When the topic of this trip to Central African Republic came up in the living rooms of Delhi and London, I was faced with the same set of questions: “What is the country really called?” “What was it called before?” “I’ve never even heard of it! Where is this place?”
Admittedly, Central African Republic (known locally as CAR), doesn’t have a name recall that elicits a picture of anything at all. It is a country left in the darkness of information and in the shadows of the world map, with a name that does little to give it significance. It is cursed with rich natural resources and minerals that have attracted the invading hordes of European imperialism—and still remains in the clutches of toxic dictatorship and French greed that have left the country on the brink of famine and war. This has led to most governments placing CAR in the red no-go zone of travel warnings.
However, the thought of experiencing a culture I didn’t know, immersing myself in its glorious wilderness and going into the unknown was too exciting to give up. And so, I found myself flying over the capital city of Bangui, its brick-red earth dotted with a hodgepodge of tin roofs. The airport itself was a relic of the ’70s, surrounded by gun-toting military and a tarmac full of humanitarian aircraft from the United Nations. We seemed to be the only tourists. A short while later, we boarded a charter plane and flew over unending rainforest towards Dzanga Sangha national park.
Located in the south-west of CAR, Dzanga Sangha lies on the northern edge of the Congo Basin, a biodiversity hotspot that contains some of the largest swathes of undisturbed rainforest in the world. It is home to lowland gorillas, agile mangabeys, pangolins and forest elephants (a smaller, lesser known species than the African bush variant).
There exists a romanticised idea of a tropical rainforest, where water drips off lush foliage, brightly coloured birds hop through leafy branches, dappled sunlight filters through blue skies and the air is filled with the sweet fragrance of flowers. In actuality, the rainforest is a teeming, brutal, ferocious thrust for survival that looks benign to us, because the drama being played out is on a time scale that is much longer than human life. Each organism here is fighting for its place, pushing and shoving to get sunlight, nutrition and space.
Every day, we trekked for several hours through thick, overgrown, almost-impenetrable jungle, with our tracker, Gras, who hacked a path out front with his machetes. I could barely see in front of me as I trampled through the tightly packed vegetation: muddy tracks scattered with tree roots that seemed to have been made solely to test my stability, thorny vines that curled around and scratched my skin and clothes, and old tree trunks that tripped me over.
Occasionally, the jungle opened up into naturally occurring small clearings known colloquially as ‘bai’. These bai are perfect places to spot bongo (a large forest antelope), sitatunga (marsh buck) or giant forest hog. One in particular, Dzanga Bai, was a large clearing where hundreds of forest elephants had gathered to suck salt from muddy pools—a great place for us to observe their social behaviour and hierarchical structures.
On one trek, as we approached a clearing, we saw three elephant calves and their mother. Our guide, Alon, asked us to stay quiet and maintain a respectful distance. We took a few discreet photos, and all was well—till the wind changed direction. The elephants lifted their trunks and caught our scent. After that, things happened really fast. The mother trumpeted and charged at us. It takes an elephant three strides to reach what may take Usain Bolt just under a minute, and our “safe distance” was suddenly anything but, as she thundered towards us. In that moment of panic, we disobeyed the absolute first rule of the jungle: don’t run.
We ran. Jungle growth, roots, vines and rivers were nothing to me—I’d never run this fast, or with such surety. As I jumped over a log, I looked back to see Alon trying to stand his ground as the elephant, now a bit confused, tripped over a hole she had dug herself. She lost her momentum, which gave us the chance to hide behind a tree, where we trembled with adrenalin-spiked fear. The mother elephant’s display of aggression was terrifying, but she eventually backed off and we set off on our trek once again.
The main reason I work in conservation is because I love wildlife and the wilderness, but somehow, encountering primates has never been in my top 10. Perhaps they remind me too much of human beings. But there we were, wading knee-deep through murky water full of elephant poo and mud, stomping through a putrefying mash of dead vegetation and jumping over lines of army ants in our bid to locate a group of gorillas. We knew we were getting close when we were asked to place masks over our faces to ensure we didn’t spread any virus on to the large primates.
The jungle was dark, the foliage dense, and the humidity on the highest level of tropical. Soon, I saw the outline of what I thought was a black boulder. It was the sleeping form of Mokumbo, the grand old silverback of this group of gorillas. A sudden rustle and high-pitched noise heralded the appearance of the two females and four children that made up the rest of the family. We were six metres away, watching them watch us: who’s the wildlife attraction in this situation? Then Mokumbo opened his eyes, shook his humongous muscular body and ambled off, stopping only to contemplate a fruit along the way. His troupe moved with him; we tried to keep up. In hindsight, he must be used to the attention, seeing as how he gave us none. I looked at his eyes as I tried to recall the instructions the guides gave us a few hours ago— was I supposed to avert my gaze or not? Sweat and tears ruined any great photographic opportunity I had, as I was left numb with respect and wonder at the beauty of our world.
Afterwards, as we floated down the Sangha River, a Ba’aka fisherman (the local people; acutely attuned to the environment, who take from the forest only what they need) glided past us on a traditional wooden pirogue, expertly balancing his family, his luggage and a few chickens. As we sipped our gin and tonics, the sun began to set—streaks of violet and orange against the misty rainforest of Central African Republic, a wonder that is not only placed at the heart of Africa, but feels like it is the heart of Africa; a destination that should be celebrated for all its beauty and unique wonders.
Book via boutique travel company Karvansarai (Karvansarai.com). Kenya Airways (Kenya-airways.com) flies from Mumbai to Nairobi, and then onward to Bangui. Then, it’s a charter flight to Dzanga Sangha.
WHERE TO STAY:
Sangha Lodge: The proprietors, Rod and Tam have brought their passion for wildlife conservation to the Dzanga Sangha region of CAR, and work with the local community to increase tourism and reduce hunting. They have also set up a pangolin rehabilitation programme. Sanghalodge.com
Photographs: Tara Lal