Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Congo

Photo: Wilderness Safaris
Photo: Wilderness Safaris

Shhh! There’s a secret in the Congo. At this point, you’ve traveled all over the world to see exotic animals. Lions and rhinos, pandas and tigers, even kangaroos and koalas. But one of the most fascinating creatures has eluded you. Until now. You’re finally going to—hopefully—see the animal that shares 97 percent of our DNA. That’s right, gorillas.

You’re heading to Odzala-Kokoua National Park in northwestern Congo. This remote area in Central Africa is one of the continent’s oldest national parks, but also one of its least visited. The Congo, a former French colony, turned to socialism and civil war after its independence. Tourists have only recently begun traveling through the vastly unexplored country. But there’s a lot to explore. Odzala-Kokoua is home to the second-largest rainforest in the world. It’s full of dense forests, marshes and swamps, twisting rivers, and even an expansive savannah. Plus so many animals that you’ve never even heard of, much less dreamed of seeing.

This is a two-part journey that begins on the edge of the savannah. Fly to the M’boko Airstrip from Brazzaville, the capital. You’re heading to Lango Camp, near the Lekoli and the Mambili Rivers. The thatched camp has six rooms. A troop of mantled guerezas—black-and-white monkeys—welcome you from the trees. Another monkey, a grey-cheeked mangabey, watches you silently from farther away. Near the fire pits on the deck, you spot two African Grey Parrots near the salt pan the camp overlooks. As you’re staring at the vast savannah, an African forest elephant—the smallest elephant species—wanders toward the salt pan. You hold your breath as long as possible, hoping you don’t scare it away.

Photo: Wilderness Safaris
Photo: Wilderness Safaris

Over the next few days, you see red river hogs, grey duikers, and harnessed bushbucks while cruising the river on a flat-bottomed pirogue. Black-casqued Wattled Hornbills, with their enormous bills, are one of the more fascinating birds you come across. You spot water chevrotains and a spotted hyena on a night drive. And lightning storms light up the sky late in the evening.

From Lango Camp, it’s a four-hour drive through the forest to Ngaga Camp, the second half of your journey. It’s here, in the Ndzehi Forest, that scientists track two groups of western lowland gorillas. After a gorilla briefing, you head onto a trail to become familiar with the forest. Much of the year, the gorillas eat starchy plants, but right now, during the dry season, they prefer ripening fruit. You spot crested mona monkeys and moustached guenons during your hike. Central chimpanzees swing through the trees ahead of you. Usually, this would be the highlight of your day—or trip—but you’re focused on the gorillas.

The next day, you head into the forest, again. After a few hours, you’re starting to feel frustrated. You knew a gorilla sighting wasn’t guaranteed, but your hopes were high. Suddenly, your guide stops. You look where he is pointing. Two huge gorillas are in front of you—and more are behind them. They saw you long before you saw them. You watch. You stare. You inch closer. Then one of the males grunts and charges at you. Terrified, you retreat. And once you’re far enough away again, he backs off. You’re free to watch as long as you wish, just keep a safe distance.

There are no words to describe your incredible encounter. You could have spent hours or days looking into the eyes of these enormous creatures. But eventually, they leave, you leave, and the Congo just feels like a dream.

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