Congo Basin: October 2011. An endless carpet of lush green jungle stretches in all directions, as far as the eye can see. This was the view at 10,000 feet from our chartered plane as we flew into the Congo Basin in the southwestern tip of the Central African Republic (CAR). The view reminded me of several flights I have done over the Amazon basin in South America. Next to the mighty Amazon region, the Congo Basin contains the world's second largest expanse of undisturbed rainforest. A wonderland of nature that still has a number of areas considered "unexplored", the Congo Basin is home to the largest population of gorillas in Africa.
I was with a small group flying from Bangui, the capital of the CAR, to Bayanga, a town next to the Dzanga Sangha National Park. The Dzanga Sangha National Park is part of the huge, remote wilderness area called the Tri-State Protected Area. This large expanse of wilderness in the Northern Congo Basin, sprawls over the borders of three countries, the CAR, Congo Republic and Cameroon, in West-Central Africa.
Our small group consisted of 8 participants and our lead guide who is from neighboring Cameroon. We were flying in for a 12 day expedition into the jungles of the CAR and Congo Republic portions of this vast protected, but highly threatened area. Like my entire trip in Africa for the prior 2.5 months, this expedition had its share of bad luck and would not be the smoothest of journeys.
The CAR does not see lots of casual visitors. The wilderness area we visited gets even less, perhaps only about 300 visitors a year. The CAR is one of the least developed countries in the world and is often described as a failed state in permanent crisis. Its people are amongst the world's poorest.
The CAR has been in a continual state of instability for decades. Since independence from France in 1960, the country has been plagued with rebellions, mutinies, a proliferation of illegal weapons and a long running insurgency. At the present, the government is still battling a low-level insurgency in significant parts of the northern part of the country. This involves elements of the Lord's Resistance Army that emanate from Uganda (who have been waging a deadly, low-level insurgency in Uganda for over two decades), as well as other armed groups. The CAR hosts French troops and international peacekeepers to attempt to gain stability. Ugandan troops operate on CAR territory in opposition to the Lord's Resistance Army. Tens of thousands of CAR citizens are displaced, many having moved into neighboring Chad.
In other words, the CAR is a mess and not a top choice for many outsiders to visit.
For the visitor interested in nature, much of the CAR's natural wildlife attractions have been mercilessly decimated. Sudanese poachers and members of the Lord's Resistance Army, using AK-47s, have wiped out most of the large mammal life in the CAR. The exception is the region around the Tri-State Protected Area at the extreme southwest of the country. An extremely bio diverse area, this wilderness jewel has become a high profile project of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). It is most known for its high concentration of gorillas and forest elephants.
Our chartered flight landed on a dirt and grass strip near Bayanga village. Some locals were lingering about when we arrived. None of use paid much attention to them though. We quickly unloaded our gear into some waiting 4 wheel drive trucks. Soon we would all regret our lack of attention to those locals that were lingering around.
The 4X4s took us to the nearby dock on the Sangha River. From there we embarked downriver, in the scorching hot sun, on an 8 hour motorized canoe trip into the Congo Republic. Our destination would be Bomassa, a WCS research camp at the edge of the famous Noubale Ndoki National Park.
About 20 minutes after we had started on our canoe trip, the lead guide, Jean-Pierre called out to the boatman to turn around and return to Bayanga. Jean-Pierre had just realized that a special box with a chunk of our food supplies had not made it onto the canoe. Jean-Pierre was worried and suspected that our food box had been stolen by one of the locals lingering about our plane as we disembarked. This suspicion was confirmed when we got back to the dock in Bayanga: The food box was definitely gone. Since we were in such a remote place, there was no practical way to replace the foods lost. So we just got back on our canoe and took off without our breakfast and other food supplies. It was not an auspicious way to start our journey.
The motorized canoe ride down the Sangha River, a major tributary into the mighty Congo River, was uncomfortable. In the typical sub-Saharan African way, the canoe was a bare-bones deal: i.e. it was just a simple large canoe, with no sunroof or covering of any kind. This meant that the equatorial sun beat down on us mercilessly the entire time. Several of the participants had bad sunburns on their faces and exposed body parts for the first half of the expedition as a result.
5 hours downriver from our starting point, we came to the CAR river border checkpoint. Here Jean-Pierre warned us all to put away our cameras while he went over to the border agents and took care of business. This business naturally consisted of a straightforward payment (bribe) of 8 EUR for each expedition participant. Later when we crossed into the Congo Republic territory, we fortunately did not incur another similar expense. The Congo Republic does not bother to patrol its border on the Sangha River, since few visitors come into the country via this route.
Our first stop in the Congo Republic, the WCS research camp at Bomassa, seems to have done some remarkable conservation work. The leader of the camp is a German ex-pat named Thomas. He explained that when he first came there over a decade ago, the nearby village of Bomassa was primarily sustained by poaching and the bushmeat trade. This included the killings of gorilla and elephants (for ivory) from forest. However with patient and persistent effort, most of the village inhabitants now seem won over to the idea of conserving the animals. The village recently has been rapidly growing due to the steady and relatively good earnings from the small tourist business in the park. Its inhabitants have come to see that the gorillas, elephants and other animals are worth more alive than being sold dead on the black market.
