of butterfly stops…

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Back at Ngaga we met some new guests, a Swedish family of 5 currently residing in Australia; Previously we’d been the only guests at Ngaga.  We also met Alice and Elizabeth, the other two CCC guides.  We enjoyed some good conversation, them sharing where they'd been (Kenya) and us telling some of our stories.  Because of the rules limiting guests with the gorillas we were asked if it would be OK if one of them joined us the following morning.  That was fine with us.  We all agreed to 5:30 breakfast with a 6 start and Terese and I were back to our room and in bed by 9.

 

1/10 – Back to Jupiter

At breakfast we learned it would just be us, that one of the other guests wasn’t feeling up to tracking.  We also learned we’d be tracking Jupiter again and that we’d be walking from the lodge while the other guests would be driving to track Neptuno’s group. 

 

We enjoyed a relatively short walk before masking up.  Can’t say we were disappointed given the thunder we heard in the distance as well as knowing we’d be packing up and heading for Lango, so finding them sooner was welcomed.  As mentioned earlier, there are no porters and no leaving gear behind.  As such, as we masked up we also made whatever gear adjustments needed, i.e. select/switch lenses, attach mono-pod, make sure everything we may want is easily accessible.  Any last instructions or information is also presented: The tracker doesn't allow whispers much less talking once we get to where he anticipates the gorilla will pass.  Getting to where we need to be before the group to emerges, we can also familiarize ourselves with the sight lines and get comfortable.  On this morning, we were at a junction of 3 trails/paths.

 

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Except for moves from one side of the trail to the other for a better angle, or moving a couple yards up or down based on our trackers hand signals, we were in the right place at the right time.  We viewed gorillas crossing back and forth on all 3 trails.  We had several come up one trail, passing within a couple of yards of us, and back down another.  We had some settle in the middle of a trail to munch the shoots and fruit. 

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https://youtu.be/m7kXRtv_pbs  Jupiter gorilla group 1 - A representative video of a single gorilla munching from one side of the trail to the other and back again.

 

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https://youtu.be/7Q9uBGek9sQ  Jupiter gorilla group 2 - While somewhat obscured by vegetation, the visual of playful antagonism is there along with the animated chatter.

 

After about 35 minutes they headed into off into the Marantaceae.  It was thick, thick, thick.  The thunder was also coming closer and it seemed to be darker than when we left he lodge.  Clem let us know we had another 20 – 25 minutes of viewing and could continue tracking and pick up the clock when we see them again.  We assured him we were quite content calling it a morning and that we didn’t and wouldn’t feel ‘short changed’ by viewing for less than an hour.  Besides, clouds were making it seem like a solar eclipse it was so dark.  All in agreement, we hustled back to the lodge without a minute to spare.  A quick confirm to pack and reconnect around 9:30 and a dash to our room… while wet on arrival we did get undercover before the true deluge hit. 

 

https://youtu.be/cmXTyDQFFM8  downpour -  While the video is a long 95 seconds, the rain continued at this same level for well over an hour.

 

Just 3 1/2 days in we'd experienced peekaboo with Jupiter's group on the day one, Neptuno’s flying circus on day two, covert viewing on day three, and now up close and personal on day four – A pretty good start to our Congo basin adventure!   

 

The rains subsided and we met Clem in the lodge a little after 9:30.  We gave or thanks and said our goodbye’s to the staff.  Then, into the cruiser and off down the road… a bit slick… a few sideways slides as the track tilted to one side or the other…  About 15 minutes out of camp Clem stopped and asked us to check if all our bags were still there.  Good call!  I was missing one of my bags.  Fortunately, it was my dry bag with no cameras or lenses… and we found it about 5 minutes back.  Not a crisis if we’d not discovered until we got to Mboko/Lango, but certainly better to discover when we did.  The rest of the trip, if we didn’t load our own bags, we certainly verified they were loaded and loaded in such a way as to assure they wouldn't depart without our knowledge.

 

The drive was back along the same route from the airstrip to Ngaga.  While the rain had stopped by the time we reached the main track, we had to keep the windshield up because of the drip from the canopy.  It was also a little chilly with the wet and the wind from driving, so we appreciated the windbreak even though it limited our view.  40 minutes into the drive the canopy opened up so we could drop the windshield.  With the clouds breaking up it was warming as well, so the breeze was refreshing.  We got to Mboko around 12:30 and had lunch at 1 (will report on Mboko at the end when we spent the night).  Wifi was good… how about that termite mound in the background?

