What Am I Doing Here?

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 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.

The Central African Republic - in a Nutshell

  • 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.

Cameroon to CAR - by Boat

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.

Central African Odyssey Part 2

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, Central African Republic - Paradise Regained

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 Wildlife of Sangha Lodge

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.

The Trouble with Paradise

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.

Visiting the Western Lowland Gorillas of the Central African Republic

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.

Makumba and His Family

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.

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.

CAR problems

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.

A CAR Crash

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.

Dzanga Bai Elephants

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.

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.

Dzanga Bai Pageant

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.

Bongo!

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.

The Bayaka People of the Central African Republic

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.

Hunting with the Bayaka

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.) 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.). 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) and they are all sitting around it, with a small camp fire, singing and smoking (Watch here.) 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.

Visiting the Bayaka Village

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.

The Pangolin Problem

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.

In Pursuit of Pangolins

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.

Central African Republic - Leaving the Best Till Last

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.

Getting into Congo

Hallelujah. I’ve escaped the unrelenting grime and corruption of Kinshasa, not without some difficulty. I've taken a ferry north across the river from Kinshasa and I’m in the Republic of Congo now. The immigration booths are rickety, but the service straightforward.

Facts and Factoids

  • The Republic of the Congo, or RoC (not to be confused with Taiwan) is also known as Congo-Brazzaville (so as not to confuse it with the Democratic Republic of Congo).
  • The Congo got its name from the old kingdom of Kongo, which was at the mouth of the river from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries.
  • The region is dominated by Bantu-speaking tribes from three kingdoms: Kongo (originating about 1000), the Loango (flourishing in the 17th century), and Tio.
  • 85% of Congo’s sparse population (five million) lives in a few urban areas, mainly in Brazzaville, and Pointe-Noire, as about 80% of the entire country is covered in the dense Congo Rainforest.
  • French is the main language used. Very few people understand English.

A Brief History of the Congo

  • The Portuguese located the Congo River in 1482, establishing commerce with the tribes-especially because of the slave trade.
  • The Frenchman Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (hence Brazzaville) signed a treaty with Makoko, ruler of the Bateke people, in 1880. This established French control.
  • The country was then named French Congo, and after 1905, Middle Congo.
  • Together with Gabon and Ubangi-Shari (CAR), it became the colony of French Equatorial Africa in 1910.
  • The Congo proclaimed its independence, without leaving the French Community in 1960, then calling itself the Republic of Congo.
  • Congo became a Marxist–Leninist state, from 1969 to 1992, under the name People's Republic of the Congo.
  • Multi party elections were introduced in1992, but these came to an end in the 1997 Republic of the Congo Civil War. President Denis Sassou Nguesso who first came to power in 1979 ruled until 1992 and then again, after he was reinstated. His rule (and his family) has been rife with accusations of corruption, but he has been granted a third consecutive term in office, by a referendum which led to much civil unrest.

Is Congo a Poor Country?

Civil wars and militia conflicts have historically plagued the Republic of Congo. Nearly half the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank, even though the Republic of Congo is one of sub-Saharan Africa's main oil producers.

Is Congo Safe To Visit?

Congo is considered to be one of Africa's safer countries.  Brazzaville is one of Africa's safer cities, and certainly one of its safest capitals, considerably safer than Kinshasa, over the water.

What to Do in the Congo?

I’m flying north to one of the national parks. and I’m going to visit the lowland gorillas at Odzala Camp. It's not cheap - these are special charter flights and the lodging is beautiful, run by knowledgeable and hard-working staff and guides. It's an amazing experience.

Leaving Congo - Maya Maya Airport

Bureaucracy is still alive and kicking this side of the Congo, though for the most part (not when it comes to the passport checking officer), with humour. I have pages of flight itineraries and the check-in clerk feels it necessary to photograph every single one of them, This includes the details of my accommodation in Zambia, my next stop. But they all (except the immigration officer) send me on my way with a cheery bon voyage.

Brazzaville Beach, Congo

So now I'm safely in Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, having arrived from Kinshasa. The streets of Brazzaville aren’t exactly pristine, but they are tranquil and there are recognisable houses and shops and pavement cafes. The taxis and buses are green and white and relatively disciplined. And my hotel - wow- my hotel. Proper cotton sheets and a working shower. I’m in heaven.

