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. And it's one of the poorest countries in the world. 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 esteemed 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. 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, searching for pangolins, 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.
This trip, to my last four remaining African countries (in central Africa) is jinxed before I even set off. I’m leaving without two of the four required visas, but more of that later. My first stop is Chad and I have that visa. I’m flying Air France, via Paris ,to the capital N’Djamena.
The plane is an hour late taking off and packed to the gunwales with French rugby supporters, who have just seen England handed their biggest home drubbing ever. They’re wielding flags and other memorabilia. I fall over a flagpole and take an ingloriously ignominious header, down the aisle of the plane. It’s definitely not a try and my hand requires ice. Then I have to run for my connection and go the wrong way on the navette, in the biggest airport in the world. I just make the connection. No time to buy provisions, but the lovely French stewardess plies me with champagne so the world immediately looks better.
Immigration at N’Djamena is quick and easy. No-one so much as hints for money, although this is yet another African country, where the vast majority of people live well below the poverty line.
N’Djamena, the capital, is the largest city in Chad by some way. Perhaps surprisingly, in this arid country, it rose to prominence as a port city. It’s situated at the confluence of the Logone River with the Chari River. It’s also almost on the border with Cameroun, as well as being very close to Nigeria.
The city has little of note to report. There are a scattering of very modern buildings - split arches, a dome tipped TV station skyscraper, the Chad National Museum, the Al-Mouna Cultural Centre, Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, several mosques (roughly 55% of the population follow Islam and 40% are Christian), a market, some roundabouts with sculptures and the president’s palace. No photos allowed.
Time for some R and R in the Radisson – the epitome of luxury here. Though sadly, it doesn’t run to tonic and the water gives out totally in the middle of my shower and hair wash. It stands in its own enormous compound, well-guarded, on the River Chari. The river feeds the huge expanse of Lake Chad and features small islands, little fishing boats and hippos. (I’ve only read about the latter.) There’s a huge pool by the river. It’s a great place to rest up, ready for the upcoming exertions and to check occasionally, for the elusive semiaquatic mammals. It’s apparent they’re not going to materialize for me and I have to be content with life on top of the water, fish (plenty of silvery splashes as they leap around) and canoes.
It’s a very long drive (two days) to Zakouma National Park, where I’m going on safari. And we’re told that recent rains have reduced the roads to ruts and doubled the journey time. We’re going to wild camp on the way. Most of our proposed journey lies through orange, essential travel only territory, according to the FCO. A chunk from N'Djamena, to the main road east, is coloured red. Violence related to civil war, kidnappings, car jackings and theft are cited. I've had a Facebook message from someone saying they were kidnapped here in 2008. And two guys in the bar here are inquiring about security and wondering if it's safe. I'm having one of those 'Am I mad?' moments.
We are a group of four: Sarah who lives in Wales, Karen from Fort Lauderdale (who has a formidable camera lens and proper safari gear all packed into hand luggage) and Gunnar from Malaysia. Our two Land Cruisers also contain Mike, our guide from Zimbabwe, two drivers, a cook, and Tahir, our transfer leader and interpreter. Chad's official languages are Arabic and French, but it is home to over 200 different ethnic and linguistic groups. The Babel Tower of the World.
We’ve been instructed to be ready to leave at 5.30 a.m., so I’ve complied, though early morning starts are far from my favourite thing. Naturally, the crew don’t turn up till 6.30 a.m. when the sun is well over the horizon.
Chad is divided into three belts: The Sahara Desert zone in the north, an arid Sahelian belt in the centre and a more fertile Sudanian Savanna zone in the south. The latter bridges the gap between the dry north and the central African rainforests, and that’s where we’re headed. I should also mention Lake Chad, to the north of N’Djamena (I flew over it to get here). This is the second-largest wetland in Africa, and gave the country its name. Chad, somewhat ironically, is sometimes known as The Dead Heart of Africa, because of its central position and because it's so dry.
As predicted, the road surface deteriorates rapidly, once we are out of the capital, though we still have to pay tolls at the regular péage points. Potholes proliferate. We career on and off the raised carriageway, bouncing along the sand and salt licks beneath. The route is mainly rural, with flat, yellow desert scrub, acquiring a greenish tinge, as we progress east. The towns are lined with open shops and thronging market stalls. Horseback riders and high flat facades give them a wild west feel.
The Sahelian villages have round huts, with frilly flamenco dress roofs. Some of the dwellings are festooned with small round gourds, trailing from vine plants - Christmas houses. Roofs are used to dry crops and stack hay, away from animals. Cereals are stored in large painted clay pots. The main transport is motorbike or ass. Those with a little more money have horses and most of the goods go by donkey cart. Meandering donkeys or camels hog the road, unwitting sleeping policemen. (Which incidentally they call dos d’anes - donkey backs in Chad.)
As I’ve already said, this is a very poor country. Much of the land isn’t suitable for agriculture and most of the people scrape a living by herding camels, cattle, goats and sheep. These drift by, a never ending stream. There is some oil in Chad (replacing the traditional cotton growing industry), but ongoing civil war and coup d’états and refugees pouring over the Sudanese border from various crises there (most notably Darfur), have increased the economic pressures. I’ve also read that the country holds vast reserves of oil, uranium, and gold. I’m not sure what’s happening about that. Tahir knows very little about it. As is so often the case, corruption goes hand in hand with poverty. There is very little mining development it seems. Though there is definitely a Chinese presence here, with the usual road building programme. That’s usually associated with mineral extraction.
