Monday, July 2 A 6:30am alarm signals the start of a busy day. I am joining a school field trip to Loango National Park. Three students: Cameron, Justine and Ryan are joined by teacher Rob, Mary, five porters, and guide Ghislain to spend a night at Shell Hut and three nights camping in the park before returning by boat to Gamba.
We are underway at approximately 8am. I am piloting one Shell boat and Rob another. We set out across the lagoon under calm skies and relatively cool temperatures. An hour into our trip, shortly before the village of Sette Cama, we stop to take notice of a manatee that has died in the past week, its bloated carcass bobbing among the mangroves. By mid-morning we have reached Shell Hut and unload provisions so that they can be distributed among the porters.
After lunch, we return to park headquarters to tour the museum of skeletal remains. Ghislain leads a tour to identify the skeletons of gorilla and manatee, and skulls of ungulates, primates and reptiles recovered from Loango. From here we walk to the sea frontage to visit six graves of turn-of-last-century European explorers and loggers.
On the way back to Shell Hut, we stop to climb the BBC treehouse overlooking the lagoon, where I discover a grotesquely beautiful carnivorous flower blooming on a liana within the forest.
It emanates a smell of rotting flesh, likely as an attractant to insect victims. Back at Shell Hut, the three students spend an hour on the sea beach while others relax on the lagoon patio. A marsh mongoose rustles out of the scrub to cross the grounds, stopping to have a look around before ducking back under cover. Later, Rob and students prepare a delicious rice and chicken dinner, topped off by pavlova, a New Zealand meringue dessert specialty.
Darkness falls quickly at the equator, and by 7:30pm, we board a Safari Lodge boat with Ghislain, a Safari Lodge crew, and crocodile expert Kassa, to look for crocodiles in a remote channel of the lagoon. A nearly full moon diffused by thin clouds floods the lagoon in an ethereal, mysterious light. Milky-gray skies coalesce in a hazy, vaporous atmosphere shimmering above the water, the charcoal-black silhouettes of branches menacing above our heads like legs of enormous spiders. A stereo chorus of frogs and crickets flood our ears from either side of the lagoon channel, dancing above the drone of the motor. Kassa’s torch searches the mangroves clustering the water’s edge, and within minutes illuminates the glowing red eyes of a young dwarf crocodile deep in a mangrove tangle.
With the flexibility of a contortionist, Kassa nearly disappears within the mangrove roots and extricates the reptile for a closer look. Kassa’s father taught him the seemingly impossible art and technique of capturing crocodiles by hand. Adult dwarf crocodiles can grow to two metres in length. Feeding primarily on invertebrates and small vertebrates, they may wander far from water during the night in search of food. The patterned black reptilian hide appears polished by the waters like pebbles on a beach. Alien eyes in wide-eyed wonder gaze upon us, full of alert like a cat, intricate scaled feet and toes like fossil relics. Released back into the lagoon, he submerges with languid undulation to the sandy bottom to disappear among the shadows cast by waves and ripples from the surface. Continuing along the mangrove channel, we soon spot another larger specimen, and with assistance of Ghislain and crew, Kassa wrestles a metre-long dwarf crocodile out of another mangrove shelter.
We admire the beauty of this ancient reptile, appearing frozen in a look of surprise, before releasing it back to its watery lair where it disappears into the deep black with a flick of a tail. A truly fascinating evening.