Working in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, you become somewhat accustomed to the constant changes in conditions. From dense primary rainforest, to open savannah and everything in between I can truly say it’s as unique as it gets. The Congo basin creates its own weather system – with long and short wet and dry seasons rather than summers and winters, each presenting its own conundrum of lighting and challenges to the amateur and professional photographer.
1-Afternoon Sunset from Ngaga Camp
I’m no professional, but I have guided a few experienced photographers through my career and have tried to pick up tips between gin and tonics and sunset game drives. The wet seasons in Odzala – March to May and October to December – have proven to be great for photography. Although the heavens can open at any time, in between, there is blue sky and sunshine and the lighting can be great. That said – you will get to know your camera settings more closely than if you worked in the Nikon or Canon factory yourself. Generally a longer lens is better, but a backup shorter lens for insects, fungus, flowers, landscape shots and surprising critters that pop up closer than usual is highly recommended. A macro set-up can be extremely rewarding too.
The light changes as huge cloud formations grow and pass with the constant humidity. It’s extremely exciting for experienced photographers and if you manage to get your setting right and in time for the primate you are tracking to turn and look at you for a split second, it will be a shot you will not forget. The combination of a lush green forest, dappled golden sunshine and an environment unlike anywhere else on earth will be worth its weight in forest honey.
2-The culprit – aka Silverback Western Lowland Gorilla
I remember setting out once in the wet season to track a group of gorillas we knew to be close to the camp. With me were my trusty Congolese tracker and two experienced British photographers heaving kilogrammes of equipment and realistic expectations of the challenges ahead. Another thing we have learnt: if you’re in camp, it’s easy to set up a tripod – change bodies and lenses and wait for a perfect shot. When you are tracking a group of wild gorillas on the other hand, you could spend hours walking through dense jungle – and a good camera bag and careful packing is a huge help. After following tracks and signs for two hours – and weathering a few small downpours – the cloud cover broke into perfect sunshine coming through in golden bands before dispersing into the thick forest understorey. The tracker signalled we were close – and the excited photographers pulled out their cameras. A long lens and a sun protector can make a big difference, with most sightings being in the tops of trees or slightly further away than on a savannah safari.
We continued deeper into the rainforest – the gorillas were also on the move so 'close' had turned into 40 minutes of tracking. Eventually it started to rain and after some deliberation, the cameras went back into the bag. A minute later the rain stopped – a beam of sunshine illuminated our green surroundings and the tracker’s hand shot up. A 170 kg silverback gorilla is quite something – and with western lowland gorillas in particular it’s a rare and special sighting to say the least. We stood in awe as this huge great ape sauntered across the path in front of us, paused for a second to regard us and disappeared into the forest. I managed to snap one quick shot but I looked back and was met with a consolation smile from the photographers. “Next time.”
The reality was that we would have to be extremely lucky – during most sightings in the forest we're contending with thick vegetation to get a clear view. We did eventually get to see the group of around 16 individuals dispersed in the trees, and in between challenging back-light from the clouds, on and off rain and moving targets, some great shots were captured.
3-Morning View of Lango Bai
The dry seasons – December to March and June to September – are characterised by cool misty mornings and overcast days. The conditions are more stable, but the light slightly less convincing in the dense forest. These times of year are great for early morning shots from the camp or the boat, alongside the swamps and forests. Once again a long lens is helpful as we try capture flocks of hundreds of green pigeons and grey parrots from a distance to avoid spooking them. Hogs, antelope, buffalo and elephant use the swampy openings in the forest to obtain salts and minerals. These are great spots to sit and wait for game and photo opportunities.
Patience is key in the forest and I can guarantee you that behind every great photo you see from this area of Africa lies blood, sweat and tears. Trying to keep a steady hand and swat away sweat bees at the same time is a feat in itself. However, the excitement of a wild, untouched and challenging environment has an appeal that is hard to find anywhere else.
4-Endangered African Grey Parrots
I still maintain my favourite photographer is the one having the most fun, and we have plenty of that. With a keen team of guides and managers all sporting different equipment and most importantly different interests, the smiles and laughs just keep rolling. And when it comes to macro shots, it’s a whole new ball game. Hunting for jumping spiders and praying mantises around the camp and then spending three hours on your knees huddled in a semicircle of giggles to try and expose this micro world can have amazing results. There’s such an abundance of life out here – from forest fungi to colourful beetles not found anywhere else on earth. It’s not uncommon to find six adults reduced to kindergarten status while trying to photograph a caterpillar on the move. I would definitely recommend bringing a macro set-up if you have a keen interest on the smaller beauties of the forest.
5-Spider under macro investigation
It’s one of the wildest places left on the planet – mostly untouched and surprisingly diverse in species and habitat. The photography here is challenging but rewarding, and I promise you it will change your priorities with regards to what you shoot and how you shoot it. The forest has a way of forcing you out of your comfort zone; it’s such a unique environment that you can’t help but try and adapt to it. I constantly hear remarks like “I never thought I’d enjoy taking a photo of that” or “I only have a handful of good shots – but they are more special to me than any others I have taken.”
I think the experience behind the photo is something that really adds to the richness here. Everyone is learning – and for those with the patience, skill and determination (and, to be honest, a bit of luck) – you really can get amazing photographs and undoubtedly some great camp fire stories to go with them.
Words and images © Adam Parker - Odzala Guide