Journey into the Central African Republic
Journey into the Central African Republic
Andy & Caragh Roberts travelled to C.A.R. to do a recce on the experiences on offer - they found some incredible experiences though overall tourism is not developped and the experience is quite 'rough around the edges'! Below are some extracts from their blog, with interesting insights into the experience and some great photographs to paint the picture.
18th Feb - Day 1
The flight from Nairobi to Bangui was 3 hours 10 min on a KQ 737 700, which departed at 7.55 am and arrived at 09.05 - there is a 2-hour time difference. We were met by a representative of Sangha Lodge, and a man who dealt with our visas. It did however take 1.5 hours. In the meantime we had our bags opened and checked thoroughly.
The private charter from Bangui to Bayanga in a Cessna Caravan was good. It was an hour and 10 min flying over a few cleared areas of forest to begin with, and then over thick forest for the rest of the way for as far as the eye could see. The Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve lies in the extreme southwest of the Central African Republic, bordering Cameroon to the southwest and Republic of Congo to the southeast. The park consists of nearly 500 million acres (2,000,000 km2) of tropical moist forest, much of which is relatively intact. Bayanga is a small village/town on the Sangha River, which flows all the way into the Congo River.
Rod Cassidy, met us at the Bayanga airstrip. The drive to the lodge took 30 mins. The main road is good but the track off the main road to the lodge is pretty rough, but it is a short interesting drive through the forest. Sangha lodge is simple and rustic, there is a mess/dining room with bar which overlooks the river but everywhere is enclosed in mosquito gauze, which is a little claustrophobic though necessary in the buggy season. Rod is planning to put a door onto an open verandah, which will be a great improvement. We had a light lunch and 3 of us went fishing that afternoon in front of the lodge in a small aluminum boat fitted with a 15 horsepower engine. They had one strike from a tiger fish and returned full of enthusiasm for the next opportunity to get back on the river.
Rod showed us a Lord Derby’s Scaly Tailed Squirrel, or Anomalure, which was living in a hollow tree in the lodge grounds. Lord Derby's scaly-tailed squirrel is nocturnal, and sleeps in nests in holes in trees. They live either alone or in pairs. They move around by extending their membrane between their front and back legs and gliding from tree to tree. Flights of up to 250 meters (820 feet) have been recorded. They use the scales on the bottom of their tails to help themselves climb in the trees. This was the first new animal for our party, a pretty cool find on our first day!
19th Feb-Day 2
Up at 5.30 - 6.00 and breakfast and then headed out to Dzanga Bai; a clearing in the forest where the animals congregate to drink the water rich mineral salts. We stopped off at the tourist office to collect a guide and a tracker. The drive takes one and half hours in total from the lodge, and then you walk about an hour through the forest to the Tree Blind, which over looks the clearing. The first 10 mins of the walk is through water and elephant dung, then it is sandy and easy for the rest of the way. We all walked in either flip-flops or the
recommend Crocs, definitely no need for hiking boots.
On reaching the blind the Bai was full of animals — forest Elephant, Bongo (47 of them!!), Sitatunga, a family of Giant Forest Hogs, and a Red River Hog. We stayed there all morning, and had a picnic lunch, then headed back around 1.30pm. 3 of us went fishing again in the afternoon, with no luck. It is very hot and still in the afternoon and humid. We had supper at around 8 pm.
20th Feb - Day 3
Up at 5.30 - 6.00 and breakfast. We split into 2 groups as only 3 visitors are allowed to view Gorillas at one time. So 4 of us went to see Gorillas in 2 viewings and Andy and Susannah went for a morning fish and had another strike, but still no fish. After breakfast, the 3 of us then went up the river and into the forest for the day. The Gorilla sighting was successful and they saw the Makumbe Group, which is a group of 9, with a good natured silverback. The drive to the Gorillas is 2 hours along a bumpy forest road but the walk into to see them was only 20 min. This can apparently take a couple of hours depending on the location of the group.
The trip up the river was very pleasant though slow in the boat with 6 of us in it, but we had time to watch birds, and it was lovely to be on the river, which is very calm, wide and lined on both banks by the most beautiful forest.
