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Gorilla Trekking and Photography Safaris in the Congo Jungle in Africa

After having photographed mountain gorillas in Rwanda and chimpanzees in both Uganda and Tanzania, I wanted to photograph lowland gorillas and bonobo monkeys. My research for an African safari ground operator who could provide us access to lowland gorillas led me once again to Bushtracks. Bushtracks was providing a trip to Doli Lodge in the Central African Republic where there were habituated families of lowland gorillas, forest elephants and forest buffalos. With the rampant bush meat trade ongoing in Central and Western Africa, locating primates that were available to photograph was very difficult. If they hadn’t been habituated to not fear humans, they were long gone before you could get a photo.

The proposed trip ended up being over 6 weeks so we dropped the Doli Lodge portion. I figured we’d get it on the next trip. Unfortunately, all hell broke loose in the Central African Republic as the government was overthrown. Consequently it was no longer safe to travel there.I had worked with Bushtracks to put together a private African safari in 2012 for five people that was to start with Doli Lodge and also included lodges in Rwanda, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa.

Photo by Ken Zaremba: Western Lowland Gorillas of the Neptuno Group in the Jungle Marantaceae Forests of the Republic of Congo, Ndzehi Concession Department of Cuvette Quest

In the meantime I had been active on the Internet trying to find an alternative to Doli Lodge. The Odzala Wilderness camps in the Republic of Congo had just been completed, they had habituated families of lowland gorillas available to trek, and were being promoted on the internet. I downloaded everything I could find pertaining to the Odzala camps and started working on plans to finally get my lowland gorilla photos.

Photo by Ken Zaremba: Jungle Forests of Odzala Kokoua National Park on the way to the Odzala Wilderness Mboko Airstrip

Odzala was new, it was very remotely located, it was way off the normal safari track and very few people had been there. What an exciting opportunity to go where almost no one had been before and to have an opportunity to photograph lowland gorillas in their natural habitat.  This was a very unique opportunity to get away from human influence and be in the wild jungles of the Congo to experience wild creatures in their native habitat. The Republic of Congo was very interested in getting on the eco-tourism bandwagon and was trying to establish the infrastructure to attain this goal.

I contacted Bushtracks and requested their help in another African safari for the five of us. I told them I wanted the trip to include the Odzala Wilderness camps in the Republic of Congo plus camps in Namibia and Botswana. We received a lot of pushback from friends and family regarding going to the Congo. Everybody felt it wasn’t safe. But, we’d heard the same noise a couple of years earlier when we had gone to Columbia and there had been no problems. So we ignored the advice of all those who live by the evening news reports. The infrastructure was in place, Bushtracks could make the trip happen and we were committed to go.

Swampy Roads in the Dry Season - Odzala Kokoua National Park - Republic of Congo

Yield to Gorillas Road Sign in the Republic of Congo - Courtesy of Ndzehi Concession Department of Cuvette Quest

Western Lowland Gorilla Trekking Through Thick Marantaceae Vegetation in the Republic of Congo - Courtesy of Ndzehi Concession Department of Cuvette Quest

From our initial arrival in Brazzaville and throughout our stays in the Lango and Ngaga Odzala Wilderness camps, this was like no safari trip we had ever experienced, and this was our sixth trip to Africa. The camps are very remote and there are not the multitude of safari vehicles nor the numerous other guests you would encounter at other parks like the Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti , Masai Mara and others. There are only six bomas at each camp so there is only room for 12 guests plus the incredibly attentive camp staff. The trekking of the lowland gorillas from the Ngaga camp was the most arduous primate trekking we had done, far more taxing than the mountain gorillas or chimpanzee trekking we had previously done.

Photo by Ken Zaremba: Dominant Silverback Neptuno, a Western Lowland Gorilla of the Neptuno Group in the jungle Marantaceae forests of the Republic of Congo, Ndzehi Concession Department of Cuvette Quest

We finally found them and our encounter with the Neptuno family was amazing. Neptuno the reigning silverback, the other males, females and youngsters were very engaging. They kept their eyes on us and we had been told to be alert for Neptuno performing a mock charge towards us. The family was busy digging up roots and tubers to feed upon and had disturbed some ground nesting bees.

Female and baby Western Lowland Gorillas - Courtesy of Ndzehi Concession Department of Cuvette Quest

The gorillas didn’t seem to be bothered by the swarming bees but unfortunately the bees found us and we were forced to flee the area. But that’s all part of the experience, and my quest to get lowland gorilla photographs was finally satisfied.

As I learned, these are the western lowland gorillas, one of four species of gorilla. The eastern lowland gorilla and the bonobo monkeys reside in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in areas that are considered to be very unsafe places to visit. The mountain gorilla resides in a very small area in Uganda and Rwanda. The fourth species, the cross river gorilla lives in a very small area bordering Cameroon and Nigeria. I’ve now trekked and photographed two of the four species of gorillas in their natural habitat. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to get to the other two species.

Learn more about Ken Zaremba and his photography of the lowland gorillas of  the Congo call 800-995-8689

The first version of this article was posted on 30 Apr 2014 at 2:28 PM.


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