This is a very controlling regime, with an extremely poor human rights record. Chad ranks the second lowest in the Human Development Index. Online maps are restricted in Google and Chad has only one television station (Tele-Tchad), which is owned by the state. Radio is the main source of media coverage in the country.
Understandably attitudes vary from shy, but friendly (a wave of the hand) to suspicious and a little hostile. No cameras here, thank you.
At N’Goura, a group of pointy topped kopjes, heaps of smooth round boulders, enlivens the horizon. It’s roasting hot. Over 40 degrees. One of the land cruisers is low on fuel and we stop to buy some a jerry can’s worth. Filling stations are in short supply and so is fuel, it seems. Tahir explains that Chad’s ex colonial masters, the French , have hijacked supplies since the Ukraine war began. The drivers fill up using a funnel and a muslin cloth. Cook Jerome ventures off to buy meat for dinner. I’m wondering how he’s going to keep it fresh, in this sweltering heat.
South-east now to Mongo, switch backing. The town is named for the many delicious mangoes grown in the area and sold by the wayside. Some of the frilly roofs are joined by red (natural clay) brick houses and walled compounds. More stunning inselbergs, a swirl of ochre, framed by a perfect azure sky. Now, both vehicles need petrol. We find a garage with diesel (long queue of motor bikes waiting for petrol) and, relieved, set off up the road. Then, Tahir realises that they haven’t collected their change and we have to turn round and fetch it.
The poor drivers who have been at the wheel for over nine hours now, set up our tents for us. Dinner pops out of the back of one of the cruisers - two hobbled chickens. No need to worry about our lack of a fridge - though bath temperature drinking water isn’t hugely pleasant. The fowl are dispatched with rakes, boiled (the feathers come out more easily) and fried.
We have thin foam mattresses and Mike has lent me an air bed. Even so, the ground is appallingly hard. My shovel bounces off it. No toilets and no holes in the ground and no ability to dig one. My stomach is already playing up. At least two of my companions snore. It’s not the best of nights. Camels, goats and cattle are meandering, chewing their breakfast bushes around our tents, when we wake up. It doesn’t make early morning ablutions any easier.
But thankfully, the forecast very bad roads do not materialise. Now, we’re entering the savanna region. It’s still flat and golden. But there’s some agriculture and lakes, heaps of catfish being smoked on the banks, unappealing rows of charred whiskers. We bounce a little on the sandy route, weaving in and out of palms, acacia and occasional villages. And ever more camels, goats, cattle.
The sign at the entrance to Zakouma isn’t wildly auspicious, 'You Are Now in the Park', it says, in French. But the wildlife has a much better handle on a welcome. A large troupe of baboons appears immediately, alongside a pair of warthogs. Elephant, giraffe, buffalo, various bucks and antelopes follow, in quick succession. There’s a mammal performing, at each stage of our journey to the camp. Which is just as well, as our transport team haven’t a clue where it is. They thunder past the animals, who go flying off in all directions. ‘Isn’t there a park speed limit?’ I inquire of Tahir. ‘No,’ he replies obliviously. Jerome has already cheered earlier, when we almost ran over a puppy.
The room is fairly described as basic, in an oddly turreted bungalow. My room has dangling wires, where the ceiling fan used to be. Fortunately, there’s a portable alternative. No hot water and I shower with some trepidation , but the tepid water is actually tolerable, in the heat.
The lodge has a bar, with good food and a bar. What more could you ask for? There’s a very expensive Wi-Fi hotspot, a crocodile river and a viewing platform with a hide. Elephant come down to bathe and drink. Lion even pop up on a regular basis. All is fine on the western front.
Zakouma is famous for its river systems, rich floodplains, and seasonal wildlife migrations. In the wet season, the centre of the park is marshy wetland, with large lakes and overflowing rivers. It’s virtually impassable. Safari season is the dry season, when the animals flock to the huge pans and waterholes left by the receding waters.
Zakouma National Park was established in 1963, renowned for its huge herds of elephant - over 4,000 of them. But the elephants had learned to congregate so closely because of the persistent threat from ivory poachers. By 2010 the park had lost 90% of its elephants. So, African Parks, a non-profit making conservation group were invited to take over. Gun battles and assaults on park headquarters were eventually eliminated.
The days are long. Driver Hassan Zachariah takes us on morning drives (start at 6 a.m.),afternoon drives (back as the sun sets) and night drives (back at 10.30). The latter involve torches being swept along all the roadsides, searching for reflections in the eyes of startled animals. There are an abundance of sinister yellow crocodile eyes in the pools. Hassan doesn’t speak any English, so I’m official interpreter. My reward is a gin and tonic. (They’re one up on the Radisson). I need it after the long days. My companions are seemingly inexhaustible.
The only other lodging in Zakouma is Campe Nomade, which caters solely to the affluent. They fly up in small planes and are ferried around in safari vehicles with leather covered seats. The glamping style tents are erected in a new spot each year and the likes of us are not allowed in the vicinity when anyone is in residence. We’re permitted to explore the Rigueik Pan, where the camp is based, when all their clients are out elsewhere. It’s on a different scale - a huge expanse of sage green, cinnamon brown and charcoal soil - herds of buck and giraffe grazing contentedly. It's a perfect spot for a sundowner.
It’s the dry season in Chad and we have been told, quite firmly, that it will not rain - by locals and tour operators. This is the Dead Heart of Africa. So, I haven’t brought any wet weather gear. And the equipment provided conforms to the same beliefs. Zakouma isn’t open in the wet season, when it becomes a huge swamp with much of the land submerged. (We’re careering over cracked mud for much of the time).
