Trip Report: The Odzala-Kokoua National Park Expedition, Mboko Camp

This is part 3 of 3 in a series of posts outlining the highlights of the 2019 The Odzala Expedition. Be sure to read Part I and Part II before reading this post.

We had some down time to unpack, shower and change from our wet muddy clothes from the morning walk in Lango. We walked down the narrow path, past the beautiful termite hills that I talked about earlier on in this story, to the main common area.

After a delightful lunch, we had some well merited free time. The boys retired to their rooms and I sat in the cool breeze in the lounge downloading photos and gazing at the dambo (wetland) and forest in front of me. There were lesser stripped swallows flitting in and out, a buffalo grazing in the dambo and colourful agamas running over the wooden floors. It was a peaceful scene.

The afternoon activity was a boat ride along the Lekoli River, starting from the boat mooring station, where we had taken our kayaks from 2 days previously. Daniella’s partner Adriaan joined us for this activity. He is also a guide in Odzala where he has been working for more than 2 years. Like Daniella he is an excellent, professional and knowledgeable guide. He is also a formidable birder. He has a wicked sense of humour. Between the two of them, they make a great team! They are both guides that mark you and leave a strong imprint on. One wants to spend more time with them because, not only are they so good at what they do, but in addition, the combination of their ability to share their knowledge, their outstanding professionalism and knowledge of their environment (both fauna and flora) and their interpersonal skills are exceptional.

We set off in the vehicle along the dambo track. With his amazing bush eyes, Adi spotted the smallest pink Mantis on a flower. This is the tiniest Mantis I have ever seen and is a delicate shade of pink. We did some birding en route to the river. We drove through “Jurassic Forest waterway," a welcome coolness suddenly passing over us as we drove through the water in the shade of the thick forest canopy.

We boarded the tin flat bottom boat. We glided slowly through the water looking at the riverine forest for birds, crocodiles and maybe shy hippo. Although we saw hippo spoor we never saw them. From his perch at the boat engine, Adi saw a small herd of elephants in a forest clearing. We docked the boat into the high river banks and clamoured up. We walked quietly into the long grass as far as we dared go. We watched, in silence, 5 elephants feeding on the tall grass and bushes. Adi took us into the forest and we crept slowly up to the elephants, hiding behind the trees, so that they would not see us. We managed to get within about a 100 metres of them. We watched them for about 20 minutes. Suddenly the big bull got our wind and thundered off back into the thick forest. Elephants have bad eyesight and the others milled around raising their trunks smelling us. Their sense of smell is acute.


After a while they also wandered back into the forest. We returned to our boat and continued down the river. We glided past magnificent riverine forest, grassy swampy patches and a few sand banks. We had G&Ts with wild ginger, picked that morning in the forest, decorated with the beautiful fragrant white flower from the Berlina Welwitschii Tree, that grows along the river. We enjoyed the sun set over the Palm Tree Forest and grasslands. The blood red reflection in the water was stunning. We stopped to look at birds: kingfishers, bee-eaters, palm nut vultures and many others.

We found a big herd of Forest Buffalo wallowing in the river. We stopped to look at them and take some photos. It was a beautiful sight in the setting sun. As we drifted closer they swam back to the shore and took off into the forest.

Further down, when the sun was well below the horizon, we found a small herd of Forest Elephant drinking and cavorting in the river. We watched them greeting with their trunks curling around each other and a few squeals. Although photography was not easy in the evening darkness, the sight of these elephants having family time and playing, while totally oblivious to us, was certainly one of the many memorable highlights of our trip. Photography in the first dark of the evening was not easy, so we mostly just enjoyed this precious moment in life.

We boated back with a spotlight in search of a Pels Owl. We did not see one, but we did have a great sighting of a White-Backed Night Heron.

Raphael, our camp manager, joined us for dinner. He’s a very interesting young man.

He’s from Pointe Noire. He did his university studies with a Masters in Biology at Montpellier University in France. He was about to embark on a PhD when the opportunity of working in the hospitality area in Odzala came up. He seized this opportunity to work in his own country and learn about the area. It is giving him a great insight and opportunity to enhance his studies in biology research. It was an animated evening. He walked us back to our rooms. Unlike the other camps, where there are walkways, Mboko grass paths can be tricky with possibility of encountering buffalo and elephants in camp.
I fell asleep to the gentle music of the river flowing past my room.

Although during our 8 days we did not see some of the mammals I was hoping to see such as bongo, sitatunga, forest duiker, chimpanzees and the forest hogs, we did see lots of forest elephant and buffalo. I had never seen these species before.

