Our chartered aircraft flew high above the endless expanse of Congo rainforest, where hundreds of feet below, the dazzling and surprisingly varied shades of green stood in stark contrast to the silky Sangha River, dotted with tiny pirogues and fishing nets being cast. I also noticed the bare patches of earth, or “Bai’s” surrounded by the trails of hundreds of animals fanning out into the wilderness, which were home to some of Africa’s highest concentration of lowland gorillas and forest elephants who come here for food and mineral-rich nutrients. After being met on landing at the small airstrip, we were immediately greeted by staff from our lodge, our home for the next few nights, along with a group of the local Ba’Aka tribe who call the forest home and who were to be our – quite exceptional – forest guides over the next few days.
After introductions, they followed us to the camp where they explained they would be cooking fresh fish for dinner as these were the same people I saw fishing as I flew in – they catch what they need when they hear the plane coming in. After a refreshing shower, we sat down around the camp fire with a cold beer before dinner (it’s amazing what you can now get in the Congo!) and were introduced to the researchers and guides who would be joining us over the next few days. They explained a little about the forest and the unique animals found here and the way in which tourism is hoping to achieve something different here – expect the unexpected was the general theme.
After rising at first light, the following morning we left the lodge on a short walk into the forest, thick with giant plants and the strange sounds of birds and mammals against a background noise of a million unseen insects. Walking silently through clear streams, open savannah and rich mud, we saw plenty of elephant footprints, gorilla prints and enormous butterflies through forests completely untouched by humans – it felt as if I were stepping back in time.
We finally reached the Bai and the bright colours after the shade of the forest caught me completely by surprise. Red flame trees were in bloom atop a spectrum of green plants and trees, flocks of African Gray parrots flew overhead and iridescent sunbirds hovered over purple flowers. It was however, the herd of forest elephants that stole the show, taking centre stage as they fought, ate and played in the middle of the Bai, splashed in yellow, red and grey mud, the soil a cooling balm in the tropical heat. Low rumbling calls marked the arrival of more elephants emerging from the forests as young infants played, old friends met and young bulls tested their strength at this extraordinary social gathering.
Later, as the sun set and the colours mellowed, we retreated for the evening after watching the last of the elephants say their goodbyes until the forest clearing was empty. As we walked back to camp, we could still hear the odd elephant call echoing through the forest as the nocturnal animals beginning to stir. It was then that I realised that this daily scene had been played out every day for centuries and if tourism here is to achieve anything, I hope, countless more.
Contact Chris if you have any further questions about his trip to the Congo.