The Central African Republic, part 2

The Central African Republic, part 1 dealt with my preparation for the trip and my time in Bangui at the start of my trip. This part deals with the main attraction: my time at Sangha Lodge in the country’s southwest.

The morning after my trip to Boali Falls, William and Nestor picked me up and we drove to the airport to catch a puddle-jumper flight to Sangha Lodge, in the southwest corner of CAR. William immediately disappeared into the airport to do his fixing for two arriving clients, while I waited in the parking lot with Nestor. Me being me, I asked Nestor if I could pull out my binoculars and look for birds. Nestor approved, and I started trying to figure out what was perched on the fences and light posts around the airport. Many fences and lights surround the airport because it is one of the most strategically important and heavily fortified places in CAR. That means it’s also crawling with heavily armed UN soldiers and at least three tanks. The sight of a guy using a pair of high-powered binoculars to look at them (well, at the finch perched on the fence just to their left) did not please these soldiers, and Nestor quickly came running up to me to tell me he was sorry but I couldn’t do that. Binoculars and heavily armed soldiers just don’t mix.

In the pilot’s seat of our little plane was a twenty-something South African man. His gave a casually self-assured delivery of the safety briefing and we were off flying over Bangui and then the rainforest. I was seated directly behind him, and - a nervous flyer at the best of times - my sense of alarm rose significantly during the flight when I saw him take out the extremely thick airplane manual and place it, open and face-up, in the space between the pilot’s and copilot’s seats. In order to reassure myself (surely he was just looking up something innocuous) I leaned forward and read the title of the page he had opened to: it was the page explaining how to restart the plane in the air following the failure of both engines. Alarmed, I spent the rest of the flight keenly listening to the sounds the plane was making*. Despite my apprehensions we landed safely in Baganga, the village at the entrance to Dzanga-Sangha National Park and close to Sangha Lodge. 

 The entrance to Dzanga-Sangha National Park

The entrance to Dzanga-Sangha National Park

The owner of Sangha Lodge is a man named Rod Cassidy, and he was there to meet us at the airstrip along with his staff and many locals. Rod’s advice to me was to start birding right away, as the wildlife around the airstrip tends to be unique because the airstrip is a unique grassy area in the middle of a massive rainforest. There were no armed soldiers in sight, so I entertained myself trying to identify swifts (no easy task) while administrative issues were dealt with around me. I was initially hesitant when Rod told me to hand my passport over to a local official, but in the end I decided against wasting my day going with the official as he processed my entry into the region, and handed over the document. Common travel advice for Africa is to never, ever part with your passport. However, I find that this advice is almost impossible to follow. I had also handed my passport over to William upon arrival in Bangui, and he had then promptly disappeared into the bowels of the airport. Previous experiences with other fixers at African ports of entry have taught me that this is normal. My advice is to carry several certified copies of your passport; these will do in a pinch should your passport fail to be returned. 

 Rod Cassidy (L), owner of Sangha Lodge, and me at the Bayanga airstrip.

Rod Cassidy (L), owner of Sangha Lodge, and me at the Bayanga airstrip.

I was blown away by Sangha Lodge. The lodge is perched over the Sangha River, and on the first night we were treated to a river cruise. Big trees hung over the banks, monkeys occasionally causing a ruckus in the canopy. Parrots and hornbills flew overhead, presumably back to their evening roosts, and Rod regaled us with the story of the lodge and his past. He spent many years traveling across Africa as a birding guide, which was music to my ears! 

 Sunset over the Sangha River from deck at Sangha Lodge.

Sunset over the Sangha River from deck at Sangha Lodge.

The lodge itself looks exactly like what you might expect - gorgeous but run-down in just the way a remote jungle lodge should be. The buildings were all distressed wood and blooming with moss and epiphytes. Flowering trees were starting to encroach on the lodge grounds. The main building had a comfy indoor common area decorated with local art and a bookshelf of books describing the local environment and culture. Attached was a gorgeous patio overlooking the river. Each “room” was its own little bungalow with a private bathroom (including a shower overlooking the river) and brand-new furniture. 

 The main building’s common area at Sangha Lodge.

The main building’s common area at Sangha Lodge.

The lodge used to be a hunter’s camp, as Dzanga-Sangha National Park is surrounded by hunting allotments. By purchasing the hunting allotment just north of the park, Rod and his partner Tamir have stopped all legal sport hunting in addition to creating a tourist attraction. Illegal poaching is an ongoing problem; a European hunting guide still sometimes takes his rich clients into the allotment, lying to the clients about exactly where they are. One evening I was there rifle shots range out from across the river; Rod immediately called rangers from the national park who came in a speedboat to investigate.

