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

This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts outlining the highlights of the 2019 The Odzala Expedition. Be sure to read Part I and Part III.

Raphael, Mboko Camp Manager, welcomed us warmly to his camp. He is a lovely young man and under his discreet supervision we were spoilt for service and attention by his staff. Mboko camp is the largest of the 3 camps. It is situated in an area of lush meadow-like wetland (dambo) with views into the forest beyond. It is often frequented by forest buffalo, forest elephant and spotted hyaena, which we heard at night, when we stayed at Mboko on our last 2 nights. The rooms are nestled into the riparian forest along the Likeni River. The main lounge, dining room and bar area are open with a constant breeze flowing through and wonderful views over the wetland, forest and the famous Odzala tree. There are dozens of termite mounds which make for picturesque photography especially early morning and evening. They have many funnels and are all shapes and sizes. Herons perch on their peaks. Mboko provides the opportunity to relax after several days of walking and exploring. The wetlands have beautiful flowers and orchids. There are lots of colourful butterflies and many birds. There are 2 villages on the fringe of the park, near by, which one can visit and interact with local people. Boat and kayaking on the Lekoli is another relaxing activity from this camp. As I discovered, when we stayed in this camp, the open space here provides wonderful star gazing opportunities. One falls asleep to the gentle flowing of the river in front of the room.

 

We had a delicious lunch before heading out to the boat launch area on the banks of the Lekoli River.

Moving between camps in Odzala is in itself an adventure and a wonderful experience, either by open safari vehicle or by kayak. We had opted to move to our next camp, Lango, by kayak rather than by vehicle. Our luggage was transported by vehicle to Lango Camp. We boarded the kayaks with just our point and shoot cameras. I shared a kayak with Mike. Daniella and Andrew had single kayaks.

Drifting effortlessly down the Lekoli River with the current was an memorable experience . We glided past thick riparian forests with branches hanging over the river. Because of the lack of sandbanks on this river, crocodiles have adapted to climbing onto these branches to sun themselves. The long-snouted crocodile is a different species to our Nile Crocodiles. They are mostly fish eating and reach 2 to 4 metres in length. There are also dwarf crocodiles. Both species are rarely seen.

We saw skinks and monitor lizards. There are serpents (rock python, emerald snake, ringed water cobra, etc) but we did not see any. We saw lots of signs of forest elephant and forest buffalo.

We saw a forest buffalo in a swamp area. We docked our kayaks to go and get a closer view of him. We waded through shallow water and then onto a swampy area. I sank up to my thighs in the glutinous smelly black swamp mud. It was very difficult to extricate myself. I got the giggles as I pulled and pushed my legs to get out of this mud that was sucking me down. I tore the skin on my hands as I clung to the thorny Touch-Me-Not Mimosa bushes in an effort to pull myself out. Blood was pouring everywhere. Finally I managed to pull my leg out of this quagmire but one of my shoes stayed behind. I thrust my arm down, but could not find it. Andrew and Mike came to the rescue. I had really “put my foot into it” Mike joked as he and Andrew looked for my shoe. Andrew found it and rescued it from the mud. My legs and trousers were thick with the black mud. By this time the forest buffalo we had come to see had fled into the forest. We returned to our kayaks. I gave myself a cursory wash in the clear stream alongside the sand bank, but the mud clung to my shoes and clothes which were also stained with dripping blood.
The Odzala-Kokoua National Park is covered by a dense network of rivers flowing over alluvial plains and channels. Many of the waterways are hidden by the thick canopy of the forest trees. The floor of the forests can be covered with black stagnant water. When the rivers and tributaries rise during the rainy season these stagnant waterways are refreshed. The forests and plains and the entire drainage systems are under water. The forests and waterways play an important part in the ecosystem of the area. When the rainy season starts, this is when there is a cleansing of the forest and exchange of nutrients and large quantities of decomposing organic matter (leaves, fruits, dead wood) between the forests floors, the sand alluvial plains and waterways which feed the aquatic ecosystem. The forest and aquatic networks play a significant role in the biodiversity and ecosystem of the whole area.