Carrying on my literary tradition I’ve brought William Boyd’s novel with me to re-read, but the beach, disappointingly, is just a patch of scrubby pebbles where the fishing boats land. (I think Boyd’s beach is imaginary even though the book is a satire on Congo as well as humankind in general).

Brazzaville - Chalk and Cheese

The hotel has lent me their shuttlebus free,  (this certainly isn’t Kinshasa) to explore the highlights of the capital of the Congo. I’m back in half an hour. Brazzaville's highlights include a cathedral, a memorial to its founder, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza and the modernist Basilique Sainte-Anne, with its serpent scaled roof. I have decided to avoid the ‘colourful traditional craft markets’. I have a pretty good view of everywhere I have visited, plus the Grand Mosque (also green) and the high rise Nabemba Tower (offices) from my fifth floor window.

Odzala National Park, Congo

Today involves another flight in a small plane. This one is only a 12 seater. I’m off to Odzala National Park, in the north west of this slice of the Congo basin. The plane is almost full and nearly everyone in the party is English, or American, and male.

Here, there is real, green jungle. I’m greeted by gin and tonic when we land, (presented by a line of uniformed staff), my own guide, Clem (he’s French) and my own safari vehicle, to convey me to Ngaga Camp (first of three). There’s even a space to rest my glass, while we bump along (some things are not that different). As we lurch through the rainforest, we’re lucky enough to spot a juvenile serval wandering up the path in front of us. None of the guides have ever seen one before.

The lodge serves up three course banquets, I’m told that I can have as many gin and tonics as I want. They are all included and I’m sleeping in a four poster bed, in a stilt-house overlooking the forest. I've arrived in heaven.

Lowland Gorillas

Up at six, for my first gorilla trek. The gorilla species here is the western lowland, slightly smaller (mainly because they have a lot less fur), than their mountain gorilla relations. Procedures are taken even more seriously in Congo, than in Rwanda. We march in silence (partly because the tracker doesn’t speak any English) and we have to wear face masks, as we approach. I hadn’t realised how uncomfortable these are – like having a sauna on your nose. Our tracker is wielding a machete, but this seems to be mainly for effect. Most of the jungle bashing is done with a large orange pair of secateurs. Fortunately, there are plenty of  primates in the vicinity and we don’t have to walk too far. We beat our way through oceans of marantaceae stems (gorilla food), to find viewpoints.

Unlike their mountain counterparts, these lowland gorillas are mainly arboreal and lively, keeping their distance. They skip around more like chimpanzees, tearing off branches, chewing and fanning, or shinning down lianas. Every so often, they settle on the ground, peeking out from the undergrowth and scurrying away, when my fellow trekkers approach too closely. I’m with four men, all taller than me and all indulging in one of those ‘My lens is bigger than your lens’ competitions. Suffice it to say, that I’m the one at the back struggling to find a space with a view, in our tracker’s clearings. I’m also the one who gets attacked by fire ants. But I always am - they love me.

A Good Time in the Congo Jungle

I spend the morning on the deck of my cabin, listening to the bird calls, cicadas and odd spurts of crashing in the undergrowth and watching the butterflies dart around. There’s always a house guest or two in these places. I’m battling with a couple of cockroaches, who are attracted to the inside of my suitcase. Clem takes a few of us for a forest walk in the afternoon. He leaps about manically trying to catch lacewing beetles for us to admire. We end in a stream, literally, Chairs and a table have been set out in the water. Tiny fish nibble our feet, pedicure style, and we sample forest gin and tonic, made with fresh ginger.

More Gorillas

Another day, another gorilla trek, more pushing and jostling for the best camera positions. Today, we’re visiting silver-back Neptune’s group. The gorillas are very socially aware. Neptune keeps a close eye on proceedings, peering through the marantaceae, which is frustrating, as it’s difficult to keep him in focus. He ventures out occasionally, to give any overly boisterous youngsters a stern glance. They respond immediately. The females sit together and the little ones play-fight, watched over by a larger male on the verge of maturity. The guide says that groups of gorillas sometimes combine in this way, with a silver-back supervising each section. It sounds much more organised than a school playground.

