Welcome to the jungle

Since our last post, Congo: Are we crazy?, we have returned from what felt like one of the most remote places in the world (maybe it is). We emerged from the jungle – bruised, bitten, soggy, and scraped – but happy, feeling good, and awed by the wildlife of Nouable Ndoki.

It was refreshing to be totally disconnected from the rest of the world. However we returned to find that some major events had happened while we were gone – Jesse’s company was acquired by the Economist, and Gus (the malamute) ate a petrified corn cob and needed emergency surgery for bowel obstruction (fortunately, it went well and he is on the road to recovery).

Back to the Congo – The middle of arguably the most untouched jungle in Africa is not easy to get to, and took an eventful full three days of terrestrial and aquatic transport.

Our journey began in Brazzaville with Steve (our trusty guide/sidekick and sometimes Sapeur) and Patrice (our driver) in our massive ride. Since rental car companies as we know them don’t exist in Congo, this beast was rented from the owner, the relative of a certain high ranking official. This facilitated swift passage through the pesky roadblocks and checkpoints, bribe free.

On July 11th, we set off northbound 700 km to Owando. Jen, armed with her weapon of choice (a Nikon), rode shotgun and documented the interesting people and sights along the way.

The ride was set to take 8-10 hours but progress was non-existent soon after our departure. The one road out of town to the North did not not move for three hours. We had lots of time to speculate the reason – accident, flooding, protests, rampaging elephant? Actually, it’s a funny story of how things work here. Congo is hosting the Africa Games (similar to the Olympics) in a shiny new stadium in one month. They have the stadium but no road. Construction and upgrades are way behind schedule, so they essentially just blocked our road and we waited for the construction. Most Congolese blame the French contractors – word is the Chinese contractors are on schedule. Who would have guessed?As soon as we cleared the construction, traffic was basically limited to a few goats and chickens. I am pretty sure Patrice got carpal tunnel in his lead foot as we made up lost time.

Roadside markets and vendors are ubiquitous in Congo. Village vendors sell their local produce, especially cassava, and various meats such as antelope, turtle, or giant catfish. After many hours spent driving past these markets full of delicious fruits, and in the spirit of dealmaking, Jesse successfully negotiated the acquistion of a pineapple. Rumor is he overpaid.There were central African landscapes – savannas and marshes in addition to the jungle…and many small settlements bustling with activity.The road provided us with valuable lessons in friendship and in livestock logistics, duly noting trucks packed tight with goats.We eyed a bustling fish market with curiousity.Eventually we arrived safely in Owando, 8 hours after departing. While out exploring and stretching our legs, we were caught in a short lived but impressive downpour…so we bought emergency umbrellas and considered breaking into “singing in the rain”.Later that night we feasted on crocodile, catfish, and cassava. Crocodile, if you’re curious, tastes like swampy, gamey chicken with rubbery, gelatinous skin/scales, considered to be the “the best part”.Yum.The next day we set off for Ouesso and fixed our eyes to the GPS, as the degrees, minutes, and seconds dwindled on an equatorial pursuit. As we hit 0° 0′ 0″ we realized we weren’t the only ones with an eye to the latitude. A rather unattractive but surprisingly impressive monument marked the center of the earth, height-wise.Three hours later, after two days of driving, we finally reached Ouesso and said goodbye to Steve and Patrice…Thus began the acquatic leg of our journey up the Sangha river. The Sangha feeds the Congo river downstream and acts as the border between Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. Keeping Cameroon on our left, we hopped in a speed boat and proceeded upstream to Bomassa.It was a four hour ride, but felt shorter as nature and river-life provided worthy distractions.

Fishermen in dugout canoes called pirogues…with the catch of the day.Various ramshackle barges and dredgers ply their trade…as hornbills cruise above.As we approached Bomassa leaving civilization behind, a group of village kids taking a dip acted as a warm welcoming party – shouting, waving and performing backflips and dives into the water. Despite their remoteness and lack of material possessions, we got the impression throughout our trip that these small villages of only a few familes each were incredibly and genuinely happy.We docked in Bomassa near the entrance to the national park and enjoyed a quick tour of the village and an introduction to the mayor.

Bomassa is largely populated by the Baka, or Ba’aka, or Bayaka, people. Many of them live as hunter gatherers in the jungles of Central Africa. However those in Bomassa have begun to transition to an agricultural and commerce-based lifestyle. Luckily for us they remain incredibly knowledgeable of the jungle, and acted as our trackers and protectors throughout our visit to Nouabalé-Ndoki national park.On our tour we saw boat building…distilling of Vin de Palm (hooch)… a school…baby goats…a ton of weaver birds (these are their nests in this tree)…one of which these girls captured by climbing up a tree and tying a string to its leg.If you have read this far you get a medal. We are impressed. The Odessey was probably more succinct. Stay tuned… Mbeli Bai and gorillas!

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