In Search of Wild Life

Scientists have estimated that there are 8.7 million animal species on Earth. So it's not really surprising that searching for wild life, engaging or otherwise, features heavily on  many travel agendas. And I've met some travellers, who are undoubtedly obsessed, especially with  big cats, or other mammal lists. Middle of the night expeditions in search of pangolin or aardvark are common. I've been up to my knees in mud, with a flashlight, impaled on thorns in the middle of the African bush. It's worth it, if there's an uncommon  sighting. And, if not, I can always get to sleep in. Unless there's another call. 

The Big Five, the Little Five and the Ugly Five

I’ve heard of (and been lucky enough to see) the Big Five, of course, but guide Vic, when I'm in in Zambia, maintains that there’s also a Little Five and an Ugly Five. My first thought was that this is beginning to sound like a spaghetti western film. But I've investigated. The blue links will take you to the posts that describe where I saw the various animals.

The Big Five

In Africa, the Big Five game animals are the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo. The term was first coined by big-game hunters, and refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt, and kill, on foot.

African Buffalo

(Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia)

The African (or Cape) buffalo live in large herds which have been known to include a thousand animals, though usually groups are smaller, with up to 12 animals on average. Buffalo are forceful and unpredictable animals - 'temperamental tanks' and, according to some statistics, are the most lethal mammals in Africa, as far as dead humans are concerned. They have even been observed killing a lion, after it has slaughtered a member of their herd. (The buffalo’s primary predator is the lion.)

Not to be mistaken for the far more peaceful water buffalo, from Asia, or the American bison. Though they're all from the same family they are distinguished by their home, hump, and horns. Sorry, Neil Young, but you can't believe everything you hear in songs - buffalo do not roam on the range...

Elephant

(Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Gabon, eSwatini, South Africa, Nepal, Congo, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Chad, Central African Republic)

Elephants are the world’s biggest land animal. They are huge. So large, this probably sounds mad, that you don't always notice them when you're driving through the rainforest. Male African elephants can reach three metres tall and weigh an incredible 4,000 -7,500 kilograms. They are also pachyderms (great word) - large and thick skinned. There are two different species of elephant in Africa - the African Savannah elephant and the African Forest elephant. African elephants have huge ears, which are roughly the shape of Africa, so they’re easy to distinguish from Asian elephants. Both species remain under constant threat from poachers who want their ivory tusks.  The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy paints an astonishingly emotional and illuminating picture of a group of elephants and their matriarchal hierarchy, as they struggle for survival in sub Saharan Africa.

African elephants communicate across large distances at a low frequency which cannot be heard by humans. These magnificent mammals spend between 12 to 18 hours eating grass, plants and fruit every day.  Even their poo is useful, as many plant species have evolved seeds that are dependent on passing through an elephant's digestive tract, before they can germinate. At least one third of tree species in West African forests rely on elephants in this way for dissemination.

Leopard

(South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Chad and Zambia)

Leopards (also known as panthers) are spotted big cats, but distinctive from other large felines, in that they are excellent at climbing trees. (The spots act as camouflage). They’ll often safeguard their kill in a tree, to prevent lions and hyenas from stealing it. In my experience they are the hardest of the Big Five to spot – except in South Luangwa, in Zambia. They are nocturnal, solitary and secretive, staying hidden in trees, or tall grasses, during the day.

Lion

(Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, eSwatini, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Chad)

Lions are the most sociable of all big cats, which probably makes them the most interesting to observe. They live in groups called prides, which usually consist of related females and their cubs. A pride of lions is usually made up of related females and their cubs, together with a male, or small group of males, who defend their pride. The lionesses rear their cubs together and cubs can suckle from any female with milk.

The males are most well known for their manes (although some are now evolving without). Typically, the darker a lion’s mane, the older he is. Lions have to be strong and powerful, in order to hunt.  On average, males weigh 190 kilograms. And they can eat up to 40 kilograms in a single meal. African lion numbers have plummeted by over 40% in the last three generations, due to loss of living space and conflict with people.

In the wild, there are two formally recognised lion subspecies. The well known African lion (Panthera leo leo), found south of the Sahara Desert. And the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), which  exists in one small population, in western India. Fascinatingly, the lions in west and central Africa are more closely related to these Asiatic lions, than to those found in southern and east Africa.

Rhinoceros

(Senegal, eSwatini, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda)

 Rhinos, another pachyderm, have poor vision and, because of this, will sometimes attack trees and rocks, by accident. However, their hearing and sense of smell are excellent. I’ve been able to sneak up very close to them with guides - as long as the wind is blowing away from us.

There are white rhinos and black rhinos. White rhinos aren’t white, but slate grey to yellowish brown, in colour. The species name actually takes its root from Dutch, "weit" (wide), in reference to the animal's wide muzzle. The black rhino is very rare, hook lipped, and its colours vary from brown to grey (not black).

The rhino is the most endangered species of the Big Five. Rhino poaching is being driven by an Asian demand for horns, made worse by increasingly sophisticated poachers who are now using veterinary drugs, poison, cross bows and high calibre weapons to kill rhinos. Often, they saw off the horn and leave the carcase. Very few rhinos now survive outside national parks and reserves.

The Little Five

Then came the Little Five, a later addition, added by naturalists, so as to draw attention to more of Africa’s lesser known wildlife, especially in the veldt of South Africa. It seems a strangely arbitrary list to me. And I think I'm still missing two - though I might well have seen them and missed them. The Little Five are the antlion, buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise and rhino beetle.

Antlion

The antlion is the size of an ant and found in sandy, arid areas throughout Africa. It has a wide body and large jaws and is actually the larvae stage of a flying insect known as the Antlion Lacewing, which looks similar to a dragonfly. Antlions are nocturnal and dig small funnel-shaped traps about 50 millimetres deep in dry, sunny spots. They wait at the bottom of it, covered in sand so that only the head is protruding. Ants are their primary prey, hence the name.

