It’s too difficult to choose the right words to describe how it feels to sit on a viewing platform in the middle of a Central African Republic rainforest watching over 60 forest elephants. I was simply thrilled. Surrounded by a view of elephants of every age, from babies to one grand old bull striding around the females, a big herd of bongo, forest hogs, palm vultures swooping across Dzanga Bai.
This was a trip I had planned to take in 2013 when following a coup, civil war broke out. Eventually planes stopped flying in, everything cancelled and I travelled to the Republic of Congo instead to trek in Noubale Ndoki National Park. There remained a yearning for this place however and when I got the chance to give it another go, I had no hesitation in signing up. Whilst the Central African Republic remains on the “do not travel” list of government advisories, Dzanga Sangha National Park is located in the peaceful region of the extreme south west of the country, many thousands of kilometres from any unstable situation. From landing in the capital Bangui, you immediately take a charter flight to Bayanga and can therefore travel easily to your destination, never having to leave the airport.
Back to the Bai. If you can imagine being thrilled by this elephant sighting, now imagine what it’s like to sit here all day. Nowhere to be, nothing to distract you, just a wonderful day to watch, observe, learn and be happy. Then imagine doing it all again for a second day. Watching elephants on a game drive is a fantastic privilege – but you always need to move on after a while. Here you start from Sangha Lodge with an early breakfast, drive to the drop off point, trek through the forest and arrive at the platform with a whole day of viewing stretching ahead of you. When you have the time to really watch behaviour there is an awful lot to see. In particular I became fascinated by the different greetings from each small group. Some gently touched trunks, some intertwined their trunks and some even put their trunks in each others’ mouths. Babies and adults alike rolled and sprayed themselves with the mineral rich muds of the Bai ending up looking like like they had rolled around on an artist’s paint palette of golds and reds.
Our days were full with activities. As well as two trips to Dzanga Bai, we made two treks to view two different families of habituated Western Lowland Gorillas. Viewing these gorillas is totally different to Mountain Gorilla trekking. Frequently in dense undergrowth, at one point crawling on my hands and knees through bush, I was rewarded by the sight of two year old twins, Inganda and Inguka, the first twins born to habituated gorillas in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas complex. There is something magical about gorilla trekking and the first glimpse or sound makes the effort totally worthwhile. Treks take place in the morning with a packed lunch waiting for you back at the drop off. On a high from seeing gorillas, all your senses are alive walking through these ancient rainforests; bird song and the sound of cicadas seem louder than you have ever heard before.
An exceptional, unique experience was to attend a hunting trip in the forest with the local Ba’aka. Singing loudly as they work, the noise drives away any dangerous large mammals and forces the smaller mammals, like blue duiker, to take cover. Working as a team, with both men and women, nets are fastened around a small area of forest. Once the perimeter of nets is secured, the Ba’aka charge through the interior of the trap shouting and driving any small mammals into the nets, to be then dispatched by spear. After several unsuccessful attempts we watched a ceremony conducted on the nets to bring them better luck. It was not to be on this occasion but an unforgettable morning listening and watching these people go about their work in the way that their ancestors have lived and hunted here for thousands of years.
Days begin and end from Sangha Lodge, situated on a breathtakingly beautiful place on the Sangha river where you can bird watch from the deck, in the grounds or by boat. Breakfast on the deck, listening to Great Blue Turacos chattering in the treetops and dinners to the sound of tree hyrax calling, you are hosted by the incredibly knowledgeable Rod and Tamar Cassidy, whose passion for birding and wildlife is inspiring. The lodge is also home to the Sangha Pangolin Project, dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammal. Thousands of miles away from the trouble that still exists in CAR, this peaceful spot is one of the last frontiers and gives back so much more than it takes to visitors with an adventurous spirit.
Lesley travelled with Tony McKeith of Busanga Safaris.