OK, let’s go straight to the gorillas. We were in the forest, searching for the apes in a maze of marantaceae, a kind of enormous, endless shrub – leaves the size of dinner plates and a mess of reedy stalks that reduced visibility to a few feet. It was the fourth day of a six-day safari in northern Congo.
Our tracker Zepherien used to be a hunter and I had been pleased when he was assigned to our group that morning. Our party of eight had been divided in two throughout the trip and that social anxiety particular to tourists on expensive safaris was beginning to set in: that other people were seeing more animals and interesting things than you were. It’s not as if I hadn’t seen anything; I was just worried that other people were seeing more. Before we moved to the deeper jungle, I had managed to see a melanistic serval (a dark, apparently rather rare cat) but an American couple on their honeymoon had enjoyed a leisurely interaction with a group of chimpanzees. That kind of thing.
But I liked the look of Zepherien. He carried a machete the length of his thigh and wore a backpack that said, “Africa Safe-T” on it. Zepherien’s speciality, we were told, was tracking primates by night. From the way he spoke to the other group’s younger tracker, it was clear that Zepherien was in charge. Then he led us into the marantaceae, hacking bits out of the way. Etienne, our guide for the rest of the week, who was from Switzerland and used to work in PR, followed close behind, removing branches more demurely with a pair of secateurs.
The first hour was fine. Zepherien would put up his hand. We would clumsily stop. We sniffed for gorilla musk and craned to hear sounds from the undergrowth. There were a lot of flies. I had been reading Gorillas in the Mist, so I summoned my inner Dian Fossey. Fossey lived alongside apes for almost 20 years before she was murdered by poachers in 1985. Even though she studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda rather than the western lowland gorillas we were looking for (scientific name: gorilla gorilla gorilla), I was sure that some aspects of her experience were relevant across both species. Fossey, I had noticed, spent a huge amount of time crawling through bushes. She was always getting involved in diarrhetic dung. The best tourists, she said, were those who put the interests of the gorillas above their own.
Still, in the third hour, I couldn’t help but sense a certain slackness enter Zepherien. Some of the fallen trees we clambered over were becoming familiar. Zepherien’s utterances changed from previously concrete statements, such as “They are in there”, to more circumspect phrases, such as “they have already cut across here” and “they like these holes”. At one point, to cheer us up, he showed us some elephant tracks. Zepherien was turning into one of those taxi drivers you sometimes encounter in foreign cities who start off confidently, zooming towards the neighbourhood of your hotel, before slowing right down to ask directions from guys sitting outside bars. When it felt like we had reached the final fork in the marantaceae maze, Zepherien put down his backpack and made the universal gesture of “Your guess is as good as mine” and headed off on his own to see if the gorillas had ended up in a swamp.
Turns out there is no skipping to the gorillas in Congo. The place is basically one huge forest. More than 75 per cent of the Republic of Congo is covered in trees, which makes it – along with the adjoining rainforests of Cameroon, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic – part of one of the last great wildernesses on earth. It’s just not that simple to find animals in heavy foliage. You have to work to see your gorillas and chimpanzees, or in my case, servals.
It’s not exactly hospitable country, either. One night over a drink at Lango, one of two new lodges opened in northern Congo by the upmarket South African travel company Wilderness Safaris, Fraser Gear, the camp’s manager, said to me: “You know, if you want to go and see the central African lowland rainforest, you are going to suffer your ass off.”
Etienne, the guide who used to work in PR, happened to be standing nearby. “Don’t write that down,” he joked. “Write it down,” said Gear, firmly.
Wilderness passed on plenty of advice on what to pack before I left London: long trousers, long shirts, litres of insect repellent. But there is something of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy as well. If you’re afraid of something, it probably lives in the Congo. I stopped listening when the conversation turned to leeches. I brought my toughest walking boots, which had been everywhere from the Rockies to the Himalayas. They fell apart after three days.
As such, northern Congo might not seem like the most obvious place to go on holiday. It’s certainly not the most obvious place to invest more than £2m in a new luxury safari venture. The Republic of Congo ranks at 181, out of 183, in the World Bank’s list of easiest countries in which to do business. It took Gear and his partner (and fellow camp manager) Sandra Schönbächler 21 hours to go by road from the capital Brazzaville to the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the rains last November. “I wondered why the guy was driving us into a river,” said Gear, who carries the slightly mad glint of someone who has spent 20 years in the bush. “But it wasn’t a river, it was the main road.” The lodges at Odzala finally opened this September, with some of their furniture still stuck in containers on the coast in Pointe-Noire.
And it’s not as if logistics are the only hitch. The Republic of Congo may be much smaller and less brutalised than its big sister across the river, the Democratic Republic, but it’s no picnic. The country has been basically stable since President Denis Sassou Nguesso – in and out of power since 1979 – signed a peace deal with the “Ninjas” opposition militia in 2003, but it is a tough, poverty-stricken place. I had a morning to kill in Brazzaville before the two-hour flight north to an airstrip on the edge of the park, so went to visit the city’s massive, heavily tiled church. I asked two men fixing a door if I could look around and they said, “Vous êtes visiteur?” as if they didn’t say the word too often. The stadium next door was being used as a refugee camp.