Buffalo Weaver

(Somaliland)

The buffalo weaver bird is the easiest among the little five to find and observe. Red billed and white billed varieties are often seen in acacia trees.

Elephant Shrew

(Zambia)

The elephant shrew is a cute small, insect-eating mammal with a long nose. They are very common in Southern Africa, but I saw one in Zambia, where they are less often observed (no picture, sadly.)

Leopard Tortoise

Leopard tortoises live across East and Southern Africa in savanna habitats and are herbivorous, eating grass and succulents. They are name for their leopard patterned markings and at an adult size of 25 centimetres, they are amongst the largest of the Little Five. One must never pick up a leopard tortoise (or any tortoise) during the winter months, as it may eject its stored urine and water as a deterrent. Due to the distance it must cover to replenish this lost moisture, the tortoise could die of dehydration. I know I've seen them, but I can't find the picture!

Rhino Beetle

Rhino beetles are part of the largest species of beetles in the world, reaching six centimetres in length. They have two large horns on their bodies, which the males use in fighting.   Proportionally to their size, Rhino Beetles are among the strongest animals in the world. (Surely this one should be on the ugly list too?)

The Ugly Five

 I can't track down the origins of The Ugly Five, but think this group name is rather unkind. I’ve seen all of them in Zambia, alone. And they are all incredibly interesting and often undervalued. Though, if pushed, I might argue the case for the inclusion of the hippo, which I think is horribly ghoulish, out of water. The list features:

Hyena

( Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Congo, Chad)

The hyena is Africa's most common large carnivore. There are three hyena species - spotted, brown, and striped and the aardwolf is also related, but that's on the Impossible List). Spotted hyenas are the largest. They are fairly big in build, but have relatively short torsos, with lower hindquarters, and sloping backs. All their strength is in their bone-snapping jaws. Hyena live in clans of one to two dozen and are attracted to carcasses, along with their ugly friends, the vulture and the marabou stork. These scavengers will hide food in watering holes and never waste anything. They will even feed on the hooves of their prey.

But The Lion King didn't do them any favours and hyenas generally get a very bad press. They are actually excellent hunters and kill most of what they eat. Spotted hyenas can bring down prey many times their size and have been recorded killing cape buffalo and giraffes.

Marabou Stork

(Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Chad)

The marabou stork is a massive wading bird: large specimens are thought to reach a height of 152 centimetres and a weight of nine kilograms. It's sometimes called the 'undertaker bird', due to its shape from behind: cloak-like wings and back, skinny white legs, and a large white mass of 'hair'. The marabou stork is a frequent scavenger, often alongside vultures. It is believed that the naked head and long neck are adaptations to this livelihood, as with the vultures, with which the stork often feeds. In both cases, a feathered head would become rapidly clotted with blood and other substances, when the bird's head was inside a large corpse, and the bare head is easier to keep clean!

Warthog

( Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, eSwatini, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Mauritania, Uganda, Chad)

How can you not like a warthog? Pumbaa, from The Lion King, ambles the plains inoffensively, tail erect, it seems. Though their tusks can inflict severe wounds. The tusks are ivory, so warthogs are at danger from hunters, who take them to carve, like elephants. Warthogs, as one might guess from the name, are swine, related to pigs, boars and hogs. The patches on their faces are not actually warts, but thick growths of skin, which act as padding, for when the males fight during mating season.

Warthogs are lazy, or maybe their tusks make it hard to dig and they live in dens made by aardvarks (see the Shy List). The males usually live alone, but the sociable females (sows), live in groups of up to 40, called sounders.

Although they might look fierce, warthogs are mostly herbivorous, foraging for roots, berries, bark, bulbs, grass and plants. When food is in short supply, warthogs may eat meat, but only dead animals, worms or insects.

Vulture

(Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, eSwatini, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Mauritania, Gabon, Uganda, Chad)

Vultures are a family of scavenging birds, who have also suffered from a bad press. There are 11 species in Africa and six of these are endemic. The key characteristic of many vultures is a bald head, devoid of normal feathers. It was thought that this was because it is easier to keep clean ( see marabou stork) but it is now believed that the bare skin may play an important role in thermo-regulation. Vultures have been observed to hunch their bodies and tuck in their heads, in the cold, and open their wings and stretch their necks in the heat. Vultures also use urine as a way to keep themselves cool, by spraying themselves.

Wild life conservation organisations say that vultures are vital in cleaning up carrion. I've read that some smell really sweet, like talcum powder. I'm not keen to get close enough to find out. I've also read that vultures are on the verge of extinction.

Wildebeest

( Zambia, eSwatini, Kenya, Tanzania)

Wildebeest are also known as a gnu - I'm a gnu, How about you? The name is Dutch for 'wild beast'. They are antelopes with large, box-like heads and distinctive curving horns. There are two species: the blue wildebeest, or brindled gnu and the black wildebeest, or white-tailed gnu. The front end of the wildebeest body is heavily built, while the hindquarters are disproportionately slender, with spindly legs. They have a grey coat, a black mane and a beard. Magnificent, on their annual migration in Kenya and Tanzania, the biggest animal migration in the world. It is estimated to number between 1.3 and 1.7 million animals.

Wildebeest are herbivores, but can run at up to 50 miles per hour. They have to, in order to escape predators, like lions. They live in huge herds and their survival depends on group or 'swarm' intelligence. Even their birthing season is a highly synchronized event. Most wildebeest calves are born within a short period, at the start of the rainy season. This means plenty of grass and a better chance of evading predators. The calves are able to run, within two minutes of being born!

The Shy Five

Then, I came across the Shy Five, designed to encourage perseverance in animal watchers and nocturnal animal safaris. They are the porcupine, bat-eared fox, aardvark, meerkat and aardwolf. All of these, except the meerkat, are indeed nocturnal and I’ve seen a couple of them scuttling away.

