It is a tortuous 16 hour journey by car through remote jungle roads to get to back to civilization.
Brazzaville, the capital of the Rupublic of Congo, is a sleepy city of 1.4 million on the banks of the river Congo. Just across the river, Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (ex-Zaire) with its 14 million inhabitants and its high jumble of high rise buildings, stares at Brazza with a mixture of pride and defiance.
Neater and better organized than many African cities, and with a distinctly French provincial feel, Brazzaville is a pleasant enough city to recover from our days in the jungle.
The M’beli camp is set up near a “bai”, a natural swampy clearing in the jungle, where researchers monitor the behaviour of the large mammals who visit it. Primarily a research station, M’beli seldom receives visitors. It is a very basic camp with no electricity or running water. We live in huts built on stilts (forest elephants and buffalos wander through the camp at night) and are the only visitors there during our stay. Water carried from the river, candles to light our huts and long drop loos are our only comforts.
Being so deep and remote in the jungle is a magical experience. We hike an hour every day to reach the bai’s observation platform where we spend several hours. The bai is a secret stage, open only to initiates. The animals make an appearance, perform, and then disappear behind the thick curtain of the jungle. There we get to see our first western lowland gorillas, distant cousins of the mountain gorillas we met in Rwanda. The lowland gorillas are a bit smaller than their mountain cousins, but still impressive creatures. The silverback whihc we see on several occasions, Morpheus, seems to sport an orange mohawk.
Our walks through the jungle take on a fairy tale-like quality. In the late afternoon, the gloom and darkness of the forest is interrupted by sun rays which find their way through gaps in the canopy and create patches of liquid gold on the forest floor. In the evening, as we walk back to our huts we are surrounded by the flickering lights of fire flies, like lights flashing around a giant, shapeless Christmas tree.
At night, the temperature suddenly drops as the heat accumulated during the day evaporates. The cacophonic night concert of the forest begins and we feel like we have been transported to another world, far away from tropical Congo.
“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were king. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine.” Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
It takes us 22 hours from Brazzaville to reach the research camp, deep in the Congo jungle, where we will spend the next four days. We travel by car, by motor boat, by dugout canoe and on foot through the Congo forest, the world’s largest primary rain forest after the Amazon. The hours we spend going up the meandering river take on a strangely hypnotic quality. We are alone on the broad river, surrounded by thick jungle, a green impregnable wall hiding the mysteries which lie behind it.
The last leg of our journey, in flimsy dug-outs through a maze of swampy water channels alive with the buzzing of swarms of abnormally large bugs tests our nerves. We finally reach M’beli research camp, sore and exhausted and wondering what on earth we are doing in the heart of darkness