Odzala-Kokoua National Park has always intrigued me from the moment I first heard about it back in 2011. Ever since my first visit I simply cannot get enough of this very special piece of Africa and the Congo Basin.
On the 16th of March 2020, the Directors of Congo Conservation Company and SPAC (Sabine Plattner African Charities) Conservation Research suspended the arrival of all tourism into Odzala Discovery Camps in OdzalaKokoua National Park and Sangha Lodge in Dzanga-Sangha National Park. The clear purpose of the suspension was for protecting both the vulnerable local human populations in these remote and isolated areas, as well as the Western lowland gorillas, from the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the virulent spread of COVID-19 and recent cases of transmission from humans to gorillas in the San Diego zoo, the park managing authorities – African Parks, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) – have jointly agreed that the national parks in the Congo Basin remain closed until further notice. This decision has been made in consultation with the IUCN Section of Great Apes and adheres to IUCN Best Practice Guidelines for Health Monitoring and Disease Control in Great Ape Populations. Following on from this decision by the Park Management, the reopening date of Odzala Discovery Camps has been postponed from 26th April 2021 to 2nd September 2021.
The Odzala-Kokoua National Park and surrounding areas, which includes Congo Conservation Company’s gorilla tracking camp, Ngaga, has an estimated population of 50,000 Western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). Gorillas and humans share a 98% genetic sequence and these magnificent apes are as susceptible to disease as we humans are.
Odzala Discovery Camps have guests coming from all over the world, many of whom are arriving from countries affected by the pandemic. With the current protocol of wearing masks and keeping a minimum of 7m distance, the probability of gorillas getting infected directly by a tourist is not high.
The more likely scenario is that a tourist could infect one of our staff members and the infection then spreading into the local villages. This would put staff, communities and gorillas at risk. CCC, together with SPAC and other partners, is investigating the possibility of setting up accredited PCR or high-accuracy antigen testing at our Camps, which will support and benefit both the local community and allow for all guests to be tested on arrival and again before their international departure. The Directors aim to have this in place over the next few months to ensure that the targeted re-opening date may be reached.
Given this recent announcement, I found myself reminiscing about the experiences and moments shared with guests there in 2020 and 2019 and wanted to share some of those with you in this post.
Whilst the key focus of our time spent at Ngaga Camp is the Gorilla Trekking I have many fond memories of barefoot forest walks, night walks, enjoying ice cold beers and G&T's in the Ngaga stream and, believe it or not, even the sweat bee's. One could even argue that Ngaga Camp and the Gorilla viewing protocols in place here made wearing a mask "cool" way before the outbreak of Covid.
Lango Camp and Lango Bai, for me, are just as iconic an experience as tracking down Western Lowland Gorillas. The bai is a hub of activity and draws forest elephants, forest buffalo, harnessed bushbuck, red river hogs, Bongo, green pigeons, African Grey parrots and a wide variety of other species to the fringe of the forest and savannah.
One of my favourite memories from this part of Odzala Kokoua National Park has to be an afternoon spent lying flat in the shallow waters of the bai and photographing a herd of Forest Buffalo not more than 20m away from us.
You just never know what you're going to see when you head out on a walk from Lango camp but one thing is for sure, you know it will be an experience you'll never forget.
Mboko Camp is located on the edge of the Lekeni River, on the fringes of Savannah and riverine forest and, whilst it may not be in as impressive a location as Ngaga or Lango, holds its own charm and unique set of experiences.
Heading out on the Lekoli River by boat to explore the remote sections of the park have produced everything from spectacular sunsets right the way through to thrilling on-foot encounters with forest elephant.
As the final chapter of the adventure through the Odzala Kokoua National Park - Mboko delivers both the experiences as well as the much needed time to really sit back and digest all that one has encountered during the visit to the park.
I apologise in advance if you're getting a bit tired of hearing me go on and on about Odzala Kokoua national park but its one of those places that I believe every adventurous africa-loving traveller must experience once in their lifetime.
Given the recent challenges posed on conservation efforts in the region by Covid, now, more than ever, is the time to consider planning your visit to the Congo Basin in support of companies like the Congo Conservation Company and SPAC that are going above and beyond to ensure a sustainable future for both the wildlife and people that call this place home.