The Odzala-Kokoua National Park is part of the Congo Basin and apparently this whole area ranks second in terms of biological wealth, just after that of the Amazon River.

It is termed the friendly forest because it does not harbour some of the “nasties” found in the Amazon, such as leeches, piranhas, anaconda and boa constrictor serpents, thus making it much easier to walk in the rivers and waterways, which are usually clear water and sandy floors.

Intact wetlands, such as found in the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, are increasingly rare and only second after the Pantanal in South America. Unlike South America, the Odzala watershed is mostly inside a protected area and thus one can be optimistic that it will remain little disturbed by mankind. The main rivers such as the Mambili and its tributaries are not large enough to generate hydraulic development. Poaching, illegal logging and mining still remain the biggest threats to this phenomenal undiscovered area.

The interconnection between forests and the aquatic ecosystem used to play a major role throughout the earth’s ecosystem and biodiversity. Todays industrial government policies and man have largely destroyed this natural ecosystem. They have regularised rivers, channeled and built on wetlands. They have slowed natural access to the sea thus blocking natural nutrients flowing down and feeding flood plains and the sea. So called natural disasters are the resultant effect. Natural waterways, flood plains and wetlands are a natural ecosystem that need to be preserved like national monuments.

Because of the thick riparian forests it is difficult to see both the game and birds that inhabit these forests. However, we saw plenty of evidence of forest elephant herds, forest buffalo and other game. We saw more than 20 Palm Nut Vultures and some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. There was an abundance of forest trees, of which I cannot remember all the names. Some of which we saw were wild date and screw palms, cycads, raffia and oil palms and sisal. The vast floodplains are covered with open marshes, groves of palms and swampy areas called bais which are extremely important for the fauna. Along the Lekoli River there are lots of trees on stilt like roots stretching into the forest and the river. The other trees that I noticed, because of their white barks and their height up to 40 metres, were the Azobé and the Kapok. Many of the trees have bountiful fruit which attract the primates, especially the gorillas, chimpanzees and birds.

Tsetse flies on this river are a pest. We all got bitten by tsetse flies which was very unpleasant. Nothing deters them. There is no spray that has yet been invented to ward them off. They bite through your socks, clothes and wheedle their way behind your rucksack to nip you on your back. Both Daniella and I had masses of big red bites on our backs.

After about an hour and a half of gliding peacefully along this stunning river and admiring the diverse vegetation and catching glimpses of birds we branched off into the Lango waterway and docked on a sandbank. There was herd of Forest buffalo grazing about 150 metres away in the grassy marsh. They didn’t pay much attention to us except to lift their heads occasionally to gaze at us inquisitively as buffalos tend to do. We pulled the kayaks up out of the water onto the dry sandy bank.

After refreshing ourselves with water and taking in the beautiful environment around us, Daniella led us into the Lango bai along a well trodden elephant and buffalo water path. We walked along this shallow water path for about an hour. Along the way she pointed out flowers, plants and animal spoor, buffalo, elephant, wild hog, bongo, sitatunga, duiker, genet cat, swamp mongoose, hyena and leopard. We saw hundreds of green pigeons and grey parrots flying past.

We came into the open bai leading to Lango Camp. What an amazing sight to behold.

The emerald green colours of the grasses and bushes in the setting sun, fringed by the darker green forest beyond, were stunning. The camp was gently lit with candles and soft lights and blended romantically into the forest.
The camp staff met us at the wooden platform with glasses of fresh ginger and a local red wild berry juice which was divinely refreshing. We watched three baby white throated blue swallows, with their parents, flitting in and out and around us.

We walked along a wooden walkway for about 150 metres over the muddy swamp to Lango Camp.

