Part four of a five-part series. For part three click here.
There are really only two colors in the jungle: grey and green. The sky is gray; the water is gray; everything else is green. Other colors become precious commodities. The kingfisher hovering in the grey air, a blur of blue and red that suddenly streaks into the grey water, the mustached monkey peering behind green leaves, his yellow and white face a ghostly apparition floating among the green foliage, these are the fleeting moments of vividness in an otherwise dark world.
It’s hard to convey the sense of claustrophobia that sets in when you reach the Akaka River. While the Iguela Lagoon is surrounded by forest, there is a feeling of vastness that the wide open body of water conveys. Along the river, the jungle closes in. The air becomes stagnant, and the humidity, which is tolerable in the light breeze of the lagoon, weighs heavily, a suffocating blanket of moisture. Ebony trees, their branches reaching out across the water as if ready to strangle anyone foolish enough to venture this deep into the wild, guard the banks alongside ferns so large they seem straight out of prehistory.
The aroma here too can be oppressive, even when it’s at its most fragrant, courtesy of palm trees whose flowers have all the charm of a demimonde soaked in cheap perfume. There is a strong smell of rot and mildew mixed with the ever-present odor of elephant dung.
And then there are the tsetses. At times they swarm our boat, their long proboscises easily penetrating the fabric of my shirt and socks, leaving my body riddled with red marks. These flies, more than any other insect, have probably had the greatest impact on development in Africa. Responsible for the dreaded Sleeping Sickness, a fatal disease that destroys the nervous system if left untreated, it has been responsible for millions of deaths.
But it is a similar parasite that attacks livestock which has caused the most harm by making only rudimentary animal husbandry possible. The effect has retarded rural development across Central Africa for centuries. Luckily, in Logano, there is no sleeping sickness, nor is malaria a problem as both require the vector to feast on the blood of a previously infected human host. There are no humans out here.
Yet, despite all this, I am in awe, my senses overwhelmed. There is simply no place on earth like it.
Just before sunset, we reach Akaka Camp, basically a cabin with a kitchen and long wooden dining table. Some large tents, the kind you generally find on safari, have been placed running up a small hill from the cabin. They are clean but bare bones, with only a cot and a nightstand inside. A small bathroom is attached to the back of the tent with running water thanks to a tank at the top of the hill.
From my tent, I have an elevated view across the river to a field of grass. Several elephants are grazing peacefully. I crack open a Regab (Gabon’s national beer) and watch darkness descent on Loango.
There is something special about night in Akaka. The jungle awakens. The cacophony of insects, the whistling of night birds, the howl of monkeys, and the trumpeting of elephants – it is all so near. I can hear the patter of feet on top of the tent and the snapping of branches just outside. I am tired, but can’t stop listening.
The next morning, we take the boat as far upriver as possible before downed trees make our transit impossible. We disembark and continue on foot. Despite the formidable wall of green that rises up around us from the river, elephants have left a number of trails that facilitate our trek. But the jungle closes in all the same. Within 50 meters I am disoriented, having lost all sense of direction. My guide is busy snapping branches every few feet so that we have a trail back.
Much of our time is spent silently listening. The night’s symphony of wildlife has ended, but this allows us to focus. Eventually, we here a few grunts and stomping. Red River Hogs, says my guide. He listens for a few more minutes, and then he motions for me to follow him. Having determined their direction, we position ourselves directly in their path. And then we wait. A few minutes later, I hear what sounds like a dog sneezing and then more grunts and the stamper of feet. The sounds are getting closer until finally, one of the wild boars comes out of the forest only 10 meters in front of us. The oddly shaped pig is rusty in color and has plumes of hair sprouting from its cheeks. Its head is down as it rummages for food. Almost immediately another hog appears, and then another.
Pretty soon, about a dozen pigs are rummaging in front of us utterly oblivious to our presence in their unrelenting quest for food. I raise my camera. Spotted! One of the hogs looks directly at me. I click the shutter, and the animals take off followed by another dozen that we hadn’t even seen.
We continue deeper into the forest. After some time, my guide becomes worried. An elephant is close; he can smell it. We walk slowly, pausing every few steps. We crouch down and listen. But I hear nothing other than the occasional chirp of a bird. Then, suddenly, a giant gray object moves silently in-front of us. It is a bull elephant hardly making a sound as it walks across the soft floor of the jungle. My guide motions for us to retreat.
“Very dangerous,” he says after we are out of danger. “Very aggressive. They charge at anything they see, and then you have to run.”
We find a fallen tree and have some tuna fish sandwiches. It begins to rain, but few of the drops seem to make it to the ground.
“Before we go back, I will show you something,” said my guide after we finished eating. We walk for a few minutes, and then he motions for me to crouch down. He places his hands to his mouth and begins making a high pitch whooping sound. Almost by magic, an antelope emerges from the forest, its short tail wagging back and forth in anticipation until it realizes its mistake and darts off to be swallowed by the green and grey.
Part five: A somber ending