Republic of Congo
By Gaël R. Vande weghe
Part 2 - October 2015
After two weeks spent on the mosaic of forests, savannas and swamp in the Mboko and Lango area of Odzala, I had to move to the last destination of the trip, Ngaga, located about one hour from Mbomo, the entrance of the Park. We were now leaving the last savannas, and the northernmost tip of the Kalahari fossil sands and we were entering true forests, on the west. It is all part of the same ecosystem but the forest is changing visibly as landscapes becomes slightly less flat. We were now in a mosaic of imprenetrable Maranthaceae forest with sparse large trees – often very old Dacryodes with their rough trunks and coppery-green crowns – in young but tall forest surrounding the ancient clearings and older forests in valleys. There were lots of white ebonies Diospyros whytei in these forests which was quite special.
Spending a few days around Ngaga was particularly rewarding. An impressive network of wide trails allowed for decent amount of walking in what otherwise would be very difficult dense vegetation. Moreover, there was good visibility on large trees, and we could see things that were otherwise only heard. Ngaga had plenty of monkeys, hornbills, and lovebirds were common. I was sure that there were plenty of antilopes around, but the main reason for our presence was lowland gorillas. Three groups had been habituated for tourism purpose and we were going to track them in the upcoming days. I’ve had several encounters with these large apes in Gabon, but they were never habituated. It was often a male crossing a road in a flash, or just a charging noise in the understory without ever seeing the animal. I had once a few females observing us from very far, but it was never easy nor long sighting. To be fair I had never really been searching for them either.
The forest at the turn to Ngaga camp, and the road to Gabon.
A female on the forest floor.
Nepheronia thalassina | mâle
On yellow flowers on the side of the road.
Tall forest on the slopes immediately north of the camp.
This time was going to be different and I was very curious to compare the experience with our Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, which I’ve had the chance to track several times. In Rwanda, the gorillas have been habituated for over three generations at least, their behavior in the presence of humans is rarely with a surprise. They are calm, very tolerant, and really just enjoying their naps most of the time. Here, this may not be the case, its the first generation of habituated Lowland Gorillas, and their habitats and landscapes are different, as is their history of interactions with humans, often limited to poaching (in the past).
On the 4th morning we were set for tracking and the departure was very early. Much earlier than the comfortable walk starting at 8:00 in Rwanda. Here we began at 6:00 and the tracker was walking fast… very fast, with a sustained pace. I could feel my heart not being used to military walks this early, fortunately for me, the terrain was mostly flat (ish). We covered 2 km very quickly as he was hoping to catch Jupiter and his family before he would decide to take them a few km away for a change of diet. This could turn a 1 hour walk into 4 hours of painful search.
Abruptly he stopped, looked ahead and about 50 meters in front of us, on the corner of the wide path, the first little ball of black fluff was looking at us. It was a young gorilla, appearing curious but calm. We advanced slowly and located a few more. Youngs, females, all scattered on roughly fifty by fifty meters. You could never really see more than two at the same time, sometimes only dark faces in deep understory darkness. Mostly we were hearing them eat.
Veiled lady mushroom on the forest floor.
The small river in front of Ngaga camp.
Zanthoxylum sp. with its rough spiky trunk and understory lianas.
The approach under Megaphrynium understory, with a few sweat bees.
Suddenly three or four gorillas started to climb and that striked me immediately as one huge difference to their cousins. All gorillas can climb, but as these got high up, I noticed there were plenty up there, evolving in various types of entangled sub-canopy vegetation. Basically there was a group of maybe 10 – 15 gorillas about 15 – 20 meters high up in the trees and lianas. How weird it looked, when you are used to be in the same salad bowl (Rwanda).
These are arboreal gorillas.
A loud and very brief scream woke me up from my canopy contemplation.
Jupiter was there, at the end of the trail, and was looking at us. He announced his appearance and acknowledged our presence with a scream that spiked by blood pressure. How playful of him. I pointed my camera at the silverback and in less than what it takes for me to realise, he did a little intimidation charge and another scream. I will never get used to how fast these ”gentle” giants can be. After that, he entered the maranthaceae and we barely saw him again that day. An hour went by fast.
A glimpse in the dark.
A young one, high up in the trees.
First contact with Jupiter, showing me who’s the boss.
Jupiter on the trail, inspecting.
I kept reflecting on this experience or encounter. Compared to my hairy Mountain Gorillas, these were somewhat more dynamic apes. More wary as well, but definately habituated, with all the confidence it allows them to display. This is barely a rule hoewever and only one thing remains a certitude. Every single gorilla encounter I have had, has been a unique experience. That’s the only constant.
It’s always been a humbling experience, for there is something in their gaze. Eyes crosses inevitably (with pretty much any wildlife encounter for that matter) but gorillas are unique. Their eyes always appear to be looking deep into your soul and their calm and staring behaviour – sometimes with a certain pride – have a way of striking chords of uncertainty. I’ve seen other monkeys, from Guenons to Colobus to Baboons and Chimps, they are all extraordinary animals (special mention to the crazy chimps), but it should be said that, somehow, the gorillas, the largests of them all, will make you think long after you’ve met them.
Their eyes are often more human than ours.
Back in the camp, as I disturbed a Great Blue Turaco in the branches in front of my tent, i was still thinking. It was the end of the day, and these forest still had a lot to give me.
End of part 2.
Great Blue Turaco | Corythaeola cristata
On the last minutes of daylight.