There’s no weather proofing on the safari vehicles and a plethora of small holes in the roofs. Nevertheless, storms range on the periphery of the park for most of our stay. It rains for 10 minutes, on our way to Rigueik, enough to soak us and then dry out. There’s an absolute deluge, another evening, in search of elusive pangolins and aardvarks. Everything I’m wearing is drenched and so is everything I have with me. This time we’ve skidded to a halt.
The famous Zakouma elephants (they have very small tusks - perhaps an evolutionary response, or is that too quick for Darwin?) now number almost 600. And, because they’re no longer so anxious about predators, the herd tends to split. We’re told it’s mainly in two parts at the moment, with numerous solitary or small group males. We see those every time we venture out. We’re told that the largest herd is down in the palm forest (which isn’t really a rain forest) and we’ve planned to go there. But the unheard of rain in the dry season has put paid to that. Tinga GPS says that the rest of the herd is just 20 minutes’ drive away. So we’re out looking for them instead.
The elephants, however, are still not that happy about human proximity. They’ve retreated to thick swathes of forest. We circle for some time, with no sighting, before deciding to give up and go in search of other wildlife. Or so we think. It’s not till I notice the same fallen tree yet again, that we realise that Hassan has not given up, despite instructions. A hair-raising ride across thorny scrub and many flailing branches, to the edge of the herd. It’s impossible to see them properly, in the foliage. There’s a great deal of trumpeting. Mike says they’re distressed, so I don’t like to venture closer. So near and yet so far.
Zakouma is, in theory, home to the Big Five. But black rhino have only just been introduced and are an unlikely sighting. Lion, yes, ( female lions, some with cubs, male lions are more evasive, like the female elephants.) elephant, definitely yes, leopard, one, blinking, at night and buffalo. We do get to see a huge herd of buffalo - some 600 together. This is another success story. The park’s buffalo population was reduced to about 220 animals in 1986, but now numbers over 15,000.
Zakouma is also home to 50% of the global Kordofan giraffe population. We encounter these regularly, lolloping across the pans, chewing the acacia and, very slowly and cautiously, lowering their heads to drink. They’re a gorgeous rich brown pattern.
Other than those, here is my Zakouma mammal tick list:
Defassa waterbuck, bush buck, Bohor reedbuck, Thompsons gazelles (red fronted - Hassan calls them something gazelles)), Egyptian mongoose, banded mongoose, warthogs, vervet and patas monkeys, olive baboons (a scattering of Buddha statues squatting erect on the plain or participating in sprint races thundering along), oribi, roan antelope, topi (called tiang here), cheetah (fleeting backsides), buffalo, crocodiles, common genet, civet, serval, , Lelwel’s hartebeest, Buffon’s kob, diminutive common duiker, striped ground squirrel, lesser galago and spotted hyena (wandering with two babies).
This is a shorter list:
Monitor lizards, Nile crocodiles, agama lizards, tortoises and three pythons (this is a first).
There’s also a plethora of birds. These slow our journey immensely, as Gunnar and Mike are intent on identifying very single one. I’m probably not going to list them all:
Gloriously bright show off bee eaters, green, little green, and bright northern carmine (flocks lifting off from the banks of the pans in hundreds as they decide where to drill their nests), marabou storks, saddle bill storks, yellow bill storks, woolly necked storks, African open billed storks, crowned cranes (multitudes of them), vultures of several types (hooded, leopard, white backed, white headed Rueppells and griffon - four different types in a row on one carcase), ostriches, long crested eagles, fish eagles, owls ,eagle, scops and otherwise, Abyssinian rollers( looping wonderfully behind us and posing on the slimmest of branches), ground hornbills, northern hornbills, red billed hornbill, tiny red billed queleas, (massing on branches until they sag and then taking off in a cloud of thousands, filling the sky and making waves like the murmuration of the starlings in England - Watch My Video on You-Tube), pelicans, assorted herons, grebes, hamerkops, sacred ibis, bateleur, harrier hawk, goshawk, lizard buzzard, black bellied bustard, African jacana, thick knees, green pigeons, turacos, coucals, malachite kingfisher, hoopoe, nightjars, lapwings, beautiful sunbirds, drongos and oxpeckers.
The highlights of our wildlife observations:
A lion attacking a buffalo and coming off worst, hyenas gorging on a stinking giraffe carcase, a ground hornbill spearing and eating a small snake which he flaunts under the beak of his mate, lions with a waterbuck kill, teeny lion cubs - four being suckled by their mother (Gunnar deems this a good moment to tell us that he was breastfed by his mother until the age of six), another pair of lionesses with two youngish cubs and giraffes sparring, thumping each other with the sides of their necks.
The most unusual encounter is a civet trying to nip at a python. He’s fascinated. Does he really think the python is food potential and not realise that the menu is likely to end up reversed? Luckily for him, he decides that our flashlight is getting in the way of his adventures and he saunters off.
It’s an impressive encounter list, but sadly, nothing to add from my small, shy or impossible lists. I’ve been told that aardvarks (anteaters) are a possibility, but all we see are their claw marked holes. No (even more elusive) pangolins either, despite relentless searching.