A Congo Village

A village visit in the afternoon. We sit in a circle, while the chief shows us their prized possessions: a blue glass necklace, a beaded belt, a calabash water carrier, a one stringed guitar and a cross bow. Most of the village turns out to watch and their pygmy goats gambol behind us. The mud and wood houses are crumbling, but the village is neat and tidy.

Sundowners today, in a forest clearing, before a night drive with searchlights picking out small nocturnal mammals, who are just waking from their day’s slumber. Galagos and pottos are both spotted. I’d never heard of either of these tiny primates before until I looked them up and saw that a galago is the official name for a bush baby. The potto is an odd looking plump creature, pop-eyed, as he struggles lethargically into action.

Gorillas Galore

A final trek and today it's Jupiter's troop. The gorillas excel themselves. They are in a marantaceae root clearing, so we have an unobstructed view and a circus performance unfolds. The babies swing on the liana trapezes, leaping from one to the other, acting the clown as they knock each other to the floor and then tumbling on the ground. The females burrow round the roots. The males wait till the females have done all the digging and then swoop in, shoving them out of the way to take the food. The silver-back, who has been devouring roots in the background, makes a grand entrance, like a ring master, surveys the scene, greets some of his offspring, quells some rough and tumble amongst the adolescents and then departs for a snooze, stage right.

Mboko Camp, Congo

Then, into the transport for a jolting ride to Mboko Camp. Here, the savannah is scattered with huge termite mounds, a natural Bagan. Next, a river trip. It’s a sub, sub tributary of the Congo and  I’ve been warned there are swarms of tsetse flies (it’s all right there’s no sleeping sickness here). So, I’m swaddled in two blouses, trousers tucked into socks, all soaked in copious amounts of insect repellent. Ted and Josh are in the bow. They’re filming videos for the World Wildlife Fund. (Ted holds the world record for the fastest crossing of Loch Ness in a kayak.).

There’s little to see, other than reflections in the water. The resident pygmy crocodile has abandoned his post, a lone and distant forest elephant raises his trunk (maybe he can smell all that repellent?) and retreats. We fruitlessly follow his foot prints in the mud (they’re huge), are scratched remorselessly by clinging mimosa thorns and ford a side channel before coming across some skittish forest buffalo, with flapping black and white ears.

Lando Camp

I sleep at Lando Camp, facing  vast green open stretches round the river. Judging by the noise, there’s plenty of action at night, but come dawn all the elephants and hunting hyenas have departed again. Flocks of grey parrots amass aloft, for their morning mineral feast in the mud and then swoop off too. However, we do encounter a very sleepy female spotted hyena, guarding her cubs in their den, beneath a Disney Castle termite mound, on my way back to the airstrip.

There’s only me on the plane this journey, so they’ve filled up most of the seats with cargo. It doesn't stop them making all the usual announcements ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we will be flying at...’ and I doze quietly upfront. It’s still very cloudy. Clem says the dry season is always overcast.

Back in Brazzaville

My hotel is on the banks of the Congo, so I can laze on a sunbed and peer across to Kinshasa, a world away. It seems quite benign in the sun. A stroll along the corniche, where the aristocracy of Brazzaville parade in their finery – mainly designer jeans and tee shirts. There are photographers waiting by the benches with laptops and a printer. We have a good discussion about the comparative merits of Canon and Nikon and they admire my lens. In front, are some sand banks permanently exposed in the dry season. They’ve set up a marquee and tables and chairs ready to host some events. Ahead, is a modern suspension bridge, built by the Chinese and confusingly named for Independence Day, in 1960. Beneath, there is a patchwork of industriously tended tomb-shaped allotments. The channels allow drainage without too much damage in the torrential rains.

Next stop Zambia, in search of leopards.

Rwanda, First Stop on my Animals of Africa Tour

I'm really excited to be in Rwanda. My focus, this trip, is most decidedly African animals and the gorilla is top of my list. My driver, Arthur, and most of the locals are smiley and eager to please. This hasn’t stopped Arthur handing me a punishing schedule, which breaks every law relating to happiness on holiday. I am expected to get up before six a.m. nearly every day - sometimes well before. There are also two tickets entitling me to an emergency ambulance airlift should it be required. I wonder if they would give me a ride home if I fall asleep on my treks?