Lango camp is built on 4 metre stilts into the gallery forest. The main bar, lounge, star gallery with a fire pit and dining room have stunning views over the open swampy bai and forest beyond. There are about 8 rooms all linked to each other and the main area by walkways on stilts, through the forest. One sees monkeys jumping high up in the trees and a multitude of bird life. The self-contained rooms have beautiful views into the surrounding forest and the bai. In the bai, if one is lucky, one can see flocks of Green Pigeons and African Grey Parrots, Forest Buffalo, Forest Elephant, Bongo, Sitatunga, Bushbuck and other wild life. It is at Lango camp that one really discovers the diversity of Odzala. One can explore the Lekoli and Mambili Rivers by boat, pirogues or kayak. It is one of the few places in Africa where you can safely explore streams and marshes on foot. It is a truly immersive experience in more ways than one. Some of the water walks are well up to you waist, while one sinks deep into the mud marsh areas.

After settling into our rooms we met up as we always did for welcome sundowners in the common area. We sat on the star deck around the fire pit, which is lit more for ambiance effect, than for warmth! We listened to elephants wandering through the bai, sloshing and splashing water, trumpeting and their tummies rumbling as they communicated between themselves.

Mysterious shadowy grey massive forms, barely visible in the night making these ghostly noises are always one of the wonderful African night tunes that I close my eyes to and revel in. We heard a hyena yelping in the forest. It was a deeper whine than we are used to in Southern Africa.

I feel blessed that I am part of the minority who have experienced African night noises so many times, in so many different parts of Africa, since my childhood. How much longer will this extraordinary phenomenon of nature exist? Will my grandchildren ever experience this wild side and biodiversity of our planet? I sometimes feel saddened that I ever left Africa to live in the concrete jungle of Paris, France for so many years. Even though I came back to Southern Africa regularly to visit family and friends, it was only for short holiday periods. I missed out on a fast disappearing world, a world that I was born into and which I have always had such an affinity with. The concrete jungle was never my cup of tea. On the other hand, on the positive side, it provided me with a comfortable standard of living and an excellent motivating well paid job in an international organisation. It also provided me with the opportunity of travelling to other parts of the globe. It gave me the opportunity of giving my 2 children an excellent education while at the same time bringing them back most years to experience Africa. This job also gave me a good pension which is now financing my African exploratory travels. Thank goodness that in the last 10 years since I retired, I have the means and the time to be able to carry out my dream, envisaged over 40 years ago, to travel through Africa. I travel mostly on my own, with my 4X4 Toyota Fortuna, through Africa for the best part of the year. I am the proverbial “peripatetic traveller” as one of my friends calls me and who wonders if I will run out of places in Africa to explore.

Enough of reminiscing and back to Lango. In the light of our spot light we watched a swamp mongoose foraging in the grassy swamp in front of our raised platform.

Lango camp is no exception to the excellent meals we had been having in Ngaga Camp.

Each camp has a master Chef. We had another gourmet meal at the dining table, set on the star viewing deck, in the gentle unobtrusive light of candles, while listening to the night noises and discussing our activities so far and the activities for the next two days. On the walk back to our rooms, along the wooden walkway, Danielle showed us a water chevrotine in her spot light. He is a regular visitor to the camp.

I fell asleep to the sound of hyenas and elephants trumpeting and cavorting in the swamps. Wonderful wilderness, wonderful Africa and especially this little unexplored slice of Africa, unexploited by tourism for the moment. So different to any other parts of Africa I have explored. I know that tourism contributes to conservation, but selfishly, I hope this place remains one of the few unexploited areas in Africa, as well as remaining a well kept secret and unexplored place.

Friday 21 February (Lango Camp. Exploratory walk in Lango Bai waterways and surrounding forest)

We had our routine wake up call at 5 a.m. followed by a light breakfast before setting off on our bai walk. The sun was not yet up when we set off along the wooden pathway over the muddy swamp to the platform that leads off into the bai walk.

