Deep into the rainy season, the water levels on the Lekoli River had risen high enough to allow us access to stretches of the river that we had not been able to visit during the long dry season. One place drew us almost magnetically: Mbouebe Bai, apparently one of the few places where hippo can be seen. We had heard them on several occasions from Lango Camp, but as yet the only sighting had been on one of the hyaena researcher’s camera traps.
Like Victorian explorers setting off in search of the mythical lake monster Mokele-Mbembe, we embarked on our own quest for a giant aquatic beast.
In the Ndzehi forests, a fallen tree is merely an obstacle to be clambered over. When the tree has fallen across a river, and you are in a boat, it is not quite so easy to negotiate. Our boat captain was even more determined than we were however, and set to work chopping away with his machete. Chunks of wood floated away behind us on the current as he hacked rhythmically through the obstacle and eventually was able to tug free a whole section of raffia palm tree. We watched as it glided serenely along, before being caught in the much swifter current of a tributary stream and whirling away like a dervish.
Startled by the sudden noise, a pair of Hartlaub’s ducks flew away low over the water, blue wings flashing in the light.
I think it’s on the river that I have the sense of being “in Congo” most strongly: dark trees lean overhead, vines and creepers trail in the water, and there is always a feeling that you are being watched. Not in a malevolent way, but as though the forest was alive – which of course it is.
We nosed the boat into a small inlet and beached on a bank of quartz gravel. Now we were in a different world; after stomping through a muddy swamp we found ourselves walking between spiky palm clumps and over thick green grass, all weirdly reminiscent of parts of the Okavango Delta. We followed a game trail alongside a fast-flowing, crystal-clear stream, and soon began to see abundant signs of life: tracks of hyaena, bushbuck and buffalo, and the splayed hoof prints of sitatunga.
Odzala is often described as a mosaic of habitats and today was the perfect example of this: After fording the stream we entered into a section of what is paradoxically referred to as dry rainforest. Colobus monkeys called out in alarm high above us, but then appeared to let their curiosity get the better of them, and hung around to watch these strange earthbound primates lumber along.
Almost without warning, we reached the edge of the forest and there below us was Mbouebe Bai – an open area of meadow with the stream meandering through it. A lone forest buffalo stood by the water, completely unfazed by our arrival. We could have been the first people ever to set foot there...
As we made our way back to the boat by a slightly different route, we stumbled upon exactly what we had been looking for! Well, almost – there in the mud were the distinct tracks of several hippo, including a youngster. There was no time to investigate further as the clouds above us were darkening rapidly and the palm fronds danced in the sudden stiff breeze. We were barely back in the boat when the rain began – ponderous drops at first but soon a regular downpour began.
The crew, well-versed in the ways of Congolese precipitation, stripped down to their underwear and stashed their clothes, leaving us to ruefully remark (yet again) that the word ‘proof,’ as in ‘waterproof,’ is meaningless in Congo. The deluge could not diminish the happiness we felt though, at returning with proof of a different kind, even if it was mildly disconcerting to be entrusting navigation to a man in Sylvester and Tweety-Pie briefs as we skimmed home in the rain.
- By Nick Galpine