Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, Central African Republic

Photo: Sangha Lodge
Photo: Sangha Lodge

Are you an extreme traveler? No, not in the number of days you spend away from home or the amount of frequent flyer miles you’ve racked up. We’re talking about extreme destinations. The places that are forbidden (Saudi Arabia), recently war-torn (Afghanistan), or aren’t even on travelers’ radars (Tajikistan). If so, the Central African Republic is the place for you.

This landlocked country is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. It’s full of vast savannas, dense tropical rainforests, an abundance of animals, and cultures untouched by modernity. But it’s also on every major travel warning list. The government is one of the least effective in the world. Religious fighting, cleansing, and displacement aren’t part of history yet. While human rights and HIV rates rule the headlines. When the country makes the headlines at all.

So very few people visit—or even dreaming of visiting—the Central African Republic. But the few who do usually head to the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve in the southwestern tip of the country. It’s the home of African forest elephants, western lowland gorillas, African forest buffalo, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies. The nearly 7,000-square-kilometer park was established in 1990 to protect the area from poaching, logging, and mining. Surprisingly, it’s done well enough to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Photo: Damiano Luchetti (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Damiano Luchetti (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Sangha Lodge is one of the few places to stay within the reserve. It sits along the banks of the Sangha River, a major tributary of the deep Congo River. The lodge’s seven bungalows have running water, flushing toilets, and mosquito nets covering the beds, while the bar serves cold Castel Beer and bottled water. These are all luxuries.

Not that guests spend much time at the lodge, anyway. They come to track western lowland gorillas—the smallest type of gorilla—through the rainforest with international researchers. They follow troops of loud grey-cheeked mangabeys on a jungle walk. They uncomfortably sit for hours on an elevated platform to hopefully catch a glimpse of an elusive African forest elephant. Then they spend a day with the Baka people, who live in mud huts, hunt for small animals with nets, collect medicinal plants, and sing around open fires.

Despite being in one of the most remote and untouched places in the world, sunset is still cocktail time at the lodge—or on a sundowner cruise. The group cuts the motor as the Sangha River narrows and drifts by African tulip and rubber trees. Goliath tigerfish dart through the water. Nocturnal galagos, pottos, and hammer-headed bats come out to play. While gin and tonics are passed around the boat. It almost feels like a normal vacation.

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