Suddenly a big bull elephant wandered swiftly and silently out from the forest. We watched him from the wooden platform. When he disappeared into the forest we were able to continue our short walk across the water to the bird hide. Our objective was to spend time in the hide photographing African grey parrots and green pigeons. We sat there patiently for an hour, but to no avail, the birds did not oblige, so we left the hide and continued with our walk into the bai and forest. We found a buffalo killed by hyenas a couple of nights previously. It was in a shallow stream. It had been totally devoured by the hyenas, jackals and the predatory birds. All that was left were the horns and carcass with the eyeholes staring airily and mournfully at us. Such is nature and we cannot let our human sentiments influence the cruelty and reality of natures way. We wandered on through shallow streams and forest dry land. We admired the insects on the surface of the calm waters. There were dragonflies, water spiders, damselflies and other insects that I can’t remember the names of. There were frogs and, in some of the deeper waterways, there were small fish. There are resident and migrant waterbirds. We mostly saw Heron, Hadada Ibis, Geese, Hartlaub’s Duck, Ox Pecker on the Forest buffalo and Egret. We saw kingfishers (Shining Blue, Blue-breasted, Giant, Pygmy, Malachite). We heard many other birds such as the Dusty Long-tailed Cuckoo, the Emerald Cuckoo, Diderik Cuckoo, but we never saw them.

We criss-crossed the swamps and streams into dry land forest areas where we admired tall trees and their roots, creepers, wild flowers, fruits, moss and fungi.

Fungi grow in many places, especially in warm and damp places. They get their nutrients from host vegetation such as fallen dead tree branches. Odzala forests and waterways are the ideal place for fungi growth. We found about 20 different types of fungi during our walks. We looked at the smaller life crawling and wriggling in the forest. There are many lianas. These are various long-stemmed, woody vines that are rooted in the soil at ground level and use trees, as well as other means of vertical support, to climb high up to the canopy to get access to well-lit areas of the forest. There were so many beautiful wild flowers and fruit bushes in the bai and forest that I could not even begin to list these.

While walking through the forests I couldn’t help thinking about a couple of beautiful quotes:

“Consider a tree for a moment. As beautiful as trees are to look at, we don't see what goes on underground — as they grow roots. Trees must develop deep roots in order to grow strong and produce their beauty. But we don't see the roots. We just see and enjoy the beauty. In much the same way, what goes on inside of us is, like the roots of a tree.” (Joyce Meyer)

“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they're still beautiful.” Another of her quotes: “I understood at a very early age that in nature, I felt everything I should feel in church but never did. Walking in the woods, I felt in touch with the universe and with the spirit of the universe.” (Alice Walker)

On our way back to camp we entered a clear grassy area when, suddenly we heard the Green Pigeons and African Grey Parrots making a commotion in the tree tops. They were flying from the tree tops down to the swampy green grass to feast on insects and whatever else they eat. It was a lovely surprise. We had not had this sighting from the bird hide opposite the camp, but now we were rewarded with hundreds of these birds and especially the Green Pigeons flying up and down. We sat down to enjoy them and take photographs. They suddenly disappeared when a big YellowBilled Hawk flew in to try and snatch up a Green Pigeon morsel of food.

We returned to camp tired and wet. This is not a jeep safari. Wading through swamp water up to you waist is required. We had had a fore taste of wading through water, the night before, when we walked through shallow water from our kayaks to Lango Camp. Today we were now plunged into the waterways, swamps and forest. Apart from one lone forest elephant in the dawn light, we had no sightings of big game.

However the extraordinary experience of walking and discovering the biodiversity of the bai and forest, the smaller stuff like insects, plants, wild flowers, tree roots, liane, orchids, tree plants, fungi and a multitude of other things was fascinating.

Daniella brought this new universe to life for us. When traipsing around in a vehicle, one usually misses the smaller things.

Walking in the Odzala forests, bais and swamps reminded me not to take for granted the amazing nature around me, fauna and flora, big and small, colours and light. Each time I walk in nature I am reminded of the beauty of my environment. Even in the concrete jungle of cities, nature can find its place.

