Lifestyle Travel Breathing Heart of the Congo
Breathing Heart of the Congo
Written by Dr Carol McGrath
Monday, 28 August 2017



“Why would you want to go to the Congo?”25082017-Carol-McGrath---africa-lodge

“Isn’t it beset by civil war/militias/guerrilla warfare/dangerous?”

These were the encouragements from family and friends ringing in my ears when we landed in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo. This is not the all-but-failed-state of the DCR, but its small and relatively peaceful neighbour.

My sister and I are rather besotted by gorillas of the non-human variety, and visiting a remote part in the north of the country provided the opportunity to trek to see the Western Lowland Gorilla These are smaller and more arboreal cousins to those in the mountains of Rwanda and Uganda .The Western Lowland, are the ‘gorilla gorillas’ and are critically endangered. The destination was Odzala-Kokua National Park situated in the second largest tropical rainforest in the world after the Amazon.

Our arrival was less than auspicious as the promised on-arrival visas were not available at midnight (we wondered if ever) and the luggage didn’t arrive either. After 24 hours in transit we were rescued by our meet-and-greet representative from the three camps we were to visit.

Guides to the rescue

Instead of sleeping on the airport floor, we were spirited off to a luxury hotel on the banks of the wide, fabled Congo river. It was a modern business hotel overlooking Kinshasa, capital of the DCR. Somewhere out there samples were being tested for Ebola from a small outbreak in the hinterland.

After several hours of extracting a visa at the airport the following morning , our charter flight departed. Flying low for two hours over endless lush and verdant forest, with wide, languid rivers interspersed, was magical.  25082017-Carol-McGrath---congo-6-small

Landing on the bumpy, grassed bush airstrip, we were collected by our guides and transferred a short distance to the first camp, Mboko, for a much-needed lunch. Then it was off to Ngaga, a lodge deep in the rainforest, within the home range of several habituated gorilla groups.

The six raffia thatched chalets, dining, lounge and bar area are all on raised decking at the top of a glade within pristine primary forest overlooking the luxuriant jungle canopy. Comfortable, quirky luxury in a remote and pristine corner of the vast Congo Basin!

Science, nature, bliss

The focus of the camp is the gorilla. Dr Magda Mermejo and German Ellera have been studying lowland gorillas in the Northern Congo for over 15 years and made this area around Ngaga their base because of the numbers of gorilla.Both continue to work here and guests often have the chance of meeting and discussing their research with them.There are two gorilla families – Neptuno and Jupiter – for study and tours.

Our first trek was through thick Marantaceae forest with a dense canopy of rainforest giants, bedecked with ferns, lianas and orchids. Group size is restricted to a maximum of four guests, tracker and guide. We were fortunate to be the only guests on our walks, so it was an intimate experience.

The first sighting was of a family not more than half an hour easy walk from the lodge along paths cleared by the secateurs-wielding guide. They were members of the Neptuno family group and they were busy eating fruit in the trees above us. There were babies nestled in their mothers’ laps, playful adolescents and the large and intimidating silverback, Neptuno,overseeing and protecting his family.

Viewing was good, though the forest was dark, and it was with sadness we left the group when our hour was over. A second tracking day involved a drive to the location of the second gorilla family’s overnight nest and, to our delighted surprise, they were feasting on succulent grasses by the roadside. A unique and memorable close-up encounter! 25082017-Carol-McGrath---congo-jungle-sign

So much to see

The forest is also home to a myriad of other animals, plants, butterflies and forest walks and with our knowledgeable guides they were fascinating, if a little humid.

The final camp was Lango, an intimate six-room lodge nestled in dense gallery forest overlooking a ‘bai’. These are grassy, swamp areas, rich in minerals and salts that attract forest elephants, sitatungas, bongos, monkeys, parrots and many waterbirds. The complex is on raised decking high enough to allow elephants to forage below and with a projecting star deck to allow magnificent views across the bai. The camp is accessed by kayak with a short walk up stream to the lodge.

Activities here were truly immersive. Walking safaris from the camp, along crystal-clear forest streams lined with ferns, palms and dense growth – at times up to mid-chest – while being on guard not to surprise the hostile forest buffalo, skittish elephants or venomous river snakes..

As the only guests at all three camps, we enjoyed exceptional and welcoming service, sophisticated food (a fusion of local and Western cuisine) and local guides who were knowledgeable, experienced and entertaining!

The camps, which as yet are little visited, are the brainchild of German philanthropist Sabine Plattner, who has created the  charity SPAC, which combines conservation, primate research, education for the local village children and vocational opportunities for these communities.

An unforgettable holiday that was also contributing to eco-conservation and the local communities!