Central African Republic Part 2
On my charter flight I met a French guy who was in charge of the country’s anti-poaching patrols. He’d been working in the C.A.R for six years and told me that despite civil wars, militia groups and incursions of poachers from neighbouring countries, the elephant population was fairly healthy with well over 5000 mainly Forest Elephants.
Not far from the capital we started to fly over areas of rainforest but most surprising was the lack of agriculture. I don’t think I’ve flown anywhere in Africa where the landscape was less disturbed. There were cleared areas and small farm plots but virtually no large scale farming. It was in total contrast to my recent visit to Sierra Leone, where virtually the entire country has been slashed and burnt.
It didn’t take long and we were flying over hundreds of kilometres of undisturbed rainforest. Even from 18,000ft it was horizon to horizon primeval Congo Basin rainforest in every direction. A vast expanse of dense, damp and inviting looking darkness.
My aim is to get to the South-West corner of the country and into the UNESCO World Heritage Sangha Tri- national Forest which covers nearly a million hectares and is one of the World’s greatest and least visited national parks.
The forest reserve is made up of three national parks in three neighbouring countries. Two years ago I spent a fortnight in Lobeki NP in Cameroon and Ndoki NP in the Congo Republic. This year is the Dzangha-Sangha NP in a remote corner of the Central African Republic.
The Congo Basin is my favourite part of Africa. Last time I was here it was the wet season and at times it poured for hours. The forest was dripping wet and alive with insects, birds and animals. This year I’ve come again in the Wet Season (May-June) to see the rainforest at its best.
The equatorial tropical Congo Basin covers 3.7 million square kilometres and is now the largest tract of undisturbed rainforest on the planet and a huge carbon sink. That’s about half the size of either continental USA or Australia.
The wildlife in the western corner is incredible with mammals including Forest Elephant, Hippo, Chimps, Leopard, Great Forest Hog, Forest Buffalo, Bongo, Sitatunga, Okapi, Bonobo and over 80,000 Western Lowland Gorillla. Add to that 800 bird species.
To further put into perspective how amazing this pristine ecosystem is, incredibly most of the species in the park are near their historic population levels, and there have been no known species lost.
We landed in Bayanga and I was met by Nuria from Doli Lodge, where I’d be staying for nine days. Doli is built on the tranquil banks of the Sangha River and owned by the WWF. Doli means Elephant in the local language.
The lodge has eight chalets and a restaurant lounge area which sits over the river.
It’s easy to spend hour after hour sitting on the veranda just watching unhurried life on the river slowly go by.
The local Sangha-Sangha fisherman move across the river with their nets. People move between villages, children play on the islands and people just sit in their pirogues and talk while slowly drifting along, all without a single outboard engine heard all day.
I’ve previously seen Western Lowland Gorillla in both Cameroon and The Congo so didn’t go looking for those despite there being around 3000 of them in the local area near the lodge.
I did a couple of pirogue trips on the river and one of the smaller creeks, including one at night.
The highlight for me was a full day at Dzanga Bai, which is the best place in the World to see Forest Elephant.
A bai is a rainforest clearing with a water source which is formed above a dolerite intrusion and therefore has an abundance of minerals not usually found in the rainforest such as sodium, magnesium, potassium and calcium, which are important for the diets of forest herbivores.
We drove until the road became a river and then walked down a track which wasn’t much different.
We then walked down the middle of the river for a while. After that we reached a swamp which we walked through trying to avoid 30cm deep underwater elephant footprints, eventually finding dry land.
The area was spectacular with wet tall rainforest but all the time we had to be on the lookout for Forest Elephants and Gorilla. The Mountain Gorillas we visited in Uganda last year were habituated and there’s only about 900 remaining. There are over 120,000 Western Lowland Gorilla in Central and Western Africa and the ones in these parts are wild and can be aggressive.
In the Wet Season everything including the air is heavy. The waterlogged ground never dries out and the tall water laden trees constantly drip between storms.
At this time of year everything is also more alive. The forest is noisy with small insects and rattling cicadas as well as bird calls in every direction from passing parrots and hornbills to squabbling sunbirds at eye level.
As we walked towards the bai, elephant trumpeting could be heard from over a kilometer away.
We reached Dzanga Bai and there were 60 Forest Elephants in the clearing. The scene was incredible and I sat in the elevated hide and watched the groups interact, feed, drink and bath in the mud.
And just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, a yellow elephant wandered out of the forest!!
About midday it started to rain, which pretty much continued for the rest of the day.
I stayed until 4pm when we slowly walked out. When we got to the river there were two elephants in front of us. We turned off though the forest but we could see another elephant had come the same way as us not long before. We had to very quietly and carefully make our way back through the swamp.
Bayanga village (below) is near the lodge and I visited the village over the eight days got to know a few of the locals.
The Ba’ka Pygmies live in several small villages surrounding Bayanga and still hunt and gather in the forest like they’ve done for many thousands of years. I did several trips deep into the forest and out of nowhere would appear a pygmy tracker or a group of women harvesting nuts or picking mushrooms after the rain. They’re the happiest and friendliest people I’ve met in all of Africa.
Below: Houses in the pygmy village.
After nine days in the forest I heard there was a United Nations plane arriving and after a few enquiries I managed to get myself a seat on the return trip to Bangui.
Actually, it was better than that. I was the only person on the plane and had all the seats to myself!
The forest was a great experience and I could have spent a month in there. Maybe one day I’ll go back.
I arrived back in Bangui and after a short stay in Lome have made my way to Dakar and my luggage. Photos below are the Lome coast and looking down on Bamako, Mali and the Niger River looking a lot lower than when I was there in 2017.
AND for a total change of scenery my next country is the island nation of Cape Verde, which is in the Atlantic Ocean, 500km off the coast of Senegal. With a couple of islands to visit, I’ll probably stay for about three weeks.
Bye for now..