February 2, 2013. Loango National Park

A Saturday morning rain is beating down on the tin roof as it has throughout the night.  It is not looking good for a boat-trip on N’Dogo lagoon.  We have a boat reserved with friends Dave and Ruth scheduled for an 8am departure from Shell Jetty.  Ruth calls and we postpone until 9:30, hoping the rain will pass.  We are near the end of the short dry season and most of the rains have been in the night, with beautiful clear days of light humidity.

By 9:30 the rain has lessened and convinces us to move ahead with our plan. Dave picks us up with gear and we are on our way.  Almost.  Three kilometers out of Yenzi, les Gendarmes, in snappy camouflage outfits, wave us over to inspect vehicle papers.  The Rambo-lite team probably wouldn’t mind inspecting a few CFA’s (Central African Francs) as well.  They ask to see the Carte Gris (ownership certificate), inspection papers, insurance papers, driver’s license; if there is a paper for something, they want to see it.  Dave walks over with the copies of originals, copies highly advised to keep originals safeguarded.  But now the copies are not good enough.  Not today.  So back we go to Yenzi (unless we would like to pay a bribe-I mean fine) to search out the original documents.  A half-hour later we are back, sorting through originals, and are soon on our way to the Jetty, where our boat is by now launched and ready.

A few brief misting patches of rain have a cooling effect as we motor past various islands, isolated villages, and expanses of quiet water, heading for Sette Cama and the entrance to Loango National Park.  Seven thousand CFA per person, payable to ANPN officials monitoring the entrance to the National Park, allow access to the inland waters of Loango.

Nearing the end of the lagoon, we pass a pod of hippos, two, maybe three, that are keeping a watchful eye on our craft.  They remain well out of range and do not pose a threat.  Large herons line the banks of the lagoon here, perched on sand banks or hidden into thick shrubbery overhanging the water.  Grey herons, Goliath herons, and a few Great egrets launch into the sea breeze, soaring over the lagoon to settle behind our boat.  Squadrons of black and white checkered Pied kingfishers zip up and down the sandbanks as we approach.  It is a perfect habitat for these birds; the steep sandbanks dotted with nesting holes out of reach of predators like mongoose, snakes and monitor lizards, and a lagoon and sea offering readily available fish.  We motor to the “embouchure”, where the lagoon waters mix with the ocean waters and enjoy a quick lunch on the beach sands with the low tide in progress.  Our plan is to motor up a narrow river channel to a hippo pool, hoping to get a few photographs of the animals.

Pelicans take flight from their tree perch overlooking the river. They have enormous wingspans of nearly three meters.

The low tide makes for a swift current draining the river, and the shallow expanses of mud catch us by surprise, so we raise the motor to float back into a navigable river channel.  A pair of pelicans have taken perch in a dead tree overhanging the channel.  They appear to be the Pink-backed pelicans, found in proximity to the embouchure, where fresh and saltwater fish congregate.  The birds take flight as we pass, on enormous, powerful wingspans of nearly three meters.  Within two kilometers, we reach the hippo pool, and a family pod of possibly six are bobbing in the shallows.

A pod of hippos surface along the mangrove-lined river channel in Loango National Park

It is difficult to get an accurate count, as the whole group is never above water at one time, and they shuffle to new positions while submerged.  We have adjusted our upriver speed to barely counteract the river current and inch along, watching the family as they watch us.  Finally a larger hippo, possibly the matriarch of the pod, appears to have had enough of our company and she approaches the boat, her gaze fixed on us.  Posturing suggests that we should move on upriver and we leave the pod to their peaceful river bath.

Though tolerating our visit, it soon becomes apparent when it is time to leave, such as when this large adult began approaching our boat.

Tiny kingfishers, African dwarf kingfishers, I believe, dart past the bow of the boat, skimming barely above the water to disappear into the mangrove stilts clustering along the riverbank.  Green-backed herons freeze in their mangrove lair as we pass, occasionally breaking cover to follow the river channel to better refuge.  On this trip we see more Woolly-necked storks than usual.  They have all but disappeared from the high savannas of Vera Plaines, so perhaps they have migrated to the river channel to supplement their savanna diet of insects.  Little egrets, white with black legs and yellow feet, appear hopeful that we will stir their lunch into action as they wait for us to pass.   They post themselves next to the river, standing on a solitary leg along the mud-banks, or contorted into a tangle of mangrove.

An elephant peers at our boat through a jungle of vegetation at the edge of the lagoon.

A few more kilometers up river and we decide to turn back, as it is getting late and we have at least a two-hour trek ahead of us to return the boat by 5pm.  Motoring with just enough speed to keep control of the current, we pass by the hippos, who seem to be less concerned with our presence by now, making our way to the lagoon with the ease of current in our favor.  While keeping watch for the hippos we had seen earlier in the lagoon, we spot a pair of elephants feeding through a mass of vegetation on the lagoon bank.  They are all but hidden in the thick growth, given away only by their smooth gray hide, flapping ears, and trunks twisting amongst the verdant foliage.  We slow for a better look, and watch as they melt back into the cover of jungle.

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