Camping on the return journey is even more eventful than on the way out. The ground is still rock solid and the tent pegs can’t be hammered in, to hold down the flysheets. And it’s clearly going to rain (in the dry season). The other three have their guy ropes attached to one of the land cruisers, which is driven into the middle of the camp site. My tent has been placed a little way off, to try and avoid the snoring. So, the water containers are utilised to hold the sheet down. Which is fine, until the crew need water and come to fetch it late at night, whilst simultaneously having conversations on their phones.
Tahir warns of snakes in the area, which doesn’t thrill me. But it’s actually a scorpion that’s running rings outside my tent, its stinger waving aloft. There’s also a huge ants’ nest (big ones) just in front of me. Come on aardvarks. This is your opportunity. And just to add to the confusion, the wind roars under aforesaid flysheet and it rains. But fortunately not in buckets.
Karen emerges in the morning, as always, with a full face of make-up, false eyelashes and immaculate clothing. How is she doing it?
Safely back to N’Djamena, with only one flat tyre, and without running out of fuel. Though it was a close run thing. We’ve done well.
The country's only international airport is small and with very few facilities. There’s one counter serving drinks and snacks in the departure lounge. And there are outdoor escalators, but they don’t work. Equatorial Guinea next.
When I arrive back from Luango Park visit there’s no car to meet me at Libreville Airport and I have to walk to my hotel, which is luckily just up a level road. The only problem is trying to cross the busy highway. There is no respect whatsoever for zebra crossings. And just when I’m getting to the point when I’m swearing never to return to Africa I end up, totally unexpectedly in a little idyll, on a white sand beach eating delicious succulent prawns and asparagus.( At a price.) Tomorrow I’ll have time on the beach before I go home - excellent.
It’s raining, naturally, so much for the beach. It’s also quite chilly - and I’m on the Equator. My itinerary says I’m having a city tour today, but there’s neither sight nor sound of a driver or guide. Not even a message. Encore quelle surprise. After breakfast, I ask the hotel receptionist to phone; the only working number we have is the trip mastermind, the Italian guy who runs the lodge in Sao Tome. He says a car will arrive in twenty minutes. I eventually set off for my morning city tour at 12.30.
It’s conducted by the Man with the Van, who turns out to be the elusive Fifi who was supposed to meet me when I first arrived. He doesn’t speak any English and has brought along his son, Laurent, who speaks about two words of English. Just enough to establish that I’m from London and pester me for my phone number the rest of the trip, so I can invite him to stay at my house. He wants to marry an English lady. In the end I just remonstrate, ‘What’s in that for me?’ and they laugh.
My tour of Libreville consists of a lot of traffic jams and a church that is wooden and decorated with tribal features, so I think it must be a museum. It isn’t, but we visit the Libreville Museum of Art and Culture next. It’s obviously a novelty for Fifi et fils, as they don’t know where the entrance is and saunter in too. They get a tour in French from the guide and I wander off on my own. It’s mostly masks, used to praise the ancestors and to mark important life events by signifying transformation It’s a compact museum with a few fascinating masks that look like props for a horror movie. There are photos in the display cases of many more masks that are lodged in the Louvre. If I remember rightly there are a fair number in the British Museum too.
And that’s the end of my tour. Except that there is now a little moonlighting, as we park up at the Embassy of the Ivory Coast and Laurent dons a FedEx cap. He then leaps out and delivers a package - or at least he tries to. They’ve all gone to prayers and we have to wait.
Libreville, I have to report is entirely nondescript, and has very little to recommend it except for the beach. The sun has come out and I’m happy to spend my last few hours relaxing by the Atlantic.
I've flown in from Sao Tome. to Libreville. It's a flight from Port Gentil today on my way to visit Loango National Park . The same policemen are on the immigration desk at Libreville Airport. ‘Ca va?’ they beam. Afrijet seems to be quite an upmarket airline. The departure lounge has leather seats and free coffee. I’m the scruffiest person in here - everyone else is dressed in business suits or smart dresses. Today the plane is full.
South over the Equator. Port Gentil doesn’t look at all like its name. There’s wooden shanty housing, oil rigs offshore and a clutch of oil executive houses with swimming pools. I’m paired up with Bill from Seattle who is booked in at the same lodge. Another tourist - a rarity on my travels. It takes three different vehicles to get us to the lodge, over increasingly bumpy terrain. A battered old German estate, an even more battered 4WD and an open safari truck.
The first section is not especially interesting, through empty grassland edged with jungle and over some huge river mouths. This is a (small) country of lakes and waterways. There are smatterings of open shops along the wayside, with the odd concrete school. More than anything the journey is an exploration of Chinese engineering, as a Chinese settlement abuts the road, created to facilitate the rebuilding of the National Highway, which we are directed on and off as engineering permits. The project involves some massive stretches of bridge over the waterways, but they’re not open for general use yet and we clatter over temporary metal structures alongside. I’m glad I can swim.
Once at Ombue, at the end of a long peninsula, we’re on sand, slippy silver alternating with stodgy red and the odd ford, for another two hours, until we reach the lodge on the edge of the lagoon in Loango National Park. It’s a picturesque setting, but it’s the Gabonese equivalent of Fawlty Towers. Matthieu, the French manager, instantly goes into a stream of apologies for the state of the place: ‘Neglected, run down, end of lease, new building sometime', he exposulates, in a good John Cleese impression.’.
It’s certainly gloomy and feels empty and uncared for. I have a two room bungalow suite on the edge of the lagoon, with what looks like a pleasant veranda running around it. Except that the doors to this are locked and there’s no key. Matthieu doesn’t know where it is. 'Maybe the last guests took it?' he suggests. Matthieu might have instructions not to spend on refurbishment, but that doesn’t really excuse this or the fact that half the lights don’t work. There’s no curtain over the bath either, so the floor is a huge puddle by the time I’ve finished in the shower.