Porcupine

Porcupines are fairly widespread - there are old world and new world species. The third largest rodent after beavers and capybara. They have approximately 30,000 sharp quills, as defence. A baby porcupine is a porcupette (so cute, though not to be confused with a porky pie). When born, a porcupette's quills are soft hair; they harden within a few days. I've seen numerous discarded porcupine quills....

Bat Eared Fox

The bat eared fox lives in east and southern Africa and is relatively small, the only truly insectivorous canine. The desert fox is very similar to the bat eared fox, and I've seen that, in Mauritania. Its ears are rounder.

Aardvark

I'm desperate to see an aardvark. I've spent hours waiting around their holes (see Chad), but no luck as yet. They are not especially rare, but only venture out late at night. These are strange looking creatures, with long snouts, which they use to sniff out ants and termites and then they dig them out using their claws. They are mammals, related to elephants, manatees, and hyraxes, but the only living species of their order ( Tubulidentata).

Meerkat

Thanks to the power of advertising everyone nowadays knows what a meerkat looks like. But they may not know that these bashful (in real life) creatures are Southern African mongooses, which speed away at the merest whiff of danger. ( I have blurred meerkat pictures.). They live in rocky crevices or burrows, in packs of up to 30. The alpha or dominant individuals in a pack breed and the subordinate members look after the pups. Very Brave New World.

Aardwolf

The aardwolf is related to the hyena, but it eats insects and their larvae, mainly termites. One aardwolf can lap up an astonishing 300,000 termites in a single night using its long, sticky (and tough) tongue.

The Impossible Five

My next discovery was The Impossible Five, which seems to have been the creation of a writer called Justin Fox, who set himself the challenge of seeing them all. His list includes the aardvark (again), the Cape mountain leopard, the pangolin, the (very rare as they don't breed like rabbits) riverine rabbit and the white lion (in the wild, most of them are in zoos).

Now, I was really lucky and I did see a black bellied pangolin in the Central African Republic. Pangolins are, possibly, the most trafficked mammals in the world. Read more about them, in that post.

The Big Seven

Then I came across The Big Seven - a clever marketing ploy by the tourism industry of South Africa, adding another two enormous animals, the great white shark and the southern right whale, to the Big Five. Both can be seen off the coast of South Africa.

The New Big Five - Out of Africa

You'll have noticed that all of this post has been devoted to Africa. A few years ago, British photographer Graeme Green started a campaign for a new Big Five for future travel bucket lists. He wanted to expand the focus globally and to place the emphasis firmly on photography and preservation, rather than hunting. Incidents such as the sad shooting of Cyril the lion, added fuel to his endeavours. Many conservationists were involved and a poll was held. The New Big Five were declared to be: elephant, polar bear, gorilla and lion.  I'm happy with that. I've seen all of those: polar bear (Svalbard), gorilla (Rwanda, CAR and Congo) and tiger (India). So, that probably deserves a High Five?

And that's not the end. The 'Big Five' idea is burgeoning. The Arlberg Alps region has come up with its own Big Five: ibex, chamois, golden eagle, marmot and bearded vulture.

What's your Big Five?

South Africa

South Africa is the southernmost country on the mainland of the Old World, About 80% of the population are Black South Africans. The remainder consists of Africa's largest communities of European (White South Africans), Asian (Indian South Africans and Chinese South Africans), and multiracial (Coloured South Africans) ancestry. There are 11 official languages. Hence the nickname, 'The Rainbow Nation'.

A Very Short History of South Africa

Some of the oldest hominid fossils, in the world have been found in South Africa - its history of settlement dates back at least three million years. Bantu-speaking peoples were present by the fourth or fifth century BC. Portuguese sailors were the first Europeans to frequent the region, but the Dutch were the first colonists, establishing a port and supply base at the Cape of Good Hope in the 1600s. The Dutch colonists (known as the Boers) expanded their land holdings and introduced slavery, despite considerable resistance from the local population.

Then, after a tussle that lasted several years the British eventually captured this Cape Colony in 1806, and they too began to expand. Unsurprisingly, the Boers weren't happy, especially when the British abolished slavery. They moved north, in a mass migration called The Great Trek and established two new republics: Orange Free State, and Transvaal. This involved more bloodshed - they had to defeat the Zulus in battle to do so.

The British too were involved in battles against the Zulus, as they extended their boundaries. However, they were content to leave the Boers alone, until gold and diamonds were discovered in the later 1800s. At that point. Lesotho and Swaziland became protectorates and British settlers (Uitlanders, as the Boers called them) moved into the Transvaal Republic. Cecil Rhodes, South African prime minister, at the time, then engineered an uprising there - the Jameson Raid. It failed, and eventually triggered the Boer Wars between the British and the Dutch settlers. The war became ugly, the British (under Kitchener) resorted to concentration camps, and the Boers finally surrendered in 1902. In 1910 the Union of South Africa was born.

The Union of South Africa

Discrimination against the Black African peoples was rife from the start, with zoning laws prohibiting ownership of land in some areas and forbidding voting. In 1948, these laws were exacerbated by the introduction of apartheid. Resistance movements grew, were subdued and simmered. In 1961 South Africa became a republic and the uneasy situation continued. In 1978 P W Botha became prime minister, attempting to strengthen apartheid and imprisoning resistance leaders such as Nelson Mandela.

However, foreign disapproval was growing. Other countries were increasingly imposing economic sanctions on South Africa and inside the country resistance grew stronger. Botha was forced from office and replaced by Willem de Klerk, who in 1990 pledged to end apartheid. The first democratic elections were held in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected president. He retired in 1999.

Facts and Factoids

  • South Africa is the only country in the world to have hosted the Soccer, Cricket and Rugby World Cups.
  • South Africa is extremely rich in minerals and has nearly 90% of all the platinum metals on earth and around 41% of all the world’s gold
  • The South African Rovos Rail is considered the most luxurious train in the world.
  • South Africa shares its national anthem with Tanzania and Zimbabwe
  • South Africa is unique in having three capital cities: Pretoria (executive), Bloemfontein (judicial) and Cape Town (legislative). The largest city, however, is Johannesburg.

