Lowland gorilla tracking in Gabon
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The day started with an early morning forest wake-up call from chattering monkeys and singing birds high up above the camp in the forest canopy. The morning air was surprisingly cool - helped by the thick thatched roof of the log cabin. Mosquitoes are not a big problem in the forest, though there are plenty of other forest sounds to disturb sleep. A cold bucket of water from the stream brought me to life.
After a simple breakfast of bread, forest honey, coffee and fresh mango I set off at 0645 with Marie-Lowie, the project gorilla habituater, Scott - a trainee, and our Congolese tracker, Prosper. As we crossed the precarious log bridge below camp, our access into the forest, Marie-Lowie briefed me on a few Gabon tracking rules:
• Don’t talk in forest, walk silently.
• If in danger, whistle once.
• Watch out for razor grass, cuts instantly.
• Run like hell if charged by an elephant.
• Stand still is charged by a gorilla and look submissive. Never look in a gorilla’s eyes.
• Be careful of the forest bees.
We quickly joined an elephant trail, sandy but clear. After 10 minutes we came across fresh elephant dung. Minutes after that we saw a group of Colobus monkeys high up in the canopy. A Red-tailed parrot flew across our path and nestled into a mango tree. The forest is teeming with wildlife.
Although not always easy to view, birds and monkeys appear at regular intervals. An hour later we waded across another fast flowing stream and picked up a forest track heading east. We trekked on through the forest quietly absorbing sounds of the jungle. Prosper and Marie-Lowie were looking for signs of gorilla movement and carefully explained all signs they stopped to investigate.
A leaf turned over in a certain direction, gorilla dung or some half-eaten fruit are signs of gorilla movements. Just after mid-day Prosper turned sharply and motioned us to stop, a loud, distressed bark-like noise echoed round the forest floor. A silver-back was no more than 10m away, hidden by the dense undergrowth. Marie-Lowie whispered to me to make no noise and to walk heel down first, trying not to snap any branches that lay on the forest floor.
Slowly we moved foot by foot closer. The silver-back moved away towards a large tree surrounded by thick undergrowth. He let out another distressed call and we froze. Marie-Lowie grabbed my arm as the silver-back again warned us to go no further. Clearly this was an unfamiliar group just passing through. We edged slightly closer then stopped. Peering through a break in a branch was a female with her baby held closely to her chest. Another head popped up from some lower vegetation, munching leaves. Marie-Lowie took detailed notes and a GPS reading.
We watched, trying not to move despite being hounded by large forest bees. The silver-back was out of sight but Prosper knew where he was. After about 25 minutes, and with the silver-back still agitated, we retreated back to the main trail. Marie-Lowie said they were not a friendly group for a first encounter, perhaps to do with us just stumbling onto them, rather than actually tracking them.
We continued along the trail for another half hour then stopped for a simple picnic lunch of sandwiches and fruit. The scenery in the early part of the afternoon was breathtaking, we criss-crossed several fast-flowing streams and small patches of open savannah. Elephant prints and dung were common, as was slipping in the often thick patches of mud. We spotted several troupes of monkeys had a close encounter with a startled duiker, before the second big surprise of the day.
Whilst casually wandering along a wide track, there was a large rustle from the left, ahead of Prosper. Suddenly a gorilla ran out across the path and into the forest on the opposite side. She was completely oblivious to our presence and didn’t even raise a glance. We waited a few moments until Prosper gestured to us to follow the gorilla. Again, we crept into the undergrowth, careful not to make a sudden noise. Thirty metres and 15 minutes or so later we stopped.
No warnings from the silver-back this time. Ahead in a small clearing below a large avocado tree were a family of nine gorillas about 10 to 15 metres away. A closer look through binoculars identified a tenth member of the family up in one of the branches of the tree. Again, this was another unfamiliar group to Marie-Lowie. Heading back to camp later in the afternoon we surprised a forest elephant who’d just been quenching his thirst, thankfully on the opposite side of the stream.
He didn’t stay around long and ran off into the bush. Fittingly, Chimpanzees, the one important species we hadn’t had any contact with during this amazing day, made themselves known. Chimp vocal exercises echoed round the forest-tops and carried easily to us from over a kilometre away. After a visual feast of wildlife and 9 hours exploring the forests of Lopé we arrived back in camp around 1600.
What a day! I'm really looking forward to my next recce trip with addictedtotravel.com. Mauritania perhaps?