This wildlife travel guide is meant to be like a trailer for the new Attenborough series. Because we also have individual travel guides for more specific wildlife vacations, such as our safaris, bear watching and whale watching. The travel guide below gives you the perfect introduction to getting your head around the extraordinary life on earth, and where to go to find it.
Gorilla safaris in the
Republic of Congo
The Republic of Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville or – more simply – Congo, is home to around 125,000 western lowland gorillas. They inhabit its swampy rainforests, alongside chimpanzees, forest elephants and hundreds of species of birds.
Northern Congo is covered in dense and largely unexplored rainforest which spills over the borders into neighbouring Gabon, Cameroon and Central African Republic. Across these countries, a network of remote and little visited national parks protects the gorillas as well as a host of other rare and endangered species, from forest elephants to chimpanzees and mangabeys.
Congo’s western lowland gorillas have a history almost as turbulent as the country. Following the civil wars of the 1990s, Ebola swept through this region and decimated the gorilla population. Odzala-Kokoua National Park, in northwest Congo, was once estimated to shelter around 20,000 gorillas, but between 70 and 95 percent were lost to Ebola in the early 2000s. The terrifying combination of disease and conflict kept people away from the park, and it fell into neglect.
Odzala has come an awfully long way since then, and today’s visitors will be amazed to learn that the park – now disease and conflict free – only reopened to tourists in 2012. Its biggest draw are the habituated gorillas which can be tracked with skilled guides and rangers, while nighttime walks, game drives and river cruises introduce you to the forest’s myriad monkey, bird and antelope species.
PracticalitiesNorthern Congo is one of the most off the beaten track destinations for observing gorillas in Africa, and it’s also one of the most exclusive – although don’t confuse this with luxury. You’ll be well looked after in Congo, but this is a true adventure. You’ll begin your expedition with a two-hour flight north from the capital, Brazzaville, followed by a two- to three-hour drive from the airstrip to Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Just two groups of gorillas have been habituated here, and you can track them in the company of gorilla researchers. You’ll depart at 6am to meet your guide and tracker, and could be trekking anywhere from a couple of hours to half a day, depending on where the gorillas are that day.
You’ll return to the accommodation for lunch; in the afternoons there will be further forest walks, pirogue canoe trips and game drives. Night walks a particularly fascinating way to discover the wildlife of the Congo Basin, as many species only wake up after dusk.
In between your daily jungle adventures, you can relax at three gorgeous safari camps, each in keeping with its unique environment. One extends along the banks of the Lekoli River, while another overlooks a bai – a clearing which attracts parrots, buffalo and forest elephants. The final camp is in a clearing in a primary forest which is occasionally visited by gorillas; elevated rooms offer views into the wildlife-rich canopy. All have en suite rooms, include all meals (typically with three-course dinners) and staying at more than one camp means you can explore the forest’s varied ecosystems.
Our Congo gorilla tracking vacations are tailor made, so you can travel throughout the year, although typically they are based around the scheduled flights from Brazzaville to Odzala, which depart on Mondays and Thursdays.
Itineraries typically include two gorilla safaris per vacation, with an option for a third at extra cost. Permits are US $350 per person (as of 2018-2019 season); do check if this is included in the trip price. Four people are in each tracking group, and you’ll be in the gorillas’ presence for up to one hour, maintaining a safe distance of seven metres to avoid passing on diseases or disturbing the animals too much. You will need to bring to Congo a medical certificate stating that you have been vaccinated against polio and measles, and do not have tuberculosis.
Which Congo is which?Congo shouldn’t be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While both are Central African nations, largely covered in dense rainforest and named after the epic river that forms their international border, there are huge differences between them. Both are francophone – DRC was a Belgian colony, while Congo was French. DRC is Africa’s second largest country, enormous and anarchic, with frequent outbreaks of violence; there are government travel warnings in place. Congo is far more compact and – in the main – peaceful. The two capital cities eye each other up from opposite banks of the Congo River, but sedate Brazzaville is a world away from chaotic Kinshasa.
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Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Congo
Gazetted in 1935, Odzala-Kokoua is a biosphere reserve and one of Africa’s oldest protected areas, dating back to 1935. It protects some 13,500km2 of ancient rainforest containing around 440 bird species and over 100 species of mammals, including forest elephants, red river hogs, rare bongo antelopes and a huge variety of primates. Odzala is particularly important as it forms part of a transfrontier park known as TRIDOM, managed by WWF, which links up with parks across the borders in neighbouring Gabon and Cameroon. This has created a vast, protected ecosystem and preserved migration routes for some 25,000 forest elephants.
One of Odzala’s most distinctive characteristics is its bais – swampy clearings in the forest that attract wildlife to their permanent waterholes and mineral-rich earth. Grey parrots, green pigeons, buffalo and elephants are some of the key species to look out for at Lango Bai, for example – which you can explore on foot. Antelope species are also abundant, including duiker and bushbuck. Wildlife in the forest is monitored using camera traps, and evening presentations of the images can show you which creatures have followed in your footsteps.
The bushmeat trade is still prevalent in Central Africa, and Odzala is no exception; even gorillas are sold as bushmeat. Snares are regularly removed from the forest, and poachers intercepted. Tourism in the park is vital to fund park rangers who can patrol the dense rainforest, removing the snares and protecting the critically endangered gorillas and other wildlife. Quite simply, if it wasn’t for the enduring work of the gorilla researchers here, there would be far fewer – if any – gorillas in the national park.
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