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.

Maha Kumbh Mela India 2013

Yes, I am guilty of blog neglect! But I've been busy, busy rushing around France, Spain, Indonesia, both the Congos, CAR, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda over the past six months!

But, fret not, you'll be delighted to know that I am now back in front of a computer. Well, for 2 weeks anyway, after which I'll be on a short trip to India for the huge Kumbh Mela festival. And what you may ask is the Kumbh Mela? Well, read this, the first of my BBC blog features/articles and you'll find out. Whilst at the Kumbh Mela I'll be doing frequent (well, one or two if I get around to it) twitter updates for the Lonely Planet twitter account.

This was published on the BBC Worldwide Travel website a couple of days ago. This is the original link but if you're in the UK you won't be able to see it. Everyone else can.

And for those in the UK (because I'm sure you're simply desperate to read this) here is a copied and pasted version of the same.

India hosts the world’s biggest gathering

Maha Kumb Mela Allahabad India
Until 10 March, the Maha Kumb Mela will see some 100 million Hindu pilgrims cleansing their sins in Allahabad. (Getty Images)

It has been 144 years in the making, but India’s Maha Kumbh Mela is finally here.
The Maha Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage, has been taking place for thousands of years, with its origins in Hindu mythology. In Hindu creation myths, the gods and demons fought over a kumbh (pitcher) containing the nectar of immortality, but during the fight four drops of the liquid fell to earth, one at Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, one at Hardiwar in Uttarakhand, one at Ujjian in Madhya Pradesh and one at Nashik in Maharashtra.
Today, a Kumbh Mela is held roughly once every twelve years in Hardiwar, Ujjian and Nashik. The one in Allahabad, which is also held every twelve years, is the most important and largest, and this is called a Maha (or great) Kumbh Mela. Thanks to an unusual alignment of the planets, this year’s event is even more auspicious than normal. In fact, the last time there was one this important was 144 years ago and the next will not be until around 2157. Pilgrims believe that by attending the festival and bathing in the waters of the rivers that run through Allahabad or the other host cities, they will cleanse away their sins and bring salvation.
When we say the Maha Kumbh Mela is big, we really mean big. The last Kumbh Mela, held in Hardiwar in 2010, was attended by an estimated 40 to 70 million pilgrims. But for this year’s event, running until 10 March, Allahabad authorities estimate that some 100 million pilgrims will pour into the city of 1.2 million inhabitants to take a dip at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Sarasvati Rivers. Although people bathe every day throughout the festival, there are three especially holy days when bathing brings even greater merit. The most auspicious of these is on 10 February, when up to 35 million people are expected to dip in the sacred waters.
The Kumbh Mela brings together Hindus of all castes and creeds, but its most famous attendees are the sadhus (wandering Hindu holy men who have renounced caste, money, possessions and social position). On each of the main bathing days they lead the dawn charge to the river, but always at the very front come the nagas (sadhus who have renounced virtually everything, including clothing).
The Maha Kumbh Mela got off to an awe-inspiring start on Monday, with the first of the main bathing days seeing an estimated 10 million taking a dip. However, if you want to attend, you will need to be quick. The authorities have set up tented camps along the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, but with about 100 million people attending, demand for accommodation is very high.