“Nature is impersonal, awe-inspiring, elegant, eternal. It's geometrically perfect. It's tiny and gigantic. You can travel far to be in a beautiful natural setting, or you can observe it in your backyard - or, in my case, in the trees lining New York City sidewalks, or in the clouds above skyscrapers.” (Gretchen Rubin)

Our walks with Daniella brought back to memory another quote:

“The more often we see the things around us — even the beautiful and wonderful things — the more they become invisible to us. That is why we often take for granted the beauty of this world: the flowers, the trees, the birds, the clouds — even those we love. Because we see things so often, we see them less and less.” (Joseph B.Wirthlin)

I have done many bush walks mostly in Southern Africa, both in my childhood and during my last 10 years travelling through Africa. These walks have been both guided and on my own. I always have a feeling of awe and excitement when I encounter wild game. However, the wonder and joy of encountering and examining the smaller fauna and flora is just as motivating and captivating as the larger stuff. It was our first experience of a water walking safari. We had one of the most extraordinary experiences of our lives. It opened up a whole new world for me, Mike and Andrew.

After a light lunch, we downloaded photos and chilled on the deck. Mike and I enjoyed catching up and chatting about our common past life in Rhodesia. We looked at birds (especially sun birds) flitting in and out. There was a lone Bushbuck in the bai. A herd of Forest buffalo came down to drink and enjoy the lush green grass.

There were monkeys Grey-Cheeked Mangabey Monkeys high up in tree lines behind the camp. Western Guereza Monkeys, also known as eastern black-and-white colobus monkeys, were jumping in the trees above the camp walk ways. These Monkeys resemble the black-and-white Colobus Monkeys I have seen in Uganda and West Kenya.

Later in the afternoon we went for another water walk. We followed an elephant boulevard. This is a waterway path with a firm sandy bed which has been created over hundreds of years by elephants wandering backwards and forwards. As in the morning we looked at water plants and flowers, trees, the small insects and got glimpses of birds. We were accompanied by the Congolese Eco Guide, a quiet but observant gentleman, who also gave us interesting information about this Equatorial Forest. He pointed out the occasional shy Forest Buffalo and Forest Elephant. They were difficult to see in the thick forest so we didn’t linger to look at them. We looked at the black mud holes dug up by Forest Elephants to get at the salt and minerals. Daniella showed us bits of pottery, evidence that many years ago, the local population also dug for the black salt for themselves and for trading.
During this walk, one of the most exciting birds we saw, was the Black Bee-Eater, a lifer (first ever sighting) for us all. He was very obliging and sat for a long time preening himself, high up on a single branch, giving us good photographic opportunities.

When we got back to the lodge platform on the bai we found a big herd of Forest Buffalo. Walking the Lango Bai can be hot and muddy. This platform gives one the opportunity of cooling off, while taking off socks and shoes and washing off the mud.

In the evening it is particularly relaxing here to enjoy a “bitterly” cold beer or a G&T with wild ginger.

We sat at the wooden platform for about an hour, in the setting sun, watching the herd of buffalo move slowly towards us. We sat on our bottoms in the water to photograph the Forest Buffalo at eye level. It was a beautiful experience. We watched them creep nearer and nearer to us, looking at us with curiosity. They came up to within about 5 metres of us, before Danielle let them know that this was near enough.

It was getting dark when we walked back to the camp, where we enjoyed our sundowners from the viewing deck, while watching the dark shapes of the buffalo milling about in the bai water. The Chef provided us with another stunning meal. We had animated discussions about our experiences and impressions of the day. Indeed for all of us it had been an experience that would influence and enhance our knowledge of Africa forever.

Saturday 22 February (Lango Camp. Bongo and Saline Walk followed by vehicle transfer to Mboko Camp)

We started the day in a mysterious mist hanging over Lango Bai and the surrounding forest. Through the mist there was a whitish and pale bluish light which made for difficult scenic photography. We walked through Lango Bai towards the Bongo and Saline Walk in search of the elusive Bongo and Sitatunga.