African Forest elephants (Loxodonta Cyclotis) are smaller than the Southern Africa savanna elephants. They are an elusive and very shy subspecies of African elephants. They inhabit dense rainforests of west and central Africa. They are slightly small than savanna elephants and the size and shape of the skull and skeleton is slightly different, while their ears are more oval-shaped. Their tusks grow up to nearly 1.5 meters long and generally weigh between 50 and 100 pounds. Their tusks are thinner, straighter and shorter than the tusks of African Savanna Elephant which curve up, are thicker and much longer. Due to their shyness and living in dense forest areas, it is difficult to estimate the total population.

The African Forest Buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) is also known as the Dwarf buffalo and the Congo buffalo. It is the smallest subspecies of the African buffalo. It is related to the Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer), the Sudanese buffalo (Syncerus caffer brachyceros) and the Nile buffalo (Syncerus caffer aequinoctialis). However, it is the only subspecies that occurs mostly in the rainforest of central and western Africa.

The African forest buffalo is a smaller variety of the African buffalo. It has a reddish-brown hide that is darker in the facial area with white markings on the ears, while the bulls tend to be much darker and less reddish. The shape and size of the horns is much smaller than the savanna buffalo (Cape, Sudanese and Nile). The also move in much smaller herds than other buffalo species. Their home ranges are the savanna and marshes. The latter provide nutrients from the rich grasses, sedges and mineral salts and for wallowing and helping to rid their hides of insects and parasites.

In Lango bay they were covered with Yellow-billed ox-peckers. Sometimes these birds peck at their tails so much that the tails drop off. Their main predators are hyena and leopard.

Encroachment of the rainforest on the surrounding savanna and openings are major challenges for the park management in maintaining the ecosystem. In some areas the savanna is burnt on a regular basis to keep the rainforest from growing onto the savanna. After the burning rich green grasses grow which the forest buffalo love.

The main dangers to both the forest elephant and buffalo are poaching and deforestation.

Sunday 24 February (Mboko Camp. Boat trip down the Lekoli River. Mbouebe Bai and Swamp Walk)

As usual the day started at 5 a.m. We did not have a light breakfast as we usually do.

Daniella and Adriaan were eager to get away before sunrise to the boat launch. We would discover later in the morning the reason for this. We were just pushing the boat out in the dawn light, when Adi noticed a lone bull elephant in the water, about 100 metres from us. We walked through the water to get a better view of him. He was very chilled, being more interested in his fruit and leaf breakfast. We got some lovely photos of this unexpected scene.

In a small corner, on one of the Park Canoes, there was a Cassin’s Flycatcher nest with 2 beautiful bluish eggs in it. Mum flew off which gave us the opportunity of examining the nest more closely. It was made with leaves and bits of grass, but mostly with dragon fly wings, which was fascinating.

We drifted downstream and docked on a sand bank. Daniella led us into the grassy clearing and we began another bai walk. We walked through palm tree forests, water, mud, forests and tall grass. It was yet another interesting walk. We did not see much game, although there was a lot of spoor evidence. We examined the flora around us, wild fruit, grasses and flowers. We looked at the small beetles, dragonflies, caterpillars and other small insects. Birding was not that easy because they flew up and away very quickly.

Adi saw a beautiful orchid on the other side of a marshy swamp. He wanted to take a closer look at it and bring back a flower for us to examine. The next thing he was up to his chest in the inevitable black clinging mud and sinking deeper. We were a bit worried because this mud is like quick sand, it pulls you down. None of us could go to his rescue because we would end up in the same position. We had no ropes either to pull him out. In addition, he was carrying the surprise breakfast, which we knew nothing about, but which Danielle knew about. She was more worried about the ruck sack and breakfast, which was by now, half way in the mud! Adi finally managed to extricate himself from this potentially dangerous situation and came back to us. He was covered in mud from head to toe. We joked about it saying he had captured my speciality of “putting my foot into it” and sinking into the mud! Fortunately there was a clear stream near by where he was able to wash off the mud.

We continued this beautiful walk through long grasses and into a forest where there were hundreds of African Grey Pigeons flitting noisily in and out from the tree tops.

