Stuart Butler explores the Congo's beaches, pristine rainforests and gorilla camps by foot, boat, car and air
Think, think; what was it that my guide had said? Ah yes, that was it: "When they charge at you, don't show any fear". OK, remember, no fear, no fear. Hmmm, that's not working. I'm scared. I don't want to be standing here anymore.
Ever since I was a small boy, listening to tales of my father's childhood in Africa or watching the latest wildlife documentary on television, I'd dreamt of this moment. Finally, it was happening, and yet I was no longer sure I wanted to be there.
I was in my underpants, stuck in the thigh-deep, gooey, clinging mud and stagnant waters of a swamp in the jungles of the Congo, and a gigantic gorilla was coming towards me. I could wave my arms about like a bird learning to fly, but the mud, which was acting like concrete trousers, was holding me fast. My attacker was having no such problems moving forward, as he came hurtling through the forest undergrowth and splashed at speed through the swamp towards me. He was, I tried to remind myself, merely putting on an act in order to show who was boss.
The Congo. The very name conjures up a sweltering jungle populated by chest-thumping gorillas. It brings to mind the sound of beating bongo drums and images of paddle-wheel steamers sailing down mud-brown, mile-wide rivers. But wait, isn't the Congo also the heart of Central Africa? Isn't it a place of uncontrollable militias? A place of rape and pillage, corruption and ethnic slaughter? Yes and no. You're thinking of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and, even there, the commonly held clichés of the Congo are only a half-truth. But I'm not talking of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I'm talking about its far smaller neighbour, the Republic of Congo. This French-speaking country on the west coast of Central Africa is the forgotten Congo and though it, too, has gone through some rough patches in the past, today it stands on the cusp of a new era. It has oil, timber and a rapidly expanding infrastructure - and it's safe and stable. It also has a stash of national parks and other protected areas covering enormous swathes of barely touched rainforest filled with the calls of great apes and lumbering elephants.
There's no shortage of rainforest in the Congo - about 60 per cent of the country consists of nothing but steamy lowland jungle that is so pristine they are considered some of the richest and most biologically important forest ecosystems on Earth.
In the mid-90s, National Geographic magazine ran an expedition to survey the forests of northern Congo. During the course of their work, they encountered groups of chimpanzees whose curious reaction to seeing human beings led the scientists on the expedition to conclude that these chimps had never seen people before. They also encountered lowland gorillas and forest elephants. Not one or two, not even dozens of them, but hundreds. When the story of the expedition was published, National Geographic writers simply described northern Congo as "the world's last Eden". It was the thought of exploring such a rainforest that brought me and a slowly increasing number of other trail blazing travellers to Congo.
My journey hadn't started in Tarzan-thick jungles though, but rather on the soft Atlantic sands of Pointe-Noire. This was a very different kind of Congo. An oil and trade port city, with a hint of a beach resort, populated by expatriates from across Africa, the Middle East, Europe and America. It's no Dubai, but it's about as close as Central Africa gets. A day later, I travelled north up the coast to Conkouati-Douli Natinal Park. Like Pointe-Noire, this national park defies Congolese expectations. Sure, there are patches of forest here; one day, while my guide and I paddled a kayak down a tar-coloured river, we even caught a fleeting glimpse of a gorilla rushing off through the undergrowth. But the dominant landscapes here consist of coastal lagoons, surf-beaten beaches and savannah grasslands grazed by rusty-red buffalo. Aside from the buffalo, the big attraction of this park are the turtles, which on moonlit nights clamber ashore to lay eggs.
But they aren't the only ones to enjoy these peaceful beaches. According to Louis-Philippe Lévesque, a representative of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the park alongside the Congolese government, the waves that roll ashore in Conkouati-Douli are also popular with surfers. But by surfers he means rather bulky hippos that, according to Lévesque, spend the cool early mornings riding waves. If that isn't enough wildlife excitement, the park also contains a chimpanzee rehabilitation sanctuary, where travellers can see young chimps, orphaned due to poaching, being reintroduced to the wild.
