Roasted peanuts and an ice-cold crocodile. Those are the abiding memories of my first night in Brazzaville, the colourful capital of the Republic of Congo. Roasted nuts served in cones of twisted newspaper; we bought a half-dozen and spread them out on a plastic pavement table. The tavern owner delivered a crate of chilled Ngok’ beers and we were all set for sundowners, Brazzaville style.
I was heading north, to the rainforests, but it made sense to spend at least a night in ‘Brazza’, the tiny cousin to the mega-city of Kinshasa across the Congo River. It’s a city with few obvious tourist highlights, but one certainly worth a stop is Les Rapides. A short drive from the city centre, a rocky channel throttles the Congo River into a maelstrom of frothing rapids. In the calmer waters above, local kids splash in the eddies as fishermen cast their lines into the deep water.
One road back from the shoreline I stop in at the artist’s collective, where 14 artists from across Congo displays their works. The upcycled creations are remarkable, with six-foot animal statues fashioned from tin cans alongside wooden works embodying the spirit of Mami Wata, the legendary water spirit of the Congo River.
There are a handful of other sights to tick off; notably the striking Basilique St. Anne’s and the Brazza Memorial; the final resting place of the city’s founder, Italian explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza.
They’re both worth a visit, but do leave time for a wander through the Poto-Poto market. Colourful fabric shops line the dusty streets, where towering minarets compete for your attention with hand-painted billboards. It’s bright, brash and colourful; and the market is a torrent of aromas. The hint of banana and bubbling oil draws me to a vendor selling deep-fried dough balls. The aroma of roasting goat is delicious at one roadside take-away, although perhaps less so to the herd of nervous goats corralled in the yard behind the grill.
The tropical heat took its toll, so we pulled our plastic chairs onto the pavement for a cold Ngok’; the better of the two local beers. Primus, the other, is best reserved for desperate times.
Which these certainly weren’t, as the evening passed us by in a gentle haze. Muezzin called the faithful to prayer, the scent of burning charcoal wafted across the streets, and unlucky chickens met their fate at the popular roadside grills.
But I had other plans. Clinging to the banks of the Congo River, Mami Wata restaurant boasts the best location in Brazzaville. Terrace tables are set just metres from the river, and across three kilometers of turbid brown water the lights of Kinshasa winked back at us.
The menu offers an expat-friendly blend of pizza, pastas and grills. Prices aren’t shy, but then you’re paying for those views... and the Congolese jazz band that kept the groove going late into the night.
It was an early start the next morning though, the streets deserted as us our bus drove out the gates of Hotel Hippocampe. More than 800 kilometres and 14 hours of driving lay between us and Etoumbi, in northern Congo. The long road to Odzala had begun.
Beyond the windows Congo trundled by. Here the fields of cassava that would be dried and ground to make manioc, the staple diet in these parts. Goats stood tethered to tree stumps, nervously waiting for trucks to ferry them to the markets in Brazza. Bush meat was offered for sale to passing traffic. In larger villages the boulangerie would be piled high with baguettes, a relic of Congo’s years as a French colony.
We leave the highway at Makoua, but not before firing up a GPS. On the grassy verge of the mayoral building we find the imaginary line we’ve been looking for. Smiles all round as we theatrically step back and forth between the Northern and Southern hemisphere, the equator little more than a dusty strip of tar. There’s a monument here, shuttered and abandoned, but rather walk towards the Likouala River where you’ll find a colourful, low-key homage to the earth’s invisible waistband.
A tropical shower cuts short our photos, the warm rain steaming on the hot tar. Above us, thunderheads build as we turn the bus west and head for Etoumbi. The town was sealed off in 2005 during an Ebola outbreak, but is today slowly emerging as the gateway to the forests of the Parc National d’Odzala.
It’s also where we shake hands with Kingsley Holgate, the ‘greybeard’ of African exploration, who has spent much of the past three decades exploring Africa. His most recent expedition saw him blaze a trail to the ‘heart of Africa’ (see sidebar). I hop in his mud-splattered Land Rover Discovery and we head north into the Park.
Founded in 1935, the Park covers a staggering 13 600-square-kilometers, conserving a vast tract of the second largest rainforest on the planet. It’s a wild space, home to chimpanzees, forest elephant and shy antelope amongst hundreds of species. But there’s one notable resident we’ve come here to find.
“We estimate there are around 25 000 Western Lowland Gorillas in the greater Odzala region,” explains our guide Carl Diakite that evening, as we gather in the lounge of Ngaga Camp. Odzala Discovery Camps run a handful of lodges in the region, blazing an eco-tourism trail in a country largely undiscovered by travellers.
The rules of the gorilla walk are clear: only an hour with a family, and facemasks must be worn on a sighting.
“A single cold virus could wipe out a family of gorillas,” warns Carl.
The next morning we’re up before dawn, and set out in search of gorillas. There are two habituated families in the region, although the low number of tourists mean they are less accustomed to human interaction than the mountain gorillas of Uganda and Rwanda.
“We like to say our gorillas are tolerant of, not used to, humans,” explains Carl quietly.
After 45 minutes of silent trekking through the marantaceae forest a crash of branches stops us in our tracks. Zephirin Ikoko, our master tracker, beckons us slowly forward. We don our face masks and peer through the undergrowth.
Ten, perhaps 15, metres off a giant silverback lazily digs out roots from the forest floor. Females and young gorillas preen, feed and play around him, as our group hunkers down in the gloaming. The forest is quiet, save the rustling of the gorillas and the whirring of camera shutters. Our 60 minutes disappear all too quickly, but in the end it’s the silverback that calls time. Striding towards us on all fours, his displeasure evident, we move back away slowly and leave the family to their foraging.
It’s an unforgettable highlight from a long journey, but just one of a hundred memories from this undiscovered corner of the continent. Who could forget the pirogue trip down a fast-flowing tributary of the Congo, with putty-nosed monkeys in the boughs and sitatunga fighting in the shallows. Or wading knee-deep in water through the forest, as Forest Elephant ruminated in a distant clearing. And then remembering them all over drinks by the fire pit, as the sun set over Lango Camp in the heart of the Park.
It’s a long road to Odzala, and for now the tourists are few and far between. Get there while you still have it all to yourself.