What to See in South Africa?

South Africa is renowned for its gorgeous scenery It is also a natural world hotspot, with unique biomes, plant and animal life. I've been three times, visiting:

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 to Chad

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 of Chad

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.

A Very Brief History of Chad

  • Human presence in the area now known as Chad dates back to the seventh millennium BC
  • Chad's settlements were focussed on the trans-Saharan trade routes and various states and empires rose and fell, in the area.
  • France had conquered the territory, by 1920, and incorporated it as part of French Equatorial Africa.
  • In 1960, Chad gained independence, under the leadership of François Tombalbaye, but north (Muslim) -south civil war broke out soon after. When this was settled Chad went to war with Libya. France had to intervene.
  • Ongoing conflict and coups d'etats have followed and the country remains unstable.
  • 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.

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.

Our Chad Tour Group

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.

Facts and Factoids

  • 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.
  • 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.

Across Chad

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. Understandably attitudes vary from shy, but friendly (a wave of the hand) to suspicious and a little hostile. No cameras here, thank you.

Inselbergs of Chad

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.

Camping - Enough to Drive You Wild

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.

Chad’s Savanna Region

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.

Camp Tinga

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 National Park

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.

Exploring Zakouma

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.

Rigueik

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.

The Dry Season in Chad

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.

Zakouma Elephants

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 Mammals

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).

Zakouma Reptiles

This is a shorter list:
Monitor lizards, Nile crocodiles, agama lizards, tortoises and three pythons (this is a first).

Zakouma Birds

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:

Quelea flying at Zakouma

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.

Zakouma Animal Encounters

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.

No Aardvarks

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.

Carry on Camping!

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.

N’Djamena Airport

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.

A Very Short History of Uganda

  • Modern day Uganda is in The Great Lakes area of Africa. It's thought that the Empire of Kitara (up to 1500AD) covered an important part of this area.
  • This was the antecedent of the Toro, Ankole, and Busoga kingdoms, three of Uganda's kingdoms, still in existence today. There are many more chiefdoms. These are credited with maintaining a strong culture of good behaviour amongst the friendly and affable people. The four main kingdoms are the Toro, Buganda, Bunyoro and Busoga.
  • The area attracted the attention of British explorers seeking the source of the Nile River in the 1860s, and this influence expanded in subsequent decades with the arrival of Christian missionaries and trade agreements
  • Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894-1962) - the British were keen to preserve Nile trade routes.
  • Uganda has had a troubled history since independence, with tensions arising between the kingdoms, and especially resentment towards the larger Buganda kingdom.
  • Milton Obote, from the north, was able to gather enough support over time to seize power. But he was eventually deposed by Idi Amin, who ruled as a dictator, for eight years. It’s estimated that Amin was responsible for the deaths of up to half a million Ugandans. His regime came to an end when Tanzania invaded, in cooperation with Ugandan exiles.
  • Uganda's current president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, took power in January 1986 after a protracted six-year guerrilla war. Following constitutional amendments that removed term limits for the president, he was able to stand and was elected president of Uganda in the 2011, 2016 and in the 2021 general elections

Facts and Factoids

  • Uganda derives its name from the Buganda Kingdom and the Luganda language (Yuganda).
  • The country sits at an average of 900 metres above sea level. Both the eastern and western borders of Uganda have mountains
  • Uganda is arguably the source of the Nile. Read more about that here.
  • The official languages in Uganda are English and Swahili.
  • Uganda’s current population is around 45 million making Uganda one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Notably, 77% of Uganda’s population is under the age of 25, making it the youngest population in the world.
  • The official currency of Uganda is the Uganda Shilling (UGX). as in so many countries USD are also widely accepted (at a price).

What to See in Uganda?

Winston Churchill famously referred to Uganda as ‘The Pearl of Africa'. He was right. It's a splendid safari destination and home to 11% of the world's birds (1040 species) including the weird and wonderful shoebill. Uganda is one of the premier destinations for seeing primates- especially gorillas. It's also one of the friendliest countries in Africa.

This is what I did:

Getting to Uganda

I’m touring Uganda anticlockwise, starting from Entebbe. It's a return visit, as last time I only dipped into the eastern corner, to Jinja and the reputed source of the Nile, from Kenya. This trip has begun with a bang. Literally. Twice. I woke up to find that a coke bottle had exploded in my fridge. There was a mess of sticky brown ice to clear up. Then my taxi turned up to take me to the bus station and the driver brought the tail gate down on my head. I now have a dent in my throbbing left temple. If I'm lucky I will get a black eye to match the one I picked up on my last trip, to Tunisia.

Finally, on the bus, the bus driver denies boarding to a young guy who looks as if he had a rough night. But more importantly he doesn't have a ticket. The would be traveller doesn't take it very well. He empties his daypack and trolley bag and throws the entire contents at the bus. It's not the best of starts.

Add to that the queues at Heathrow. Terminal 5 is heaving. It takes an hour in the check in queue, 20 minutes to get to the entrance to security and 20 minutes in security before I get airside.

I've already had a run in with my favourite airline (not) BA, who have given my paid for exit row seat to someone else. They rarely answer the phone, but I managed to get through to customer services which I discovered is now in Cape Town. Though they haven't been able to train the staff yet. It's an hour there before I finally get to speak to a supervisor who sorts the problem. I'm now in the exit row by the toilets, treated as a gangway by all the passengers. The plane is old and the screens tiny, with wavery pictures and touch screens that send you back to the beginning of the film all the time.

Thank God for Qatar Airways on the second leg. Polite, modern, spanking clean, entertainment that works and heaps of food. Though masks are demanded on both legs.

Arriving in Uganda

Immigration in Entebbe is the usual African chaos, with no adherence to any form of queuing rules. But I'm eventually in and out again and Hannington and James are waiting to greet me. Two guides just for me! Happy-go-lucky James is a trainee along for the ride and ready to polish his skills.