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Around 3:30 we climbed into the cruiser for the 15-minute drive to the Lekoli river.  It took a solid ½ hour because we made two stops.  First, Clem got as excited as we’d see him on the entire trip.  He spotted an African Hummingbird Moth.  It’s not a great still, taken with a phone, but the video is pretty clear:  https://youtu.be/01eyxI5HJAs Hummingbird Moth

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The other stop was for a relatively nondescript tree but one he made sure we were not under.  This particular tree has a symbiotic relationship with ants.  Seems the branches and trunk are hollow.  If something lands on the tree, the ants come pouring out of unseen portals near the disturbance as well as dropping from above to attack whatever is there.  It was fascinating to watch as Clem put the smallest of twigs across a couple of leaves.  In seconds, swarms of ants had knocked the twig to the ground.  Good to know such trees exist as it would matter later in the trip.  On we went to the river.  Next up, Lango Bai and Lodge. 

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GBE

@JayRon 2003 - film or digital?  I sure do like the digital world.  Sounds like it's time for you to go back.  

 

We found trekking for mountain gorillas to be much more strenuous with hilly terrain, sloppy mud, and nettles. On top of that, I think 4 of the 5 treks we did in Virunga and Volcanos were at least 1 1/2 hours just to get to the group and then some moving to stay with them.  The terrain in the basin is virtually flat.  Even the hills are relatively flat.  

 

@kilopascal I think I'll follow your example and get in the habit of reading TRs with my morning coffee.  Seems like a great way to start the day.

 

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JayRon

@GBE I am a slow learner so back in 2003 I was still using film. But digital is just so much better... And yes, I would love to do a trip like yours. Just need to count my pennies ;)  

 

Looking forward to next installment :) 

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  • 3 weeks later...
AKR1

Fascinating report of a truly far away and wild destination few of us will ever visit @GBE. Thanks for doing this- your narrative in particular illustrates the scenes perfectly. Hope to read more on your trip. when you get a chance. 

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GBE

1/10 continued… On to Lango

 

Worlds apart, Ngaga and Lango. This is one of the incredibly special characteristics of Odzala, such dramatic shift in environment and experience within a relatively short 2 to 2 ½ hour drive. This is a place we would have welcomed an additional day.

 

From Mboko lodge we drove the short distance to the Lekoli river. We set out in kayaks, Terese and I sharing a double. The current was strong and surface smooth. In a matter of minutes, we were around the first bend; It was just us, the river, the trees hanging out over the river, bird calls, the drip off a paddle from the occasional stroke to steer. Knowing how special these first few minutes would be, we think Clem intentionally avoided conversation, having prepped us on following close behind him and where he wanted us in the channel before pushing off. This is a very special experience, literally floating into another world.

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About 20 minutes in, we pulled to the opposite shore where there was a clearing. Evidently a common access point for elephants, but none to be seen. Another 20 minutes or so down river we paddled out of the Lekoli and started up the Lango. The current was nominal and despite needing to paddle it was still quite relaxing. Whereas there was limited view beyond the banks of the Lekoli, the Lango was much more open with views across the marshes and up side channels. Another 20 minutes or so we reached a small island where we tied off the kayaks and walked/waded the rest of the way.

A 54 second video of the paddle down the Lekoli and up the Lango https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBiXaZbGyKM

 

For the next 45 minutes or so we waded through clear, calf deep water with firm gravelly footing to mucky, ankle to knee deep water with mud thick enough to make a good effort at sucking your boots off your feet, to the occasional dry ground.  Walking against the current in places added another level of balance challenge; But what an experience! We kept our distance as we worked around a group of buffalo. They are somewhat accustomed to people on foot, but guides don’t carry firearms in Odzala and/so we gave them a wide berth out of an abundance of caution.

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A 42 second video of the wade and comment from Clem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfFLxdvSx78

 

We saw motion in the distance… Staff from Lango camp bringing welcome drinks to the dock. As we got closer, we also watched an elephant coming from the other direction at about the same distance from the dock as we were. As we each got closer, the camp crew retreated down the boardwalk. As Clem explained, the locals experience with elephants is as dangerous and destructive animals. They don’t share our ‘inexperienced’ interest in up close and personal viewing. Out of caution, we picked up our pace a bit in order to get to the dock well ahead of the elephant… While not as dramatic as some video taken from vehicles, this 96 second cell phone video of the mock charge was still quite exhilarating:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ThTw3_wC9c

 

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After the elephant moved on, we enjoyed sun-downers as we took off our wet boots and socks and zipped off the lower section of our pants (perhaps the first time we truly benefited from this apparel feature). We enjoyed the waning sunlight and then walked the couple hundred yards along the boardwalk and up the stairs to the secure lodge area. All Lango camp is elevated and, as long as we stayed on the upper decking, we could roam without escort.  The only predator of concern in the area is hyena and they keep to the ground. Lango facilities are very similar to Ngaga with the primary difference being the views over the bai.

