After three thrilling days exploring Odzala National Park's lush rainforests – and having one of the most authentic wild encounters with a family of western lowland gorillas – we journeyed to Odzala’s open savannah plains, meandering rivers and towering swamp forests. Our home for the next two nights was Lango Camp.
The camp overlooks tranquil Lango ‘Bai’ – a bai is a mineral rich, shallow lagoon that provides a general watering point for the shy creatures of the forest: buffalo, elephant, giant hog and exquisite bongo antelope. We arrived to a warm welcome in the hot pink glow of sunset, handed chilled cocktails and invited to relax on the star deck, as our bags were taken to the six spacious timber, canvas and thatch suites. Forest buffalo finished drinking and wandered into the dusk, while hundreds of parrots whirled up to give us an aerial salute before flying off to their night time roosting spot.
We could not wait to set off in the morning to explore the bai. We headed out in a traditional safari vehicle with our professional guide, Karl, accompanied by Rock, a skilled tracker and boat driver from the Odzala community. The day’s adventure took us through a stunning variety of terrain – one of the most memorable pluses of our Congolese adventure. We crossed rolling grasslands, drove through dense, deep-rooted forests and hiked past lush riverine meadows and crossed swampy shallow floodplains. There were tufted grasses as tall as a man and delicate groves of fruit trees, ancient trunks soaring above us, and thickets to navigate. All this variation was refreshing after our intense treks in the emerald world of the rainforest.
We safari aficionados are more than a little spoilt when it comes to game viewing. Most of us have seen the Big 5 in abundant numbers in beautiful settings from Kenya to Botswana, and fully expected to encounter the abundance of shy forest creatures that make their homes on the floodplains and in the forests of the bai. In reality, we heard much more than we saw and, surprisingly, glimpsing the shy, unhabituated wildlife of Odzala was more thrilling and satisfying because of we had to work harder for every sighting. We hiked further and more sensitively through the landscape, trying to emulate our guide’s focused, calm movements.
Once we heard a herd of giant hog gallop away from our foreign scent in the swamp forests and were hugely excited to find evidence of their tracks and half-eaten food where they had been foraging. While exploring the river by boat, we came across a young bull elephant grazing peacefully on an island; he looked at us thoughtfully for a minute and then obliged our cameras with a graceful river crossing. We wondered if he had ever seen a human being before? Later, crossing the floodplain in knee-deep water, we came across a large herd of forest buffalo. Our guide cautioned us that they might approach and we should not be afraid because we were a curiosity to them. What a different experience from the vast surly herds of plains buffalo!
There are few predators for humans to worry about in the bai, which allowed us to explore like children do – with joyful abandon, getting mucky in the mud and wet in the rivers. We hiked, boated and kayaked on a very flexible schedule. Our guide and tracker were generous with their wisdom, allowing us to discover the wilderness in a profound way. Such a pure experience is very rare – in Africa’s leading destinations, most animals are so habituated to human observers that they ignore us at best, or respond with irritably to our presence at worst. In Congo, we returned to Lango’s warm lantern light each evening, tired and dirty, but thrilled to trade stories with our fellow adventurers around the campfire. We feasted on the superb cuisine that the chef delivers despite being a charter flight away from the nearest grocery store. We sat long into the night, talking and marvelling at the day’s exploits and the night’s star-filled sky above us.