We saw a number of new birds including the White Throated Blue Swallow and the Black Casqued Wattled Hornbill and there are hundreds of African Grey Parrots. We were also very lucky to briefly see a Grey Necked (Red Headed) Picathartes or Rockfowl. The Picathartes or Rockfowl are a small genus of two passerine bird species forming the family Picathartidae found in the rain-forests of tropical West and Central Africa. They have unfeathered heads, and feed on insects and invertebrates picked from damp rocky areas. Both species are totally non-migratory, being dependent on a specialised rocky jungle habitat. We were incredibly fortunate to see this rare bird as it is mostly seen during the breeding season when they nest in the rock face overhangs in this area. For most ornithologists, the chance to see this bird is worth the trip to Sangha Lodge on its own. The following photo is where we saw the Picathartes and where they nest every year.
We arrived back at the lodge pretty much at the same time with the Gorilla watchers at around 3 pm. The 'sweat bees' on our walk in the forest and at the Gorillas were pretty bad by around 10.30 - 11am. They swarm around your face and get into your hair, eyes, nose etc and drive you mad. While you are on the move they are not a problem, it is only when you stop for a few minutes that they appear.
Andy, P.J. and Susannah went out fishing again in the afternoon for the Goliath Tiger-fish and had no luck though they had a good strike, with a tiger fish leaving some pretty impressive teeth marks in the live bait and
a good braid burn on Susannah’s finger. They tried different methods of attaching the hooks to the live bait, even different hooks and trace. By this stage they had had 4 strikes and no hook-up.
21st Feb - Day 4
With the usual early start, the remaining 3 of us went to see the Gorillas, only a 10 min walk this time, from where we parked the vehicle. We had the first viewing of the day, which was great as by the time we left, the sweat bees were becoming unbearable. The walking was easy and the gorillas very relaxed in our company. The West Lowland Gorillas appear to be much smaller than Mountain Gorillas and the silverbacks have a smaller head and have a chestnut top to their head. The little baby gorilla showed off for us with his acrobatics. On the way home in the car we saw a Bongo on the road and we spotted some Grey Cheeked Mangabees and a White Crested Hornbill.
The others did the river trip that we did the day before. They saw a troop of Putty Nosed monkeys, and a Brush Tailed Porcupine, had no trouble with the sweat bees, but unfortunately, did not get a look at the Picathartes. Luckily Terry had seen one already, otherwise he would have been even more disappointed to have missed it.
There was another fishing attempt this evening and again they had a good strike but missed the fish.
22nd Feb - Day 5
We all had an early morning bird walk around the camp, bird watching with Terry and Rod first thing before breakfast. Rod saw a “LIFER, ” an Eastern Wattled Cuckooshrike. Most of the birds we saw were lifers, except for Terry, who had seen them all before. After that Andy and P.J. went fishing all day with live baits as they were determined to catch a Goliath Tiger fish but came home empty handed, not even a strike!!! They travelled about 15 kms upstream and came across a village where they fished into some rapids and drifted downstream, fishing all the hot spots that Bles the boat captain pointed out. There were plenty of fishermen fishing with nets. There are a few Nile Perch in the river as we had one for supper on our first night; they also tried all the lures, which work on lake Turkana for Nile Perch as well, but with no success.
The rest of us went out with the Ba'aka - the pygmies. This was a fantastic experience. We drove about 35 mins to the village where we picked up 22 men and women. They are so small, that they all fitted into the back of the 2 VX land-cruisers. Armed with home sewn nets, they were very excited to be going on a forest hunt. They sang the whole way, it was about a 35-minute drive to where we stopped the cars and headed into the forest on foot.
They are all very agile and quick to put their nets up once a suitable location was found. They make a lot of noise in the forest with barks and lots of whooping and talking. The reason is to scare any dangerous animals away, to know where everyone is and to make the smaller animals hide. They make a circle with the nets and then thrash the bush inside to scare any small animals hidden in the undergrowth and put them to flight. They make a yelping noise if something is spotted. For the first 2 attempts they caught nothing, so they called everyone into a circle and started arguing as to why they were not being successful. They all threw their nets into the middle and one fellow went round them, spitting and chanting and beating them with a leafy stick getting all the bad omens out of the nets. It worked because the very next attempt they caught a blue duiker and a brush tailed porcupine.
All the time they were hunting, they were gathering plants and medicinal bark from the trees, nuts and berries. At the end of the hunt, the meat was divided up amongst everybody there, even if it was only a bit of skin and a foot or perhaps the entrails. The choicest pieces go to the fellow who actually caught the animal and the person who's net it ran into.
