The morning is cool, relatively speaking, as I pedal down the tarmac to a forest destination about 10 kilometers south of Yenzi. Light clouds keep the sun from burning through as I start my ride, and a misty rain envelops me south of the airport. The cooling effect of evaporation in the breeze makes for a refreshing ride. I am heading for a gallery forest between savanna and lagoon, perhaps a kilometer from the sea. The forest varies from 50 to 200 meters wide between savanna and the flooded transition to lagoon. Numerous elephant trails course through the gallery, which is presently in season with fruiting ozouga trees. Elephants can eat enormous quantities of ozouga fruits. I don’t know who was counting, but in “A Guide to the Vegetation of the Lope’ Reserve, Gabon”, Dr. Lee White states elephants can eat several thousand fruits in a day.
A few kilometers down the road I see an otter-like animal lope out of the forest understory onto the roadway. I stop pedaling and am able to roll in silently to within 30 meters before the marsh mongoose realizes I am approaching. Bracing for a steady look, it turns to amble back into the roadside bush of the ditch, which has been flooded to the edge of tarmac from recent rains.
Being prepared for ditches full of water means having my wellies strapped to the back of my bike. The old logging track to the savanna is submerged as I leave the tarmac, and the depth of water proves too much for the wellies as they fill with water. Warm water at least, and I make my way through the ditch to assemble gear before leaving my bicycle at the edge of a clearing.
Entering an elephant tunnel through the wall of foliage and into the forest is always a source of apprehension. I strain to see and hear among the shadows made even more dark and muffled by contrast of the bright open light of the savanna.
Enormous limbs of the ozouga trees that have grown out above the savanna close over my head, the air becomes thick and moist, birdcalls echo as they drift between canopy and forest floor.
Taking a few moments to ease the change of environment, my eyes adjust to the light diffused through leaves, my hearing to the rustle in the trees, the flutter of birds, the patter through forest litter. I pick up a jasmine-like fragrance of some liana flowering in the canopy, the fermentation of ozouga fruits, the earthy smell of leaves smothering the trail beneath my feet. The odor of fresh elephant dung hangs in the air above the trail, increasing my apprehension as I consider my options for dealing with a possible encounter.
The forest is slowly collecting water. The lagoon that separates forest from sea is encroaching into the forest as the rainy season progresses, filling potholes and shallow ravines with fresh water the color of tea. Frogs scatter across stretches of open water like skipping stones. Small fish torpedo under the surface at my approach. From the direction of lagoon comes a wheezing; it is heavy, forceful, and loud. Some large animal is breathing with deliberate, labored breath, overwhelming other sounds. Soon the pattern develops from a wheezing to a honking that lasts for minutes. I stand mesmerized in a grip of spellbinding awe. What creature is so close that I can hear its very breath? Hippopotamus. They seek refuge in the lagoons by day, and venture to grassy savannas to feed by night. Very gregarious, they honk and wheeze to establish social order when they regroup after a night of roaming the landscape. It sounds very close, perhaps 150 to 200 meters.
In parts of the forest, the elephant trail I follow has been worn into the ground to a depth varying up to 10 centimeters. It winds through forest, weaving from ozouga to ozouga, occasionally passing the stump remains of ancient trees that have long ago fallen and decomposed. Sunlight filters through where canopies have collapsed, spurring new growth. One such stump lies basking in a shaft of sunlight. Suddenly from the base a glinting flash of movement springs to life with a thump as it hits the forest floor. A telltale swish-sh-sh through the leaf litter are sounds of a snake that has been surprised from its sunbath. I can hear it slither off through the forest, suddenly becoming quiet in a tangle of branches a few meters down trail. Judging by volume and energy, it is a fairly large and fast snake. For the next 30 minutes, I am studying every liana lying twisted in the shade, hearing every rustle in the leaves, my imagination crawling with snakes.
By mid-afternoon my energy is waning. Five hours of careful attention to the environment leaves me mentally and aesthetically exhausted, and I begin choosing trails that bring me back to the savanna. Overhead, a sudden warning cough of mangabeys signals a troop of monkeys have discovered me below. As I freeze, they seem to be unsure of their concern but continue to call without fleeing through the canopy. A few minutes later, I continue my heading to the savanna and find another elephant tunnel to exit the thick edge of foliage back into the bright afternoon of savanna.
Today as I leave the forest, to my surprise, I spot an elephant walking in my direction, 200 meters upwind, following the edge of forest and savanna. Retreating back into the forest, I wait behind a large ozouga tree, large enough that I could keep an elephant on the other side, if necessary. At least that is the plan. After 45 minutes of waiting, I conclude that the elephant has encountered my earlier meanderings in the forest, picked up my scent, and is wise to my presence. Back on the savanna, I keep an eye behind and around me for any other surprises as I head back to my bicycle.
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