Odzala-Kokoua National Park, in the Republic of Congo, is a remarkable mosaic of rainforest and savannah, where swampy clearings known as bais are the most productive places to find wildlife. Walking gives access to places where vehicles fear to tread, and allows close approaches to species you may never even have heard of.
The first morning of our Congo rainforest safari saw us peering at the bai through a milky mist, but this soon burned away as the hazy red sun climbed above the trees. Shadows revealed themselves to be forest buffalo grazing on the vivid green grass.
Our coffees forgotten, we followed head guide Alon down a staircase to where a wooden walkway snaked across the marshy fringes of the bai. The buffalo – smaller and redder than the Cape version we knew, stared at us with bovine intensity, but neither approached nor fled.
After a short walk, we reached the edge of a remarkably clear stream, with small fish darting to and fro and quartz crystals sparkling in the sand. Recent rains had swollen the stream, which came up to our calves. Our splashes alerted a harnessed bushbuck and her youngster, which started and then darted away into cover.
Alon explained that this was one of very few places in Africa where it was possible to walk safely along a watercourse. There were hippo in Odzala, but they were rarely seen, and the most common crocodile was the dwarf species we knew from beer-bottle labels in Brazzaville.
A flock of African green pigeons raced overhead, changing course as one to avoid a slowly-flapping palm-nut vulture. We loved the sense that everything we were seeing was new to us, and that very few other people had been here.
Alon led us along a green tunnel between the trees, which he referred to as an elephant highway, as indicated by a floating ball of dung. Between the flowers, butterflies and seed pods, we hardly knew where to look. There were so many details to take in, and then there was the scale of the trees which met far above us against the blue equatorial sky.
A short while later, Alon motioned to us all to pause, and pointed ahead. A small family of red river hog (like a little russet warthog, with tasselled ears) was rolling in the mud, as happy as the proverbial.
We watched spellbound until they trotted away, then noticed a change in the quality of the light as we emerged from the trees, going back into the bai. Wading across to a small island, I was startled to see that the silty beach was littered with shards of pottery. Alon explained that these were the detritus of a centuries-old salt trade, and then asked if we recognised the tree we were standing under.
The small green fruits looked familiar, and turned out to be limes. So that’s why the lodge barman had been keen we head this way: he needed garnish for his G&Ts!
As we rounded the island, the bai opened up into a large expanse of rivulets and sandbars, with several herds of forest buffalo and briefly, a bongo. We’d stopped noticing how wet our feet were, but we understood now why one of the iconic Odzala images is of boots steaming by an open fire…