The official languages in Uganda are English and Swahili. But Hannington and James speak to each other in Luganda, as do most of the Ugandans. It's the language of Buganda, the largest of the Ugandan kingdoms, centred on Kampala.

On the Road in Uganda - Entebbe to Murchison Falls

The road round Kampala, east and north, is generally good, especially on the new toll section, but the traffic is slow through the urban areas, the road lined with small bustling markets. The buildings in the small towns are constructed wild west frontier style, with high brick stepped facias and shady pillared verandas. Stacks of red bricks stand drying in the fields. Most of the embellishment relates to advertising for telephone companies. Open air pool tables with thatched awnings. And solitary petrol pumps guarded by hopeful assistants.

All manner of dress: traditional with headscarves western long and short and nearly all immensely colourful. Chickens in cages, huge green hands of bananas strapped precariously onto bicycles, families of up to five, crammed on motorbikes. Motorcycles and scooters are called “bodabodas.” They’re cheap transport.

Further on, long horned cattle and flattish agricultural country, red termite hills erupting at various intervals. Plenty of maize and rippling sugar cane. The cane is being harvested and loaded onto top heavy trucks which lumber past. Cassava, mangoes, bananas. The cassava is drying by the road in pieces or pounded. Rows of bean and coffee processing plants. Tall fan like papyrus, used for roofing and decoration. It's placed outside buildings to signal a party. Watch out for it!

Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was established in 2005 to reintroduce rhino into Uganda. Uganda was home to both the black rhino and the northern white rhino, but both indigenous species were wiped out by civil war, poachers and plain habitat mismanagement ,by 1982. Six southern white rhino were initially donated by Kenya and Florida(!) and the population is now 33. It's the only place in the country where you can find rhinos and it's a convenient stopping place on the way north, 100 miles from Kampala.

We creep out in single file to see seven of the pachyderms (have to get that word in somehow), in two groups, slumbering peacefully. Mostly young males, farting and snoring. There's a female Luna, who is pregnant. When she has her baby, the males will have to form their own group as she won't be looking after them any more.

There are also warthogs (Pumbaa of course) skipping around, and the odd bush buck sliding out of the bushes.

Murchison Falls National Park

Further north, gorgeous rolling velvety hills. The road is a big dipper, as we venture on to Murchison Falls. Here, astonishingly, is a two lane highway but they’re still constructing it, the rust-red soil churned up, the edges lined with JCBs. More hard work in the heat. The Chinese engineers always immediately distinguishable, in their straw brimmed hats.

Murchison Falls is the biggest national park in Uganda. The Nile runs east-west through the centre, with the game congregated in the northern areas, which are mostly exceptionally pretty emerald savannah, dotted liberally with fan palms. Who wouldn't want to live here ?

The lodge in the park is packed. They must be grateful for the custom. Things are only just reopening after Covid. This is Hannington’s fourth safari this year and his sixth since 2019. There are lovely sweeping views from here, down to the river. This is the Albert Nile which links Lake Albert with Lake Victoria. Although landlocked, Uganda consists mainly of the Nile Basin and is at the heart of the African Great Lakes. Lake Kyoga is the largest entirely Ugandan lake, and also notable is Lake George. Uganda shares Lakes Albert and Edward with the DRC and the huge (and largest lake in Africa) Victoria, with Kenya and Tanzania.

Murchison Falls

The eponymous park falls are billed as the most powerful in the world. They’re not very high, but still spectacular, as the Nile is forced through a six metre wide channel, thundering into a churning cauldron. You can view from up top or down the bottom. The latter involves a surprisingly long three hour boat trip. Two hours upstream and one back. There are crocodiles, elephants, antelopes and heaps of hippos to entertain us.

The elephants, protective of their babies, are much more unhappy about boats than they are cars and bundle the little ones away rapidly, forming a protective barricade of elephant backsides. They swivel back as soon as we pull away. One baby hippo unintentionally uses its mother as a waterslide. The boats keep a wary distance from the hippos and from the falls themselves, when we finally reach them. The impact causes plenty of foam and current and the zoom lens is required for any meaningful shots.

A road takes us to the top of the falls, where you can peer over the edge (almost) and get a real sense of the power of the boiling waters cascading over the edge. There’s a fantastic view back along the Albert Nile. You also get soaking wet and have to avoid the clouds of buzzing tsetse flies. Unluckily I've worn blue ( in addition to not donning my cagoule) and acquire four stings.

On Safari in Murchison Falls National Park

Safaris in the park are delightful and the game prolific. Giraffe, elephant and buffalo arrange themselves round every corner. Antelope abound. The square jawed Jackson’s hartebeest is the largest. Water bucks and bush bucks pose obediently. Kobs are the Ugandan equivalent of impala, redder brown without the distinctive black vee on the rump. They are abundant, flinging themselves across the tracks with gay abandon. The diminutive oribi, with their two tiny horns, follow suit. They make good prey for leopard, who can drag them up trees easily.

A large leopard has draped one a across a branch and lazes 20 metres up, every so often switching position to gnaw at another chunk. It's entertaining for the punters, as the relieved guides vie to get their clients to a reliable sighting. Every time we meet another van we have to stop and check what they have seen. There are a lot of vans. And there're already a gratifying number of ticks on my animal and bird checklists.

Journeying South and West. On the Road in Uganda Once More.

Our journey south again involves a stretch of unmade road lined with traditional villages. Square and circular huts with grass thatched roofs. (They're selling rolls of the stuff by the roadside. ) Tilling the soil with metal hoes looks like very had work.
Toddlers wave excitedly. Children and lines of women trudge along the roadside balancing yellow waterfilled Jerry cans on their heads. Too many villages still don't have pumps or wells. There are also a few large gated mansions. Hannington says they belong to government officials.

The road signs are British style. So are the many sleeping policemen (in every town and village ) and the speed cameras. The lollipop ladies here use red flags instead of circular signs to escort children across busy roads.