The Wi-Fi router doesn’t work - quelle surprise - so we’re all piggybacking off Matthieu‘s own phone. Then it runs out of battery. No one has thought to plug it in.
The only upside is the food which is delicious French cooking on the waterside terrace; stuffed crab followed by captain fish for lunch. And there is some animal entertainment. The lodge is alive with lizards, of all sizes and colours, swarming over the decking and engaging in lively spats.
‘It’s very windy here because it’s between seasons and it’s the worst time of year for animal safari. The animals are moving between feeding grounds and are hard to spot. Even the whales are out of season. The gorillas are especially difficult to get to at the moment,’ is the other happy piece of news imparted by Matthieu. So, it’s not surprising that our evening drive is uneventful. The park is unique in having beach, lagoon (with mangroves), savanna and rainforest, so it promises large land mammals, on the beach, as well as whales out to sea, if you come at the right time.
We’re driving along the edge of the lagoon where there are narrow stretches of sand. There are a few shy forest buffalo in the savanna. These are very stolid, with hippo like bodies and are distinctive for their shaggy stripy ears. There are a couple of elephants hiding in the bushes. Our guide Carl, surprisingly, says he will go and entice them out. Unsurprisingly, the cow elephant isn’t keen. She has a calf to protect. So, she makes a mock charge, trumpets and sprays sand all over Carl with her trunk. That’s our excitement for today.
Yesterday, an ordeal by road transport, today by boat, as we bump over the open lagoon for 40 minutes to the gorilla camp. I’ve sat at the front, as I didn’t realise we were virtually on open sea, so I’m bearing the brunt. The lagoon is immense, stretching for miles and spreading into hundreds of inlets.
I’m with an expat French lady who speaks English, is quite chatty and tells me she works in the oil business. She says her last attempt to see the gorillas was cancelled before she even got to the lodge. Our Spanish ranger, Sonia, gives us the low down on safety procedures and protecting the gorillas. The great apes, as predicted, have been elusive over the last few days, feeding in the almost inaccessible swamplands, but the trackers have called to say that the gorillas are currently resting in the forest and we set off to look. Another short boat trip and Sonia remembers a final instruction: ‘If we meet an elephant close up, run. It will charge.’
By the time we arrive, an hour later, scurrying up jungle paths, trying to avoid fallen trees and swarming ants, not to mention patches of deep mud, our quarry has retreated into the marshes. Sonia says that even if we manage to get into the swamp, which is a mammoth challenge, we still won’t be able to see the gorillas, as the elephant grass is so high. I’m definitely not keen, as I’ve already left my trainers behind twice, sucked into the brown goo. And Arturo from Mexico, who lives in Italy and works in London, has already helpfully reported that he picked up leeches after plunging up to his waist here.
But French Oil Lady is somehow dealing with the mud more effectively than me. She looks lithe and fit and is totally unscathed; she insists we advance. We’re not allowed to split the party, so I have to go as well. Two minutes later, I’m up to my knees in mud and have to be hauled out by our two diminutive trackers. (I think they’re probably pygmies). We are forced to retreat. FOL doesn’t speak to me the whole way back. I try sitting in the stern of the boat, in an attempt to avoid the bumps, and instead I’m drenched in spray.
After I’ve cleaned up there’s a transfer to my tented camp. The countryside is almost bucolic, with sun on the rippling grass. And there are four elephants, with a calf, some red river hogs and a hippo to be seen. The hogs have extraordinary white patterned faces and snouts.
Matthieu has promoted this new Loango camp, set by the water and deeper into the park, as being infinitely superior to the dilapidated lodge. I’ve decided not to trust anything else he says. The tent is again nicely sited on the riverbank. And it does have an attached wooden bathroom with an open shower, accessible through a zipped door. But it’s definitely not glamping and there’s no hot water. Also, there is a big spider sitting just above the toilet. I’m supposed to have two nights in camp and am trying to decide whether to request to go back to the lodge tomorrow, but I’ve just been told I’m going back anyway. They didn’t know I was supposed to be staying and there is no food in.
Safely zipped in at night I’m reading peacefully. There is a generator that has been switched on for the evening, so I have light. Until the chugging comes to a halt and there are grinding sounds. On - off, on - off until it comes to a complete halt. I guess the generator has given up too. It’s just as well I’m being repatriated.
The water has run out this morning. Fortunately, there’s just enough to flush my outdoor loo. FOL is here also with her two children and insists that we depart early, as she has to get back home to prepare for her children’s school outing tomorrow. Fair enough, except that she then sits at the lodge waiting for lunch after our entirely without fauna encounter return journey (unless you count a terrapin discovery).
Matthieu explains that last night’s camp was not the one I was supposed to stay at anyway. He just forgot to tell me. He wanted me to sample different areas of the park and he offers a night in the original camp tomorrow.
A boat trip round some of the lagoon inlets with Jean Pierre in the afternoon is more rewarding than previous forays. There are elephants (we creep up and view them from behind a bush) and a family of hippos who perform like synchronised swimmers, lining up in a row to watch us. Only their eyes peep out of the water, swivelling as we move round them. Then they obligingly take it in turns to give huge open mouthed yawns.