Sadly, my time in Conkouati-Douli was up before I got a chance to see the hippos hanging ten. Returning by bumpy road to Pointe-Noire, I flew north to Brazzaville, the Congolese capital. Brazza, as it's commonly known, sits on the banks of the mighty Congo River, which at this point looks more like a muddy ocean channel than a river. On the opposite side of the river is the sprawling megalopolis of Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC. The two cities could not be any different. Where Kinshasa spreads through miles of shell-shocked concrete monotony, Brazzaville is low-key and village-like. Kinshasa demands you to be street savvy, Brazzaville asks you to stop for coffee at a pavement cafe. A more easy-going and likeable Central African city would be hard to find. My time there was spent sitting on the terraces of French restaurants and gazing across the river to the bright lights of Kinshasa, rummaging though the city's many markets and checking out the striking art scene at the École de Peinture de Poto-Poto (Ave de la Paix).
But pleasant as it was, dining in French restaurants was not my reason for coming to the Congo. I was there for the jungle and, in particular, the 60,800-square-kilometre Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. Located in the far north-west of Congo, this vast region of swampy forest is truly the world before the chainsaw and is home to healthy populations of western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, chimpanzees and more. There are plenty of opportunities for guided forest walks here, but what this park is best known for is its natural clearings in which elephants, gorillas, buffalo, forest hog and more gather, and the ease with which these creatures are spotted. Overlooking some of these clearings, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which, like in Conkouati-Douli, shares responsibility for the park with the Congolese government, has built viewing platforms from where visitors can get an unheralded view of Congolese megafauna.
My journey from Brazzaville to Nouabalé-Ndoki took an exhausting, but fascinating, three days of hard overland travel by bus, a very battered taxi, boat and foot. When I finally arrived, it was late in the evening and I was shown directly to my large and sparsely furnished safari tent. Lying on my camp bed, listening to the thunderous insect orchestra outside, I slept fitfully.
When dawn came, there was a knock on my tent door: "Monsieur, it's time. Let's go." Ten minutes later I was following in the footsteps of my guide. He seemed to float with speed and grace through the forest. By contrast I slipped and fell with all the elegance of an elephant on an ice rink. The forest became denser, almost menacing. My guide paused to look at some broken saplings and then pointed ahead. "This way," he said and hacked his way through thick, thorny undergrowth. Without warning the vegetation stopped. We had come to a dark swamp.
My guide pointed to the swamp waters. "They've gone that way," he whispered, "let's go. Take off your shoes and trousers and we'll follow them." I did as commanded. Adrenaline was racing through my body, my chest was tight with excitement. I could smell their presence. I knew they were close. My eyes scanned back and forth across the undergrowth surrounding the swamp waters. Any moment now, I thought, and we'll see them. And that was how, a second later, I found myself standing in my underpants in a Congolese swamp, frozen in fear, as a huge, western lowland gorilla came tumbling out of the forest and hurtled towards me.
The swamp waters seemed to part as his massive bulk bore down on me. And then, without warning, just metres from me, he stopped, carefully surveyed me and, on seeing my underpants obviously decided I wasn't worth bothering with. He turned his back, urinated in the water around me and ambled off back into the forest.
If you go
The flight Ethiopian Airlines (www.flyethiopian.com) flies from Dubai to Brazzaville via Addis Ababa from US$1,300 (Dh4,775) return including taxes
The stay To visit Nouabalé-Ndoki or Conkouati-Douli national parks, it is essential to reserve at least a month in advance through the Wildlife Conservation Society (http://congo.wcs.org). For more luxurious accommodation, Wilderness Safaris (00 27 11 807 1800; www.odzala-kokoua.com); six night all-inclusive packages including internal flights from US$13,200 [Dh48,500] have recently started operating exclusive fly-in safaris with accommodation in chic-rustic lodges to the newly revamped d'Odzala National Park
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