 Sangha Lodge from the river.

Sangha Lodge from the river.

The Sangha tour I was on included five activities (one per day). The first activity was a full-day visit to Dzanga Bai: the reason I have heard of this national park. As a child I remember staring at photos from Dzanga in my Dad’s National Geographic magazines. Dzanga is one of a collection of bais (small rainforest clearings) scattered through the rainforest in the region where CAR, Cameroon, and the Republic of Congo meet. Bais are special because they provide the best opportunities to see animals that usually stay hidden in the dense rainforest. For whatever reason, each Bai seems to attract a slightly different suite of animals, and Dzanga is famous for its elephants. After a fifteen minute walk through the rainforest I, the other Sangha guests, and our guides emerged at the base of a wooden observation platform about three stories tall. Our guides were very clear that we had to be extremely quiet - another reminder that we were in a remote location, visited only by a very lucky few. You can see elephants, albeit not the same species, easily on the plains and bushland of eastern and southern Africa, and there’s no need for quiet. Those elephants get so many safari trucks rumbling by that they are completely habituated to human noises. These elephants see very few tourists and are not at all habituated to human presence. 

 Dzanga Bai from the top of the observation platform.

Dzanga Bai from the top of the observation platform.

The view at the top of the observation platform took my breathe away. Elephants – dozens of them – scattered around a clearing, doing various elephant things. Some had their entire faces submerged in the mud, others used their trunks to delicately transfer the mud to their mouths. Huge males congregated around the deepest mud pit, where their long tusks could scrape up the best mud. Young elephants ran around, flaring up their ears and trunks in mock aggression: sometimes at each other, sometimes at an unlucky heron, and sometimes at nothing in particular. Baby elephants stuck close to their mothers, venturing only short distances to play before high-tailing it back to safety under mom’s massive torso.

 A newborn (still pink) baby elephant finds safety and comfort under her mother’s massive body.

A newborn (still pink) baby elephant finds safety and comfort under her mother’s massive body.

The thing I enjoyed the most about the bai was watching new elephants arrive. Despite their huge size, elephants emerged from the incredibly dense rainforest seemingly by magic. One second there was nothing, and the next there was an elephant, without even the slightest sound or shake of a tree. Once the elephant emerged, other elephants would turn towards the newcomer and raise their trunks, seemingly sniffing the air to see who had arrived. The new elephant would amble forward, sometimes trumpeting or flaring its ears and trunk. Often it would amble towards what I perceived to be a friend, the two elephants would touch and entwine trunks, and then eat mud side-by-side. At the end of the day we left, creeping quietly down the stairs into the rainforest, where there was absolutely no indication that there were any elephants around, let alone the highest density of elephants in central Africa. The rainforest just swallows up the world’s largest land animal without a trace.

Driving on muddy roads through the park, we had one last fantastic encounter: a big silverback gorilla on the road. As our driver slammed on the breaks the gorilla arched his back, flexed his massive muscles, and then disappeared into the forest. We saw him for maybe a second, but it was an incredible moment: I was in a place where gorillas are still common enough that you can happen upon them accidentally on your commute.

 The roads through Dzanga-Sangha National Park. Imagine this view but with a huge male gorilla blocking the road and flexing at you.

The roads through Dzanga-Sangha National Park. Imagine this view but with a huge male gorilla blocking the road and flexing at you.

Gorilla tourism, where you can visit a habituated gorilla group with professional gorilla trackers, is now relatively easy – if you can afford it. Uganda and Rwanda have really popularized this activity, and the habituated groups of mountain gorillas living in those countries are visited by tourists daily. Western lowland gorillas, despite being the most common of the gorillas, are by comparison much more difficult to see. Dzanga-Sangha National Park has two habituated western lowland gorilla groups that tourists are allowed to visit, and our second day’s activity was to visit one of these groups. Visiting wild gorillas is quite the experience: I was walking through the forest, turned a corner, and there was this huge, vaguely human, insanely muscular, hairy black beast sitting in front of me, maybe 50m away. Then I heard a crash to my left, a rustle behind me, and was surrounded by gorillas. These gorillas were not as habituated as the mountain gorillas. They snorted at us, gave us a lot of side-eye, and moved quickly through the forest. Spending an hour with them was unbelievably wild.

