Moukalaba-Doudou forest trek

Painting of a Gabonese mask slowly reclaimed by nature at Modi-Boti Hotel in Tchibanga.

Painting of a Gabonese mask slowly reclaimed by nature at Modi-Boti Hotel in Tchibanga.

The weekend in Doussala included a trek to look for gorillas in the forest of Moukalaba-Doudou National Park. The rainy season made the trek a challenge. The road between Tchibanga and Doussala was a muddy river of clay, including a bridge washout requiring a deviation through a stream. Luckily the stream was small, with sandy bottom, though the slick clay banks provided plenty of opportunities for trouble.

Trying to stay in radio contact, Alain searches for a signal in the dense forest.

Trying to stay in radio contact, Alain searches for a signal in the dense forest.

We crossed the swollen river to the park by small kayak, and walked most of the morning before we caught up with gorillas. A female with juvenile watched our arrival from the canopy before fleeing through the treetops to rejoin the rest of the family. It was the last we saw of them, for the inundated forest made it virtually impossible to keep up with the gorillas.

Female gorilla caught in the canopy holds her position, hoping we will keep moving.

Female gorilla caught out in the canopy holds her position, hoping we will keep moving.

Gorilla juvenile crab-walks through the canopy to follow the gorilla family through the forest.

Gorilla juvenile crab-walks through the canopy to follow the gorilla family through the forest.

By mid-afternoon the rains returned, making it difficult to follow the gorillas, and dangerous to move through the forest. The constant patter of raindrops muffles most other sounds, making it difficult to hear any large animals in the vicinity. It was time to head back to the village.

PROGRAM guide Joly leads us through the forest on a rainy afternoon.

PROGRAM guide Joly leads us through the forest late in a long, wet day.

Tathou practices on a moungongo, the mouth-harp used in Bwiti ceremonies.

Tathou practices on a moungongo, the mouth-harp used in Bwiti ceremonies.

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Bwiti ceremony

Bwiti_3748_DKorte02The smell of burning Okoume’ resin fills the air as we arrive in the village of Doussala, Gabon, a small isolated village of 20 to 30 Gabonese. Three hours of slogging through rutted, saturated clay track, crossing several rivers and streams on rickety wooden bridges, brings us from Tchibanga to this village at the edge of Moukalaba-Doudou National Park. Preparations are underway for an evening Bwiti ceremony.

Bwiti_3749_DKorteThe Bwiti experience is founded on traditional religious beliefs practiced among the forest societies of Gabon. Combining elements of fire, dance, drumming, and chanting, tonight’s ceremony appears to be fueled by beer and palm wine. A burning vat of Okoume’ resin focusses the ritual that fuses animism, ancestor worship and some elements of Christianity. The N’ganga are spiritual leaders respected in the community, responsible for carrying the tradition forward.

Bwiti_3767_DKorteThis is not a Bwiti initiation ceremony, where boys, including girls in some cultures, are initiated to adulthood through a spiritual journey that involves the ingestion of the sacred plant iboga. This ceremony is about communicating with the spirit world. A quest, not a coming of age, led by the N’ganga, to converse with animal, plant, and ancestral spirits, hoping to appease those spirits malevolent, and seek guidance from spirits beneficial.

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portrait of a buffalo

Forest buffalo, killed by poachers in Gamba, Gabon.

Forest buffalo, killed by poachers in Gamba, Gabon.

Another Forest buffalo lies on a Gamba savanna, a victim of poaching. With little enforcement, and even encouragement from the markets in Gamba, Tchibanga and Libreville, the unsustainable killing of these animals is the beginning of the end for the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas.

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eyes on Ethiopia

Two weeks in Ethiopia, late March. A welcome break from the rain , high temperatures, and heavy humidity of Gabon. A few highlights from the trip…

Manyatee coffee host. Manyatee, a small village at the base of the Bale Mountains, produces shade-grown coffee under the canopy of Harenna Forest. The traditional coffee ceremony, from roasting beans, lighting incense, grinding and steeping the brew was a special treat after a trek through the forest, where we saw Silver-cheeked hornbills, Gray woodpeckers, a Robin chat, Narina’s trogans, a Broad-billed roller, Paradise flycatcher, Black flycatcher, Tambourine dove, Black-headed orioles, and heard but failed to spot the Black-winged lovebird.

