This is the blog of journalist, Lonely Planet author and photographer Stuart Butler. It features news and travel updates from the regions in which Stuart works, including northeast Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan), Yemen and Sri Lanka.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Congo National Parks

I recently spent an exciting few weeks in the Republic of Congo and DR Congo. I was there updating the relevant chapters of the Lonely Planet Africa guide and writing a few magazine features. I got to do all kinds of cool things like sleep in a shipping crate, pay insane amounts of money for leaky dug-out canoes, eat dog food and have my enjoyment curtailed by a rebel army, M23, invading the town I was heading for.

But the best thing by far was visiting the forest national parks in the Republic of Congo and have close up encounters with gorillas, visit forest clearings filled with elephants, bongo, chimps, gorillas and buffalo (you might have seen those on the recent David Attenborough series, Africa).

The following was published on the BBC Worlwide website a couple of days ago (and for those outside the UK here is the link to the real thing; but for those people in the UK here is copy and paste version.

Gorilla spotting in the Republic of Congo

Republic of Congo Africa Parc National d’Odzala Nouabalé-Ndoki Conkouati-Douli
 (photo - Stuart Butler)

Three days of uncomfortable buses and torn up roads, one day on a leaky dug-out canoe puttering slowly upriver, one hour wading barefoot through the thigh-deep waters of a jungle swamp – and finally, here I was, eyeball to eyeball with a western lowland gorilla. This was exactly what I had hoped for from a gorilla safari to the Republic of Congo.
The Congo? Isn’t that the home of cannibalistic militias and rebel armies? Isn’t that where Joseph Conrad set his Heart of Darkness novel and where the blood-stained battlefields of Africa’s World War can be found? Wrong. You are thinking of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the lumbering giant at the heart of Africa. This is smaller Republic of Congo, which lies to the north of its big bad neighbour. Sure, this Congo has also taken a battering at the hands of power-hungry politicians and has seen more than its fair share of war and misery (most recently with a civil war during the 1990s and first few years of the new century), but today the Republic of Congo is safe, stable and open to trailblazing visitors in search of the ultimate jungle experience.
There is no shortage of rainforest in the Congo; some 60% of the country consists of nothing but steamy lowland jungle, so pristine that the rainforests are considered one of the richest and most biologically important forest ecosystems on Earth. But it is only now, after years of false starts, that access to the area is improving, national parks are being established and a visitor-friendly infrastructure has been put in place.
Even with the recent improvements, visiting many parts of the country remains difficult. But whether you splash through dank swamps or relax on the terrace of a luxury lodge, there is no doubt that a safari to the Congo is a wildlife-watching bonanza unlike any other.

Parc National d’Odzala
One of the oldest national parks in Africa, established in 1935, the 13,600sqkm Parc National d’Odzala, located in the far northwest of the country close to the borders of Gabon and Cameroon, has had a turbulent past. Once celebrated for having around 20,000 gorillas, the population was decimated between 2003 and 2005 by several outbreaks of the horror movie-worthy ebola virus which  wiped out between 70% and 95% of the park’s gorillas. The park was also neglected for about 20 years, thanks to conflict and the ebola outbreak.
Today, the situation is much improved. Gorilla numbers are growing, and the park has received a much needed boost with the arrival of Wilderness Safaris, a company that actively manages park tourism on a day-to-day basis. The goal of the Botswana-based company – the only one operating in the park – is to use responsible tourism to build sustainable conservation economies in Africa. By working alongside local communities, Wilderness Safaris has embarked on a programme of rehabilitating the park’s previously crumbling infrastructure, building two luxury tourist lodges and training local guides and rangers. The benefits to the park, the wildlife, the local people and the tourist industry are already visible. In fact, despite the park having re-opened to tourists only in August 2012, Wilderness reports that their exclusive fly-in safaris from Congo’s capital Brazzaville are already heavily oversubscribed. And when the activities on offer include face-to-face encounters with habituated west lowland gorilla families, jungle walks with local Baka (or pygmy) guides and pirogue trips downriver in search of birds and other wildlife, it is hardly a surprise that Odzala has been garnering such attention.

Parc National Nouabalé-Ndoki
When a team from National Geographic magazine called this northern corner of Congo “the worlds last Eden” in the mid-1990s, they chose their words wisely. The 23,500sqkm Parc National Nouabalé-Ndoki is the world before the chainsaw. This vast region of swampy forest is home to healthy populations of western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, chimpanzees and more. And what makes this park so enthralling is the ease with which these creatures are seen.
The forest is known for its natural clearings in which elephants and gorillas gather, and the World Conservation Society (WCS) has built viewing platforms alongside these clearings where travellers can ogle the antics of Congolese megafauna. If you need to get even closer to the wildlife, Nouabalé-Ndoki also has groups of habituated gorillas.

Parc National Conkouati-Douli
The Parc National Conkouati-Douli is an altogether different experience to the previous two reserves. This 5,049sqkm coastal area stretches from the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean where turtles clamber ashore at night to lay eggs, through a band of savannah and up into jungle-clad mountains where shy groups of gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants slink through the shadows. As with so many protected areas in Congo, the years of conflict meant that conservation was very low on the government’s list of priorities, and as such, this park, with its open terrain and easy access, suffered more than most from human encroachment and poaching.
Today, the day-to-day management of the park has been largely taken over by WCS, and the society has started training new guides and rangers, cracking down on poaching, establishing new accommodation for tourists, and setting up safari-related activities such as river boat trips in search of elephants or forest walks to look for shy and elusive gorillas. The park also contains a chimpanzee rehabilitation sanctuary where travellers can see young chimps, orphaned due to poaching, being reintroduced to life in the wild.
Since the animals here are not habituated to humans, sightings tend to be much more fleeting than in the northern forest parks. But as poaching levels drop, the wildlife are likely to become less fearful and encounters more frequent.

For many people, just the name Congo implies adventure, and getting to most national parks here is going to make you feel like an explorer. Wilderness Safaris offer packages to Odzala National Park, where everything including flights from Brazzaville is included. This is the recommended option for those who require comfort on their safari.
Safaris to Nouabalé-Ndoki and Conkouati-Douli are organised through the WCS and are better suited to those with more time and stamina. You will have to make long overland journeys by bus or private car from Brazzaville and be prepared to walk long distances through the forest, even wading through swamps and riding boats up-river.
No matter which park you choose to visit, you must inform either the WCS or Wilderness Safaris in advance so that they can prepare for your trip.

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