elephants at Sette Cama

Saturday, Jan. 29

forest elephant encounter in Loango National Park

Saturday morning and we are preparing for another visit to Sette Cama.  We will boat north through N’Dogo lagoon.  Accompanying Lisa and myself is Mr. Martin, our guide, Marguerite and Hadrien, and Jonathon, a visiting scientist, all of Smithsonian, and Arnaud, assistant to Hadrien.  The boat-ride of approximately 1.5 hours delivers us to the Shell hut, a modest cabin powered by generator at the edge of Loango National Park, nestled in a strip of forest a hundred meters from N’Dogo lagoon on the lee side and the Atlantic coast windward.

After unloading provisions and propping open shuttered windows for ventilation, we boat to the BBC tree-house for a quick lunch.  Talk is of scientific theories, research, and connections throughout the scientific community.  With few opportunities for scientific camaraderie along the Central African coast, this networking strengthens the connective tissues throughout the world of science.  Amid all the banter, it is decided that we go in search of hippopotamus.
We travel north through the lagoon past the breakthrough where lagoon meets ocean, an area rich with fish both salt and freshwater, manatees (preferring to remain hidden), crabs, pelicans, herons and hippos. Forest debris flowing through the lagoon provides a nutrient rich soup for many of the congregating water creatures. Continuing past the breakthrough, we travel up a river where, earlier in January, Lisa and I had seen a pod of hippos. None to be found, this time. Continuing upriver, we have no further luck and return to the lagoon heading for a location dotted with mangrove islands.  Impenetrable tangles of mangrove roots march in high-stepping advance across the shallows. Succulent shoots plummet from a 30 foot canopy like trails of high divers in mid-dive, not yet breaking the water’s surface.  We see no hippos here, though certainly fish are present, the water roiling and breaking as they run for deeper waters.

As 4pm approaches, we decide there is time for a short forest hike, so back up the lagoon for several kilometers to the trailhead.  Mid voyage, in a narrow channel between forest and island, we spot what appears to be a hippo bobbing across the channel.  It is not until it raises its massive head from the dark waters that we realize it is a large elephant, mostly submerged, the gleam of tea-stained tusks dripping with water. It raises its trunk to assess our intrusion, and as ears break the surface, it appears to nearly double in size.  We slow to observe this forest giant as it throws us a sideways glance of annoyance, hastening its shoulder deep slog across open water.  Reaching the shallows, it searches for entry along several meters of liana-choked embankment and soon disappears, leaving a swish and crunch of vegetation in its wake.

These are forest elephants; though smaller than savannah elephants of the East and South, they can grow enormous tusks and be no less formidable when surprised in the close confines of a forest.

forest elephant foraging in late afternoon, Loango

We finally arrive at the landing for our forest walk, a ribbon of trail winding through perfect elephant country, crossing two small savannahs, a trickle of stream, and forests of mid-growth trees with enough understory to keep us vigilant.  Walking into the first savannah sends monkeys scattering through the trees, the chatter of putty-nosed monkeys clashes with the coughing alarm of the red-capped mangabeys.  We spot them high in the treetops, and they return our stares before disappearing in a flourish of canopy.

The trail between savannahs crosses a small stream beneath a stand of Okoume’ trees, towering straight and tall perhaps 40 meters, trees likely too small for harvest during the last, selective cutting in the previous century.  Midway up the stream embankment, we step over leopard spoor on the trail, causing great excitement among all scientists as they gather around for study and discussion.

The second savannah yields two elephants in a dip of topography at the savannah’s edge.  We advance like guerilla fighters armed with cameras and binoculars until we are within 40 meters.  One small adult, one juvenile, and, there is whisper of a third, tiny elephant hidden under vegetation.  They browse the savannah’s edge, and after a few minutes of observation, they become wary of our presence and with trunks raised, they try to make sense of our silhouettes lining their bowl of greens before slowly, silently, melting away into forest.

It is now close to day’s end, and we have a brisk thirty minute walk to return to the boat before the blanket of darkness.  Re-crossing the monkey savannah, Mr. Martin and Marguerite suddenly bolt from the track in a flurry of surprise.  A large snake, almost two meters in length and nearly thick as a wrist glides from the track, swift and seemingly weightless, through scant savannah grasses to forest cover.  A beautiful snake, dark, green-blue top fading to light yellow-green underside identify the green mamba.   “Le mamba vert!” exclaims Mr. Martin in forest whisper mixed with a sigh of relief, as the snake retreats to forest shadows. Beautiful, true, but also one of the deadliest snakes in Gabon.

Back in forest, the light fades quickly and we soon encounter another delay.  This time, elephants stand firm on the path before us, and, upon determining our options, we quietly give wide berth to the shuffle and bluff before rejoining the trail.

It is surprising how the luminance increases when we break through the forest to the lagoon edge, for the open sky still holds light otherwise blocked beneath the canopy of leaves.  Motoring across the lagoon in the fading evening light, we all agree it has been a rather exhilarating afternoon.

Rounds of beer, peanuts, wine, home-made pasta with French bread, and Lisa’s special chocolate brownies complete our day in Sette Cama.  Crickets and frogs color in the darkness, punctuated by the soft roar of ocean surf.

One response to “elephants at Sette Cama”

  1. Your postings are a welcome retreat from the grip of winter.
    Thanks for sharing…

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