"Are you crazy!!! You want to go to the CONGO... Aren't you afraid of EBOLA!"
That was the reply from a good friend when I told him I was going to Congo... He knows I don't read the news...
Every year, I do pro bono work for a non-profit organisation which manages national parks across Africa...
First, I was supposed to have gone to Ethiopia. Then it changed to Nigeria. Finally they asked me to go to Congo. That was in May. As I told them I was free in September, at the end of July, I followed up to see if I was still going... You know what the new person in charge told me? "Paul, you are not on the list for this year... there is another photographer who is going to Congo." ...Miraculously, a few weeks later, I received an email saying that the other photographer could no longer make it... So I said, YES... of course. Again weeks passed... Finally on August 19, my assignment was confirmed for 3 weeks : 3-24 September!
Although I did send them my passport the same day, DHL only brought it back to me 45 minutes before I left my house to the airport... and you know what? The visa was only for 2 weeks!
The good thing is that finally... I was on my way for my new adventure... in the Congo!
Seated comfortably in the plane, I wondered which one of the charming ladies would come and sit next to me... not this time! Instead I was mashed into my seat as a large, sweaty man came pushing roughly past me to get to his window seat. He immediately felt asleep and snored the whole way to Joburg.
Once I got to the hotel at the airport, I finally received a reply from the park manager, David, telling me to buy a lot of insect repellent, and for the first time, to bring a sleeping bag and a mattress! I am in Jobourg man, it's 11 pm!!! It's too late!
Anyway I was not too worried... things were sure to get better when I got there.
After a pleasant 4-hour flight, sitting next to a supermodel this time, I had my first contact with Congo... hot and humid! Beautiful new airport by the way!
There, a muscular congolese woman, dressed in white plastic with green hat and mask covering her whole face except for her dark brown eyes interrogated me "D'ou venez vous Monsieur? Etes vous malade?" and took my forehead temperature... Well, I suppose I was healthy enough to enter ebola country!
Jumbo, the park representative, took me to my hotel and then to a French-looking supermarket where I had to buy dry and tinned food for the duration of my stay. "Beurk!"... I am so used to eat fresh food! And this stuff was so expensive!
Brazza is a safe city, even at night. So I walked downtown and found a popular libanese restaurant where the ice-cream was absolutely divine! La Mandarine... remember that name if you ever go there.
After a beer at the disco-bar next door, I had to escape a herd of hot and sexy young girls and jump in a green taxi to return to my hotel room. "Pas de follies" on the first night!
I stayed 3 nights in the super deluxe Lango lodge run by Wilderness Safari. I was tempted to sit on the deck, enjoying a gin & tonic and patiently watching the wildlife passing through the baie along the clear water stream... but I also had to explore...
I came here to see the gorillas, which population had been drastically ravaged by the deadly ebola virus, 10 years ago, and only slowly recovering now.
Packing my stuff out of my room, I realised that a mouse had opened and tasted almost every packet of food she could gnaw on... dates and dry raisins mixed with broken pieces of pasta, dry soup and tea bags... Still concerned by ebola-transmitted-disease, I had to throw away most of my food!
On the departure day for my 3-week wild adventure in the forest, only accessible through the extended network of rivers, there was just a small tent, a ridiculously thin tiny mattress, and no sleeping bag! Quite a change from my luxury lodge!
At the boat launch, there were no skippers - they call it pinaciers in French... so I waited... 4 hours... then the air filled with that electric and humid smell... and when we were ready to navigate up the river, heavy rain came!
Slowly, we cruised up the Lecoli and the Mambili rivers on our long wooden pirogue powered by a tiny motor, sometimes cutting our way through fallen trees with a chain saw.
The clouds were getting darker and darker... we are exactly at the equator, so night falls early and quickly here! Then the pinaciers anchored the pirogue on a sandy river bank and told me : "It's too far and too late, we'll sleep here." WHAT? "There is still about 3 hours to go!" replied my guide! Quite a different story from the 3-4-hour trip I was told! Anyway the evening was spectacular with billions of little white and silver moths flying all over the river, and bats - maybe ebola-infected - wheeling around our tents.
On the boat the next day, they were hundreds of tse-tse flies biting my hands, my feet and my face... even though I had applied several layers of insect repellent! David was right!
For days, I walked with my ex-poacher pygmy trackers, sometimes crossing 1 m deep streams, following muddy elephant paths through thorn bushes in swampy savannah, or clearing our way with machetes through dense maranthacee undergrowth forest.
It was often hot and humid, the perfect conditions to attract millions of tiny little flies that wanted to enter my ears, nose, mouth and eyes.
Then from Romani camp, I trekked a distance of 5 km twice everyday through deep forest and swamps and spent 9 hours in the hide, waiting for the big apes and forest elephants to come into the baie, the only place where we could watch them easily, without being noticed.
At first only forest buffalos, black & white colobus monkeys, sitatungas and a few birds came to visit!
We were often surprised by heavy rain and in no time, our clothes were completely soaked... and you know what... nothing ever dries in Congo!
Then, early in the morning on the fourth day, we were stunned to come across a big silver back western lowland gorilla just sitting there, peacefully munching on some roots when we arrived at the hide... When he saw me, he stand up, growled, but then continued its gentle walk-and-eat journey through the swamp. A group of 6 gorillas with young ones perched on their mothers' back came the same afternoon, followed by 3 forest elephants walking along the forest edge... what an amazing day!
In the evening, I got stung by a bee. A stupid sting which normally does not affect me, but this time my leg swelled up and my muscles became so hard that I could barely walk!
Because of my weak leg, my trackers took pity on me and decided we would only walk 2 km the next day, following a dry path to another baie. As there was not a soul when we arrived, I started taking close-up photos of mushrooms with the macro lens. When I heard a lot of noise behind me, I immediately grabbed the camera with the tele lens on the tripod and slowly walked through the bushes to discover a herd of forest buffalos grazing in the swamp before me... I was only 15 m away from them when I slowly came out to place my camera. I only had the time to take 3 shots before my 2 pygmy trackers whispered at me : "Get out... now! She is not happy... she is inflated... look!" Indeed the last photo of that mother buffalo shows a furious face beginning to charge me through the deep mud. As we run, one pygmy pointed out a half-fallen dead tree which was the perfect escape for me to climb with my 2 cameras on the shoulders. The buffalo charged and stopped about 4 m away... an exciting moment and one of my best photo!
So tse-tse flies and bee stings, camping on my ridiculous little mattress in the middle of the jungle, eating wild mushrooms, tasteless fresh river fishes, unpalatable manioc fufu and drinking smoked-boiled water from the muddy river, was all worth it... in the end!