Tsetse flies seem to love the water’s edge and they descend on the boat in droves. Jean Pierre bashes my arm, saying that I’m about to be stung. He squeezes the offending insect and tosses it to the deck. Immediately an army of tiny ants appear, march across the floor and demolish the carcass. Ants? Even in a boat.
Jean Pierre follows the narrow beaches to the ocean, flirting with the breakers around the neck of the lagoon and then we return, pursued by a very pretty sunset.
Across the vast Loango Lagoon once more to head up the river to Akaka Camp, which is where I was supposed to stay. Matthieu has suggested one night’s sojourn here, but I’ve declined and we will return this afternoon. I’ve had enough of cold water showers and tents. I’ve also acquired at least 50 very itchy bites from the ungrateful mini-beasts with whom I shared my tent and I’m jigging around, tired and grumpy.
This time the boat doesn’t have any bench seats and I’ve been installed in a canvas camp chair, splendid like Cleopatra. Which is fine till my throne collapses as we bump over the waves. Not so dignified now. Carl rescues me by contriving a wedge out of a piece of timber that’s been washed up.
Other than being bombarded by tsetse flies (fortunately I’ve remembered to wear white) it’s another pleasant day, meandering through the wetlands into the heart of the park. There are plenty of dwarf and long nosed crocodile, snoozing on logs. They sleep with their jaws wide, saw-like teeth on display and their eyes open, and don’t usually notice us straight away, leaping into the water in fright when they do. Most of the animals here are very skittish. They’ve all been hunted and eaten by the locals, even the crocodiles.
We also have buffalo and dainty sitatunga antelope sightings and several elephant encounters. Carl’s definitely not frightened of elephant. His speciality is waterside confrontation, whilst they are feeding on the vegetation at the river's edge. He says there are too many loggy obstacles and too much mud between us for them to be able to charge. I’m hoping he’s right, as it’s me that’s in the firing line. I’ve got a whole series of pictures of flapping trunks and angry red eyes.
And I’m really glad I didn’t opt for the Akaka camp In Loango. It’s been left in total disarray. There’s one tent with no electricity or water and a filthy toilet.
I’m the only one staying at the lodge tonight (it being off season) and the dining room is dead. I’m looking for someone to give me some food…I’m hoping it’s not captain fish again. It’s very good, but I’ve had it three times already. My hopes are in vain. Though there’s an excellent accompanying gratin dauphinoise to compensate.
My bites aren’t getting any better - in fact they’re increasing in number. And nothing I’ve tried is working - antihistamine tables, cream, painkillers. I’m on fire.
A final drive along Loango Beach. It’s a perfect day for it, sunny and breezy, though there are few animals to enjoy it. Even the elephants' usual swimming post is abandoned. ‘They come later in the afternoon’ says Jean-Pierre. I bite my tongue. I’ve been here 4 days and know better than to ask why this trip was scheduled for a morning. The tideline is a conglomeration of plastic - the Benguela current brings it all up from Angola and Congo.
It takes four vehicles to get me back to Port Gentil. Leg 3 is driven by Monsieur Phillippe who gives rides to all the locals in the back of his pick-up and hands the old ladies money for the taxi ride home. I’m obviously right to have misgivings about the Chinese makeshift bridges. As we clatter over Monsieur opens the windows and undoes his seatbelt.
On to Libreville.
I almost didn’t make it over the starting line to visit Gabon. Afrijet has its own terminal, at Libreville Airport, but it’s not equipped to deal with the issue of visas. So, I have to wait till everyone else is stamped in and then I’m bundled into a black police car and driven round the airport. It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings and it’s a bit scary. Especially as they then refuse to accept my authorisation of visa documents, as they are a copy of the originals printed out from an email. Thank goodness I’m now in a French speaking country rather than Portuguese. No-one here has any English. I give them the phone number of my contacts in Libreville and amazingly someone arrives with acceptable papers. (Or a bribe - I'm not sure which.) Half an hour later I’m allowed in.
I’m supposed to be met by a man with the unlikely name of Fifi. He’s elusive, but eventually I bump into a Robert, who is asking around for a Suzanne and he has access to a Man with a Van, who takes me to my hotel and agrees to fetch me again in the morning for my flight to Loango Game Park. (Fifi materialises later - see Libreville.)
Gabon has rich reserves of manganese, iron, petroleum and timber and offshore oil was discovered in the 1970s, helping to make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In spite of this five percent of the population still live below the poverty line.
The region was initially inhabited by the pygmy peoples, followed by peoples of the Bantu tribes. In the 18th century, Orungu, the Myeni kingdom was established in Gabon. The French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza arrived here in 1875 and founded the town of Franceville. In 1885, Gabon was annexed into the territories of French Equatorial Africa. This federation lasted for almost five decades.
eSwatini is an absolute monarchy, although the king does rule in conjunction with his mother (known as the Queen-mother) and parliament. It’s a highly polarised society, with some extremely poor housing and enclosed affluent areas and shopping malls.
Swaziland officially changed its country name from The Kingdom of Swaziland to The Kingdom of eSwatini in April 2018. The change was announced at the 50/50 celebrations (50 years since independence and the King’s 50th birthday). The new name derives from Mswati II, the 19th-century king under whose rule Swazi territory was expanded and unified. It means “place of the Swazi people” and is intended to remove the country further from the British (who named it Swaziland) and distinguish the country more clearly from Switzerland.
