You have seen the movie. You have read the book. You might have even been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. Everyone knows where you go in the world to see gorillas in the wild. It just so happens that everyone is wrong.
Slowly and quietly, Gabon has habituated a group of lowland gorillas amongst the unique mosaic of bio-diversity that is Loango National Park. Spanning an Atlantic seashore, thick coastal vegetation, rich dark waters of an expansive tidal lagoon system, wide savannahs, as well as dense primary and secondary forests, the location presents its own unique challenges and rewards.
A collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the National Park Authorities (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux), however, is now bearing fruit for intrepid travellers. Visitors have been permitted to join the trackers of the ‘Atananga Group’ of 16 gorillas, on three days each week, since June 2016. In reality, weeks pass without a single outside visitor.
My journey to visit the western lowland cousins of the more famous mountain gorillas of East Africa, was arranged by Loango Lodge. A 45 minute speedboat ride, skimming across the dark rippled waters of the Iguela Lagoon, proved quite how vast and un-populated the lagoon it is. Thickets of mangrove roots and dense vegetation hugged the water’s edge. Turning left and right through a few narrower channels between islands, I was completely disorientated by the ubiquitous walls of green that surrounded the wide open Guinness black waters.
Arriving at the researcher’s Yatouga camp, I was immediately struck how remote they were, clinging to the edge of the lagoon with a wall of forest surrounding them on every other side. After a briefing from Sean, one of the two Western volunteers stationed in the camp, I was clear on the who’s who of the gorilla group, as well as the usual do’s and don’ts, for my one hour with them.
We were lucky that the group had already been located that morning and was not far from the banks of the lagoon. After the briefest of boat rides, a scramble up the banks of the lagoon and a short walk through the forest, there they were.
Initially high in the trees, the group slowly descended to go about their slow daily rhythm of eating, sitting and scratching. The density of the forest was such that I needed to train my eyes on the gorillas, focusing on them between the mesh of leaves and branches.
For those looking to take photos worthy of National Geographic, a lot is unfortunately left to chance. It can be quite dark beneath the forest canopy, especially in the denser vegetation where there is more food for the gorillas to feast on, and hard to see the animals fully between the trees, vines and foliage.
In those moments where you have a clear line of sight and the sun’s rays illuminate the gorillas, there is no finer image to enjoy. On the occasions that their deep brown eyes met mine straight on, I wondered what they made of this rude and sweaty animal, clearly unhabituated with the local climate, following them around.
The group did move fairly frequently and, whilst dispersed across a relatively small area, the density of the forest meant only a few were in sight at any one time. Aided by a couple of guides, we moved as softly as possible through the damp mulch of fallen leaves. Clearly, the gorillas knew we were there but seemed relatively unphased. One younger member bounded passed us without so much as a second thought.
Their speed of movement, balance and dexterity had the echoes of the chimpanzees, which also inhabit these areas, though their staid and less excitable nature marked them out as much much different. Not to mention the impressive muscle and size of them all.
Unlike in Rwanda’s Virunga NP, none of the trackers were armed, given the lack of perceived dangers here. Also unlike Virunga NP, we all strictly wore surgical masks to avoid passing on any airborne bugs we might be carrying. The hour passed in a flash and, despite my knees aching from half crouching and half kneeling constantly, I could have stayed for hours longer.
Back at the camp, Sean shared stories of having to wade through swamps and pick off leeches on particularly difficult days tracking the group. Despite that, the trackers seemed content to have bare arms, shins and feet. Plastic ‘croc’ sandals were also clearly a local favourite. For those, such as I, less initiated with the local insects and topography under foot, I would recommend sturdier footwear, long trousers and long sleeves.
The trackers and their bosses at the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux have aspirations to build up the tourist numbers visiting their lowland gorillas. At US$300, it is already not a cheap activity but it is a fraction of the cost to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. In both locations, the funds they receive go a long way to investing in the safety, and the scientific understanding, of these marvellous creatures.
Without question, the western lowland gorilla tracking experience in Loango NP is less polished than its East African peers but the whole experience is hugely more authentic and rewarding.
So now you know. Just make sure you visit before you really can come back from here with a souvenir t-shirt.
The author traveled at his own expense but can happily recommend the Loango Lodge to anyone wishing to visit the lowland gorillas.
Read more about Loango National Park.
Read about Loango National Park – Getting There.
For lots more photos of the trip, take a rummage through my Instagram album.