In the morning, a huge tropical storm rolled in. It was pouring down buckets of rain, and the clouds were big and ominous. After a while the downpour ceased. Our guide informed us that we still had to wait until the afternoon for the forest to dry out a bit before we went on a hike. While waiting one of the camp employees noticed something floating down the river. It was a dugout canoe, also called a pirogue here. It had clearly been washed into the river from a village upriver. The staff had decided that rather let it continue to float all the way to the mighty Congo River we might as well commandeer it for the camp. As we had nothing to do we hopped in the boat for a ride. It was a nice treat to be able to look back at our camp from the boat.
Finally, it dried up enough to head into the forest. Our guide mentioned during heavy rains the animals hide and go far into the jungle. He was correct as all we saw was some monkeys and birds. We were able to look closely at many plants one I would like to mention is what they call jungle pineapple. It was clearly a type of cecropia but with many more lobes on the leaves than the peltata or palmata. The fruit was yellow and did look sort of like a pineapple. It was mostly seed but the small part of flesh around the seed was delicious.
A large reddish orange flower caught our eye, and we look forward to identifying it when we get back. Any guesses what this is? No one here knew the name. It would be a great addition for the display!
As soon as it was dark out, we heard these large sounds coming from the bamboo stands near the camp. An elephant had wandered into camp! It was nearly 40’ away from us and clearly comfortable with being around people. The ecoguards explained that some of the elephants are habituated in this part of the national park, and this elephant had probably come here before and knew there was bamboo for him to eat.
After a short morning hike we loaded up our gear and headed back towards Camp Kombo for our last day in Lobeke. On the way we stopped at a local spring that our guide called gorilla water. The spring was well known and a popular place to get clean water. We were told that it will give you the strength of a gorilla. We were also told we needed to pay the gorillas for the water but since there were none around we decided to chance it and took off with our canteens full.
We completed our tour through the forest with a two hour hike back to the drop off point. We rode back to Camp Kombo, and spent a bit of time at the camp doing laundry in the small stream. After we had thought our laundry was a clean as was possible to get by hand our guide laughed at our inefficiency and proceeded to show us how much cleaner they could be when someone who had mastered the skill took over. He had clearly perfected his technique when he showed us a white shirt that looked as it was new. In late afternoon, we went into the small town and bought bonbon (candy) to give to Baka children. The Baka community is the local tribe that lives in the forest, relying on the forest for everything they do, and moving their camp every few months to find more food. We will be visiting a small community in a few days.
The next day, we set out for Djembe Camp. It’s about a four hour drive, deep in the heart of Lobeke National Park. This part of the forest was being logged until it became protected about fifty years back. We certainly noticed the trees were smaller than on our hike into Petite Savane and Djangui, which has never been logged (primary forest!). After driving on the normal dirt roads we turned onto what looked like a trail and then proceeded to drive for nearly 50 kilometers to the Camp. On the way we observed some men who live in the jungle trying to get as close to the gorillas as possible in an attempt to habituate them. Habituation programs have proven to be successful ways of allowing tourists and researchers to see gorillas. The gorillas are still wild but are more comfortable around humans and don’t run and scream when approached. Programs like this have shown to increase ecotourism and help bring desperately needed funds to the local communities. When the locals have a chance to prosper when the animals are safe and abundant they are less likely to engage in illegal poaching.
Another point of note on this trip was a stop to repair a damaged bridge. The WWF vehicle in front of us had brought some timber to make the repair. However the timber was not nearly enough. At that point they pulled out one of the largest chainsaws I have ever seen and proceeded to cut down a tree for additional support on the bridge. Ben quickly jumped in and began helping in the effort. Once the bridge was completed we all stood on the far side and waited for the driver alone to cross the span. After he did we all hopped back in and continued on. So I guess you can say we are metaphorically and literally building bridges in Africa.
The camp in Djembe sits along the Sangha River, which is the border between Cameroon and Congo. Across the river is part of Congo’s national park. Ben saw an elephant swim in the river from Congo to Cameroon; certainly they don’t know political boundaries. For this reason, Cameroon, Congo, and Central African Republic have created a trinational park to preserve these intact forests.
Within fifteen minutes of our hike into the forest, we saw two female gorillas and a baby. Really, I just saw a flash in the forest, they move so quickly! We also heard and saw the colobos, a type of primate which has a howl larger than the actual animal.
We were up and at the observation deck’s balcony by 6am. A small mongoose made its way across the bai possibly looking for an early morning snack. We sat there for a few hours and watched the thousands of birds swoop in and out of the bai, making a grand whooshing noise as they turned their wings in unison as a flock. One of the most prominent birds was a red-tailed grey parrot, which is on the WWF’s class A protected species list (highest class protection). Thinking how this morning ritual goes on daily in this beautiful place gave comfort as the cares of modern world faded into what seemed like a long forgotten memory.