We walked to the edge of the forest and we looked onto Mbouebe Bai. What a stunning Bai with Palm Trees, many other trees, different green swamp grasses and bushes. We stopped here to admire this beautiful scenery in front of us. There were a few rocks that we could walk out on, but we were not able to traverse the marshy bai — the swamp mud was too dangerous. While we were admiring the scenery in front of us, Daniella very discreetly set up our breakfast. She surprised us with a delicious breakfast of fresh juices, coffee, fresh fruit, ham, cheese and little pastries. She had even brought an African Batique table clothe which she laid out on the ground. The African Grey Parrots where chattering above our heads in the trees. What a treat sitting in the middle of an equatorial rain forest swamp, Central Africa in the Congo, not far from the Equator, where no one comes and in an area little explored by man. It was one of those surreal awesome experiences that I will treasure forever.

We returned to the boat along tall grasses, waterways and forest. Mike, Andrew and I were under the magical charm of a bai walk with 2 young engaging guides who had done everything to make this walk another memorable experience. This safari has been charged with so many new experiences and emotions. We boated back quietly to the boat launch, each of us absorbed in wonderment at what we had just experienced.


I wish my vocabulary was more extensive to put into more descriptive words this amazing walk. It was one of many we did with Daniella on this safari. Each days activities and walks were different, but each one is strongly etched on my memory.

After lunch and some resting time, we went on our final boating activity. For my part, I just wanted to enjoy this last boat trip on the Lekoli River without taking photographs and just immersing myself in the scenery and the emotions of this newly discovered place, little explored slice of Africa and devoid of tourists. We are were all a bit tired after 8 full days of strenuous activity, not only from a physical point of view, but also from a mental point of view. We had been totally immersed into a new environment which we had to learn about, understand and absorb in such a short space of time. Our heads were full of information about the Odzala-Kokoua National Park: the richness of the ecosystem, the biodiversity, the complexities of conservation in this difficult environment, the political and financial constraints and especially the uniqueness and beauty of this place.

We headed out into the River, looking for birds and, if lucky, some game. It was a very pleasant afternoon and evening. The only irritation were the constant biting tsetse flies. They had been prevalent since leaving Mboko camp to kayak to Lango and during the ensuing days Nothing deters them. Two weeks later, after I was back in Johannesburg, I was till scratching their horrible red bites.

Although we saw a fair number of birds, we did not have much success with mammal sightings. We meandered down to the confluence of the Lekoli and Lango Stream.

Adi thought he had heard an elephant. The waterway was shallow so he pulled the boat along until we couldn’t go any further. He jumped out and waded about 25 metres up the steam. Sure enough there was a big lone bull elephant. He flagged us to come. We climbed out of the boat and waded in the stream up to our waists, carrying our cameras, to where Adi was standing. There at the water’s edge about 50 metres from us was a big bull Forest Elephant. The light was fading. He could see us and was uncertain about us for a while. He took off out of sight around some big bushes, but came out to our left on some muddy land. He was probably not more than 30 metres from us. We settled down on our bottoms in the water. We had become accustomed to sitting in water while photographing. It was an exciting moment and the elephant provided us with good photographic opportunities. He was not at ease with us being there and kept flapping his ears and sniffing us with his trunk.

Fortunately, the wind was in our direction. He lifted his foot as they do sometimes, when not sure whether to come at us or not. His ears were flapping forward and his trunk was waving in the air sniffing us out. Then suddenly with a scream he charged us. Adi, familiar with elephant behaviour, diverted him and stopped him in his tracks.

He moved his trunk and body from one side to the other, not sure of his next move.

He flapped his head and ears, raised his trunk and came at us again. Even if we were certain this was a mock warning charge to see what our reaction would be, this is a wild elephant and one doesn’t play around with them at such close quarters. Once again Adi managed to ward him off. He came at us again. We stood our ground, or should I say we remained stationary with our bums firmly sitting on the water bed.

Adi warded him off for a third time. We continued taking photos of this momentous elephant experience. He decided we were not threatening and wandered off out of sight into the forest. We waded back to our boat. It was dark. As we got to the boat, the elephant suddenly came out of the forest right behind our boat. He turned to look at us and then waded through the water in front of us on to the other side of Lango Stream. This was a fantastic and exciting end to our photographic safari.

We headed back to the boat launch in the light of our search light. We were exhilarated by this special and memorable experience. Each one of us was lost in our thoughts of the last 8 days we had just experienced. All three camps had different activities, from the Gorillas in Ngaga, to the bai and saline walks in Lango and finally the boat trips and bai walks in Mboko. We had learnt so much about this part of the world. One has to have a healthy attitude, a good degree of fitness and good spirit of adventure and curiosity to truly experience the Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

Although it had been a photographic safari it was really an exploration of new territory. This safari was not like other Wild Eye Photographic Safaris I have been on (or for that matter my self-drive explorations through Africa) where we have spent most of our time in the vehicle searching for our photographic opportunities, which would be mainly game and looking for the perfect dream shot. This safari was all about walking and, not just walking through dry savanna bush (bundu as we call it in Zimbabwe), but tough walking through water, mud and forests, carrying your photographic equipment and no porters. Daniella and Adriaan were instrumental in helping us to discover and appreciate this wonderful new environment. We found that what was being explained to us about the biodiversity of this region, by our guides Daniella and her partner Adriaan, was so important and made our understanding of what we were exploring and discovering, come to life.

