Chasing Gorillas is Better than Lions

By John Nelson, September 15, 2011

Sangha Lodge, overlooking the Sangha River - Photo by John Nelson

Sangha Lodge, overlooking the Sangha River - Photo by John Nelson

From Somerset to the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve in Southwest Central Africa Republic. A trip to meet up with the Bayaka hunter-gatherer Pygmies, visit the big elephant clearing known as Dzanga Bai and follow the lowland gorillas.

From a rainy Nairobi we flew west for 5 hours and landed in M’Poko airport in blinding morning sunshine, tattered yellow fever certificates in hand, and negotiated through three intersecting queues to obtain one passport stamp. It was extremely hot, 10 am and already 30 degrees C. My sweaty hands had spoiled my pen, so my immigration form looked like it had been written by an 8 year old. After a quick “Bienvenue, tu n’as pas une bière pour mois?”, from the round and jovial woman customs officer, we walked out of the terminal and into the car park.

We were met by friendly Jacques, who drove us out the main gates and then down the old airport runway. This has become the central boulevard of the capital city, and it is the widest road I have been on since LA. We swept down the middle lane to avoid potholes, motorbikes, and what looked like Chicano low-riders, but which were in fact battered yellow local taxis with shattered suspensions. Welcome to Bangui.

Money changing at the Ecobank was pretty easy, albeit slow and expensive, with only two long queues available for all transactions. Thankfully I knew to bring Euros, which are tied to the Central African Franc (FCFA 655= 1 Euro), so my exchange was pretty automatic, and I kept the small Euro bills in my wallet to spend in restaurants when my FCFA ran out. My hapless companion was not so lucky; he had brought relatively worthless US dollars, and UK Sterling that confused the teller, so a manager had to intervene, which at least helped partly to justify the sky-high commissions he had to pay. On the way out of the car park I purchased a new mobile phone SIM card for 60 pence from a delighted lady street hawker, who took my fresh 10,000 FCFA bill and disappeared … before returning with my change and a smile 5 minutes later.

Bayaka walking on Dzanga Bai – their indigenous, ancestral and customary hunting ground – Photo by John Nelson

Bayaka walking on Dzanga Bai – their indigenous, ancestral and customary hunting ground – Photo by John Nelson

Our hotel was owned by an Israeli who came for the diamonds 33 years ago, indicated by the retro design of the stained and broken-down swimming pool in the concreted garden. Levy’s Hotel offers clean accommodation for about £30 per night, plus food and drink, and the room includes a Dubai-imported TV with one channel broadcasting FIFA football in a misty snowstorm. Unfortunately the air conditioners cannot run at night off the hotel generator (roaring 40 feet away), so I settled for the mosquito net and an electric fan.

In the veranda restaurant, a cup of café au lait made from Nescafe crystals and powdered milk was about a quid, including sugar. This was the same as a Mocaf, the national beer, which in its litre bottle was obviously the better value, especially in the unrelenting heat. Starving, we lunged for the menu that was so thick the pages were falling out, and after struggling to choose between a chateaubriand and a pizza for lunch, we were told that they the only thing they had to eat was written on a small chalkboard. The dry wind continued to blow dust from the runway over the wall and onto the tables while we ate delicious rice, fried plantains and beef stew served by graceful ladies.

That night we went out to a bar situated at the end of a long peninsula of rocks jutting into the Bangui river, for London-priced beer and a spectacular setting overlooking the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Then a friend took us for cheap fresh fish – perfectly grilled with oil and salt and served with manioc batons, mayonnaise and chili – at a local bar one block from our hotel. We sat out in the sandy street at wooden tables under the full moon and talked politics. There was a palm tree hanging over the scene, and we moved chairs when occasional cars nudged by.

The next morning we were picked up at 6 am and within 15 minutes we were stopped for the first of 17 official inspections of our paperwork between Bangui and our destination, a sure sign of political failure, and paranoia. Generally this involved a short delay while our driver greeted a policeman, gendarme or customs official while vendors tried to sell us fruit and water in mini plastic bags, before we were waved on our way. Mud and wattle villages came along every 15 minutes or so, and most of the children waved and shouted at our Landcruiser as we bashed by. The adults stepped off the road and covered their eyes from the dust cloud we left in our wake.

