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Trip Report Central African Republic: Open for Tourists Again

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I've just returned from a trip to the CAR and thought I would post a trip report. It is a marvelous place with very unique experiences and wildlife sightings possible.

I have been fascinated by the equatorial forests of central Africa since Michael Fay's National Geographic sponsored mega-transect captured my imagination some 15 years ago. In fact, soon after I booked a trip to Gabon and visited Langouie Bai and Kongou Falls in Ivindo National Park in hopes of seeing gorillas and forest elephants. Gabon's a good place for both however I was unlucky with the gorillas and returned missing out on our western lowland (gorilla) cousins...so it was through Facebook that I linked up with Rod Cassidy, owner/operator of Sangha Lodge in the Central African Republic and followed events in CAR very closely. I was heartened to hear how he stayed through the uncertain political upheavals, but crestfallen when he and his wife had to evacuate, the subsequent slaughter of elephants at the bai by Chadian poachers, and then after Rod's return, the seemingly inexplicable brief closing of the park! I was determined to visit for many reasons: One, I know tourism helps protect wild places like Dzanga Sangha. Two, the presence of ex-pats and tourists help to protect the bai as I believe that connection to the outside world dissolves when tourists are not present and ivory, logging and diamond prospecting interests take precedence...Three, (and selfishly most important of all) it is without doubt the Greatest (Elephant) Show on Earth. Four, it's one of the few places on earth with habituated western lowland gorillas (two groups are possible to visit with two more being habituated in the coming years) and Five, the best place in the world to see the rare and elusive forest antelope, the bongo.

I just returned less than a week ago and I can report that the experience surpassed all of my very high expectations! It lives up to its World Heritage Site status and I added rare animals and birds to my " list" you'd only find in a place like this. It is "Heart of Darkness" Africa at its best!

Getting There:

That's the tricky part...it's not safe to travel by road via the capital of CAR/Bangui so you most likely have to get to this (safe!) remote southwestern corner of CAR via Cameroon. If you are traveling two or more you'll be fine as a shared plane from Yoaunde, Cameroon (the capital) is reasonable. As a solo traveler it was a bit trickier (I asked several friends to join in the journey but none of my friends pulled the trigger) so lucky for me Rod worked a shared arrangement with two tourists visiting the Ba'aka forest people and Louis Sarno (an ex pat that went to record the music of the Ba'aka pygmies and never returned but stayed in CAR to live). I was also able to cost share on my return via plane. Otherwise there's a two day journey via private vehicle that most anyone would want to avoid (although I was willing should the plane sharing not work out). But my point is that Rod Cassidy helped me every step of the way as that's one of the main challenges: getting there.

One thing that continuously struck me was what a privilege to be the only tourist in Dzanga Sangha but then it struck me what a shame that was too. Selfishly I had it to myself. But this is the best place on earth to observe forest elephants, the best place on earth for bongo, I shared the observation tower with Andrea Turkalo, the foremost authority on forest elephants in the world(!)-- a fascinating time I'll never forget-- the Ba'aka experience whether net hunting with them or listening to their unique polyphonic (think yodeling) singing, or experiencing the completely unique wildlife of the area (Rod and his wife are frequently rehabilitating orphaned creatures whose mother has probably been eaten at the local market) like pangolin and duikers, or tromping around the forest or bai with a family of western lowland gorillas, or fishing for Goliath tiger fish (think a tarpon with two inch dagger like teeth) well, it's too remarkable of a place to have it alone and to myself.

The destination works best in small groups. It'll never have the mass tourism of Kenya (thank God?!) but it is in its own right, a fantastic safari destination -- take that for what's it's worth but this was my 12th trip to Africa.

My pictures tell the best story. I'll link my Facebook album ( elephant pics start in the second half of the album) ...I'm no renowned photographer as I don't even have the lenses to interchange but I imagine the potential is immense in the bai for elephant photography. Also, if the gorillas are in the forest and not in the open in the bai, the lighting was very tricky for me. At any rate, I wanted to report, tourists are trickling back into CAR and it's an astounding place.

I spent eight nights at a Sangha Lodge. The first two days I spent at the bai watching colobus monkeys, forest elephants, giant forest hogs, forest buffalo, bongo (dramatic appearance at dusk) and flocks of African grey parrots. Hours of the time in the presence of legendary Andrea Turkalo!

When I returned to the lodge I joined Swedish ex pat Thomas and two WWF workers on a brai and fishing expedition up river. We traveled in a motorized 40' dugout pirogue.

The next day I visited Bai Houkou and spent time with western lowland gorilla silverback Makumba and family. We walked the saline bais (crossing a herd of forest Buffaloes) and followed a troop of agile mangabeys who were also habituated to humans----a lot of fun as there are 200 in the troop!

The next day I went net hunting with the Ba'aka who are still hunter gatherers -- modern pressures threaten their way of life for sure but their way of life carries on with at times months spent in the forest. Another fascinating character of CAR is Louis Sarno a U.S. ex pat that has lived among the Ba'aka for three decades, married into the Ba'aka and has a family there. There is nobody that has wound up in this remote corner that is not full of fascinating tales!

That night I returned the Ba'aka village ( nearly running into an elephant on the dark roads) to see if they would continue to celebrate as the moon increased. Louis told me they had the previous night danced to summon the forest spirit Ejengi. I wouldn't miss that for the world! Not many places where you can sit in an actual Ba'aka village, drums beating, singing and dancing in hopes a forest spirit would appear. I stayed for two and a half hours but pygmies are known to dance for weeks at a time!

The next day I hiked the waterfalls up river in hopes of seeing the rare picathartes. Rod said it was unlikely as its not nesting season. The nests were his discovery a couple years ago. But two picathartes hopped down from behind the falls and flew off---another gift of the forest! I watched the Sundown on the Sangha River on our return. And the following day I tried to bag the River Monster known as a Goliath Tiger Fish ( I didn't) but sitting on a sandbar on the wide Sangha River ( which flows into the Congo a couple hundred miles to the south) well, there would be no complaints from me.

In the in between times I accompanied the Ba'aka and volunteers (Rod and his wife had to be in South Africa on important business during my dates in CAR) taking care of a couple orphans: a black bellied pangolin, and two blue duikers. I watched them collect blossoms and seeds for the duikers to eat and find ants for the pangolin to feed. There was never a dull moment. I was constantly struck by the sounds of the forest. So full of life, a constant cacophony ! A hundred African greys or a turaco in the distance.

The food is good. There is not tremendous variety in the area but they do a remarkable job. Lasagna, fish, beef and chicken. Avocado salad. I didn't go hungry. The staff Rod has assembled is terrific. The rooms clean and neat. Basic not luxurious like some of the lodges in east and Southern Africa but it's very comfortable and the mattresses and pillows good quality. The lodge sits on a great vantage point overlooking a bend in the river. I spent a lot of time on the deck sometimes in the moonlight. I'd watch the occasional dugout with a fisherman paddle past. Apparently a couple hippos had been around a few nights before I arrived. They prefer to go up a smaller side river that flows into the Sangha but sometimes are seen as well as the occasional croc.

This time of year is considered the dry season and is a bit buggy (MAR). Sweat bees were an annoyance and a couple times I put on the protective netting but it was only twice I felt I had to do that. The temperature was hot but tolerable especially for someone from Florida!

Link to my pics:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153457726443488.1073741865.610038487&type=1&l=d4bab2b280

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