Three days of uncomfortable buses and torn
up roads, one day on a leaky dug-out canoe puttering slowly upriver, one hour wading
barefoot through the thigh-deep waters of a jungle swamp – and finally, here I
was, eyeball to eyeball with a western lowland gorilla. This was exactly what I
had hoped for from a gorilla safari to the Republic of Congo.
The Congo? Isn’t that the home of
cannibalistic militias and rebel armies? Isn’t that where Joseph Conrad set his
Heart of Darkness novel and where the blood-stained battlefields of Africa’s World
War can be found? Wrong. You are thinking of the Democratic Republic of Congo,
the lumbering giant at the heart of Africa. This
is smaller Republic
of Congo, which lies to
the north of its big bad neighbour. Sure, this Congo has also taken a battering
at the hands of power-hungry politicians and has seen more than its fair share
of war and misery (most recently with a civil war during the 1990s and first few
years of the new century), but today the Republic of Congo is safe, stable and
open to trailblazing visitors in search of the ultimate jungle experience.
There is no shortage of rainforest in the Congo; some 60%
of the country consists of nothing but steamy lowland jungle, so pristine that
the rainforests are considered one of the richest and most biologically
important forest ecosystems on Earth. But it is only now, after years of false
starts, that access to the area is improving, national parks are being established
and a visitor-friendly infrastructure has been put in place.
Even with the recent improvements, visiting
many parts of the country remains difficult. But whether you splash through
dank swamps or relax on the terrace of a luxury lodge, there is no doubt that a
safari to the Congo
is a wildlife-watching bonanza unlike any other.
One of the oldest national parks in Africa,
established in 1935, the 13,600sqkm Parc National d’Odzala,
located in the far northwest of the country close to the borders of Gabon and
Cameroon, has had a turbulent past. Once celebrated for having around 20,000
gorillas, the population was decimated between 2003 and 2005 by several outbreaks
of the horror movie-worthy ebola virus which wiped out between 70% and 95% of the park’s gorillas.
The park was also neglected for about 20 years, thanks to conflict and the
Today, the situation is much improved. Gorilla
numbers are growing, and the park has received a much needed boost with the arrival
of Wilderness Safaris, a company
that actively manages park tourism on a day-to-day basis. The goal of the Botswana-based
company – the only one operating in the park – is to use responsible tourism to
build sustainable conservation economies in Africa. By working alongside local
communities, Wilderness Safaris has embarked on a programme of rehabilitating
the park’s previously crumbling infrastructure, building two luxury tourist lodges and training
local guides and rangers. The benefits to the park, the wildlife, the local
people and the tourist industry are already visible. In fact, despite the park
having re-opened to tourists only in August 2012, Wilderness reports that their
exclusive fly-in safaris from Congo’s capital Brazzaville are already heavily
oversubscribed. And when the activities on offer include face-to-face
encounters with habituated west lowland gorilla families, jungle walks with
local Baka (or pygmy) guides and pirogue trips downriver in search of birds and
other wildlife, it is hardly a surprise that Odzala has been garnering such
When a team from National Geographic
magazine called this northern corner of Congo “the worlds last Eden” in the
mid-1990s, they chose their words wisely. The 23,500sqkm Parc National
Nouabalé-Ndoki is the world before the chainsaw. This vast region of swampy
forest is home to healthy populations of western lowland gorillas, forest
elephants, chimpanzees and more. And what makes this park so enthralling is the
ease with which these creatures are seen.
The forest is known for its natural
clearings in which elephants and gorillas gather, and the World Conservation Society (WCS) has built viewing
platforms alongside these clearings where travellers can ogle the antics of
Congolese megafauna. If you need to get even closer to the wildlife, Nouabalé-Ndoki
also has groups of habituated gorillas.
The Parc National
Conkouati-Douli is an altogether different experience to the previous two reserves.
This 5,049sqkm coastal area stretches from the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean
where turtles clamber ashore at night to lay eggs, through a band of savannah
and up into jungle-clad mountains where shy groups of gorillas, chimpanzees and
elephants slink through the shadows. As with so many protected areas in Congo,
the years of conflict meant that conservation was very low on the government’s
list of priorities, and as such, this park, with its open terrain and easy access,
suffered more than most from human encroachment and poaching.
Today, the day-to-day management of the
park has been largely taken over by WCS, and the society has started training new
guides and rangers, cracking down on poaching, establishing new accommodation for
tourists, and setting up safari-related activities such as river boat trips in
search of elephants or forest walks to look for shy and elusive gorillas. The
park also contains a chimpanzee rehabilitation sanctuary where travellers can
see young chimps, orphaned due to poaching, being reintroduced to life in the
Since the animals here are not habituated
to humans, sightings tend to be much more fleeting than in the northern forest
parks. But as poaching levels drop, the wildlife are likely to become less
fearful and encounters more frequent.
For many people, just the name Congo implies
adventure, and getting to most national parks here is going to make you feel
like an explorer. Wilderness Safaris offer packages
to Odzala National Park, where everything including flights from Brazzaville is
included. This is the recommended option for those who require comfort on their
Safaris to Nouabalé-Ndoki and Conkouati-Douli
are organised through the WCS and are better suited to those with more time and
stamina. You will have to make long overland journeys by bus or private car
and be prepared to walk long distances through the forest, even wading through
swamps and riding boats up-river.
No matter which park you choose to visit,
you must inform either the WCS or Wilderness Safaris in advance so that they
can prepare for your trip.