We stopped halfway for sweet coffee and grilled beef with chilli salt on the side, and then once more to commiserate with a chauffeur repairing a flat tire. His jack was not tall enough, and he was digging a hole in the decrepit road so he could fit on the spare tire. The ride continued as we passed logging trucks and village merchants transporting their wares from village to village by bicycle. 10 hours and 300 miles after leaving Bangui we finally arrived at the eastern shore of the Sangha River, not far from Cameroon and the Republic of Congo, and deep in the rainforest zone on the northern edge of the Congo Basin. From my front door in Somerset it had taken 54 hours to arrive at the centre of the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve in Southwest Central Africa Republic, 3,500 miles from home.

After the Amazon, the Congo Basin is the second largest remaining block of rainforest left on earth. The Dzanga Reserve on its northern extreme is known worldwide for its elephant population and its gorilla “habituation programme”. There is also a large population of indigenous peoples, the Bayaka hunter-gatherer Pygmies. This is why we have come. Difficult arrival now forgotten, for the next seven days we spent our time discovering the big elephant clearing known as Dzanga Bai, which now overlaps Bayaka customary hunting grounds; following the lowland gorillas around the forest while we clucked our tongues – it keeps them calm and stops them screaming or charging; and going net hunting and medicine collecting in the forest with the chaotically friendly Bayaka, who are intimately involved with this great big forest pantry.

Sunset from the Sangha Lodge – Photo by John Nelson

Sunset from the Sangha Lodge – Photo by John Nelson

The nights were full of frog song, the screaming of a tree hyrax across the river, lightning shows on the horizon, bugs hitting the lights, and some pretty impressive thundershowers. One afternoon we watched from our room as a black leopard swam across the river and ran into the forest. This natural abundance was punctuated by a small collection of Europeans and Americans who drank beers and postulated in the Doli Lodge deck bar until 10 pm, when the generator switched off and we were all plunged into darkness. We had numerous discussions with Bayaka lingering in the leafy car park offering to sell jewellery, baskets and musical instruments they had created in the forest. Their charm, intelligence, grace and humour stick in my mind, especially as I look around at the baskets, bracelets and musical instruments all over my house.

When they were not engaged in organised tourism, people seemed to stick to the lodge, although a few walked into the local town Bayanga to visit the Mauritanian shop, or to drink a few cheap beers in a local bar along the river. A few take a pirogue ride up river with local Sangha Sangha fisherman to collect and drink alcoholic palm wine. The alcohol content and flavour both grow as the heat does its work, so go early to avoid a headache. You can also arrange an expedition to capture the legendary tiger fish.

Recently the renovated Sangha Lodge and its very well-stocked bar opened up its doors a few kilometres upstream from Bayanga, where the river bends west, and dinner there is worth the sunset alone. Sangha Lodge has developed a wider range of tourist activities also encompassing hidden waterfalls, bird watching and night walks, and the private bungalows are tempting. The only hitch to going just for the dinner is negotiating the raft bridge to the car park after the brandy. I recommend staying the night.

We returned to Bangui the same way we had arrived, followed by a cold shower in the room, a Chinese supper in the town centre, a late night police stop of our taxi 30 meters from the hotel, another night lying in front of the fan, and then a ride down the runway to the airport. Formalities completed, we lounged in the upstairs bar, sipping expensive cokes and trying to use up our phone credit. Some Canadian prospectors heading home after a long stint in the bush were drinking bottles of whiskey at the bar. From the viewing deck we watched our plane land and disgorge passengers, while a chuckling security guy explained how it had come from the wrong direction “they had the wind behind them!”

Back in Nairobi airport we decided to eat TexMex, and changed our small Euro notes for just enough shillings to keep us going for the 6 hours we waited for our London plane. Over Tusker beers and a strange mango drink invented by my colleague using gin from the plane, we watched the booths fill and empty several times with beet-faced safari tourists dressed either like they had just walked in from the swimming pool, or as if they were going to war in Vietnam. Most had actually arrived by bus from luxurious resorts, after a week of drives around savannahs clogged with newlyweds from the UK.

As I sat there watching the Libyan rebellion unfold on the TV, I wondered why so many people bent on African adventure took the conventional path to Kenya. Sleeping lions on the Serengeti plain seen from the roof of a minibus, and a night in a treehouse overlooking a salt lick next to a pond are akin to a trip to a safari park in the UK, but with more interesting boutiques. Central Africa Republic is certainly not the easiest place to visit, but at least it is unremittingly real. Our satisfyingly tough journey had included previously unknown amazing natural and cultural wonders, and a glimpse of the poverty and struggle that for most Africans is a daily reality.

John Nelson is the Director of Africa Delivers

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