Wednesday July 4 The aches and pains and stiffness brought on by yesterday’s trek work themselves out slowly over a leisurely breakfast of porridge. After cleanup and sorting of gear, nine of us pile into a boat at the river’s edge for a days adventure on the Ynioungo river. Barely into our adventure and we are assaulted by tetse flies. They swarm the boat and it isn’t until we are several kilometres down river that the barrage lifts to a manageable few.
It is a birder’s paradise. African darters everywhere. Kingfishers–giant, malachite, dwarf, and pied, line the riverbanks. yellow-billed storks, woolly-necked storks, egrets, herons, pelicans, Hartlaub’s ducks, jacanas, turacos, fish eagles, palm nut vultures, white-thighed hornbills, black-casqued hornbills, grey parrots, ibis, hamerkops.
The first mammals we see are troops of mangebeys feeding across the marshy savannas exposed in the dry season. Two sititunga are feeding in a distant savanna, and we spot several more downriver, along with large bands of mangebeys. A crocodile eyes us warily from the river’s edge, then slowly sinks to cover. Pulling in to a grassy plain, we stretch our legs for a few minutes.
The baked, cracked earth is pock-marked with elephant and buffalo tracks left behind from the end of rainy season when the plain was soggy with water and the animals sank deeply into the saturated ground. From here, the boatride brings us to a riverine border of a forest, consisting of higher ground upon which sits Akaka Lodge, an open-air bungalow overlooking the river from a promontory ridge, behind of which are nestled several sleeping tents on platforms. The lodge is closed temporarily, presumably for renovations. We set up a fire for a soup lunch near the end of which a tourist family arrives by boat from Loango Lodge, which is down river nearly to the sea. They are here from Belgium looking for an experience off the beaten track. They are surprised to encounter our school field trip out in the middle of the jungle.
As we prepare to leave, we spot an elephant feeding on the edge of a marsh on the other side of the river, and pull across to observe. It is having a difficult time moving. Between the tall grass and sucking mud, it nearly disappears from view, and then, after much effort, it clambers out of the mud, only to sink back in with its next step. Very slow progress for this elephant, whose tusks are some of the longest I have seen.
Three more elephants materialize at the edge of the forest, but none brave the muddy conditions of the marsh.
A few more kilometres down river and we decide to turn back, considering our fuel reserve and time required for the return trip.
We stop for an hour to learn compass skill and GPS navigation in a forest along the river. A trail climbs a small ridge, then drops into a bowl surrounding a swamp. We follow the edge of the swamp for a few hundred metres, then attempt to return, relying on compass, GPS readings, and visual cues. Eventually, we are successful, but it’s touch and go for awhile, as the students realize that they need to see the forest and surrounding environment, noticing features and marking trails, as well as focus on compass readings and GPS numbers.
Back in the relative safety of the boat, we see several more elephants on our return upriver, feeding near the river’s edge, including one that could possibly be a subspecies of the African forest elephant. It is an adult, though fairly small by elephant standards, with short, thick tusks, contrary to the longer, thinner tusks of the other adult elephants we have seen. Our boat disturbs a 1.5 metre crocodile from its repose and it sidles across a mudbank on its toes to slip quietly into the river.
A female sititunga eyes us with curiosity while standing her ground, allowing us a close view before she lopes into cover. And we see a forest buffalo–at least some of us do, for it hastily breaks for cover ahead of our boat. The river narrows as we pass through a ribbon of forest, the banks of ancient trees marked with hi-water stains some 2 metres from the ground. During the rainy season, there is obviously a drastic change in the riparian landscape. Suddenly an explosion rocks the boat, sending the hull airborne and heaving left and right. The motor is flipped horizontal out of the water as we come crashing back down into the river. With great relief, we see that everyone is still in the boat, no one is injured. The motor is realigned, still running, and after some chugging and sputtering, we resume our progress. Evidently, we hit a submerged tree trunk hidden from view in the murky water. It could have been worse–it could have been a hippo.
The troops of mangebeys are back out, foraging along the edge of the forest. They stop to watch as we pass, some of them vaulting up through the trees. As we approach camp, the tetse flies swarm over our heads. Lucky for us, they remain along the river as we arrive back at camp at 5pm and trudge the hundred metres to the camp clearing, leaving them behind.
By 9pm, dinner is finished, conversation trails off, and I am preparing for another night’s sleep. Sorting and arranging packs and cameras and clothes as I crawl into my tent, my hand on the tent floor feels something slither away. I can’t believe the sensation. My tent was zipped closed all day, so I am sure nothing has gotten inside. I start padding down the floor of my tent, and yes, something is slithering beneath my hand as I touch the floor. It feels like it has scales, a long tail, and writhes away from my touch. I determine that whatever it is is underneath my tent, and I back out and step away from the tent. Calling Ghislain over, I break the news quietly that I think there is a snake under my tent. Ghislain’s eyes open wide as he says, “stay here I’ll be right back”. I hear a moan of despair from Mary’s tent, then the students start getting panicky. Rob rushes over with a headlamp to keep watch along the ground. In what seems like an eternity, Ghislain finally returns with a long stick, and we gingerly remove all of the tent pegs. Now we can tip the tent over. This we do after training all headlamps to the ground beneath. We uncover an immense lizard, well, OK, maybe it is only 30 centimetres or so, and when it discovers it is vulnerable, it races off across the clearing to the cover of forest. It appeared to be a Gabon plated lizard, Gerrhosaurus nigrolineatus.
3:30 am, Thursday I lie awake, for some reason I am having trouble sleeping. Crawling out of my tent, I circle the clearing in the velvet-soft moonlight, listening to the chorus of bats in the surrounding trees. I am mesmerized by the bats that have been barking in the night. Likely hammer bats, one of the largest African fruit bats, the males have inflatable sacs on each side of the nose and neck, providing amplification of a loud, blaring honk. Earlier in the evening, I caught sight of one leaving its roost in the forest. The reddish-brown bat slipped through the trees on a wingspan of nearly half a metre. The incessant, nasal nk’ow-nk’ow-nk’ow mark off one-second intervals like a metronome, then switch to a syncopated repetition, the echo of their calls closing in from all sides of the clearing like ripples in a pond from a stone dropped, only in reverse.
In the background, from high in the trees, bats of another clan sing little rosettes of song; a light, staccato, squeaking vibration, not unlike polishing clean glass with small, circular strokes of uneven pressure. These tinkle throughout the clearing on a shimmer of moonlight, an aural sensation of movement. And now, in the far-off distance, perhaps several kilometres upriver, a smoky, thick hooting builds in volume, passing overhead in the vaporous night like a horde of ancient spirits, and then, as quickly, they fade downriver. Add to this, in the background, the atonal drone of thousands of mosquitos attracted by the congregation of warm blood. A night of haunting proportions in the Ynioungo river forest.