Travel update: Drinking Um Bongo in the Congo

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” 
– Hunter S. Thompson

The more I visit Africa the longer my bucket list gets, however for my latest adventure I was heading straight to the top of the list and heading to the Congo. I imagine this will conjure a mixed bag of responses (as it did from my family and friends) however for me this was a trip of a lifetime. Only for the adventurous the Congo is an exploration to rival all others. From wading belly button high in dark muddy waters to snipping your way through leafy canopies, from looking at an army of head banging termites to sitting among a group of western lowland gorillas, the Congo is a truly wild place where you can feel like one of Africa’s original explorers. Only you have talented and knowledgeable guides to explain your discoveries and you can sit back and relax in luxurious rooms when your feet tire and the sun sets.

Pushing the boundaries of a normal safari, the Congo is a true wilderness area where you leave the vehicles behind and discover what it has to offer on foot. Manoeuvring along elephant and gorilla pathways, through shallow rivers, deep muddy plains and among the vast tree roots of the rainforest you discover the incredible life within the rainforest from tiny beautifully coloured fungi to the huge majestic forest elephants. It has to be made clear this is not a place to go and see the big five or lots of game, here is a place to appreciate the little things you may have missed when in search for the more famous animals. The treks through the forest and to see the gorilla can be strenuous but are always immensely rewarding and of course when you return to camp the staff are only too happy to help you relax those soggy feet with cool beers, hot showers and hearty and delicious meals.

From the moment we arrived in the jungle we were all wide eyed and ready to explore. The Congo is a fascinating place for me because it would be a place of firsts again. Despite having trained as a guide in South Africa and had many visits to east Africa, here I would be exploring new landscapes and seeing different species for the first time. When you watch a toddler running around you often marvel at their levels of energy, running around until they fall asleep from exhaustion. However when you have the fun of seeing everything for the first time you don’t want to stop until you see it all-or fall asleep. For me this was the jungle in the Congo. Whilst the jungle treks are long, hours pass and seem like minutes as you learn about an undiscovered world.

We landed in the Congo on a rather cloudy Thursday in Brazaville staying in the incredibly luxurious Radisson Blu. For all those nervous as to whether you can have your normal luxury safari comforts in the wild of the Congo the hotel name alone should provide some comfort. In a rather paradoxical fashion the Radisson Blu is a buzzing cosmopolitan paradise, with two restaurants, a pool, spa, hairdressing salon and nightclub it is very city chic. A great place to relax after a long flight or a jungle exploration it has every modcon you could wish for allowing you your city comforts before your jungle adventure.

We took a short flight to Olombo before a road transfer to Etoumbi where Odzala have a hotel you can stay in before you embark on your jungle trek. Due to it being refurbished we chose to carry on with the 4 hour journey into the wilderness. We swapped the minibus for landrovers and met our guides for the trip Alon & Andreas, with darkness fast approaching we crossed the river on by boat into the jungle. It is a long journey to the Odzala camps but if you are lucky you will see the bustling village life as you pass through various communities, some even with their own lit up pubs and dance floors. The further you travel the more it becomes a game drive and even in the dark we managed to find a few giant pouched rats which we found pretty exciting. We arrived around 11pm to a delicious curry and quick camp briefing before hitting bed.

Waking up in the jungle was incredible, the cabins at Mboko are right on the riverside and hidden among the forest itself. With monkeys in the trees and butterflies everywhere you feel as if you are in the heart of Africa. With 12 chalets Mboko is the biggest of the camps, the main area has a large sundeck overlooking an open grassland and huge termite mounds which is frequently visited by elephants and a great place for birding. Here we embarked on our first jungle walk. Throwing us in the deep end we waded through a large body of water before we even got into the trees, a good indication of what was to come we came to just asking Alon each morning how high the water would be on our walk, or for one of the more nervous of the group ‘would his pants get wet’? The answer was always yes!

The jungle is truly a magical place, with the tree canopy high above you letting in dappled light to the forest floor. Concentrating on the smaller flora and fauna, we made our way through the forest floor tracking a bush pig using only animal pathways to manoeuvre through the trees. Stopping to look at the amass of beautiful fungi, flowers and colourful insects, listening to bird calls, desperate for a glimpse through the foliage and learning how to both look at your surroundings yet hop over tree roots in low lighting. After a sweaty run around we returned to camp for lunch before embarking on an afternoon boat cruise where we spotted our first forest elephants, quite magical as the sun set, cold beer in hand these unique and elusive beasts allowed us to watch as they peacefully fed by the river. It must be noted that the Congo is not for the faint hearted when it comes to insects. You may notice from the many pictures that I am somewhat fond of them, however I do not hold a special place in my heart for them all. Due to the wet conditions mosquitos are abundant, as are tsetse flies, make sure you take precautions-plenty of bug spray, plenty of antihistamine cream – you will need it.

Our next adventure was between Mboko and Lango camp. Embarking on a canoe trip down the river we paired up, I thankfully with a local guide who pretty much let me use this as a lazy lagoon due to my lack of paddling skills. Gently drifting down the river we managed to see forest elephant hiding amongst the riverside foliage, a male chimpanzee checking us out, water buffalo, many species of birds and some wild limes which we stopped to pick-apparently we were running low for our G&Ts.

