According to the CIA, 'the Central African Republic (CAR) is a perennially weak state that sits at the crossroads of ethnic and linguistic groups in the center of the African continent'. This ex French colony (known then as Ubangi Shari) has been fraught with conflict between ethnic groups (emanating from the local population's involvement in the slave trade in the 1700s, which metamorphosed into forced labour after the abolition of slavery) and subject to numerous coups (since independence in 1960). Much of the country is not under government control - the Wagner group have recently been called in. The FCO advise against all travel - the map of CAR is entirely red.
This is one of those trips where I start off wondering what on earth I'm doing, but I'm swiftly and delightfully reassured. I'm in the south west corner of the Central African Republic. And here, it's peaceful and full of smiling faces. The welcome from the local Bayaka peoples is almost rapturous. And. the wildlife is reported to be amazing. Let's see.
We’re met, in Limbongo, in Cameroon, by the Sangha Lodge (where we're staying) deputy manager Kate, from Zimbabwe. (Lives in Spain, Swiss husband). Passage through immigration, across the Sangha River, couldn’t be easier. From my point of view anyway. Though it involves two stops across the river, one in the small hamlet of Bomandjokou, one slightly further up the river at Lidjombo (there's Lidjombo I, II and III) and then a lodging of passports at Bayanga, the main town in the area, for the actual stamps (they are liberal with these). Moses from the lodge deals with it all, very efficiently. My visa, which had to be arranged as a message du port, (as Travcour managed to request the wrong country when they sent my passport to Brussels) doesn’t seem to cause any issues at all. It seems that all the correct palms were greased at the right moment.
It’s a tranquil two hour ride up the river (if you don't count the noise of the engine), into the Central African Republic. The border wanders west, away from the river, as we progress north. Two hippos poke up their heads and eye us warily. Rippling gold sandbanks, thatched villages perched on the edge of the rainforest, locals fishing in their pirogues, washing and splashing or and glorious cloud reflections in the still water.
Our tour group for our Central African Odyssey Part 2 is still zoologist guide Ben, Russian American, Olga, and her husband Dave, who's a commercial pilot, and Andrew, Ben’s father, a professor of zoology at Cambridge. Rupert, another zoologist and eminent virologist is waiting for us at Sangha. As I said before, I'm in very eminent company.
Sangha Lodge is a very welcome piece of paradise. It’s managed by South African Tamar and (very long bearded) Rod. Parents of Alon, who I met in Odzala in Congo, (who was also very long bearded). Louise from Kurdistan is here, doing voluntary work. (It is indeed a small world). The other member of the family is an adorable Siamese cat, N’duzu (blue or sky). He poses for photographs when he’s not scratching at your shoes or demanding to be stroked.
I have a bungalow with river views, (the dining room terrace has better ones. they're stunning, but I also have a jungle curtain and my own deck). Gorgeous sunsets go without saying. Gin and tonic and excellent dinners too.
The forest is constantly alive, alarm calls fill the air. Everything from the annoying microwave timer buzz of crickets and the chirrup of frogs, to the melancholy wail of the tree hyrax (they sound as if the world is about to end). Butterflies flit down the paths, taunting me by alighting on branches and moving just as I focus the camera. Monkeys (moustached, putty nosed, colobus and de Brazzaville) crash through the trees, followed by equally boisterous giant blue turaco. There’s a self- habituated de Brazzaville monkey, known as Basil, who has befriended the cat. He also obliges for the camera.
Night walks with torches and thermal imagers yield results, even around the camp. There are bats galore, galagoes and cute pop eyed pottos (Milne Edwards) blinking down at us. The mammal specialists are exceptionally excited to see two anomalures in one tree. (Beecroft’s and Lord Derby’s.) These rodents were once thought to be a type of flying squirrel, due to the skin flaps attached to their limbs, but have now been given their own classification.
As I repeatedly have to point out, every paradise has its flaws. There isn’t sufficient electricity for fans, let alone a.c. There is hot water, but it takes 25 minutes to arrive, via a long rubber pipe, run along the ground. The insect life is prolific. Cockroaches peep out from behind the rafters and larger bugs (they remind me of Kafka - I am in bed after all) clamber across the mosquito net swathed over my fourposter bed. Swarms of winged creatures duck in given half a chance.
There are large ants marauding in the bathroom. Their favourite spot is the toilet seat, so I have to check carefully before I sit down. (Oh the ant-icipation.) Tiny sweat bees gather around and tickle when I'm on the Wi-Fi, outside the office. There's a giant thunderstorm at night; lightning crackles overhead and my toilet, it turns out, doubles as a shower when it rains. And there's a deluge. At least it will drown the ants.