Advice given is that crime levels are low, but street crimes and burglaries do occur, sometimes involving violence. There have been numerous incidences of car hijackings on major routes from South Africa and Mozambique. Vehicles have been taken at gunpoint. Avoid walking in the downtown areas of Mbabane and Manzini after dark and do not travel around in remote rural areas unless in a group. There is often an increase in criminal activity during the festive season.
I didn't encounter any problems.
I’m not actually heading to the place where I booked today, as the king woke up on his fiftieth birthday in April and decided to rename Swaziland to eSwatini. This came as a complete surprise to most of the population, who aren’t very happy about the associated bill. So, eSwatini here I come, from Zambia via Jo’burg.
I’m met by my driver, Thulani, who isn’t sure where I’m staying in eSwatini. It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings. I know I’m booked into three national park camps and I’m hoping they’re not too basic. We arrive at Hlane Park, driving through a great deal of gated fencing and it’s already dark. I’ve been allocated a little hut in a compound; it’s a big site with camping and cottages and there’s no electricity. It’s lit with paraffin lamps, which is romantic as long as you don’t want to find anything.
Thulani is supposed to be showing me to my room, but he can't find it and instead he's dancing around in the gloom declaiming, ’The numbers are confusing me’. I eventually work out which one I’m in and fumble my way in. The contents of my bag go flying as I try and unpack using only the sense of touch. It’s not easy. I’m told to report for a sunrise safari at 5.15 a.m. I double check that. Aaaaargh. Then I reconnoitre my route to the morning meeting place, navigating by following an arc of lamps from a parking lot.
Except that when I venture out at 5 a.m the lights have all been extinguished. I know which way to set off, but I’ve soon gone astray. All I can see is shadowy bush and a group of impala leaping away in front of me. I retrace my steps and realise I’m utterly lost. Time to panic. I eventually stumble across a cottage and knock up the poor inhabitants. They are very understanding South Africans who get dressed and escort me, a little fretful, to the correct place.
The safari park is really just a giant zoo, huge barbed wire enclosed areas of forest and veldt. But the trip passes off well and the resident pride of lions, once discovered, thoughtfully group themselves right in front of our land-cruiser, yawning, growling, licking each other, sharpening their claws on tree trunks and leaping at the odd vulture who ventures towards their recent kill, hidden in the bushes. No spotlights necessary. This is proper elephant country, flat bush interspersed with dead tree trunks and odd thickets where the antelope, giraffe and zebra lurk.
The white rhino (making up the Big Five on this trip - I've come from Zambia) are kept in a separate enclosure, so that they can be better guarded. I’m not sure about this logic. Surely keeping them with lions is a bigger deterrent? Though this way we can be charged separately for seeing them.
Rhino tracking involves driving to a spot where you can see the huge mammals, getting out of the truck and following the guide (very cautiously) upwind of them. They have poor eye sight, but good hearing and an acute sense of smell. Five females are dozing under a tree, lumbering suspiciously to their feet as we approach, then quickly slipping back into lethargy when they deem us harmless. Senzo, the guide has a wooden swizzle stick ready to distract them if they become alarmed. He says their sight is so bad they need clear diversions and the best thing to do is bang a tree if they seem agitated. I’m glad he doesn’t have to.
Then a transfer to another eSwatini park, Mkhaya and more cottages lit with paraffin lamps. I have to concede that this one is actually very romantic, though still very impractical. The cottage has half open stone walls, so I’m actually sleeping in the bush. There are monkeys screaming in the forest and I’ve been warned to hide all my valuables, as they stage raids on the dwellings. The rhino and big game is kept out by an electric fence, but there are antelope wandering just outside my room. The pretty little nyala look as if someone has painted their flanks with runny icing sugar. And I shall be checking my bed for snakes and other undesirables before I get in.
I’ve been spoilt for game in Zambia I feel. Here I’ve seen wildebeest (making up the Ugly Five on this trip), warthog, zebra, kudu and giraffe, but the Swazi varieties are skittish, bolting off as our vehicle approaches. The hippo, however, are curious and swim towards us, heads swivelling as we pass, but they still maintain a careful distance. I’ve also seen plenty more white rhino. This park is one of the few places in the world where they also have the hugely endangered black rhino, (we're told) but these are rarely seen, as they feed from the trees and hide in the thickets.
It’s an open air dinner, with candles round a log fire. Definitely romantic. Fortunately, I can read from the Kindle app on my phone when it’s dark. This is helpful when it comes to the ensuing ‘cultural performance’. I’m stoic for half an hour, but sidle away, when the audience participation commences.
We don’t drive out till 6.15 a.m. this morning, so a real luxury of a lie in. There’s little to see except more rhinos, though I’m enjoying the landscape. The flat-topped acacias and pineapple crested aloes are uniquely gorgeous, the red African sun peeping through them.
A walking safari is scheduled after breakfast; I brace myself for the usual lengthy explanations about vegetation, as we manoeuvre along the paths with trepidation. Most of the plants here have wicked thorns, in order to survive in the vicinity of so much wildlife. And, as anticipated, the guide explains about the amazing medicinal properties of each plant. But there’s also plenty of dung of different varieties, and it’s fresh. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the giraffe and zebra are much more amenable when we’re on foot and we spend a delightful hour hob-nobbing with more than a dozen of the ungulates.
The zebra are hangers-on, says our guide, as they can’t see very well, so they wait for the giraffes to signal if they spy trouble. There’s also another group of white rhino, with two cute babies. The young males entertain the infants with a game of horn bashing, before they collapse for a nap. The white rhino seem more habituated to humans than the other animals here. I wonder if it would be safer for them if they were not.