When the river got too shallow to paddle we tied up the kayaks and continued on by foot, the mud was deep but the cool water was actually a welcome revive from the muggy weather. If you don’t like getting your feet or your pants wet-this is not the place for you but I must stress it is totally worth it and most of our adventurous clients I think would thrive on the experience. Passing herds of buffalo and huge flocks of grey parrots we suddenly came across a clearing with a shallow salt bai and a large luxurious lodge! We trampled on welcomed by cold face cloths and a refreshing drink. An exciting exploration you truly feel as if you are in the middle of nowhere exploring undiscovered wilderness-of course many people have already walked these paths – Alon our guide for example regularly makes his own little exploration routes ready for the next set of guests but he is very good at not spoiling our intrepid explorer illusion!

Once here we embarked on more jungle walks through the forest following old elephant pathways which now acted as shallow streams or animal highways. We found head banging termites, colourful fungi, a rather terrifying and thankfully dead whip spider, moustached monkeys and a rather grumpy water buffalo. Alon our guide sent us back with our other guide Teske to safely hide behind a tree mound whilst he rather bravely managed to encourage the bad tempered male to safely move on. If you would like a more relaxed afternoon Lango has an expansive viewing deck where you can relax and watch the flocks of parrots and palm vultures coming down to drink, elephants wander by or the resident buffalo Herbert grazes, if you are very lucky you may see some of the river hogs, bush pigs or even a Bongo visiting the salty bai. We had a lovely sighting of a bull elephant come right past the decking as we had sundowners.

After a magical jungle experience it was off to see the main attraction the gorillas at Ngaga Camp. After a brief struggle up the muddy hill, with expert distraction techniques of butterfly identification and photographic opportunities we made it. Similar to a treehouse the main lodge is raised so you can look down the valley over the tree tops as troops of monkeys swing by, lizards sunbathe and birds fly overhead. It was here we met Dr. Magda Beremejo who has been studying the gorillas in this area for 17 years! Having habituated 2 families and on her way to a third she knew all 24 families in the area as well as some satellite males, using camera traps and daily observations from her local team, it was an absolute privilege to be able to chat to her about our experiences on our treks as well as showing us some incredible footage of the gorillas, chimps and the elusive leopards in the area.

We started off early in the morning having a quick cup of coffee and a snack before meeting our local guide Gabin along with Andreas who would take us on the trek. Andreas is an absolute gift to the lodge, apart from being over 6ft tall enabling him to cut away a decently heighted pathway through the vegetation he was also able to expertly communicate what our guide wanted us to do. We were warned we would have to work for our sightings so we were expecting a long trek and probably through thick vegetation however it seemed almost as soon as we had started we were told to crouch down and put on our masks. Still faffing over our fogging up lenses and getting our masks on, the whole family of gorillas passed in front of us crossing the pathway we were on including the huge silverback male who protectively waited for the family to cross before moving on. Still on a massive high from the sighting Gabin started snipping his way into the vegetation following the gorillas. He does this using ‘secateurs’ which you could only describe as tough nail scissors. Gently clearing a small tunnel aided by Andreas who thankfully cleared a taller tunnel we started the chase. Fighting off the sweat bees and popping on our attractive head nets we would trundle after our guides with Andreas helpfully pointing out a pretty insect or interesting plant along the way to keep our spirits up before Gabin would point to a tree and there would be one of our gorillas. It seemed only 5 minutes before our hour was up and it was time to journey back to the lodge. Gabin and his colleagues will spend all morning and afternoon with the gorillas noting their behaviour, movements and condition reporting back to Magda in the evenings.

Back for showers and refuelling, your afternoons can be used to explore the area which unlike the other camps isn’t quite as damp, hugely noticeable by the declining mosquito bites and presence of dry feet! Off on our forest adventures we were determined to find pangolins, leopards and monkeys. We sadly didn’t but I can’t say it spoilt our bush walks. We found a group of bright swaying spikey caterpillars, huge varieties of butterfly, lots of monkeys as well as hearing many birds, seeing lots of insects and learning about the different plants in this area.

We were lucky enough to embark on two gorilla treks whilst here. At Odzala they rather smartly decrease the price of the trek permits the more you do which is a cost effective way of encouraging guests to repeat the experience, the permits are also much cheaper than in Uganda and Rwanda. Our second trek was every bit as special-visiting the other family we had the joy of seeing a very young gorilla playing around and showing off before he tumbled down a vine and ran rather embarrassedly off to mum, a teenage male who made a loud show running past, a mother and tiny baby eating just in front of us and a rather sleepy older female who gently watched us as she summoned the strength to get up from her slumber in search of food with the rest of the group. Again just as before it seemed barely five minutes, although the thousands of photos taken did show a different timeline, before our hour was up and it was back to the lodge.

This afternoon we went back out for an adventure walk through the other side of the forest. After a short walk we were surprised by the lodge with a picnic and sundowners in the river! A beautiful scene it was a really special way to end our trip with our guides and camp manager Conrad. Odzala camps really do have incredible attention to detail, from the little helpful messages they pop in your room, to sweets for your treks, insect repellent (essential), to the warmth they create at each of the camps as they take care of you on your stay. As mentioned this was high on my bucket list and it surpassed every expectation I had. Although I came home looking a little like I had chicken pox (mosquito bites) I couldn’t stop taking about my adventure, the things I had seen and the people I had met. Whilst some of the activities may seem challenging or even a little scary your expert guides truly make you feel comfortable and your camp hosts make sure you are well looked after. It is not going to be for everyone however it is so rare to find a safe part of Africa that is relatively untouched by tourism. If this is something that interests you get in touch now and get out there before the masses do!

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