Hoima is the centre of the oil industry. This where all the companies and construction folk have based themselves. It's the nearest city to the game park. The Chinese have built all the roads round here to give them access to the newly found oil. Sadly, they found it in the middle of the park. The issue was debated in parliament, but money won of course. The animals are being moved to other areas. Let's hope they like their new homes.

Hannington has no watch and little idea about distances. He underestimates wildly. So our ETA is usually way off the mark and lunch eaten long after my stomach has started rumbling. He’s not always easy to understand. When Ugandans speak English, they often replace “l” with “r,” so play becomes pray. A toilet stop is usually a short call. Though there’s also the long call.

Around Fort Portal

Further south, the scenery increasingly gorgeous. Hills and mountains. Emerald tea plantations. Climbing up to Fort Portal, a tourist city with green cloaked views in every direction. We’ve just crossed from the Bunyoro kingdom to Toro. The king’s palace at Fort Portal has the best view in town.

The other side of Fort Portal the scenery is better still, as we skirt the Ruwenzori Mountains. . The Ruwenzori are the tallest range in Africa and contain the highest peak in Uganda ( Alexandra - 5,094 metres).

Queen Elizabeth National Park

There’s a bad day on most trips, or at least one that isn’t as good, and my first day in Queen Elizabeth Park is it. The Bush Lodge just outside the park, at Kazunguru, insists that my reservation is for a tent, not the Banda hut with en-suite by the water, described in my itinerary. The small, sweltering tent on offer has an outside shared ablutions block five metres away. No thanks. They argue that no Bandas are available, until I show them my itinerary hard copy and then there suddenly is one. Hannington says that the office of his company agree that a Banda was booked.

There are tranquil views from the veranda, of crocodiles and hippos in the Kazinga Channel, which separates Lake George from Lake Edward. It’s forbidden to walk alone to the huts at night. Escorts are required, as a pair of warring hippos wander the grounds constantly after dusk.

Kyambura Gorge

Chimp trekking in the Kyambura Gorge is the first activity here. It’s not as frenetic as the tracking in Rwanda and only involves sliding down a rainforest covered gorge and crossing two bridges over hippo frequented rivers. The first bridge is rickety, with slats missing and the second a fallen tree. Thankfully, the uniformed ranger, with his AK 47, is happy to assist. But the chimps are similarly uncooperative and stay firmly in the tops of their trees, peeing down from above. They are not really habituated. A second group, the other side of the river, are even more elusive. There’s a very cute tiny baby, but sadly my photos show him peering round his mother's backside. It's not pretty viewing.

On Safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park

Later, we go on a game drive, but there is nothing to be seen. Just a couple of water buck and small herd of kob. The dry yellow savannah stretches to the mountains and Hannington spends two hours driving us literally round in circles, searching for a lion and cubs he’s been told were there this morning. The only good bit is the sunset over the Ruwenzori Mountains. Very disappointing and I’m not happy. Hannington responds by sulking all through dinner. His parting shot - the office have told him that they think there was a mistake with my booking and they agreed to two nights out of the four in a tent. I told him I’m not leaving my Banda.

Next morning, Hannington tells me that I definitely have to move. I’m still not convinced, but the hotel manager says Hannington’s known all along that I should be in a tent. That’s what was booked and I was only in a Banda as a favour. I’ve read that Ugandans don’t like confrontation. Never shout at a Ugandan. But I do and there are tears (on my part).

To cut a long story short, I’m now in another lodge. It lacks the rustic charm of Bush Lodge and sadly there are no views at all from my room. But it’s a little palace with two enormous beds and a long thin bathroom. The toilet isolated at one end like a throne. The electricity can go out at any time for 4 to 24 hours. It’s known as load shedding. Most of the lodges have their own generators but of course those are known to play up too. My shower and hair wash is cut short mid lather tonight.

The game drive next morning is a little more productive. There are a herd of buffalo, a lioness (from a distance) and some hippos playfighting. There’s queue of vans along the track, a sure sign that there’s been a big cat sighting. But Hannington says I’m not allowed to look. These vans have paid for ‘The Lion Experience’ and the rangers have tracked their prey down for them. No money, no lookee.

The Kazinga Channel

In the afternoon, a boat trip along the Kazinga Channel. This is where all the wildlife have escaped to. The banks are lined with elephants, consuming their requisite 100 litres of water a day and in the interim squirting the liquid, or dust, over each other. The many babies have a great time rolling in the mud and linking trunks. The groups of buffalo lounge in the water, a wary distance from the elephants. The hippos can’t decide whether to duck or take centre stage, alternating between the two.

There are scores of different birds, crowned cranes (the national bird of Uganda featured on the flag), yellow billed storks, great and lesser pelicans, three types of kingfisher, fish eagles (one makes an audacious dive and scoops up a fish in his talons right under our noses. He’s much too fast to photograph). Cormorants, goliath herons, great herons and the boringly brown hamerkop (but notable because they have the biggest nest in the world according to our guide and their name refers to their hammer shaped head) and marabou storks, (on the Ugly 5 list along with the amusing pumbaas of course). The warthogs are everywhere running along with their tails erect like car aerials. The name pumbaa means stupid in Swahili. That’s even more unkind than putting them on the Ugly 5 list. We meander along the channel, waterside scenes the whole way, to a fishing village and back again.

Searching for Tree Climbing Lions

My last day in Queen Elizabeth Park also calls for patience. Today, we’re in search of the tree climbing lions of Ishasha. They are reputed to wake up early, go hunting and then climb into trees to sleep for the rest of the day. It’s a two hour drive up a very bumpy track to this part of the park. And the lions have been up and come down again when we arrive, according to the rangers. It might have something to do with the fact that they’ve been burning off the long grass and nearly the whole area is a scorched and still smoking. If I was a lion I wouldn’t be that keen on padding across it.