It's two hours, in a safari vehicle, to see the habituated the gorillas in Dzanga Ndoki Park. The national park here, Dzanga-Ndoki, is split into two parts, Ndoki to the south and Dzanga, to the north. They are separated by the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, (home to the lodge, towns and villages). Together they form the Dzanga-Sangha Complex of Protected Areas. Together with Lobeke, in Cameroon, and the adjacent Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of the Congo Dzanga-Ndoki completes the Sangha Trinational protected area. It's the second largest rainforest in the world.
We’re ducking under whipping branches and taking impromptu showers, as the jungle closes in on the narrow forest tracks. It’s like being on a jungle ghost train. We're going to make two visits to Ndoki, home to the western lowland gorillas, which necessitates two gorilla permits and a Covid tests each time, before we can enter the tracking area. The checks are carried out by the lofty, bashful local vet. Then, it's a happily, not too strenuous, 40 minute hike to the primates. (They were two hours away the day before). Though my flapping boots aren't faring too well. Ben duct taped them up, but we had to dunk our feet in disinfectant baths and the tape didn't respond well.
There are some incredible bright fungi and huge termite mounds, shaped like the minaret in Iraq to amuse us en route. The ground is heaving with termites. It augurs well for the lowland gorillas who eat insects, as well as fruit (unlike their mountain cousins). Next, we have to don face masks. It's already steamy hot, so that makes us perspire even more. That’s when the sweat bees arrive. Clouds of them. So now it's net bonnets over the top of our masks.
The minuscule bees are not daunted. They zip inside the nets before we've even managed to pull them over our heads, and so now we've trapped them even closer to our skin. They lodge inside our eyelids and cling on, reluctant to be flicked away. If you squidge one, the scent attracts more. And their buzzing increases to a mighty roar.
Nevertheless, the gorillas are amazing. This is the only fully habituated family currently at Sangha. (Two other troop leaders died recently.) The silver back, Makumba, takes life easy, on his back, scratching occasionally, whilst his family doze. His name means 'With Speed' in the Bayaka language (because he used to run away from the rangers), but he's not letting that affect him. And sadly, he's getting on now. He must be over 40.
After a while, the gorillas amble off, keeping a distance in the trees, until they settle again to feast off termites. There are eight of them. A three month old is carried by his sister, who swarms off into the trees with him on her belly. A six month old performs a trapeze display on the creepers. And the others feast on termites, breaking up bark and scattering the insects over their chests. One runs straight towards me, clutching her bounty. Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/shorts/bW0SsELUEMg
Our return visit sees Makumba in post prandial mode. He’s lolling against branches, rolling over from one side to another, rearranging his limbs (huge haunches), stretching in yoga like poses (downward gorilla) and farting. His family are grouped behind him. The baby is fed by its mother, peeping out from under her arms, just behind Dad. Then he jigs around, poking at his his young sibling, and tugging on leaves. He must be teething. He’s clamping his teeth on slender branches.
The gorillas don’t move from their spot, until we pack up to leave and then they suddenly all rise up too – having played their part. They lollop off stage right. Makumba pulls himself upright. Poses for his fans for five minutes and then lumbers off after them. I'm so grateful to him, for allowing us to participate in his life, for a couple of hours. More moments to be treasured.
There's even more to admire, before we leave. A small waterfall cascading over a cave full of whirling bats.
A totally delightful expedition, till the safari truck refuses to start, or even bump start, after we have stopped to chainsaw a fallen tree. (There are numerous obstacles on the forest tracks). The car has no radio phone today and Ben can't get a satellite connection to the lodge on his device. I'm worried our night wildlife viewing experience might commence ahead of schedule. But Ben does eventually manage to contact his girlfriend Marina, in England. She succeeds in getting through to Rod and the seventh cavalry finally arrive. Though the engine has actually fired up by then.
We're assured that the vehicle is repaired and ready to go the following morning, when we're due to visit the famous Dzanga Bai. (Rod advertises the clearing as 'Without any doubt.....the best elephant experience in the world'.) It’s another long drive, with branches lashing our heads. This time, we skid on the bai track. Lucie, the Parisian trainee guide driver has been taken unawares by the slippery surface. The vehicle very nearly topples over to my side. It's one of those Life Flashes Before Your Eyes moments. I'm trying to decide if I will be crushed or thrown out. But it teeters and remains upright, crashing into the edge of the forest.
We're all shaken and just a little battered, but nothing worse. Efforts to dig the vehicle out (with aforesaid chainsaw) and reverse are fruitless. More calls are made. Today, we have the radio phone, but it is exceeding slow to message. A relief truck is sought - Ben goes on what we think is a four kilometre walk to search for that. And the sweat bees are relentless.
