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31 January 2019

Journeying to Odzala-Kokoua National Park to see the lowland gorillas

Here’s YZ gorilla expert Linda’s experience of visiting the lowland gorillas in the Republic of the Congo’s extraordinary reserve, Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

Situated in the far north of the Republic of the Congo, this massive and remote park is even bigger than Tanzania’s Ruaha. With only three camps and a total of 24 guest bedrooms in the entire region, Odzala-Kokoua is really deep in Africa’s equatorial forest and seems very far away from civilisation. My first evening here, sitting on the deck of Ngaga Camp with the forest surrounding me, knowing the gorillas are somewhere nearby, is a combination of feeling absolute serenity and being somehow overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the forest all around.

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Raised bedroom with views over the canopy at Ngaga Camp

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Ngaga Camp communal fire pit

Odzala is completely different from any safari experience I have ever enjoyed, with its dense forest, sandy waterways with their brackish water, shy forest elephants, swamps, bais, and of course the western lowland gorillas! 

This is not a ‘classic’ safari by anyone’s stretch of the imagination. If you are looking for the Big Five and the open plains of Africa, it’s as far from that as you can get. The forest undergrowth is thick, and tracking the lowland gorillas as they move through the trees, coming down to eat the Marantaceae (arrowroots) growing in the clearings, is a sweaty and close activity, with hoverflies buzzing around you. This trekking is easier than tracking the mountain gorillas, as the terrain is mostly flat. However, some agility is required for balancing on the undergrowth that has been chopped by the trackers to create pathways, making for a dense spongy walking surface. Branches also cross these paths, and some climbing skill is necessary for getting over or under them. But when the guide indicates it’s time for you to put on your mask in readiness for the gorilla sighting, all the effort to get here falls into perspective – the experience is more than worth it.

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Western lowland gorillas photographed during a morning walk in Odzala-Kokoua National Park

The western lowland gorillas are smaller than their mountain counterparts, and keeping sight of them often means following them as they go about their daily lives, eating, climbing, playing, cleaning each other’s fur, and sometimes fighting. Watching their interactions and expressions is almost too close to home – I felt as though I was observing their private family life.

RECOMMENDED CONGO TRIPS & ACTIVITIES:

Odzala has other great experiences too! So, if possible, try to stay for the 8-day itinerary at least, as this is the best way to enjoy everything that the park has to offer. The night walks in the forest are one of my favourites. They involve walking along the sandy pathways in the pitch darkness, torches being the only light. The sounds seem to be amplified, with all the frogs out and singing to each other. If you are lucky, you will hear the potto’s high-pitched ‘tsic!’ call. These shy nocturnal creatures move slowly through the trees and are mostly silent, avoiding predators. We came across a palm civet sleeping peacefully in the V of a tree.

You can also go kayaking and boating on Odzala’s rivers. These activities are so peaceful. You’ll float along the slow current, watching the palm-nut vultures in the treetops and swooping overhead, buffalo lounging on the muddy banks, and the occasional elephant popping its head out into a watery clearing.

The park’s walks are truly ‘adventure walks’. They include wading through the shallow warm waters of the bais, deeper into the swampy areas where there really seems to be the possibility of a dinosaur sighting between the oversized ferns, out into the dry forest searching for ants’ nests, and finally over the open grassy areas punctuated by giant termite mounds. 

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YZ expert Linda (right, back) canoeing down the Lekoli River

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Local wildlife - Africa forest buffalo

This is a truly unique safari, not classic but moving, intense, and immersive. If you are interested in visiting the Republic of Congo or would like more information, don't hesitate to contact us!