We spend the whole morning driving round in more circles, but the lions are even more reluctant to appear then the rest of the wildlife in these parts. I’ve been told (too late and possibly unreliably) that only one pride remains. A dozen or so cats were poisoned by locals, as they were thought to be taking their cattle. James and Hannington spend a lot of time on the roof of the van vainly looking. The only sighting is a veritable parliament of eagle owls, all surprisingly alert, and a blue monkey. There are a lot of monkeys in Uganda.

My Sightings

James is a little vague over the names (and even more so about the spellings) of the wildlife, so I’ve challenged him to write a list of everything we’ve spotted in both parks. This is my agreed sightings list, in James’ order:

Side striped jackal, crowned crane, egrets, tree squirrels, ground squirrels, ground hornbill, snake eagle, yellow throated longclaw, African jacana, marabou stork, open billed stork, hippo, Rothschild’s giraffe, African buffalo, African bush elephant, nightjars, vervet monkey, patas monkey, olive baboon, black and white colobus monkey, common hare, black headed heron, grey heron, goliath heron, white backed vulture, permanent vulture, lion, leopard, Uganda kob, water buck, African pied wagtail, Egyptian goose, yellow billed black back, slender mongoose, marsh mongoose, white tailed mongoose, common warthogs, long tailed starling, Bunyoro Rabbit (at night, quite rare), blue monkey, red tailed monkey, topi (from a distance), hamerkop, long crested eagle, fish eagle, eagle owls, scarlet ibis, common bulbul, weavers, tawny eagle, bush buck, oribi, Jackson’s hartebeest, side striped jackal, cattle egrets, oxpeckers, red turaco, bee eaters, flycatchers, kingfishers, bustard (careful with the spelling here), guinea fowls (known here as wild chicken), northern common bee-eater, Cooper’s sunbird, black and white cuckoo, barbets, yellow billed stork, pelican greater and lesser, cormorants.

Eating in Uganda

Food in most of the lodges relies on quantity rather than quality. It’s international buffets, pasta and some sort of chicken is the norm. Potatoes here are known simply as Irish to distinguish them from the indigenous sweet potatoes. Dessert is usually a tropical fruit plate: passion fruit, pineapple, watermelon, small sweet banana and mango if I’m lucky. When we stop for lunch its usually heaps of fries and fish (tilapia from the lakes) or chicken. Hannington and James eat what they term local food. Stews: beef or goat with lots of starch; cassava, big (bland) bananas, pumpkin and rice. Some of the lodges are a little more up market in their offerings, tiny pink lamb chops with mustard sauce is my favourite. Pork isn’t served at all in some restaurants. In villages there’s usually a ‘pork joint’- for roast meat. A “rolex” is an omelette (or meat, or vegetables) wrapped in a chapatti. Pan-fried grasshoppers are also considered a delicacy, but I've not been offered those.

From Kazunguru to Mabamba. On the Road in Uganda Again.

It’s a very busy road through from the DRC to Kampala. The scenery is still gorgeous. There are numerous crater lakes in the Queen Elizabeth Park, evidence of past volcanic activity. Indeed, some argue that sulphurous odours indicate that they are still bubbling. Or road takes us through a scattering of these, the mountains beautifully reflected in the still water. Lake Nkugute is said to take the shape of Africa, a newish dam, creates the horn. An old man with a wooden rowing boat is fishing for crayfish, who nip his hand whilst he brandishes them aloft.

More neatly tiered tea plantations. And police road blocks. President Museveni lives in this area and it's apparently also a high risk accident zone. There are almost as many checks as in the DRC. Hannington has his licence confiscated and is made to pay an overdue speeding fine. I have to loan him 150,000 shillings so we can get back on the road. Finally, we make progress. We reach the Equator – I’m having my photo taken at the designated markers, (on some of the several main roads it crosses you have to make do with a small brown sign) when a small Ugandan boy sidles up. His parents are giggling from their car. ‘He wanted his picture taken with a mzungu, (foreigner).’ they call.

Mabamba Bay Swamp

Mabamba Lodge is up a 20 kilometre bumpy track in the rainforest above Mabamba Bay on Lake Victoria. There are amazing swamp and lake views. I have a small bungalow with views across the rainforest. The jungle noises are loud at night and the monkeys throw fruit onto my roof.

In Search of the Weird and Wonderful Shoebill

Farida, from Kampala, who I met on the Caucasus train in 2017 is coming to join me for a trip into the swamp in search of the rare shoebill (only 3-5,000 left in the wild). They're sometimes wrongly referred to as shoebill storks, as they've now been classified as a family all on their own. Their closest relatives are actually the pelicans.

We have a motorised canoe, but our crew are young and inexperienced and make hard work of poling through the narrow channels as jacana hop on lily pads and kingfishers and heron swoop by. There are ominous thunder clouds rolling over head. Nevertheless, the boys know the way to a, so very rare, it's almost unheard of, shoebill's nest.

The male is standing guard, motionless and silent, except for a swivelling dinosaur like head and huge beak 30 centimetres long, (shaped like a clog). It's either a monster dreamed up for Dr Who or an offbeat cuddly toy. A very tall one. The bill is sharply hooked to help grab prey. The shoebill feeds on fish, snakes and even small crocodiles and baby monitor lizards, lunging suddenly in surprise attack. This is a solitary and possibly fearsome creature and unsurprisingly receives a mixed reception amongst the locals, who often view them with suspicion.

The baby is on the grass nest, camouflaged by the undergrowth. We can glimpse him when he fidgets and preens. It's difficult to get a clear shot of either, because of all the waving papyrus stalks between us. Sadly, we are not the only people who know about the nest. It's become world famous. We're soon surrounded by other boats, with more experienced navigators edging their craft around us. The twitchers wander all over everyone else's canoes, hefting their huge lenses and raising them in unison every time the baby moves.

One guy has flown specially from France for the event and spent the whole week by the nest. He has four cameras. He tells me that the mother is out hunting for food while dad acts as security, fending off snakes and birds of prey. When mum comes back she feeds the baby and tends to him giving him a shower from her beak and shading him with her wings. Dad goes hunting in the afternoon. He gives his catch it to the female who swallows it and regurgitates it an hour later partially digested, to feed the baby.

