If you think you know Africa, come to the Congo for a perspective-altering experience. The Odzala Expedition. Here, your mind is blown by the sheer vastness of the Congo Basin and your lungs are filled by the freshest air in the world. Between rainforests, savannahs, rivers, mineral-rich baïs and swamps, you undertake an epic adventure of gorilla-trekking, game drives, boating, kayaking, forest walking and river-wading to discover rare and endangered species.
I've tried to share as much about this incredible wilderness experience in this post but, what I can say is that the images and text don’t showcase many of the breathtaking moments I've shared with guests whilst walking along hundred year old elephant boulevards, sipping on cold G&T’s enhanced with wild ginger picked form the forest, sitting waist deep in water whilst photographing forest elephants and buffalo, the peace and serenity of drifting down the Lekoli river in a kayak or the hot coffee enjoyed on the deck at Lango camp whilst searching for forest elephant.
This truly is an expedition like no other...
Background of the Odzala Expedition
I’ve been typing with the idea of a trip up to central Africa for some time now and was originally looking at a beautiful setup in the Central African Republic but there were several aspects of this trip which just made me feel very uneasy. I recently came across the new company managing the Congo Conservation Company and Discovery Odzala Camps and having returned from our first trip to the region in February 2019, am comfortable that they provide a safe and world class experience.
Located in the north-west region of the Republic of the Congo; Odzala Discovery Camps operate 2 camps inside the pristine Odzala-Kokoua National Park, and a 3rd on a private concession bordering the park (Ngaga).
Quick Facts about the Odzala Expedition
- Odzala-Kokua National Park is larger than the Bahamas, Jamaica or Puerto Rico, or the same size as three and a half thousand soccer fields!
- To circumnavigate the Park on foot would take almost six months – of course no one has tried
- The region has been a National Park since 1935, making Odzala a senior member within the protected areas in Africa and one of the oldest national parks on the continent.
- Odzala is part of the Congo Basin in which the world’s second largest rainforest is found – only the Amazonian rainforest is larger.
- A distinctive feature of Odzala are the baïs. Like islands these clearings lie in the middle of an ocean of trees: marshy areas typically between one and ten hectares in size. Even the shiest inhabitants of Odzala come here to drink. Gorillas and forest elephants leave the protection of the forest in search of the precious minerals and salts contained in the baï soils.
- Some seventy villages lie around Odzala, some with just a handful of inhabitants, while others such as Mbomo have several thousand residents. The local people are primarily Bantu and forest dwellers (pygmies).
This vast, wild region, with its wide range of landscapes, is home to an incredible diversity of life. It holds globally significant populations of Western Lowland Gorilla and Forest Elephant as well as a plethora of other species: 430 bird species and more than 100 mammal species of which around 50 are classified as medium- or large-sized. It has the highest number (11) of diurnal primates for any forest block in central Africa, as well as central Africa’s highest density of Chimpanzees. A primary feature is the occurrence of “bais” or salines. These are swampy, grassy clearings in the otherwise dense forest that forest wildlife visit on a regular basis in order to drink, feed on sedges and grasses, and obtain minerals and salts.
These bais range in size from less than a hectare to more than ten hectares and represent the best chance of seeing forest wildlife. The bais we visit in Odzala-Kokoua are relatively small and as a result offer the opportunity for close up viewing of various species. Other species include Forest Buffalo, Leopard, Bongo, Giant Forest Hog and Hippo. Clouds of spectacular butterflies are characteristic of the region. The trees are spectacular: ancient giants well over 50 metres tall emerge from the canopy, delicate orchids cling to the branches, while the forest floor is littered with an incredible array of pods, fruits, flowers and fungi.
- 1 Night Radisson Blu Hotel Brazzaville
- 3 Nights Ngaga Camp
- 2 Nights Lango Camp, Odzala-Kokua National Park
- 2 Nights Mboko Camp, Odzala-Kokua National Park
The Odzala Expedition begins with a two hour flight North from Brazzaville which will see you landing at the Mboko Airstrip in the Odzala-Kokua National Park before embarking on a 2 hour road transfer in an ope game viewer to Ngaga Camp, the first stop on the Odzala Expedition.
Ngaga Camp - 3 Nights
Ngaga Camp is in the Ndzehi Forest on the western boundary of Odzala-Kokoua National Park and consists of 6 rooms beautifully constructed from natural materials such as locally woven raffia palm panels. The rooms are raised on 3 - 4 meter stilts and have 360° wraparound viewing walkways that connect with the main area. The camp has a dining room, lounge, and bar area all on raised decks looking out into the rainforest. Pre-dinner drinks are served on the “star deck” with fire pit which is a dropped deck below the main area. Guests can enjoy post forest walk drinks, cocktail parties or private dinners on the river deck which is located on the Ngaga stream.
The main activity at Ngaga Camp is tracking Western lowland gorillas. Led by skilled local trackers, and with expert guides to interpret the sights and sounds of the forest, you will use the network of forest trails to get close to some of our nearest living relatives in the wild, and observe their behavior as they go about the daily business of being a gorilla.
Gorilla Tracking expeditions typically leave on foot from Ngaga although they may involve a short drive depending on where the gorillas are.
The marantaceae forest which is favoured by the gorillas also supports an incredible array of life of every shape and size. Walking the forest trails you will feel as though you have stumbled into one of the workshops of evolution. However experienced a safari-goer you may be, Ngaga is certain to surprise and delight you.
At intervals throughout the year the gorillas also seek out fruiting trees within the forest. Lowland gorillas are very at home in the trees, which can provide some very special sightings.
Expeditions do not cover enormous distances and can range in length from 1 to 8 kilometres (0.5 to 5 miles) over undulating country. The undergrowth can be thick, however, and including the time spent with a gorilla group, excursions can last between 2 and 8 hours (including time spent with the gorillas). Please note that although every effort is made, gorilla viewing cannot be guaranteed.