Ben's walk is thankfully shorter than anticipated. The vehicle is eventually hauled out and we continue on our way. First, an elephant research station (run by Cornell University) and a 30 minute rainforest walk to the bai, We begin with wading along a river. Finally, my Crocs come into their own. (My boots have gone into the village to be repaired.)
There's a spectacular welcome. Seventy forest elephants are scattered along a shallow, winding river. They're continually coming and going from the surrounding forest. (There were over 200 on December 25th, Did they know it was Christmas?) Chains of the pachyderms march in criss-cross lines, across the set. It’s a patchwork of glistening pools, shower opportunities and sunken mineral mud baths. A glorious elephant spa. (Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJCIrQt_Dr8)
The air is filled with the trumpeting of elephants, warning others out of their favourite spots and away from their particular groups. Chainsaws angrily starting up. Mothers are followed by calves, ranging from small to tiny. The diminutive babies are oh so cute. They attempt to shower with their trunks, like their parents and then flop into the water. Or tentatively link trunks, in the hope of finding a friend. ‘Do you want to come and play?’ Their older siblings jostle and bat heads or trunks. Golden elephants too. They've actually just been bathing in the yellow mud, but were once venerated as being sacred. In the sun, they really do look totally gilded. Though some are just splattered, as if they’ve been in a pot of custard.
It’s not just elephants in the pageant. There are resident chestnut forest buffalo family. They're submerged in the deeper water, every so often taking a wander round the bai, waggling their fringed black and white ears, before returning to their pool. Black and white colobus monkeys frolic on the outskirts (there’s a solitary red colobus too). Hamerkops swoop past, storks and cattle egrets tiptoe around the larger mammals, Hartlaub's ducks splash around and bee eaters and kingfishers dart into the trees.
There's still more. The entertainment continues later in the afternoon, as a family of giant forest hogs arrives and meanders around the edge of the clearing. They're relatively rare and huge - the largest of the pig family, at 275 kilograms. Bristles and long tusks. Mother, father, older progeny and a couple of juveniles who stay resolutely underneath Mum, whilst they're wandering away from the trees.
We also make two visits to this jewel of the Central African Republic. The second is just as fascinating and rewarding as the first, with virtually the same cast. (A wrinkly sixty four year old elephant and two new borns today.) But also waiting in the bai, much to the delight of our zoologists (they're in heaven), are a herd of thirty something bongo. These are the largest forest antelopes and this is the only reliable viewing site for them in the world. (And that's only a one in three or four chance, season and weather dependent).
The bongos are nothing short of striking, stealing the show as they meander along the pools, into the forest and back out again for another cooling dip and drink. Reverse humbugs, gingery coats with distinctive narrow white stripes, no two the same. Erect manes running the length of their backs, black and white legs, spirally twisted horns. Even their heads are astonishing, White daubings and black muzzles. Their ears whirr constantly - ongoing insect protection.
Rod is right. Dzanga Bai is truly wonderful. Despite the columns of ants and ever present sweat bees marching and congregating around our (very) lofty hide.
Just as rewarding, is an expedition to visit the Bayaka people of the Central African Republic. (They're also known as the Baka or Bebayaka, Bebayaga, Bibaya or Ba'aka), As well, as south west CAR they inhabit the south-eastern rain forests of Cameroon, (where we've just been), the northern Republic of the Congo and northern Gabon. The Bayaka were formerly referred to as pygmies, (they have average heights of 1.5 metres), but due to historical misuse of the term, as an insult, it is now, unsurprisingly, considered derogatory.
The Bayaka are traditionally hunter gatherers, living as semi nomads, and building temporary huts of bowed branches and leaves. As the rainforests become increasingly restricted and cleared, they are being forced into more sedentary and urban lifestyles. They have no hierarchies or leaders. And there are tensions with the majority Bantu peoples, (relations are of course vital if there is to be any trade). Most of the Bayaka only speak the Bayaka language and are often regarded as inferior, working as indentured servants or labourers.
Today, a group of Bayaka are taking us hunting, with them. We meet them in their villages, on the edge of Bayanga (this logging town in the Sangha Reserve, is as close to tourism as CAR gets) , and they cram into the back of the lodge pick up, Kate at the wheel, clutching nets and singing joyously. The Bayaka are famous for their polyphonic music. Spontaneous performances are common. Spiritual likanos stories and vocal singing, with accompaniment on a variety of instruments. The women even perform water drumming, (liquindi), hitting the surface of the water with their hands.
Today, they beat time on plastic bottles. (Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r0WBYf4nAM.) We follow behind, in our so far well behaved vehicle, still ducking all the while. Machete man André leads us into the forest behind his fellow hunters. He slashes a path that’s just about navigable, though watching the ground for creepers and ants and looking out for whiplash branches and stems at the same time, is a skill I'm struggling to master. I follow warily. André doesn’t always look behind, before he wields his weapon.