 A female gorilla checking me out.

A female gorilla checking me out.

 The silverback of the habituated gorilla group we visited.

The silverback of the habituated gorilla group we visited.

The third day’s activity was a hike to a waterfall to see some animals that, while not as well known, are weird central African specialties:  anomalures, picathartes, and porcupines. Anomalures are flying squirrel-like creatures endemic to Africa. There are only four species, three of which are found at Sangha. Rod has found a very old, very big hollow tree near the waterfall that is home to these weird critters. The tree is big enough that you can stand up inside it! 

 Standing inside a huge, hollow tree, staring up at bats and anomalures.

Standing inside a huge, hollow tree, staring up at bats and anomalures.

The waterfall itself was beautiful in that way that rainforest waterfalls are beautiful (and Boali Falls was not), but I wasn’t there for the scenery. The limestone rocks behind the waterfall are home to brush-tailed porcupines and grey-necked picathartes. There are only two species of picathartes, rare birds that are restricted to the central and west African rainforest. They also look completely bonkers, like the bird version of a rodeo clown. The porcupines were home, but only our guide got a glimpse of them as they ran deep into the limestone rocks. The picathartes were not home, unfortunately, though we did get to see some of their (unoccupied) mud nests. Rod had warned us that our chances of picathartes were small: a poacher had recently camped at the base of the waterfall, scaring the birds away. Hopefully they return next season!

 Unoccupied mud nests of grey-necked picathartes.

Unoccupied mud nests of grey-necked picathartes.

The fourth day’s activity was hanging out with the local Ba’aka. Ba’aka are the indigenous peoples of the area, and are are often referred to as pygmies because they are very short. Traditionally discriminated against by governments and other local peoples, the Ba’aka are poor even by Central African standards. Nonetheless, they are renowned for their knowledge of the forest, and much of the staff and guides at Sangha Lodge are Ba’aka. Whenever we ventured into the rainforest, it was a Ba’aka guide who would lead the way and keep us safe (elephants were a particular danger). 

Usually this tour involves going hunting with the Ba’aka but I, and the other guest with me, were not super keen on this activity. Instead we got to hang out with some Ba’aka women, learning how houses are built from forest materials, and which plants are used for food and medicine. The most fun part for me, though, was the sheer joy these women exuded at behind asked to show off their skills. They sang songs the whole time, had huge smiles on their faces, and taught us to sing along as best we could. I often find anthropological tourism rather depressing and exploitative, and I generally avoid it. However, in this case I felt that these women were overjoyed to be earning some money showing off the skills they’d developed throughout their lives. I had so much fun, and I think they did too. 

 Singing with Ba’aka women inside a newly-built hut.

Singing with Ba’aka women inside a newly-built hut.

The last pre-planned activity was a walk through Bai Hokou. Like Dzanga Bai, Bai Hokou is a small clearing (actually a series of clearings) in the rainforest. Unlike Dzanga, however, Bai Hokou doesn’t have the special mud that attracts elephants, and so it is much safer to walk around. Nonetheless, elephants do regularly pass through Bai Hokou and we had, as always, a Ba’aka guide with us to keep us safe. Bai Hokou was beautiful, and our guides showed us interesting things like birds and an elephant skeleton. We also spotted a mother and fawn sitatunga: a rare marsh antelope with webbed hooves. Sitatunga do not visit Dzanga Bai, so Bai Hokou was our only chance to see them. Even here, though, they are not common, so we were very lucky.

 Wading with bare feet through the creek in Bai Hokou. This is  not a recommended activity , next time I would bring water shoes or sandals.

Wading with bare feet through the creek in Bai Hokou. This is not a recommended activity, next time I would bring water shoes or sandals.

 Me with what I think is an elephant hip-bone.

Me with what I think is an elephant hip-bone.

The last full day didn’t have a pre-planned activity, so I decided to go back to Dzanga Bai. Again the elephants were the central draw (at Dzanga Bai the elephants are reliable) but the ungulates are a case of luck, and this time I was luckier with the ungulates, My first day at Dzanga the the only ungulate we saw was a single forest buffalo (but we did well on primates: black-and-white colobus at the bai plus mangabeys and moustached monkeys on the walk in). This time I did much better. There were many buffalo in the bai, and some giant forest hogs (the largest pigs in the world) showed up in the afternoon. But right at 4pm, just as we had to leave, one of our guides pointed and whispered “bongo!” The bongo the largest Tragelaphusantelope, and considered among the most difficult of the African megafauna to see. It is also among the most beautiful ungulates in the world. Bongo inhabit only dense rainforest, and don’t generally come out into the open. Dzanga Bai is the best place in the world to see wild bongo, and yet even here they are only an occasional visitor. Seeing fifty bongo emerge single-file from the forest – from huge males with spectacular spiral horns, to cute little calves – was a spectacular sight. We watched them graze and intermingle with the elephants until we just couldn’t delay leaving any longer. Once the sun goes down the prospect of surprising an elephant in the dark makes walking back from the bai much more dangerous.