Manyatee coffee host. Manyatee, a small village at the base of the Bale Mountains, produces shade-grown coffee under the canopy of Harenna Forest. The traditional coffee ceremony, from roasting beans, lighting incense, grinding and steeping the brew was a special treat after a trek through the forest, where we saw Silver-cheeked hornbills, Gray woodpeckers, a Robin chat, Narina’s trogans, a Broad-billed roller, Paradise flycatcher, Black flycatcher, Tambourine dove, Black-headed orioles, and heard but failed to spot the Black-winged lovebird.

 

Girl in window. Curiosity prompts a young village girl to peer through a window during our coffee ceremony in Manyatee village.

Curiosity prompts a young village girl to peer through a window during our coffee ceremony in Manyatee village.

Covered painting, Lalibela. Many religious paintings are covered in fabric to protect their holiness from degradation.

Covered painting, Lalibela. Many religious paintings are covered in fabric to protect their holiness from degradation.

Reading light. A priest at Asheton Maryam Monastery reading in the light that filters through a doorway entrance to the church.

Reading light. A priest at Asheton Maryam Monastery reading in the light that filters through a doorway entrance to the church.

Ababa. Trek to Asheton Maryam Monastery, near Lalibela. Ababa led the way along a steep mountain trail to the Monastery at 3150 meters above sea level. Closer to heaven and God, as the local priests believe, left us breathless from the stunning mountain top view as well as the lack of oxygen.

Ababa on trek to Asheton Maryam Monastery, near Lalibela. Ababa led the way along a steep mountain trail to the Monastery at 3150 meters above sea level. Closer to heaven and God, as the local priests believe, left us breathless from the stunning mountain top view as well as the lack of oxygen.

Hilltop meditation. The view from the mountain at Asheton Maryam Monastery serves well the contemplation of the universe.

Hilltop meditation. The view from the mountain at Asheton Maryam Monastery serves well the contemplation of the universe.

 

Chanting. A group of boys arrived at Asheton Maryam Monastery and disappeared through a stone door. A mesmerizing chant ensued, drawing me into the chanting room where elders were leading the students in song.

A group of boys arrived at Asheton Maryam Monastery and disappeared through a stone door. A mesmerizing chant drifted from the depths, drawing me into the chanting room where elders were leading the students in song.

Waiting at church door. An elderly worshipper rests at a church entrance in Lalibela.

An elderly worshipper rests at a church entrance in Lalibela.

Tiya Stelae. Standing rocks. Powerful rocks. Powerful even as they lie broken and scattered. The stelae of Tiya, Ethiopia are part of a prehistoric burial complex. Weapons and symbols carved in relief on the stelae surfaces suggest they may be 600 to 1000 years old. If you stop to listen, finding quiet between the breezes that cool your face, you might hear the whispers that echo from a life past. Children playing, laughing. Footsteps in the dark, dancing in the firelight. The chur-r-ring of nightjars as they circle and dip beneath the starlight.

Standing rocks. Powerful rocks. Powerful even as they lie broken and scattered. The stelae of Tiya, Ethiopia are part of a prehistoric burial complex. Weapons and symbols carved in relief on the stelae surfaces suggest they may be 600 to 1000 years old.
If you stop to listen, finding quiet between the breezes that cool your face, you might hear the whispers that echo from a life past. Children playing, laughing. Footsteps in the dark, dancing in the firelight. The chur-r-ring of nightjars as they circle and dip beneath the starlight.

Fan-tailed Ravens. A pair of ravens play on a rising thermal as the valley warms below Lalibela.

Fan-tailed Ravens. A pair of ravens play on a rising thermal as the valley warms below Lalibela.

Variable sunbird. Metallic blues and greens reflect in the sunlight as a sunbird searches for nectar among flowers on a hillside in Lalibela.

Variable sunbird. Metallic blues and greens reflect in the sunlight as a sunbird searches for nectar among flowers on a hillside in Lalibela.

Walking main street. Village street, between Gondar and Debark, on the way to Simien Mountains.