Two eggs are laid, on a nest maybe two metres wide, at the end of the rainy season. The parents constantly add grasses to it. However, only one bird is allowed to live, to maximise the chances of survival. If the stronger baby doesn't murder their sibling the mother starves the weakest to death. That's nature.

We're fascinated and would dearly like to see the mother return, but naturally no one has any idea when that will be. The clouds are getting darker and more boats are arriving. Time to depart.

Kampala, the Capital of Uganda

Farida whisks me off into the capital Kampala. 8.5 million of Uganda’s 42 million, population live here. Ironically, the name derives from the impala that are now only found in a couple of small parks in Uganda. The ultimate contrast to the last few days. Traffic laden. Full of fumes. It's one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. Bustling with streets of several storied blocks, mini scrapers in the centre. Small malls, open fronted shops of all kinds, a couple of theatres. Farida’s family own some of these buildings. Her father has accumulated considerable property over the years and she points out some of them as we inch past. Further out, villas scattered across the undulating suburbs

There are no stand out sights, but we take in the independence monuments (Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894-1962), the national cultural centre, a mall (excellent cheesecake), some craft shops and the long established Sheraton Hotel. The beautiful-in-its-simplicity Bahai Temple competes for the best view of town, with the top of the Ghaddafi Mosque minaret . You have to pay to enter there. They won't even let you take a photo from outside unless you stump up. And they've recently started to insist that women wear headscarves and cover trousers too.

There are also, of course, government buildings and the parliament.

We also indulge in an exceptionally good meal, no banquet, at Izumi, a Japanese-Thai restaurant in a shady street full of upmarket eateries. Farida orders far too much and it's all delicious. Really good to meet up again and she showers me with presents from Uganda. An excellent day !

Entebbe, Main Airport for Uganda

Entebbe is located on a Lake Victoria peninsula, 22 miles southwest of Kampala. It was once the seat of government for the Protectorate of Uganda, prior to independence, in 1962. The city is the location for Entebbe International Airport, Uganda's largest commercial and military airport. Entebbe is also home to the State House, the official office and residence of the President of Uganda.

I’m staying at 2 Friends Beach Hotel. Beach is a little bit of a stretch. The lake is so vast, it's certainly like being by the ocean. Don’t swim in the lake (or any of them for that matter), you risk bilharzia. And there is sand. Held in place by netted stone walls that defend against the battering of the waves. A couple of tiny smelly strips allotted to fishing boats. The rest is manicured (well sort of ) covered in trees and requisitioned by the various hotels arraigned along the lakeside road. Its all beach bars and restaurants and I even see stacks of sunbeds. But what with the trees and thatched awnings there's no way for the sun to peep through. There are sunbeds by the goldfish pond like swimming pool directly in front of the hotel though.

An hour in the evening discussing the woes of the world with the owner, Icelandic Hinrik and an English guy from Derbyshire who has made Uganda his home. Both are very content and wouldn’t consider returning to Europe.

Entebbe Airport

But I can't hear the word Entebbe without thinking of the famous raid on the airport in 1977, when the Israelis rescued 100 hostages kidnapped by the militant group of the PFLP-EO and Revolutionary Cells.

It’s still a problematic place. I’m trying to get to Burundi next. The president is flying out today and security is intense. The car is searched thoroughly before we can enter. Vehicles are not allowed close to the departures area. I have to drag my bag uphill on a bumpy track. And it’s not till after check in that I discover that my flight time has been changed for the third time. I’m doomed to spend five hours airside. And that gets extended. They’ve given us free food vouchers and no firm departure time, which is ominous. And my biro has leaked ink all over me and my tee shirt. It’s another one of those days.

Read more about Uganda here.

Libreville Beach

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.

Where's My Tour of Libreville?

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.

Libreville Museum of Art and Culture

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.

A FedEx Delivery

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.

Port Gentil - Not So Well Named

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.

South to Loango

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.

The Lodge at Loango National Park

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.

Loango - A Unique Park

‘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.

Loango Elephant Encounters

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.

Across the Lagoon

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.’

Gone Gorilla or No Gibbons in Gabon

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.

Loango Tented Camp

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.

Hip Hip Hurray and Open Jaws

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.

Pachyderm Performances

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.

Open Jaw Returns

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.

More Elephant Encounters

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.

Luango Beach

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.

How Safe are the Chinese Bridges?

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.

Welcome to Gabon

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.)

Is Gabon a Poor Country?

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.

Gabon - Facts and Factoids

  • The entire country of Gabon is just slightly smaller than the state of Colorado in the United States.
  • Almost 80-85% of Gabon is covered by rainforests, 11% of which has been designated as national parks - some of the largest natural parks in the world. The rainforests of Gabon are home to 777 species of birds.
  • Gabon is known as The Land of Fangs because of the density of its wildlife population -and its gorillas. Apparently, around 80% of Africa’s gorilla population live in Gabon, although they were eluvia when I was there. The country is also home to most of Africa’s baboons.
  • The Equator passes through Gabon (and not Equatorial Guinea to the north). Its represented by a yellow stripe on the tricoloured flag.

A Very Brief History of Gabon

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.

  • Gabon is a presidential republic; the first president of Gabon was Léon M’ba, who was elected in 1961. Omar Bongo Ondimba served as his vice president and later became the president. He is the longest serving head of state ever, ruling over Gabon from 1967 to 2009 (the year of his death). According to the French weekly L’Autre Afrique, President Bongo  owned more real estate in Paris than any other foreign leader.

Is it Safe to Visit Gabon?

  • Gabon is a relatively safe place to travel. Tropical disease, most notably malaria, poses the biggest safety threat. However tourists are something of a novelty, The more upmarket hotels and facilities have been built to cater for those who work in the oil business. And hardly anyone speaks English

Where to Travel in Gabon?

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