Gorilla Viewing Protocols
Gorilla viewing protocol is based on the guidelines issued by the IUCN for great ape viewing and is very similar to that of Rwanda/Uganda. Protocols are designed specifically to limit stress and behavioural impact and also potential disease transmission from humans to gorillas. They are critical for gorilla conservation.
- Minimum age for gorilla viewing is 15 years – this is for reasons of safety, but also to guard against possible disease transmission as children under this age are more prone to infection.
- We do not approach closer than is 7 metres (22 feet) to the gorillas and we typically view the animals at 10- 15 metres (32-50 feet).
- Maximum viewing duration of any group is one hour per day.
- Maximum number of guests per gorilla tracking excursion is 4, plus a guide and local tracker to make a maximum group size of 6.
- Guests that display cold, flu or other respiratory tract symptoms will not be allowed to track gorillas. Your camp manager will speak with you about what to do if you are sick and cannot go out on your gorilla trek.
- No food or drinks may be consumed when near the gorillas, but guides will carry water and snacks for rest stops.
- Smoking is not allowed.
- Although gorilla sightings and encounters are very reliable, viewing is dependent on variables such as weather and tracking conditions.
For gorilla viewing guests need to produce a medical certificate to prove they have been vaccinated against polio and measles, and are free from tuberculosis. A guide and skilled local tracker lead guests to 2 groups of habituated Western lowland gorillas. Please note that although every effort is made, gorilla viewing is not guaranteed. Birding walks and night walks are also possible.
Lango Camp - 2 Nights
Lango Camp is in the south-central part of the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, allowing easy access to a variety of habitats. There are 6 double rooms in camp (we will take up 5 of these) all built on 3-4 meter stilts overlooking the Lango Baï. The rooms are constructed of natural materials including locally woven raffia palm panels. The camp is connected by a series of raised walkways creating a treehouse-like atmosphere. There is a dining, lounge and bar area overlooking the baï, as well as a star deck where guests can relax and enjoy pre-dinner drinks or spend lazy afternoons watching the wildlife in front of camp.
Main activities focus on the baï, Lekoli River and surrounding savannah. Activities are a combination of walking and boating, while some driving may be required to get more remote places. River activities are done on foot or in an aluminium boat or kayaks. These activities can involve wading through streams and baïs.
Mountain biking between Mboko Camp and Lango Camp is available for guests who are fit and active. Adventure trails along the edges of forested areas give insights into the arboreal world. Look out for hyena, aardvark and serval on savannah game drives by day and night.
Mboko Camp - 2 Nights
Situated in an area of lush meadow-like savannah, frequented by forest buffalo, forest elephant and spotted hyaena, Mboko gives a sense of the scale of Odzala while also allowing you to focus on some of the smaller details: flowers and butterflies (depending on the season) can be seen in profusion. Mboko Camp, offers visitors breath-taking views of the interface between the tropical rainforest and grassland savannah where hundreds of towering termite mounds help create an otherworldly experience.
Mboko provides you with spectacular star-viewing opportunities before you fall asleep to the sounds of life-giving water flowing to meet the Congo River, and also offers access to nearby villages on the fringes of the Park, where you can met and interact with local people.
Additional Info on the Odzala Expedition
- Malaria: Yes, protection recommended. Please seek advice from your health professional.
- Yellow Fever: A Yellow Fever certificate is required when travelling to the Republic of the Congo.
- Vaccinations: For gorilla viewing, a medical requirements form must be completed by the guest’s doctor to confirm that they are free from measles, polio and tuberculosis, and in good health.
- Currency: Euro, US Dollar & Central Africa Franc
- Travel Visa: Required – prior to arrival recommended. Wild Eye and Odzala Discovery Camps will provide guests with a letter of invitation, which must be presented to the nearest embassy, or to the immigration authorities on arrival in Brazzaville.
Some Important Notes about the Odzala Expedition
- A fair level of fitness is required for this trip as we explore the region by foot almost each and every day. The walking is not strenuous and involves very little elevation but the humidity, lack of porters and muddy conditions do require a certain level of fitness.
- Insects are not that much of an issue outside of the sweat bees we encounter when trekking gorillas. Head nets are provided and these insects do not sting.
- You’ll need two pairs of good walking shoes – one for in and around camp to stay dry and another which will get wet during our bai explorations.
- This is a true wilderness experience and we were 3 out of 6 guests in 1.3 million hectares of wilderness so be sure to bring a sense of adventure with you!
- A maximum of four guests are allowed to accompany a local tracker and local guide on these treks. In order to keep the costs of this trip to a minimum we decided not to reduce the number of guests to 3 so that a Wild Eye Guide could accompany the group on each trek but to rather split the group up into two, a group of 3 and a group of 2 guests.
- Your host will present a detailed presentation on photographing the gorillas of the region on arrival at Ngaga Camp before your first trek.
- Group one will trek with the host on the morning of day 2 and group 2 will trek with the host on the morning of day 3.
- This means that each group will trek once by themselves and once with the host. Talking is not permitted in the sightings so we will make the most of our time in the pre-trek presentation and in the post trek Lightroom sessions to make sure you get the most out of each trek.
- When not trekking with me you may be accompanied by 2 guests who are not part of the Wild Eye group but this will most likely not be the case given that we will take up all of the rooms at each camp.
- There is an option of doing a 3rd trek on the morning we leave to Lango camp at a cost of $ 600 pp.
The Odzala Expedition certainly isn't for everyone but, if you are looking for an adventure like no other, and adventure into the most pristine and wild regions that Africa has to offer, then you simply cannot afford not to join us on the Odzala Expedition.