“They are just in here” said our guide Kelvin, frantically pointing to the thick green curtain of vegetation that separated us from 25 lowland gorillas in the Odzala Kokoua National Park in the Congo. Five of us sat, stony-faced looking unconvinced and ready to return to Ngaga camp which we had left nearly 10 hours ago, full of optimism, setting out to explore this beautiful forest.
The first few hours had been great; walking in the rainforest in the early morning is a real joy! The moisture on the leaves seemed to make the forest glow in the early morning sun as butterflies glittered green and blue around us. Hornbills took flight and monkeys shouted alarm calls in the canopy above as we walked by; simultaneously trying to enjoy the scenery whilst carefully watching our step – the ants bite hard and snakes are well camouflaged. This was a real adventure and the reason we had all come.
After a number of promising signs early on (chewed leaves, recently vacated nests and a helpful GPS tracking system) the trail kept going cold and Kelvin would shake his head and we would stop and take a breather whilst questioning how long we should give it before it was acceptable to admit defeat and turn back for a cool shower and cold beer at Ngaga Camp, our luxury lodge and home for the last few days.
Such was the enthusiasm and perseverance of Kelvin however, that we felt to turn back now, would be churlish. It had become a mission and point of principle as much for Kelvin as it had for us. I can’t quite remember at what point the atmosphere in the group suddenly changed, but with the first clap of thunder as the skies darkened, we realised the trek had taken on a greater degree of urgency.
Kelvin started to pick up his pace as those earlier promising signs returned; more chewed leaves, fresh knuckle prints and a number of very recent – and eye wateringly large – gorilla poos. “They are about 10 minutes ahead of us” Kelvin whispered excitedly, and sure enough a few minutes later we picked up their scent; pungent, musky and unmistakable.
We then heard grunting and what sounded like the beating of a chest.
Looking up we saw the dark and unmistakable silhouette of a lowland gorilla.
We sat there in amazed silence – combined with relief – as we watched a dozen gorillas high up in the trees, eating, calling to each other and moving into a variety of positions, all of which seemed designed to deny us the classic photo we were all so desperate to get.
No sooner had we settled into place, balancing unsteadily on slopes, craning our necks and balancing cameras and binoculars, the gorillas had been spooked and before we knew what was happening, 24 gorillas slid down the trunks of trees all around us and disappeared into the undergrowth.
“That’s it” Kelvin said, and exhausted we headed back to camp. Ironically we were only an hour’s walk from camp, given the gorillas had us walking in circles all day!
An 11-hour trek, in 100% humidity, through mud, swamps and rivers for just over 40 minutes sightings? It was by far one of the most thrilling wildlife experiences I have been lucky enough to do, such is the beauty of the forest and the skill of Kelvin.
My cold beer back at camp had never tasted so good.