We’ve been here a week now and as I sit on the deck of our chalet overlooking Lango Bai in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in Congo Brazzaville, it is all just a little surreal. I think that surreal is the right word. There are, I feel, 2 things that contribute to this feeling and the first is that this is Africa and I am pretty used to the African bush, the plants, animals and birds so it all should be familiar and normal. But there is nothing familiar or normal about the view over the Bai.
View from our room at Lango Camp. Odzala National Park. Congo
I simply don’t recognise so many of the plant and animal species at all. If you travel in East and southern Africa as we often do you, one gets to know the different species – lions, cheetah, wildebeest, acacias, flamingos, various bee-eaters, weavers and so on – but so little here in the Congo Basin is similar to what we’re used to, and even if you know the species (African grey parrots for example) one is generally used to seeing them in cages instead of flying overhead in large, screaming, whistling, chirping flocks. The green pigeons too were a surprise: we’re used to seeing them in ones and twos, flapping about the figs and other fruiting trees in Zululand, not in their hundreds, whirling and swirling about the evening sky.
And the vegetation is so very different to the savannah and other veld types we are used to. This is more akin to walking around a vast botanical garden where you recognise not one of the trees or ferns or flowers; where everything is huge and lush and green, and where the frog, insect and bird sounds are all new and different. It’s exciting and unsettling all at once – a wonderful place to be.
Lango Bai at Odzala National Park
The other contributing factor to this feeling is the level of comfort, food and service that we’ve experienced at the Wilderness Safaris’ camps of Lango and Ngaga while working on our book African Icons, with friend and author David Bristow. The camps are remote, to put it mildly. The only way to get the meat, cheeses, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, wines, actually, provisions in general, is to fly them in from Brazzaville. In short, the quality of food and creature comforts is nothing short of astounding. It shouldn’t be this good, this far from anywhere. Sure the rooms are made from palm fronds and local timbers but they house a huge, comfortable double bed and an en suite bathroom that would not be out of place in any premium establishment. We were thrilled that we didn’t have to put up with the same conditions that Michael Fay and Michael (Nic) Nichols did when they did the MegaTransect. Well done Wilderness Safaris.
Ngaga camp is situated to the west in the Ndzehi area adjacent to Odzala and is set in a small clearing in the rainforest on the side of a steep valley. This is where visitors to Odzala meet up with western lowland gorillas and what a profound experience it turned out to be. There are 2 species of gorilla in Africa and each comprises of two subspecies: The eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) that is classified as endangered by the IUCN, and includes the well-known mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda, and the eastern lowland gorilla found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The other species is the western gorilla, (Gorilla gorilla) which is listed as Critically Endangered and includes the western lowland gorilla, found pretty much exclusively in Congo (Brazzaville) and Gabon, and the Cross River gorilla of Nigeria and Cameroon.
A western lowland gorilla keeps an eye on us from the thick undergrowth in the View from the deck of our room at Lango Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park.
While doing an in-depth story of gorillas, scientist, Dr Magda Berrnejo and her partner German Illera have successfully habituated the western lowland gorillas in the area to humans, enabling small groups of ecotourists staying at Ngaga Camp access to the animals under the guidance of astoundingly skilled trackers. These remote northern forests of the Congo have the highest known densities of the western lowland gorilla as well as good populations of forest elephant, forest buffalo, bongos and bushbuck.
Forest elephant in the rain-forests of Odzala National Park.
We had excellent sightings of gorilla on 2 separate days. It seems we were lucky in that the animals were pretty close to camp and we found them on both occasions without much of a walk – it took and hour or so I suppose. The going was pretty easy until we needed to leave the trails and head into the Marantaceae or arrowroot undergrowth, our tracker and guide carefully cutting a path through the thick undergrowth. We did get quite close to the gorillas – about 10m or so at the closest but generally had very good sightings (See below under camera gear for information what photographic equipment to take).
Our time at Ngaga over, we made the 5 hour journey to Lango. It’s not all that far – about 70km I would imagine – but, well, it’s the roads. You’re basically driving along forest tracks so it does go quite slowly which is not bad at all. We stopped for birds ( a few black-headed bee-eaters and a African fin foot being among the more interesting), a huge mass of safari ants, some fascinating plant shots and various other bits and pieces.
