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. We bought half a dozen roasted peanut-filled cones in twists of newspaper 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 one night in “Brazza”, the tiny cousin of mega-city 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 stopped in at the artists’ collective, where 14 artists from across Congo display their works. The upcycled creations are remarkable, with 1,8m animal statues fashioned from tin cans alongside wooden works embodying the spirit of Mami Wata, the legendary deity of the 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.
And do take the time to 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 drew me to a vendor selling deep-fried dough balls. The smell of roasting goat was 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 one, is best reserved for desperate times, which these certainly weren’t, as the evening passed in a gentle haze. The 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 3km 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 modest, but then you’re paying for those views – and the Congolese jazz band who keep the groove going late into the night.
It was an early start the next morning, though, the streets deserted as our bus drove out the gates of Hotel Hippocampe. More than 800km 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. We passed fields of cassava that would be dried and ground to make manioc, the staple diet in these parts. Goats stood tethered to tree stumps, waiting for trucks to ferry them to the markets in Brazza. Bush meat was offered for sale to passing traffic. In larger villages, boulangeries were piled high with baguettes, a relic of Congo’s years as a French colony.
We left the highway at Makoua, but not before firing up a GPS. On the grassy verge of the mayoral building, we found the imaginary line we’d been looking for. Smiles all round as we theatrically stepped back and forth between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, 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 cut short our photo-taking, the warm rain steaming on the hot tar. Above us, thunderheads built up as we turned the bus west and headed 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 shook hands with Kingsley Holgate, the “greybeard” of African exploration, who’s 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 hopped inside his mud- splattered Land Rover Discovery and we headed north into the park.
Founded in 1935, it covers a staggering 13 600km2, 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, among hundreds of species. But there was one notable resident we’d come to find.
“We estimate there are around 25 000 western lowland gorillas in the greater Odzala region,” explained our guide Carl Diakite that evening, as we gathered 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 face-masks must be worn in the event of a sighting. “A single cold virus could wipe out a family of gorillas,” warned Carl.
The next morning we were 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’re 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,” explained Carl quietly.
After 45 minutes of silent trekking through the marantaceae forest, a crash of branches stopped us in our tracks. Zephirin Ikoko, our master tracker, beckoned us slowly forward. We donned our face-masks and peered through the undergrowth.
Ten or 15 metres away, a giant silverback sat lazily digging out roots from the forest floor. Females and young gorillas preened, fed and played around him, as our group hunkered down in the gloaming. The forest was quiet, save for the rustling of the gorillas and the whirring of camera shutters. Our 60 minutes passed all too quickly, but in the end it was the silverback that called time, striding towards us on all fours, his displeasure evident. We backed away slowly, leaving the family to their foraging.
It was an unforgettable highlight of a long journey, but just one of 100 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 elephants ruminated in a distant clearing? And then recalling 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. Visit www.odzala.com