We returned in the dark to Mboko Camp. Raphael and his staff welcomed us with cool towels and a refreshing wild ginger and lime drink. All 3 camps had amazing, friendly, attentive and knowledgeable staff.
The food in all the camps was a gourmet affair. For our last dinner under the stars, the Chef had prepared a beautiful barbecue accompanied by fresh vegetables and salads from the camp garden and a selection of delicious deserts. Adriaan and Danielle joined us for dinner. A dinner with 5 like-minded people can only be special, interesting and entertaining. It was a beautiful evening with this young interesting, dynamic, unpretentious, good attitude, kind, attentive, charming and personable couple. We exchanged bush stories and other interesting chatter. We had all bonded during the 8 days we had shared together. It was a beautiful and another memorable addition to the memory bank and a fitting finale to our safari.

Monday 25 February (Mboko Camp. Return to Brazzaville then on to Kigali and Johannesburg)

We returned to Johannesburg today. Daniella and Adriaan took us to the Mboko airstrip. We bade fond farewells with promises to meet up in Johannesburg when they came for Adriaan’s sisters wedding in a few weeks. Promise made and kept in March. What a fantastic adventure we had lived. New experiences and new friends made.

Our flight back to Brazzaville was without incident. We had to land at Ollombo military airport for refuelling.

Net our Congo Conservation guide met us at Naya Naya Brazzaville airport. He took us for a brief mini-bus tour of Brazzaville. The traffic was chaotic, not unlike many African cities. He pointed out the iconic Nabemba Tower on the river’s edge which is the tallest tower in the city. We visited the tissue market where I would have loved to stop and browse the colourful clothes and dresses. Then we moved on to the oldest market in Brazzaville, Poto Poto, a famous market where again, I would have like to browse for local handy crafts, but we had a flight to catch so there was no time. From there we drove to the St. Anne’s Basilica Catholic Cathedral, a Unesco World Heritage Monument. We took a few minutes to visit this famous church with its striking green-tiled roof. Net took us down to the river via a fascinating back street and slums of Brazza to an art gallery run by a local women. She has made fascinating sculptures out of old tins and bottles tops. Her canvas art was primitive and naive, not really my taste. We continued down to “The Rapids” where we looked across at Kinshasa over in the DRC, watching locals wash their clothes in the water.

There were young street kids trying to earn some coins by living dangerously. They jumped into the rapids clinging closely to the shore rocks. They were taken down river at a frightening rate to emerge a few 100 metres later clinging to rocks to pull themselves out. We left Brazzaville to return to Johannesburg via Kigali. The return trip was seamless. We arrived back in Johannesburg at 2 a.m. the following morning.
We were all exhausted.

This trip is going to take time to filter and process. The memories of the scenery and the environment, the different sensations, experiences and emotions were for the moment a jumble in our heads.

Conclusion:

Congo Conservation Company & Odzala Discovery Camps are a unique and lifechanging experience. This has been the ultimate safari for me and, I believe, for my friends Mike and Andrew.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park is an amazing and unique wild area and one of the last intact strongholds of the African rainforests. Up until the early 20th Century the equatorial rain forests extended along the equatorial region from West Africa to East Africa. Most have been fragmented and destroyed and the wild life depleted by humans. It is only in Central Africa that vast areas of more or less intact forests remain and which are capable of perpetuating the species and biological mechanisms which make the African tropical forests what they are today.

The Congo Rainforest has a rich and abundant biodiversity. It still is one of the world’s best kept secrets. However, therein lies the problem. The world population will reach 10 billion by 2050. The constantly increasing world population and especially on the African Continent which has a 3% annual increase, is one of the major threats to wild life and the planet’s environment. To this population increase must be added the constant thirst for raw materials, minerals, energy and food which will eventually not leave one corner of the earth unscathed. We are being plunged into a major extinction crisis. Sir David Attenborough the famous writer, presenter, narrator, documentary and film producer of natural history has bluntly informed the world governments and populations about the slow extinction of our planet.