The main road between Ngaga and Lango camps at Odzala National Park
Lango is stunning, perched on the side of the Bai. From the deck, wonderful views and a small herd of forest buffalo greeted us. There is good news and bad news about Lango. The good news is that it’s brilliant – boat rides down the Lekoli River (we had superb sightings of forest elephants), walks through the Bai and adjacent forests, and game drives in the savannah areas. The bad news is that you are going to get wet and muddy. Actually, it’s not that bad really – takes one back to ones childhood, you know…. The views across the Bai from Lango’s deck are magical, particularly in the very early morning and evening and just sitting there offers great game viewing – forest buffalo, bushbuck, huge flocks of green pigeons, green squirrels, palm nut vultures and, at night mainly, forest elephant.
Our time in Odzala was too short really but c’est la vie. We loved it. It was a very profound experience for us and can sincerely recommend a visit to Odzala-Kokoua National Park with Wilderness Safaris. Follow us as we put African Icons together: Facebook and our Blog
Light and portable is the key here. This is what we took:
- Nikon D800 camera
- Nikon D7100 camera
- Nikon P330 camera
- Nikkor 10,5mm Fisheye Lens
- Nikkor 24 – 70mm f2,8 lens
- Nikkor AF-S 80 – 400mm lens
- Nikon SB-900 flash
- Gitzo Traveller GT1542T Carbon Fibre Tripod
- Gitzo GM2541 Carbon Fibre Monopod
- Manfrotto Tri Backback L
A lot of thought went into the selection of the above. I love the D800 with it’s superb image quality and, as a result of all those 36 million pixels, it’s possible to shoot it in DX mode and still have about 16Mp to play with. In DX mode the 80 – 400 (light, quick to use, great VR and incredibly sharp) turns into the equivalent to a 120 – 600mm which is incredibly useful. The images produced by the D7100 are also stunning and it is possible to shoot this 24.5Mp DX camera with a 1:3 crop (you still have about 16MP available) and this produces an 2X increase in effective focal length – 160 – 800mm on the above lens. This is brilliant! We used this on a number of occasions very effectively.
Conditions can be wet and humid and there is not much light filtering through the rainforest canopy. ISO 800 and 1600 were the order of the day and often i needed to push things to ISO 3200. The small, light and very stable Gitzo tripod and monopod were fantastic. Both strapped easily onto the front of the Manfrotto backpack and I used the monopod when shooting wildlife with the 80 – 400 lens. It made all the difference in the dark rain forests and combined with the excellent VR made for sharp photographs using impossibly low shutter speeds. The tripod was used for shooting twilight shots of the lodges and when doing forest scenes, allowing long shutter speeds at low ISOs.
The Manfrotto backpack was a bit of an experiment and I loved it. The two compartments are great and it’s design allows access to the lower compartment without taking the pack off – very nice when on the move and it fitted easily (with the tripod and monopod attached) into the overhead lockers on the flights to and from Congo.
(Have a look at the camera gear we use generally here)
Clothing and other goodies.
Odzala is not the easiest destination – but it’s not that bad at all… It’s just that luggage space is limited and you are operating in conditions a little more difficult that the savannahs of east and southern Africa. To complicate matters I’m allergic to Tsetse Fly bites (read more here) and we needed to deal with this as well. So, this is what we did:
Our clothing consisted largely of Columbia Sportswear Omni and Techlite shirts and longs although there are other pieces of quick drying, high tech fabric items as well. When choosing what to bring, you are looking for long sleeves (very long) and long trousers (very long, so that they cover your ankles even when sitting down). In the worst Tsetse areas (on the boat ride and on the Bai walks) we doubled up – 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of trousers and 2 shorts with the outer garments soaked in a Dettol solution. Works like a charm – tsetses hate it!
Pat filming in the Bai at Lango Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park.
To complete the ensemble we draped head nets over our hats and I wore Dettol soaked cotton cloves from time to time (remember, my allergy). I didn’t get bitten by anything! The others were a lot less precautions – some even wandering around in shorts and sandals. You are going to encounter insects – blighting flies, tsetses, stingless bees – but it really is manageable and not all that bad.
Other items we found useful are: A small LED touch, binoculars, 2 pairs of shoes (one for the wet work and another, dry pair for around the camps etc. We simply took an old pair of running shoes that got wet on a daily basis, which we left behind at the end of our stay. These are then given to needy locals), antihistamine tablets, Dettol (for the tsetses), Insect repellant (mosquitoes etc).