Travel: Silverback Lining
Jupiter is barking. Somewhere within the thick maze of arrowroot leaves that blanket the Republic of the Congo’s Odzala-Kokoua National Park, we hear—and feel—the silverback gorilla and his dozen or so female companions circling us. Only a few yards away, the pah-pah-pah of massive fists beating a barrel-like chest rips through the jungle, followed by the quick guttural woof of an alpha male asserting his dominance. Suddenly, the giant shrubs around us come alive, shaking with the force of beasts on the move. But just as abruptly, the forest becomes still. Finally, after a few minutes of silence, our group starts back toward camp in disappointment: For all that we experienced, we saw almost nothing, and my camera remains slung under my arm, unused.
"It is nature!" exclaims Karl, our guide from the Ngaga lodge at Odzala, perhaps noticing the quiet among our group of three. "You hope for the best, but you never know what you are going to get. That is the exciting part!"
To be sure, Odzala—a two-lodge camp in northeastern Congo that the Botswana–based safari operator Wilderness opened last August—serves up an authentic nature experience. Set within the roughly 5,000-square-mile Odzala-Kokoua National Park, the camp comprises Ngaga, which borders the home range of six gorilla groups, and Lango, located at the edge of a dense forest about two and a half hours away by car. The camp is the only one of its kind in the rain forest of central Africa, which is the lone territory of the critically endangered western lowland gorilla.
Odzala-Kokoua’s wildlife—which also includes forest elephants, bongos, buffalo, and 11 species of primates aside from the gorillas—is unaccustomed to people. At times this can mean extraordinary sights, such as chimpanzees shrieking and pounding the ground at what might be their first encounter with human beings. Other times it can mean following tracks for hours before finding gorillas that are hidden behind giant arrowroot plants.
"We are not hosting activities," says Bruce Simpson, CEO of Wilderness Collection, an elite group of environmentally focused Wilderness properties that include Odzala and locations in Kenya, Botswana, and the Seychelles. "You don’t sit in a car watching animals until someone decides it’s time to move on. We’re selling an experience at Odzala, and whether it’s tracking gorillas or treading a river, when you finally see those animals, it’s damn exciting."
While guests at Odzala might work for their sightings, they can expect a more leisurely experience at the camp’s two lodges. Plunge pools and soaking tubs would be anathema to Wilderness Collection’s adherence to authenticity, but certain luxuries remain. Ngaga and Lango each feature six elevated raffia-covered huts with zip-up doors and wraparound observation decks from which guests can view buffalo sunning themselves by a forest swamp or colobus monkeys swinging from the trees. At Lango, elevated wooden walkways wind from each room to a main lodge, where elaborate multicourse meals incorporate fruits and vegetables from the camp’s organic garden.
Odzala’s six-night packages ($5,885 per person) ensure a well-rounded wildlife experience by requiring three nights each at Lango and Ngaga. But the gorillas at Ngaga are clearly the main draw. The experience at the lodge is enhanced by Wilderness’s partnership with primatologists who have been researching Odzala-Kokoua’s gorilla troops for more than a decade. The experts created guidelines for viewing the animals, which include limiting time spent with them to just one hour per day. Sometimes, however, nature breaks the rules.
On my trip’s final morning, shortly after heading out from Ngaga, we track the silverback Neptuno and his troop of 18. We find the primates in a canopy of trees, chomping on leaves high among the branches. After almost an hour, the gorillas descend into the forest, and, delighted by our unfettered sighting, we start back for the lodge. But as we make our way through the tall brush, we are stopped in our tracks by the piercing sound of the silverback’s high-pitched howl. Nearby, a frantic shaking of leaves grows closer and closer. Suddenly coming into view, the 400-pound beast barrels toward us, swinging forward on his knuckles with an unbelievable force that seems to shake the earth.
Luckily, Odzala’s head researcher had warned us the night before that gorillas often charge, but only to display dominance. The trick was not to panic and run. Indeed, just seconds before pummeling through us altogether, Neptuno stops. With nostrils flaring and eyes unblinking, the silverback beats his chest with the same pah-pah-pah we heard the day before. Then, his superiority confirmed, he slowly makes his way back to his group. It is only at that moment, when I remember to breathe, that I raise my camera and snap a photo.