Walking main street. Village street, between Gondar and Debark, on the way to Simien Mountains.

Vendor in Lalibela. One of many shops lining the streets of Lalibela, selling baskets and religious icons.

Vendor in Lalibela. One of many shops lining the streets of Lalibela, selling baskets and religious icons.

Mercato. Vendors converse in the Mercato, the outdoor market in Addis Ababa thought to be the largest open air market in Africa.

Mercato. Vendors converse in the Mercato, an outdoor market in Addis Ababa thought to be the largest open air market in Africa.

Mountain forest. The scent of sage wafts in the breeze as the sun warms a hillside high in the Simien Mountains. Forests full of mosses and lichens gather moisture from clouds and passing storms.

Mountain forest. The scent of sage wafts in the breeze as the sun warms a hillside high in the Simien Mountains. Forests full of mosses and lichens gather moisture from clouds and passing storms.

Gelada monkey. A large male sits on a savanna in the Simien Mountain Highlands. The “bleeding heart” patch of bare skin on his chest signals his virility to the females in his family. Normally eating grass, they spend most of their day digging for roots during the dry season when the grass is less nourishing.

Gelada monkey. A large male sits on a savanna in the Simien Mountain Highlands. The “bleeding heart” patch of bare skin on his chest signals his virility to females in his family. Normally eating grass, they spend most of their day digging for roots during the dry season when the grass is less nourishing.

Formidable canines flash toward a passing female, warning her away from a sitting male in the Simien Mountains. Families include four to eight females with young, protected by a large male. The lip-curl and a flashing white eyebrow marking are early warning signs of potential confrontations.

Formidable canines flash toward a passing female, warning her away from a sitting male in the Simien Mountains. Families include four to eight females with young, protected by a large male. The lip-curl and a flashing white eyebrow marking are early warning signs of potential confrontations.

Feeding across a mountain savanna, Gelada monkeys spend their days grooming, feeding, and procreating. When night falls, they climb over the cliff edge to sleep, free of the threat of leopards and hyenas, clinging to the cliff face.

Feeding across a mountain savanna, Gelada monkeys spend their days grooming, feeding, and procreating. When night falls, they climb over the cliff edge to sleep, free of the threat of leopards and hyenas, clinging to the cliff face.

Debark. The gateway to Simien Mountains National Park, Debark is a lively frontier town particularly crowded on Friday morning during market.

Debark. The gateway to Simien Mountains National Park, Debark is a lively frontier town particularly crowded on Friday morning during market.

Harenna Forest. The second-largest forest in Ethiopia, 4000 square kilometers cover the lower elevations of Bale Mountains. The forest along the road is heavily grazed by livestock, and shade grown coffee is cultivated beneath the canopy, but little is know of the lions and painted dogs that haunt its interior.

Harenna Forest, the second-largest forest in Ethiopia covers 4000 square kilometers of lower elevation Bale Mountains. The forest along the road is heavily grazed by livestock, with shade grown coffee cultivated beneath the canopy. Little is known of the lions and painted dogs that haunt its interior.

Living in the canopy of Harenna Forest, Colobus monkeys feed on leaves and fruits. They live in family groups of 3-12, a dominant male, and females with offspring.

Living in the canopy of Harenna Forest, Colobus monkeys feed on leaves and fruits. They live in family groups of 3-12, a dominant male, and females with offspring.

A Dr. Suess wonderland of moss and hanging lichens, the Erica Forest is found between 3200 and 3800 meters above sea level. Bale Mountains National Park.

A Dr. Suess wonderland of moss and hanging lichens, the Erica Forest is found between 3200 and 3800 meters above sea level. Bale Mountains National Park.

Wearing traditional dress, Zubeyda hosts visitors to Bale Mountain Lodge.

Wearing traditional dress, Zubeyda hosts visitors to Bale Mountain Lodge.

 

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good morning Gamba

A rare sunny morning during the rainy season. Radiant sunlight pours golden from a nearby savanna, illuminating a stream draining the lowland forests between Vera Plaines and the sea. A young silverback passes a remote camera, and is soon followed by at least three more individuals.

gorilla_0031_dkorteA short bicycle ride from Yenzi Camp. This is living in paradise. Life in the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas.