Facts and Factoids

  • Rwanda is at the heart of Africa. It’s also known as Africa’s Switzerland: small, green, mountainous and very neat, surprisingly clean and manicured, with little hedges and brickwork lining the roads. The hills give it its alternative soubriquet, 'Land of 1,000 Hills'.
  • Rwanda is deliciously warm and pretty, with refreshing alpine air.
  • Most of the roads are good - Chinese built, like the majority of the roads in Africa it seems - though steep and irritatingly blocked by slow trucks at times. Two thirds of the terraced land, over which they swoop, is devoted to agriculture, mostly tea and coffee.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, given the alpine feel, this is the most densely populated country in mainland Africa and land has to be utilised efficiently.

Rwanda - Africa's Switzerland

Tourism is up and coming, though it has suffered again this year with the fear of Ebola (despite the distance to West Africa) and unrest in neighbouring Congo and Burundi.

A Brief History of Rwanda

  • Rwandans are drawn from just one cultural and linguistic group, the Banyarwanda. However, within this group there are three subgroups: the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. The Twa are a forest-dwelling pygmy people and are often considered descendants of Rwanda's earliest inhabitants. The Tutsi and Hutu have been at loggerheads, over the centuries, since the Tutsi led Kingdom of Rwanda began to enact anti Hutu policies. German, followed by Belgian occupation (from 1916) in the nineteenth century, encouraged the pro-Tutsi stance.
  • The Hutu population revolted in 1959. Ongoing conflict and changes of government culminated in the Rwandan genocide, in 1994, when Hutu extremists killed an estimated 500,000–1,000,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu over one hundred days. The RPF (Tutsi based) ended the conflict, with a military victory in July 1994. Much of Rwanda was devastated over that time. Memorials to the genocide line every road.

In Search of History - Nyanza

It all now seems remarkably peaceful. Rwanda is a republic, the world’s highest representation of women in parliament and was the first country in the world to legislate an outright ban on plastic bags. On the last Saturday of every month, every Rwandan participates in Umuganda, a day of national community service.

From a tourist point of view, palaces have been reconstructed and museums built. The king (or mwami)'s capital was initially mobile, but the kings eventually settled on Nyanza, due to its hilltop position. The court, by that time had grown to about 2,000. The palace was recreated here, for visitors (see above). It's a beehive, made of papyrus and thatch, with several rooms, including one for all his ladies. They also keep some of the majestic long horned Inyambo cattle, descended from the king's herd, outback. Apparently, they bred them just because they looked pretty.

Next door to the huts is the new palace, built in 1932 for the Mwami Mutara III, during Belgian occupation. Most of the furniture was stolen during the conflicts, The fireplaces and ceilings are decorated with typical Rwandan motifs. Yet another new palace was built, on the opposite hill, but the king died before it was finished, so it became the National Art Gallery.

There's also the nearby Ethnographic Museum in Huye. It's mostly glass cases with artefacts on plinths and masses of background information.

In Search of Chimpanzees - Nyungwe Forest National Park

My very swish lodge is surrounded by forest and very scenically nestled in the middle of a tea plantation. There are numerous crackling log fires to take off the evening chill. I meander through rolling tiers of lime green tea bushes to my bungalow on stilts at the edge of the forest. My guide book says this is the nicest hotel in Rwanda. I’ll buy that. Naturally, it serves its own tea.

I am not allowed into the forest alone so have to pay extortionate prices for a somewhat idiosyncratically drawn up list of activities, all accompanied by rangers. Very clever tourism tactics and commercially successful, as they have trackers permanently following the most popular attractions - mainly primates. (Most of the Big Five safari mammals have been poached out). Number one attraction is chimpanzee trekking, despite the necessity for the silly o’clock (4.15 a.m.) wake up call. My group is comprised mainly of Swiss. They are a fit bunch, determined to be first on the scene if there is any likelihood of a photo alert and set off at marathon runners’ pace, not bothering to check if anyone has been left behind.

The trail is precipitous and overgrown with hidden booby trap lianas, waiting to trip me up. Tarzan managed them with much more élan than I do. The chimps are elusive. We can hear them whooping as they crash through the undergrowth but they don’t want to be caught even more than we would like to see them and a wild chase ensues. Eventfully they clamber up the tall fig trees to eat and pelt us with fruit. (I'm told we are lucky as sometimes you get peed on.)