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The approach to and from the lounge, dining area, and view deck.

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The lounge area                                                                                                                 The dining area

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The sun-downer and viewing deck with dock at center of image.

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A 73 second, 360* video from the deck: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dVbphkjCH88.028

 

 

We were surprised by the lack of pictures taken of our room, suffice to say it was very comfortable…

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After getting settled and showered we enjoyed our time on the main observation deck.  As dusk settled, elephants came into view.  After dinner we enjoyed spotting scorpions in the trees, they reflect almost florescent. Then, back to our room and in bed by 9ish. 

 

This was a pretty incredible day.  Starting off tracking gorilla, experiencing a Congo basin rain torrent, paddling the Lekoli river, and wading up the Lango Bai!

 

1/11 – A day at… Make that “IN” Lango Bai

 

Our morning view from our room deck as we awoke and started gathering our gear for the day. 

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Over breakfast we enjoyed watching some elephants in the bai.

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We went back out the boardwalk to the dock, stepping off into the bai and heading down stream, backtracking the route from our arrival the previous day; It was so much easier going with the current. We veered off the original course and into some taller grass and intermittent dry and ankle-deep water. The footing was good, and we were able to look around while walking. Lot’s of sounds, smells, and varied texture of grasses, trees, flowing and still water, and the ever-changing greens as the sun rose and mist lifted. We passed some buffalo but otherwise didn’t see any other mammals.

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One of our objectives was the Bongo Saline Bai. To get there we needed to work our way through a relatively long stretch of Mimosa. Mimosa is cool in that it is a sensitive plant, i.e. if you brush the leaves, they pull in to protect themselves. It is also not so cool as they have thorns that cling. While they don’t tend to filet skin like an Acacia thorn, they do add a layer of annoyance and challenge to balance by grabbing and holding on to pretty much anything they touch. The only way through is wading channels created by elephants. In some places the brush is so thick it tends to close in over the top of you.  It really is something to experience.

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Bongo Saline Bai was mostly dry. We poked around a bit hoping to get a glimpse of Sitatunga. Lots of tracks but no sightings. There is an incredible tree trunk and vines that provided a tree climbing moment.

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We also picked wild limes for the cook. They were good in our GnTs too! We continued on through a mix of elephant trails, some dry, some ankle to calf deep.  It’s great walking on elephant trails as they provide smooth, firm footing as well as space through the lush, swampy underbrush and forest.

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In a dry forested section, we came upon some Red Forest Hogs. Hard to believe they didn’t hear us sooner, but when they did, off they ran, too quick and too much underbrush for worthy images.

 

Continuing, we came to a section of trail referred to as ‘deep path.’  This section wound through the forest for around 200 – 300 yards. As the video demonstrates, the very middle of the path provides solid footing. Step to the side more than a couple of steps, perhaps the width of an elephant’s gait, and disaster. If the mud isn’t enough to make passage impossible, the thickness of undergrowth would. The primary worry here is confronting an elephant. We didn’t encounter an elephant but did need to hold our position for about 10 minutes waiting for a buffalo to move on from our deep path exit.

I'm a little over 6' 1" and T is 5' 7"...  deep path indeed!

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Buffalo at our exit... almost exactly center in the image.

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A 59 second video through the deep path, with a demonstration of the near impossibility of leaving the center of the channel, and the eventual passing from our exit by the buffalo:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWFuHtUbQWU

 

We continued through forest, tall grass clearings, and more forest until coming out directly across the bai from Lango lodge. 5 minutes later we’re stepping up onto the dock and striping out of our wet boots and socks for our bare foot walk back to the lodge and our room.

 

When we got up to the dinning and viewing area there were all kinds of hustle and bustle. Turned out the rumors of the Minister of Forest Economy and her entourage (40 people +-) would be arriving soon for lunch. It was funny as we were asked if it would be ok, would we want to join them, would we want to sit apart… In the end, after all the prep, they changed their plans and stayed at Mboko instead of coming out to Lango. We enjoyed a tremendous assortment of traditional Congolese foods. We were stuffed! While Clem offered to take us on another walk, we opted to relax and digest, clean and sort gear for our transfer to Dzanga the next day, and simply sit and gaze out over the bai.

 

The family we’d met at Ngaga arrive late afternoon. Through the evening and over dinner we shared our stories of gorilla tracking and swamp walking. Later we had a really enjoyable time with just Clem, Alice, and Elizabeth talking about their various guiding experiences.

 

1/12 – Guess Who’s Coming to Breakfast… and Going Deeper Still!