Traditionally, the Bayaka fish, using a chemical they extract from crushed jungle leaves, which stuns the fish and apparently, doesn't harm the streams. Or they hunt, with poisoned arrows and sometimes, dogs. On this occasion, we're just using nets.
Worship of nature is fundamental to the Bayaka. They communicate with Komba, the supreme being, who lives in the rainforest, via Jengi, the forest spirit. So, the hunt begins with the Bayaka blessing the nets, dancing rhythmically in a circle, swirling their snares and singing once more, before setting off into the forest. (Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzKFNYoCemE). The nets are incredible. They’re woven from divided liana stems, which are plaited. They are astonishingly strong. André demonstrates and fashions us all bracelets,
The traps are staked across sections of forest and then the Bayaka whoop and call, driving any wildlife in the area towards the nets. They set up in three different sites, but today the hunt is unsuccessful. Three duiker escape. I’m quite relieved. we're shown how to drink the refreshing sap of lianas. Then, the people build one of their traditional forest hut dwellings. In under ten minutes it is completed (watch here: https://youtu.be/EJkYU5ulifg) and they are all sitting around it, with a small camp fire, singing and smoking (Watch here: https://youtu.be/JZ__JOXE2fY). The performance finishes with a sales pitch and we buy bright bean bracelets for one and half euros each. How can you not? This is probably the most rewarding part of the day for the Bayaka.
The Bayaka return to Bayanga, in the pick up, singing exuberantly again. Kate is not afraid of African roads and drives at pace, But there's a sudden bump in the road. One lad is catapulted out, soaring head first into the bushes. He lands with a thud and is momentarily dazed. But he seems to have escaped any broken bones and clambers back in.
As in Cameroon, there's a variety of construction, in the villages. Brick, lath and traditional igloo style huts. All the roofing is palm. The shops are small booths along the wayside, strings of plastic bags with palm oil pegged across the windows. The people here are amazingly friendly and the children cheer and wave every time we drive past. They have the most endearing smiles and queue up for photographs. Some have tattoos on their faces. One or two of the older villagers have chiselled vampire like teeth. Clothing is a mix of western and ethnic African, often very ragged and many folk are barefoot. André's yellow plastic flip flops have just fallen apart. I've left him my Crocs.
Pangolins have been on my wish list for a long time. They didn’t appear in Chad (along with the aardvarks) and I’ve almost given up hope. These extraordinary animals are often mistaken for reptiles, as they’re scaly. But these ant eaters are mammals. They have no teeth, but amazingly long sticky tongues (sometimes the length of their bodies – maybe half a metre), to scoop up their prey. They’re very good at this. An average pangolin can consume up to 70 million insects per year.
Tam is passionate about the creatures and has, in the past run a rehabilitation centre for rescued white bellied (or tree) pangolins. They’ve all been returned to the wild, and the last recently had their radar tracker removed. There are four species of pangolin in Africa, white and black bellied (or long tailed), Cape and Giant. And they are so notoriously difficult to spot, they’re on The Impossible Five List.
Because pangolins live solitary lives (there’s no collective noun for pangolins), population studies have not, until recently, been able to successfully estimate how many pangolins are left in the wild. But Professor Andrew tells me that some of his students have been able to make reasonable estimates based on further estimates of the numbers that have been poached. This, astonishingly, may run into hundreds of millions.
Pangolins roll into a ball when attacked, hoping their scales will defend them. This might work with other wildlife, but it doesn’t deter humans. These are, possibly, the most trafficked mammals in the world. Their meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam, where their keratin based scales are used in traditional medicine and folk remedies.
There are some close calls here, in the Central African Republic. Tantalizingly, the latest rescuee returned for a fleeting visit, just before we arrived. And Ben rouses me from my slumbers, one night, to say that another white bellied pangolin has been spotted in a tree. But he’s gone, by the time I’m able to throw on some clothes and stumble to the site, where there is excitable flashing of torches.
However, this is one of those trips where luck runs with us. Huzzah! Lucie spots a black bellied pangolin, in a tree, on the way to our second gorilla visit. He’s nestled up top, so we can just make out his long winding tail, broad scaly back (from the other side of the trunk) and small head, peeping out behind a leaf. He's not very easy to photograph. Lucie took the right hand two pictures. (www.lucie-seuret.com). The first gorilla picture is hers too.
This has been a magical visit. Fortune has favoured us (have we been bold?). Central African Republic was my final African country. I think I left the best till last.
Down the river again. The Sangha flows on to join the mighty Congo and I set off for more adventures, on my way home, via Cameroon.
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