We set off for Petite Savane, this time at a slower pace, reaching the observation deck by the early afternoon. It was a quiet afternoon of sitting on the deck and waiting for animals to come along. We heard elephants but did not see them, and used the binoculars to check out some really beautiful birds in the savanna. Ben used his water purifier to make clean drinking water from a stream, filling up a whole gallon to use for the remainder of our hike. During the hike our Baka guide showed us his preferred method of purifying water. He looked around and found a plant he simply called “plant that provides water” (we look forward to properly identifying it when we return home). He cut a piece about a meter long and out came the water, enough for us all to get a drink.
We set up camp at a small clearing which the ecoguards maintain. We made dinner in a pot over a campfire. The guards and porters mashed up some cassava (manioc is another name), making a fine powder. When mixed with hot water it makes a thick paste, almost like wet dough. They dipped this into a spiced tomato sauce and palm oil (everything is made with palm oil here, it’s so readily available being harvested locally). It was actually pretty delicious! After dinner, we shared stories and jokes, with our guide being the translator between English and French.
In the morning, we jumped in the car and met up with our two ecoguards and two porters who helped carry all of the camping equipment for staying in the national park. Our driver noticed that his rear passenger side tire was going flat from the off-roading we had to do to get past the trucks the day before. When we were talking with the WWF rangers preparing to set off he attempted to change the tire. As he turned the lug nut the whole bolt snapped off nut and all, then the same thing happened to a second one. One lug nut isn’t good but two! We limped along to the drop off point where we arranged to be picked up three days later and he set off to repair the tire properly.
Off we went into the jungles of Lobeke. Not twenty feet had passed when we came to the first of many streams. This one had a decent sized log across it and we traversed it easily. The forest was full of sounds. The ground almost moved under your feet as the many insects went on with their business of collecting food below. As we got deeper in the light became dim and only sparse narrow beams made it to the forest floor. Every so often we would stop as monkey flew over our heads jumping from tree to tree. The first stop was 6.5 kilometers in to the hike, it was called petite savanna. At this point our feet were still dry but the last 30 feet were deep swamp ant the makeshift bridge of logs was lacking. Let’s just say that was the last of the dry feet for a while. The savanna was surrounded in pandanus and clumping phoenix palms. Two plants that do not make it easy to penetrate. In one location there was a clear patch of mud that the gorilla uses to get minerals from the earth. We waited for a little while and had lunch hoping to see some activity but only saw some birds.
After lunch we started the second part of our hike. It was about 9 kilometers and we needed to make it there before dark so we picked up the pace. Here the ceiba trees were massive and numerous.
We saw numerous tracks the whole hike, elephants, chimpanzee, buffalo, ground foul, wild goat and of course gorillas. About an hour into this leg of the journey we came upon a pack of gorillas. They were no further than 30 meters through the jungle. We were not able to see them but we certainly heard the large warning roar from the male leader, cautioning us not to come any closer. The scream was unexplainable, but we knew we didn’t want to upset them. We tried to see them but by the time we made it around the thick bush in front of us they were long gone. We had very little energy by the time we made it to the second observation tower of Djangui Bai (a bai is a forest clearing that is very swamp-like). Here the opening in front of us was very large. Almost immediately our energy level was lifted as two elephants came into the clearing. A mother and her calf were splashing around in the mud which was a welcome site. Then further off in the distance a large male made his way through the tall grass. Evan as it grew dark the elephants continued to splash in the mud possibly looking for food or just playing. To prepare dinner our guide had to go a long ways away to make a fire. Starting a fire so close to the observation tower would drive the animals away. We then tried our best to set up our tents in the tower even though we were still exhausted from the hike. After we waited for what seemed like forever our guide brought us back a pasta dinner with some sardines and spices, super salty but exactly what we needed after such an exhausting day.
In southeast Cameroon, the sun rises by 5:30am and sets by 6:30pm, which makes sense being so close to the equator. In the morning, we left Lomié as the sun was rising; we have a long journey to Lobeke National Park today. We stopped at a small town for breakfast, and our guide explained that a lumber milling factory opened up here recently which provided good jobs and decently priced lumber for people to build their homes, which we noted were different from the stick and clay homes we have been seeing. We also watched a man make roof thatching by stitching raffia palm leaves together, and we commonly saw this type of roof on many homes.
After about five hours of driving down bumpy clay roads, we stopped in a town called Yokadouma for a quick lunch, which was a traditional meal of rice served with peanut leaves, peanuts, onions, potatoes, and a dessert of cooked plantains. We hit the road again, and still had about three more hours driving to Lobeke. About a mile outside Mambele, the town that serves as the entrance to the park, we came to a standstill. A logging truck had broken down, and another truck had tried to pass it but got stuck in the mud. If we had waited for them to pull the truck out of the mud, it would have taken all night, so our driver went through the brush around the trucks. Success!
We reached the main office of the World Wildlife Foundation, which maintains Lobeke National Park and Camp Kombo, their camps for ecotourists and researchers. We were happy to reach the camp after traveling for so long in the car, and also happy to see that the three other people staying at the camp were American. Two of them are with the Peace Corps and have been volunteering in Cameroon for a year and a half, the other was just visiting.