 

We rose early, in part to catch the sunrise… not a bad view at all!

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We also got up early to see the other guests head out on their trek into the bai. As we were bidding them farewell, we learned that the Minister had decided to have breakfast at Lango Bai. So much activity. We were on a fixed timeline to get back to Mboko and on to the airstrip. Rather than wait to have breakfast with the Minister (not that I think we would have been invited to dine at table anyway) we were set up at our own table and started our breakfast just before the first wave of people arrived.

 

Not a bad view for breakfast!

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It really was something to see between the protection detail, media, park officials, and the various other members of her entourage.  As we learned, seating and vehicles were limited and there was a clear pecking order of who was in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd wave of attendees. We enjoyed the show and occasionally shot a picture, though we weren’t certain if it was OK or not. A French guest asked us why we were there and if we believed the forests should be protected. Seems she was a ‘contributor’ to the cause of protecting the forests. 

 

Not quite as serene, but interesting none the less.

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Clem informed us a vehicle was available and we should go without delay. Too much hustle and bustle to say thank you and give our regards to the team.  Clem assured us they would understand. As we walked to the vehicle he explained that the way back to Mboko involved a short drive, followed by a 10 – 15 minute walk on a boardwalk through a swamp, and across the Lekenie River to Mboko.  From there we would take another vehicle to the airstrip. His concern was that all of the vehicles on the Lango side had been commandeered to transport the Minister and her group.  Fortunately, Joel, the CCC manager of all three camps, had secured a vehicle for us. In the vehicle we climbed, double checked our bags, and then… nothing. Clem flipped the ignition switch and nothing. He pushed a button or two and tried again, nothing. A couple more pushes of this, pulling of that, flipping the switch, and nothing. He lifted the hood and looked around but didn’t see anything obvious. After about 5 minutes he trotted up the trail and got Joel. Joel went through the same process, and nothing. They both thought it had something to do with the antitheft cut out switch, as if theft in Odzala would be a problem. Joel knew what needed to be done. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his multi-tool:  Is it the green wire? No, the red. Wait, could it be the blue wire? Sure enough, we hear him sniping wires under the hood. Clem tried the ignition again and, nothing. Joel said he’d be right back and trotted up the trail toward the lodge. Fidgeting and checking his watch, Clem tried again; and we had ignition! Not chancing anything, Clem put it in gear and off we went. We learned later he was supposed to wait for another driver to join us so the cruiser could be returned. I’m sure they worked it out.

 

Staff from Mboko met us at the boardwalk to carry our bags. We did double time to the lodge and had time to freshen a bit, have some coffee, take pictures of the Ministers transportation from Brazzaville, and then off to the airstrip.

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The CCC contracts to have the plane and pilots stationed at the Mboko airstrip. This charter is for supplies, transporting clients and staff, and for emergencies. The pilots were there and ready for us. We’d be their only passengers for the 40-minute flight to Kabo.  It was quiet at the airstrip…

Terminal

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and gate

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We smiled to ourselves as they gave us our pre-flight briefing, “same as when we flew up from Brazzaville”  followed by letting us know we were welcome to move from one side to the other for pictures, which side was generally better, and that we were welcome to get refreshments out of the cooler if we wanted. 

 

This flight stayed low enough for us to see the top of the canopy, bais, rivers, and the occasional road. Shortly after taking off there were very few clearings or bais and we really did start to see the sea of green for as far as we could see. Here and there would be a red or white trees among the many greens. The Sangha river came into view about 10 minutes before landing in Kabo.

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This was Clem’s first trip to Dzanga and Sangha Lodge. He was traveling with us in part because transferring via boat and clearing immigration along the way was still fairly new and because he would be filling in for one of the guides at Sangha Lodge in about a month and this trip was ‘in the field training.’  This really added to our experience as Clem was experiencing all of this for the first time, applying his experience and knowledge as a guide on the fly, and to a certain extent being a client right alongside us.

 

We were met at the Kabo airstrip by another CCC staff person. They loaded us into their truck and drove us to clear… police? Military? Immigration? In Kabo we met with two different officials in two separate ‘office buildings.’  It probably took about an hour from the airstrip to get through the checks and down to the river. The flight was a mere 40 minutes. Motoring up the Sangha would take close to 5 1/2 hours.  And deeper we go...

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Treepol

@GBE you had the most exciting camp transfers I have heard. The bai view from the decks is pure magic.

 

Really enjoying your TR.

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AKR1

The videos bring the narrative and stills alive. Great idea and execution to put in small clips with the running time clearly labeled. Truly deeper & deeper into the bush- pristine wilderness here. Thanks for taking the time & effort to do this. 

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