Apparently, recent studies have shown that the main cause of the disappearance of species and natural environments is population explosion and agriculture, with its attendant consequences, destruction of natural habitats, soil erosion and chemical pollution. These studies show that Climate change, although very real, comes in at only eighth position contributing to the crisis of the worlds loss of habitat and the environment.
The world is reduced to protected areas to save the incredible biodiversity of our planet earth. Conservation has become the refuge to protect us, the wild life and the environment. The challenge is how to fight against bad governance, corruption, ignorance, indifference, civil war, lack of education population increase and man’s greed. The other problem is how does the wild life perpetuate and survive when reduced to confined conservation areas. There is a problem of perpetual conflict with the humans living around these protected areas.

It is in this context of crisis that Odzala-Kokoua finds its place as a major conservation site in Central Africa.

The Congo Conservation Company (CCC) was created in Brazzaville by Sabine Plattner in 2011. She works in close collaboration with the Congolese Government to safeguard the future of Odzala-Kokoua National Park. The CCC is pioneering Ecotourism in the Congo and working towards creating a sustainable future for the park and for the surrounding villages. The main thrust of the CCC is conservation through development of tourism or Eco-tourism as it is referred to in todays jargon. The CCC work with the local population and provide them with employment. All the profits remain in the Congo to develop tourism and conservation.

Mrs Plattner’s company built the 3 camps (Ngaga, Mboko and Lango) which became operational in 2012. In order to fully engage the surrounding communities, she also engaged in educational programs. In parallel she started the Sabine Plattner African Charities (SPAC) which is a community outreach centre at Mbomo and where an early childhood development program has been organised for the children between 0 to 6 years.

 

She also supports Research and Capacity Building programmes in Odzala-Kokoua which is an additional conservation programme. Research into the ecosystem, the gorillas, the elephants and other mammals is a major part of the SPAC.

Eco-tourism means working with the local populations who must benefit from the financial revenues procured through tourism. Without tourism there are no revenues.

As much as I would love to keep places like Odzala off the tourist circuit I realise that tourism is the main justification of conservation of wilderness areas for future generations. By visiting national parks we are contributing to their survival.

However, visiting a protected area of tropical forests like this one, that is remote and not obvious to get to, is a true mission of dedication to conservation and adventure.

Apart from the difficulties behind the scenes around the business planning, logistics, finding the right personnel to cope in a difficult environment and putting in the infrastructure to receive tourists, tropical forests do not really lend themselves to tourism on a grand scale. Once there, the tourist is thrust into a very difficult environment — extreme heat and humidity, hacking through thick forests to track gorillas, tsetse flies, sweat flies, bugs, thorns, walking in difficult terrain, walking in rivers and waterways and glutinous smelly mud — in search of elusive wild animals, which you may or may not see, birds, insects and flora.

The biodiversity to the uninitiated is not immediately obviously. The environment has to be explained which means top quality and well trained guides, who explain what is not obvious, behind what we are looking at. Guides of this calibre require a lot of time, training and perseverance in keeping them interested and motivated in this tough and challenging environment. It is another challenge for the CCC. For the staff and guides it is already a tough environment to work in, but when tourists are thin on the ground and they are left with a lot of spare time on their hands it can be very demotivating. Keeping staff and guides motivated and making sure the staff turnover is minimal, while maintaining high standards and continuity, for successful Eco-tourism is another problem the CCC has to cope with.

Odzala is not your normal run of the mill safari comfortably installed in an open vehicle in search of wild life. This is a true adventure of exploration on foot. It is a place few people have had the privilege to visit. It offers a unique, life-changing opportunity to visit the equatorial rain forests of the Congo Basin. It is the ultimate safari adventure to explore on foot the North West Congo. I had the feeling that not only was I exploring a virgin environment for the first time, but that I was the first person to tread on this area. This type of exploration, in an area still untouched by tourism, is exhilarating. Tracking the Western Lowland Gorillas through the towering thick forests, walking through crystal clear streams and waterways, swamps, grasslands and savanna in search of forest elephants, forest buffalos and other mammals and birds, while discovering a whole new world of fungi, insects and flora, was another dimension to my experience and knowledge of Africa.

Life is short and the older you get, the more you feel it. Indeed, the shorter it is.

People lose their capacity to walk, run, travel, think, and experience life. I realise how important it is to use the time I have.” (Viggo Mortensen)

 

 

This is part 3 of 3 in a series of posts outlining the highlights of the 2019 The Odzala Expedition. Be sure to read Part I and Part II before reading this post.

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