The sparsely populated Republic of the Congo is a surprising central African gem with seemingly endless pristine tropical forest and fingers of moist savannah covering its interior.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park (OKNP) lies is the remote north of the country, on the border with Gabon. It’s right in the heart of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest expanse of tropical rainforest. Aside from a host of forest biodiversity, it holds Africa’s densest population of Western Lowland Gorillas. It is also renowned as the richest forest block in central Africa for primates species with eleven diurnal species recorded.
Activities range from gorilla tracking (habituated groups), pirogue rides along lush river systems, night drives in the savannah, walks along lush forest streams and salines, and of course time spent at the productive forest bais.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park
Odzala-Kokoua is one of Africa’s oldest national parks, having been proclaimed by the French administration in 1935. It covers some 13600 square kilometres (1.360 million hectares) of pristine rain forest and is an integral part of both the Congo Basin and the TRIDOM Transfrontier Park overlapping Gabon, Congo and Central African Republic. It holds globally significant populations of Western Lowland Gorilla and Forest Elephant as well as a plethora of other species: 430 bird species and more than 100 mammal species of which around 50 are classified as medium- or largesized.
Odzala has the highest number (11) of diurnal primates for any forest block in central Africa, as well as Africa’s highest density of Western Lowland Gorillas and central Africa’s highest density of Chimpanzees.
Bais, or salines, are swampy, grassy areas that are dotted across the rainforest and which offer a rare chance to catch a glimpse beyond the ‘green curtain’ into the lives of the forest dwellers. Various mammal species come to the bais on a regular basis in order to access various elements from minerals and salts, to sedges and water loving grasses to water. These bais range in size from less than a hectare to more than 10 hectares and represent the best chance of seeing forest wildlife. Viewing at the bais takes place from raised platform hides, or miradors, and requires patience. The bais we visit in Odzala-Kokoua are relatively small and as a result offer the opportunity for close up viewing of various species.
Western Lowland Gorilla
There are two species of gorilla found in Africa, the Western Gorilla Gorilla gorilla and the Eastern Gorilla Gorilla beringei. The Eastern Gorilla consists of two subspecies, the well-known Mountain Gorilla G. b. beringei of Uganda and Rwanda, and the Eastern Lowland Gorilla G. b. graueri of the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both of these subspecies are considered Endangered. The Western Gorilla also consists of two subspecies, the Western Lowland Gorilla G. g. gorilla principally of Congo (Brazzaville) and Gabon, and the little known Cross River Gorilla G. g. diehli of the border region between Cameroon and Nigeria. Both of these subspecies are considered Critically Endangered as a result of commercial bushmeat hunting, disease epidemics and habitat loss. The very slow rate of reproduction accentuates all these effects. It is the Western Lowland Gorilla that occurs in Odzala and is found here at the highest densities so far recorded for the species.
In the area of Ngaga Camp Western Lowland Gorillas live in groups ranging in size from 10 to 25 individuals (average 16-17 animals), usually with one silverback, maybe 5-7 adult females and then a collection of sub-adults, babies and sometimes subordinate males. In this high density area, home range size is between just less than 4km2 and just over 8km2 (average 5-6km2 or 2 square miles). Movements within the home range depend on seasonal utilization of key food types. Staple foods for example include leaves, shoots and plant material, but the seasonal availability of fruit is crucial in the diet and influences group foraging movements.
Born at 2kg (4.5lbs), female Western Lowland Gorillas will grow to around 70kg (150lbs) in weight, while the much larger males might reach 180kg (390lbs) and stand 1.8m (6 feet) in height.
Western Lowland Gorillas can be observed in two different ways while in Odzala: either through tracking habituated groups using the impressive skills of our expert local Mbeti trackers (Okoko Zepherin and Okele Gabin), or by patiently waiting at hides on the edge of forest bais for family groups to forage on the sedges (water-loving grasses) there.
As a result of the work done by gorilla researchers Dr Magda Bermejo and German Illera, a number of habituated groups can be tracked and observed in the area around Ngaga Camp. In this extended 30km2 (11.5 square miles) area there are no fewer than 7 groups totalling 105 individual gorillas. Two of these groups are usually accessed by our guests while a third is observed primarily for research purposes. Other groups are also seen on a regular basis.
Given that Ngaga Camp is situated at an overlap between the home ranges of three different gorilla groups and close to another three, tracking expeditions do not cover enormous distances and can range in length from 1-8km (0.5-5 miles) over undulating country. The undergrowth can be thick however and, including the time spent with a gorilla group, excursions can last between 2 and 5 hours.
Gorilla viewing protocol is based on the guidelines issued by the IUCN for great ape viewing and is very similar to that of Rwanda/Uganda. Protocols are designed specifically to limit behavioural impact and also potential disease transmission from humans to gorillas. They are critical for gorilla conservation.
- Minimum age for gorilla viewing is 15 years – this is for reasons of safety but also for possible disease transmission, with children under this age more prone to infection.
- Maximum proximity to gorillas is 7 metres (22 feet). It is not permitted to approach more closely and we typically view the animals at 10-15m (32-50 feet).
- Maximum viewing duration of any group is 1 hour per day. Each group is only visited once per day, but if guests would like to spend more than an hour with gorillas on a particular day and time allows it is possible to track a different group following the first encounter.
- Maximum number of guests per gorilla tracking excursion is 6.
- Guests that display cold, flu or other respiratory tract symptoms, will not be allowed to track gorillas.
- No food is permitted on gorilla tracking excursions, nor is smoking allowed. Hand washing facilities are provided at Ngaga Camp prior to gorilla tracking.
- While gorilla sightings and encounters are very reliable, viewing is dependent on variables such as weather and tracking conditions.
Location (0° 48′ 0″ N, 14° 55′ 59.88″ E)
Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, is easily accessed by numerous airlines, notably Air France via Paris, Inter Air via Johannesburg and Kenya Airways via Nairobi, thus making the destination easily accessible from Europe and also combinable with Southern or East African safaris.
View Odzala-Kokoua National Park in a larger map
The privilege and thrill of observing one of our closest relatives in the wild will be undertaken from two intimate, sensitively constructed camps that leave as light a footprint as possible and blend into this remote forest environment: Lango Camp, nestled in mature forest on the outskirts of Lango Bai and with access to the savannah as well as the Lekoli and Mambili Rivers, and Ngaga Camp in the heart of a marantaceae forest.
Each camp will consist of six creatively designed guest rooms, taking inspiration from the designs of the local Pygmy or ‘forest dweller’ groups. Natural, locally sourced materials will be used extensively in the construction of the camps: sustainably harvested hardwoods (FSC certified), bamboo and raffia palm matting. Each of the guest rooms will be raised 3-4m above the ground with a wraparound walkway allowing full appreciation of the forest canopy.