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sitatunga spotted

On our way to Aphrodite Beach for a picnic with friends. Aphrodite is maybe 15 to 20 kilometers south of Gamba, off a pot-holed tarmac road that has good probability of seeing wildlife. It winds between savannas and forest a few kilometers in from the sea.

sita_3518_dkorteWe see a Sitatunga watching us from the edge of forest. She bolts back to cover as we slow to  a stop. Continuing, we see another, perhaps 40 meters off the road, standing in savanna at the forest edge. She does not appear eager to return to cover and picks her way cautiously through the vegetation. Perhaps she was forced to flee the cover of forest by another animal. Perhaps there are hunters nearby. She looks vulnerable, peering cautiously into the darkness of forest before disappearing into the shadows.

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rain in the forest

Heading south on the tarmac, cycling past the airport, past Vera Plaines, past the line. Heavy clouds and distant thunder approaching over the southeast horizon does not bode well for a casual walk in the forest. A headwind feels like rain is on the way. Ditching my bicycle at a trailhead, I scramble to the edge of the forest as the rain overtakes. Today I have come prepared, with waterproof, umbrella, and wellingtons. The things a photographer will do for a picture….

forestRain_1462_dkorteOnce inside the forest, the wind subsides. A steady sh-sh-sh-sh of water cascading through trees muffles all other sounds. Leaves that crunched underfoot in weeks past are now soggy and silenced. I feel a little more apprehensive, glancing over my shoulder lest any beasts approach in a silent way. Judging by the lack of monkeys and birds in the canopy, it is unlikely I will have an animal encounter. Of greater concern, I discover, are branches dropping from the canopy. Dead branches, soggy and weighted by the soaking rain, occasionally crack from high above, triggering a spark of attention as they drop to the forest floor. A heavy limb laden with lianas breaks loose nearby with a creaking and gunshot crack, dangling mid-story in a stranglehold of vine.

forestRain_1465_dkorteThe depressions in the forest floor are mostly filled with water, one pool trickling to another as they work their way to the lagoons. No telling how deep these pools are, the tannin colored water and immeasurable leaf mass covering any sign of stable ground. From downed trees to exposed buttress roots I make my way tottering above the dark pools. It is slow going at best. At worst, I misstep, plunging through a floating mass of vegetation to mid-thigh, the vacuum of swamp ooze threatening to suck my flooded wellingtons from my feet. A couple of hours of this and I am exhausted, completely soaked, and in need of fresh air. The rain seems to have ended, though every branch I grab sends another shower from above.

forestRain_1471_dkorteThe rain is replaced by a vapor that seems to rise from the ground. If I wasn’t already soaked, I would be again. The returning heat and humidity sends me to the forest edge and out onto savanna, where a cooling breeze is most welcome.

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a pair of Bee-eaters

Sitting in the morning sun, at a break in the forest.

Bee-eaterPair_1225_DKorte

 

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coastal rainforest

Enchanting, mysterious, timeless. The lowland coastal forests of Gabon are inundated with pools and lagoons. They trickle into streams of fresh, tannin-stained water coursing to the sea. Diverse little habitats where fish begin their lives, hippos find sanctuary, elephants and buffaloes pause on a sweltering afternoon.

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Monkeys feeding high in the Uapacas drop fruits to the forest floor to be scavenged by duikers. A few crocodiles lie silent, haunting the larger lagoons. Distant cries of the ibis and turacos echo above the drone of crickets, crickets in turn suddenly hushed by the galago’s trill. Not a trace of relief breaks beneath the canopy. The sole evidence of a breeze in the heavens, the intermittent and lazy settle of leaves dancing to a muddled grave. A saturated atmosphere vibrating with the pulse and cycle of life.

foretInundee_1366_dkorte

The stilt roots of a Uapaca tree aid stability in a forest saturated during the rainy season.

 

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Blue-breasted bee-eater

Blue-breasted bee-eater, Merops variegatus, adult and juvenile, in Sette Cama, Gabon.

Blue-breasted bee-eater, Merops variegatus, adult and juvenile, in Sette Cama, Gabon.

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