Another transfer, another dusk arrival. This time I’m at Mlilwane Camp, the original Swazi game reserve. My home for the next two nights is a traditional spherical ‘beehive hut’, in a village circle, with - hurrah - electricity. Except it has no windows at all, which is a little odd, so I still can’t see much. I’ve just sent the curtain on a pole, that divides my bathroom from the main room, flying. The pole supports are well beyond my reach. I knew the cool box Thulani gave me would come in handy for something. You also have to stoop right down to enter, as it has an exceptionally low arched doorway, which has to be modelled on a hobbit-hole.
The setting here is stunning-rich red soil, misty mountains and antelope (very tame indeed here) grazing on jade green pasture in the foreground. The lofty pillar aloes are bearing sunny yellow flowers, beloved of sunny yellow birds. Today, I’m off on a tour to learn something about the country.
Guide, Sifosi, outlines the programme, which includes an overview of the kings and queen of eSwatini's palaces (we’re not allowed close up) and parliament at Lobamba, other government buildings at Mbabane, a cultural village, a cultural show and a waterfall. It ends in a glass factory, so I can do some shopping. ‘It’s all entirely flexible’, he finishes.
‘I’m not keen on shopping’, I begin, but he decrees that we’re going anyway, so I don’t bother to suggest excluding the cultural show too, or dare to inquire what his definition of flexible is.
The cultural show is almost exactly the same as the last one, except that I can see it better, because it’s daytime. And the cultural village is almost exactly the same as the one I’m actually staying in, except that the doors are even lower, to keep animals and other enemies out. It's said to be 'a replica mid-19th Century Swazi village, constructed using authentic materials and techniques. set against the scenic backdrop of Nyonyane mountain', The commentary is amusing, if highly chauvinistic. Women on the left, men on the right. And the scenery is very nice.
Further along the Lushushwane River is Mantenga Falls, as promised, Swaziland’s largest waterfall by volume. The river tumbles through a series of glassy pools.
The food in eSwatini varies in quality, but is always plentiful. Most of the game parks serve buffet style- tasty impala stew, bean and pumpkin casserole, chops etc. There’s usually coleslaw or salad, most commonly with beets. Sadly for my figure, my favourite treat is the sweetish mealie (corn) bread.
It’s raining today and very chilly here in the high veldt. It’s a damp trudge through the squelching mud to the fry up buffet breakfast and the open dining area is dark and draughty. This is why I usually try and avoid anything that smacks of camping. I take my bowl of fruit and yogurt out to the camp fire, which has been protected by a sheet of corrugated metal, but it has been commandeered by two warthogs, who appear to be roasting themselves. I have planned a pleasant walk amongst all the friendly antelopes; this is now a non-starter. I’m not being picked up for my flight back to Jo’burg and onto Reunion until 11 a.m., so I’m marooned in my hut. I retire to bed and blankets.
It’s been a very long day. I’m flying from Brazzaville in Congo to Lusaka. As the crow flies, Zambia is to the south east, but that’s not how it works. I have to travel north east to Nairobi and change planes and then fly southwest to Lusaka, covering over twice the distance a crow would. What’s more I have to stop en route at Kinshasa. At ten minutes this is surely one of the shortest international flights ever and the subject of sheer terror, in case they make me get off the plane and won’t let me back on again. We also stop at Harare on the second leg and Harare isn’t exactly on a straight line from Nairobi to Lusaka either.
When the captain announces over the intercom, ’We’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands’, it doesn’t do much for your nerves. Fortunately, it isn’t too bad. A light aircraft landing at Lusaka has burst a tyre and blocked the runway. It looks as if we might have to divert, but after a few circuits of the city, while they tow it away and repair the tarmac, we land safely and I’m in the land of malls and fast food.
It’s now 1.15 a.m. so it’s technically tomorrow anyway. My visa on entry goes smoothly. I have U.S. dollars. The driver who picks me up insists on waiting for a passenger who subsequently turns out to be fictitious. I wait in the bus, with a Zimbabwean who used to be a BBC engineer. He’s playing modern hymns full blast on his phone, ‘so that I can hear it too’. It seems churlish to point out that I’m not really in the mood. And it’s 3.30 in the morning before I get to bed.
Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 60 percent of people living below the poverty line - 83 percent of people in rural areas. The economy fluctuates, depending on the world price of copper. Nevertheless, in 2010, the World Bank named Zambia one of the world’s fastest economically reformed countries. After a downturn, the price of copper has started to rise again and tourism has been developed, especially at Victoria Falls, on the border with Zimbabwe and the game parks.
Reading tells me that Zambians are exceptionally friendly, and this is definitely true. Everyone has a greeting or offers help (though there’s also some begging). There are rules about who speaks first and, French style, you mustn’t initiate a conversation before exchanging a greeting. Apparently it’s also fine to call on Zambians unannounced. Though I assume that only applies to friends and relations. It’s generally considered a safe country to visit but there are the usual warnings about taking care after dark and especially out of town.
The two main draws are:
The population of Zambia is concentrated mainly around the capital Lusaka, in the south. The city is another urban sprawl and reading isn’t throwing up any must-sees. There’s a definite western influence apparent. My hotel is surrounded by shopping malls –it looks as if they’re still building most of them – and this seems to be where life in the city is centred. I’ve been for a wander round. It’s all very sixties, even though it’s new and the large Spar supermarket products are displayed along American lines – robust and well organised rather than elegant. It certainly isn’t cheap for such a poor country.
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