However, progress is still not assured or total. Just 4 weeks prior to our visit, a large silverback gorilla had been killed by poachers — shot through the chest. As the ensuing investigation revealed, it had been the Village Chief, who was also a WCS staff member for Thomas, that had illegally sold the gun used in the crime to a "hunter". The hunter, it seems, was a safari tourist who just wanted to kill a gorilla. He apparently offered enough money to the Village Chief for the Chief to decide to give him the gun used for the crime.
Thomas also said that it is now illegal to hunt bushmeat (i.e. other animals besides gorillas, elephants, and a couple of other protected species), but bushmeat hunting still continued. For the inhabitants who live in forest villages, this was a primary source of animal protein and practically impossible to stop completely.
I asked Thomas if there was any handicraft trade for the small amount of tourists that come to Bomassa. I was personally interested in buying some masks as presents for some kids back home.
No such thing existed yet, Thomas said. First, there just were not enough tourists. And, the skills needed for handicrafts were non-existent since the inhabitants made livings by poaching, and the ivory and bushmeat trades in the recent past, as mentioned above.
Early the next day we were off to our first big objective. This would turn out to be the best part of the expedition for me. We went to another WCS research camp called Mondika, where we would have the best opportunity of the whole trip to see lowland gorillas. The forest around the Mondika camp and our next stop along the way, the Mbelli Bai, were considered the most pristine areas in Central Africa. The last known exploitation of the forests in these areas was about 1000 years ago, according to researchers.
Getting to Mondika was a real chore. It was approximately a 10 km walk (about 6.2 miles) through dense rainforest and swamp. One stretch through the swamp involved wading for a half hour through water that was up to thigh high. For me, normally a hike like this is nothing too challenging. But since I was in a knee brace, due to an injury that required surgery (which I did in South Africa right after the expedition), schlepping through the swamp was a lot of work.
The main draw at the Mondika camp is the two habituated gorilla groups that live in the forest. The Alpha Male Silverback (dominant male and leader of its gorilla group) of one of the groups is a "famous" gorilla, named Kingo by the local pygmies. Very large at approximately 250 kilograms in weight (550 lbs) and an aggressive fighter, Kingo had become quite used to people. He was featured once in a story by National Geographic and also in several documentaries on gorillas and the Congo Basin Forest where he lived.
We spent two days and nights at the Mondika camp. I did three gorilla treks, two involving Kingo's group. It was pretty impressive seeing the gorillas in the wild. At certain times, we were literally only about 5 meters from them (16 feet).
While the gorillas were spectacular at our time in Mondika, the food was not. For laughs, I started keeping notes of what we had to eat. I figured I'd show this to some friends that are fine food buffs back home, in case they were curious what one eats on a trip like this. For the five days we spent in the Congo Republic, our breakfast consisted of bland white bread, margarine, jam, liquid chocolate, tea and coffee. One day a couple of cans of tuna were available. Lunches and dinners also were mostly empty starches — white bread and white pasta, with a small piece of chicken or smelly fish thrown in along with lentil beans.
Usually, on remote trips like this, I like to bring my own supply of nuts and dried fruit along to keep up good nutrition. But for weight limitation purposes, I only had a smallish bag of dates, a small bag of raisins and an equally small bag of mixed nuts on this trip. So, to ration out what seemed luxurious treats on this expedition, I apportioned for myself 6 dates, one fingerfull of raisins, and ten nuts each day. This little feast only lasted through day 6, when I ran out!
After Mondika, we did a long hike back through the swamp, and then a two hour canoe ride up a stream to another camp. This was near a well-known bai called Mbelli. A bai is a natural clearing in the forest with small lakes or patches of water. It is where animals congregate to get water. The Mbeli Bai is well-known amongst researchers as a rare and excellent place to wait and view lowland gorillas in the open. An elevated wooden two story veranda is set up on the edge of the Mbeli Bai. Here, researchers have been keeping records of the animals that pass through the bai for the past 16 years. However, we had bad luck. Virtually no animals, and not a single gorilla, came to Mbeli Bai on our day there, so the effort was a bust.
A memorable and not-so-pleasant event for me at the Mbeli camp was being attacked by ants. My roommate, an Italian bodybuilder and wildlife photography buff named Max, and I were both walking to our cabin in the dark after dinner. The cabin was a simple structure on high stilts down a short path from the dinner building.
Along the way, we both unknowingly stepped into a stream of ants crossing the path of the way to our cabin. We knew about the ants a minute later though. As I got up to the veranda by the entrance to our room, I started feeling small biting and burning sensations on my legs. I reacted quickly by pulling up my pant legs and trying to brush off the ants. However, this was futile. The ants just kept coming up and soon were in my pants and crawling up my back. Without hesitation, I flung off my hike boots, socks, shoes and shirt right there on the veranda. This allowed me to brush off the ants. Max did a similar panicked withdrawal from his clothes. The next half hour was spent on the veranda laboriously killing every surviving ant we could see to prevent a nighttime invasion into our room.