A visit to the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, Central African Republic

The baÁka drums at the Baï-Hoko camp.
The hand of a Gorilla gorilla gorilla.
One of our relatives in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park.

Not all journeys start in the small village of Bayanga.

The trip has hardly any turns during the first hour. A straight road built by a logging company takes us there. A sign tells us that we’re entering the Parc National Dzanga-Ndoki. When the road finally turns, it follows an elephant path. Exactly the opposite of the road used by the loggers. The jeep’s suspension wants to go on strike. David who is behind the wheel mutters something in sangho. I suppose he’s using bad language.

At the end of the road, there are a fenced area with half a dozen low huts. Solar panels on the roof indicated that the inhabitants aren’t native. This outpost is known as Baï-Hoko. For seven years, researchers have been busy trying to find out what a day in the life of a western lowland gorilla (latin name: Gorilla gorilla gorilla) is like. This is the most common species of gorilla, the one you’ll find in the zoo. Surprisingly, it’s also the one that we know the least about.

Do you want to meet your relatives?
You’re not in for an ordinary safari where your guide will mix drinks while chatting about the fauna. When you arrive at the Baï-Hoko you will follow the routine of the researchers and their assistants. To them it’s an ordinary day at work.
A baÁka is our tracker. He’s leading the way in an almost furious tempo. First I think he’s testing us. A little later, I’m being told that this is the standard pace for baÁka – fast enough to keep up with your favourite decathlete.

Tripods, monopods, straps and backpacks. Our equipment is fighting against the broccoli. The fight is not even. Looks like the rainforest keeps on winning.
Angelique Todd, responsible for the WWF project in Dzanga-Ndoki seems to have seen it all. Old ladies, EEC officials with high cholesterol and fat politicians. This is a tourist trap measuring 4500 square kilometers. The tourists are partly financing the gorilla research.

The ground is covered with dry leaves.
The soil is mostly sand. It’s also relatively quiet. It’s not like the David Attenborough documentarys where the rainforest is a moisty and deafening outdoor concert.
Stop. That’s a dirty lie. It’s not that quiet. Through the broccoli you can hear loud thuds. Pale legs are sticking up from heavy boots. We are stumbling around on the elephant’s paths. The guys with trunks move with complete stealth. Tourists are like bulldozers. Tomorrow we will wear Teva sandals.

So, who are we looking for?
The rainforest equivalent of Skype is a system of broken branches, leaves and other, barely visible markings.
– Clic-clic, goes the tracker. It’s like a humanized camera shutter sound. He is listening carefully. Another clic-clic. And the replies comes 30 seconds later: Clic-clic.
The clicking serves a number of purposes. a) We don’t want to surprise the gorillas. With a visibility of six to nine feet, we could step on a primate if we didn’t watch out, and b) it’s a way for trackers to communicate. And it works.
We find those who clicked in response to our tracker. Another three trackers. They have been out since sunrise. We are asked to keep a low profile.
The researcher’s assistant is whispering:
–Look, they are asleep. There are thirteen of them…
We see nothing. We wait. For a brief moment, something is moving. Five fingers become visible. A small hand is gripping a branch. It’s a gorilla hand.

Let’s make a leap about 30 minutes forward in time.

Suddenly, the whole group starts to move.
We are trying to move ourselves and our equipment out of the way. We pay the silverback some respect by moving back a few feet. One of the females is passing by, only a few feet away.
– Ehhummm, says the female. She sounds like the female checking your visa waiver at immigration. I’ll remember that Ehhummm for the rest of my life.
– Did you get that message? the researcher asks. You guys have just been greeted by a female gorilla!

Logistics
The Dzanga-Ndoki National Park is located in the southwest corner of the Central African Republic. There’s one international flight per week from Paris to the nation’s capital Bangui. Then you need to go by jeep for approx. 18 hours to Bayanga, should you not be lucky enough to charter the only private airplane in the country (and by doing so you’re entering a strange kind of lottery – if the president wants to use the plane, you’re basically screwed).

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