Monday, Jan 10. We hear the rain start by late morning. High in the forest canopy the pit-pit-pit of raindrops changes the aural atmosphere below, further muffling our footsteps along the Gros Boucle forest trail in the southern region of Loango National Park. Kassa, our guide, has met us earlier in the morning at Safari Lodge, on the edge of Loango National Park, and we travel by boat up the N’Dogo lagoon passing a breakthrough to the Atlantic Ocean, and then further along a river lined with mangroves. Hippos breach the river surface with ears wiggling and bug-eyes wary of our boat as we arrive at the head of Gros Boucle trail.
It is a perfect morning, cool by Gabon standards, and the near 100 percent humidity soaks the leaves on the trail so our progress into the forest is nearly silent. We pass under ancient trees with buttresses spanning more than twenty feet. Gnarled trunks towering overhead feed a seamless canopy that echoes with birdsong and the occasional chatter and scuttle of monkeys. Suddenly Kassa cautions us back and off the trail. Elephants ahead, still unaware of our presence, were moving our way. We remain motionless and soon a female with calf appears, twenty yards in front of us. Within moments her trunk rises and she looks our way, picking up our scent. With startled surprise, she turns abruptly and crashes back through the trees, her calf scrambling out from beneath the hulk of mother. In the midst of the sudden chaos, we observe another calf, so small it struggles on wobbly legs, looking confused in the din. The mother circles around behind her infant calf, feigns a charge with a grunt and flapping ears, and stands defiant as the petite calf totters slowly back under her protective mother. The elephants, four in total we learn, back off slowly and then hold ground, requiring us to detour wide around our trail as we cautiously skirt the family.
The rain begins to increase, but we find our rain gear unnecessary; not only did our rain jackets precipitate the humidity into our clothes, but the rainfall, deflected by perhaps sixty meters of leaves and branches overhead, is mostly channeled from leaves to branches to finally trickle down massive trunks. The weather is ideal for viewing wildlife, the subdued light soft and glowing as it finds its way through breaks in the canopy. Hot sun would have changed the mood entirely, creating harsh shadows, brilliant highlights, and heat pockets to make photographing a difficult challenge, not to mention the proclivity of wildlife to settle into a nap in such weather.
Surprised by our approach, a duiker, a small forest antelope, bounds silently through the forest. The forest is set among gently rolling terrain, and while negotiating a stream, Lisa discovers a print of a leopard in a patch of mud along the bank. The pad with toes is the size of a palm of hand. It is intriguing to imagine this leopard, stealing silently along the stream, melting in and out of the dappled leaves, its environment under the spell of night vision.
We encounter tracks of forest buffalo, and even approach one near enough to see it bolt off through the forest. The trail winds through forest approximately five kilometers before opening onto a savannah bordering the sand beach of the Atlantic. The savannah is full of elephant and buffalo sign. A herd of fourteen buffalos are grazing on a patch of green, and come to agitated attention as we hike past. The air is fresh with the smells of ocean and before long we approach a grove of palms. To our surprise, Kassa uncovers a makeshift picnic, complete with cold water, tomato and cucumber salad, chicken and potatoes, and we enjoy our picnic provided by Safari Lodge in one of the most picturesque landscapes in Loango. Ahead of us is a seven kilometer hike along the beach to our boat and return to Sette Cama. That evening, Lisa and I camp in a tree-house built several years back for a BBC filming project. Our view across the N’Dogo lagoon, and back into jungle is punctuated by the buzz and creak of night insects, the shuffle of mysterious animals below and the patter of occasional raindrops. Once again, Safari Lodge delivers our dinner to our tree house, and we enjoy a fresh fish dinner with green beans and bananas. Whiskey for dessert.
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