Although we saw plenty of spoor we never saw these elusive animals. We traversed emerald green grass swamp plains with palms trees and thorny bushes. The early morning light enhanced the white spider webs hanging from the bushes. The water was clear, with a sandy and gravel bed under our feet. At one stage we walked through a very marshy area. I sank for the umpteenth time deep into the thick horrible smelling glutinous clawing mud. I sank right up to the top of my thighs. I handed my cameras to Mike who was ahead of me. It was difficult for Mike or Andrew (behind me) to come to my aid, because they would have ended up in the same difficult situation in which I found myself. I pulled and pushed, but to no avail. The thorny bushes were not easy to grasp to help pull myself out. Like the last time I got stuck in the mud, my hands got very torn by the thorns. I could not pull myself out of this quagmire. We all had a good laugh at my predicament.

Mathieu, the Congo Eco Guide, who was accompanying us on this walk, had to come to my help. He walked into the thorny bushes so us not to sink into the mud. I gave him my hand. He almost pulled my arm out of its socket as he tried to dislodge me out of the sucking mud. I left my shoe there deep down in the mud. Mathieu managed to find it. I was covered with this black mess up to the top of my legs. What a sight! Fortunately there was a clear pool of water in which I could wash my shoes and take the mud off my trousers. Mathieu also had to have a wash down.

We continued our walk through the bai waterways, stopping here and there to admire trees, ferns, flowers, fungi and birds. We walked through a beautiful palm tree forest intermingled with very tall forest trees and swamps. The sun started peeping through the mist which cleared quickly once the sun was well up. We came to a deep elephant boulevard in this explosion of different greens that made this swamp and forest walk so stunningly beautiful. It was a picturesque waterway with ferns, water lilies and flowers.

There were big round tilapia nests in the water bed. This elephant boulevard was about 200 metres long and we waded through up to our waists in the clear water with soft sand under our feet. We had to climb over a couple of tree stumps, which Danielle pointed out, so that we did not stumble and get our camera gear drowned in the water! A big forest buffalo bull blocked our route at the end of this water path. Danielle had to be gently insistent in trying to get him to move off and let us pass. We got within about 5 metres of him before he dashed off into the forest. We also saw a blue duiker dart through the forest.


We came out near the Lango bai and had a short walk back to the camp for a well earned brunch. After brunch we had about half an hour to pack up our bags, no time to shower and jump into the vehicle to drive to our last camp for 2 nights in Mboko.

It was a pleasant drive through savanna. Although we saw several forest buffalo grazing, Daniella told us that the savanna does not have good nutrients for the game.

They mainly pass through on their way to the more interesting pastures in the forests, bais and swamps. This being said the savanna plays an important part in the whole eco and biodiversity of the area. There were termite hills dotting the plains and many birds. We came across a heron on the track, swallowing a big lizard, which gave us some nice photo opportunities. After about a couple of hours we arrived at a clearing. There were 2 staff with wheel barrows. They loaded our luggage into the wheel barrows and set off on the narrow wooden path built over the swamps and winding through the forest. We left our vehicle there and followed them. Every time I looked up at the forest above or to see a bird, I lost my balance and nearly fell into the muddy swamp. Daniella said the same thing happens to her. The walkway was about 500 metres. We arrived at a bridge over the Likeni River and climbed up a few wooden stairs to a wooden observation viewing platform. We had the wonderful surprise of seeing a big Tiger Fish swimming under the bridge. Raphael and his staff were there to welcome us with cold wet towels and lime water. The limes from the camp vegetable gardens are the best I have ever savoured. They had such a good strong refreshing smell. We were shown to our rooms, each one overlooking the river. Our luggage was already installed. Because of my French connection I was given the “Tin Tin in the Congo” room. It was beautifully decorated with Tin Tin comic strips, jeeps and canoes with Tin Tin figurines. I had a nice balcony overlooking the riverine forest and river.

There were lots of colourful butterflies.

Ann Nichols

 

This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts outlining the highlights of the 2019 The Odzala Expedition. Be sure to read Part I and Part III.

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