On the way home, the singing was even more jubilant and the clapping even more enthusiastic. We stopped off at the village to drop everybody off and met up with a fellow called Louis Sorno. He is an American who came out to Bayanga to record pygmy music and lived with the Ba'aka. He wrote a book called 'Song from the Forest' after his first experience with them but ended up coming back and has spent 27 years living with them. He speaks Ba'aka and is very much part of the community. He has over 1000 songs recorded and is due to go back to Oxford University to help them archive the recordings. The hunt in the forest was a well worthwhile experience and it is the only way to really see the pygmies at their best. The women go everyday into the forest to gather food and return in the evenings to cook. The tracker we had from Sangha called Vincent (his given English/French name) knew every bush, tree in the forest. His wife knew every medicinal plant there was. Some of the Pygmy men and women file their teeth to points for beautification and some women have tattooed markings on their faces as well.
We returned to the lodge for a late lunch. The afternoon was very hot but we did have a rainstorm pass through briefly which helped cool things off. Some of us took a walk into the forest with the women behind the lodge to find medicinal plants. We were shown a vine, which holds fresh water.
There are lots of well-cut trails behind the lodge in the forest, which are very easy to walk along and good for doing night walks. Sadly we did not manage to do this, as there were some Elephant around at night. In fact they came in twice to pull up the pawpaw trees behind Rod’s house. A night walk gives you the chance to see Tree Pangolin, Bosman’s Potto and a few other night animals.
23rd Feb - Day 6
We all had to decide what we wanted to do today as it was our last day. Knowing that the sweat bees were an issue by mid morning we all got up and out of the lodge very early. Susannah and Barney went to see the Gorillas again. They went to see another Group, which is closer than the Makumbe group but had to walk further to find them. They were not as habituated as the first group so they were charged by the Silverback on arrival, which was very exciting and got the adrenalin pumping, but he settled down and they were able to watch them peacefully after that. There were no other guests that day so they booked both the viewing sessions and spent 2 hours with them. We also saw some amazing butterflies on the way.
Terry and PJ went on the 'Bai Walk', which is another activity we were offered. It starts at the same place where the Makumbe group is so it’s a 2-hour drive to get there. It is a walk through the forest to different clearings where animals gather. They saw a herd of 28 Forest Buffalo, and some interesting birds. The walk takes two to three hours. Andy, Jane and myself went back to Dzanga Bai for a second visit. We saw many elephants, 4 Bongo, 1 Giant Forest Hog and several Sitatunga and we managed to sneak round the corner to where the African Grey Parrots where coming down to water. They came in their hundreds and it really was a fabulous spectacle. We also saw a heard of Forest Buffalo, which are very different from Cape buffalo.
We spent an hour and a half at the Tree blind. On the walk back to the car we spotted a number of different monkeys. Putty Nosed, Crowned and Mustached monkeys, and Agile Mangabees. A great morning and well worth doing twice. We returned home and went for an hour’s fishing before lunch, no luck.
24th Feb - Day 7
6.00 fishing departure for a last attempt at catching a Tiger Fish but no luck, the goliath tiger fish was clearly not to be on this safari, but will definitely be the reason for another. We packed up and paid our bills. We left at 9am and got to the strip by 9.20 and waited for the Caravan. The flight back to Bangui was good, but sadly there was quite a bit of low cloud so we didn’t see much on the way.
The international departure area is about 30 meters from the arrivals and the room is divided in two. The first stage is where the customs officials are and all the bags are opened and physically checked, we then went through a check where our passports and tickets were screened. The porters were constantly harassing us for money, and a couple of them were pretty unpleasant. Once through into the second half of the room you are clear of the porters, which is a relief. The check-in is pretty standard.
When you have checked in and have your boarding card, you proceed to a desk where you pay XAF 10,000 departure tax. Rod told us about this and made sure we all had it with us, then on to the immigration desk and
another immigration form has to be filled in. Once your passports have been stamped you go through to another room with three tables and three officials behind the tables. You start with the first who opens your hand luggage and physically checks the contents. All three officers do this separately, even though the bags are in full view of all of them at each stage.
Once through this check, you can go upstairs to the bar and have a well deserved drink while you wait to be called to board the aircraft. However, we were