Using the camera is not easy. It’s too easy to overbalance on the steep slopes - and I do. The branch I cling onto invariably snaps. And the Swiss don’t baulk at barging you out of the way if there is good photo to be had - I have some huge bruises on my back. Nevertheless, there are identifiable chimps in my pictures, some of which look remarkably like shots from Planet of the Apes.

In Search of Colobus Monkeys - Nyungwe Forest National Park

I have paid 70 dollars to go in search of black and white colobus monkeys, on my next morning expedition in Rwanda. However, there was no need. The monkeys have pre-empted me and visited my hotel after lunch. I can see them, in line, swinging through the trees and landing, trampoline-like, in the bushes in front of my bungalow balcony. The tree bounces back up again and the next monkey follows suit. It’s like a circus act performed by wizened little old men with extraordinary white whiskers. Their tracker is sitting by the pool snoozing. I trade my colobus trip for after lunch bird watching, but all the birds are sensibly having their afternoon nap too. The flowers are luxuriant however, and it’s a peaceful scenic walk. And there’s the added benefit of at least one lie in.

Later, more entertainment is provided by bearded mountain monkeys, who creep right under my veranda, squatting in the bushes and gorging themselves as they chatter away. The only thing I haven’t seen are the common blue monkeys who are supposed to frequent the hotel grounds. Maybe no-one has told them.

In Search of Gorillas - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

The road from the forest alongside and above the long strip of Lake Kivu and then up to the Virunga Mountains is not as good. In fact that’s an understatement. It’s still being constructed. Weary Chinese engineers in huge straw hats stand wearily smoking and issuing directions to JCB drivers and labourers wielding pick axes. It’s dusty and rutted and it’s very slow going. Thank goodness it’s the dry season.

On Sunday, the memorials are crammed with relations remembering their dead. We pass a school, where all the children were murdered because they refused to divide into Tutsi and Hutu - ‘We are all Rwandans'. Around another corner the remains of a huge church where the priest locked in ten thousand of his congregation, nailed up the doors, lobbed grenades into the windows and then blew up the entire building.

At Virunga, I have been warned that gorilla trekking in Rwanda is arduous and very steep (at altitude), climbing up the volcanoes, and that the undergrowth is full of tenacious stinging nettles. The rangers will hack their way through these and the bamboo that the gorillas love to eat, using machetes.

At the mustering point, I spy the Swiss group and stay well away. There are ten groups of eight people allocated to each gorilla family. Fortunately, I manage to talk my way into the dodderers’ group and we get the easy trek. My gorilla group, named Hirwa (aptly meaning lucky), has been good enough to settle right by the forest boundary today. So, a forty-five minute walk, slightly uphill and we are there. Much easier than the chimps. And what can I say -? It is amazing.

A gaggle of sleepy females with children who are clearly a handful. The indulgent mothers hug their pop eyed babies, their fur standing up in black haloes whilst they cling on. Other adults fold their arms and watch tenderly as the slightly larger siblings totter around break off sticks, chew them, poke their parents and then hurl them. Even naughtier twin youngsters put on a gymnastics exhibition, turning head over heels, doing headstands and swinging on the trees. Two adolescents wrestle for a good ten minutes, sliding down the slope towards us, lying exhausted, intermittently beating their chests to bluff that they are the strongest, then starting again. The giant silverback surveys the whole scene laconically from his sunny nest. Picture perfect.

This lodge is not as plush as Nyungwe, but there are beautiful gardens, views of the volcanoes and birds galore and I have my own crackling log fire.

In Search of Golden Monkeys - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Another trip into the rainforest, fortunately not too arduous to see the the rare golden monkeys. I'm told they are habituated - though they are not nearly as nonchalant as the gorillas. They don’t run away, but they keep a wary distance and startle easily. Nevertheless, they look angelic in their little caps as the sun patterns their burnished fur.

Then back to Kigali, the capital, founded in the early twentieth century. I have completed my clockwise journey round Rwanda. I'm staying in the Hotel Rwanda of the film (actually it's called Mille Collines - One Thousand Hills).The film documents hotelier Paul Rusesabagina's efforts to save the lives of his family and more than 1,000 other refugees by providing them with shelter in the besieged hotel at the time of the genocide, in 1994.So, it's an interesting place to stay and it has a very good bar.

Next stop Madagascar.

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