Adventure in the Sangha Forest

Background

I arrived at Sangha Lodge, adjacent to the Sangha-Dzangha National Park, in mid-December. The trails and nature right at the lodge are beautiful, with lots of opportunities to see birds and other small animals. The main attraction of the park is the Dzanga Bai (bai is the local language word for forest clearing, which is saline in French, I think), which is a forest clearing that up to 100 or so elephants congregate at every day. This one is particularly special for the elephants because there are many minerals in the ground for the elephants to drink. Other animals also show up like buffalo and bongo. Visiting there is fantastic and I believe that it might actually be the best nature place in the world.

I had visited Dzanga Bai for two day trips in 2014 during my last visit and was planning to do one overnight visit during this trip, where I’d bring a tent and sleep on the platform. The thing about Dzanga Bai is that it’s too easy. You show up and walk up the stairs to the wooden viewing platform (there is a ~2 km walk to get there from the car dropoff at least) and instantly see this amazing scene. Other than a bit of an ant infestation and being a bit overwhelmed from a photographic sense, this is bliss.

The thing I didn’t realize during my first visit is that there are in fact quite a few bais in addition to Dzanga Bai. The national park offers a “bai walk” as an activity. It wasn’t exactly clear to me what this means, but I was imagining getting to Bai 1, seeing elephants, walking to Bai 2, seeing elephants, and then leaving. The park was technically closed while I was there due to COVID, so I still don’t know exactly what this activity entails.

Sangha Lodge has its own concession adjacent to the park and so it was decided that some kind of forest walking activity would happen. Since I’ve somehow over the past years become an avid walker/hiker and have built up a strong interest in elephants, this was a pretty ideal activity.

Planning

There is absolutely no official route or plan and my usual travel planning go-to of Google Maps was useless here. It sounded like regular guests never/rarely do this kind of thing, but some long-term visitors or lodge employees have done walks in this area. I had previously been to the area for a day trip to download camera trap data, but hadn’t seen any bais or large animals.

After some talks with Rod and Tamar, we decided that a 3 day/2 night “bai walk” trip would work well, though one extra day may be best in retrospect. We would drive from the lodge about 30km to the “Libwe” road and from there walk back over the next 3 days mostly through the forest and then through a road parallel to Libwe, while trying to visit a bunch of bais and see as much wildlife as we could.

Map of the area

The white road is the “main” road of the area, which is a dirt road in pretty good condition. The Libwe road runs east-west and the top green marker is where we were dropped to start the trip. The two red markers in the center were the overnight spots and the horizontal line is the Saint Francois road that runs parallel to the Libwe road. The final red marker is Sangha Lodge.

At the start all I knew is that I’d start at the Libwe Road and get to the Saint Francois Road and walk through many bais en route.

We decided that I’d go with Armand, one of the senior staff at the lodge, and three Ba’aka people – Bosco, Lundi, and Congondele. I think we technically could have done this with only 1-2 people, but having more meant once we got to a campsite we could look in different directions for signs of elephants and other animals. And the general principle of “the more the merrier” applied here since I got to hang out with them and they had more company amongst themselves as well.

Food

Two days before leaving, we made a list of all the expenses and food.

List of food

I love this kind of traveling/pricing because it’s fun to be fully responsible for how things go, and also I’m very picky and don’t like getting overcharged.

Gear

I was a little unsure of what to expect and therefore also of what to carry. Gear was pretty easy – tent, sleeping bag, camping mattress, water (note: bring a filter so you don’t have to use bottles), and food. I’ve gotten a bit into trying to pack super light aka ultralight, which would mean things like having a maximum of 2 underwear, 2 socks, 2 shirts even for a very long trip, and maybe less for this short of a trip, but the thing is this area is super humid and muddy and so those rules shouldn’t exactly apply. I tend to go a little hard on these new travel concepts, like the first time I went to Nepal I had gotten very into “low planning, go with the flow”, which meant that we didn’t use a guide and found a random guy to be our porter, which ended up not going that well because there was a huge avalanche and the porter and I both got snowblinded, although it could’ve been much worse, and so now I try to be more flexible with my traveling rules.

As for camera lenses, I was deciding between a 24-70mm, 70-200mm, or both. I went with a 70-200 to be sure I’d be capable of reaching birds and elephants from far away, and figured I’d use my iPhone for shorter range stuff. The majority of photos did end up being shorter range, but having the long lens was nice.

Day 1: Getting to the beginning

On Monday morning February 9th it was time to go! The five of us going on the trip would travel in the pick-up truck. Two others would join for getting us to the dropoff point: Emy as the pick-up driver and Yaf as the “when a tree has fallen in the road I will fix it” specialist, who would take a motorbike and ride in front of us.

Emy front of the bike, Armand to the right, and some unknowns

Due to some slight delays (me procrasta-packing), we started leaving at around 7:30am. There was a small mechanical issue with the car that got fixed pretty quickly and then we drove the 3km on the Sangha Lodge road and another couple km to get to Bobongo village to stop off at Armand’s house to pick up the food that he had bought the day before and to see his large family.

Mechanical issues

Lundi and Congondele

Armand leading the way to his house

Armand at home

Inside of the house

The avocados had some problems:

Avocados

Some family members were around the house:

2 girls

Group of people

From there we proceeded at about 8:30am a bit more on the main road and then turned off onto the Libwe road, which is not the best or best maintained road. At 8:45am we ran into a bit of a roadblock, which was dealt with

Libwe Road

Trees down

Inspecting the situation

Yaf at work at the beginning

Yaf at work near the end

Day 1: Beginning the walk

By about 10:15am we finally got to our drop-off point. It was there that I realized that only Armand and Congondele had brought backpacks and Congondele’s looked like the kind of bag you’d bring to not get charged on a Spirit Airlines flight (very small), not a bag to carry lots of gear in the forest!

It turns out that the Ba’aka people are insanely resourceful when it comes to the forest and so Bosco was already working on building his own backpack out of forest vines and such. Lundi was making more of a wrap thing to attach a few bags together.

Once these were ready, we finally got started on our walk. There are some trails in the forest here, but they’re kind of for elephants and mostly pretty rough. The Ba’aka walked in front with machetes and would chop off some obstructions, but it’s very tough to avoid tripping and getting scratched. It’s basically walking on level hard. It is generally flat, so there aren’t major issues with getting out of breath, it’s just literally hard to walk. Break at the beginning

Bosco building a backpack

Bosco building a backpack

Fisherman guy

Our first bai

In the forest A small snake Walking in the forest Another bai Shoes Wet trails First glimpse at elephants Next (blurry) view of elephants Elephants! Elephants retreating Elephant from a distance Bird Armand Congondele Another bai Birds on the ground Walking in the forest Walking in the forest Motorbike running over ants The Sangha Road

Our first bai Bais are muddy More from the first bai Lundi in a tree Tree in a bai Sunset in a bai Sunset between our camp and the bai Rough day Landscape bai view Dinner: Spaghetti and tuna Morning bai Walking ain't easy Morning bai Our campsite Lots of bees Me Lundi and Congondele in the bai The bai is empty! Elephant prints Tree for a view Tree for a better view Final morning Departure