Of course, in all the unlikelihood, lies wonder. Odzala-Kokoua, where Wilderness has the only lodges, has been a national park since 1935. It covers more than 5,000 square miles and had 50 visitors last year. There are no roads and no people. “You can walk that way,” said Gear one evening, gesturing north from the deck at Lango, the more expansive of the two lodges, “for months.”
Lango, a 90-minute drive from the airstrip, consists of six rooms, all elegant hardwoods, roofed with raffia and equipped with showers heated by paraffin stoves, overlooking a bai – a swampy clearing in the forest. When we arrived, an elephant was fading into the dusk.
Roughly speaking, there are three landscapes at Odzala: wet forest, dry forest and savannah. Given its unpenetrated state, there is an emphasis on walking. On our first morning, we got up at 5am and waded for an hour through mud and streams – the soft reek of living things – before joining Gear and a metal boat with an outboard motor to drive upstream on the Lekoli river, watching the liquid movement of monkeys running across the canopy. (Odzala has one of the most diverse primate populations in Africa.)
On drier ground, the primary rainforest – with trees as big as apartment blocks – presents a sight of nature that is moving in its complexity. Everything thrives by way of everything else: vines, fungi, insects, plants, bees, ants. The air is heavy and tossed with butterflies. Some 4,500 species of plants and trees are known in Odzala, and more remain, defying our language and science. Hornbills beat their wings overhead. Bushes shake nearby with invisible forest elephants, three-tonne wraiths. At sunset on the savannah, we drank beer while the horizon exploded into a vast, electrical storm. It might have been the dawn of time.
There is something else, as well, under the beauty. It is not quite the right word but as the days pass, you feel a kind of need, an urgency to be in Congo. High-end ecotourism of this type simply does not exist in central Africa and, done right, it can obviously act as an engine for conservation and employment. It is a mighty undertaking, and this is the beginning. It took six years to get the Wilderness lodges up and running in Odzala. They are the visible extremity of a whole lattice of agreements between the government, philanthropists, the World Conservation Union and African Parks, a private South African wildlife management company. Because of the commercial risk, the entire cost of the project has so far been underwritten by Sabine Plattner, the German wife of software billionaire Hasso Plattner. It will take years of paying guests to break even.
Everything is fragile here. A previous attempt to establish tourism in Odzala was a disaster. Incompetent and corrupt management of the park led to its near-devastation. Thousands of elephants were taken by poachers. When African Parks took over in 2010, rangers found manioc fields growing in the swamps and hunting hides around the clearings: 240 elephant carcases were found in the bai at Lango alone. With logging concessions growing closer every year, and the demand for bushmeat rising in the busy cities to the south, the new economic model for Odzala – effectively a pilot project for the entire region – has to work. “The time for this park is now,” Gear told me. Congo is a country whose oil is running out. The forests are its next treasure.
Which brings us to the gorillas. They haven’t had the easiest time either. A series of Ebola outbreaks in 2002, 2004 and 2005 tore through the western lowland gorillas in northern Congo, wiping out 95 per cent of some populations. Hundreds of people died on the fringes of the park.
Witnessing the entire epidemic, and trying to figure it out, was Magdalena Bermejo, a primatologist and anthropologist from the University of Barcelona. Bermejo was the first scientist to habituate western lowland gorillas, in 2000. She lost her initial research groups to Ebola, and has now teamed up with Wilderness to allow tourists to come and view their successors.
An amazing 20,000 gorillas remain at Odzala, and tracking takes place from Ngaga, Wilderness’s second lodge. A two-and-a-half hour drive from Lango, it is the more dramatic of the two – a semi-circle of raised rooms, at the base of a sloping jungle clearing. After the hunt with Zepherien, we were led out the next morning by his fellow tracker Calvin.
This time we hit paydirt within an hour. “Je les vis,” said Calvin, beaming. We put on surgical masks to prevent us from transmitting diseases to the gorillas and trooped into the marantaceae. My glasses misted up, and broke. (Piece of advice you don’t get from Fossey: wear contacts.) The morning light seemed to catch every leaf in the forest. And then they were above us: black, loping figures, precise and elastic in the trees. After the initial bolt of evolutionary recognition, I couldn’t stop smiling. For some reason, they looked to me like old men who had escaped from the circus. We watched for an hour as they lounged and ate and reached for footholds with their toes. Gorillas in the sun.
Sam Knight was a guest of Zambezi Safari & Travel Company, which offers a seven-night trip, with one night at the Mikhael Hotel in Brazzaville, three at Lango Camp and three at Ngaga Camp from £3,995, including internal flights and transfers (flights from London would add around £800).
For further information on the camps, see www.wilderness-collection.com