 One of the most spectacular animal encounters of my life: elephant and bongo intermingling in Dzanga Bai.

One of the most spectacular animal encounters of my life: elephant and bongo intermingling in Dzanga Bai.

Between all the activities I did have some free time at Sangha Lodge. The area around the lodge is dense rainforest and Rod has set up a network of trails for visitors to explore. I was eager to get back to the lodge early after each day’s activity so that I could wander these trails. There are many animals to see around the lodge, the most enticing being the habituated pangolins. Rod employs pangolin trackers to monitor them from sunrise to sunset, and we got to hang out with the pangolins a few times. Pangolins are spectacular animals, and being scaled mammals are particularly enticing to a herper. It was immediately obvious why they are so hard to see in the wild, though, as even standing right under one, with an expert pangolin tracker indicating its exact location in the forest canopy, it was still very difficult to locate them. And it’s not like koala-finding; these things are constantly on the move, foraging for arboreal ant nests to rip apart. I do not envy the trackers’ job. 

 A black-bellied pangolin foraging for arboreal ants in the rainforest.

A black-bellied pangolin foraging for arboreal ants in the rainforest.

The rest of my free time I spent wandering the trails on my own, trying to find as many animals as possible. During the day, it was mostly birds and monkeys, though my most memorable experience was watching a huge swarm of army ants march across the forest floor, preceded by a flood of terrified (and usually doomed) insects, and followed by a flock of birds gorging on the ants. I continually had to monitor my own situation to make sure the ants were not surrounding me.

I also wandered around at night. I treasured my nighttime walks because the wildlife, and even the atmosphere in the rainforest, changes completely. The easiest mammals to find were the night monkeys: bushbabies with their giant saucer eyes and swivelly, owl-like necks; and pottos, which look and act like right-side-up sloths. In terms of insects and other invertebrates, the night-time rainforest revealed a wealth of crazy colours, shapes, and sizes. Frogs were quite abundant, their eyeshine making them easy to find. And the occasional rare treat made each night special: an owl one night, a crocodile or a snake another. It was a challenge to drag my tired self to bed each night so I could get up early enough the following morning to go birding.

We had six full days at Sangha Lodge. On the seventh day our plane was late getting in, and I spent the extra time wandering around looking for last-minute critters. I was rewarded handsomely: searching the river’s edge produced a gorgeous baby ornate water monitor, and the alarm calls of a squirrel pointed me to a two-metre-long, bright yellow western green mamba basking in a patch of sun on the forest floor. Sometimes, delayed flights are the best!

I had two nights back in Bangui, during which time Nestor, William and I explored the art market, the university, the parliament, and headed back to the Lac-des-Crocodiles road for more birding. I also visited the craft market for some souvenirs, and the diversity and quality of handicrafts available, in particular masks and other wood carvings, was just incredible. It was like visiting a museum where every artifact had a price tag. Visiting CAR as a tourist is not common – a UN employee told me, apparently sincerely, that some people might suspect I was CIA – but it is an immense privilege. 

 The Faculty of Sciences at the University of Bangui. I got to have some interesting, if brief chats with some biology and anthropology professors here.

The Faculty of Sciences at the University of Bangui. I got to have some interesting, if brief chats with some biology and anthropology professors here.

*Later, back in Bangui after the trip, I was invited to a party hosted by the pilot’s girlfriend and I got to ask him why he opened the manual to that page. He told me he’s used to flying over the vast grasslands of eastern and northern CAR, where if you have a problem you can land the plane just about anywhere and deal with it on the ground. However, we had been flying over continuous, unbroken rainforest and there was nowhere to land. Out of an abundance of caution, he wanted the steps to restarting the engines in the air available at a moment’s notice. Flying over the central African rainforest is truly spectacular. Deep green canopy spreads out as far as you can see in all directions, broken only by the occasional river. I just wish I had spent less of the flight blinded by panic!